My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Stephen Pastel looks back on creating a new Pastels record, fanzines, and his courtship with film music.
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
congratulates BOMB Gala honorees
James Keith Brown
and Eric G. Diefenbach
The years between 1978 and 1985 saw a cluster of bands pop up around the world, similar in sound and approach, but initially having little to no contact. Largely unknown to each other, for the first few years at least, Dunedin, Olympia, Glasgow and London all nurtured their own particular brand of post-punk. Groups like the Clean in New Zealand, Beat Happening in Washington State, and the Pastels in Scotland employed curiously similar kinds of jangly (or “shambling,” to quote John Peel) guitars, flat vocal melodies, and odd pop kernels, and the innumerable fanzines and cassette tapes orbiting their respective scenes further highlighted their compatibility. Glasgow’s the Pastels formed in 1981 and are arguably the definitive group among the movement that would be known as C86 or Anorak pop. Despite this, their ambition, prolific output, and regular shift in sound effectively distanced the band from the self-consciously amateurish, twee aesthetic associated with some of their contemporaries.
The band’s frontman Stephen Pastel (neé McRobbie), who has worked a day job as a librarian, is also a musical curator of sorts. Stephen spent the 16 years between the last full-length Pastels record and Mobile Safari follow-up, Illumination (1997), and their latest, Slow Summits(2013), forming Geographic Records with fellow Pastel, Katrina Mitchell, organizing screenings for the Monorail Film Club in Glasgow, and, most notably, writing soundtracks for theatre and film, also with Mitchell. Understandably then, Slow Summits’s sound is a veritable blend of the melodic pop they teased out of punk rock’s wake and something quite cinematic. I was lucky enough to chat with Mr. Pastel via telephone about his time between records, producing fanzines like Juniper Beri-Beri and Pastelism, and his initial correspondence with other progenitors of the genre.
Tyler Curtis Between Illumination (1997) and Slow Summits (2013), most of the Pastels’s output has been collaborative. Illuminati consisted of remixes. You worked with directors for soundtracks to a film and a play, and you did Two Sunsets with Tenniscoats, and “I Picked a Flower” with Jarvis Cocker. Was there any impetus behind that? And why you didn’t move forward with more singularly Pastels releases?
Stephen Pastel It was just really responses to opportunities that came up. I think we always had a strong sense of our own identity and wanting to do new Pastels things, but also, I agree with you, I think that’s a good point about a film soundtrack being collaborative with the director, and the same with theatre music. In a way, you’re responding to directions and it’s made with some kind of limitation, even though I think that kind of limitation can be really good sometimes. In a way, it suited us, because when Annabel [Wright] left the group, we weren’t sure about how we’d progress things, and I think we needed time to take stock. It was good that we were able to do some work, no matter how intermittent, and define a new sound for a group. Tom [Crossly, keyboard player] started playing live with us when we were touring after Illumination and he became a really central part of things, and Gerard [Love, guitar player] became really important, too. So I think it’s incredible, you know, to take that long to make a record, but in another way, it didn’t ever feel too desperate. I think we always thought that we’d be able to make another record, and we’re with a record label that’s very supportive and happy for us to work in our own way. We were doing Geographic, our record label, that was another thing that took up a lot of our creative time. Probably eight or nine years ago, we were doing that quite a lot. You know, releasing four or five records a year. I think after a while we just decided that with Geographic we’d try to release one record a year, but concentrate primarily on the Pastels.
TC Can we talk about your film and theatre music as responses to direction? Were there a lot of prompts when you did The Last Great Wilderness or the theatre project as well? How close were you working with the directors?
