Summit Special: An Interview with Stephen Pastel

With a new album imminent, we chat to Stephen McRobbie of The Pastels about the record’s long history, and the band’s future

Feature by Chris Buckle | 14 May 2013

In August 1999, two years after fourth album Illumination, The Pastels entered the BBC’s Maida Vale studios for their third – and final – John Peel session. Amongst the quartet of songs recorded for the beardy broadcaster was Secret Music – a then-recently penned track set to feature on the Glasgow band’s next album. Fourteen years later, it does, its graceful swoon opening Slow Summits and establishing the long-awaited record’s rich and idyllic aesthetic. As far as waiting games go, it pales next to, say, m b v’s lengthy genesis, but the gap between initial introductions and final, finished form is notable regardless.

And yet, the caesura hardly tells the whole story. In the years since, The Pastels have applied their talents to a range of projects, including a soundtrack (The Last Great Wilderness) and a sublime collaboration with Japanese duo Tenniscoats (Two Sunsets) – all the while continuing to drip-feed further Slow Summits tasters at sporadic live shows. “If you don’t keep up with someone, it’s probably nice to say, ‘oh it’s their first record in 16 years’, [but] it isn’t really like that,” says bandleader Stephen McRobbie, chatting ahead of the album’s release.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say this particular record’s been tantalising fans for an awfully long time, belated due to a combination of factors – most notably the departure, post-Illumination, of core member Annabel (Aggi) Wright. “We probably would have made a record around 1999/2000 if Annabel hadn’t left,” says Stephen. “That was a good group with her in it, and it took us a long time to decide how we would deal with that.” The uncertainty was partly resolved by the aforementioned soundtrack commission. “I think when you’re making a normal record you feel a certain amount of pressure to have some tracks that could maybe be played on the radio, but when we were doing Last Great Wilderness, it was just about making the film coherent. I think from working to quite a tight brief we found real freedom. And even before Illumination, I think we all thought we wanted to try to make some quieter music.” He pauses and smiles. “Not that we were ever Motörhead…”

Were the current band (as well as Stephen: Katrina Mitchell, Gerard Love, Tom Crossley, Alison Mitchell and John Hogarty) working on ideas throughout that period? “Sort of – sometimes you can drift away from it for a little while, but I definitely feel happiest when I’m working on things. It’s just really magical. A lot of the time we kind of jam for 20 minutes, and sometimes the end of the song becomes the best thing, and you think ‘oh now I need to get the main part of the song to sound as good as that.’ In a way it raises the bar. It’s not prescribed – it’s a group with a bit of freedom.”

"We all thought we wanted to try to make some quieter music. Not that we were ever Motörhead…” – Stephen McRobbie

In addition to the core line-up, Slow Summits features a range of collaborators, including re-teams with Tenniscoats and a guest spot from Stefan Schneider and Ronald Lippok of German avant-gardists To Rococo Rot. “Generally speaking, you want to work with people you respect and admire,” says Stephen. “Over a record I think it’s quite nice to be able to introduce a couple of different colours.”

Certainly, the resulting palette is emphatically complementary. While there is diversity amidst its nine tracks, there is a definite through-line – a flow that sweeps the listener along with it. Was it difficult to let go – to say categorically that the album was finished? “I think it’s human nature to feel you can improve things,” he replies. “Every time you do something it should be an improvement on the previous times, because you learn from mistakes – unless, you know, you lose your mind in-between. But we hadn’t lost our minds. So we just booked some time in Chicago [home of producer John McEntire’s Soma studio], and decided that whatever we did, that would be it. I think in some ways it’s too long” he adds. “I’d like to make a quicker record next time.”

The album has a marked pensive quality, the lyrics teeming with wistful reminiscences and introspective turns of phrase. We ask whether Stephen’s self-reflection extends to past Pastels records. “It does, I think about things a lot,” he affirms. “I maybe overthink it sometimes, and get quite jealous of people who can just do stuff and move on. I always imagine how a record from 18 years ago could have been better. [But] I’m really happy with The Last Great Wilderness, Two Sunsets and Slow Summits. And I like lots of sporadic stuff from earlier…”

Broadly speaking, ‘earlier’ can be split into two phases, roughly matched to the decades. During the eighties, the band underwent several line-up shifts before finding temporary steadiness with drummer Bernice Simpson, guitarist Brian Taylor, bassist Martin Hayward and keyboardist Annabel. But after second album Sittin' Pretty, more drastic changes were made, with Annabel and Steven parting company with the rest of the band for creative reasons. “I never thought we seemed like a group,” says Stephen of the initial line-up. “Like, the Jesus and Mary Chain looked like the Jesus and Mary Chain – they all they had their Jesus-and-Mary-Chain-hairstyles and everything. We just looked like a bunch of neighbours, like if you formed a band with all the people in your close. But I’m really fond of that period still… I like that it was such a different group.”

