Following the reissue of their indie pop classic Untouched by Saint Marie Records, John Girgus from the twee pop outfit and former label-mate Aberdeen caught up with Scott Purnell to talk about the re-release, Shoegaze, and the things that are ground-breaking...
John: I wanted to say first that I caught the day show a few years ago in Echo Park at that music festival. Sorry for not saying hello, I decided not to go though the awkward "so hey...label mates there for a minute...yeah so, good show..." approach. But here we are now, so it was a good show, and I remember you looked like you enjoy playing together still; youthful and energetic. How was the night show at the church?
Scott: This was our first time in LA. It was immense and we loved the place. We were invited by the organisers of Culture Collide to play three very different shows at the festival. The first, late night in a tiny bar, where there was an enthusiastic bunch of people watching but the sound was very rough and we couldn’t get Kathryn’s keyboard to work. It was nice to play the church the following day where the sound and surroundings were beautiful, but sadly the scheduling meant that the place was pretty empty. We still enjoy each performance and because we play so few gigs we do retain the energy and enthusiasm. We also love chatting to Sarah fans and label mates after the gigs so you should have said hello. I guess the live performance stays fresh as we’re not banging out the same songs night after night. And the youthful bit, thanks, must be the English tea.
I'm listening to the 2011 album The Beginning and the End as I write this. It could be the best to date. I'd love to hear where things go from here, are you working on another album?
We are proud of all of our records for different reasons but I certainly enjoyed working on The Beginning and the End. We recorded a new album with the producer of Untouched, Corin Dingley, in his studio in France last September. We then tried mixing it ourselves but weren't happy. We've sent the files back to mix and a great job is being done as we speak. It’s not too far from completion now. We will head back down to France to add some finishing touches in the next months or so.
"We never have any urge to reinvent ourselves, just keep doing what we like, luckily there are no commercial pressures; it’s just a creative outlet for us all and along the way we hope some people like it too".
The difference with the new album is that we all stood in a room and played the songs together like we did with Untouched back in 1992. It’s epic in places and quiet in others, but we've spent most of the time developing the vocals and backing melodies. I know it’s become part of our signature sound but this time the vocals seem more prominent and powerful with Dean, Jamie and Kathryn all sharing vocal duties. Also, it was great to work with Corin again. He’s a quietly inspirational character and understands our sound implicitly. It takes the pressure off us to produce and just get on with playing our parts the best we can. We never have any urge to reinvent ourselves, just keep doing what we like, luckily there are no commercial pressures; it’s just a creative outlet for us all and along the way we hope some people like it too.
To the reissue of Untouched. You were pretty well into the sound by the time you made this, it's essentially the band's magnum opus for that era and it's a beloved album. Was that always the case? How do you feel about the album now?
We are very happy with the record, we were when we recorded it and still are. Last year we played at a Sarah Records exhibition weekend and film launch and played the album almost in it’s entirety. It was interesting to go back and re-learn the songs and they did hold up pretty well, although I prefer what we are doing now which I guess is a good thing! We understand the joy it's brought to a group of people and it’s the best feeling ever. It’s great that Saint Marie want to bring it back to life again and offer the chance for a new generation to buy the record on CD and vinyl. It’s a special record in our band's evolution so to speak, and although not ground-breaking in any sense, firmly part of the more obscure end of the Shoegazing genre of the early 90's. Untouched, Greater Than God and Loveblind are the reason we’re still making music now.
"We never ever considered ourselves ground-breaking or even Shoegaze"
I like that you refer to the album as 'not ground-breaking', that's how I tend to be. You know, it really doesn't need to be, to become what it has. Are you familiar with the term 'The Scene That Celebrates Itself'? It has some relevance here. It doesn't really need to be ground-breaking to inspire. Music for me is as much about connection as discovery.
Yes couldn't agree more. I have heard of the scene that celebrates itself. Despite the creation of a song being very personal, you want people to connect, otherwise you'd just do it for yourself and never release, broadcast or perform it. We never ever considered ourselves ground-breaking or even Shoegaze. I just went to watch Pink Shiny Ultrablast and Fever Dream in Bristol and that's the definition of Shoegaze.
I was lucky enough to purchase a copy of the single After Years not too long after its release. The feeling I got from Grey Skies has never really left since. It's an absolutely huge influence on me, still. I can really say I've watched your sound evolve. Untouched was by no means your first foray into 'Shoegazery'. There was a defining moment and that was Loveblind. It was like "whoa, you went there"! What can you tell me about that moment?
It's great to know that Grey Skies was such an influence on you, this is why music is such a spiritual pleasure beyond just doing it for yourself. Grey Skies was the first song we ever composed for Secret Shine, it was something I had knocking around for our former band Dreamscape but it didn't quite fit into that band. From the start we wanted to be a noisy band. I was a huge Jesus and Mary Chain fan and well into some of the emerging Shoegazers. We never set out to sound like anyone but just decided after the first record to keep writing good pop melodies, but just turn on our distortion pedals. We actually weren't sure if Matt and Clare from Sarah would go with it but they seemed to really jump onboard! I remember recording Loveblind as part of the demo tapes for Untouched. At that point it was just another song for the album, but in the studio our producer Corin found this way of expanding that guitar sound out into the huge cacophony. We just kept adding more layers of guitar and recorded whole tracks of feedback to mix in. Matt and Clare deliberated quite a long time, on whether that or Temporal should be the single, but I think they made the right choice.
"I've never even thought we’re that Shoegaze. If you listen to some of the new Shoegaze bands they don’t hide at all, they completely unashamedly play the wonky MBV guitars card or the whispy Slowdive girl boy vocals".
© Sarahrecord.org Secret Shine in the 90's
Grey Skies still does that for me. It's honest and sounds like you made it in spite of your aspirations, again which has always been something I've done in music. Do you think you'll ever play any of the early material live?
The song becomes something different, like it lives on it’s own and is not just a product of Secret Shine in a rehearsal room, studio or gig. I can hardly remember writing Grey Skies but it does seem like we had a few parts rattling around and they all got pushed into one song. That still happens! I would like to think that all of our songs are pretty honest, with the exception of Liquid Indigo when Jamie was very much in love with Loveless. I've never even thought we’re that Shoegaze. If you listen to some of the new Shoegaze bands they don’t hide at all, they completely unashamedly play the wonky MBV guitars card or the whispy Slowdive girl boy vocals.
We do play old songs live. At the Sarah film launch in Bristol we did almost all of Untouched, with Honey Sweet and Loveblind. We've also done stuff from Greater than God and our first post Sarah single Wish Coming True. Maybe Grey Skies one day, it’s not out of the question but we often play abroad and don’t have the luxury of taking an acoustic guitar...
How can you do a Shoegaze interview without talking pedals? Are you into this whole boutique pedal craze? Is there anything on your pedal board left from Untouched?
I think we’d disappoint most Shoegaze pedal train spotters. Our guitar sound is a heavy dose of distortion, chorus and reverb. I love some of the sounds that the Strymon Blue Sky creates, like a Shoegaze band in a box but as yet not bought one. Jamie actually found the Blue Sky settings when we were recording our album and we put this sound in a few songs. I have a little Electro Harmonix reverb pedal at the moment which creates a huge cavern. We still have a Boss chorus and old analogue delay pedal that we used on Untouched. Because we travel and play I rely on my Boss ME-50 board. It’s so solid and reliable and no faff of patch leads and batteries. It has the three main ingredients; noise, reverb, chorus, as well as flangers, phasers, volume control and wah wah. Sometimes I attach a separate reverb. I can’t quite say it’s boutique yet, but I've had it 10 years so give it another 10 and maybe.