This week’s issue of NME features 100 great lost albums. I contributed a piece about Slowdive’s ‘Pygmalion’ which was cut down to 100 words, leaving no room for the story or my interviews with Neil Halstead and Ian McCutcheon.
Here is the original piece I wrote, and below are the full interviews with Neil and Ian. There are some really interesting revelations in there…
SLOWDIVE ‘PYGMALION’ (CREATION, 1995)
Talk about wrong place, wrong time. When Slowdive’s third and final album snuck out on February 6, 1995, it was in the midst of Britpop – their Creation Records labelmates Oasis were working on ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’, and Pulp and Blur were in the ascendancy. Hardly the perfect time for an oblique (and often bleak) album of ambient experimentation; Slowdive were quietly dropped a few weeks later.
But Slowdive had always been swimming against the tide. After the euphoria that greeted their first three EPs, their debut album, 1991’s ‘Just For A Day’, came just as the backlash against the shoegaze scene had begun and the focus had shifted from the Thames Valley to the Pacific Northwest. By 1993’s ‘Souvlaki’, despite sharing a producer/mixer with Suede, they were already a band out of time.
‘Pygmalion’ was mainly conceived by guitarist and songwriter Neil Halstead in his west London flat. He had become obsessed with electronic and ambient music and had started experimenting with sequencers and samplers on 1993’s ‘5 EP’. By the time of ‘Pygmalion’, this process had been refined. Instruments are looped into infinity, while Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s vocals float in and out of the ether. Had it been released on Warp rather than the label that had just served up ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ it would have been hailed as a classic, but it was savaged in the press; “‘Trellisaze’, ‘Rutti’ – what do these titles say to you, other than ‘Slap me’,” sneered Melody Maker.
But hindsight is a wonderful thing. The fact that you can hear so much of the best music of the last 20 years in this album – from Sigur Rós to Radiohead and any number of electronica artists – is proof that the critics were wrong.
NEIL HALSTEAD ON ‘PYGMALION’
“I moved into a house in New Cross with an old friend from Reading, Darren Seymour, in late ’92. I was 21. At the time he was playing bass for Seefeel.
“Slowdive were just finishing ‘Souvlaki’ and I was starting to become more interested in electronic and ambient music. The song ‘Souvlaki Space Station’ was the first Slowdive track that we mixed in a dub style, ie we ‘played’ the faders as the track was running, adding delays and effects in real time to the mix and recording it all. This was something we’d not done before and a direct influence from the way Seefeel were working.
“Darren introduced me to his friend, Mark van Hoen. Mark was producing Seefeel and he was also making music under the monikers Locust and Autocreation. It was a big revelation for me to see Mark play a show where he was using a bank of analogue modular systems. It sort of reminded me of an early Loop show: very loud and dronetastic, electronic and primitive, Can meets the theme tune from ‘Doctor Who’. Mark had a fantastic knowledge of early electronic and ambient music and had a big influence on a lot of what I listened to in that period. Being a huge Eno fan, I think his interest in me was initially that I’d worked with him…
“Darren, myself and Mark ended up living in a house in Acton together, although I think ‘Pygmalion’ was conceived and mostly recorded at our flat above a carpet shop on the corner of Lancaster Road and Ladbroke Grove. Darren and I lived in the flat above Mark. During that whole period we had little studios in our bedrooms and there was a lot of ‘bleed’. I would be working on ‘Pygmalion’ ideas or stuff from the ‘5EP’ and hearing Mark’s music drifting through the wall or ceiling and Darren would be playing Steve Reich or David Sylvian (who I never got) in the kitchen.
“We were all going to a dark and dingy club in Brixton called Quirky. It was a ‘post-ambient’ club/live night that ran between ’93 and ’95 at the now defunct Vox club. It was promoted initially by the photographer James Bignell, but then I think Mark also helped book the bands and our friend Tony Wilson (another one) was also very much involved.
“There were some great nights there. It was like a who’s who of the whole ambient electronic scene of the early ’90s: Autechre, Aphex Twin, Seefeel and The Orb all played or DJed, along with Reflex, Reload, Biosphere, Fluke, LFO, Drum Club, Robert Rimbaud, Scanner, Robert Hampson… Those nights, some of which could be very dark, and the liberal use of psychedelics and occasional doses of special K influenced the sound of ‘Pygmalion’.
“Also, by using computers, sequencers and samplers for the first time, we were learning how to make music in a different way. Manipulating loops and sounds ‘live’ and then rerecording the results and doing it again and again…
“Appropriately, the ‘Pygmalion’ artwork is a recreation of part a Stockhausen score. I liked that he created his own notation and musical language.
“On a side note, sometime before ‘Pygmalion’ was finished I was talking to Alan McGee about Slowdive playing some live shows. He still hadn’t really got wind of the ‘new direction’ and mentioned that he was trying to sign a band called Oasis, could they maybe support us? He gave me a demo, four songs I think, I have to say I thought it was a bit shit and told him so… I like to think that if ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’, a song I love, was on there I might have spotted the genius. However, my track record as an A&R man is very poor. I remember going to see a band called On A Friday play at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford. My friend and longtime Slowdive engineer and producer Chris Hufford was thinking of getting out of the studio business and becoming a band manager. I think my advice was not to bother with On A Friday since they sounded like ‘a very dodgy version of U2’. Thankfully he ignored me. He still manages Radiohead and has a laugh about it every time I see him.
“Creation’s reaction to ‘Pygmalion’ was fairly muted; confused would probably be closer to the truth. Alan had asked for a pop record and I think he, and the rest of the label, thought we were taking the piss. They did at least put it out, although it never got a Stateside release. I know Rachel has said in the past that we made a willfully obscure record because we didn’t want to make a pop record. This is not true, certainly not for myself. I just wanted to make something different to the last record, and I was super-inspired by a lot of great music that was happening around and about.
“Perhaps if a label like Warp would have put it out we might have had more success, certainly context is important and it might have helped with the press. I felt like the traditional music press at the time didn’t ‘get’ the record and consequently sort of buried the band. I don’t think they understood where it was coming from or indeed where music in general was headed; there was a strong ‘post-rock’ scene before they thought to call it that and I still feel that if we had put the record out a few years later they might have been able to place it a little easier.”
IAN MCCUTCHEON ON ‘PYGMALION’
“I remember the ‘Pygmalion’ sessions being really hazy, there was a lot of smoking going on! That’s probably why it’s such a mellow trip, we were in slow motion!
“We recorded in Courtyard Studios with Chris Hufford at the helm. Chris was great, he was most definitely on the same page as us, in the same state! He was managing Radiohead and I remember him playing us their new record, ‘The Bends’, and asking us what we thought. Ha!
“With ‘Pygmalion’ It felt like we were working on something unparalleled. It was 1994 and there was this explosion of Britpop and we were signed to Creation Records. We could have delivered a record of neatly produced indie-pop songs and ridden the wave with our labelmates, but instead we gave Alan McGee ‘Pygmalion’ which was met with bewilderment! Our Creation days were very short-lived…”