Leave Them All Behind: An Oral History of British Shoegazing

Jon Wiederhorn
Writer
The reunited Ride at Coachella in 2015. (Photo: Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella)

The subgenre classification “shoegazer” may have been conceived as a joke, and the British scene was in its prime only from about 1990 to 1995, but the music has continued to influence bands over the decades. Without shoegazers, the Raveonettes, Silversun Pickups, and even Coldplay wouldn’t sound quite the same. And now many of the founders of the movement, including My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive, Lush, and Swervedriver, have made a comeback, reuniting to tour and release well-received albums decades after their last official offerings.

Related: 31 Essential Shoegaze Tracks

My Bloody Valentine — the gold standard of shoegazing — were the first to reunite; they launched a comeback tour in 2007 and in 2013 surprise-released MBV, the long-delayed follow-up to 1991’s Loveless. Then came Swervedriver, who reunited to tour in 2008 and released I Wasn’t Born to Lose You in 2014. That same year, Slowdive reunited to play select dates and summer festivals. Then Lush scheduled a tour and released the EP Blind Spot in April 2016. Lush’s reunion, sadly, didn’t last (in November 2016 they released a statement saying it was “now time for us to return to our families and homes, and bring our time together as a band to a close”), but still, the shoegazer resurrection was on.

Ride reunited to tour Europe and the U.S. in 2015, and started working on the follow-up to their 1996 album Tarantula. This year, Slowdive put out their first album since 1995, and Ride released Weather Diaries, their first full-length since ’96. Both are striking returns to form, recapturing sounds in which shoegazers luxuriated in the early ’90s.

Shoegazing, which came of age in England in the ’90s, is a quasi-psychedelic style of music which clouds conventional rock melodies with guitar effects that make the instruments sound fuzzy or celestial and understated, along with ethereal vocals that contrast with the often Byrds-style harmonies. The drums are either feather-light or repetitive and syncopated, and texture is far more important than technique. At their best, shoegazers — who merge the styles of the Jesus and Mary Chain and Cocteau Twins with the moody pop of bands like the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Spacemen 3 — encapsulate listeners in a wash of sound that’s all at once atmospheric, noisy, and sublime.

Today, new bands including No Joy, Nothing, and Kestrels proudly wear the term “shoegazer” on their vintage effect pedals, and there are numerous blogs and podcasts dedicated to updating shoegazers about the day-to-day happenings of their favorite groups. That obviously wasn’t the case before 1990, when Ride, Slowdive, Lush, Swervedriver, and Chapterhouse all released their first EPs. Back then, when the English music press started going to shows and writing up glowing, hyperbolic reviews, they quickly noticed that members of these bands were friends and sometimes went to the pub together. So, searching for a name for this new flood of seemingly like-minded groups, a writer at Melody Maker sarcastically labeled the movement The Scene That Celebrates Itself. Realizing it was a clunky term for a new music scene, writers adopted the term “shoegazer” after one journalist noticed a distinct lack of onstage movement during the bands’ gigs; instead, many of the musicians stared at their pedal boards so they didn’t miss a music cue. Gazing at the ground was also a good way to watch the enervated, lovelorn vibe of the songs.

Though it was born from derision, U.K. and American writers and fans made peace with the term as they embraced the music of the aforementioned bands and welcomed a new wave of gazers. Back when print journalism was healthy, there were three big weekly music magazines in Britain, and half a dozen fairly popular monthlies in the U.S. In an effort to fill each issue with new material, writers turned their focus away from shoegazing after a few years and embraced more theatrical groups like Pulp, Suede, and the Auteurs. By the time the Britpop revolution, led by Oasis and Blur, arrived, the shoegazers were forgotten — until now.

Yahoo Music recently contacted Slowdive vocalist and guitarist Rachel Goswell, Ride guitarists and vocalists Andy Bell and Mark Gardener, Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin, and Lush guitarist and vocalist Emma Anderson, to gaze back at the rise, fall, and resurrection of the scene that celebrated itself.

Supernova: The Birth of a Scene

Emma Anderson (Lush): That whole Scene That Celebrates Itself thing was just a joke, you know? Some journalists saw bands going to the pub together after gigs, and suddenly in the press we’re a scene of musicians that think they’re so wonderful, when that wasn’t the case at all. Shoegazing was also a term of ridicule. It wasn’t meant as a term of endearment. I mean, in America I’m not sure how many people realized that, and they actually kind of embraced the name. But it was originally coined to pigeonhole a bunch of groups together and make fun of them. 

