Drop Nineteens on “Hard Light” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, June 19th, 2024  

Drop Nineteens on “Hard Light”

Founder member Greg Ackell talks about their first new album in 30 years and future plans

Nov 11, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Having disbanded nearly thirty years ago, Drop Nineteens emerged earlier this year with their first new music since 1995. Initially one of the few US bands to embrace the shoegaze sound embellished by the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Slowdive, Drop Nineteens’ debut album Delaware – released in 1992 – is still highly regarded as one of the most influential records from that era.

While 1993’s follow-up National Coma saw changes in line-up and direction, founder member Greg Ackell had already become disillusioned with music by that point. Indeed, it would be another three decades before he picked up a guitar again but if their eagerly anticipated third album Hard Light is anything to go by, it was certainly worth the wait. Released earlier this month (November 3rd), Hard Light is everything one would hope and expect a Drop Nineteens record to sound like in the 21st Century. Forward thinking rather than revisionist, and arguably their finest collection of songs to date.

The five-piece – Ackell, alongside fellow founder members Paula Kelley (guitar, vocals), Steve Zimmerman (bass) and Motohiro Yasue (lead guitar) plus drummer Pete Koeplin who played on the second album – have returned with a vengeance. So, Under the Radar sat down with Greg Ackell to talk about the past, present and future of Drop Nineteens.


Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): Congratulations on Hard Light, your first new album for 30 years. Under the Radar have given it 8.5/10 and every review so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Did you expect such a response?

Greg Ackell: No. I didn’t expect anything. I didn’t expect it to go poorly. I didn’t expect it to go particularly well. I really had no expectations. It’s all a mystery to me. Even this morning as I’m reading all this praise, there’s still something in my nature that is naturally suspicious or hedges these kinds of moments where everything seems to be going perfectly. So, I certainly didn’t have any expectations for it and even with it happening it doesn’t solve everything. It’s not the end. There’s always something else. We want the record to sell well. We want to be able to tour successfully on it. All kinds of things that are real question marks. So, we take it a day at a time, and today’s a good day.


Will there be a tour?

We have scheduled some dates for April 2024. We call it a tour of cities that want us! That’s just a US leg, but there’s already been demand from all over the world. When I say that, demand’s relative, right? We’re not Taylor Swift here! So, it has to make sense for us to go somewhere.


Costs are astronomical at the moment.

Everything is hard. Don’t forget we’re starting from scratch, so all of it is a tall order, whether that’s reassembling a crew or working out how much everything is going to cost. We mean to get over to the UK at some point. It’s a no brainer for us, so we’re doing our best to make that happen.


What was the main reason for getting the band back together and why now?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, because I’m often asked this. Yet despite how many times I’ve been asked so far, I still don’t really have an answer. Which is strange. I’ve known for over twenty years that I was not going to make another record. I was very comfortable with this, very satisfied that I’d done it in my earlier life. I felt like I got it out of my system and was proud of it. Those few years when we were active. Not only did it never occur to me, it occurred to me to not do it ever. But, periodically over the years, people would raise the subject with me, and I would shut it down. Then this one moment a year and a half ago, a friend got me on the phone and started talking about it. It wasn’t unlike a lot of conversations I’ve had over the years, but this one time when I hung up the phone I thought to myself “What would a modern Drop Nineteens song sound like?” It was the first time I’ve asked myself that question. The way that I viewed it was there’s only one way to find out. When I want a milkshake, I make a milkshake. So, that’s pretty much what happened here. If I wanted to hear that, we had to do it and that was it. Why now as opposed to ten years ago? Why did we not keep going in the first place? All that kinda stuff, I really don’t know. It’s a mystery to me as much as it is to anybody.


The line-up features key players from both the Delaware and National Coma periods. Were they all as excited to be involved as you are?