SP Well, in both cases, it was extremely close relationships. When we were cutting the music to the film, we were looking at the pictures and just trying to lock into what was going on. We had two or three themes that tracked the main characters, and they recurred within the film, when those characters were in the foreground. And then we had other pieces just to kind of bring drama. The song with Jarvis, “I Picked a Flower,” that was integral, too, because that was the song that was on the radio through the film. We had a really close relationship with David McKenzie [director of The Last Great Wilderness] when we were doing that. When we were working on the theatre stuff, Twelve Stars, which is a company, Gerald and Carolyn from the Scottish group, the Wake, and they commissioned us because they’d really like the music on The Last Great Wilderness, and they’re musicians themselves. I think they were less demanding in some ways, and I think they realized when something was ready, whereas David, in the film, because it was his first film, he was always wanting something to else, to try something else, and then I think when we made the soundtrack version of the music, I think David was a bit disappointed that some of his favorite pieces of music had been left off. But it was okay after a while, he came around. I think just working with anyone when you’re really passionate about what you do, it becomes intense up towards a deadline. It definitely tests friendships. But we came through it, and we’re still really good friends with him.
TC You’ve shown a great interest in soundtracks. You did a really great radio program for Domino Radio which featured a lot of your favorite film music.
SP When I was younger, I was really into records, but I was also into film, too, and art. I didn’t think it would ever be possible, I couldn’t imagine the possibility ever arising. I suppose it was later when David McKenzie invited us to do that. It was such an honor, because I had strong opinions on music and film, and how it’s used, and always found the use of music in something like Godard—I was always paying attention to how music sounded in film, and what songs were doing. I had a period where I seemed to listen to a lot of jazz music, and I had a period where I listened to a lot of soundtracks and Krzysztof Komeda. I think it started to influence our music, probably before we did The Last Great Wilderness, but then, even more so working on that, I think we were changed by our experience of working on that.
TC I get a sense of that change in Slow Summits, there’s definitely a soundtrack vibe I get from the record.
SP Absolutely, a song like “Picking Leaves.” I think that string arrangement that Craig Armstrong did for that … His main source of income is film composition. I think that a song like that has a strong image of possible film scenes.
TC You also hosted and selected Pasolini’s Teorema for a film night, for Monorail in Glasgow. How often do you do that kind of thing?
SP It typically runs once a month, although we’re having a short break, because we’re so busy around the record coming out. But it usually works once a month, and we usually invite a guest to make a selection, and then we do it in collaboration with the Glasgow Film Theater, which is the main independent kind of art house cinema in Glasgow. And they will go around to distributors and try to get a print of the film, and the theater rights, but occasionally we’ve chosen, just because something’s not been available, and Pasolini’s Teorema was one of those. We had a list of films I’d like to see at the cinema, and that was one of them. It’s been really diverse and exciting. Roxanne from Veronica Falls, that was one of the early ones. She did Grey Gardens. We had the Scottish premier of the Lawrence of Belgravia film, Paul Kelly’s film, with Stuart Murdoch introducing it and interviewing Lawrence [of Felt]. And Alex Kapranos did some. We’ve had so many great nights in there.
TC In Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows, the opening epigraph purports to be the gist of an interview between the American journalist Edgar Snow and Mao Tsedong, who, like you, was a librarian.
SP (laughter) I don’t work as a librarian now. I studied librarianship for a year and I worked for a while as a librarian. Probably intermittently for three or four years. And, you know, I’m really interested in the organization of materials, and I like public libraries and what they represent. And I like having these collections of free information that people can use, and I think that they’re really important places. But I’ve not worked as a librarian for a long time now.
TC What’s the correlation between composing a Pastels song and your approach to organizing a film night or putting together the catalog of bands for Geographic?
SP I think there is a connection between most of the things I do in my life. I think just trying to bring a degree of organization to something to make various strands somehow coherent, even for me, even if it doesn’t really make sense for anyone else, I like to feel that, in my mind, there’s a flow, or a joining-up between different parts. It’s very fluent to move from one thing to the next. When we compiled the record with Tenniscoats, I thought that had a nice, continuous flow, and then both The Last Great Wilderness, and Slow Summits, had to have a degree of flow, but also make things more surprising. So in some ways, we took some decisions that seemed kind of odd at the time, but then I was really pleased. We were looking for a different kind of organization with that.
In our work, I think there’s a sense of community. I think there’s a sense of hope. I think it’s purposeful. I think it’s music that’s got an integrity. In some ways, it’s truthful. We try to play music that represents us as people. Sometimes it’s awkward, it’s not really smooth, it’s human. We’re not aspiring towards a sort of perfectionism, we’re looking for a certain kind of rawness, but also with lush moments. Something that’s really vibrant and colorful.
