The delightful resurrection of The Pastels has been one of the highlights of 2013, a year already brimming with surprise reunions and returns. Aside from a remix album, a film soundtrack, a theatre project and the 2009 release of Two Sunsets, a charming collaboration with the Japanese duo Tenniscoats, The Pastels hadn't recorded an official studio album since 1997's Illumination. That changed this spring when the Glasgow band quietly put out Slow Summits on Domino Records, a breezy collection of smart indiepop perfection spanning the seasons.
Over the years, The Pastels' lineup has dwindled to two permanent members — Stephen McRobbie and Katrina Mitchell — although former vocalist/bassist Annabel Wright and other longtime bandmates are featured on Slow Summits along with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Craig Armstrong, and members of Tenniscoats and To Rococo Rot.
Due to last minute visa issues — the frustrated lament of many British musicians of late — The Pastels' Stateside tour was sadly postponed earlier this month (it would have included a stop at the soon-to-be-shuttered Maxwell's in Hoboken). However, The Pastels will play a handful of UK dates this summer, including the Green Man Festival in August, turning on another generation to their sweet, yet never sentimental sound. While The Pastels sometimes reflect the Velvet Underground's more winsome persona, in turn, the Glasgow group's gentle influence can be heard in bands like Belle and Sebastian and Noah and the Whale. Even Kurt Cobain was a fan.
The Alternate Side caught up with The Pastels' Stephen McRobbie over email to discuss the new record's unhurried evolution and to ask that inevitable question — what took them so long?
TAS: It seems that the title of your beautiful new album, Slow Summits, could refer to the time it has taken you to release a new album, apart from Two Sunsets with Tenniscoats in 2009. Did you plan to begin working on another Pastels record right after that release? Did that album serve as a catalyst?
Stephen McRobbie: It was helpful to work on and complete the collaboration with Tenniscoats. In a way that project started out vague with an idea to book a recording session just to see what happened. The first session wasn't fantastic for technical reasons but we all enjoyed it and decided we should try to make a record together. It had a natural momentum because we were working on it every time they came to Glasgow and in the end it came together quite quickly for us, probably slowly for them!
At the same time we were working on theatre music for 12 Stars. Completing those two projects, and The Last Great Wilderness too, gave us confidence to work in our own way on our new record, and to take our time when we needed to. Our sound was affected by the different needs of these collaborative projects, so in a way while making Slow Summits, we felt we had to put something more of ourselves back in.
TAS: When you look at the journey of The Pastels from the '80s to present day, what surprises you the most about how the band, you, and Katrina have changed in those years? How have you remained true to where you began?
Stephen: We've tried to always make the music that reflects us at different stages of our lives. I think there is something core to The Pastels which will always be there — an intention to express something truthful to us, a certain sound, a certain way. But some of the music that we've made on this record I just couldn't have imagined at the start of the group. In places it's really more complex that I would have considered.
TAS: What did you want to change the most following the release of Illumination and the departure of Annabel Wright?
Stephen: Well, if Annabel had stayed with us, it would have changed anyway. She worked on Secret Music and Slow Summits at the start, and there's nothing that we've done that I couldn't imagine Annabel being part of. On reflection I felt Illumination was very tentative and I think we wanted to try to address that but, as I say, we would have done that anyway. Mainly her leaving left more space for the others in the group and it introduced other colours.
TAS: Musically, there are so many exquisite moments on Slow Summits, like the instrumental title track, "Kicking Leaves," the woozy sweetness of "Summer Rain" and "Check My Heart." Did you start out with a lot of material and ideas, or was there a real conciseness to the process of building a select group of songs?
Stephen: We had a lot of material at different times but it took us a while to realise that we had everything we needed to make Slow Summits. "Check My Heart" was an important addition, it brought something pop. I think I was working on "Summer Rain" at the same time that Katrina was working on "Kicking Leaves" and with both I think we knew we had something. But there were other songs which we liked which didn't make it so there was a selection process.
TAS: Tortoise's John McEntire produced the record. What is it about his approach that suits The Pastels and worked best for all of you in this process?
Stephen: He's very technical and unfussy, he's got good instincts. I think we probably have quite a lot of shared tastes so aesthetically we trust him when it comes to sounds. He doesn't seem to mind our way of working, quite a lot of randomness and some very focused times!
TAS: Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Annabel Wright, Craig Armstrong, Ronald Lippok, Stefan Schneider, your friends from Tenniscoats and To Rococo Rot, all appear on the album. What was it about everyone's input that fueled particular songs?
Stephen: Well, we always felt that at all times that we would have a strong Pastels group sound, and we could bring in something else into it. Norman and Annabel have both been part of the group for so many years and we're very aware of their sounds. Katrina and I love Annabel's voice. Norman's very inventive and speedy and for instance really helped with the chorus on "Summer Rain." Ronald and Stefan were in at the beginning of Secret Music, After Image and Slow Summits and helped build them with a complete lack of ego. It was the first time we'd worked with Craig and he worked specificaly on the strings for "Kicking Leaves" which are so distinctive and beautiful. Tenniscoats played on "Night Time Made Us" and "Come To The Dance" and really brought something magical to those songs.
TAS: The music industry has changed drastically over the last decade, even since 2009. Did you find that a daunting prospect when planning your return?
Stephen: We never really considered that. I think we're fortunate in that we had confidence that Domino would stick with us and do their best no matter what kind of condition the music industry was in.
TAS: The Pastels join My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, David Bowie, Daft Punk and others making long overdue returns this year. Any theories why 2013 seems to be the year of long-awaited returns? What other return. aside from your own, has meant the most to you thus far? And which band would you like to see release another album after a long hiatus?
Stephen: No idea, it's strange, I thought we'd be out there on our own! It's been a wild year of unexpected and daring strategies. Because, they're our friends, it was so great to see My Bloody Valentine coming out with something so graceful and strong. The David Bowie comeback was quite emotional, I think. Still processing Boards Of Canada and Daft Punk. For me, a new Movietone record would be the greatest thing but I don't think they're even ready to start, unless they too have been working on their own daring and unexpected strategy.
TAS: If there were a motto that defined The Pastels, what would it be?
Stephen: Complicated simplicity in everything.