SLOWDIVE: STILL SURFING NOW
debi del grande
As the story goes, Slowdive was the band built up by the British music press and then torn down just as quickly by music writers tired of shoegaze (“the scene that celebrates itself”) and drawn instead to grunge and Brit pop. But twenty years later, they’ve been discovered (and re-discovered) by their fans and spawned a wave of bands influenced by their impressionistic sound and sublime albums like Souvlaki. Neil Halstead joins us to talk about his favorite one-handed pianist and the joys of surfing in Southern California. They perform at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel this weekend. This interview by Kristina Benson.
You’ve got a lot of affection for the concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his arm in World War 1, but who went on to commission famous composers to write him piano pieces for left hand only. What draws you to him?
Neil Halstead (guitar/vocals): I’d read a book about the family. It was a fascinating kind of story. There were like five brothers, and one of them was killed in the first World War, the other one committed suicide, Ludwig became a famous philosopher … and Paul Wittgenstein lost his arm and became a circus act, really. Although because the family had quite a lot of money, he was able to get these commissioned pieces. They were a very well thought of family in Vienna at that point. They would have these famous musicians come and play at their house, and all that sort of stuff. They were in the scene. I just found the whole story fascinating, so it ended up working itself into a song.
If your left arm was chopped off, who would play the chords for you in Slowdive?
I’d probably just have to take up piano.
As a one-armed pianist?
It would be treated piano. You could probably do that with one hand and your feet. I think it’d be pretty tricky to try and play the guitar.
Now that twenty years have safely passed, what kind of shoegaze haircut can you say aged the best?
Rachel’s haircut probably aged the best. I don’t think it has changed much. Those ridiculous bowl haircuts … it is very hard to carry that off when you’re forty years old.
It was hard to carry off when you’re twenty, too. But you did it.
It was much easier. I’ve still got it cut in sort of a fairly thick head of hair. It’s weird looking at those pictures now. Those were ridiculous haircuts. You literally said, ‘Give me a bowl haircut, a Beatles cut.’ We all just wanted to have Beatles haircuts and Byrds haircuts. I think they’re closer to Byrds haircuts than the Beatles. That’s hard to pull off in middle age.
Early in Slowdive’s history, you wrote a letter to Brian Eno asking him to work with you—and he did. Did you send out fifty letters to fifty different artists and hope one would say yes? Or was he the only one?
He was the only one. We’d never worked with a producer until that, but we were all huge fans. Someone at the record label had—at least offhand—said, ‘You guys should do a track with Brian Eno, or try and get Brian Eno to produce your next record.’ We thought we’ll write him a letter and just see if we can do it. He came back to us, and surprisingly he claims to have heard of the band, so … He didn’t end up producing, but we went into studio with him for two days and worked on a whole bunch of stuff—really just sketches. It was him recording guitars and treating them. The idea was to create these ideas. ‘Scene’ was one of those, and ‘Here She Comes Now’ was another. One of the things I found interesting was that he was interested in capturing a particular moment, which I don’t think he would be particularly about. The first thing he did was pull a clock off the wall in the studio and say, ‘Look, I’m going to record each idea for ten minutes.’ In essence, he wanted to capture something that was just a very rough idea—before he got too familiar with it. I liked that cuz we were pretty young and I suppose we instinctively react that way in the studio—cuz we didn’t have enough time to fully work things out anyway. It’s something I look back on now when I’m in the studio—particularly if you’re recording other people, it’s a good kind of producing. The first thing people do when they’re feeling their way is often the most interesting. Then you start editing yourself, and you start formulating a part which becomes less interesting.
Do you use his Oblique Strategies cards ?
A friend of mine has them in his studio. While I was doing records with my friend Mark Van Hoen, we did records—the dance group Black Hearted Brother, which came out last year on Slumberland. We did use his Oblique Strategies for some of the tracks on that.
They’re helpful, except sometimes I feel like, ‘I don’t like that one—I’ll pick another.’
If you’re going to play, you can’t cheat.
What really happened with the battle between Slowdive and the British music press? The narrative now is that the press built you up and tore you apart.
I think that is the correct narrative. Right up until the second album Souvlaki, we’d get good reviews. Our whole thing was built around the press. We’d only done three gigs before we signed a record deal, so it wasn’t like we’d built an audience ourselves. The audience came purely because we got good reviews in NME and Melody Maker. But then there was a huge backlash against us. I think what happened was grunge and Brit-pop kind of came along and the British music press instantly moved into that kind of scene. The way they operated at that point was godlike, really. They held so much sway, particularly in England. I don’t know if it was ever the same in America. I think we probably fared a bit better in America at that point cuz there wasn’t such a monopoly on the music press there. In England, it really was down to what Melody Maker or NME said. They really were the taste-makers at that point. Unfortunately, we fell out of favor with them, and it became quite hard work after that. They’d done it to a whole load of scenes before, and they did it after. I think that was the height of their power at that particular point.
Let’s say they loved Pygmalion—what would have happened if you’d kept going ?
