The West End of Glasgow should really have its own time zone. Perhaps it’s the rain, the endless hills or the Victorian architecture but time – genuinely – appears to stand still.
So perhaps Clash can forgive Stephen McRobbie for taking so long to craft a new album with The Pastels. After all, the songwriter also runs the city’s essential Monorail record shop, while his Geographic imprint retains its steady (albeit slim) flow. That said, the 16-year wait for ‘Slow Summits’ (Clash review) still ends with a half-apology from the ever-genial songwriter.
“Probably, at the start of intending to make it, if we’d realised that it was going to take so long, we would have given up!” he chuckles. “I suppose we just became distracted by other things, and there were various problems along the way. After (1997's) ‘Illumination’ and Annabel (Wright) stopped playing with us, we weren’t sure – because she was core to the group – how we would make music. Then we got the opportunity to make the film soundtrack for (2003's) ‘The Last Great Wilderness’. Then after that we started doing some theatre stuff, but even by then we were all talking about making a new record. We worked for a while and thought we were up and running, but we just got bogged down.”
The lengthy working process behind ‘Slow Summits’ doesn’t equate to some tortured, Fleetwood Mac-style recording sessions, though. As ever, The Pastels were on relaxed, sedate form – experimenting, for sure, but strictly at their own pace.
“Actually the recordings were quite speedy, it wasn’t some '70s prog record where we were spending days on a drum sound. When we were in the studio we were working really hard, it was quite fast and intense. I suppose about 18 months to two years ago we’d realised that we had a lot of recordings, and that we just needed to finish them. We booked some studio time and I started doing vocals. I went to Chicago last year with Katrina (Mitchell) and we mixed it, then we realised that we’d finished and it felt good!”
The relief must have been overwhelming. An indie-pop institution since that glorious, shambling first-wave burst of the post-punk bubble, The Pastels have become revered by a new generation. As a record shop and label owner, McRobbie is keenly aware of this – but tries to put their reputation out of his mind.
“It’s kind of flattering and I like some of those groups, but in terms of doing music now I think you can get weighed down by self-importance, if you look at heritage,” he muses. “You just try not to think about it. Occasionally you’ll think: oh it’s pretty good; things are in a good way. Sometimes you can think: oh we’ve existed for a long time, but we haven’t really had all that much success. I suppose success is maybe influencing other artists, or something.”
With time stretching on, The Pastels were perhaps afforded an unusual luxury. Not working to a deadline, the band could well have fallen into the trap of over-thinking, of polishing their wares to an un-natural sheen. However, McRobbie believes, to a certain extent, in letting a song find its own path.
“You’re trying to find a unique identity for every song, so sometimes that unique identity might just be us. With a song, you’re looking to achieve for it the best that it can be, and sometimes that’s a very small unit and sometimes it’s a bigger production with more people. It’s led, really, by how the song is. I think – especially now – we really try to put less into songs to begin with, so that there’s more space.
"I kind of like repetition a lot, so I like playing music in a room with a bunch of people, and sometimes if there’s too many changes then there’s not enough scope for people to do their thing. Some of them are quite finished in terms of what the song is, but often there’s a kind of openness so that you can have that sense of discovery when you’re recording. A kind of freshness.
"We go for a group sound. That’s the thing with The Pastels, it’s a group sound; it’s not like individual genius. The collaboration between us is what makes our sound.”
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Recruiting a number of friends, colleagues and even former band members, ‘Slow Summits’ is very much an ensemble piece. Gerard Love from Teenage Fanclub assists throughout, while Japanese group Tenniscoats make a star turn. Most intriguing though, is the appearance of erstwhile Pastels member Aggi, aka Annabel Wright.
“It’s very much a cameo but yeah, she’ll always be really important to The Pastels,” the singer enthuses. “I think even the sleeve covers and everything, in the '90s when we evolved our style and our music, she was so important to that. It was great having her. The sound of her voice is great, I just like her voice so much. But also to have her doing the art felt really good. In a way, it was almost the most pleasing collaboration of all.”
With The Pastels, the past is always there. Sure, McRobbie might be able to see past it, to carve out an identity for the group in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean he wants to avoid it. Perhaps lacking the lavish retrospective treatment that some of their contemporaries have been afforded, the singer admits that he is open to the possibility of a full-scale reissue project.
“I think I feel rather more relaxed about that now and I would very much like all our music to be in print,” the singer states. “So I think we’ll do it in stages. I’m still very much in touch with everyone who played in the group in the '80s, so the plan is to do it in different stages. I’d just like all our music to be available – I don’t think it’s all brilliant, but I’d like it to be out there.”
For now, though, The Pastels are focusing on 2013 and on ‘Slow Summits’. Their longest spell on the road in over a decade has already been announced, while McRobbie hints that a quick return to the studio could be in the offing.
“Y’know, when you finish a record I suppose you wonder if you’ll ever make another one – especially one that takes as long as that,” he explains. “We’ve got one or two ideas left over, and I like to think we could make one a lot quicker. But I think we just need to see, really.”
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'Slow Summits' is out now. Read the Clash review here.
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