It's easy to group the soft pulse of ambient-leaning electronic music and the slow swoon of shoegaze together. Close listening reveals them as surprisingly natural bedfellows: slipstreams of heavily processed sound flow through both, with emphasis on careful builds and beautiful cresting moments.
Of all the bands in shoegaze's first wave, this relationship has never been more evident than in the gentle compositions Slowdive put out. The Reading quintet's first records were noisy squalls, but that started changing quickly—Brian Eno produced some of their majestic 1993 album Souvlaki, hidden richness and depth were coaxed out of their brittle early material.
Later that year, they released the 5 EP and an accompanying remix package , both tailored for brain-warping in rave chill out rooms. The downtempo beats added to the arresting ballad "In Mind" would have made for a winner on Mo' Wax five years later; in fact, I still hear the skittering Global Communication remix played out to this day. Stretched, spacious shoegaze is timeless.
1995's Pygmalion took cues from Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and the emerging trip-hop scene, placing Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead's vocal melodies in a sparse, spectral fog. At the time, it didn't fly: critics, besotted by the swagger of Britpop, either trashed or straight-up ignored it, Creation Records dropped them a week after release, and it would be their last for 22 years. Slowdive became an unfortunate allegory for the savagery of 90s tastemakers. It's a cruel paradox: for something so synonymous with the music and fashion of that decade, shoegaze was left for dead by the middle of it.
But others picked up on the sound in the ensuing years. Artists like Seefeel and Ulrich Schnauss kept the flame flickering by pushing it further out into headsy electronica and ambient territory. M83's cloudbursting mid-2000s records—which blended over-blown dynamics with drippy neon synth lines—gave the genre a new breath. Loopy tech house mainstay Luciano even scored an unlikely hit remixing him for the Ibiza terraces.
Today, the zero-sum game of absolutist taste has thankfully faded, leaving electronic producers free to openly praise the 'gaze. Prominent contemporary artists Avalon Emerson and Elysia Crampton have conjured up official and bootleg remixes of Slowdive, and Lorenzo Senni cites Souvlaki as a defining influence.
In the midst of all this Slowdive are back together. Last month, they released a self-titled LP their first record in 22 years. Though the guitars are back with gusto, there's also a lot going under the surface texturally—little recording tricks and tonal shifts that tie the album to the band's electronic past. This is in no small part due to the handiwork of drummer Simon Scott. Since leaving the band, he's become enamored with the weirder corners of electronic music. He's released five solo albums, logged records on Kompakt, Ghostly and the pastoral 12k outlet, and last year helmed the opening concert for experimental Danish dance festival Strøm.
I met Scott in early June, an hour before the band was set to DJ on NTS for a special set. Rifling through a wet Waitrose bag of CDs, Scott pulls out glitchy sound designers Fennesz and Oval to show me what he has planned for the afternoon. Though, on the show, their selections end up leaning more toward splintered guitar acts like Slint and The Stooges. (He tells me later on via text that he got scared of going too left field.) Perhaps the battle between rock and dance rages on after all.
Read on for a conversation with Scott about his and the band's long relationship with electronic music—and how it still drives their music today.
THUMP: How did you first get into making electronic music? What was the trajectory like?
Simon Scott: So around 1994, I left Slowdive because I was kind of told, "There probably won't be any drums [on the next album]." Me being young and naive I thought, "Oh, I want to do drumming." [Then] the minute I got out of Slowdive I went and started manipulating tape loops, buying loads of different effects kits and writing. I got totally into sounds. I used to steal tape recorders off my older brother and sister and go record environmental sounds when I was young, and that's never gone away. By '98 or something that like I took money saved up working shitty jobs and bought a computer with a high enough CPU that I could actually make music, using really basic time-stretched software called Sony Acid. That led to more esoteric and abstract forms. I bought a book called "Audio Culture", with cool essays in it about Steve Reich, Eric Satie, Stockhausen, the building blocks of how people were experimenting with early soundtracks. I just totally geeked out on it all. By the time I got a laptop with Max/MSP downloaded on it, that opened up being able to make solo ambient, combining field recordings with proper computer technology, and it became my world. How does it feel when you perform solo? Is there a parallel between marshalling the energy flow of a full band dynamic, and you trying to get multiple machines on a similar wavelength?
It depends; I improvise a lot. Some sets I just try and get loops going, get them all in sync, and hopefully shape the vibe into something beautiful. If people are lying there asleep, it's not a bad thing for me: I've caught onto a moment and it's very special. I walk away happy. Other times, it's a more sonically dirty sound, and with textures all stacked out I can reach Tim Hecker levels of volume and visceral. My process changes. When it came round to getting the band back together, did you have an idea of what you personally wanted to carry over from that into new material?
