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Wednesday, February 21st, 2024  

Slowdive on “everything is alive,” Critical Reappraisal, and Finding a New Younger Fan Base

Embracing a Different World

Feb 09, 2024 Photography by Ingrid Pop Web Exclusive
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Since reforming in 2013, Slowdive has now been around longer than their initial run in the early ’90s. The music industry they now inhabit has morphed into something that would have been completely unrecognizable to their younger selves. But Slowdive’s guitarist, singer (alongside Rachel Goswell), and primary lyricist, Neil Halstead, has never been the type of musician to dwell on the past. The band’s latest album offering, the critically acclaimed everything is alive, released last September, certainly has all the elements one might wish for from a Slowdive record, but it also sounds contemporary, fresh, and very much of the here and now.

“I mean of course it’s a totally different world these days,” reflects Halstead. “It’s been 10 years since we reformed, and we were together for about six years originally. In terms of our personal relationship as a band, we all still get along really well, so that hasn’t changed—it’s the world around us that’s changed. Looking back on when we first started putting music out in the early ’90s, it feels kind of provincial. We grew up reading the NME and Melody Maker, hanging around local record shops and going to gigs. Like, I remember having to order Bug by Dinosaur Jr. as I’d read a review in the press and thought, ‘well that sounds amazing,’ and then I had to wait two weeks for it to arrive (and I wasn’t disappointed). So that sort of thing was exciting. But back then, your worldview in terms of music was kind of limited in some ways, and the internet has really blown that up. It’s made music much more global now, with festivals and fans around the world.”

And the internet certainly opened things up for Slowdive, who after their reformation began to notice that they were beginning to attract a much younger audience, which Halstead admits did initially take them by surprise. “We were really shocked, to be honest. It was only when we started doing gigs again that we realized there was a new younger fan base out there. It was mind-blowing, but it’s been great fun coming back playing all these gigs to a whole new audience, and we seem to have been critically ‘reappraised,’ which is weird too.”

Back in the day, Slowdive—the band’s line-up also features Christian Savill on guitar, Nick Chaplin on bass guitar, and Simon Scott on drums—had, on occasion, been the subject of the odd critical mauling from what could be a brutal UK music press. Something Rachel Goswell has been known to allude to on Twitter, (aka X).

“Yeah, Rachel can be pretty forthright about that sort of thing,” laughs Halstead. “It’s weird, but at that time, it just seemed part and parcel of making music. I mean, you expected a hammering from the NME or Melody Maker at some point; that was the prevailing trend in music journalism back then. Chris Roberts, David Stubbs—great writers, but they could tear you apart. But that was part of the deal in some ways. Mind you,” he laughs, “I don’t think we anticipated quite the level of backlash we got. You put out a record you were really proud of, and then you’d read the review and think, ‘Oh, hang on.’ But ultimately, it didn’t affect us creating the music we wanted to make.”

Sometimes the success of an artist can be as much about timing as it can be about talent; I wonder if Halstead and the rest of the band ever felt misunderstood by the music press?

“I think we felt more frustrated than misunderstood. We often seemed to get dragged into a group of bands who also got some quite bad reviews at times. Like if Moose got a bad review, we’d be mentioned too, and we’d be like, ‘Hang on a minute, it’s not our record getting reviewed here!’ There was a lot of great music around, but it was probably the emergence of grunge initially that meant we started to get less attention, certainly if we were touring in America. I think when Britpop arrived, Pygmalion had come out, and we were already starting to break up,” Halstead says, referring to their 1995-released third album, which was also the final album of their original run.

Halstead has always enjoyed the technical side of things, and embracing technological advancements in production has certainly afforded the band a much more flexible approach to their collaborative process. “Being in the studio; it’s the best part for me. You can do things now that years ago would have had you scratching your head. I love it; I find it really creative. We can get together in a studio, flesh something out, then I’ll take it back to my studio in Cornwall and work on it. Then send it out to Nick [Chaplin] or Christian [Savil], who will work on their bass or guitar parts. That wouldn’t have happened in the ’90s; we literally would have had to be in a studio for two weeks and then come out with an album. With our first Slowdive album, we went into a studio for six weeks with no songs and came out with an album. Mind you, it wasn’t a very good album,” Halstead laughs, “but we don’t have to work that way now. And I think as we’re older now with families and kids, finding that time to be away isn’t always practical, and the technology certainly encourages you to find different ways of working. As a band, we’ve always been into the tech side of things, with the pedals and effects and such.” Everything is alive, which is Slowdive’s first album in six years and their second since reforming, has been universally praised, but it began life in a markedly different way than previous albums. As Halstead reveals, “When we started talking about doing a new Slowdive album in 2019, I’d spent the last five or six years working on electronic music, and I wasn’t really feeling like I wanted to sit down with a guitar and write Slowdive songs. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got all these songs; I’ll take these along to the guys and see if we can use anything as a starting point.’ So I sent about 40 tunes to the band, some of it very minimal electronic stuff and some of it more fleshed out.” Halstead admits he would have been happy for the album to have remained quite minimal and electronic, but obviously, as the band worked on it, it went back into Slowdive territory.

