Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Vapour Trails: Revisiting Shoegaze

January 2009


It’s known as the Holocaust, but it’s greeted like the rapture. A sound engineer says it sounds “pretty similar to a jet taking off,” and it has the decibel readings to prove it (roughly 130). “The sound moved my face,” blogged Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox. “My balls retracted.”

That sound is the live rendition of “You Made Me Realise,” the signature track with which My Bloody Valentine, reformed after 13 years of silence, has been ending each of its reunion-tour sets–a cacophonous, hypnotic, fill-the-void version built from a multi-octave sea of bent tones.

“It’s interesting and fun, in a cruel way, watching the audience react as the song progresses,” says Ger Colclough, a monitor engineer on the tour. “You can see the different emotions and feelings they go through as the song reaches its peak, from the fascinated look, disbelief look, shocked look, and back to the final look of amazement.”

This sonic gut-check has become part of the mythology of My Bloody Valentine, and of the shoegaze sound itself. Once dubbed “the scene that celebrates itself,” the term “shoegaze” was christened in late-’80s England to describe a group of bands who combined ethereal, swirling vocals and layer upon layer of distorted, bent, and flanged guitar. Ultimately, it referred more to these floppy-haired bands’ lack of rock ’n’ roll antics on-stage–their habit of gazing downward at their myriad guitar pedals–than their music. While hazy and narcotic-sounding, the bands that fell under this banner were far from homogenous. If anything, their common link was expanding the sonic vocabulary (if not always at MBV’s deafening levels).

With modern acts like Ulrich Schnauss and Asobi Seksu heavily inspired by the shoegaze sound, the recent release from Spiritualized (an offshoot of the even gazy-er Spacemen 3), and reunions of seminal bands like My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver, we decided to track down members of Slowdive, Lush, Ride, Chapterhouse, and more to talk about the glory days and the genre’s continued relevance.

Miki Berenyi (Lush singer/guitarist)
“Shoegazing was originally a slag-off term. My partner [K.J. “Moose” McKillop], who was the guitarist in Moose, claims that it was originally leveled at his band. Apparently the journo was referring to the bank of effects pedals he had strewn across the stage that he had to keep staring at in order to operate. And then it just became a generic term for all those bands that had a big, sweeping, effects-laden sound, but all stood resolutely still on stage.”

Andy Sherriff (Chapterhouse singer/guitarist)
“For us, it had quite a lot to do with the fact that we weren’t too good at singing and playing at the same time, so we had to look down at the guitar all the time to see. We played a lot of barre chords, chords that go up and down the guitar neck, so you were kind of looking where you were going.”

Adam Franklin (Swervedriver singer guitarist)
“Shoegaze wasn’t a favorable term when it first appeared. Partly, you think about the bands having sloppy fringes, stripy shirts, and Chelsea boots.”

Brad Laner (Medicine singer/guitarist)
“It never had any resonance for me. If you see any footage of us, we were jumping around and being spazzy all the time. We rocked out. I don’t think you’ll find any band of that period that would identify itself as a shoegaze band, and any band that identifies itself as that now is probably not worth listening to.”

Miki Berenyi (Lush)
“Funnily enough, [the tagline] ‘the scene that celebrates itself’ was actually the invention of Steve Sutherland, then editor of the Melody Maker, and was originally meant as a compliment! It referred to the fact that, as a movement, we were actually all very friendly and supportive of each other, rather than backbiting and sniping, which was supposedly the norm. It was actually pretty annoying getting lumped in with bands we didn’t think we sounded anything like, particularly because such comparisons were more often used against us.”

Andy Sherriff (Chapterhouse)
“Now the term has been appropriated by fans, the way a lot of insults are. And people use it in a way that’s totally non-derogatory.”

Under the Influence
The typically cited sonic blueprint for shoegaze’s ebb and squall is a holy trinity of ’80s U.K. bands: Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. But common musical threads between the different bands include garage rock, ’60s psych, and American indie bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.

Stephen Patman (Chapterhouse singer/guitarist)
“It was a dark period for music in the ’80s. The mainstream was absolutely dire. It was impossible to get heard on the radio if you were a guitar band… I think there was a real counterculture. Whenever there is a counterculture, I think that’s healthy for the music because it’s something to fight against, something to prove.”

Eric Green (director, Beautiful Noise)
“Even though the ’80s were rocky musical years, that DIY/punk mentality resounded, not only through musicians, but labels as well. People starting labels, from Mute to Rough Trade to 4AD to Creation, were fairly unconventional label heads who said, ‘Fuck it, I like this group,’ or, ‘This is intriguing,’ not thinking about [how it would] sell.”

