Published May 31, 2013Chances are you you're not overly familiar with the Pastels. That's fair ― they haven't been very public in the last 16 years. However, chances are you've likely heard of the countless bands that are heavily indebted to the Pastels: Belle & Sebastian, the Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Veronica Falls, Camera Obscura, and Teenage Fanclub, to name just a few. The Pastels are often regarded as Scottish indie heroes, and if you trace their rich lineage, you'd see their involvement in what became the indie pop movement of the 1980s, the infamous C86 tape that followed and the shaping of an industrious music scene in Glasgow that is still strong three decades later.
With their new album, Slow Summits, chances are you will become familiar with the Pastels. After losing Annabel Wright, the now duo of Stephen McRobbie and Katrina Mitchell took their sweet time to record a new full-length, but not for a lack of trying. A soundtrack for The Last Great Wilderness and a split album with Japan's Tenniscoats, Two Sunsets, slowed down production, as well as their family life. But thanks to help from part-time members like Tom Crossley and Gerard Love of Teenage Fanclub, they were able to complete Slow Summits, their first new LP since 1997's Illuminations.
Exclaim! caught up with Stephen from his home in Glasgow to discuss the last 16 years, his band's legacy and what their plans are for the future.
Did you do anything to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the band last year?
Stephen McRobbie: Not really. To be honest we were never really that aware of the anniversary of the group. There wasn't an official start date, but I was thinking about it at school and I don't know when it started. Our first record came out in 1982, so it would've been a thirtieth, but we didn't commemorate.
It's been 16 years since you released Illumination. What took so long to make another full-length?
I don't really know. Annabel leaving the group was a definite factor. In the '90s the core of the group was me, Annabel and Katrina, we had a good energy between us. Then when [Annabel] wanted to concentrate on her art, I think we probably weren't sure how to make our music at that point without her. It was quite good when we got invited to do the music for The Last Great Wilderness because it got us working together. And other people came to the floor, like Tom and Gerard. I think if we hadn't done the split with the Tenniscoats we would have finished Slow Summits quicker. But that took priority because we had to work on it while they were in Glasgow. Even though we've been writing film and theatre music, we should have made an album quicker, no doubt.
How much crossover was there between Slow Summits and Two Sunsets?
It was hard to know where 30 songs belonged. We did a version of "Boats," which is on Two Sunsets, and was part of the Slow Summits session. We finished it last summer and it was a really good version, I think it will be out eventually. There was a lot of overlap, with the theatre stuff, too. In the end we did a lot of music for Slow Summits, and just tried to edit it down to something good. There is probably a lot of similarity to Two Sunsets, but Slow Summits was made with more of a budget. And I think, maybe in certain places, it sounds more produced.
How much time was spent making music over that period?
When we started the Geographic label through Domino, that took up a lot of our time. And that was just after Annabel leaving the group. Really at that time we weren't doing much Pastels music, and we were really fortunate to get into The Last Great Wilderness. One of our friends, David Mackenzie, asked us to do that. It was really good for us. We played some concerts, but not many. So I think we were making music sporadically and play things for each other. But we weren't rehearsing or in the studio. We had sessions, and got some funding, but it was time sensitive and we had to use it. So we started Slow Summits before we were ready. The music we made was pretty good, we just didn't have enough at that time to finish the record. And then things happened in our lives. Besides family, Katrina and I feel that music is the most important thing that we do. Even then, it's hard to prioritize and have everyone together. We do it when we can.
How often were you asked when new Pastels music would be coming?
People asked us at first, but then it became embarrassing and I think people thought we wouldn't want to talk about it, that it would never be finished. But Domino had faith in us that we could make another record.
What made you go with John McEntire as a producer?
I like how he works. We worked with him on The Last Great Wilderness. He's very fast and responsive, and tuned in to what you're doing at any moment. He's got a very particular drum sound, very sculpted, not arrogant though. It can sound modest. I think I can spot a John McEntire drum sound too. I think we just felt he was the best person that we could work with and afford. Even if we could afford more, I can't think of anyone I'd rather work with.
There is an impressive list of guests. Is that how the Pastels work in 2013, with a revolving cast? Is there a band beyond you and Katrina?
The group's become more solid now. There are six of us who do everything. We were rehearsing today. I think we've got a good group sound and if we were to make a record now we would make it with the six of us. We have a strong, identifiable group sound that sounds like the Pastels. It sounds the best it's sounded for years. We're all friends.
You mentioned rehearsals. Does that mean you'll be touring?
We're starting with a few one-off shows in Glasgow, New York, London and a few festivals. But in the autumn we'll be touring. It's possible we'll come to Toronto. It's a great city. We last played there in 1998, opening up for Yo La Tengo.
