Outta the Casket:
Ryan Graveface Interviews Christian Savill on Slowdive’s Slo-Mo Return
Heavily into the so-called shoegaze sound, if you ever ask Ryan Graveface to name his favorite band, chances are high he’ll quickly respond with, “Slowdive.” The Savannah workhorse – musician/composer for odd little groups including The Casket Girls, Dreamend and The Marshmallow Ghosts; owner/operator of his longstanding indie label, Graveface Records; proprietor of the Graveface Records & Curiosities retail store; and overseer of the Noisy Ghost music PR company – briefly even operated a Savannah speakeasy called Slowdive, named after the Reading, England-born quintet. The youngest band signed to Creation Records (the scene’s primary champion) made a splash with the British shoegaze wave of the early ‘90s before progressively moving toward a more ambient space. By mid-decade the group was kaput, its members splintering into new outfits, reconfigurations and solo endeavors.
So it must seem a kind of unlikely dream come true that The Casket Girls – fronted by spooky sisters Elsa and Phaedra Greene (with Ryan on organ) – will open the reunited Slowdive’s two upcoming Southeastern shows, at Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle on May 10th, and Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse May 11th. But in certain respects, forces have been building toward all of this for quite some time now. In 2002, Graveface Records released a split featuring Dreamend on one side and Monster Movie – the (then) recently formed dreampop group featuring ex-Slowdive guitarist Christian Savill – on the other. Ryan and Christian became fast friends and mutual fans of each other’s work, and subsequently most of Monster Movie’s output has been issued through Graveface. Produced by Ryan, Keep the Voices Distant, Monster Movie’s latest album, came out at the end of March.
And of course, with interest in the dense, dreamy shoegaze aesthetic (and its key groups) building in recent years, Slowdive (Savill, guitarist/vocalist Neil Halstead, guitarist/vocalist Rachel Goswell, drummer Simon Scott and bass guitarist Nick Chaplin) are suddenly back, effects pedals to the metal, joining fellow neo-psychedelicists such as My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Lush and others who’ve re-plugged in, in most cases reaping significantly greater rewards than during their initial runs. They even have a new album – a really good one, in fact – just out via Dead Oceans, simply titled Slowdive.
With all that in mind, we thought it’d be a neat idea to listen in on a Skype conversation between Graveface and Savill. To our delight, they agreed…
Ryan Graveface: Going back to the beginning, I was curious how you guys actually came to work with Creation [Records]. I haven’t seen any sort of memo on that front. How did that whole thing come together?
Christian Savill: “That was that was pure luck. really. We were doing a gig in in Reading supporting this band called Five Thirty, who had just signed to EMI Publishing. And so they had the guy from EMI down to watch them play. We just happened to be the local support. And then after we played, this strange sort of ponytailed hippie guy came up and said, ‘Great gig! You got any you got any demos on you?’ And we said, ‘Uh, no, sorry, we haven’t.’ And I guess one of the guys from Five Thirty saw that interaction and said, ‘Listen, you know, you really should go get that guy a tape, because he works for EMI.’ So Rachel lived, like, just around corner from the venue, and she went and got a demo tape for this guy, who was good friends with Alan McGee. I guess [he] played Alan the tape, and next thing I know Neil’s phoning me up at home saying ‘Alan McGee wants to sign us. He’s coming to a pub in Reading. So get there and we’re going to talk to him.’ I mean. we all just assumed it was a load of rubbish, but it turned out to be true! The demo that we had actually turned out to be the first EP. We went into the studio with a view to a kind of re-record those songs properly, ’cause they were just eight-track demos. But when we tried to re-record ’em, they sounded fuckin’ horrible. [We] ended up releasing the demo, basically.”
Did you guys have any other label interest at the time or was it seriously just out of the blue?