Neil Halstead (Slowdive singer/guitarist)
“We were huge My Bloody Valentine fans. Christian [Savill, Slowdive guitarist] used to run an MBV fanzine, and we used to go up and see them when they were signed to Cherry Red, when they were a really jangly indie band. The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Smiths also had this huge impact. Lots of 16-year-olds heard those records for the first time, and it was like, ‘This is real, not shiny.’ I think it’s kind of the way we thought about music and the music we wanted to make.”

Stephen Patman (Chapterhouse)
“There was a big ’60s garage band revival [through the] Nuggets compilations. Listening to those psych bands was definitely an influence. We were trying to make psychedelic in a contemporary way.”

Ulrich Schnauss (electronic producer)
“Things weren’t going well for a lot of people, after 10 years of the Thatcher government in England. People basically just wanted to escape, whether it was with their eyes closed at a Slowdive gig or raving all weekend on Ecstasy. I think the reason why [this kind of music] is happening at the moment [is that] a lot of people once again have that same sort of desire to escape.”

Young Lords
Unlike the concurrent “Madchester” scene, the shoegaze sound wasn’t identified with one city. Chapterhouse and Slowdive were from Reading, Ride and Swervedriver came from Oxford, and Lush from London.

Neil Halstead (Slowdive)
“Rachel [Goswell, Slowdive vocalist] and I were at primary school together. We’ve known each other since we were five or six. When we were in secondary school, we had a band called the Pumpkin Fairies. When we formed Slowdive, we advertised for a female guitarist. [Christian] was the only applicant and offered to wear a dress, and that was it.”

Mark Gardener (Ride singer/guitarist)
“We were art-school boys. I think we were doing a project about painting movement, so we were into that whole thing of movement, and ride cymbals–and we all thought Ride could be a name for this band. It was all part of the journey, and it had a good sexual connotation as well, which is always good for a band name.”

Miki Berenyi (Lush)
“I met Emma Anderson [Lush guitarist/singer] at age 13 and we became part of a group of friends who got very into music. London is a great place for that. By the time we were 15 we were going to see bands play as often as possible, sometimes five times a week! Gigs were cheap back then, and we didn’t drink, so it was affordable even for a 15-year-old. But we were terribly young and shy, and didn’t know anyone, so we started a fanzine called Alphabet Soup. The theory was that it would give us a legit reason to talk to bands and a way of getting to know people. The reality was that we were absolutely awful at interviews and the ‘zine was completely juvenile and silly and full of smutty jokes and toilet humor, which we thought was absolutely hilarious.”

Sturm Und Drone
Aside from being incredibly loud, shoegaze bands experimented with ways to use guitars and effects; vocals were often treated as another instrument. Some have said that the incorporation of electronic dance elements into certain albums–Slowdive toyed with ambient effects on their home-recorded Pygmalion, bands like Chapterhouse, James, and Seefeel was repeatedly remixed by electronic artists–presaged later developments in post-rock and electronica.

Eric Green (Beautiful Noise)
“There was a vibe, an air of mystery. [It was] beautiful music that was somewhat abrasive. I like the way a lot of the groups juxtaposed that abrasiveness with beauty.”

Miki Berenyi (Lush)
“Probably what was more of an influence was the fact that we couldn’t really play or sing and were limited in what we could achieve musically! Hence the loud guitars and wan vocals. Nothing planned–we were just making virtue out of necessity!”

Neil Halstead (Slowdive)
“[The noise] was a problem before we had a record deal, because every club we ever played in Reading wouldn’t let us back. They would hear us play once and say, ‘Don’t worry about coming back.’”

Brad Laner (Medicine)
“At the time, it was really funny–everyone was comparing notes about their pedal boards. I thought it was kind of dumb, like a bunch of Guitar Center employees at lunch. We were never a gear band. I went out of my way to say I played through a tape deck. The end result is the mystery. If you know how you got there, it’s not as mysterious.”

Andy Sherriff (Chapterhouse)
“It was less about the guitarmanship. It wasn’t about riffing away, it was about creating a sort of atmosphere with droning and chords.”

Stephen Patman (Chapterhouse)
“We were almost anti- that kind of musicianship. For us, that was masturbation. We hated that foot-on-the-monitor kind of rock heroics. I’m a firm believer that it shouldn’t matter how you got a sound. It’s the sound that matters. A lot of people said, ‘All you have to do is play a chord, with all the effects you’re using.’ But that’s not the point. The whole point was that we were choosing to play one chord for a specific effect.”

Brad Laner (Medicine)
“Most of these bands couldn’t really sing. If you hear live recordings, all of these bands are falling all over themselves. It’s all about the recordings… It’s all about studio craft, in the same way that The Beatles didn’t play their psychedelic material live. What makes those albums great is they were made without regard to playing live. Perhaps it was in anticipation of the electronica stuff–rock bands getting tired of the old vocabulary, and trying out new sounds. Maybe [shoegaze] anticipated that.”

