After Two Decades Away, Slowdive Tiptoes Back to Center Stage

If breaking up was inevitable for shoegaze heroes Slowdive, getting back together two decades later wasn't.

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After Two Decades Away, Slowdive Tiptoes Back to Center Stage

Sometimes bands that reunite after a long time apart talk about how they could have avoided splitting up in the first place. Not Slowdive.

With the release this week of Slowdive, their first new album in 22 years, members of the English shoegaze band aren’t stuck on could-have-beens. Slowdive fell apart in 1995, soon after releasing Pygmalion, a confounding third album that alienated fans and also the band’s record label. Breaking up was the logical outcome.

“It was definitely inevitable,” singer and guitarist Neil Halstead says. “We were fairly unloved at that point. We’d been dropped by the label, we’d confused a lot of people, but even without that, we creatively sort of bottomed out. I don’t think we felt like we had much to offer beyond that.”

When Creation Records cut ties with the band a week after Pygmalion came out, that was the end of Slowdive. Halstead, singer and guitarist Rachel Goswell, and drummer Ian McCutcheon regrouped as Mojave 3 and carried on for another decade before going on hiatus, and the other musicians took up side projects, as well.

If breaking up was inevitable for Slowdive, getting back together wasn’t. Though reunions have come to seem like just another career step for everyone from Phish to the Pixies, Slowdive was slow in coming around to the idea. Reassembling the seminal lineup—bassist Nick Chaplin, guitarist Christian Savill and drummer Simon Scott—for tours of Europe and North America in 2014 was almost as unexpected for the musicians as for fans of the band.

“The fact that everyone was keen gave us confidence, and when we decided that we were going to go back into the studio and make a record, we would do it without a label so if it was shit, we could literally drop it and pretend it had never happened.”

“Everyone was surprised that anyone else wanted to do it,” says Halstead, who has also released three post-Slowdive solo albums. “The fact that everyone was keen gave us confidence, and when we decided that we were going to go back into the studio and make a record, we would do it without a label so if it was shit, we could literally drop it and pretend it had never happened.”

There was no need for that. Slowdive features eight new songs full of bristly, enveloping guitars and dreamscape vocals that are on par with the best of the band’s ’90s output. There’s a massive thicket of sound and hazy vocal harmonies on the majestic “Star Roving,” while downhearted single “Sugar for the Pill” pulls back to a mix of atmospheric synths that float beneath a round bassline and gleaming guitars.

“It’s a poppier record than I thought we’d make, and that’s not a bad thing at all,” Halstead says. “It seems to me that it sits somewhere between [1993’s] Souvlaki and Pygmalion, and then has something that is Slowdive Mark II, something that’s different about it. It isn’t the sort of record that we would have made in the ’90s.”

The album came together at an unhurried pace. After using the live dates in 2014 to reconnect as a band and build momentum, the musicians began work on Slowdive in the summer of 2015, “grabbing weekends here and there,” says Goswell. “When we started working on it, it was very much ‘let’s see how things go.’ I don’t think we knew 100 percent that we would have an album that would come out at the end of it, but we all wanted to try it.”

After a year of developing ideas, Slowdive spent a month recording in the summer of 2016. By the end of that period, they had a sense of what direction the new album could take. “If you haven’t made a record in 20 years, you don’t know what kind of record you’re doing to make,” says Halstead, who produced the album. “We had to figure out how things could happen naturally.”

“There’s a lot of angst in those records that was of its time and where we were at that age, and I guess that’s probably what resonates with young people now.”

With a finished album in hand, Slowdive began talking to labels before signing with Dead Oceans. “It felt like a really good fit,” says label co-founder Phil Waldorf, who first heard Slowdive when he saw them open for Blur in 1991. “For us, in concept, we were old fans, but the fact is that the new recordings really blew us away.”

Old fans aren’t the only ones gravitating back to Slowdive. Younger listeners have been turning up at the group’s concerts, too, buoying a band that started in 1989, before some of its youngest fans were even born. “I love the fact that we do shows and get a real mixture of ages,” says Goswell, who released a solo LP in 2004. “I think it’s wonderful. There’s a lot of angst in those records that was of its time and where we were at that age, and I guess that’s probably what resonates with young people now.”

It hasn’t hurt that filmmaker Gregg Araki often included Slowdive songs on the soundtracks to his movies, including 1999’s Splendor and 2004’s Mysterious Skin. And though the band was never as famous as Oasis, Blur or the other Britpop acts that washed away shoegaze in the mid-’90s, there’s a clear link from latter-day shoegaze acts to bands like Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain (both of which have also released new albums after years of silence).

“There was a lot of different music that followed them that felt sonically similar, or musically informed by them, and we’re at a point where a lot of that is present,” Waldorf says. “Sometimes you need to squint your eyes a little to see it, but there are bands like Dive and Beach House, which certainly sound good side-by-side with Slowdive, but there’s also bands like Boards of Canada or M83, things that are a little less guitar-focused, that sonically fit side-by-side with what Slowdive are doing, and I think that allows for a broader appreciation of it.”

Having reconnected with each other, and with their audience, Slowdive is already looking ahead to the next project. “It’s opened up other avenues that we’re all excited to explore in terms of making another record,” Halstead says. “This record sort of energized us creatively. It doesn’t feel like we’re rehashing something. It feels genuinely new and exciting to us.”

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