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The Shoegaze Heroes Return - We Talk to Ride's Mark Gardener

"It didn’t feel like a career band with Ride and I think that was the beauty of it—it always felt like something that was going to crash…"
April 16, 2015, 4:00pm

Ride by Piper Ferguson.

During its brief existence in the late 80s and early 90s, the genre known as shoegaze garnered an obsessive following and bands including My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Swervedriver dominated the UK indie charts. The music was a mix of guitar noise crescendos, distant yet emotionally-driven vocals, psych tendencies, and an image so deficient of fashion it was constantly mocked by the press, which called it “shoegaze” on account of the musicians all refusing to look at the audience. Despite all the landmark releases by the aforementioned bands—_Loveless, Soulaki, Psychocandy, Raise—_that went on to be hailed as classics, shoegaze never quite cracked the mainstream. But there was one band that flirted with Top 40 acceptance and that was Ride.

Often regarded as both the poster boys and brightest hope for shoegaze thanks to their floppy hair, fresh-faced looks, and harmony-driven sound, the Oxford lads—Mark Gardener (vocals/guitar), Andy Bell (guitar/vocals), Steve Queralt (bass) and Loz Colbert (drums)—were but teenagers when they formed the band in 1988, signing to the cult indie label Creation Records the following year. (Creation latterly signed Oasis.) Unlike labelmates My Bloody Valentine, who took years to find an audience, Ride were thrust into the spotlight virtually overnight, releasing three EPs within the first nine months of 1990, with the last two cracking the UK Top 40 singles chart. The success of those EPs was lucrative for Creation, allowing the label to fund releases like Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s seminal opus that nearly bankrupt the label in 1991. Ride then made history again with their debut album, Nowhere, which charted at number 11, boasting the scene's string-assisted torch tune “Vapour Trail.” Less than a year later they charted again, breaking the Top 10 with their single “Leave Them All Behind,” an eight-minute odyssey that earned them a spot on Top Of The Pops.

But by Ride’s second album, Going Blank Again, cracks in the foundation began to form. With album number three they went with John Leckie, who famously produced the Stone Roses’ debut and a young Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), abandoning their trademark cascading guitar noise in favor of 60s-inspired rock. Carnival of Light turned off critics, who nicknamed it “Carnival of Shite,” and despite squeezing out one more album, Tarantula—which was basically disowned by the band and Creation, and deleted just one week after its release—Ride were finished. Gardener formed new band the Animalhouse a year later and went on to focus on solo work and production; Bell re-signed with Creation with Hurricane #1, then joined Oasis and eventually Beady Eye, where he took over bass duties; Queralt joined a reggae band called Dubweiser before settling down as family man. Meanwhile, Colbert continued drumming: with Gardener in the Animalhouse, as well as for Gaz Coombes (Supergrass), and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Now, two decades after their dissolution, Ride have officially reformed. After many rejected offers to reunite, and numerous rumors over the years Ride officially announced their return via a giant sign on the side of a building in Spainl: they're scheduled to Primavera on May 29, not to mention Coachella (they played the first weekend last Friday). But the first official Ride reunion show occurred on Sunday, April 5, fittingly in the band’s hometown of Oxford.

Noisey tracked down an exhausted and jet-lagged Mark Gardener fresh off the plane in Los Angeles to talk about what led Ride to finally reunite, why breaking up in 1996 was vital for the band, and what they could sound like in the future.

Noisey: How was playing that first show in Oxford?
Mark Gardener: God, it was pretty amazing. It was one of those nights I will absolutely never forget. We played a lot of shows back in the day but there was a real feeling that, well, we knew this was going to happen for a while now—about three years—and it’s been a long bumpy road for all of us since we crashed the car in 1996. It was kind of beyond description really. We did it in Oxford in front of a lot of friends, some family, but we also opened it up to the fans as well. And people flying in from Philadelphia, Italy, France. And of course it was in the room where we rehearsed and “Dreams Burn Down” came into shape. It’s the same venue where we saw a lot of bands as teenagers, this smoky atmosphere where we saw Shake Appeal, who became Swervedriver. During the first song I had to sort of get it together a bit, because I started welling up in the last verse of “Polar Bear,” it was getting a bit mad. But it just seemed to go really well. Andy had managed to get a bloody finger, which I don’t think he’s had since the last Ride show. [Laughs.] It’s a good sign!