Yes, surprisingly. I think some of them were maybe waiting around. Over the years, I think it had occurred to other people in the band before it occurred to me. It probably helped that it was instigated by me this time. For better or worse, you can’t really do this band without me. I don’t mean to say that in an arrogant way. It felt together. Steve (Zimmerman) and I have been particularly close over the years, just as friends. Knowing him as a friend, I think he’s been eager to get back into music. The others were just a phone call or email away, and people were soon on board. The one outlier was Paula (Kelley). I didn’t just want to get a yes from her from the outset. There’s something so intimate about putting your voice onto a recording, and Paula’s still into music. She has her own projects, so I didn’t want her to just say yes blindly. My guess is she was kinda there, ready to say yes. I wanted her to know what she was getting into. So, for Paula, I did make this exception where I said please don’t answer. Let us show you some stuff, so we put some songs together. Some demos, and I wanted her to hear those. The contours of what we were trying to do here. Once she heard that she was totally on board. Do, she probably joined with more enthusiasm than anybody else did, because by the time I asked her to answer it was already coming together. She was ready to start rolling, the second she was in. Which was really the thing we needed. It’s our voices together that’s probably one of our defining characteristics, if not the most. It doesn’t set us apart from a lot of bands. A lot of bands have that male/female interplay, but there’s only so many things you can do in a band. Only so many set-ups or configurations. The male/female dynamic in Drop Nineteens is just paramount to the sound, so getting her voice and mine together was probably the eureka moment where we knew this is working, this is Drop Nineteens.


Would you have got the band back together without having any new material or a new record to focus on?

No. The only thing I set out to do was make a new album. This other stuff about touring is way down the line. We’ve committed to do it but it’s really a bi-product of having come back. I don’t want to say we’re doing it for the money to go back and play live because that would be understating it, but it is the one component that provides any kind of income. Whereas making an album has probably cost us money. Returning to being artists in our lives, it’s not a money-making venture. It’s not a living, to just make records. So, that’s where the other components come in. That said, this is all about the new record. It’s really the only thing I’m interested in. I’m having to talk a lot about Delaware and our past. Our history, and I’m perfectly willing to do that and flattered people still ask about that stuff. But, do I find that stuff interesting or compelling? Is it something I really like to talk about? No, it’s a long time ago. I’ve probably thought about it as much as I should have if not more. So, for me as a person in my life right now it’s all about the new record. That’s the thing that’s relevant to my life. It’s all about Hard Light.


Were all of the songs on Hard Light written after you’d decided to reform or do any date back to when the band was first active? Which song was written first?

“A Hitch” was the first song that materialized. That’s the first song that Steve and I put together. It was the first one that started gelling. I don’t really remember how they fell after that even though it was recent. When you work so hard on something, and you’re working daily on it for over a year, it’s a little bit of a cloud to me what the sequence was. I wrote the bulk of my contribution to this record – which was considerable – with Steve. Pretty much all of the songs germinate from Steve and me. We don’t call them Steve songs and Greg songs because the whole band is part of the collaboration. The way we share songwriting credits is all equal, and then I write the words. But, that said, they usually start with one of us. I’d say it’s probably a 50-50 split, but I can say from my part it was done very quickly. Maybe over the course of a long weekend. I know that sounds crazy, but it took thirty years to come back then a long weekend for me to write these songs! I can’t explain that either, because I was not playing guitar, or writing lyrics, or singing, for all that time. I just wasn’t. I hadn’t picked up a guitar in over twenty years. When we decided to do this, I picked up a guitar and all this stuff started flowing out. My explanation for this is that I probably had a lot to offer. It was just subconscious. I’m a fan of music. I’ve been listening to music for all these years. Apparently that stuff was going in, and inspiring something, but really no outlet to share it. Or interpret and put it back in the world. I think that’s why it happened so quickly for me. We’re not talking just chords. It was chords, it was lyrics, it was melodies. One after the next. I went back recently and listened to some of my voice memos on my iPhone and they are strikingly similar to what is on the record. Of course, it’s just me and a guitar, but a lot of the arrangements are totally aligned with what ultimately ended up on Hard Light. It often makes me wonder what we spent all that year doing but with us a lot of it is about the sounds which I guess is the same for most bands associated with the shoegaze genre and is something we’re incredibly proud of. The sound is paramount. The form is the content. It’s not just chords. It’s how they hit people and the textures. We were pretty painstaking about that on this record, and people are picking up on that which is great. It’s good when an audience recognises something that was hard work. Not because they owe it to us to be thankful or anything, but just so as we know our work wasn’t unnoticed. It’s a good feeling to see people recognising that.


