Talk about wrong place, wrong time. When Slowdive’s third album Pygmalion snuck out 25 years ago – 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, then, for a bleak and oblique album of ambient experimentation; Slowdive were quietly dropped a few weeks later.
They 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 was shifting from the Thames Valley to the Pacific Northwest. By 1993’s Souvlaki, despite sharing a producer/mixer/flanger with Suede, they were a band out of time.
Pygmalion was essentially the singular vision of Slowdive guitarist, singer and songwriter Neil Halstead, who had become obsessed with electronic and ambient music and had already started experimenting with sequencers and samplers on 1993’s 5EP. 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’ve been hailed as a classic, but it was savaged in the press; “‘Trellisaze’, ‘Rutti’ – what do those 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 two decades in this album – from Sigur Rós and Mogwai to Radiohead and any number of electronica artists – is proof that the critics were wrong. As it turns 25, Pygmalion is now rightly considered a classic, with Pitchfork and Vinyl Me Please teaming up in 2018 for a beautifully shiny new reissue and ‘Crazy For You’ and ‘Blue Skied An’ Clear’ both high points of the reformed band’s live shows.
Here, the five members of Slowdive that worked on Pygmalion recall the difficult making of the album and the fallout and eventual vindication that followed:
Neil Halstead: “In late 1992 I moved into a house in New Cross with an old friend from Reading called Darren Seymour. 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 with ‘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 drone-tastic, 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 during that period. Being a huge Eno fan, I think his interest in me was initially that I had worked with him.
“Darren, myself and Mark ended up living in a house in Acton together, although Pygmalion was conceived 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, while Darren would be playing Steve Reich or David Sylvian (who I never got) in the kitchen.”
Christian Savill: “The band were at a bit of a low point as Pygmalion started. The 5EP had come out and showed Neil’s growing interest in more electronic influenced music, but Simon [Scott, drummer] had left the band following that release and it felt very much like our days were numbered. In a strange way, I think that freed up Neil to just experiment and not worry about commercial expectations or being dropped. I remember going to Ladbroke Grove where he lived and he had a studio set up in his bedroom. He played some songs and me and Nick did our best to understand his vision. At that point I was disenchanted with everything to do with being in a band and wasn’t living in London, so wasn’t as exposed to the new influences Neil was absorbing.”
Neil Halstead: “I was going to a dark and dingy club in Brixton called Quirky. It was a ‘post-ambient’ club/live night that ran between 1993 and 1995 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 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, Robin 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.”
Nick Chaplin: “Making Pygmalion was a different experience compared to the previous records. This one came from a very clear vision from Neil, which meant that the rest of us were there, but not there at the same time. I don’t think anybody had a problem with that. Simon had recently left the band, so we had Ian [McCutcheon] in the studio with us for the first time. That was a lot of fun as he fitted into the group dynamic immediately.”
Ian McCutcheon: “We recorded the album at Courtyard Studios in Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon, with Chris Hufford at the helm. I remember the sessions being really hazy – there was a lot of smoking going on. That’s probably why Pygmalion is such a mellow trip, we were in slow motion!”
Christian Savill: “To be honest, at that time I respected Neil’s direction, but I didn’t fully get it.”
Nick Chaplin: “I was there, but probably spent more time upstairs on the Sega and eating Chinese takeouts than recording anything.”
Rachel Goswell: “Nick and Christian found the recording of this record very difficult and relationships between us all were quite fractured. I spent a lot of time in the control room just being present. It was a pretty dark time all round, really. I remember Chris Hufford at one point finding the process of recording quite difficult as it was hard to understand what Neil was trying to achieve. It was so far removed from anything we had ever done.”
Nick Chaplin: “I read somewhere about Robert Smith recording The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds and how he was very single-minded in terms of the minimal sound he wanted for that record. That is one of my favourite records of all time and I think, with Pygmalion, Neil had a similar approach. So, from my perspective, I was happy to let him go with it and contribute where required.
Rachel Goswell: “I remember listening to a lot of Galaxie 500 on my headphones when I was trying to get off to sleep at the end of the days there. We had run out of money. The press hated us. But it kind of felt like a big fuck you to all the haters.”
Ian McCutcheon: “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. 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.”
Neil Halstead: “Creation’s reaction 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. It wasn’t us being willfully obscure, 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.”
Ian McCutcheon: “Our Creation days were very short-lived.”
Neil Halstead: “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.”
Rachel Goswell: “We did rehearse the songs to tour for a while. Those rehearsals were pretty miserable. We had run out of money and paying the rent was hard and it felt like no one cared. Then Creation dropped us, as we were expecting, and that was pretty much it.”
Christian Savill: “A couple years after Slowdive dissolved I found a tape of Neil’s Pygmalion demos and listened to it. I was actually pretty staggered by it and some of those became my favourite Slowdive songs. (‘Yesterday’ and ‘Red 5’ spring to mind). After that I listened to Pygmalion again in full on headphones and finally got it. I was always a bit slow on the uptake.”
Nick Chaplin: “When we brought the band back in 2014, one of our priorities was to finally play some Pygmalion tracks live.”
Christian Savill: “It was one of the things that was most exciting and daunting about it. I was nervous because I didn’t want to ruin them.”
Nick Chaplin: “We selected ‘Rutti’, ‘Crazy For You’ and ‘Blue Skied An’ Clear’. Really, they were the obvious ones. Most of the record would have taken a lot of preparation to play live, and we didn’t have the time to get it done and do it justice. But those three, we felt they were achievable as they were probably the most straightforward and accessible tracks on the record.”
Neil Halstead: “Playing ‘Crazy For You’ in particular has been fantastic. It’s a real centre to the set. We do it differently to the record, it’s far less dreamy. ‘Blue Skied An’ Clear’ we play much closer to how it is recorded and, when we do, it really ties the room together, as The Dude might say.”
Rachel Goswell: “I love doing those songs. The few times we’ve played ‘Rutti’ I’ve also loved – it’s one of my favourite songs to play, actually.”
Nick Chaplin: “We didn’t play it much as it tended to feel like Derek Smalls’ ‘Jazz Odyssey’ crossed with Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’, and I think we were a bit embarrassed coming on stage and noodling like that. There’s still too much obsession with noise and a bit of a punk ethic to want to stand there for ten minutes looking to the heavens.”
Christian Savill: “I think my favourite Slowdive song is off Pygmalion, but we’ve never played it. It’s ‘Cello’ and maybe one day we’ll find a way to do that live.”
Nick Chaplin: “Personally, I would really like to play the album properly live one day, but it might have to wait a bit.”
Neil Halstead: “We just have to find the time to figure out how to do it.”
Rachel Goswell: “I would love us to get to that point…”