Now that you’ve had time to rehearse and play that show it sounds like the band is living up to your expectations.
We’re well aware that with reunions that you’ve got everything to lose if it’s not going to match up with where you left it. So individually and collectively since October/November last year, we’ve made a concerted effort to change small things, little geeky changes like guitar pedals, vintage guitars, we’re kind of empowered now, so we can move up another level. The exciting thing for me is that I feel the challenge of knowing where it was left and knowing now the shows now come up a level. We didn’t rehearse an awful lot back then, but for this we’ve rehearsed a lot to get it really great. I’ve been in the studio for the last ten to 15 years, Andy’s been on the road with Oasis and Beady Eye, and Loz has played with the Mary Chain, so people know how to play these big shows. Loz played Coachella with the Jesus and Mary Chain. Individually we’ve all started to understand sonics and learned a lot in that time. And I do see this as chapter two for Ride. We were lucky enough to have some honest people in the room for that first show, people like John Leckie, and they all seemed blown away.

Based on the YouTube footage you looked and sounded great.
That’s the thing! You think it was just for Oxford, but it’s for the world to see now! Anything you do, of course will go up. I haven’t even seen it! [Laughs.] You’re ahead of the game on me. We have a different monitoring system now, and that’s the first time in all of the time I’ve played with Ride that I’ve heard Andy singing, let alone my own voice, and both together, because we sing in harmony. The songs have a lot of harmony. I was saying to Andy three weeks ago, it’s crazy that we’ve never been able to hear each other before. Sometimes if the monitors were good you could, but you never really knew. And that’s what I’m saying, now there has to be a level of consistency, because we don’t want to lose what was really exciting about Ride, which was making sure that it’s cooking till the end—we don’t want to lose that edge. On so many levels things have improved.

Were there any songs that were harder to play off the bat than others?
Yeah, there were some, like “Cool Your Boots,” which we never really played much back in the day. It definitely took more working out than say something like “Like a Daydream,” which is much more straight-ahead, or “Dreams Burn Down,” which on the first time was bang on. Obviously we never played “Black Nite Crash,” so we had to learn that from scratch. The set is based more around the first two albums, and then when we start part two we’ll move everything forward in time.

So who was the first one to bring up the idea of a reunion?
Probably me, although everyone has been thinking about it for a good few years. Everyone has been questioned about it on social media for a while now. I live in Oxford and so does Loz, and we see a lot of each other, not as much of Andy and Steve because they live in London, but it’s been discussed and we’ve always been aware of festivals and people making offers. You’d have to be in a serious hole in the ground not to hear the volume getting louder and louder from social media and people just pleading for us to play again. It’s always been in the ether. Three years ago we got together, not long after I lost my dad, and I just remember asking everybody how they felt about it, and we were all positive about it. But of course, at that point Andy was very much involved in the second Beady Eye album, Loz was playing with the Mary Chain, I had production work. But thankfully everything cleared and started to align. I’m not trying to take credit for it, but I do think I was the first one to ask about it.

You mention Beady Eye. How much did that band splitting up help Ride’s reunion?
Obviously for Andy, the big thing was Liam [Gallagher] turning around and saying Beady Eye was finished. And I have to give those guys credit, Andy had discussed it with them, and they were very supportive and understanding of why he would want to do Ride again. Back in the day, Liam and Noel, when Oasis first came up to Creation, and very early on when they played Oxford, we took them out and partied with them. And they were telling us [_adopts Liam accent_], “Oh yeah, fookin’ ‘ell, we had ‘OX4’ on our answer phones for fookin’ ages!” So, yeah, they were into Ride, and we played a show with Oasis as well. Noel claims that he said something along the lines of, “It’s a good job that we’re fucking good because that was just pretty amazing.” Mutual respect all around, really. I suppose when Andy ended up in Oasis I was a bit surprised he was playing bass, but I wasn’t surprised because I knew the respect was there. I never really liked many of the Britpop bands, but I did like those first couple of Oasis albums. They were brilliant.

