Slowly But Surely: An Interview With The Pastels

In a rare interview, Stephen Pastel talks to John Freeman about why the seminal Glasgow band’s forthcoming album, Slow Summits, was a “struggle” and made with “love”

Photograph courtesy of Blair Young

Glasgow’s Central Station is a handsome entry-point to Scotland’s biggest city. From the imposingly impressive Central Hotel frontage to the glitzy glass-walled bridge (Hielanman’s Umbrella) over Argyle Street, the timid visitor is almost overcome by Victorian grandeur. Thankfully, when I arrive on the station concourse on a crisp winter’s morning, I’m met by a friendly face. Stephen McRobbie – better known as Stephen Pastel – is waiting for me. We have much to discuss; his band The Pastels are due to release their first ‘full-blown’ studio album, Slow Summits, in 16 years and Stephen has invited me to Scotland for a sneak preview.

In the 1980s, The Pastels were an integral part of a fertile Glasgow scene that birthed bands such as Orange Juice, Primal Scream, Josef K and The Vaselines – as well as being a direct influence on East Kilbride’s The Jesus And Mary Chain. After releasing four albums (from Up For A Bit With The Pastels in 1987 to Illumination ten years later) The Pastels line-up fragmented and core members Stephen and Katrina Mitchell embarked on additional projects, which included running the ever-excellent record label, Geographic. The Pastels’ musical output, which was never prodigious, slowed further with only a soundtrack to the film The Last Great Wilderness and a split album with Japanese band Tenniscoats being released during the last decade.

Several weeks before my trip to Glasgow, I’d seen The Pastels play a show at Salford’s Islington Mill. The gig was thrilling with the tight-knit sextet of expert musicians quickly finding their groove. But what was most exciting was hearing live versions of several new tracks, which painted panoramic soundscapes in the tiny venue. Those new songs are the reason for my subsequent trip to Glasgow.

And I have struck lucky. While this may be his first face-to-face interview with a journalist for “several years”, Stephen is a fantastic host. He’s immensely likeable, and both warm and open. We chat over lunch about Glasgow’s architecture, his love of the visual arts as well as discussing – at length – the recent successes of his beloved Celtic football club. But the main topic of interest is the John McEntire-produced Slow Summits. It’s an album crafted over a period of years and includes guest appearances from original member Annabel (Aggi) Wright, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Stefan Schneider and Ronald Lippok from To Rococo Rot and Tenniscoats. Stephen tells me that it takes The Pastels a long time to make something “properly” and “with love” and that Slow Summits is the result of a “constant struggle” to push the limits of The Pastels’ capabilities.

After our food, we take advantage of the Glasgow sunshine. A leisurely walk down Sauchiehall Street takes us west and to the apartment Stephen shares with Katrina. I’m ushered to a lovely reception room which houses a sofa, a wall-to-ceiling collection of vinyl and two vintage speakers that stand in front of a huge bay window, which frames views of the University’s impressive clock tower.

It’s a room designed for music-listening and I’ve been brought here to listen to several tracks from Slow Summits. I get a sudden flush of fear. Aside from a very select number of close associates of the band, I’m the first person to hear the recorded versions of the new Pastel songs – whose creator will be sat a few feet away from me as I listen. My acting skills are non-existent and I inwardly panic about the potential for leaking negative body language if I shouldn’t like what I’m about to experience.

Thankfully, within the first few bars of a track called ‘Secret Music’, my anxiety dissolves and I’m in the moment; wintry sun streams through the bay window as The Pastels’ gorgeous and articulate music fills the room. ‘Secret Music’, with Katrina taking the vocal lead, is warm and joyous – it gently twists and bends before ending with a lonely trumpet refrain. Another track, ‘Wrong Light’, which I recognise from the Manchester show, contains a dexterous hook that swirls around Stephen’s familiar croon. Even better is a song called ‘Kicking Leaves’, with its glorious violin melody fronting Scottish composer Craig Armstrong’s gorgeous arrangement. It’s a truly beautiful song and as good as anything The Pastels have recorded in their three-decade long history. It would seem that some things in life are worth the wait.

It’s been 16 years since your last ‘proper’ studio album, Illumination. What has been The Pastels’ story since then?

Stephen Pastel: For a long time the core of the group was me, Katrina and Annabel. After we did Illumination Annabel decided she didn’t want to tour anymore. She is an artist and wanted to concentrate on that as opposed to music. So, we had a period in which we didn’t know what type of music we wanted to do. Then we were really lucky as an opportunity arose – about ten years ago we got a commission to soundtrack a David McKenzie movie, The Last Great Wilderness. We had a really good experience doing that and it progressed ideas that we had about the kind of music that we could make and the core elements of what The Pastels were about. That was the also first time we worked with John McEntire from Tortoise. He engineered that record and has engineered and produced the new one.

What happened next?

SP: Soon after doing The Last Great Wilderness, friends of ours from a theatre company commissioned us to do some music for a show they had called Do I Mean Anything To You Or Am I Just Passing By? and I suppose that confirmed certain things that we had felt while doing the film score, such as leaving more space in the music and certain combinations of instruments we could use, like trumpet and particular electronic elements.

