Drop Nineteens Can’t Wait to Meet You

Frontman Greg Ackell talks the American shoegaze pioneers’ return after 30 years and their eagerness to meet the fans who’ve discovered their work in the decades since.

Music Features Drop Nineteens
Drop Nineteens Can’t Wait to Meet You

“There’s no template for coming back after 30 years,” Greg Ackell tells me. “Let me put it that way. And we’re still learning how to do this with our lives.” Drop Nineteens haven’t released an album since 1993. If you ask them, they haven’t released a good album since 1992, when they put out their debut LP Delaware. Right after releasing Delaware, the Boston shoegaze band’s internal dynamics took a turn for the worse. They released the more straightforward National Coma the following year, trying to make a stride away from the constant comparisons they received to their English peers. By 1995, Ackell was the only founding member of Drop Nineteens left in the band. And that was all they wrote—at least until 2022, when the band announced that they were getting back together and releasing a new album, Hard Light, set for this week. Hard Light is finally here, and it’s a kaleidoscope of sound and experience; a dreamscape made of thick layers of sound and vocals piled on top of each other; a sonic pool begging you to jump in.

When I talk to Ackell, he has just finished filming a music video for the band’s new song “The Price Was High.” He sits at his desk; visible behind him is a star-shaped tambourine, a framed Steve McQueen film poster—all black with only one eye visible in the corner—and one desktop stereo speaker. “You know, it’s strange,” he tells me. “In the early ‘90s, for things like press, they would do it almost all in one day. You’d go to the record company and you’d sit there. It’d be me, and Courtney Love in another room, and you would just sit there for 18 hours in that room. They’d bring you bagels and everything, but you’d just be answering questions and questions and questions and questions” He quickly followed it up with “But anyway, this is great, though.” Ackell is actually gearing up to film a second music video in the few days after our conversation. He reminds me time and time again how busy he is, and how busy he plans to be. Along with Hard Light’s release tomorrow and the band’s prospective April tour, they plan to reissue Delaware, put out three unreleased songs and work on a new EP.

When Ackell tells me about how Drop Nineteens came back together, it’s almost as if he barely believes it himself. He says he’s been friends with Steve Zimmerman for decades, but they never seriously considered the thought of a Drop Nineteens comeback. “He would bring the subject up, and I would entertain it sometimes,” he says. “But any second I thought that he was, you know, inching towards kind of suggesting that it wasn’t over, I would shut it down.” In his trademark eagerness, he stumbles trying to find the right words, tip-toeing around a term like comeback. Because for Ackell and Zimmerman—and Paula Kelley, Motohiro Yasue and Pete Koepli—this is more than just a comeback. It’s the continuation of a project that never fully got to run its course, a re-evaluation after a long pause and a falling back in love with the very thing that brought them all together.

“Someone just called me and said, ‘Hey, what’s your problem? Why don’t you do a record?’” Ackell tells me. “The moment I hung up I thought, That is something I might like to hear. It just confounded me that I even thought that—because it just was never, never on my mind to ever do it again. In fact, it was specifically on my mind to never do it again.” Ackell has always been busy, though. The Drop Nineteens genesis story is near-myth by now. I try to ask him about their start, something about orchestrating their return on their own terms—as opposed to rifling through label wars in the early ‘90s and being thrown into the spotlight by Melody Maker. As soon as I launch into this spiel, Ackell cuts me off. “I’m going to stop you right there,” he says, not unkindly but with an affable finality. ‘That was certainly of my making. I worked very hard. I was very ambitious back then, to make that happen. Just what I didn’t plan for was it working, I didn’t plan for it to succeed like it did. But I did work very hard. And we all did.”

He gives a slight concession, though: “This time around. It’s also work. But it is true that we’re not starting from zero. There is an audience out there for us. We’re learning about that every day, by the way; it’s still not totally clear to me who these people are, how many there are, what they’re like—,” he says, before trailing off. Ackell doesn’t know who these people are, because music ceased to be a huge part of his life following the Drop Ninteens’ disbandment. He was profoundly detached from contemporary music, he tells me, until he found The Clientele. “I thought if they just made records, I could live with that. Them and The Beatles, maybe. That’s all I would need to listen to for forever.”

Naturally, he went to see The Clientele with a friend, on their 2005 tour with Spoon. “We missed The Clientele,” he says. “We walked in on Spoon, and I walked in going Who the fuck is Spoon? and Why are they here? Where’s The Clientele? I was really really livid. I was in such a frame of mind to dislike that band. I thought that I hated them so much. And then—this has never happened to me before in my life—I woke up the next morning, and realized that Spoon is the best band in the world. And that’s held to this day. I think Spoon is the best band in the world.”

