Interview The Pastels: ‘We Had To Make Some Tough Decisions’

Gareth Ware discusses then and now with Stephen McRobbie.

Ask most people to name a musical movement associated with counter cultural, anti-mainstream standpoints and rebellion and most will come up with punk or acid house. Although musically wildly different, their pockets of anti-establishment, self-sufficient activity led them both eventually to front-page notoriety and arguably in part defined their respective eras to boot.

While perhaps not as headline grabbing, another movement with equally anti-mainstream ideals (if not the confrontational image to go with it) was taking shape. Latching onto the emotionally honest, anti macho and bright, melodic styling of the likes of Orange Juice as a starting point, the C86 movement – as it was eventually dubbed after the legendary NME cover tape of the same name – spent the majority of the decade kicking out against the wanton hedonism and Trevor Horn-produced bombast championed by the likes of Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Paul Morley’s ZTT Records. Don’t think it was the sole preserve of bowl-cut sporting, shuffling wallflowers either. The Pastels almost became a byword for the shambling melodicism of the C86 movement, thanks to their uptempo melancholia such as ‘Nothing To Be Done’ or ‘Baby Honey’.

But that was then, and this is now. A lot has changed since. The Pastels have changed too. New record ‘Slow Summits’ – their first ‘pure’ new material since 1997 – sees them demonstrate a mature strand of songwriting, with the record containing an intrinsic elegance and stately beauty.

“Can I just say that I really take that as a compliment, that’s a really beautiful comment…” says head honcho Stephen McRobbie, almost with an element of surprise, when this description is put to him when we discussed the new record “I hope people appreciate it and don’t expect it to sound exactly like we did in 1986, and appreciate that our sound’s changed and then don’t peg us in the same way as before, a way I just don’t think applies.”

While ‘Slow Summits’ can, in a way, be classed as the first new Pastels material since 1997 that’s not entirely true. In the intervening time there’s been a film soundtrack (2003’s ‘The Last Great Wilderness’), theatre commissions and a collaboration with Japanese group The Tenniscoats (‘Two Sunsets’). What effect, if any, have the assorted projects had on the direction of the new record? “With ‘The Last Great Wilderness’ were making music for a film which in itself changed direction quite a lot during the making of it” opines Stephen. ‘It was a thriller but it also had horror elements in it as well. So in a way when we were working on the music for that we were trying to give the film a continuous feel – a coherent mood between all these different sections. In hindsight, from that we probably came away with the idea of making something quite thematic and took that forward.’

“With the theatre commissions we got, we got those on the back of the film soundtrack – the theatre director really liked what we’d done on that so we thought that maybe he was looking for something with some of the same elements. Also when were working on those two projects we perhaps weren’t always working with the full group so we started to realise that maybe you only needed three or four people playing at any one time, and getting used to the idea of leaving things out. Then when you look at the Tenniscoats record in a way it’s almost a documentary record inasmuch as there wasn’t a lot of production in it, it’s more the sound of people playing in a room together and there are only really about three or tracks that have a degree of production.”

He briefly ponders what he just outlined before divulging how, perhaps more than the previous projects, a desire to create something interesting and dynamic built upon the records that he loved in his youth has arguably had an impact on the conception and direction of ‘Slow Summits’. “It’s probably a more developed album in comparison - there’s more production on it. It’s got space on it in some areas, but there are also elements that have a degree of impact too – there are moments that are more pop than what we’ve done in recent times such as ‘Check My Heart’. We listen to a lot of different stuff and we just wanted to reflect some of the things that we love while trying to make something coherent that flows from one track to the next. When we were compiling the record I got very influenced by records that I’d loved when I was young like the Faust tapes and ‘A Trip To Marineville’ by Swell Maps and I just wanted to make a record that would surprise people, in a way. I’m really, really proud of ‘Two Sunsets’ but as a record it’s very linear, and with ‘Slow Summits’ we wanted a couple of odd juxtapositions.”

The recording sessions, he explains, in fact proved so productive they’ve ended up with a surplus of material. So much so, in fact, that the editing process proved hugely challenging, and may yet birth a further release. “In the end we had about an hour’s worth of music so we had to make some tough decisions as to what we’d leave out. Some of them were really hard and there were a couple of tracks that I certainly feel were as good as anything that actually made the record and we’ll definitely use them – perhaps do an EP in the Autumn.”

With McRobbie and The Pastels having been an creative force for over twenty five years now, there seems no better person to describe how they’ve seen an evolution in songwriting processes over that same period. Talking of how he’s seen that development first hand, he describes how over time a greater sense of confidence within themselves has allowed the group to develop a less structured – though no less ambitious and considered – approach, something which he feels became evident during the making of ‘Slow Summits’.

“I think as the group’s gone on we’ve tried to have less formal structure, in a way, in the writing – to try and leave things more open-ended so that in a rehearsal space people aren’t always having to bother about changes coming up. I think this way you just get to the point where you just really like something and has a strong image in itself, but also perhaps have an element of repetition so that everyone has space to create something within that space to try and make a group sound.”

Despite the rich and rewarding elegance of ‘Slow Summits’, The Pastels to many will always be the face of 1980s indie (in the classicist sense). With the industry having moved on at such an uninhabited pace, especially in the last ten years or so, one can’t help but wonder how The Pastels would have functioned differently were they starting up now. “We came out of a fanzine and cassette-swapping culture, and it was all about disseminating our music as widely as we could and as quickly as we could when we started. We had a sense of urgency which was really prevalent at that time – in the 1980s people wanted to things really quickly, and we were part of that culture.” 1986 and 2013 aren’t entirely removed from each other, but rather arrive at the same point in different ways.

The Pastels’ ‘Slow Summits’ is out now via Domino.

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