Then, in 2009, you released a split album, Two Sunsets, with a Japanese group, Tenniscoats. How did that come about?

SP: Actually, around that time we had begun making a Pastels record. We booked a session and recorded six or seven tracks in Glasgow in a fantastic old studio that has closed down now. It was a big open space and the music reflected that. So, we had actually started but then Tenniscoats suggested making a record with us. They would come through Glasgow two or three times a year as they were always playing in Europe. So, that record became very fixed as it was based around their visits to Scotland and we tried to make it like a documentary of what was going on in the studio at the time. There wasn’t too much production so it was a simpler record to make than the new Pastels record, which has taken place over several years. The songs we brought to Two Sunsets suggested themselves for that record but we knew that other songs like ‘Secret Music’ were for a Pastels record – we had a really clear idea of what we wanted for this album.

What was that clear idea?

SP: Well, the core of The Pastels sound is really the ideas that Katrina and myself have about music and also those of the participants on the record – Tom [Crossley] on flute, who is a really creative musician, Gerard [Love], who also plays in Teenage Fanclub, Alison [Mitchell], Katrina’s sister, on trumpet and John [Hogarty] who is a guitar player. Within our music we tried to reflect a community spirit of musicians playing together in a room and the negotiated sound and mistakes of people playing together with different levels of ability. We go for quite a warm and imperfect sound. We try not to be too dogmatic and are open to things happening that can change a song. We don’t have a fixed idea of what will and what won’t work but we have a shared taste so that we do something that is recognisable. When most people hear The Pastels they know it is us from certain sounds, but it is not something that is absolutely set in stone.

Has this idea of communal music-making always been central to The Pastels?

SP: I think with The Pastels it will always be more about a group sound rather than individual genius. In the 1980s it was all very accidental. In the first line-up, I was one of the least skilled musicians and it was a mixture of all our tastes. Brian [Taylor], the guitar player, was very influenced by more rock & roll music like Johnny Thunders so The Pastels had that element. Towards the end of that first line-up we managed to make some things we were all quite proud of but it took us a long time because we were so rudimentary. We probably didn’t practice enough and that’s why it would sound brilliant sometimes and other times not so. When Katrina joined the group and the core became myself, Katrina and Annabel, we thought a lot more about things and were probably more like-minded as a group of people. We were all learning our instruments more or less from scratch but we seemed to be able to create a sound that we could bring other people into. We rehearsed a lot and gradually gained that technical expertise and understood the recording process and our instruments. Some of the music we make now would have been unimaginable for me 14 or 15 years ago – we didn’t have the know-how.

What was the song-writing process for the new material?

SP: Most of the songs evolve from chord sequences and we’re looking for a certain openness where we can start to imagine what the others musicians might bring to it. I probably instigated most of the songs on this record. Katrina will not pick up a guitar or keyboard for huge periods of time – she works very specifically when something is needed and the things she put up were really incredible. She did ‘Kicking Leaves’ and as soon as I heard it I knew it was really fantastic. She has a real clarity of vision about music.

‘Kicking Leaves’ is a wonderful song and Craig Armstrong’s arrangement is gorgeous. How much did Craig influence the final version?

SP: Actually, we didn’t spend long on that song. We did a nice take but hadn’t rehearsed it very much. Katrina had most of the vocal and we did a little bit of production before we gave it to Craig Armstrong, just to guide him in terms of possibilities, but then his arrangement was so fantastic and perfect. There is a simple cello line that is the base but Craig has a certain sophistication. We used a top class string section and it was really interesting hearing Craig explain the flow of the music to them. He had scored it out but wanted them to listen to ebb and flow in how we’d played it. When we first heard the song back it was a really beautiful moment and quite emotional.

Is there still a strong sense of kinship between Glasgow musicians?

SP: There is. Craig didn’t charge us for that string arrangement – he did it because he wanted to. There is a uniqueness about being in Glasgow and a certain socialist feeling in the city and a willingness between the groups and musicians to help each other. There is a generosity – and to have that relationship with other musicians is important to us.

You are obviously not the most prodigious band in terms of output. Why do you think this is?

SP: In the first instance you just want to get music out there to prove you exist and then after a while you feel that you have a lot of quantity out there and you only want to add good things to it, so for many artists there is a curve and they become slower [with age] but hopefully you become better at what you do. None of us could ever take for granted that we are musicians so we are very respectful of what we can do. It is such a struggle for us and a lot of work goes into it.

Is it a financial struggle? The music industry has changed dramatically since Illumination was released.

SP: No, financially we are in quite a good situation with this record. We are signed to a good label, Domino, who really support us so there is no sense of struggle at that level. But, it is a struggle because we have other lives and are not dedicated musicians. There is a struggle in what we are technically capable of and the type of music we want to make now. The kind of music we play isn’t particularly complicated but it is at the limit of our capabilities.

