an interview w/ Neil Halstead of Slowdive (on the reunion, a new album, writing songs & more)
Slowdive back in the day…
Having left an indelible mark of influence on a multitude of bands and musicians since their initial breakup in 1995, Slowdive‘s reunion announcement earlier this year was more than welcomed by fans who’d discovered the band’s remarkable shoegaze sound during its early 90s heyday and those new listeners who’d discovered the band well after their last release, Pygmalion. These new listeners come by way of a myriad of genres, not limited by any particular scene or sound, giving a broad picture of just how impactful Slowdive was and continues to be. Hearing the band’s music even two decades later gives a striking sense of connectivity to bands on every side of the spectrum, from the experimental metal of Deafheaven to the psychedelic pop atmospherics of Deerhunter.
Founding member and vocalist/guitarist Neil Halstead, who we last talked to in 2008, immediately reveals a kind of quiet modesty concerning the band, satisfied to see Slowdive’s story and eventual massive influence as something that simply fell into the band’s lap. It’s the kind of subdued quality and characteristic that’s underlined Slowdive’s music and those influenced by it, with a sound that seemingly builds the wealth of its power under a steady haze of melodic noise. With several festival appearances slated for this summer, the anticipation now points to what lies ahead for Slowdive. In our conversation with Halstead, the answer is not so much vague as it is deliberately positive and hopeful, with the vocalist/guitarist seeming as excited for the band’s future in 2014 as he likely was over twenty years ago.
BV: I’m always interested to learn what initially brought a musician to their craft, and I’m curious as to what that was like for you personally, Neil. Was there a specific band or song or sound that brought you to music in the first place and provided that initial creative spark for you where you knew that this was something you had to do yourself?
Neil: I don’t know. [Laughs] I mean, for me, I suppose – just I was super influenced by bands specifically like Jesus and the Mary Chain, The Cure, and I guess the Byrds, The Beatles, and stuff like that. I think that my interest in music was seeing The Beatles documentary when I was about eleven years old and just being like “Shit, that looks like fun,” then, the next day, trying to get my dad to buy me a guitar so I could learn that. I don’t know if I ever reached that point where I felt like “Oh, this is the thing I do.” I still don’t know if I feel like that, to be honest. Slowdive, we kind of got a record deal by accident as we’d really not done a lot of gigs or anything. We were sort of quite lucky in that we just so happened to be in the right place at the right time. And we were all quite young, and I suppose it was – we were all just obviously super obsessed with music and Creation, the label that we signed to, had a bunch of our favorite bands on them. I think all of us felt that we were extremely lucky to do it, and it was something that we were totally into, I think back then. I suppose, for me, personally, you reach a certain point in playing music and you sort of actually realize “I’m sort of really useless at doing anything else.” [Laughs] It’s not like how you can change a career. I’ve always really loved doing it, and I’m sort of lucky because I’ve been able to do it for quite a while now. But I never felt like it was a calling.
What was the story behind Slowdive initially coming together in the beginning? Was there something you guys had in mind that you wanted to do, or was it more along the lines of “Let’s just get together and play some fucking music?”
I think essentially it started like that. I was in a band with Rachel when we were like fifteen, and that was literally just a case of Rachel had started a band with her best friend, and they just needed somebody who could play the guitar, and I just happened to be around. We’d known each other through primary school, and I played guitar a bit, so I ended up playing it with them. That was sort of how my musical relationship with Rachel started. We were also the only two people in school who were into The Smiths, really, so that was what bonded us. Rachel was into a lot of goth music, and I was sort of into a lot of the indie stuff like early Primal Scream and all that stuff. I think Slowdive sort of came out of that, but the bond for us was that we were all into the same kind of music at that point. When Nick joined the band, playing bass, he was big into My Bloody Valentine, he was into Sonic Youth, so it was just a love of the same sort of music, which I suppose you’d call alternative music now. I think we always pulled in the same direction, and I think when Christian joined the band that was a big turning point for us. It solidified the guitar sound that had just been me playing the guitar, and it wasn’t really happening. We’d done a few gigs in Reading and advertised for a female guitarist, because Rachel had really wanted another girl in the band, and Christian was actually the only person who applied. He wrote us a really sweet note saying that he really liked the band and wanted to join, and he’d be prepared to wear a dress if necessary, and that really solidified the band for us with the sort of sounds that he was making with his guitar. It sort of really starting to gel, and it was pretty quick after that that we did the first demo.
Looking back at Slowdive’s influence over the past twenty years and how much has changed for music at large in that time, what do you see as the biggest point of evolution for music and perspectives of it in the time since Slowdive?
I suppose the biggest thing would be the internet. It’s a sort of pivotal revolution. The crazy thing for us as kids is that you didn’t have that sort of connection with the audience because you didn’t have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all that stuff. You sort of had a different relationship with the audience then, and I really like the fact that now you have it where there’s not that middleman, there’s not the record label, there’s not the promotion company. You’re not just communicating to your fans through the press. You have a direct thing, which I think is amazing. I suppose it’s also the fact that it’s quite easy to make records now. You don’t have to go and hire an expensive studio. There’s so much stuff you can do on a laptop with a microphone.
Do you see the simplification or convenience of that as being a potential threat to creativity in the long run?
