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SlowdiveLeft-right: Neil Halstead, Nick Chaplin, Rachel Goswell, Christian Savill and Simon Scott

Slowdive on rebirth, raw power and their amazing new record

‘We're back to reclaim what was ours’: in an in-depth interview, outsider-indie radicals Slowdive talk about their stargazing reunion

I trod interstellar space, exalted by the knowledge that I was bound on vast adventure, where, at the end, (I would have) made clear to me the ultimate secret of the universe.” Jack London wrote these words in his 1915 novel The Star Rover, the cosmic tale of a university lecturer on death row. As he’s tortured by prison guards, Professor Darrell Standing navigates past lives in a series of psychedelic episodes. The Star Rover is about the facets that make you who you are, your puzzle pieces. The story, also, is about reincarnation.

In January, 22 years after closing the book on their three-album career, Slowdive dropped a new song called “Star Roving,” the band’s own journey of self-discovery and re-ignition. Partly inspired by the book, “Star Roving” is a droning pop freak-out, bringing into focus the idiosyncrasies that make them perhaps the best loved shoegazing band on the planet: widescreen, bowing guitar strums; breezed-out vocals; lovelorn utterances and an underlying sonic violence.

By their own admission, Slowdive’s newly-released eponymous LP positions itself between the vaulting melodic majesty of their breakthrough album Souvlaki and the more detached, ambient and daring Pygmalion. Really though, it’s a new chapter in the life of a band whose music is worshipped for its indefinability – an otherness that takes you away with it. Atmosphere-soaked second single “Sugar For The Pill” stands up against their best work (listen to a remix of it by Slowdive drummer Simon Scott below).

Speaking to Slowdive’s co-vocalist Rachel Goswell, bassist Nick Chaplin and Scott (and later, singer-songwriter Neil Halstead via email), I’m quick to remind them how popular they are in 2017. I comment on how many newer acts came out in support of the band during their time apart. Ambient-electronic pioneer Tim Hecker, for example, spoke on how heavily Pygmalion’s sparse opener “Rutti” impacted his sound. Elsewhere, the likes of DIIV, Sharon Van Etten and most recently Mac DeMarco – who joined them for a post-gig karaoke session on Monday – are all dedicated ‘divers. Souvlaki is a favourite in the Dazed office too, with the Brian Eno co-written greatest hit “Sing” on heavy rotation this past winter.

They weren’t always hailed as the under-appreciated gods of outsider indie though. On signing to the revolutionary Creation Records (the Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Oasis) in the 90s, the band were shaded heavily by the UK music press, with Melody Maker declaring their sound “a soulless void.” Later, Manic Street Preachers’ disappeared icon Richey Edwards tore into them too, paring his hatred for the Reading formed five-piece with that of Adolf Hitler.

Slowdive seem more surprised by their newfound popularity than anyone. Ahead of their headline slot at Field Day this June, I ask a band known for gazing hard at their shoes why they are suddenly staring at the stars.

A lot of younger musicians are crazy about Slowdive and many of my friends swear by the band’s music. How do you react when you hear this? They’re a big band of my generation.

Neil Halstead: I think we’re genuinely surprised by that, and it’s great to hear. We always had a small but loyal fanbase back in the day, it’s nice to see that those ‘kids’ have been joined by a new generation. Makes us feel good.

Simon Scott: Why do you think that is? We’ve been asked that in reverse, like people saying, ‘Why do you think your music and Slowdive are relevant now and you have 17-year-olds trying to get in to see you and yet you’re all in your 40s?’ We don’t know the answer other than we made the music we always wanted to make and we know the records are pretty good.

Rachel Goswell: It’s great, isn’t it? It’s great. 

Simon Scott: What’s not to love? We didn’t do this to be, like, a heritage band and come back and just play the old songs. But, you know, we’ve come back to reclaim what was ours. We never realised quite how many people would be interested, so for there to be people that are 17 saying, ‘You’re doing a tour and we can’t get in because it’s an 18 plus show,’ it’s really upsetting. But also, it’s really inspiring.