Rachel Goswell (Slowdive): The word “shoegazer” came out of a review of the band Moose. The writer came up with the term to describe them just looking at pedal boards while they were playing live. And it just got tacked onto everyone. In some ways there’s the fundamental element of all the guitar pedals in there, but musically, I think we are quite a different band to Ride and Lush and those other groups. Everyone in England always wants to create a scene or a movement that they can promote for a little while until they get bored with it and move on to something else. But to be caught in the whirlwind of that can be really disorienting. 

Adam Franklin (Swervedriver): We all just became part of this ridiculous craze, and of course, it was a derogatory name — similar to Krautrock, which was termed not as an elite name; it was really insulting. I don’t think we really fit in with a lot of those bands. We were grouped together with the shoegazers party because of the label we were on [Creation Records, which signed numerous gazers], and partly because some of those bands came out of Oxford, which is where us and Ride were from. Also, these bands generally had monosyllabic names. There were lots of V’s and E’s: Curve, Verve, Slowdive, Ride, Swervedriver, Moose, Lush. Lots of vowels. I don’t know why that was, but it was another way to group them together.

Anderson: When I think of Lush, I just think of us. I don’t see us in the context of the shoegazing scene. I’m not trying to distance myself from a lot of these bands, and we did play with a lot of them. I liked them. I just never saw it like that. And it always felt like everyone else was trying to put us together.

Andy Bell (Ride): The set of influences that formed our band have stayed in people’s consciousness since the late ’80s. The roots of it is the Beatles and the Stones and the Velvets and the Byrds, but then in the late ’80s there were a lot of really good guitar bands, like Spacemen 3, House of Love, a lot of indie music that had really interesting sounds. I think that influential time certainly pushed us into forming the band in the first place, and I think that music is still making people form bands. So we’re maybe some of the first to be influenced, rather than influencers, ourselves. We were just ripping people off at the time. No one was quite sure who was first.

Goswell: There’s this perception that this whole thing came out of a worship of My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins. We all liked the Valentines, and [guitarist] Christian [Savill] and I loved the Cocteau Twins, but there were a whole heap of different bands that influenced us in different ways. We were listening to Velvet Underground. They were a firm favorite. And [frontman] Neil [Halstead] was into a lot of C86 bands. I wasn’t. I was a Goth, but we bonded at school over our love for the Smiths. And we all liked the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Anderson: We did like My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and the Cocteau Twins, but I think it’s always frustrating that people think we only ever listened to, like, three bands, which is totally not true. We were influenced by so many different types of music. I mean, [vocalist and guitarist] Miki [Berenyi] was very much into the ‘60s garage scene, which comes through in her music. And as much as I like the Cocteau Twins, I was really into the C86 movement, and [bassist] Steve [Rippon] was into the Byrds and the Beach Boys, and [drummer] Chris Acland was very much of an anarcho-punk. I even think our music isn’t very gauzy and sheeny. But not being particular great musicians, we turned up the amps and turned up the effects and buried the vocals a bit.

Goswell: We were all really passionate about making music, but we were teenagers and I think we were really angsty at the time. And I guess that’s conveyed through the music in quite a sad way rather than an angry way, because, you know, we’re not an angry-sounding band. Neil and I used to be a couple, and when we split up, that definitely had an effect on the band. Recording the first album was very strange, as would be anything you have to work on with someone you’ve split up with. Touring was pretty difficult as well. It was quite difficult to be around each other, to be honest. For a couple years it was very uncomfortable. But the band meant so much to both of us. It was more important than anything else. 

Franklin: I think there was a real psychedelic aspect to our music. There was a real awakening to and a rediscovery of the music of the ’60s. We loved the Pebbles garage-rock compilation albums and the Nuggets records. Maybe if you combine that kind of vibe with Echo and the Bunnymen, the Valentines, the Mary Chain, and House of Love, you kind of see where we were coming from. In hindsight, it was an exploratory sound that a lot of the bands had, and people probably hadn’t used the effect pedals to those extremes at that point. 

Goswell: There was only about a year where the U.K. music press really got behind what we were doing, and all that time we could tell it wouldn’t last because they were building us up so high. The working title for our third EP, Holding Our Breath, was Holding Our Breath Waiting for the Backlash because we’d had such great reviews and we knew we’d get the backlash because every band got backlash. And sure enough, we did.