How do you think about The Pastels these days? Has the band’s importance to you changed over the years?

SP: In terms of things that I do, after family, the group is most important thing to me. It’s the same for Katrina. But there needs to be balance; it wouldn’t make sense to be out on the road all the time – it just doesn’t really work. So, I enjoy being able to go away from it and I never wanted to feel dependent on The Pastels as a career. I’ve always been scared of getting writer’s block or when something becomes absolutely economic you’ve got to make it work on a financial level and I prefer to be able to support myself in other ways so I can feel really clear about The Pastels.

So, could The Pastels ever become financially unviable?

SP: No, we are in a fortunate position with Domino, but since the economics of the music industry have changed since we made the deal, we may have to make a cheaper record next time round. We are fine with that; you just have to apply yourself to whatever the budget is you are working with. If we had no budget we would find a way of making music. Often we try to record in Glasgow because that’s where all of us or based, but it is nice to be able to go to John McEntire’s studio, Soma, in Chicago to mix your record and master it at Abbey Road.

If The Pastels were starting out in 2013, would they flourish in the SoundCloud-Twitter-blogging age?

SP: I think we would – it’s exactly the same and it’s completely different. When we started there was a ‘cassette culture’ and a network of cassette-trading and fanzines and you got your music out like that. Now, it is just different means of dissemination but it is still about networks and trying to reach people. It’s more structured now but there is so much music out there and a much smaller market. People are really, really sophisticated nowadays – they can hear something and check it out immediately. When we were young trying to find a record could take so long. You’d read about it and literally take years to find a copy. Now, there are these kids who have heard everything. New groups will have the most sophisticated influences you can imagine. Sometimes it can be a bit doughnut-like – they know all the interesting peripheral stuff but they’ve never heard The Beatles.

What new music have you enjoyed recently?

SP: Well, about ten years ago there was a real openness and sense of adventure about music and I thought there was lots of great new music being made. Probably the bands I am most impressed with now are quite retro in a way. I like some groups aligned to the kind of music I knew in the 80s, like Veronica Falls and Crystal Stilts and I also think the Raime record is absolutely fantastic – it is so complete and such a total experience. I think Ghost Box is a really interesting label – it is consistent and has a really strong vision. But, in terms of something genuinely new, I see a lot of eclecticism and people taking different elements from different things but I don’t feel a sense of newness.

The Pastels are seen as quite an influential group – I’ve interviewed many bands who have cited you as a major source of inspiration. Are you happy with being thought of as ‘seminal’?

SP: It is nice to have that influence on younger groups and I do like a lot of that music, but we are not there now and I don’t feel that’s what we are now. The problem for a group like us is that people have a certain idea of what we are and it might be based on a song they heard in 1988.

Indeed, your track ‘Breaking Lines’ was featured on NME’s ‘legendary’ C86 tape. Was that a frustration – being pigeon-holed as a C86 band?

SP: In some ways – in terms of nostalgia and the heritage of groups representing their own history after the fact, I couldn’t perform a Pastels concert from 1987. The energy levels are so different and the way we play music as a group of people is different. It would be impossible and really strange to try and recreate. I don’t want to be contrary but I do need to have an honesty as an artist and everyone in the group feels that way. The older songs are good for what they were in that moment. Equally, The Pastels of 1988 wouldn’t have been able to make the record we have now. To have integrity, it has to change. It can be extremely melancholic watching a group trying to recreate what they were. It’s slightly vampire-like for the audience – they are in their early 40s but want to feel like they did in their early 20s.

Similarly, I’ve seen you tagged as an ‘indie band’ – which I always felt was too one-dimensional for The Pastels.

SP: Yes, we never really understood the whole ‘indie’ thing and found it quite limited. It was always something that slightly troubled me that we would be seen as the ultimate underachieving indie group. It was never our thing. I never really understood it as a style of music. We see ourselves very much as an independent group, in the idea of having a degree of self containment and being outward-looking and having the opportunities that being independent allows for risk-taking and following our own path – even if it is a really long path that doesn’t come to an end.

You started up your own label, Geographic, almost 15 years ago. What was your initial vision for that project?

SP: When we started the label our idea was that we would release exactly the sort of music no-one else would release and then we realised that perhaps our tastes wasn’t as outlandish as we’d imagined – records by Maher Shalal Hash Baz did quite well. At the moment, Geographic is very Pastels-related; it’s our close friends and we are not really out looking for new things.

In addition to Slow Summits, what can we expect from both The Pastels and the Geographic label in the future?

SP: Katrina and I have found that it works for us to release one record a year on Geographic and our plan is to also release a Pastels or Pastels-related thing every year, if we can. We released the Lightships’ record last year and are really proud of that album. This year we are hoping to do a reissue of all Strawberry Switchblade’s non-pop stuff, which is the big project we are working on. There was a time when we gave a lot of energy to Geographic when we started the label and were able to release a lot of things. Now, we don’t have the same time as we have spent longer on The Pastels again. It takes a lot of time to do things with love and do them properly.

Slow Summits is released on May 27 via Domino

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