In 2001, the four of you got back together for a TV special on Sonic Youth called Pioneers. You guys did an improvised jam for 30 minutes to pay tribute to your heroes. How close were you to a proper reunion then?
I don’t think we were close at all. At that point I was living in the wilds of France, and Andy was in Oasis, so it was just a nice time to get back in a room together and jam. We had big respect for Sonic Youth, so it felt like a good thing to do. Especially for me, as I had run away to France, and been to India for a while, doing a bit of globetrotting. It was me just coming to peace with my past, because I was reacting against it and fighting it a little because when something like Ride happens, you go into the next thing thinking the same will happen again and it doesn’t, and you suddenly feel the need to do some soul searching and some healing. My house had turned into a bit of a nightclub, so I had to get away. And then I came back to London to do this Sonic Youth tribute, and maybe there were forces at work trying to get us back together but we were all entrenched in different lives then.

Do you feel like Ride ended things too soon? Or had the band run its course for the time being?
We were flying by the seat of our pants. It didn’t feel like a career band with Ride and I think that was the beauty of it—it always felt like something that was going to crash. In a way, that’s what happened and it was the right thing to do. We understood that when we crashed collectively, it was time to leave the stage. I think a lot of bands crash, then try and kid themselves. I’m a really strong believer that it’s the people who decide on this stuff. Musicians, what do we know really? We try and do the best we can with the music we make and the people we’re in a room with. But in the end it’s the people who decide. And that’s what I love about music, it’s not an exact science, it’s anything but that. And certain music, certain combinations of people, certain bands really connect with a lot of people, and I think that’s why Ride really works. We have stood the test of time. Lots of people can make those swirly guitar sounds, but not everyone can write great songs. I’ve played some Ride songs during my acoustic shows, and when you strip some of those songs down in their barest form they work really well.

I’ve seen My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, and Slowdive all perform in the last few years. I’m wondering if you have too, and if that played any part in convincing the band to reunite?
A little bit, yeah. It’s in there, of course, because I guess before I’d seen some reformations—and I won’t name names—but some didn’t really do it for me. I did see the Valentines show, and I thought it sounded brilliant. They were bigger and better than they ever were before. And I thought the same with Slowdive. I did a secret solo acoustic support for their warm-up show in London, and just watched them. I always really liked Slowdive, and we obviously toured around with them in the States, but they did get a lot of stick, so I thought fair play to those guys because they’ve come back bigger and better than I remember it at the time. And they deserve it.

But yeah, I do think that had a bit of an influence. I remember playing some of those acoustic shows a few years ago, and people would ask me on the way out, “What’s going on with Ride?” And they would say, “You know what? It’s not even about you, it’s about us! We didn’t even get to see you the first time around. Think about all of those people.” And then there are the festivals that are coming in and making lovely offers. I think in the end it just reached a critical mass. Also, there was an overriding feeling that there was not going to be any peace of mind when I felt there was a lot of unfinished Ride business. So all of those things played their part. A lot of things combined made this happen.

I was so confused about Tarantula when it was released. It was pre-internet, so word traveled pretty slowly that you were done by the time of its release. How did you feel about that record?
At that point I really didn’t know. I was just gutted and on the fallout from that. So I didn’t really think that much about it, and it was only released for a limited time. It’s a break-up record, so I didn’t feel so involved in it. I went off the America, and I was a bit numb at that point. I didn’t know how I felt about anything at that point. I don’t think any of us did really.

The last two Ride albums took a significant step away from what the press called shoegaze. Where would you say the band’s interests lie musically now? I know you’re mostly playing material from the first two albums, so if you went in and began working on new songs, what do you think it would sound like?
When you think about the fundamental elements of Ride, you’ve got a bassist whose whole roots are reggae and dub. Steve was in a reggae-dub outfit before, which is where we poached him from to come into Ride, so he has that groove going on. I listen to Brian Jonestown, but also Moderat and Bonobo, musical journey-ists who use beats. Andy is into a lot of different stuff, and so is Loz. But I think some groove would be in there, but not like in a dance sort of way, that crass way of the 90s. More of a heavy groove, but it’s hard to know until we hit that place.

I’m loving that guitar thing again though, making it even wider and getting it out there. I’m doing that with my sounds now, playing around even more with delays, and there’s more depth. In saying that, at the moment we have this not so small matter of Coachella, which is 60-70,000 people. We know the shows we’re doing and that’s what we’re focused on at the moment. Just to play some amazing shows for people and give them all they want and more. And then we’ll see where that leads, because in life, people make plans, bands make plans, and they never work out. Plans never work out for me. [Laughs.]

Cam Lindsay really loves this era in British music. Follow him on Twitter.

Ride play Coachella this Friday.