Nick Chaplin and Christian Savill of Slowdive chat the band's fantastic new studio album 'everything is alive'.
When I arrive at Melbourne’s Forum Theatre to interview Reading formed shoegaze icons Slowdive in the early afternoon, there’s already a line of moderately gothy (and notably young) punters posted up outside – pacing back and forth excitedly, chatting amongst themselves – hours before the venue’s doors are set to open, let alone before the band will bring their beloved brand of melodious soundscapes to the stage.
Read up on all the latest features and columns here.
If I filmed the scene and whacked a scuzzy VHS filter over it, I think to myself, it could easily be passed off as footage from the early 90s, back when Rachel Goswell, Neil Halstead, Christian Savill, Nick Chaplin and Simon Scott were the floppy haired, porcelain-pale twenty-somethings bathed in white-golden light on the cover of what would go on to become one of the most culturally lauded UK rock records of the decade.
However, having spoken to the band earlier this year, as well as a handful of other shoegaze greats whose work has enjoyed a major resurgence from the mid 2010s onwards, I’m all too aware that the genre’s immense popularity in the present day, being the subject of ardent online fandoms, and a term claimed proudly by younger bands carrying the reverb and drive laden torch – tends to cloud our understanding of its historical baggage. We forget that many of shoegaze’s formative icons struggled to achieve recognition in their halcyon days, at the whims of a then almighty music press; that the term was wielded as a harsh put down, implying a lack of musical talent and overreliance on effects.
“When we split up in the mid 90s, whenever it was, we literally couldn’t pay people to come and see us,” Chaplin tells me backstage, contemplating his experience of being in Slowdive in the 90s and now.
“It was really depressing. And nobody was interested, we were getting pulled to pieces in the music press… so then coming back in 2014, and playing the level of shows that we were playing then, and to be honest, have continued, more or less, to play ever since. It’s like two entirely different experiences.”
I mention that Kevin Shields, who I spoke to a few months ago, and whose band My Bloody Valentine is often heralded alongside Slowdive by fans as the genre’s big two, largely rejects the label of shoegaze and the sonic preconceptions tied to it, lamenting the algorithmically fuelled tendency to group bands into neat categories at the expense of of how they actually sound individually. Chaplin and Savill appear to have a more positive outlook on the phenomenon as a whole.
“I think it’s helped us actually. Because, you know… in the years that passed (between the band’s breakup and reformation), ‘shoegaze’ had been bubbling away… Without us doing anything, or any of these 90s bands doing anything. It’s created this following, and people hear the term again and again, and want to check out the bands,” Chaplin says.
“It’s sort of been reclaimed, hasn’t it? By these younger fans,” Savill adds. “I think in the UK, there’s still a bit of stigma. It’s the older people who remember back still kind of sneer at it a little bit.”
Chaplin continues: “It’s an element that we’ve detected. And I won’t go into specifics… it could just be like, certain aspects, in Britain, of people who are our age who were around back then. Who can’t quite believe or understand why we’re still around and seemingly so successful. And I mean, we don’t really understand!”
Savill agrees: “at the time, it was really dismissive. And I think people would just sort of, you know, everyone’s guilty of it with other things in life, but they would just dismiss it as, they just do that. But if you listen to some of the records that we’ve got, something like Pygmalion, if you played that to someone who just dismisses the band as shoegaze, I think they’d be pretty surprised.”
“It’s just what isn’t it?” Chaplin concludes, “it was a term of abuse in the UK. Less so in the United States? I’m not sure how it was down here at the time. But now it’s just… it’s just like a genre, isn’t it? I mean, I was reading… my son’s really, really into various weird sorts of metal core. It just so happened this morning, I was reading something on Google news, like Britain’s 10 Best New Metalcore Acts. I’m looking through them and like, there were loads of references to, ‘this band blends this with, like, shoegaze sounds.’ And so you know, it isn’t what it used to be… sort of foppish middle class, annoying, kids. Now it even stretches into genres like that. It has totally changed.”
I move to ask the band about their new album, everything is alive, which, from the very first moments of its opening track “shanty” defies accusations of sonic homogeneity that might be levied at shoegaze bands by detractors, with a jagged, razor sharp synth line that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1980s Dario Argento soundtrack. Knowing that Halstead is the band’s primary songwriter, and that he tends to bring acoustically composed skeletons to the band, I’m intrigued to know whether the album tracks evolved a great deal throughout the recording process.
“For this record, it was quite synthy when (Neil) brought it in actually,” Chaplin says.
“Yeah, so I would say Simon was the one that really kind of brought the synth influence before this record. Like the last record, Simon does a lot of modular stuff, which is totally over my head. I don’t understand any of it. I think possibly, that kind of rubbed off on Neil a little bit. And so then a few years down the line when when this record was being developed, he approached it much more electronically. I think it’s become much more of a traditional Slowdive record based on our input, I think if it was Neil’s record, there would have been less guitar focus. It probably would have been more experimental. And you know, it might have been better. I don’t know. But I think the thing is, it’s frustrating for everyone, a lot of the time when you’ve got five different individuals all clamouring for different things… But it is quite democratic. And everyone gets a say, and you end up with a record that, kind of everyone’s happy with.”
I mention that before we wrap up I’d like to ask a couple of gear related questions, being the editor of an MI/audio tech publication whose readers are likely gagging to get a peek into the gear behind the band’s lush walls of modulation and shimmer. However both members stress that the band’s live rig is relatively unfussy.
“We have talked about trying to kind of maybe modernise it a little bit… I mean, Rachel’s the only one who uses in-ear monitors. The rest of us are still on wedges like back in the stone age,” Chaplin laughs.
I laugh too, and tell them that I think that’s punk. Savill agrees, venturing that their preference of loud foldbacks that you can feel serves the chaos of small, dive-er punk venues, yet that with the magnitude of the stages the band are playing now, it might be time for a revamp. Considering that they’re still exploring new options on the gear front, I’m curious to know whether the band is precious about recreating their studio sound on stage, or whether they’re proponents of a distinctly live groove.
“I mean, the ideal thing for me is like, to be absolutely bang on,” Chaplin says. “Accurate. But with some passion. So it’s not just like you’re listening to the recording at a higher volume. You want it to be live. But you know, if I make a tiny mistake, I get really pissed off with myself… I take myself back to the dressing room and punish myself. But the thing is, because I’m not a technically competent player, I do make mistakes quite frequently. So there’s a lot of punishment!”
The two laugh, reminiscing about a certain show in the 90s that they always go back to, when they’d had far too much to drink and Chaplin’s brain couldn’t quite communicate with his hands.
“You know, people want to see a band live, but they don’t want to see a chaotic disaster. We haven’t had that for a while in the 90s. We’re still chaotic… but you’d just never know.”
Slowdive’s everything is alive is out now.