Rachel Goswell: It’s been really interesting to me to find out who some of those other musicians are in other bands that actually like Slowdive. Sharon (Van Etten) is a big Slowdive fan.

“We didn’t do this to be a heritage band and come back and just play old songs. But, you know, we’ve come back to reclaim what was ours” – Simon Scott, Slowdive 

My housemate’s been playing ‘Star Roving’ in his room loudly, on heavy rotation, for weeks now.

Simon Scott: Have you checked if he’s okay? Is he alright? Have you checked that he hasn’t collapsed on the floor?

Rachel Goswell: Is he high on drugs? 

No, music is the drug. He’s into lots of heavy music too, like drone metal…

Rachel Goswell: It’s interesting isn’t it? (US black metal band) Deafheaven are huge Slowdive fans – they’re such such a heavy band! We did a quite a lot of festivals with them, (the lead singer George Clarke) asked all of these questions about our records, (and seemed) really interested. It was quite mental, you could kind of hear the atmosphere and the guitars in their music, though.

Simon Scott: It’s really amazing when you’re playing with younger bands and there’s been some sort of – influence sounds like a flattering term – some sort of acknowledgement or something. I remember the first proper (reunion) gig we did in 2014. When the show started we had our very first stage-diver… this hasn’t happened before.

A friend of mine told me to look at the new album not as a continuation from the first three LPs, but as a statement of where the band is now, aesthetically. Do you agree with this?

Neil Halstead: Absolutely where we are now… the new album references the other records at times and in some ways it sits somewhere between Pygmalion and Souvlaki, but it’s really just where we found ourselves now… refamiliarising ourselves with Slowdive and seeing where the sound would take us. There’re new elements in there…

Rachel Goswell: Exactly, and that is correct. It’s been 20 years since the last record, it’s not a continuum. I guess it’s a continuum of the narrative of Slowdive though, isn’t it? We wouldn’t have made this album 20 years ago.

Simon Scott: No, that’s true, but there is a thread. There is a trajectory. It’s like a rhythm, isn’t it? You might hit a single once and then 20 years later you might hit it again, and that’s the rhythm. 

Rachel Goswell: I think Neil was quite succinct earlier, I mean, you can clearly hear parts of previous records in this one. Like ‘Go Get It’ I think is quite Pygmalion-esque. He also said there’s also a nod to the future on this album as well, so it’s not just rehashing what we’ve done before – it is a progression. I mean how many artists are able to describe their music anyway, really?

Can you describe how the reunion came about from your perspective, and how new music flowed from that?

Neil Halstead: The reunion was in some ways slightly accidental in that Nathaniel Cramp, our good friend from Sonic Cathedral records, had asked us to play a few songs acoustically at (the label’s) tenth anniversary party… I’d had a solo show where Rachel had come and sing with me and the rest of the band were there… we all told him we’d never play acoustic... that would be weird... so he said we should play electric.

I think a seed was planted, because after we all laughed about it we realised that the idea wasn’t quite so silly. It was important we did a record though, important that there was a creative process as well as enjoying the old songs again. The record came out of the shows we did in 2014. It gave us some momentum to take into the studio and start working together again.

Nick Chaplin: It seems like a long time ago now. It was very easy actually – everything just seemed to slide into place, didn’t it? I mean, it just felt very quickly like we sort of knew what we were doing and it was quite relaxed.

“I personally didn’t feel any pressure (to make a good album). I mean, every record we’ve done, we’ve done on our own terms” – Rachel Goswell, Slowdive

Simon Scott: The jams that we had were during sound-checks at the shows that we were booked to do. We would jam in sound-checks and when it was like, ‘Well the venue doesn’t open for two hours,’ we’d start to write and the idea was to definitely have some new music (to play at the shows). So, yeah, it wasn’t a contrived thing. Those jams turned into songs, and Neil would take the files down to his studio in Newquay, and literally just chop out all the crap and then come back to us and say, ‘Right, OK, I’ve sort of shaped it.’