In 1990, Katrina joined and the trio found an instant musical rapport. “Me and Annabel and Katrina would just turn up in a rehearsal studio, just the three of us, and none of us could really play anything…” recalls Stephen. “A lot of work went in to it, whereas in the first group there, er, well, there wasn’t…” Their efforts produced two albums (1995’s Mobile Safari and Illumination two years later), before Annabel quit to focus on art (that’s one of her paintings adorning Slow Summits’ sleeve).

Nowadays, the group feels “quite focussed, quite single-minded about what our sound is,” though initially, for Stephen, that remit didn’t extend as far as lead single Check My Heart. “I was surprised and pleased that we could do something like that,” he says, “Everyone liked it but I didn’t think it would necessarily be on the record… In a way it’s kind of simple – it’s a bit dumb, you know?” he smiles. “And it’s probably not how I naturally play now. I really like it [and] I’m glad we carried on with it [but] it’s hard to imagine that we’ll write many more songs like that.”

It was Katrina who convinced Stephen that the song belonged. “When we were compiling the record, she surprised me with a couple of things that were very different from how I would have compiled it,” he explains. “I thought we could have a slightly more downbeat flow. But then I started to think of records that I really liked when I was just getting into music – things like Swell Maps and Faust, where the mood changes from one thing to the next. I started to think maybe it doesn’t have to be all the one thing. So we probably found more diversity in this record, in a way.”

In addition to The Pastels, Katrina and Stephen run record label Geographic, a Domino imprint focussed on smaller, often more left-field artists. Much like The Pastels, the label’s approach to releasing music is slow and steady, with no urgent rush to sign new acts: if they release one record a year, that’s enough. Stephen cites records by Japanese alt-orchestra Maher Shahal Hash Baz as among the label’s proudest achievements. “In a way they probably fulfilled a certain creative need, even though we weren’t part of it,” he says. “There’s a real thrill to introducing something that you think’s fantastic to people.”

In the early eighties, Stephen co-headed influential label 53rd and 3rd (responsible for releases from Talulah Gosh and The Vaselines amongst others). How do the two labels compare? “53rd and 3rd was run in a very haphazard way,” Stephen replies, “and it ended quite ugly, with people not being returned their tapes and all these ownership issues. We didn’t have control over key things, so we were able to bring in incredible music, but long-term we weren’t able to look after the artists in the way that we would’ve wanted. So with Geographic I think we had more sense of what [the label] should be… Both were good in their own way, but with 53rd and 3rd, I wish we’d been able to document it better. We just lost control.”

Right now, however, The Pastels is the locus of Stephen’s attentions, and Slow Summits is fully worth the wait. We ask whether the band’s leisurely pace and occasional line-up refreshments might explain, in part, their endurance – perhaps helping avoid the burnout that claims other acts? Stephen uses The Fall as a counterpoint example. “They existed before us and may well exist after us,” he says. “They’re much more volatile, but then there are lots of great records… It’s a quite inexplicable career in some respects. In a way I wish we’d as many records out as The Fall, but, you know, The Fall can be brilliantly slapdash, whereas when we’re slapdash it’s kind of… crappily slapdash,” he laughs. “That’s the difference. The Fall are quite work-ethicy, whereas we’ve probably been more… Well, I’d say in the first phase of the group there wasn’t much of a work ethic at all, and I have to say I was the guiltiest. But there is a work ethic now, and there’s a good level of respect between everyone in the group. Personally I think that when groups split up it’s usually a deep-rooted thing – of people no longer liking each other or things just coming to a natural end. We’re slow moving, but we always wanted to work together, and in the future I want to make more records with the same people. These are people that I like to work with.”

Here’s hoping the band’s highest summits are still to be scaled – however slowly they might choose to get there.

Slow Summits is released via Domino on 27 May. The Pastels play CCA, Glasgow, 1 Jun