Slowdive: "A Great Thing About This Reunion Was That It Was an Excuse to Go Buy a Load of Pedals"

NME’s Simon Williams once wrote that Slowdive’s sound was so dreamy they were capable of making Cocteau Twins sounding like Mudhoney. They were among the softer side of the multifarious "shoegaze" scene in the early ‘90s, especially compared to the likes of the sledgehammer Swervedriver.

At the time, nobody predicted that this niche scene would grow to influence such a wide range of acts today, from the aural mayhem of A Place To Bury Strangers to the stadium pop of Coldplay and electronic musicians like I Break Horses and Anders Trentemøller.

Slowdive - Slowdive

This renewed interest has inspired recent victory lap tours — and often, new releases — from Ride, My Bloody Valentine, and Lush, among others. Slowdive has had particular success recently, with their new self–titled full–length album considered by critics to be one of their best releases.

We recently had the chance to sit down and talk with Slowdive's Neil Halstead and Christian Savill about the band's resurgence and their opportunity to update the effects used to achieve their signature, heavily treated guitar sound.

Neil Halstead and Christian Savill’s pedalboards are stacked with new stompboxes, like Neunaber’s Wet Reverb, Eventide’s Factor series, and Strymon's Big Sky, DIG, and Brigadier.

Old favorites are featured too, like the ProCo RAT, Ibanez Tube Screamer, and Boss’ classic Super Overdrive and Digital Delay pedals.

According to tour manager Steven Clarke, "At the end of the day, sometimes the Boss stuff just does exactly what you want it to do."

When you formed the band, was there something that changed the way you built songs that created Slowdive’s unique sound?

Alternate tunings were a revelation. By experimenting, you can get these drone notes and create weird chords. That really changed my songwriting." - Neil Halstead

Neil: Alternate tunings were a revelation. By experimenting, you can get these drone notes and create weird chords. That really changed my songwriting. Our first EP features a tuning that is a thread through the whole thing, and it became a blueprint for us.

Anytime I find a new tuning, I immediately start writing. It's a great tool for inspiration. Also, layering loops to create weird atmospheres. That contributed a lot to Pygmalion. I still like doing that, even if I'm outside of the studio and using a little looper pedal.

Is it difficult when there are two guitarists using different tunings?

Christian: We were never a "chord band." We just fiddle around until we hear something that sounds right against what the other is playing. In standard tuning, it would just be easy to say "play a C here." When I'm just playing regular guitar [chords], it sounds predictable and twee.

The minute you experiment with tunings, your choices become less obvious. As for other important elements in forming our sound, reverb really was the big thing. When I listened to My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins I wanted something between those sounds. Then, adding distortion over the top of that sounded really nice.

Neil: We did our second demo at Martin Nichols’ studio, The White House, and that's when we "discovered" reverb.

We had recorded all the tracks, and when we went to mix them, Martin added it to the vocals. We were like, "That's great! It sounds like Phil Spector!" Then we said, "Can you put a bit on the guitars?" Then we were like, "Can you put a bit more on the guitars... um, OK, can you put a bit MORE on the guitars?!" [laughs].

That discovery changed our outlook on pretty much everything.

Slowdive - "Star Roving" (Official Audio)

Up to that point, were you just using amp reverb?

Neil: I don't think I had reverb. Just distortion and delay.

Christian: I had seen bands with racks on top of their amps, but I didn't know what they were. I had a friend who owned one, though. He was a total heavy metal dude, so obviously he didn't need it anymore. [laughs] So I bought it off of him. I didn't know what to do with it though, so I just cranked it up.

How did working with Brian Eno impact the band?

Neil: it was interesting working with him because he did things like take the clock off the wall in the studio and did 10–minute "sessions," then we’d move onto another idea. We got all of these ideas down in the space of two hours. It was a lesson in spontaneity and seeing what could happen. It was his Oblique Strategy of the day.

Christian: It resulted in two songs on Souvlaki: "Here She Comes" and "Sing." The "sketches" he put together were really nice.

Neil: The ideas were stitched together, and Brian added his effects. It was a new way to work because up until then, we would just work on one idea for ages. We were used to working with single takes for an instrument track, so it was interesting to get out of our comfort zone.

Once you started fully taking advantage of studio production, were there challenges to playing the songs live?

A great thing about this reunion was that it was an excuse to go out and buy a load of pedals and muck around a lot. They're easier to work with, sound better, and they are just fun." - Neil Halstead

Neil: Well we needed to get reverb effects for live use, so we figured that bit out. The live stuff feeds into the studio, and the studio feeds into the live stuff, but with Souvlaki there were a few challenges. We had to make some choices about what parts we would play on stage. We had our producer, Ed [Buller], pull up the guitar tracks for us so we could make some decisions.