Looking Up: Stargazing

Franklin: Ride’s first single came out in 1990 in the first week of January, and it felt like here we are, a new decade, the last part of the 20th century. But it was also something that was planned to build the buzz. It’s was no secret in Oxford that Ride had been signed to Creation Records in the summer of ’89, but Creation decided not to release anything until six months later so they could start this new thing. So that’s when we thought we would get our s*** together and maybe get a record deal as well. There was a tangible excitement when Ride first appeared in the music press. When we were recording our first EP, their second EP came out and they were on [the music TV program] Top of the Pops. That was pretty exciting, because for years Top of the Pops was the realm of pop music. And suddenly here’s this new thing.

Goswell: We started in tiny little pubs and suddenly we were in bigger venues. I don’t remember a huge amount about that time, to be honest. Maybe I was too stoned for most of it [laughs]. We did quite a lot of gigs with Ride. We did a big tour with them, and they were always great fun. When we opened for Ride at the Kilbourne National, which is a venue in London that has a capacity of 3,000, that was the biggest gig we’ve ever done. We all had really shaky knees. I was absolutely terrified, and that was quite early on. But we got through it.

Anderson: We did some big shows. We played Reading [Festival], and in America people took the music a lot more seriously. We got put on Lollapalooza with, like, Ministry and Soundgarden. That kind of thing would never have happened in England. It was never that big here, you know? I mean, Ride were big. Ride were a lot bigger than Lush. I have absolutely no problem saying that. But they’re more of a boy-rock guitar band. And I think they were sought by more of a mainstream populist crowd than bands like us and Slowdive. In Britain or America, we never really cracked either country. It depends on how you want to define it, you know? I mean, we had a few hits here, but we certainly weren’t pop stars. 

Franklin: I would say in the U.K., 1991 was the banner year. A lot of crazy albums came out. My Bloody Valentine did Loveless that year, which was huge for everyone. Also, you had Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. And we did our first album, Raise, which got a good reaction. That was when we first started touring in the States, and by ’92 it was something else. Ecstasy became really popular. The first time I ever did that was with My Bloody Valentine. We were playing in London, and I went to a club afterwards and someone gave me a pill. Two years earlier we had still been experimenting with acid, and I think you can hear that in a lot of music. It’s sort of a rite of passage, isn’t it? But I also think you can hear the Ecstasy craze in things like Screamadelica and especially in the Valentine stuff from around that time.

Goswell: I smoked some weed, but we were never into “Class A” drugs during Slowdive times. I mean, [bassist] Nick [Chaplin] and Christian have never even taken any drugs, for a start. So as a band, in some ways, we didn’t fit in. There were various people in these bands that were up partying all night, and that just wasn’t us.

Anderson: We were drinkers more than anything. And we just liked a drink with friends — which, again, is how that whole Scene That Celebrates Itself joke got started. Some of us did hallucinogens here and there, but it was never for the music. It was just for fun, really.

Going Blank Again: The End of an Era 

Goswell: Creation [Records] kinda lost interest in us by the time our [second album] Souvlaki came out [in 1993]. The head of the label, Alan McGee, sold us out to SPK in America, and it really, really f***ed things up. They were the label that put out the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack. What are they going to do with Slowdive? It was just not a good match. They didn’t have a clue and they didn’t care. We self-financed the tour to support Souvlaki because our American label pulled tour support on us about a week or so before we were supposed to go out. So we ended up funding it ourselves, but we managed to do it — which is amazing, really. Bands and friends offered us floors to sleep on around North America so we could have free accommodations and tour. It was a labor of love. That tour was a bit grueling, but it felt like a big achievement because it was a bit of a “f*** you” to the record label for really letting us down again.

Anderson: We were signed by 4AD, and in America they licensed us to Warner Bros. In a financial way, that helped a lot — but, I mean, the downside is then you get that pressure to break America, you know? And we had a lot of pressure, basically, which kind of got to be too much towards the end. We spent a lot of time in America — more than a lot of British bands did — which was great, in one sense. It’s nice to have that sort of support. But I think it went on too long, and they didn’t realize when it should have stopped. And because of the sort of structure of our deal, 4AD had to kind of agree to have us go back and back and back to America, and in the end we got a bit lost with it.

Franklin: I think things tailed off for us in 1995. We were still doing well in the States, but England was always fickle because everything was led by the music press. They were always after something new to sell papers. In the States everything happens at more of a slower and natural pace, and we kept going for a while. 

Goswell: The last gig we ended up playing, but we didn’t know it at the time, was at Leeds Palace in Toronto. That was on the Souvlaki tour, and that was a great gig. It was packed. I’m glad we didn’t know that was going to be our last gig, and the live side of the band ended on a high.

