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Going DIY Deep with Slowdive

Slowdive bassist Nick Chaplin hopped on a Zoom to chat about their roots in DIY culture, the influence of their hometown Reading and brand new album everything is alive.

In the early 1990s Slowdive reigned supreme. Their sonic trademark of glow-drenched, reverb-soaked guitars created huge emotional worlds, inhabited by fans worldwide. The five-piece split in 1995 after three critically-acclaimed albums on the iconic Creation Records – and reformed in 2017 with the epic Slowdive.

Their fifth album, everything is alive, began with vocalist and guitarist Neil Halstead playing around with modular synths in his Cornish home. “That was the direction he started in,” says bassist Nick Chaplin, “but unfortunately for him, when everyone else gets in the room it all tends to go back to the more regular Slowdive Sounds. There’s a bit of an influence of both. I think it’s turned out pretty well.”

It’s an understated perspective on the big sounds that Slowdive deal in. It’s evocative music, full of late night tenderness and strung-out early morning atmospherics. The sound, says Chaplin, goes right back to their earliest recordings. “Back in 1989 we were influenced by people like The Primitives and Jesus and the Mary Chain: short pop songs and noisy guitars. Rachel and I were goths when we were teenagers, so we had that atmospheric side to the music we liked to listen to. When we came up with ‘Avalyn’ – the almost instrumental track on the first EP – we all looked at each other in the studio and said ‘OK, this is not The Primitives anymore’.”


Words by Emma Warren

everything is alive by Slowdive

Whilst the band’s venues are now on the larger side (they’re about to leave for a tour of the USA and Canada), they began life in the grassroots venues that have always played such a huge part in UK music culture – and they retain a connection to the source. “We played in Exeter recently at The Phoenix, a small venue in an arts centre in the city centre, before we were at Glastonbury. It was all flyposted and sold locally, and it was great. Everyone was super happy we were there. People were saying ‘no-one ever comes to Exeter’.” It’s a familiar refrain to the band, who met in the small town confines of Reading and who came up through the cultural contributions of local venue After Dark that hosted reggae bands and indie shows.

The artwork for the new album shows a figure in the centre of a labyrinth. “Back in the Creation days we just wanted to look like a band of that ilk so everything was blurred and shoegaze. [1993 album] Souvlaki was quite different for bands of that time because it featured our faces. We consciously wanted to do that.” Finding artwork to match their cathedral-like sounds proved trickier this time round. For 2017’s self-titled release they used a still from 1962 animation Heaven and Earth Magic (‘Neil stumbled across it’) and this time round they landed upon a depiction of the church labyrinth installed in Reims cathedral in 1286 and destroyed 500 years later by priests upset by children playing in it during services. The image, which was new to the band, turns out not to be new to music. “It’s publicly available, which has caused a few issues,” says Chaplin. “We subsequently found it’s been used by The Rolling Stones on the gatefold inner sleeve of Her Satantic Majesty’s Request. No idea about that ‘til someone pointed it out.” The band adapted the image slightly. “We let the figure in the centre have a way out. Even though the album is dedicated to two of our parents who passed away during the recording, we wanted some hope in amongst the darkness of the last few years, with the pandemic and personal loss.”

What can you tell us about how your location – where you come from – influences your music. Where’s the Reading in Slowdive? 

Back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, living in a small house all together and making music, that would have had an influence. We were basically students, even though we didn’t go to university.

There’s a brilliant book by Kieran Yates called All The Houses I’ve Ever Lived In. She talks about how thin walls on housing estates meant exposure to different kinds of music, and that she also experienced this in student houses. Was there a sonic influence from the type of housing you were living in?

What I remember from those days is that every room was decorated with pictures of different bands. We’d all be competing with our own music, so I’d be The Cure and New Order and Christian would be Echo and the Bunnymen and My Bloody Valentine and Neil would be some weird music that no-one else knew – so yes, possibly that.

What’s your relationship to DIY culture?

I think we’re very indie at heart and we find it difficult to move away from that mindset – that we should record our own music, put our own music out, but we’ve never been organised enough to do everything ourselves. One of the bands we admire the most is Mogwai. It’s extremely DIY, everything is on their terms. Sometimes I wish we could be more like that but I’m not sure the five personalities in the band could take that on.

Some of DIY is about doing it yourselves, plural. I also think of it as being part of what you might call a ‘community of contribution’ – people making zines or grassroots venues. To what extent are you connected to that kind of thing?