One of the most striking aspects of Hard Light is how it flows then builds into the mass crescendo of “T” at the end. Was that deliberate?

I was overly intent on creating an album that was going to have places for these songs. I was sequencing this album before it even existed! Before the songs existed. It drove everybody in the band crazy, and for good reason. Most bands record as many songs as they can, the ones they think are the winners. Then they take a look at the songs and try to arrange them in a sequence that’s going to make sense. You do that after you’ve recorded, not before and during. I insisted on this being the first song, and this is how it goes, and this is what it has to lead into, and then it has to go into this. So, I always knew “T” was going to be the last song. It’s practically written because it’s the last song. Those two things are inextricable, same as the first song. These things all had their place. “Rose With Smoke” for example is an instrumental. That was written specifically because I wanted an instrumental right there on the record, at song six on the album. Even to the point of A-side, B-side. I wanted “T” to be the last song on side B which drove everybody crazy. Creating a flow is intrinsic. As a band, our job – our only job – is to make a great album. How people want to listen to it is up to them. I begrudge no one from just shuffling through it, or hearing the single and only liking one song and hating the rest of it. The world can do what it wants, but our job is to make an album. For us to not do that is to fall short of that mandate. Making an album means its sequenced perfectly. That you couldn’t reimagine a better sequence. If you can reimagine a better sequence, I didn’t do my job. So, that’s something I take very seriously as you can tell. The song “T” is a love song. It’s a full-on duet, and when you listen to it, it sounds like Paula and me talking to each other. Like we’re having a conversation. Clearly, Paula is not the subject of the love song. I love her by the way, but that song is not about her. But what’s interesting to me is none of that really matters because you could almost interpret it as a love song to the band. Not to each other as individuals, but just to the concept of Drop Nineteens and I like that about it. That’s how it feels. If you’re not paying attention to the pronouns and everything in the lyrics you could just read that as Paula and I singing about the band and being self-reflective. I love that. I love it when double meanings come in to my lyrics. Sometimes that’s intended and sometimes it isn’t. Whatever you can say about what’s on the page is valid, whatever the intentions were. So, it’s a love song. But who it’s to, is clearly up for grabs. Any record that needs explaining is not a great record. It’s got to mean something without explanation, and that means the listener is applying it to their own life. A record that doesn’t do that is not a good record. It’s a very personal thing, a very intimate thing, listening to music. It’s literally in your own head. You can share music with people, you can listen with other people, but when it comes down to it the music is in your head and what it means to you personally. Someone listening to a Drop Nineteens song has very little to do with me. It has everything to do with them, that song in their head. That interaction is a special thing, and kind of a natural thing. If anything, it’s a luxury to be in people’s heads like that. I’m flattered that I’m being invited in. But once you’re in there, it’s up to that person and that’s an amazing, elusive thing.


Do you see this reunion as being a long-term project?

I’m not a big planner when it comes to that. I take things as they come, and that’s its own sort of plan, to take it as it comes. So, this is no different. The one thing we didn’t anticipate as a band was what a joy it’s been to play together again, and to be a part of each other’s lives. Based on that, I would have a hard time saying goodbye to these people again so soon. So, that’s a sign of something that maybe there will be something else. But it’s not only up to us. It’s up to how well it received beyond the critics. Nothing lasts forever, and this band is particularly good at going away! This is something we know how to do. We’re as notorious for that as for anything else. I’m always sensitive of bands coming back, especially now my band’s come back, and I always look at how many years it was. Very rarely do I see something more than thirty years! Paula said something funny the other day. They were debuting our song “Tarantula” on KEXP in Seattle. It’s a really great station. They do all these in-studio recordings that are amazing. They debuted the new Beatles song and “Tarantula” back-to-back, and Paula’s comment was “…and we took longer in between!”