“I don’t know, because Neil definitely was quite interactive in sending the demo off, and I think there was a little bit. Possibly some other kind of indie label was interested, but nothing concrete. So to go from basically playing local support in Reading to, you know, signing to, at the time, one of the biggest independent labels in the country, was a huuuge step up. I mean, we only had about five songs.”
Really a sign of the era, too. I think.
“It was! It was really amazing. You know, we had to bullshit and say ‘Oh, no, we’ve got more songs than just on that demo!’ Which, of course, we really didn’t.”
Did you get to know [Creation co-founder and operator] Alan McGee much? Or was he totally not a part of your existence for the time you worked with him? Certainly in hindsight people have a lot of Alan McGee stories.
“We did get to know him pretty well. At that time he really was… he was sort of… I don’t know what he actually did at Creation… he was like the Wizard of Oz. I think there was someone else behind the curtain doing everything. But he was definitely invaluable, and he’d show up at gigs, and he was just really enthusiastic, which was, since we were a young band, that’s what you need. Well, that’s what we needed, I think. To just give us belief. Because, you know, to us, we were still just a bunch of nobodies from Reading. He made us think that… we were actually makin’ some really excellent music, which gave us belief to sort of at least attempt to make excellent music. I’m not sure if we succeeded or not, but… I think he felt kind of, like, responsible for us, because we were the youngest band on the label, and he sort of tried to protect us from all the sort of hedonism that was going on there. So, we didn’t really get involved in anything like that, but I think there were times when we were actually asking him for drugs, and he was clearly lying, but he’d say, ‘If I had any I’d give you ’em, but I just don’t…’”
And that relationship just fizzled out because he didn’t like the last record [1995’s Pygmalion]? Or is that bullshit?
“I think what happened by that point is… Creation in that sort of three-year period had just become a completely different beast. It had almost gone bankrupt. It has been taken over by and bought out by a major. The music scene had completely changed. Oasis were happening. So it was just almost kind of operating in a completely different world to what we were now moving in. And we were almost slightly redundant and removed from it, because, you know, Neil basically went off and did a kind of ambient, sort of minimalist album, which was completely out of step with what else was going on with Creation, and British music in general. Not totally, because obviously there was the electronic and Warp [Records] thing going on. But you know, at that time Creation wasn’t our natural home anymore… Whether Creation would have dropped us or not, I think we would have split up anyway, because I don’t think we had another record in us at that time.”
To me, the most interesting thing is that Slowdive is clearly more popular now than it was the first go ’round. I don’t know if it feels that way, but from my perspective, it seems very big. Like, I sell a lot of Slowdive records in my store.
“That will change with the new album! Hahaha! No, you’re definitely right. I was thinking back the other day… our last UK tour… we never toured Pygmalion but we toured the [late 1993] 5 EP. And we were playing to just 20 people. It was utterly depressing. So what’s happened in the 20 years since then is just outrageous, really. Even when we got back together [in 2014], I don’t think any of us could have imagined that we’d end up doing what we’re doing now. Obviously we’re still a small indie band but we’re playing to far more people. Why is that? I guess it’s because… I think you’ve had a number of bands who have kept shoegazing-type music going, and they’ve taken influences from it and made it bigger than it previously was, and that’s exposed more people to it, and they’ve gone back and discovered other bands. And we’re kind of a beneficiary of that, I guess.”
Yeah, I started to notice, like, five, six, seven years ago that every single [promotional] one-sheet I would get in the record store [for new releases] would cite Slowdive as an influence. And I just wonder if all these new music fans that are younger keep seeing that name for every band that they like, if it’s really as simple as that. And now they’re into Slowdive.
“Well, when I was a kid, and I was into music… like, say, when I got into bands like The Jesus and Mary Jane, I got into them before I listened to The Stooges, for instance. I’m certainly not putting ourselves up on the level of those two bands but I’m just saying that I only got into The Stooges because you’d read a Jesus and Mary Jane interview and they’d start talking about them, and you think, ‘Oh, well, I’ve gotta check them out.’”
