Words, photos and video by Riley Blakeway
Not too long ago, I was fortunate enough to see English band Slowdive play their first ever Australian show.
And after a request to their label, I was lucky enough to sit down and interview with them for MC. There was quite a bit of internal deliberation on what to ask some of my all-time favourite musicians and as you’ll soon see, Slowdive are a band that I can’t speak about—or to—without getting a little emotional. I sat down guitarist and vocalist Neil Halstead and bassist Nick Scott to chat about the band’s rebirth, musical accidents and early influences, below.
I want to start with a general one—whose dream was it that informed the name Slowdive? I read it came from a dream and a Siouxsie song?
Nick: It was my dream, so yeah, that’s a good one for me. In my dream, the words were actually ‘Slow Burn’ but it became sort of ‘Slowdive’. You know dreams, you sort of remember them but you don’t get them quite right. Probably because I was aware of the Siouxsie song but that wasn’t where it originally came from. Rachel was a massive Siouxsie fan and was like “No, you can’t call it that,” but we preferred that word and just went with it.
Neil, early on in an interview you said that the music was about “evoking certain poignant moments that you hark back to nostalgically.” What are the differences between writing music now as opposed to writing music as a teenager?
Neil: Gosh, that’s a difficult question (laughs).
Neil: I think now what I try to do when I write is to get accidents to happen, because you want to surprise yourself more now. We used to do that by using weird tunings… not make it difficult to play, but make it so that you don’t really know what’s going to happen when you play a normal chord. You can use digital technology to create happy accidents now by using weird loops or editing things, so that’s still a big part of the process for me.
So typically is it instrumentation first and then the lyrics follow?
Neil: With Slowdive, generally yeah. A lot of the time, it’s about locking into a mood or a feeling with the music and then maybe some lyrical ideas will come from that kind of mood.
I feel that a lot of the time the lyrics reflect love and intimate experience. They feel ambiguous lyrically but relatable in feeling. Whose perspective are they typically written from?
Neil: I write from my own perspective I suppose. I don’t typically create a character and write from that side of it, but I do think they’re quite abstract, to use that word again. Sometimes I don’t really know what the songs are about either. Which again is a weirdly Slowdive kind of thing because it’s definitely a less direct way of writing, compared to stuff that I’m writing outside of the band.
You must have a strong emotional sensitivity to write and create the music that you do. Was there a certain age that you realised that you had the ability or the necessity to express yourself in this way?
Neil: When I was a kid I just loved music. I think that lead me naturally to start wanting to make it. The sort of bands that we liked as kids were stuff like the Cocteau Twins and Jesus and Mary Chain, and bands like Sonic Youth. They were all kind of bands that did interesting things with guitars and didn’t necessarily write songs that had typical pop song structures. It was sort of about being influenced by that, as well as more pop stuff, older garage rock, or 60’s stuff.
As a touring musician, is it ever hard to perform music that you’ve written in the past and relive certain memories that inspired certain songs?
Neil: Personally, I find that when we play the songs live, if it’s a really personal song I don’t necessarily have a problem with it. I feel as though you sort of recreate the meaning every time you play something. You remake it, so it’s always its own experience, you know. You’re not necessarily living within a past experience, you’re just in that moment. It’s always an enjoyable moment.
Nick: Well, I’m glad you got Neil [on that question], if you got me and Christian you’d be fucked (laughs).
Sorry, another one for Neil—I read that you were inspired by Phillip Glass, is that true?
Neil: Yeah, particularly when we were making Pygmalion I was listening to a lot of stuff like Phillip Glass or stuff like Stockhausen or Can. You know, sort of abstract, ambient music and the record kind of reflects that. And actually, the cover of Pygmalion is sort of based on a Stockhausen score. I liked the way he kind of created his own musical notation, I thought that was really cool.
What I found interesting is that a lot of Phillip Glass’s work is score music, do you ever write after being inspired by visuals?
