David Roback: elusive and enigmatic high priest of the Paisley Underground

David Roback had a huge an impact on my musical taste over the years, but such was his low-key presence that it took his death last week from cancer at the age of just 61 for me to realise quite how much.

I worked my way backwards through his career, ever since I first heard Mazzy Star in 1994. At the time I was fresh out of university and doing what you would now call interning at Rough Trade (the label, not the shop). While I was there, I acquired a copy of their debut album She Hangs Brightly and a 10” of ‘Fade Into You’, and was smitten. During that long, hot Britpop summer I was much more likely to go hand in hand with ‘Halah’ than ‘Parklife’.

Rough Trade was still looking after the band, even though they had signed to Capitol, and they were set to play an intimate show Upstairs at The Garage in London. Famously shy of any stage lighting, I was asked to source some Christmas lights instead. The only problem was it was July 28, and in those pre-Google days, for someone who had lived in London for just three weeks, this was quite a daunting task. After thumbing through the Yellow Pages and making a few calls, I found an all-year Christmas shop somewhere near the Docklands, but they only had strings of lights with white bulbs, not the coloured ones. Undeterred, I bought them, only for there to be no space for me on the guestlist of the sold-out show. (I never would see Mazzy Star play live, managing to miss their subsequent shows in London in 1996, 2000 and 2012 for equally random reasons.) The next day, I asked how the lights had gone down – apparently, because they were white, the band decided they were too much and put them up in the dressing room instead. She Hangs Too Brightly, I guess.

If Mazzy Star were always in the shadows, then David was even more hidden away, usually somewhere slightly out of focus behind Hope Sandoval. A notoriously taciturn interviewee, he really was one of the last relics of that long-lost pre-internet age when, instead of knowing every last detail of your favourite bands’ lives, they remained distant, mysterious, unreachable. David simply let his guitar playing and songwriting do the talking.

“I didn’t feel the acceptance or attention was important to me,” he told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times in 1990 about his reason to quit his original band The Rain Parade after just one album and move to Berkeley. “I wanted to make music that I felt and if people liked it, fine, otherwise the music would be enough reward. I was very idealistic. I thought I would retire and make music on my own, not be part of any scene. It didn’t seem all that radical because my heroes had done it – people like John Lennon and Syd Barrett – at certain points in their lives.”

It was at this point he formed Opal (whose Early Recordings I also acquired during my time at Rough Trade) who morphed into Mazzy Star when singer Kendra Smith quit in the middle of a US tour with The Jesus And Mary Chain. The 1990 interview is particularly fascinating as it gives a real insight into his earlier life, before Opal and Mazzy Star, Rainy Day and The Rain Parade and even The Unconscious, his band with old school friend Susanna Hoffs. He had moved from his native LA to New York to be an artist, but found himself more inspired by Patti Smith and Television and the music scene he found there, so he returned home and started to play. “I felt like a punk,” he recalled. “That’s the attitude I identified with. But when I picked up the guitar and started playing it, the music didn’t come out sounding punk. It was something else…”

It was indeed. It was psychedelic and hallucinogenic, but also rootsy. Basically, anyone since who has had a twang and a twist to their music, and thinks that The Byrds are inherently cooler than Black Flag, probably wouldn’t exist without Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, the fantastic first album by The Rain Parade. I’m thinking of personal favourites such as Mojave 3 and Beachwood Sparks, for starters, but legend has it that The Stone Roses’ former manager Gareth Evans bought them numerous copies of the album for inspiration and This Mortal Coil did a lovely version of ‘Carolyn’s Song’ on their 1991 album, Blood.

Opal’s songs, too, were reinterpreted by The Pale Saints (‘Fell From The Sun’) and Dean & Britta (‘Hear The Wind Blow’). Meanwhile, Kurt Cobain listed Mazzy Star’s debut in his top 50 albums of all time and Dinosaur Jr covered ‘Fade Into You’ a couple years ago.

As we are talking about cover versions, I have to mention the incredible Rainy Day album that David put together with the leading lights of the perfectly named Paisley Underground scene in 1984. David himself sang and played the incredible acid-rock solo on this cover of The Who’s ‘Soon Be Home’ on the album, which has been criminally out of print for many years now. (Hopefully a reissue will follow that of the Opal records, which are reportedly due to reappear at the end of this month.)

I had fun a few years ago throwing a Paisley Underground party at The Social, which may as well have been a tribute to David (weirdly, Jack White turned up and played, but that’s a story for another day). He would have probably hated it, and all the other praise that has been heaped on him since his death, because, for someone so influential, he seemed happy away from the limelight. David Roback remained an elusive enigma to the end.