I think that’s accurate. When I was probably 13, I liked the Smashing Pumpkins, and yet it felt pretty watered down. And I read an interview where [Billy Corgan] said that Siamese Dream was a complete ripoff of Loveless. And I had no idea. I mean, at that age I literally had never seen My Bloody Valentine before, as a name. So, you know, I went and researched and liked them, and… that was because of that asshole Billy Corgan! I got into all this type of stuff, really.
“I think that’s pretty common for kids, who, you know, they like one thing, and they investigate things further. It’s like a big book, and there’s chapters, and you read ’em all, but not necessarily in the in the right order.”
I really like the new record, by the way. It’s fuckin’ great. Do you have a track that you’re super passionate about on Slowdive? Anything that, for you as a performer or a writer, you’re really stoked on?
“I really like ‘Star Roving,’ just because I remember when Neil brought that song in, just like the riff, and we started playing it, it reminded me of when we’d make songs up in the old days, and I’d get really excited playing. When that song started happening, that’s when I felt like, yeah, the album’s definitely going to happen. We felt we were clicking as a band again… When we did all the other records, we were kind of already going as a band. We were always writing new material. So we were always kind of in the habit of it – it was always part of the thing. Whereas this time, we weren’t. It was always the plan to do it, but we were literally totally starting again. So we didn’t know if we could, if that makes sense. And, you know, we did a lot more songs than what are on the record. But it took us a while to decide what a new Slowdive record should sound like. Should it be a massive departure? Which it could’ve been. Should it sound exactly like where we left off? So, I think what we needed to do was to get to the point where we actually weren’t really thinking about any of that. And I think that’s what took a bit of time, really.
Do you have any expectations, since the industry – if you can even call it an industry, since it’s completely collapsed – has changed so much since the last record?
“We just literally have no idea. We wanted to do a new record, and… so it’s nice that we’ve actually done one. So now, you know, we just hope that people are still with us. And if they are, great. If not, you know, we’ll just kind of disappear again, I guess. We’re all fairly relaxed about it. I guess maybe when we were younger, we were a little bit more anxious about it than we are now.”
What was the impetus for the reformation? It was just like a festival show offer or something, right?
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, Neil’s had the same booking agent for the whole of his life. And, like you were saying, over the last six or seven years, we were all aware that there was more interest. And then we started getting a few firm offers. I think, notably, [Barcelona’s] Primavera [Sound festival]. I think when Neil heard that, he sort of had a chat with Rachel, ’cause Rachel was singing on Neil’s solo stuff. And then we all had a little chat, and said, ‘Should we get back together and do it, and just have some fun?’ And Neil would say, ‘If we do it, we really wanna be a fully functioning band, not just kind of a heritage-type thing, and at least try and do a new record.’ I don’t think any of us anticipated doing as many gigs as we did, so that’s why it took us longer, I guess.”
I wanted to about side projects and such. Just more so on an almost superficial level. Like, every single member… right? Does Nick have one?
“I think Nick is probably the only person who, in the years in between, didn’t… He didn’t even own a bass when we got back together.”
Ha! That’s awesome.
“He just totally didn’t play any music at all.”
But aside from that, everyone has a side project or has produced a solo record or a combination of those, For you, with Monster Movie, how do those compare? I would imagine Slowdive is probably more powerful because it’s got history to it. You know, you’re standing in a room with these people that you used to play with 25 years ago. Tell me about that…
“Yeah, Neil’s been doing his solo stuff and other bands, and Simon’s been in various bands and still does his solo stuff. He’s really into that and he’s doing solo gigs, and Rachel’s obviously had other projects, as have I. I think with Slowdive, it’s just such a kind of bizarre story. It’s almost like people seem to like the story of it, of this band who kinda started out to get a bit of minor – very minor – success and then get completely destroyed, and then sort of rise from the ashes 20 years later. People just seem to be really into this story.”
