Slowdive: Teenage Dreams Recovered
It’s difficult to imagine the current music press wielding so much power that a scathing review could fatally wound an act’s career. The democratisation of access to music and music criticism online has levelled the playing field – to the point where the potential impact of being slated by the NME is laughable. Two decades ago, however, things were quite different.
For the first half of the 90s, Slowdive famously found themselves at the receiving end of particularly vicious criticism from the British music press. Emerging in 1989 – and lumped into the Thames Valley’s shoegaze scene alongside bands like Ride, Chapterhouse and Swervedriver – the Reading-formed five-piece were the subject of think-pieces such as ‘Why Slowdive are Crap’, album reviews stating ‘I would rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again,’ and a bizarre attack from Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, who declared, “We will always hate Slowdive more than we hate Adolf Hitler.”
In hindsight, it seems as if Slowdive were the victims of almost comically-poor timing. Out of step with industry trends, their 1991 debut Just For A Day was sidelined by the dominance of grunge, 1993’s masterpiece Souvlaki coincided with the early-stirrings of Britpop, and by the time they shared final LP Pygmalion two years later, their label mates Oasis were leading the assault on the mainstream. A week after Pygmalion’s release, Slowdive were promptly dropped by Creation Records, and they disbanded shortly after.
Huddled into a booth at Shoreditch’s ACE Hotel today, on the press cycle for their first album in 22 years, all five members of Slowdive are remarkably philosophical about the ordeal. “Just how it worked in those days,” shrugs Neil Halstead, the band’s chief songwriter and vocalist. Rachel Goswell, the band’s slightly more gregarious guitarist and singer, concedes that Melody Maker and the NME’s treatment of them was “very callous”, but adds with a laugh that, “I always thought a lot of them were failed musicians.” The only aspect that seems to still upset them was the music press’ portrayal of Slowdive as rich kids, which Goswell dismisses as “a cheap shot; lazy journalism.”
“There was definitely a bit of reverse snobbery,” Halstead agrees. “From very middle class journalists who were really championing the working class, baggy thing that was happening in Manchester, at the expense of the Home Counties-based, shoegaze thing. I still don’t really understand it to be honest.”
But there’s no resentment towards their former label Creation, nor its outspoken and once notoriously hedonistic founder Alan McGee. Halstead praises McGee as “super-supportive” despite being “confused” by the ambient experimentalism of Pygmalion. “They thought it was going to be another guitar record with nice pop tunes on it, and it wasn’t,” he laughs. “They were just like, ‘Oh, what the fuck’s this?”
“I’m genuinely excited that there’s a new generation that has some sort of resonance with what we do. It’s not just a bunch of old shoegazers” — Neil Halstead
Indeed, in Pitchfork TV’s 2015 Souvlaki documentary, McGee appears as a talking head singing Slowdive’s praises, and fondly reminiscing about signing them when they were “too young for drugs.” Although Goswell points out they were actually 18 when they joined the label, Halstead backs up McGee. “It felt like they were protecting us from rock’n’roll,” he remembers. “There was always a sense, when we’d go to the Creation offices, that the party had just been finished, and they were putting everything away because the kids were coming.”
“It’s true, because you’d have Primal Scream and the Fannies [Teenage Fanclub] there, and they’d have their all-nighters,” Goswell laughs. “And we’d go in for a meeting and they’d still be staggering around.” Nevertheless, when they eventually severed ties with the label – at the ages of 23 and 24, respectively – Goswell and Halstead admit that Slowdive felt “very unloved.”
But history has redeemed the shoegaze genre, and Souvlaki in particular is now hailed a classic. I wonder if the band must have felt vindicated, but guitarist Christian Savill corrects me. “We’re not one of those bands that’s come back to claim what was ours. We’re humbled.”
The seeds were sown for Slowdive’s reunion in 2013 by Nathaniel Cramp of Sonic Cathedral, the label that released Halstead’s solo records as well as his work with Black Hearted Brother. Following encouragement from Cramp, Halstead invited Goswell to perform Slowdive and Mojave 3 songs (Halstead and Goswell’s alt-country project with Simon Rowe of Chapterhouse) during his Cecil Sharp House shows, while the other band members looked on.
Despite repeatedly dismissing suggestions of a Slowdive reunion over the years, the band eased themselves into the idea of working towards another record. And so in 2014, the five of them reconvened for a European tour. It included high profile events such as Primavera Sound and quickly expanded to encompass the US and Canada. The shows proved that the band could still summon the sensual magic of their music onstage and, remarkably, it seemed as if Slowdive were more popular than they’d been the first time round.
“I’m genuinely excited that there’s a new generation that has some sort of resonance with what we do,” Halstead says. “I think that’s really amazing. And that’s been the real surprise for me doing the gigs; that it’s not just a bunch of old shoegazers. We never thought we’d be able to get a second bite at the cherry, as it were, so it’s nice.”
And here they are, poised to unveil their self-titled new album, which has got the support of various credible youth-orientated publications. The album ranges from the shimmering dream-pop of Slomo to the haunting piano loops of the Erased Tapes-esque Falling Ashes, which picks up where the Steve Reich and New York minimalism-inspired Pygmalion left off. While not stylistically representative of the entire record, lead single Star Roving serves as an effective introduction to a richly melodic, intricately textured album, which also happens to be one of 2017’s finest.
While it’s wise to approach comeback albums with caution, the new Slowdive record feels like a fresh and vital addition to their discography, rather than a routine exercise in nostalgia. How would they characterise their artistic development? “Painful,” Halsted laughs. “[When] we were teenagers it was quite angsty music. I couldn’t even try to write the same way now. It’s the angst of a middle-aged man at this point.” “The depression of a middle-aged man, realising he’s no longer 21,” Goswell chips in mischievously.
During snatched weekends away from normal life and parenting duties, the five members of Slowdive convened from across the country to jam, with Halstead taking the sketches back to his studio in Newquay for further work. The point where it started to click, they explain, is when they decided to hire Oxford’s Courtyard Studios, where they’d recorded the first two Slowdive albums. “We were comfortable there,” says Halstead. “It’s still the same; exactly the same. It has the same sofa that was there 20 years ago. And Chris [Hufford, Radiohead’s manager] who engineered those records still owns the place, and he would pop in.”
“I’m excited about the next phase because I think we’ve familiarised ourselves with being Slowdive with this record,” Halstead continues. “Personally, there’s some unfinished business in terms of where we go next as a band if we want to.” In the meantime, I suggest that the new record is probably going to get glowing reviews. He can’t help but laugh. “You mean we won’t have to wait 20 years?”
Slowdive is released 5 May via Dead Oceans.
Slowdive appear at Field Day, London, 3 June