“It literally starts as a process of elimination after everybody had listened to the tracks,” explains Halstead. “If people liked certain songs more than others, we’d work on them. Then eventually when we had maybe 15 tracks, we’d spend weeks working on them in the studio. Then I’d take them away and work on them myself in my studio. ‘Kisses,’ for example, had so many different versions. It was always quite a pop song, and we were a bit scared of that, so we reworked it trying to subvert the pop. We did have a lot of tracks for the record that had different versions, and it was a case of working out which versions we felt comfortable with as a band. I’m pretty comfortable with the idea of no guitars, whereas Nick’s on the other end of the extreme where he’s not comfortable with anything with a keyboard on it,” says Halstead, laughing. “So it really was a case of finding what worked best for us all.”

Although they didn’t quite manage to subvert the pop vibe on “Kisses,” it certainly seemed to be the obvious choice as the lead single. Halstead agrees, “Yeah, We gave the record to the label, and they were like, that has to be the single, and it did make sense; it’s a nice bite-sized radio-friendly slice of music. We never really got played on the radio much as our songs were often too long, or they just didn’t sound very good on the radio. When you’re mixing songs with very loud guitars, the drums and vocals can disappear. It was hard in the ’90s to get radio play as there was still that kind of rule that you have to hear the snare drum and the vocals, certainly in America. And I think really we only ever got played by John Peel in the UK. But yeah, ‘Kisses’ is probably one of the poppiest things we’ve ever done, so it would have been mad to not have it as a single.”

The accompanying video for “Kisses” was a perfect marriage of dream pop and visuals. Directed by Noel Paul, it features a Neapolitan teen giving rides on their motorcycle through the atmospheric streets of Naples. “We didn’t have much to do with it, but we really loved the video and I’m a big fan of the movie Fallen Angels, so loved the reference to that too,” says Halstead. “Essentially, we sent the song out to a few different directors we thought would be a good fit, and Noel came back with the treatment, and everybody was like, ‘Wow yeah, that is bang on.’ He did a great job. It’s interesting too; a lot of music videos don’t often get looked into too deeply, but with this one, people have had so many different interpretations as to what it means. For example some people were like, ‘So the bike rider is death right?’ But I think Noel created something open to a lot of interpretations, which is definitely a good thing for our music.”

As for the album title, it was one the band had toyed with and one they kept coming back to as it seemed to perfectly capture the spirit of the album. “There are a lot of emotions on the record. It’s not a down record, although it does have its moments. But I think ultimately it’s a hopeful album,” Halstead explains. “It felt like that title encapsulated the mood; we’re not a band that worries too much about putting out hopeful messages, but it just felt like a nice title. Rachel and Simon both lost parents during the pandemic, and I think part of the recording sessions were informed by them processing that and it very much became part of the fabric of the record. I think the title resonated with them in a nice way.”

Given the hugely positive reviews Slowdive has had since their return, do they ever allow themselves to feel a slight sense of vindication? “Well, to be honest, I don’t read reviews very often,” Halstead responds. “Of course, it’s nice to get a good response, obviously, and the label does send us stuff, and you talk to people at gigs, and they tell you what the albums mean to them; it’s lovely. I think we’re all just glad that we can still do what we do and can play gigs. In many ways, it’s been a real lifeline for some of us. The last 10 years have been incredible, and we’ve had some fantastic experiences. So if we get good reviews, that’s awesome. If not, well, it’s just part of the process and won’t stop us making music.”

And the fantastic experiences look like no sign of abating anytime soon for the band who played their first-ever Glastonbury set last year. “Yeah, It was the first time we played there as Slowdive; but I did play guitar there for Bernard Butler years back. It was the year when it was like the Somme,” says Halstead, referring to the World War I Battle of the Somme, “with the mud and they had the first cases of trench foot since the First World War. I mean, it was nice to go back, and it might have been a highlight for the others, but to be honest I’m not a massive Glastonbury head. Just getting in and out as a band was hard work. I have mates who go every year and one who’s been going for 20 years and he has yet to see a band. He just goes to Shangri-La and gets off his head for a week,” Halstead says, laughing. “It’s different things to different people, I guess. What I did like is that it felt really authentic backstage. For example, the catering tent was like something from the ’70s, which was actually really nice as it didn’t feel corporate; it felt very homemade, which was very cool. It felt all the people working there really care. But my own highlights are stuff like the first show we did after reforming for Nat’s [Nathanial Cramp] Sonic Cathedral label anniversary party, which was amazing. I love Nat; he’s old-school and does it because he loves the music. And playing a big show at Primavera, which was the major reason that we entertained the idea of getting back together again. Oh and playing shows with The Cure just before Christmas, which was amazing as we are all massive Cure fans.”

The band has just embarked on more dates taking in Europe, the UK, and Japan, and Halstead promises the setlist will include new songs as well as the classics. “Our setlist hasn’t evolved as much as you might think, but this time there will definitely be some of the newer songs as well as some older ones we’ve not played before,” he says. “When we initially got back together, we had a set that was just about long enough for us, but now we have too many songs. And as much as I love The Cure, I don’t really want to do Cure-length sets! So we’ll be mixing it up from show to show hopefully!”

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