TC In the intro to the Domino Radio show you did, you brought up your interest in Thomson color film stock. It was a kind of failed project, but looking back it had that quality: raw, with lush moments. I think it’s a good metaphor for what you’re talking about.
SP Yes. I think the thing with Thomson color was that it failed. It didn’t really catch on. It got overtaken, but retrospectively, when they were doing the archive work on Jour de Fête, they managed to make these kind of beautiful restorations. And it just looks so unique. And I think that sometimes, it’s only years later that you can really appreciate something. In the moment you’re trying to do something and move on, and sometimes you find something in what you did that you weren’t expecting it to actually have, that unique quality of Thomson color film stock.
TC In the early-’80s, a lot of bands all seemed form independently around the world, what would be Flying Nun in New Zealand, K Records in Washington, and, of course, everything in London and Glasgow. I’m curious what you think, looking back, could have accounted for this similar yet sort of unrelated emergence of style, and how they grew into this mutually influential relationship.
SP I think that the Pastels and Beat Happening starting around the same time was absolutely a coincidence. I remember hearing Beat Happening for the first time and being absolutely astonished at how raw and beautiful the expression was, and it made me even worried that we had become too sophisticated, or journeyed, maybe, in the wrong way, somehow.
I think the Glasgow thing, like the Vaselines—myself and Annabel were really involved in the Vaselines at the start, so we probably influenced each other. In a way, it’s easier to understand the similarities in sound, in some ways, between the Pastels and the Vaselines, the Boy Hairdressers—but I was so amazed. I think there is a connection between our sound and the Clean, who I really love. I don’t know why all these groups all came out in that short period of time, probably from about 1981 to 1985, 1986. It was a really kind of a exciting, vibrant time for music. It came out of the impact of things like the Rough Trade singles and we were all listening to different kinds of things. Alex Chilton and Big Star had a big influence on the Glasgow music scene, and the Velvet Underground, and the Modern Lovers, probably even more so.
But the reason why the Pastels and Beat Happening came out around the same time, I couldn’t possibly say. It was quite surprising, really. But I think when we became aware of each other, we were doing maybe … I don’t think Beat Happening ever became influenced by the Pastels, but I think that we found, maybe between us, there was a common language. Calvin would play the Vaselines on his radio show, and they found something in our sound that they really liked, and we found something in their sound, also. I suppose, you know, the thing with art movements, they’ve sometimes triggered in surprising ways. There’s a kind of shared aesthetic when you have a group of filmmakers who are working together and using the same types of equipment, and maybe have the same concerns, and like the same films. First there was no communication between Beat Happening and the Pastels and the Clean, and it was only later that we came to know each other a little bit. The New Zealand thing’s really so extraordinary, you know.
TC I mean, these things seem so coincidental, but so important to the development of each other. Calvin Johnson and K Records were particularly helpful in bringing the Pastels and Teenage Fanclub to the US, and 53rd and 3rd distributed Beat Happening in the UK. It seems like it was a really integral exchange.
SP I think it was. The K thing was very pure and had a good degree of organization, and a really strong aesthetic. I think we did, too, but I think that in some respects we were slightly more compromised. When David from Shop Assistants and myself became involved with 53rd and 3rd, it might have been better for us to do our own thing, but it would have been harder, because we had a relationship with a Scottish distributor, which compromised things to an extent. I think K Records was a really quite hardcore kind of organization and really starting from the roots up, where we were wanting to take shortcuts to get records out quickly and not wait around forever, and get some money so that the Vaselines’s first single could be recorded.
TC Absolutely. I’m wondering about 53rd and 3rd’s relationship, or non-relationship, to Geographic. What was the impetus behind starting Geographic? You put out a lot of alumni from 53rd and 3rd, like Future Pilot or Gerard Love’s Lightships or Eugene Kelly [of the Vaselines]. When it comes to the players in your catalogues, between 53rd and 3rd and Geographic, it doesn’t seem like it’s incredibly different. Why did you start a new label, rather than continuing or revamping 53rd and 3rd?