Hard to say, really. I think it was quite a divisive record within the band, as well. Nick and Christian weren’t really that interested in the direction of that particular record. Simon had already left the band before then. In all honesty, it felt like a natural end for the band. I suppose if we’d have had a form of support … I think we did feel quite unloved at that point. We peaked with Souvlaki in terms of record sales and stuff. The audience was becoming more selective. I think we were disheartened. We were dropped by Creation. I don’t think there was much question of us carrying on after that. We all felt like, ‘Well, that’s probably it for the band.’ It’s strange to think about it now, but we were twenty four, we’d done it for six years and I think we were all just a bit sick of it. Sick of feeling … It was very disheartening to put out that record and for it to be really just totally ignored. No one really understood it. I remember there was some confusing and confused reviews that came through. They weren’t even nasty—just kind of reviews that were like, ‘Well, what the fuck are they doing?’ In some ways I do think that record was probably a little bit ahead of its time. I think if it had come out two, three, four, five years later, it would have been understood a bit more. It was accepted more in the world of electronic music than it was in the guitar terms. Brit Pop was pretty much at its height at that point. When we started, I think we were influenced by My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins and Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. We were sixteen, seventeen year old kids, and those were our influences. That was kind of what we were aiming for. We were super into Pink Floyd and the Beatles. Velvet Underground. A friend of mine had Nuggets on a cassette, and we used to play it in my car all the time. I never really knew what the bands were. You just had a bunch of garage bands from around the 60s, doing crazy psychedelic music. We always felt we were making psychedelic music—that was our touchstone in terms of where we felt we were coming from, and the bands that were influencing us as well.
Now a lot of bands are influenced by Slowdive—how does it feel to have this wave of sort of contemporary versions of Slowdive?
If I’m honest, we’re not really particularly aware of that. I think we’ve become more aware of it since we formed the band and we realized that there is generation of kids that are influenced by a whole bunch of shoegaze music, as well as probably electronic music or laptop kind of stuff, as well. I like the fact that all these bands take these different influences and do their own thing with it. I don’t think we feel like we’re old masters or anything. We feel lucky that there’s still young kids coming to the gigs. Initially, we didn’t have much of an idea for our reunion: ‘We’ll play a few gigs and it will probably be full of a bunch of people our age who were into it the first time around.’ Which would have been fine. It’s been an eye opener for us to see there is quite a healthy kind of scene for that sort of guitar music—or music with that kind of atmosphere.
You’ve said that if you were going to take Slowdive songs now and treat them as new songs, they’d be very different.
A lot of the thing about the Slowdive music is about the production. They’re still songs, but they’ve been treated in a way the vocals are obscured and … You could have recorded them as acoustic tracks. I’ve been making acoustic music for ten years. I’d probably turn them into folk music, which would probably be a shame! After Pygmalion we sort of ground to a halt and we split up, so I went traveling for a little while. I was in Israel, staying in hostels. My girlfriend was working out there at the time and I was traveling around. I remember really clearly being in the hostel and the guitar came out, and people were playing songs. I’d already told everyone I was a musician, so naturally the guitar came around to me at some point, and I realized I couldn’t really play a song on an acoustic guitar. At that point after Pygmalion, which was an electronic record with a lot of it made using samplers and sequences, I wanted to try to reconnect with music. Learning how to play acoustic guitar and to play songs that way was my way of reconnecting with music at that point. It kick-started Mojave 3. For the six years we did Slowdive, everything was filtered through effects pedals. And that was the way we created the songs. Although, as I said, they were pretty simple songs—but they would be created out of this atmosphere, and would always be played in strange tunings, so I’d never know what chords they were. When we got back together and tried to remember how to play the songs, a lot of it was Nick, the bass player, saying, ‘Actually, the root note was this that I was playing on the bass.’ We couldn’t really remember the tunings on a few of the songs. Nick would be like, ‘I’m playing a C here,’ and I’d be like, ‘I had no idea that was a C.’ We were technically not very good musicians. A lot of it was an instinct for tuning the guitar to a point where you could play what you could hear, but you wouldn’t necessarily know what exactly you were playing.
You learned how to surf the first time you came to L.A., didn’t you?
Yeah, in 1991, I think—the first time I was in L.A. I end up in Huntington Beach for a few days. The first time I went surfing. It changed my life. I’m still surfing now.
I’m surprised you learned in Huntington Beach. It can have a huge locals-only vibe.
We didn’t go down near the pier. We just went down on the beach somewhere, and its fine. I’ve not surfed at Huntington in a long time. That was my first one in and, yeah, it does have a bit of a heavy reputation.
When you came out for FYF, did you surf?
I didn’t have time. I was hoping to try and get away in the morning on the Saturday we played, but we had to do a sound check at eleven so it kind of scuppered that. Apparently the waves have been as good as they’ve been in a long time. I’m coming back out in November, so hopefully I’ll get in the water.
GOLDENVOICE AND FYF PRESENT SLOWDIVE WITH LOW ON SAT., NOV. 8, AND WITH THE TYDE ON SUN., NOV. 9, AT THE THEATRE AT THE ACE HOTEL, 929 S. BROADWAY, DOWNTOWN. 9 PM / $30-$40 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. VISIT SLOWDIVE AT SLOWDIVEOFFICIAL.COM.