Christian: It's easier to do now with the effects that are available. Of course, you're always working to get it exactly how you want it, and it's interesting that it's all at your feet now. Rack gear isn't really as much of a thing anymore.

Neil: We were always geeky about effects and stuff. Before we started touring again, I went out and tracked down a Yamaha FX500, which is what I used the last time around.

Christian: You went out and got one?

Neil: Yeah! I had it at the first practice. I actually went to see what I'd used, and bought one online. Then I thought, "Hold on... There are so many cool pedals out there now." A great thing about this reunion was that it was an excuse to go out and buy a load of pedals and muck around a lot. They're easier to work with, sound better, and they are just fun.

Christian: I like it better now. Some of the old rack gear was hard to adjust on the fly.

Neil: They sounded great, but they could be difficult for live use. You had to go into menus to adjust everything.

Slowdive - "Sugar for the Pill" (Official Video)

Christian, as a lefty, did you have a hard time shopping for guitars before you could just go online?

Christian: A little, but there was always some Strat copy out there. I just used whatever I could find at first. It’s definitely easier now.

What prompted the band to reform?

Neil: I was doing a show and Rachel [Goswell, who plays guitar, keys, and vocals in the band] sang with me. The rest of the band were there, and we just talked about it that night.

Sonic Cathedral — who put out my solo records and are massive shoegaze fans — asked me if we would do an acoustic set. I mentioned I had never really wanted to do that kind of thing [with Slowdive], so they were like, "Well you could just do it with... the amps." [laughs]

We joked about it, but then it became a serious discussion. I think everyone was surprised that everyone else was into the idea. So we did a set for Sonic Cathedral’s 10th anniversary in Hoxton Square, in London, at this little 200–person capacity place.

Was the original idea to just play a few shows, or to properly reform?

Neil: Right from the start, we talked about doing a record. That was a big part of us getting back together. The shows were a way to get back into that, and gather some momentum as a band.

Christian: We just ended up doing a lot more shows than we thought! So it took longer for us to focus on making the record. We had to get the old set sounding good as well.

Neil: Right, you have to familiarize yourself with being in a band again. We started the record in 2015 after a year of shows were behind us. We would go in for short intervals — maybe two or three days at a time. We'd work on some ideas, then we'd take some of the ideas away and reconvene in a month or so.

Then, in July 2016, we went into the studio for a full month. The ideas were together, and we had decided on the tracks that would be on the record. Before that, though, someone would come in with an idea, or we'd sometimes just jam around a little. It was nice to be able to record those ideas on a laptop, play with them a little, and rearrange them.

Slowdive (photos by Ingrid Pop)

Were the options presented by working with a DAW a game changer for you?

Neil: I've been recording all along, so I've kept up with the technology, but for Nick [Chaplin, bass player] it was a really new experience.

Christian: He hadn't been in a band for 20 years. He didn't even have a bass.

Neil: He'd come into the studio and wonder why everyone was just staring at the computer. "Where's the tape machine?" Or we'd stop him after a few bars, "Yeah, it's cool, mate! You don't have to play the whole song on this one," and he'd be like, "Really?"

Last time around, he'd have to keep going until it was perfect or do a punch–in, and there was all that time you spent waiting for the tape to rewind, finding the spot, getting ready for the punch–in. You know, the big moment, and now we could get what we needed in two passes. He's the only one who hadn't been musically active, but he picked it up straight away.

Christian: Yeah he came in really prepared. He had done all of his homework, and was note–perfect.

How is touring different, this time around?

Neil: Live sound for sure, because we bring a board with us, or we rent one, and our sound person can just plug a memory stick into it, which has the recalls from the night before on it. It means you can keep building your live show.

Christian: All of what traditionally has been outboard gear is in the desk. It both makes our soundguy's job easier and our live show sound better, especially when it comes to things like vocal effects. It makes it easier but I wouldn't say better necessarily. There's something nice about an old analog desk even though it's much more work.

When we got back together I watched old live clips of us. In the old days it was more of an absolute assault of sound. The PAs we’re playing though now allow us to be more dynamic. It's a combination of things: better gear, we get really nice soundchecks now.

Neil: And we're just...older and wiser [laughs].

Festivals were quick to get Slowdive on board. This summer you’re playing Roskilde again?

Neil: We're really excited to play it because last time we did it was the graveyard shift at 3am. It seemed like a great idea at first! We'll have a fun night, and then we'll get up on stage to cap off the evening, but by the time we played we were already hung over!

Christian: We were already done being drunk!

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