The Pastels’ Stephen McRobbie is quite shy and unassuming when we meet in a bustling old tea shop in central London. But as soon as the cream scones and teapots arrive, chatter turns to his new album and Stephen springs to life.
Stephen has been a part of the Glasgow music scene for more than 30 years, using the independently minded Scottish city as a base for his songwriting and record label activities. Together with his partner in crime Katrina Mitchell, he’s managed and curated the eclectic Domino imprint Geographic since 2000 and is a co-founder of Glasgow music shop and venue Monorail.
Between them, Katrina and Stephen have written and produced five studio albums and a film soundtrack. They have also penned music for a theatre production and have collaborated widely with musicians from their home town and far beyond.
Their raw and immediate sound has influenced a whole generation of musicians from Teenage Fanclub, Sonic Youth, Jesus and Mary Chain, Kurt Cobain and more, while their collaborations with German electronic outfit To Rococo Rot and Japanese art bands Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Tenniscoats have seen them cast their net around the globe.
On 21 February, they announced plans to release their first full length album in 16 years. The record, entitled Slow Summits, follows 1997’s Illumination and will be released on Domino later this month.
Despite the band’s long and colourful history, Stephen is understandably keen to talk about the making of the new record when we get chatting. He explains that it revolves around the original line-up of himself and Katrina, Tom Crossley, Gerard Love, Alison Mitchell and John Hogarty, while guests include original member Annabel Wright and Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake.
To Rococo Rot’s Stefan Schneider and Ronald Lippok also contribute, while Japanese duo Tenniscoats put in an appearance. Elsewhere, Glaswegian composer Craig Armstrong pitches in with a string arrangement on the track Kicking Leaves.
As the teapot slowly drains, Stephen unravels the songwriting and production process behind Slow Summits and looks back on three decades of tireless activity in the heart of Glasgow’s independent music scene…
Why the long gap between albums?
Annabel was part of the core trio and after our last album Illumination she decided she wanted to concentrate on her illustration and art. Myself and Katrina had the idea to start making this record about six or seven years ago. We did a couple of sessions and then we started recording with the Tenniscoats around the same time. That had a certain amount of pressure around it because the Tenniscoats are based in Japan and the whole thing was really dependent on the times that they were in Glasgow. So we finished that one first even though we’d started on Slow Summits.
Then about two years ago we were getting to the point where we knew we had to close it out – it was time. So we started. All the pieces of music we had that we were pleased with we started doing vocals for and overdubbing. And then this time last year me and Katrina when to Chicago to visit John McEntire for mixing. It was then that we declared it finished!
Do you have a consistent approach to writing or are you on and off?
We’re probably not as disciplined as we should be. Sometimes we can write a lot of things in quite a short space of time and sometimes we can take a lot longer. But I feel happy when we’re writing and I always like to have two or three unfinished things. I think it’s a nice feeling to look forward to working on something you’ve started. I think it’s the same for Katrina.
So that keeps you ticking over?
Yes, it’s good to keep thinking about it – I like the creating part the best. It’s a good feeling to come to the finishing line and think, ‘Well, that’s it, that’s what this record is’. But we didn’t finish everything that we had so I still feel there’s a new place to start.
What gets you started on a song?
It usually comes from a melodic idea, certain notes just develop. I like a lot of repetition in music so I’m usually looking for something that’s almost like an internal loop with lots of space. There are six people that play in the group so we try to leave space for other people when we start off. When I was younger and writing songs, maybe there wasn’t enough openness in the music so people just kept going. Now I almost wonder how little we can have. I like playing in a group, I like the group sound; I think it’s important to leave space for other people to do their thing.
Has the process changed gradually over the years?
Yeh, I suppose when we started things were a lot more fixed. Now we try to keep things really open. We always wonder if a song needs any other parts, whereas before we had more of a conventional sense of what a song should be, you know, verse-chorus-verse, a bridge. Now I just wonder if we need to do that.
