Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Pastels — ‘Slow Summits’ (Part Two)

The Pastels, Fire Engines and Strawberry Switchblade
On Monday, the ever-wondrous Pastels release their first LP since 1997; or since 2009 via 1998 and 2003 depending on what you include. It’s an event, anyhow, and it’s been interesting to watch the build-up of publicity, from the celebratory localism of the ‘Check My Heart’ video, to the radio coverage and interviews in the press and online. The day before their interview, 6 Music repeated The Pastels’ 1997 Peel Session, and that’s been a great discovery for me, having missed it the first time around. Familiar songs made unfamiliar, lit from different angles, including a version of ‘On The Way’ which blows the previously muted song — the most curious corner of Illumination — wide open. This and ‘Ship To Shore’ anchor the session to Aggi’s mysterious, haar-like voice, making a fitting send-off for the soon-to-depart bassist and founder member. Listening to the 2013 Pastels against the 1997 model is to hear a band who have left behind the great fog of sound they surrounded themselves in then; they’ve come inland, on a road trip perhaps, from the coast to a mountain top. There’s been a shift towards melody and pop, but it’s a shift that can still take in swirling instrumental passages, and the record is full of joy, light, wistfulness, tenderness. All the good stuff. What follows is an interview I did with Stephen by email in January, as a way of providing some background to my press release, which he and Katrina gently nudged in the right direction through several drafts without hijacking it in the least.

First, the questions, which I apologised for at the time, and which still don’t seem very good. Their elbows stick out all over the place:
  1. What made 2012 the right year to finally get this record made?
  2. Your previous few records have been very calm and beautiful; Slow Summits seems to shake things up a bit, where did that come from?
  3. ‘Check My Heart’ is going to be a single, isn’t it?
  4. How important were the collaborators to the sound of Slow Summits?
  5. I’ve wondered before about the city / countryside tension on your records; here there seems to be a night / day tension as well. Which is best?
Over to Stephen:

I think the questions are extremely helpful, actually. I’ll try to answer them while probably responding to certain parts of the press release too.

1, 2, (5).

It’s not really the case that Slow Summits could have happened at any time since 1998, in fact if the record had been recorded in any one of those years it would have sounded completely different, and been much shorter too! Songs arrived at different times, only ‘Secret Music’ and ‘Slow Summits’ (which was ‘Slowly Taking Place’) go back to that period after Illumination which I think is documented on a John Peel session [from 1999, not the one referred to above]. Being able to work in different situations with The Last Great Wilderness, Do I Mean Anything To You... and Two Sunsets was really useful for us in terms of artistic momentum and the type of music we felt was needed for the film and theatre productions (calm and to an extent, beautiful) was the kind of music we wanted to make anyway. Really that was the common ground we found with Tenniscoats too.

From the start, in the sessions for this record, we had a sense of wanting to do something else too. To maybe make music that could move quickly from one feeling to another. So, we set out to make a record with a bit more production and not to always just let things take place. We didn't try to go against that but we tried to be exciting and unexpected too, to mix up our styles. We asked John McEntire to ‘produce’ if he felt it was ever needed, and Bal Cooke (our Glasgow sound engineer) too. Most of the sessions were quite concentrated and took place over a few days but the overall timescale was probably unusually long and the sessions were all a bit different from each other (places, personnel, other factors). In the end, in compiling it we emphasised some of these changes so that the record has clear contrasts (day and night, city and countryside, calmness, the wild moment) and maybe a bit of the oddness of records we love like The Faust Tapes, Swell Maps In Jane From Occupied Europe and Brian Eno’s Another Green World.


‘Check My Heart’ is going to be a single.


Collaborators were extremely important to the record but it starts from us. We’ve got an extremely good group at the moment and I hope that comes through. I think The Pastels is always a group sound. We wanted the record to have a real sense of propulsion and in the beginning we were able to invite Stefan Schneider and Ronald Lippok from To Rococo Rot to play on the first session. In a way this established a style of having Katrina and one other drummer, which in later sessions was usually John McEntire. Gerard [Love] and Tom [Crossley] probably contributed most in terms of ideas and time spent with us working on the record; both are so inventive and unique. And John [Hogarty] joining the group was great, he’s just a really exciting guitar player. Alison [Mitchell]’s got a very particular soulful trumpet sound. And Norman [Blake] was there some of the time too, he's contributed so much to our music over the years, and helped a lot on ‘Summer Rain’. It was important for us to have Annabel [Wright, previously Aggi] singing on the record and as soon as she was on ‘Secret Music’, with the sound of her voice, it brought a sense of completeness to the record. That was one of the most emotional moments.

Craig Armstrong’s arrangement for ‘Kicking Leaves’ was a massive anticipation. We left the song quite empty but with little bits of production here and there, so it was so thrilling when he ran it with his gorgeous parts. Also, so great to be there for the recording with the string section.

Finally, it has to be said, John McEntire is an incredible engineer and musician. He was an extremely important collaborator, and Bal Cooke too. Both stepped in to play things when needed, unegotistical, great team members.

[That’s the end of the interview bit, and he went on to make a few specific suggestions about the press release. I wanted to include the following, even though it refers to possibly the most misguided thing anyone has ever attempted to say about The Pastels, because it takes in, too, the love that they are all about: the plain, ordinary kind, extrapolated to take on the whole dizzying world.]

And I have to say, I am a bit stumped by the blaxploitation reference in ‘Night Time Made Us’ [I was trying to compare it to Curtis Mayfield, and missed]. I think you really had the essence of the song with what you said about your grandmother [she died not long before I first heard the song; hearing it again, it made me think of her, her old house, her paintings]. For me, it’s about growing up and being protected by the love of my parents and the influence they had on me. But it's about also knowing I had to move out from that to find other things. The excitement of warm summer nights and the chilling anticipation. It’s my main memory of being a teenager.


Domino’s Slow Summits page.
The Pastels’ website.
The What Presence! exhibition, now at Dundee’s McManus Galleries, where you can see the triptych above.

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