|Blurred vision: Stephen & Katrina of the Pastels|
With five albums over a 31 year career, the Pastels could never be accused of being prolific. But even by their standards, a 16 year gap between LPs seems a little excessive.
“It doesn’t feel that it took so long to us,” says Stephen McRobbie (nee Pastel). “Although in some ways it does, in that the studio we started recording it in isn’t there anymore; it’s flats, and that happened a while ago. We made the record over concentrated bursts, but these bursts took place over several years. But we weren’t working for days aspiring to get a Steely Dan snare sound.”
In truth, the Pastels never really went away. There was a well-received 2009 collaboration with Japanese duo Tenniscoats, and a soundtrack to David Mackenzie’s film The Last Great Wilderness in 2003. Plus, thanks to his involvement in Glasgow’s Monorail Music, McRobbie has helped shape the tastes of Glasgow’s independent record buyers. Before that, as Teenage Fanclub’s Gerard Love attests, McRobbie’s stint in the record department of the West End bookseller’s, John Smith, had a significant influence on the city’s musical education.
“That’s a parallel influence,” says Love. “It influences people who are not maybe influenced in guitar music, there may be people who are into electronic music who are tipping their hat to Stephen because of the way he has stocked his shops over the years. But the Pastels represented different thing to different people. People like Norman (Blake of Teenage Fanclub) or maybe Duglas (Stewart, of BMX Bandits) would see the more melodic side of the Pastels, but also in their early days there was a kind of rock scuzziness. So in Glasgow you’d get a group like Yummy Fur who were more art rock than Teenage Fanclub; they were maybe influenced by the more droning, arty side of the Pastels. Mk 1 Pastels has a rock and roll element, plus they had a more melodic side, and then it became a different band when it became Stephen and Aggi and Katrina – it became more artistic – it wasn’t as robust. They had a real DIY approach, and even their covers started to change.”
When the Pastels formed in 1982, few would have predicted that it was they, and not more hyped, commercially-oriented bands, who would endure. “We started in a void, to an extent,” says McRobbie. “It was a strange time in Glasgow. The Orange Juice moment had passed. There were a lot of people trying to make quite aspirational music. We were aspirational but not in the same way at all. And we were absolutely rudimentary. Very soon after that, we met groups like the Jesus and Marychain and Primal Scream and Shop Assistants that we felt a certain kinship with, but when we started there wasn’t anything like us.
“The group we were closest to in terms of friendship was Strawberry Switchblade. The Orange Juice thing was really brief. Postcard didn’t really root down to any extent. It was a bright spark, and it was much later the city became a place where there was an informal network of musicians, and people started helping each other and there were places to play that weren’t run by gangsters, and good rehearsal rooms. When we started there was Davy Henderson’s [not of the Fire Engines] Hellfire Club, we practiced there, and that was a good place. It was later, probably around 1985-6 that we were meeting Bobby (Gillespie, of Primal Scream) and Norman and Eugene and Frances (Kelly and McKee, of the Vaselines) and we started to think we had more in common.”
The Pastels aesthetic was strong enough to attract the support of several independent labels (including Rough Trade, Creation, and their current home Domino). “We were part of the fanzine network, and we sent a tape to Rough Trade and Geoff Travis asked us if we would make a single for him. It was so exciting. Rough Trade was the label I really loved. I sent a tape to Dan Treacy of the TV Personalities, he really liked it and we did a single on his label, Whaam! We didn’t have a sense of entitlement or anything – we just thought that was perfectly normal. We weren’t arrogant, but we thought it was incredibly easy, and that probably had a negative impact on a lot of the records we made in the 1980s. It took us a long time to realise that you need to put a bit of work in.”
That said, their artfully shambolic approach had an international appeal, not least in Japan, which the group visited three times in the 1990s. McRobbie confesses he still doesn’t understand their appeal to the Japanese. “It was a very intense experience, because people were so excited that we had gone. It was like a micro-moment, a kind of realisation of what one second in the Beatles’ lives would have been in 1963 or 1964.”
The Pastels progress has been slowed by line-up changes, notably the departure of Annabel (Aggi) Wright in 2000 to concentrate on her work as an illustrator. For a time, McRobbie and drummer Katrina Mitchell put their efforts into their label, Geographic, before the offer of soundtrack work redirected their energies. The recruitment of Gerard Love as an occasional Pastel also brought stability to the group. “Gerard’s a very strong person,” says McRobbie, “and he’s good at problem solving with music.”
Even so, the maturity of Slow Summits may surprise those who continue to associate the group with the fey pop of the C86 movement (named after an NME mixtape). “The earlier NME cassette, C81, had the sense of ambition about it,” says McRobbie. “All these different styles of music. But C86 was incredibly narrow. I don’t think I’ve ever played C86 all the way through and I don’t think I ever will!
“I don’t think indie music means anything at all. ‘Independent minded’ is my notion of it. You’re operating in a certain way with smaller budgets but a more adventurous spirit to try to be chance-taking.”
Slow Summits includes a sumptuous string arrangement by composer Craig Armstrong (on “Kicking Leaves”), while the core band is augmented by flautist Tom Crossley (also heard on Love’s fine solo project, Lightships). “Maybe the earlier records had a slight trashiness to them, a popness, and maybe through time that diminished,” says McRobbie. “But with this record we tried to be a bit bolder.”
The album was clearly informed by the group’s soundtrack work, as McRobbie became obsessed with Krzysztof Komeda and Ennio Morricone. “We’ve learned to leave more space and not feel that you have to have action all the time.”
“I think it’s quite a varied record, almost like a mixtape,” says Love. “But the Pastels’ sound has changed over the years. They've become more impressionistic.”
“We made the record in concentrated bursts,” says McRobbie, sounding freshly bewildered at the record’s lengthy gestation. (In truth, he has made an art of sounding bewildered). “We ended up with lots of songs,” he says. “We left off a track that we thought was a masterpiece.”
It would, of course, be a very Pastels thing to record a masterpiece, then fail to release it.
“It would be a very Pastels thing to say you weren’t releasing your masterpiece,” laughs McRobbie. “Then it would turn up and people would say: ‘Was that what you thought was your masterpiece?”