Have all the collaborations you’ve done helped to change your sense of what songs are?
They certainly have, especially when you’re playing with so many different people. A lot of the time we’re just jamming. I’ve probably been quite influenced by the German group To Rococo Rot. Two of them played on the record and everything they do is kind of in the same key. It’s modular. It’s really graceful. Parts from one song could be parts from another song and I like that kind of openness.
What do you think of your early records nowadays?
For me, there are things that are really embarrassing about them – like looking at old photographs! But there are also things that I really like; good memories of being in particular place with people and enjoying that moment. Things change. When you’re young you think the same kind of process will go on forever and things change and you play with different musicians. It’s nice to be able to look back at some of those early records. We couldn’t make those kinds of records now. Not with the same energy. I’m OK with them though,
Tell me about the Geographic label’s connection with Japan. Did you go out looking for Japanese bands to work with or did they come to you?
We went to Japan three times in the nineties and we had a very brisk ride through Japanese music. We were very much the touring band from the West, just passing through. It was Hallelujahs that led us to Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Tenniscoats. The last time we were in Japan I was given a present of a Hallelujahs record and I really loved it. I thought it was so fantastic and I just wanted to explore that world. I found out that Shinji Shibayama from Hallelujahs had a record label called ORG.
My friend David Keenan from The Wire wrote about a Maher Shalal Hash Baz record the label had released and that’s how I heard it. Unbeknown to all of us, Tori from Maher and his wife Reiko were living in London. They left a note in a shop saying they were looking for David Keenan so we met them through that.
Around the same time Laurence Bell from Domino was asking if we’d like to run an imprint for him. I think he was getting sick of me saying, ‘Oh, you should release this,’ to him all the time! Eventually Katrina and I started Geographic. We wanted to release the kind of music that wasn’t readily available. And the music we liked at the time was this slightly outsider Japanese stuff.
It’s interesting that Maher Shalah Hash Baz would swap instruments so each member would end up playing something they weren’t really trained on…
Tori is actually a virtuoso pianist, he’s extremely gifted! But he feels that musicians become too comfortable in what they do and it’s not interesting. He writes from that amateur aspect – he’s always looking for that fresh take you get from people who aren’t good players or who are picking up an instrument for the first time. That’s the Maher sound. There’s innocence mixed with something really musical and beautiful.
Would you say the new Pastels album is more of a collaborative project?
Yeh, there’s different layers to it. Katrina and I are the starting point. Tom, Gerard, Alison and John are people we play with who have contributed an awful lot. Gerard is very musical and he’s got a good sense of structure. He knows what something needs to make it work. We decided to invite To Rococo Rot to come over and play in the first session. There was so much recording with Tenniscoats that there was a bit of overlap so they ended up playing on a couple of tracks with us. There’s actually quite a big cast! But the core of it was really the six of us, though me, Katrina and Tom are probably the only ones who played on every since track on the record. For the rest people just drop in and out.
So how do you know when a song is finished?
You don’t really! There’s a point when you’ve got to call it off and say, ‘That’s that’.
Will there be a follow-up quite soon?
Hopefully. I would like to make records more regularly but I don’t know. It can take a long time. There were times in the past when we were quite speedy, and if you’re doing something for theatre it’s not like the production can wait around until you’re ready. So a certain amount of pressure is good!
I think what we’ll do next is some kind of collection of things that we haven’t released, things that are out of print and new things. I could definitely imagine that coming out next year.
And what’s in store for Geographic?
I think we Geographic we find that we can manage one record a year. We’re going to do a retrospective of Strawberry Switchblade – that’s the next thing. A couple of people are making records for us as well. International Airport have started and obviously we’re hoping to do another Maher record sometime…
So what do you hope for your new record?
I feel quite satisfied with it, I feel proud of it. It’s a nice feeling.
Slow Summits is released on 27 May by Domino Records.