My role live is the drummer, obviously, but I played guitar on some of the album, bass on parts of Souvlaki, samples and piano and all sorts. I've never seen myself as just the drum guy. We'd all moved into a studio to make Slowdive, and I was coming in and out to give Neil space to write lyrics or do guitars. I drove down one day to catch him fucking around with this piano loop, and I just thought, "This is my opportunity to get in there," and churned out these little manipulations of what he was doing in real time. He came to the control room, I surprised him with the playback and he went, "Fuck, you kind of finished the song for me. That's exactly what I needed." So that's how I co-wrote the closer "Falling Ashes." None of us want Slowdive to be this nostalgia trip. We want to make it contemporary, use available technology and an advanced studio, make it really synth heavy. At the same time, throwing beats over it, making it too far-out…I'm not so sure that would have been right. I think after 22 years, people needed to hear a Slowdive album.
It seems like the band's been revived in a harmonious way—which is good, because when the first run ended on a soft, sparse sound, you weren't even there.
When I heard Pygmalion, I was like, "That's my favourite Slowdive record." But, you know… no me [laughs]. There wasn't a falling out, I just wanted to go out and I had offers to go and do other stuff. So did Neil. But I'm aware of the weird band chronology; on the new LP, "Falling Ashes" is absolutely my direct link back to Pygmalion. Those ambient and more minimal techno influences are going to be stronger in the next record, plus Terry Reilly or Steve Reich-type minimalism. Or we could get really fucking gnarly, go off in a more brutal direction. Although, not everyone in the band likes experimental music. A couple of us grew up more on Nick Cave, New Order and The Cure, and still listen to them every day. Neil, like me, is into analog synths with digital processing effects and patches. So we've got one foot in indie-pop band territory, but another foot in abstract experimentalism over here. We have multiple doors open now. It feels natural—it doesn't seem to me like you guys are making a brazen land-grab to appear contemporary or whatever.
You hear about Madonna getting Alva Noto in to put some beats on her new track. She wants the young generation to appreciate her, so you know, she throws a million quid at the next young cool guy. I know quite a few stories like that, where people just get in Max/MSP programmers, and make their pop songs sound like Ryoji Ikeda with minimal glitchy beats. That's kind of dirty.
We want to learn that stuff ourselves, absorbing music and progressing as songwriters. Even though there's a framework for Slowdive, there's definitely two avenues now. It seems to be working well.
The fact you're about to go do an NTS show, the fact that Slowdive have landed back with nothing but love—it seems a million miles away from what you guys got in the 90s, just the most savage annihilation by the press. How do you feel looking back at that era?
The British music press was really powerful back then: Melody Maker, NME and Sounds could make or break people. We never quite understood why we were picked out. I'm kind of pleased we were. We never had a hit, were never on the TV, never jumped on the Britpop bandwagon, or anything like that. It was a long time ago, the internet has come in and changed everything for the better. There's a much purer collaborative DIY thing going on today, and it was never really like that back when I was in Slowdive. We never really felt part of a shoegaze scene until we read NME and they told us that we were. So today is a bit less survival of the fittest?
Yeah, people can just do what they want now, not have that pressure. Back then, record labels gave money to bands and wanted hits, pushing them toward a pop career. We never, ever thought Souvlaki would go in the charts, or that people would be listening to or talking about those records now. So to now be able to play with so many others—shout out to S U R V I V E especially, a brilliant band that have given so much hope to less successful artists going their own way—and to swap albums and email addresses and hang with these people, to even take the ones we like most on tour because we want to geek out to their music every night: that's how the five of us have always been, and that's how it should be. All this is being said between us with a smile, it's a warm and harmonious thing. Do you feel looking back, or did you feel at the time, this great unspoken promise when Slowdive and shoegaze melted away?
People ask us this all the time: "Are you back to reclaim what was yours?" We don't feel that at all! We feel flabbergasted we're back playing gigs and playing to thousands of people at festivals like Field Day and Primavera. I think it was supposed to kind of stop then, organically—we weren't nipped in the bud too early. They were really happy times! I mean, I was a kid, I wanted to be in a really great band. I got asked to join Slowdive in 1990, and very lucky that I got to tour for four years. We found the whole press thing, and the insults about the music, kind of funny—for a while. You know, people are talking about us and not their own albums, why don't they talk about their own music? When somebody puts on a Slowdive record from 1992, I actually don't wince. It was a true part of what we wanted to do, there was no cheesy bits we threw in because we wanted to be in the charts. We did the opposite, really. If you listen to the song called "Albatross." which was the B-side of "Catch The Breeze," there's zippo lighters and scissors running on guitars. The drum skins were taken off, and mics were shoved in weird places. It was great fun. We were in the studio and having a few beers, and a few smokes. Even though it sounds quite tame now, for us it was a lot of fun. So there's no bitterness at all!
I guess if you hadn't had a plot twist in your career then, you might not have gone on to become an Alva Noto fan and eventually cycled back round to this point.
There you go. I listened to loads of post rock in the 90s, got very bored and wanted something else, that led to close listening to electronic music. I did a music degree and wound up teaching granular synthesis in Cambridge, just expanding my knowledge because I'm genuinely interested. It would be ridiculous if we were in it for the money because we spent every penny we made from the reformation gigs on the new album. We all actually genuinely give a shit about music, and hopefully that comes through.