Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell were in school when they formed Slowdive in 1989, after the name came to Halstead in a dream. Despite wearing their influences on their sleeve, their first demo revealed a solid understanding of controlled noise, but it was the addition of third guitarist Christian Savill which saw the group really come into their own. It was this tape that brought Slowdive to the attention of Creation. Their first album on the label, Just for a Day, was heralded, and in the early ’90s, the band found themselves spearheading the short but influential shoegaze scene.
While many regard their second album as their finest, critics and audiences didn’t think so. And after a live LP and their third studio album Pygmalion, Creation and Slowdive went their separate ways, as the band morphed into Halstead’s solo alias Mojave 3, and the rest of the members went on to other projects. Now many years later, the band have reformed, bringing back their dreamy guitar noise magic, and starting a new chapter in the Slowdive story. We spoke to drummer Simon Scott about the band’s final days and its rebirth.
For Souvlaki, your second album, you tried three or four times to properly record stuff and then in the end ended up working with Eno, right?
Yeah. We had some songs and we recorded them but it just didn’t click. We sent them to Alan McGee at Creation and he said, “I really didn’t like them.” So we went to maybe Protocol in London, and we did another couple of songs. Again, Alan didn’t like them. We went back to where our demo was done. And I think “40 Days” may have been the only one that he liked. It was like, “OK, we’ve got a starting point, he likes ‘40 Days.’”
“Dear Mr. Eno, we’re big fans. Loads of respect for your ambient music and your production work with Bowie. Would you like to come and meet us or even record with us?”
Then we went back to Courtyard with Chris Hufford where we did Just for a Day. We were just trying to find something that worked. Alan really pushed us, which in retrospect, is a really healthy thing because I think the record is a really strong one now. At the time, we were really frustrated. It ended up with Neil going to Wales. Him and Rachel broke up. They had a very intense relationship. Eventually, we wrote a letter to Brian Eno saying, “Dear Mr. Eno, we’re big fans. Loads of respect for your ambient music and your production work with Bowie. Would you like to come and meet us or even record with us?” He said yes.
Neil came back with a bunch of songs including “Dagger” and “Alison” and then we worked with Eno and went to Protocol and found some nuggets of sound that we could work on and we built them into two or maybe three songs. Which was a huge honor for us. We finished the album back off in Courtyard, literally jamming. Neil and Chris Hufford and myself mixed and it was very... We wanted to do something that was experimental, slightly dubby, but still huge guitars and simple melody. That worked really, really well. We gave it to Ed Buller to mix and he took loads and loads of guitars away and made it stronger, actually. By the time we sat down and listened to it, we were really happy with the fact that it had taken virtually two years to make. I think it’s our best record.
What did everyone else make of it?
At that point, everybody hated Souvlaki. I think one of the reviews said, “Slowdive ... Slow Death.” Somebody else said I’d rather die than listen to this record. Manic Street Preachers said they hated it. They thought we were worse than Hitler. We were just completely demoralized by the fact that everybody suddenly hated the band. We did a tour with the Cranes. That was good fun, but the audiences were small. Maybe 400, 500 people a night.
In early 1994, Neil said, “I’m going to do a new record, I don’t know if there’s going to be any drums on it.” I thought, “Well, if there’s not going to be any drums on it, then what am I going to do? I want to play drums. I need to find another band.” It turns out that Neil didn’t really have a clear idea of what he wanted at that time, but he knew he wanted to do an album on his own, which is what Pygmalion is. Nick plays bass on one song, Christian does something somewhere. Rachel obviously sings on it. They brought in Ian to do a final Slowdive tour. It was sad to go. In retrospect, I should have just hung out because I love making loops and experimental music and ambient music.
Weirdly, not having played drums on that record made you play less drums, and turn to more experimental music and stuff.
Yes, kind of. Funny enough, Neil and I have got really similar taste in music, so we were listening to Aphex Twin and some post rock stuff and I think we were starting to buy computers and hardware to make weird sorts of music. We did it completely separately. I went off and did different stuff and he did Pygmalion, which I think is a really beautiful record. A really gorgeous record. I wish I had been on it.
I’m back in the band now and I’m playing some of those songs live and we sound better than ever, I think. We want it more than ever. We had something really special taken away because the vibe became very dark. Nobody seemed to like us, we felt like nobody was listening. Now, to walk out on the stage and see 25,000 people, is just incredible. The fact that people come up to us after the show and say it sounded better than when they saw us in 1993 is really special. It’s brilliant.
When you talk about the old days, it sounds like Neil was the bandleader. Am I right?
Sure. Neil and Rachel, really. Rachel is really driven, she’s a very strong woman. She’s very vocal about what she wants to do. I think we’re quite open, but Neil’s the leader in the sense that he’s the primary songwriter.
Is there another dynamic now that you’re all adults?
We had really bad management. We got ripped off by our accountants. We all went in debt.
I think there’s definitely a new dynamic. I think Neil very carefully considered reforming the band because he wanted it to sound brilliant. He didn’t want it to sound just quite good and then go back to playing acoustic. I think he saw it as a bit more of a long-term thing. Looking at what everybody’s done, I’ve done music for 20 years, scored movie soundtracks and done my own thing. Rachel’s carried on doing her own music, Christian’s done various projects, so yeah, Neil wants to bring us into that and actually maybe have more of an opinion this time. Before, it was very much Neil’s band, Neil’s songs. It’s still Neil’s band, it’s still Neil’s songs, but I think there is definitely more co-writing going on.
You were quite young the first time around.
Yeah, we were teenagers. We were 19, 20. We were very young, inexperienced. We had really bad management. We got ripped off by our accountants. We all went in debt. To go from that time in your life when you’re 21 and you feel the world is your oyster to suddenly have so much negativity does make you... It gets under your skin, sadly. I suppose it’s like a bad relationship that has to finish. It runs you down and you’re not very productive.
Talking to Neil about how he made Pygmalion, it was essentially him in the studio with a bunch of loopers and samplers. It was a big, two fingers up to any expectation that Creation Records had. Who, incidentally, hinted they were going to drop Slowdive because they were going to change, which they did of course. They signed Oasis and made a lot of money. So he very much just thought, “I’m going to spend the money on making a record I want to make.” It’s a great record for that reason. We weren’t very well managed, and we were very inexperienced. It’s sad that we let it get to us, but maybe it’s a good thing that we split up then. Now, 20 years later, there’s a fresh perspective and the songs speak for themselves.
Can you easily agree on the new things you bring in when you have to write in drums to songs that didn’t have drums originally? Does that go easily?
Yeah, absolutely. Being Slowdive’s drummer never really left me. My perspective on writing drum parts for Slowdive is that I want the song to sound the best it possibly can. If it means I literally just hit a ride cymbal, splash around, or do a few tom patterns like on “Golden Hair,” then it’s all about the song. The song is king. And if it means there’s another song where I need to hit them as hard as possible, then I do that as well. I’ve done a lot of drumming over the years, so I don’t find it difficult. It’s really nice to be in the moment of the song, be really mindful of where you are, and how the whole thing sounds. I think that’s come with a bit of age and experience.