Neil: I think in some ways my writing is influenced by films as well as other music. Particularly the moods that certain films can leave with you, you can kind of take that mood and make music out of it. I quite like the idea of doing that, so it’s definitely an indirect influence, yeah.
Is there ever a time where the opposite occurs and you picture the visuals to the music that you’ve written?
Neil: I guess it doesn’t really work the other way around, not for me. We’ve always made really terrible videos, probably because none of us have a particularly keen visual sense. I don’t know, I might be wrong about that but I certainly don’t.
Honestly, I’m surprised that you can’t imagine visuals for the music because for me it’s all I can do when I listen to Slowdive. Maybe more so than any other artist.
Nick: We’ve always struggled with visuals, I think that’s definitely true. We’ve only made several videos over the two incarnations of the band and we’ve always struggled with that I think. We’ve never really had that much of an idea of what we want the videos to look like and then probably because of that, when we receive the finished article we’re like, “What the hell is this?” (Laughs). It’s never been our strongest medium, which I agree is perhaps a bit odd because other people say the same thing as you.
Maybe it’s a rarity to have both.
Neil: Well it’s rare in Slowdive (Both laugh).
Okay Nick, a couple for you. Do you feel like you scratched an itch in the sense of bringing the band back together and creating an album that’s been so well received?
Nick: When we first got back together we wanted to make another record, we wanted to see whether we had that in us. It was much more of a personal challenge, rather than trying to right any wrongs that we might have felt were dealt to us in the ‘90s. You know, a lot of people have asked if we were ‘settling scores’ and all that, but it was nothing to do with that. We had a good time in the ‘90s, we made records that we liked and we just wanted to see if we had it in us again really. There wasn’t really any pressure because we had no label, we just wanted to make a record for ourselves and hopefully people would like it and luckily they did.
Do you have that in mind when you write the music, whether people are going to like it? Or is it just about making the things that you want to make?
Nick: It’s totally about making things we want to make and I’m sure every band probably says that and maybe some of them don’t really believe it. But with us, we’ve never really known whether what we produce is gonna be well received or not. When we got back together, we didn’t even know if anyone would buy tickets to see us. We’ve always put out what we like and that has to be the way to go about it because you can’t second guess your audience really.
What was the most important thing about Slowdive’s sound that you wanted to retain 20 years later?
Nick: We’ve always wanted to make sure that, on the songs that are more traditional in terms of structure and melody, the songs are actually good, well crafted, and with a hook that people can remember. I don’t think we’ve ever been the sort of band that just wants to make a record of noise for an hour. What sets us apart a little bit is that Neil’s songwriting is, in some ways, quite traditional. He might disagree, but he writes kind of traditional songs in terms of structure and then we try and embellish that sonically. We used to talk about trying to make things sound a little orchestral and give people this kind of huge and colourful palette to listen to.
I was born in 1989, when the band was formed…
Neil: Oh my god.
… and you had such a long hiatus, does it surprise you when people my age or even 10 years younger are at the shows and know all of the music?
Nick: It did surprise us initially when we found out that our audience wasn’t made up of only people our age. But we quickly accepted that just as a product of the time, in that, it’s so much easier to discover music however old you are and however old the music is nowadays because everything is available online. When we were growing up, you know, we’d have to go and find those records in a record store somewhere—if anybody stocked them—and then buy them and take them home. You’d have to be really careful with what you were picking because you couldn’t afford to buy everything.
I have to ask, is there plans for another album in the near future?
Neil: We don’t know. I think we’ll do another record but I guess we’ll just see how this year goes. If we’re still talking to each other at the end of the summer, we’ll talk about it probably.
Nick: This new record took quite a bit of time to come together. Partially because of the way that the industry has changed and everything is so focused on touring now… We’re that much older, everybody has got families and responsibilities. It’s not that easy to just pack up your life and go on tour for six months, so when we’re not touring we’re at home looking after kids and doing responsible grownup stuff. It doesn’t leave much time for sitting down together and making a new record. But I think we’d all like to do one.