Outside of The Clientele, Spoon and LCD Soundsystem, Ackell wasn’t able to immediately offer any other contemporary influences on him. He wasn’t keeping up with any of the intricacies of the general music scene, much less with contemporary iterations of shoegaze. After explaining the Clientele-Spoon mixup he starts a new train of thought. “And then as far as shoegaze is concerned, you know—”

Now it is my turn to interrupt him. “Shoegaze doesn’t have to be concerned at all.” He laughs. “It’s sort of true that it doesn’t,” Ackell says. “Shoegaze doesn’t concern me as much as one might think it would, based on being Greg from Drop Nineteens.” He tells me that he’s learning more and more about new shoegaze artists every day. “But some of the stuff I hear is very derivative,” he adds. I know he’s right. “Which is fine, bands being derivative. my bloody valentine was derivative of the Jesus [and] Mary Chain. Eventually, if you last long enough, the thing that you’re trying to sound like falls away, because you really only can sound like yourself. You can want to sound like a lot of things. But, eventually, it’s just gonna sound like you.” He does offer that Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest is a perfect shoegaze album, and probably the closest thing to what he imagined the genre would eventually turn itself into. Time, according to Ackell, is the only route to originality: “It takes time to learn what it is you do sound like. I don’t know if Drop Nineteens ever did figure out what we sound like. That’s just a fact.”

Though their sound has its ties to the emergence of shoegaze in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in the UK, the Drop Nineteens sound has been able to differentiate itself from the genre en masse. A lot of this uniqueness comes from the interplay of Ackell’s voice with Kelly’s, the band’s other singer. He tells me about the first time he heard their voices together after their three-decade hiatus, and the joy that sound brought him.

“Our two voices together, they just work. And that’s something that was really nice hearing coming back. It had been so long. You can remember that it worked once, but before you hear it again—,” he explains, again searching for the right words. “It’s like a pet cemetery, right? You can bring the pet back, but is it really the pet anymore? And I’m not talking about Paula’s voice, by the way. I’m not referring to her as a pet. But to bring the band back from death, there was the fear that everything would be messed up and evil now. And that wasn’t the case. Everything was good—or whatever the opposite of evil is.”

And suddenly, everything fell into place for Ackell and Drop Nineteens. “I didn’t have anything prepared,” he tells me about working on Hard Light. “I wrote everything from scratch for this new album. And, turns out, I had a lot to talk about. I had a lot to express, a lot to put out there, a lot to share and a lot to create. That wasn’t a foregone conclusion.”

He admits that Hard Light is obviously a more mature album than anything they’d created in the past, but it still is situated firmly in the excitement, and joys, of life. “Delaware sounds like a band reflecting on who they are at that time,” Ackell admits. “It has the sound of 20-year-olds and, by definition, that’s sort of exciting—because being young is sort of exciting. But here’s the thing: Our lives are very exciting right now, and not because of the band, [but because of] life in general. It’s dramatic, it’s emotional, it’s as dynamic as it ever was. We’re in a different place in our lives, but what I set out to do just reflects how dynamic this part of my life is. And in that way, I think it does share something with Delaware. It’s a different subject matter, but the excitement is still there, the electricity is still there.”

Ackell and I end our conversation talking about touring, as I ask him to tell me about his experiences on the road with PJ Harvey and Radiohead. Of the former, he has nothing but a glow about him when he talks about her. “Polly was lovely,” he says. “She would stand by the side of the stage for our whole set when should have been getting ready. She just would be in a tank top watching us with a big smile on her face.” Of the latter, he admits it took some time to come around to their stuff. “I remember Radiohead,” he offers with a chuckle. “I remember not understanding it and just thinking I don’t get this. They scared me a little bit. But, certainly now, I recognize how brilliant they are and how there’s nothing like them. I was wrong about them. But I love being wrong about bands. I think that it’s a really cool thing to be wrong, because that means the band proved you right. That’s always an exciting thing.”

Drop Nineteens are set to go on tour next April, after postponing some fall dates. Ackell is excited to play, if also a bit apprehensive. How could he not be, with this new audience that has congregated over the past 30 years and has found solace in the work that he cast aside and didn’t even think about revisiting until recently? Even still, he remains hopeful. “We’re excited to meet them,” he tells me. “And we’re excited to be doing something for them. To be providing something, that’s quite a gift to us. Because, for people to be fans of us when we haven’t done anything in 30 years is kind of a weird feeling. It’s like: Well, what have I done for you? Something I did back when—I don’t remember who I was back then.” But what I do, and what we do is, is quite a gift for us. That makes this time period pretty exciting.”

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