Franklin: There were a lot of tensions in the band after the British press lost interest. There were too many drugs around and people not really as interested in making music. In 1998, I feel like we weren’t being as adventurous as we had been. Bands started opening for us and we didn’t feel any particular kinship with them.

Goswell: After we toured for Souvlaki we came back home and started work on our third record, Pygmalion. And we waited a year for that to come out. In one sense, our American label stuck by us and got the record out in [1995] even though they really weren’t into what we were doing. And we were actually in rehearsal for a Pygmalion tour, but Creation dropped us, so the tour got canceled.

Franklin: Creation couldn’t afford to keep us on because of the way the contract was structured. They had to pay us a certain amount of money for every new release, and obviously the record sales weren’t reaching the amount they would have needed to make money. A week after the Ejector Seat Reservation album came out [in July 1995], they let us go. We got signed to Geffen, but the girl that signed us got fired three weeks before we were supposed to release 99th Dream, which would end up coming out in America on the indie label Zero Hour. By that point, we felt like a change was required. It was supposed to be a hiatus, but the hiatus went on for a while.

Goswell: Slowdive ended at the right time. We’d done Pygmalion. Creation wasn’t interested. The band was falling to pieces because we had no money. It came to a natural end in that sense. [Drummer] Simon [Scott] had already left, and Nick and Christian weren’t around much for the recording of Pygmalion. It was mainly Neil, to be fair. But we always felt it would never be Slowdive if we didn’t have Nick and Christian. Slowdive is about the five people that are in the band that make all those sounds. It’s about all of us together, and without everybody there, then it wouldn’t be Slowdive. So Neil and I did [five albums with indie-country/folk group] Mojave 3 [which also featured Chapterhouse drummer Simon Rowe].

Anderson: We never fought a lot, but I think there was definitely more tension right at the end — and even then it wasn’t the case that we were fighting. We weren’t speaking. We were all just withdrawn. We went into our little shells, and that’s not a good thing either. I think we were at our creative peak around [the band’s most moody and ethereal albums,] Gala [1990] and Spooky [1992]. That’s when I was enjoying it the most. Later on, I didn’t enjoy it so much. I think [1996’s] Lovelife is my least favorite record, even though it sold the most. As time went on, the pressure got greater and greater. And I think pressure is a terrible thing. It kills creativity and it kills enthusiasm. There was an innocence and enthusiasm and naiveté early on, which as time went on kind of got ground out of us. 

Goswell: Lush were different than the rest of us because they went on and did all their pop stuff, and they were together a bit longer as well. They got quite a bit more popular than the rest of us. They were still going when Neil and I started Mojave 3.

Mark Gardener (Ride): [Our breakup] was just a collective crash, I think. We lived in each other’s pockets for years and years. I think it’s very natural that you’re going to hit a point where you just need to become free birds again.

Anderson: It’s debatable if there was ever a decline of Lush. Our most successful album was our last record, Lovelife. So it ended on a commercial high. But when Chris died, that was a massive blow and we couldn’t carry on. We never really split up until that happened. Before Chris [hanged himself in October 1996], I had a meeting with Miki and Phil and I said that I was unhappy, but I didn’t quit. No, not at all. We knew Chris was unhappy as well, but there were no signs [that he was suicidal]. He had never done anything like that. He was just tired and exhausted, but we all were. And we were all withdrawn, so he went back up north to see his parents and we thought, “Well, he’ll have a bit a time off and then we’ll be OK again.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. There was absolutely no indication that was going to happen. It was an absolute shock.

The Return: Gazing Back in Our Direction

Gardener: I lost my dad and things like that. You suddenly start to think that time isn’t forever, and “I really want to do this again.”

Franklin: I did various things while Swervedriver were off, like Toshack Highway and Magnetic Morning with [drummer] Sam [Fogarino] from Interpol. Then the other guys in Swervedriver started talking about getting back together for some shows. I was in the States at the time, so [guitarist] Jimmy [Hartridge] called me and asked me if I wanted to do it and I was like, “Yeah.” We finished in ’99, and there were certainly points in the 2000s where I thought we wouldn’t play again. But as time went by, it seemed like a good idea. We got back together before most of the other bands. The other huge band was the Pixies. A friend asked me to go with him to New York, so I went along, and as they were about to take on the stage you hear this big roar of approval. It was very exciting. A couple of months later, it was announced that the Stooges were coming back, and so I saw it in the point of view as people that were too young to see it back in the day. Maybe they’d want to check us out now. In 2008 we were offered Coachella, which has become the rite of passage for when a band gets back together. But we did that show and then we booked a full U.S. tour.