Many shoegaze acts, including Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, were signed to Creation, the label founded in 1982 by charismatic Scottish manager and mogul Alan McGee. Famous as the home of Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain, the label almost went out of business during the protracted, expensive recording of MBV’s Loveless, but was saved by signing Oasis in 1994.

Neil Halstead (Slowdive)
“We were 16, 17 when [Alan McGee] signed us. He was just kind of as we imagined. He was this dude in sunglasses, very Scottish; he was charismatic and we all liked him off the bat. I think their strength as a label was just putting bands in a studio and putting out records based on the idea that they liked a song or a particular thing. They were quite willing to see what would occur. Sometimes it did cost them too much money… The first recording session we did, McGee scrapped it all. We had never gone into a studio with a producer, so we did what we felt like doing.”

Brad Laner (Medicine)
“I thought he was this out-of-control party animal. I could barely understand him with that Scottish accent…”

Mark Gardener (Ride)
“I think there was sort of a stand-up quality of bands and the label at the time–and, just like Factory was in the early days, it was sort of a totally rock ’n’ roll label. You’d go to meetings on Friday and leave on Monday, that sort of thing. [The Creation office] was a complete madhouse, really. It didn’t have anything together or organized. It was a load of people running on speed pills and diet pills and bugged up. I know there were a lot of bouncing checks going on when studios were coming to get paid, and you sort of become aware that your manager was dealing with irate studio owners because the third check has bounced from Creation.”

Neil Halstead (Slowdive)
“I remember that [McGee] wanted me to wear leather trousers. The thing with McGee was, he wanted to be the puppet master. I think that kind of Malcolm McLaren role was how he saw himself. He wasn’t manipulative, just enthusiastic and charismatic. I never wore the leather pants. McGee was always about image. His thing about videos was it would make girls want to fuck you and boys want to be you. He was quite ’60s in his attitude. Oasis was his dream band, the dream ticket. He always wanted to make classic pop records, not art records.”

End of an Era
“Just about the only thing happening in British indie music last year was a rash of blurry, neo-psychedelic bands,” wrote Simon Reynolds in The Observer in February of 1992. But just as quickly, shoegaze fell out of favor, derided for being wimpy, fey, and passé. By the mid-’90s, many of the bands had broken up.

Stephen Patman (Chapterhouse)
“There were a lot of professional journalists looking for the new big thing all the time and desperately putting their money on things, and if it didn’t pay off (i.e. going to the charts), they dropped it like a hot coal. A lot of those comments about class were coming from posh journalists that went to private school. And the idea that good music only comes from working-class people is absolute bollocks.”

Miki Berenyi (Lush)
“Shoegazing was generally seen as introverted, sensitive, and possibly a bit intellectual. Virtually every band had a woman in it who wasn’t required to get her tits out. This does not sit particularly well with the music press, which is mostly run by men who actually are rather weedy and un-masculine, but who like to imagine themselves as rebellious bad boys who do nothing but drink, take drugs, and fuck beautiful, vacuous girls. Shoegazing didn’t really fulfill that particular fantasy!”

Neil Halstead (Slowdive)
“When Nirvana came along and grunge came over, it kind of kicked shoegaze out of the water. Oddly enough, a lot of the bands had similar roots to bands we were into.”

Back for More
With overt shoegaze influences showing up in the work of popular acts like Serena-Maneesh, M83, and Ulrich Schnauss, some proclaim a revival is occurring. Two current club nights in England, Club AC30 and Sonic Cathedral, focus on shoegaze and have even spun off tours and record labels.

Ulrich Schnauss
“It’s not a completely revivalist sort of thing. It’s people who grew up with that music, but also a lot of other things, and they’re trying to mix these types of music together into something interesting and new.”

Yuki Chikudate (Asobi Seksu singer)
“Honestly, we really weren’t aware of this [new shoegaze scene] until other journalists brought this up to us. We were in such a bubble in NYC. When we started, in 2003, nobody was interested–it was passé. We were sort of ignored for a while and were surprised a few years ago when people were saying it’s not just us [carrying the shoegaze torch].”

Oliver Ackermann (A Place to Bury Strangers singer/guitarist)
“That wall of sound is what made me excited to play electric guitar. You can plug it in and crank it up and there’s almost this chaos where, with the sounds coming out of the amp, it’s a mystery, something that’s beautiful.”
Nathaniel Cramp (founder and promoter, Sonic Cathedral)
“I think it’s exciting to see [classic shoegaze] records passing to a place where they’re accepted as good records. It’s sort of a vindication after defending it for years.”

Andy Sherriff (Chapterhouse)

“In a way, [shoegaze] seems to have more interest than Brit-pop. It seems to have a longevity to it. It’s sort of the revenge of the shoegazers, isn’t it?”

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