When you around the first word, the term “shoegaze” was used in a derogatory way to describe certain words. Since then, it’s become a genre in itself and bands have formed citing Drop Nineteens as an influence. How do you feel about that? Are there any of those bands you’re particularly fond of or proud to be associated with?

I’m proud to be associated with every single one of them. There was a piece that came out in another publication called Flood where nine bands spoke about how they’d been influenced by us, and I had no idea that was coming. I was blown over. Just the fact that anyone is thinking about us is news to me so I’m flattered by any of it and all of it. The strange thing is I’m not really a big fan of shoegaze. I get asked about it a lot, but I’m no authority on it. I know some of the bands, but I’m certainly not in the know. There is a huge group of American shoegaze bands right now. It’s a whole big thing. Whereas we were one of the few American shoegaze bands from the first wave, which is quite interesting because in the early days it was largely a UK scene and we were the American outlier of that. Now, it seems like there’s a whole scene in America happening and it’s an exciting, cool scene. But I have to admit I’m looking forward to getting into it myself and learning about these things. I’ve been buried making this record, so I haven’t really been listening to a lot of what’s happening today. My influences are my influences. There are bands that aren’t shoegaze at all. Things on my mind. Things I know. Things like Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, Carseat Headrest, and then some older stuff as well. That first Madonna record still moves me to this day. I asked Paula to sing a little bit like that on “The Price Was High.” I’m a big fan of Polvo. They have an album called Shapes that I’ve been listening to a lot. There’s some amazing guitar motifs on that record that I tried to pepper throughout Hard Light. They’re very disparate influences. I rarely look within. I guess My Bloody Valentine are the one exception to that. There’s just no getting around them. I love them so much there’s always going to be a bit of that in everything I do. We all look to My Bloody Valentine in Drop Nineteens. I think a lot of the motifs in shoegaze do start becoming derivative over time as I hear them. It’s a fine line to walk to try and not be too obvious with that, and I think we’ve done that on Hard Light. I asked our distributors (Secretly Distribution) whether our music was shoegaze, and everybody just laughed! The presumption is Drop Nineteens are shoegaze, but I think we’re more than that.


Looking back at your first two albums, early singles, and EPs, is there anything you’d do differently or change if you had the benefit of hindsight?

Everything! What I’d change it to? I don’t know. But if I was going to do it again I wouldn’t do it the same.


What advice would you give to a new band that’s just starting out?

I’d tell them to be careful what they wish for. When I started this I wasn’t quite aware, but had tremendous ambition to start a band, get a record deal, make a record and do well. All those things kinda happened to varying degrees, and I didn’t know what to do with it in a lot of ways. Getting a call back from a record label like 4AD was success to me. Life after that, I didn’t really contemplate! I didn’t know what to do with it once it happened. So, be careful what you wish for. It’s not to discourage people from making music. It’s just to say be careful what you’re trading. For a long time, I lost my love of music by making music my job. I lost the love for it and stopped being a fan of music. The price was high for that, so be careful what you wish for. There’s nothing wrong with loving music and letting other people make it. If you’re going to make music, don’t worry about being derivative because eventually that will fade away. You really only have one choice, which is to sound like yourself. You can’t really sound like anything else anyway. You can sound like you’re trying to sound like somebody else but you’ll still sound like yourself doing that. So, don’t worry about that. A lot of my favourite bands were derivative at first. The Jesus And Mary Chain were derivative of The Velvet Underground. My Bloody Valentine were derivative of The Jesus And Mary Chain. You see where this is going? But in the end, these bands ended up carving their own place in the world. That’s because you are what you are, and it’s the only reason for being in a band in the first place. So, don’t sweat it!

Hard Light is out now on Wharf Cat

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