Hahaha! Yeah I guess you’re right. People like to attach themselves to a story, just in general, especially relating that to bands that they like.
“Yeah. They seem to want to almost claim the story is theirs. It’s like ‘They tried to destroy it, man! But, you know, we overcame the Man!’ It’s like that. It’s almost like some kind of weird battle between good and evil or something. It’s really strange. I’m not saying it is like that and we have overcome anything, but that’s almost like what the story has become. I don’t think I answered your question, did I?”
Well it was kind of open-ended. I was just curious what, really, the difference is for you, as a human being, writing your own stuff in Monster Movie or whatever, vs. the camaraderie, so to speak, of Slowdive.
“I guess it is just totally different. I mean, Slowdive these days feels kind of like… I don’t know. It’s weird. Like, Monster Movie, for instance, I see that as a kind of almost bedroom project that is done with some buddies when we get together, where Slowdive seems more of a kind of a beast. That’s probably not the best way of describing it. It’s like a machine, this big machine, with touring, and…”
You have a tour manager and a booking agent and a manager and a publicist, and you actually have people working for you, so to speak…
“It feels like a machine, but you know what? It did before, 20 years ago, but it does feel like we’re slightly more in control of it this time around. Like, we’ve got the power to just say yes and no to things. whereas before it was, ‘You are doing this,’ ‘You need to do this now.’ Whereas now, it doesn’t feel like that.”
But see, I think that’s because the industry has changed so much. It’s similar to when you’re, like, going from town to town and you see that everyone is talking about shopping local, dining local, farm-to-table restaurants are popular, and it’s a similar sort of aesthetic. People wanna know – customers and fans wanna know – that the band is in control in some capacity, and that the band has more power, versus, you know, ’80s, ’90s, where you hear all these horror stories of bands never seeing a check, and having no control, and their careers are ended by one asshole’s decision and blah blah blah. Not that I ever experienced any of that, I’m just saying, I think that’s how much things have changed.
“Yeah, it does feel more in control, but maybe that’s because… I don’t know… we’re just a bit more lucky this time? It seems better now.”
It is. I mean, I’ve been doing the label now for like 16 years or something, and I can attest it’s vastly different. Just over the past five years, let alone 10, let alone 15 or 20. So, you know, there’s pros and cons to that, right? You can’t rely on physical sales like you could 20 years ago. But now people come out to shows.
“Yeah. I guess it’s like what we were saying before, you know – it might have even been you that told me this – that in the old days people would do a tour to promote an album, and now they do an album to promote a tour, almost. It’s weird, because 20 years ago when we would play gigs, I never even knew we got paid.”
“That’s the honest truth. ‘Cause now, it’s like, we get a gig offer, and the manager sends it through, and goes, ‘This is what the fee is, and this is what you’ll earn,’ and you’ve got the full breakdown. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t tell you anything [about] what we got as a live band!”
Who was in charge of all that?
“Well we did have a manager but, um, I mean, to be fair to him it’s probably because we were losing money on the tours, you know. The record company was probably footing the bill, and I’m sure the tour was a loss. But even so, I’m sure we were still getting paid by the venue or what have you. But we just never saw any figures at all.”
I have a customer of mine who swears that he saw you with Ride, I think in Ohio, like 800 years ago, and that the venue was half full.
“Oh it’s quite possible, yeah.”
That blows my fucking mind. Can you imagine you and Ride doing a tour together right now?
“Yeah, I mean… Ride were huge in England but don’t think they made it big in America, and we definitely weren’t big anywhere, so…”
Well, I guess that’s my point. I think that’s why people are attaching themselves to the story, too. You know, it’s cool to see that, many years later, there is interest in something that you’ve been passionate about the whole time.
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe people kind of almost align it to themselves. That their lives are shit now. Hahaha! But maybe they’ll get better!”
Photo by Ingrid Pop.