We come from an indie culture where we did our own fanzines. The closest we get to it now is that Rachel runs as much of the social media as possible, interacting with other bands. We’ve recently been to Australia and New Zealand and we try and bring local acts to play with us.

Green Man Festival Poster

I interviewed Miki Berenyi about her book Fingers Crossed and she was talking about zines as a way of being part of a scene before she was in a band.

Oh, we were totally involved in all that, back in the day. Rachael used to do the Slowdive fan club. I think it was called Holding Our Breath. There would be a letter, which we took turns writing and competitions. She’d send a lot of them out, particularly to the United States. Even now we’ll sometimes get someone at a show, waving a copy a fanzine that we printed in 1992. People don’t believe we wrote them and I’ll be like ‘that’s my handwriting!’ We used to do cassettes, record little messages and send them out. We did a flexidisc or two. I know Miki a bit from way back and I know she was super involved in all that.

What did fans get from the Slowdive fan club?

Very little [laughs]. We didn’t charge for it. It was literally you sign up to a mailing list and you got a newsletter and a promise of an occasional musical item. I don’t know how long it lasted for. Slowdive Version One didn’t last that long. First record 1990, by 1995 we’d broken up. There was an intense period ‘92, ‘93, and into ‘94 where everything happened. We probably only did five or six newsletters I’d imagine.

Do you remember any of you getting involved with flyposting, or would it have gone through your label Creation?

I don’t remember if we were heavily flyposted. I know in 2017 when [their label] Dead Oceans did posters on the tube we all went into London and took pictures with them. We’re a proper band now! Creation had their hands full with Ride and Primal Scream. We were these weird kids on the side who didn’t get too much attention. We did have an ill-fated marketing campaign in the States. It was a major label and they didn’t know what to do with us. They thought it would be a good idea to offer incentives for the most imaginative way fans could spray paint the band’s name on a public building, or anywhere. Some people did proper street art but some of it was basically just vandalism. There’s a very famous and important sculpture of Joe Lewis in Detroit, that people refer to as the Black Power Sculpture. Someone spraypainted our name across it. We didn’t know anything about it. Not good.

I wanted to ask you about grassroots venues – Music Venues Trust do great work supporting them now. What is your relationship as musicians to those spaces?

We’re still in touch with the promoters and people that helped us in Reading. There used to be lots of places to play and now there are very few. One of our most important relationships is with Nathaniel Cramp of Sonic Cathedral. He put on our comeback show. It was a warm-up, but it was the first one. We’ve given him music to put out as limited edition singles.

Photo Credit: Ingrid Pop

Which Reading venues have been important for you?

The After Dark was the main one. It was the Paradise Club which was run by a bunch of great guys from Reading’s Caribbean community. There were a lot of reggae shows on. They’d put on indie shows. Reading’s quite a big college town, even though it’s not very trendy or cool. They figured out that there was a big demand for bands like House of Love, Spacemen 3 and Loop. It only held about 300 people, the walls would be pouring with condensation. We cut our teeth there. We were supporting a band who were signed to Warner Brothers and their publishing agent happened to be there. He said ‘I know a man who’s gonna like this lot…’  and gave a tape to Alan McGee from Creation. So if it wasn’t for After Dark putting on indie acts we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Those venues are incredibly important. The venue that’s closest to it now is Sub89. It’s a really good venue, above a slot machine place I think. I’ve seen The Wedding Present, The Mission, Dinosaur Jr there. It’s great that it’s still there.

Where does this DIY stuff show up in your music or creative lives today, particularly in this record?

None of us are that comfortable in big studios. We’re much more comfortable working almost in our bedrooms. We plan to do a small venue show in Reading – we tried to do it for the last few years at Sub89 but it hasn’t come off.

Photo by @mikestreetbike
Photo Credit: Parri Thomas

Finally, where do you see that DIY impulse in the younger ones?

Our tour manager manages a young band called Big Special and they’re out touring the small venues. The passion they’ve got for just getting out there – they can only do that if there are venues that are willing to take a chance on new music. Gentrification of these areas, like the Manchester venue that’s threatened with closure [Night and Day] because the new residents are like ‘oh, I didn’t know I was living next to a club’. Money buying up these places, turning them into flats. It can be difficult for landlords to turn them down. It’s important to support these places while we’ve still got them – when they’re gone they’re gone.

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