Rachel Goswell: We decided very early on that we would try to do new music, but we’d only release it if we felt it was good enough and if we loved it. I personally don’t feel any pressure. I mean, every record we’ve done, we’ve done on our own terms and we’ve been happy with the record and Creation put it out. With this one, we didn’t have a record label – we just did it in our own time.

Simon Scott: If it was really shit we wouldn’t put it out. It’s as simple as that. 

Rachel Goswell: It’s subjective, isn’t it? There’s going to be people who don’t like it.

Simon Scott: Well, the five of us do. The five of us together, when we sat down and listened to the tracks. I mean, it’s a band. It’s not just one or two people, and all five of us were like, ‘Great, that’s got to go on the album.’

Rachel Goswell: It just felt exciting. I think it feels exciting. I’m really looking forward to playing the songs live. That’s the problem though, isn’t it? Not cocking it up live.

You never really got the chance to feel out Pygmalion’s songs live, breaking up shortly after the album’s 1995 release. How has it been revisiting them to an audience? The songs are slow and meandering, in a great way...

Rachel Goswell: Yeah, I would have liked to have played them more. I mean, when we were dropped by Creation we were actually rehearsing for a tour for Pygmalion, weren’t we?

Nick Chaplin: See, I don’t remember any of this.

Simon Scott: (Pygmalion’s ‘Blue Skied an’ Clear’) plays at the end of The Doom Generation. They sit in the car after the carnage has just unfolded. You know, the great Gregg Araki – to be associated with him is so flattering. 

Neil Halstead: It’s been lovely playing a few of those songs, as with most of the set I think. We don’t worry too much about whether we stray from the record (version) too much. The live versions have their own lives and we’re happy to see where they go. Pygmalion definitely has its own universe and I think we bring a little of it into the live thing…

“On some levels we’re a pop band, but on other levels we’re a kind of ambient, headspace band... which is probably why (Brian) Eno kind of flatteringly said he’d work with us, you know?” – Simon Scott, Slowdive

You know Tim Hecker?

Simon Scott: Yeah!

He said that that ‘Rutti’ was a key inspiration behind his sound.

Simon Scott: Yeah, I talked with him actually. He’s a cool guy – he’s a smarmy git, but he’s a very talented musician.

Nick Chaplin: Yeah, a lot of ambient musicians are quite troll-some... I really like ‘Rutti’ on the record, but it just never really works (live). 

Simon Scott: I’d rather sit on stage and just let it wash over me, be part of it in a mental way. It’s got a lovely kind of minimal groove with it that gets in the audience’s headspace and fills the room. It ticks all those boxes that on some levels we’re a pop band, but on other levels we’re a kind of ambient, headspace band.

…which is part of the reason there’s so much to get from your records - there are so many different atmospheres alive in much of your music.

Simon Scott: I think so, which is probably why Eno kind of flatteringly said he’d work with us, you know?

On Souvlaki

Rachel Goswell: It’s was on two songs. ‘Sing’ and...

Nick Chaplin: ‘(Souvlaki) Space Station’?

Rachel Goswell: No, it’s not ‘Space Station’.

Nick Chaplin: That was after though, inspired by working with Eno...

Rachel Goswell: We were all very stoned in the studio. Apart from Nick because he’d never smoked before.

I genuinely would never have guessed. What would you say to young bands starting out these days, who are likely to struggle finding the funding they need to record in a studio?

Simon Scott: Other than stick to your guns and really believe in what you do, it’s like, get a laptop and record on it. You can get software and you can record really cheaply. You can get cheap microphones and do it, ‘cause back in the 90s it was really expensive for us to hire studios – technology is a really wonderful thing.

It’s like what happened with Talk Talk, whose last few experimental albums sound quite hi-tech all of a sudden.

Rachel Goswell: Well, Talk Talk were a big influence on Pygmalion. Talk Talk were a major influence on us.

Really? I’ve always suspected... 

Rachel Goswell: Yeah, heavy rotation on those records.

Yeah, they slowed everything down and explored various textures – jazz, and everything. Similar to the changes you made for Pygmalion.

Simon Scott: Absolutely.

Thanks Slowdive! This has been insanely nerdy.