Craig Armstrong is a world famous composer, who just did the Great Gatsby soundtrack. How did he end up on a Pastels album?
Craig's a really nice guy, and I've known him for a long time, just to say hello to and smile at. We've got a record shop in Glasgow and Craig buys a lot of music, experimental and electronic. We invited him to make a selection for our film club and it was the first time we ever sat down with him and had a long conversation over a glass of wine. It was really pleasant. And Craig said, "If ever you're looking for an arrangement for anything just ask me. I'd love to do it." We were astonished and thought he was maybe a bit drunk. We took him up on it and he did it. He didn't charge us for it, either.
You have a film club? Like a book club?
Yeah. It kind of is. It's a collaboration with the Glasgow Theatre, which is the main art house cinema in Glasgow. It's through the record shop, the Monorail Film Club. We usually ask a musician, artist or filmmaker to pick something and we try to source the film. Generally speaking, I'll introduce the person and they'll speak about the film. We watch the film and then it's very social after. It's quite pleasant. Stuart Murdoch (Belle & Sebastian), Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), various people have done it over the last five years.
Over the past years there have been a number of bands that have come out sounding a lot like the Pastels and your peers from the 1980s indie pop scene. What is your take on that sound being rehashed?
I like quite a lot of that music. It's got a nice energy and I like the melodies. I like groups like Veronica Falls, Crystal Stilts and the Pains of Being Pure At Heart. I think everyone needs their own starting point and I don't think there's any group that sounds like the Pastels. I think we're maybe one influence of many.
The C86 compilation seems to have found another life. Was being on that album a curse or a blessing?
We came out of a fanzine and cassette swapping culture. And then the NME picked up on it after a while. Their support allowed the group to grow. For me, C86 wasn't the most exotic or interesting collection of music, but it was probably a good thing to an extent for the group. But once people wanted to move on and discover new sounds, C86 was one of the things they wanted to leave behind. So it became unhelpful that we'd become part of it. But in a way we built our audience because of it. I do think it could have been a more eclectic selection of music. Sometimes you feel like you've been defined in a lazy way, and you've made all sorts of changes afterwards, but people still imagine that it's exactly the same. People want to have an image of everyone, but unless you're a fan and keep up, I can understand how people might still think we sound like we did in 1986.
C86 does have an impressive legacy. I found a copy on Discogs a few years back…
It has a legacy and it has some great songs on it. It was a snapshot of that moment in time and that's what's good about it. Groups were friends with each other, even though they were doing things. And some didn't know each other, but there was a connection made by someone. It's fine, I don't hate it or anything.
I noticed the words "cult band" band in the press release for Slow Summits. How do you feel about being a cult band?
I think it has a certain amount of truth in that we're not a massively popular group. We do have an audience, a fan base, so I suppose the word cult does apply to an extent. I think for us it's always about feeling open-ended about everything. We don't think that, but sometimes you have to look at it from outside. I guess we are a cult group in the way that someone like the Television Personalities is a cult group, too. For me, it's more than that. The Television Personalities are my whole world, it's not just a cult thing. I studied and loved them most of my life. But I don't mind it.
You have your own label Geographic, so why release the new album through Domino?
I think it's good for our group to have other people involved. The thing with Geographic is that it's part of Domino, so in a way it'd go through the same infrastructure. But because it's Geographic, it'd need a lot more input from me and Katrina, and we really have enough input in our group. It's nice to have other people doing stuff that we would do. And a Geographic release would become too much. I do think something like My Bloody Valentine releasing their own record, in the place that they are, made perfect sense. It was really exciting to have that come out on a Saturday evening. But I think the Pastels' connection with Domino is good for both us and Domino. It just works quite well.
I almost bought a second-hand copy of Sittin' Pretty for $40 recently. Any chances you plan on reissuing that album?
Yes. We are going to do both Sittin' Pretty and Mobile Safari. I have most of the tapes for both, but I wanted to talk to the people who were in the group at the time to make sure that they're happy with them coming back out. I think they will come out some time next year. We'll do a nice edition. Hang on to your money.
Finally, I've noticed that a lot of North Americans pronounce the band's name as the "Pastelles" not "Pastels." Have you noticed that?
Yeah, and do you know what? It's perfectly cool. When I started the band I didn't realize that there were previous groups called the Pastels. I just thought it had a timeless sound that had a certain innocence to it, like the birth of rock'n'roll. Then I found it there was a garage group and a doo-wop group called the Pastels. So in a way I feel like we're joining in with something that already existed and I have absolutely no problem with it. But your pronunciation is correct. You should feel confident about that!