Gardener: I started to think a few years ago, after the [Stone] Roses and My Bloody Valentine [reunited], to seriously think, more than I’d ever felt, that there was sort of unfinished business with Ride. Maybe there wasn’t ever going to be a peace of mind if we didn’t do this.

Anderson: About eight years ago, we thought about getting back together. We had a few offers to play shows, but it wasn’t anything major, and Miki had her two small children, so it was going to be difficult for her to tour. I mean, I’ve got a small child now, and it’s difficult for me, but at the time she was the only one with kids and I think she felt like she was going to be too distant from me and [bassist] Phil [King]. We just couldn’t get it coordinated and it didn’t feel right. It was, like, 2008, and we turned it down. And then two years later, we had another very brief think about it again, but it didn’t happen. Then in 2015 we finally decided to do it.

Bell: It just became almost like we couldn’t think of any more reasons not to do it. It felt like we were getting more and more noise of people saying, “You guys should do this, this is the right time.” And inside myself, I kind of was starting to feel like that. Maybe since I saw the Stone Roses get back together… they were one of my favorite bands when they were going, and it made me very happy to see them again, so it pushed that little button in me that was like, “Maybe we should do this.” 

Goswell: We’d been asked so many times over the years, “Would you do this gig? Would you do that gig?” And we were always like, “No.” Then Neil called me to tell me we were offered the 2008 Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, and this time it just seemed like the right time. I had my son two years earlier, and there were quite a lot of difficulties with that. I was in and out of hospital with him. Finally it settled, so it freed me up to be a bit more me again, rather than just mum all of the time, which I had been for a number of years. For everybody else as well, it was just the right time. We had talked about doing a record and we said, “Let’s just do gigs.” We thought we’d maybe do eight festivals, and we ended up doing about 30 and then the North American tour. It exploded in a way we never expected it to at all. We just thought we’d do a handful of shows.

Anderson: I think we approached getting back together in a slightly different way. We got a manager and we decided we wanted to do new music to go with the tour. So we did a new EP [Blind Spot], and that for me was quite an exciting process. I like making records. Basically, a lot of bands that get back together don’t do that. They just get back together, play gigs, and then maybe they’ll think about making a record. So that was an added plus for me. 

Franklin: For a long time we didn’t have intentions of recording anything new — there was a lot going on with the old material to play that live. We played a few songs that were never played live; we did covers; we were asked to play the first album in its entirety in Australia. It was Jimmy and Steve who were like, “Let’s make new stuff. We are playing with this old stuff. Let’s make it valid.” I was more than happy to do that. That artistic itch wasn’t being scratched. It was interesting because at first you think, what are you supposed to do? Do you do the album that you would have made in 2001? Which would be ridiculous, because time goes by and other things begin to inspire you. But, of course, we felt like we couldn’t do an album that sounded nothing like Swervedriver. We couldn’t jump into the 22nd century. It became an art project, and things came naturally. The [2015] album I Wasn’t Born to Lose You expresses the two sides of the band, of hard rock and shoegaze. Our album touches on that and the early-’90s sound. We’re really happy with it, and the response was great.

Goswell: We did quite a lot of recording last year. And Neil holed up in a studio in Cornwall doing some jiggery-pokery. Then we reconvened in February to finalize some things. We just took our time with it, really. By then we had a lot of material. We decided to put out “Star Roving” in January to see what the reaction would be and if people would like it. They did and the reviews were really great, so then we finished the album [Slowdive]. So we’ll see what happens from here. Being in the band now is much more enjoyable on probably every level. All the angst is gone — well, most of the angst is gone. There isn’t a label that’s giving us pressure or threatening to drop us. And I think as you get older, you tend to care less of what other people think. I don’t really think about what I’m doing and allow myself to get coerced into things I don’t want to do. And that takes the pressure off. I just don’t see the point in putting unnecessary stress on people. Life should be enjoyed. We all go through difficult times in our lives. I just don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I went into it with the attitude that this record will be ready when it’s ready and it’ll be good. Otherwise, we won’t put it out. We didn’t want to do a record we weren’t proud of.

Bell: I feel like we’ve been sort of loved into existence again. People loved our music to such an extent that we’ve been offered these gigs, and it’s rolling and rolling now, so I want to make sure that we’ve satisfied that love and [given] it back.