SP I never really quite felt 53rd and 3rd was my thing. It was David Keegan from the Shop Assistants who had the idea to start the label, and David was one of my best friends, and still is. At first, I had a sense that I just really wanted to help him. We had a third partner from a Scottish distributor, and it became an increasingly uncomfortable partnership for David and myself. With Geographic, that was instigated by our label, Domino, and they said, “You guys have always got great ideas about records it’d be nice to release. Why don’t you have your own imprint?” And we took them up on that, and we’re very excited to be able to release music. I think that, for me, the sound of 53rd is very much the sound of its time, and it’s kind of un-rock, kind of pop music, with melodic elements. And probably faster in tempo. The Geographic sound, we weren’t quite sure what it would be, and then when we heard Maher Shalal Hash Baz, we just thought they absolutely encapsulate what we want the label to be. It was just something that Katrina and I really loved doing together. Choosing groups, and helping them realize their ambitions. The Geographic sound is maybe more exotic or odd in sound compared to 53rd and 3rd, and maybe it reflects the average age of all the people that were making records for 53rd: 24, 25, maybe younger. But then with Geographic it was probably slightly older. It was people in their 30s and 40s, their perspective had evolved, even though it was maybe the same people in some cases.
TC I wanted to ask you about Juniper Beri-Beri. It’s such an elusive object. I can really only find transcribed texts from it, or photos of the covers.
SP I think that when the Pastels started it was very much a period of tape culture, of trading tapes, and fanzine culture. And certainly for the Pastels, the support for our music was probably the fanzines, which were more important for us than the NME or more mainstream press. It was later that they probably became interested in us. I think we just spent so much energy and just wanted to join in with everything. I think it was just something that Annabel and I were really good friends, and became really good friends with Strawberry Switchblade, and our partner at the time, Peter MacArthur. I think with just had a sense of fun and purpose, and we could do something that we could kind of document. I think it was quite a childish effort, and I think that there were maybe other fanzines at the time that maybe had better writing, but it was nice to be a part of that community. It was an exciting community. I think we just wanted to do different things, not just music, but to try different things. Later we did a magazine called Pastelism, probably a couple of years after that, and I think we just got good at it by then. I’m really proud of that.
The fanzine thing was really interesting, and we built a nice archive of different things. I did the first interview with the Jesus & Mary Chain. One of our friends did the first interview with Norman when he was starting Teenage Fanclub. And to write about things like that, Television Personalities weren’t really in the music papers very much, but they were a really important group for all of us, they were a group that were influencing us very much, and we just wanted to be able to try and support them.
It felt like it was very much the four of us. Peter MacArthur, Jill Bryson [of Strawberry Switchblade], myself, and Annabel.
TC Zines played a really integral part in underground music, and how people engaged with the bands and with each other. Do you think now that zines have taken a backseat to blogs in terms of the immediacy and influence and ability to stay timely that blogs have?
SP Yeah, we did Juniper with a Glasgow printer, and there was probably more work and more production that went into it. I think there are some really exciting blogs out there. It’s such a speedy culture now that people react to things really quickly. Sometimes people react to things in a way that you wonder how they’ve even had a chance to consider it. And I think an important part of contemporary culture is having the first word on something. With fanzines, maybe that was part of it, but it didn’t seem like the main thing. But I do think there are great blogs, and so much love goes into some of those, and I think it’s really exciting that you can reach people all across the world that have the same niche taste as yourself. With fanzines, they were localized. I think maybe K Records distributed Pastelism for us, we sent them some. I think now the word gets disseminated to a much farther-flung audience, in a much quicker way. But blogs have got a nice feel to them in terms of writing, and the aesthetics, I still think you can convey something. I think the ideal is some kind of blog or website with a kind of print edition maybe once a year. That seems like the perfect thing. But I know people that I consider really good writers, but they’re writing for blogs, and I’m hearing more and more people saying that they’re trying to do a print edition, which I think is really nice.
The Pastels’s latest album, Slow Summits, is out now on Domino Records.
Tyler Curtis is a writer living in New York.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.