There’s a huge amount of music out there, and I suppose it’s quite easy to get lost. It’s still really interesting to me that some kid can just record himself on his camera or computer, and two weeks later he’s got like fifty million people going “This kid’s amazing.” That kind of viral thing is crazy. I don’t necessarily think that it means the cream rises to the top. That’s obviously not the case, because a lot of stuff will still get lost. But, I suppose it evens the playing field to a certain extent. It’s less about record labels spending a lot of money promoting an artist, though that still happens, and it’s still the way music is sent to people in a way as well, but there’s much less of it. It’s more of a sideshow, honestly. It doesn’t seem connected with the majority of music now, which is being made on a much smaller level and doesn’t really have that kind of connection in the same way now. Perhaps I’m being naïve about it, but it just seems like the record label is almost slightly redundant now. The other part of it is that musicians don’t really get paid anymore [laughs], or at least it’s much harder to make a living as a musician now.
What was the mindset you guys had in bringing Slowdive back together, and was there a kind of immediate familiarity once you guys started rehearsing together again?
It was amazing how easily it worked. Initially we talked about doing a new record. We basically realized that everyone would be interested in making another record, so that was the initial conversation, but I think we then thought “Well, if we’re gonna do that, we should probably do some gigs.” So we started thinking about playing a few gigs this year. The first rehearsal we had, it was weird. I think the first song we played was actually “Slowdive” which was the first song on the first EP we released, and we were just like “Wow. Yeah. I remember how this sounds, you know?” [Laughs] And it felt great. I know it’s cliché, but it was crazy that we could still play this thing twenty years later, and it still reaches back to that start. And we were in Reading for the rehearsal, actually, which is where we sort of had our start. But it has been really lovely for us just to reconnect with the band, and to be part of each other’s lives again. We’ve all remained in contact to a greater extent, and honestly Rachel and I have been working together, but for all of us to be back together now has just been really nice, honestly. It’s felt like we needed each other a little bit, to be honest, at this point in our lives.
You guys are playing several festivals this year and, as you mentioned, there’s obviously the notion that the band looks to record new material. Does the band have a timeline for making a new record?
I think ultimately that’s our goal, really. We will be, at some point, and I don’t think it’ll be until we’re finished at the end of the summer, to see how everything goes with the gigs. But we’ll see then if we’re in a position to start recording. Slowdive, we’ve always worked in an organic way, I suppose. We’ve never been one of those bands to plan things out. The recording sessions have always been sort of off the cuff. The first album we did was written and recorded in six weeks, and it probably suffers from that. The other records are stronger probably because we had more time actually writing before we went into the studio. But there’s a big part of the band that just works as quite an organic unit. I think that’s the bit that will kick into play with us doing gigs and stuff. I’ll also say that we’ve all been sort of shocked by the response the reunion has had. I don’t think any of us really expected people to be as interested as they are or have been. There’s a point where I suppose it puts us under a bit more pressure to record a record [laughs], where initially it was just like “Oh, let’s maybe do a record.” But that’s really the end point for us, I suppose. That’s the way we’ve approached it. We’ll do the gigs, and the prize at the end is to try and do another record. Hopefully we’re all talking to each other by the end of the summer and don’t go back into retirement really quickly. [Laughs] We’re all enjoying it, and I think the other part of it is that we just really want to enjoy it. That’s quite an important thing as well.
Your writing is something that, in my mind, has been a large part of Slowdive’s success as well as that of your work apart from the band. What does your writing typically involve for you now, and how have you seen that change over the years? Do you see yourself as a different songwriter in 2014 as opposed to 1989?
Yeah. I mean, after Slowdive finished, for me it was a reconnect with music, and I could get excited about music again. I wanted to be able to write songs on the acoustic guitar, so I spent a lot of time trying to do that, which was a totally different process to anything we’d done with Slowdive. I think with different projects there’s different ways of working. Pygmalion was all about collecting loops and kind of just being quite random about the process and creating these sort of soundscapes. There’s always an element of that with Slowdive, which isn’t necessarily about sitting down with a guitar and writing a melody or writing a lyric. A lot of Slowdive is actually just about us being in a room just making a noise and seeing what happens. I suppose I don’t have a particular process. There’s a different process for each thing, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Slowdive part two works, and whether or not it’ll be a more song-based or less song-based thing. I’m not really sure that we know at this point. I’m quite excited just to see how that pans out.
We are also excited and standing by. Thanks Neil!
Slowdive — 2014 Tour Dates
June 21 – Best Kept Secret, Netherlands
July 10-12 – ATP Iceland, Keflavik, Iceland
July 16 – Radar Festival, Padova, Italy
July 18 – Latitude Festival, Suffolk, UK
July 20 – Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, US
July 23 – The Wall, Taipei, Taiwan
July 25 – Fuji Rock Festival, Japan
July 28 – Rotunda 3, Hong Kong
July 31 – The Ground Theatre, Singapore
Aug 3 – Off Festival, Katowice, Poland
Aug 7-9 – Way Out West, Göteborg, Sweden
Aug 8-10 – Flow Festival, Finland
Aug 9 – Oya Festival, Norway
Aug 14 – Pukkelpop Festival, Belgium
Aug 15 – La Route Du Rock Festival, St Malo, France
Aug 23 – FYF Fest, LA, US
Aug 29-31 – Electric Picnic, Ireland
Sept 9 – La Batie, Geneva, Switzerland