The reverb redux: New bands echo the heyday of shoegaze

Prepare to be drowned in 90s nostalgia as a fresh generation discovers pedals, delays, and staring at their feet

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The Independent Culture

in 2014, shoegaze, the quintessential indie sound of the late 1980s and early 1990s, is everywhere. Heard an amorphous blur of phased guitars, breathy, woozy vocals and hazy atmospherics lately? That’s shoegaze. This year has seen new exponents emerge on both sides of the Atlantic, from Cheatahs to Childhood, as well as comebacks from prime movers such as Slowdive. Shoegaze may have been killed off by grunge and Britpop, but now it is reborn. Time to get out your Ride, Lush and Chapterhouse records. What was once a term of derision, coined by the music press to slate outfits whose players tended to stare through lank fringes at their guitar pedals, is now a badge of honour.

There is a website, Sounds Better With Reverb, so-called after the echoey effect beloved of shoegaze musicians. There is also a record label and club, Sonic Cathedral. Its founder, Nathaniel Cramp, took the name from awestruck reactions to The Cocteau Twins, the chief architects of shoegaze along with My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Record reviewers, faced with a new Cocteaus album, would invariably be reduced to paroxysms of rapture, raving about “cathedrals of sound”.

It was at Sonic Cathedral earlier this year that Slowdive – hot on the Cuban heels of My Bloody Valentine, who in 2013 released their first album in 21 years – staged their return. The Reading four-piece, who once collaborated with Brian Eno, used to be reviled for their listless washes of sound. Now they’re being hailed as pioneers of drifting, ambient post-rock. They sold out their May show at London’s Village Underground in 90 seconds and have since performed to 25,000-strong crowds. It is a remarkable vindication for shoegaze fans, more accustomed to their favourite artists being scorned.

“It was amazing,” recalls Cramp of Slowdive’s Sonic Cathedral set. He remembers when the band were the butt of jokes; when, as he puts it, “shoegaze was a dirty word”.

“One review, of Souvlaki [Slowdive’s 1993 album], went, ‘I’d rather drown choking in a bath of porridge than listen to this again,’” he winces. Now, he notes, that album is regarded, especially in America, as “one of the most influential of the last 20 years”. “They’re this generation’s Velvet Underground,” he contends.

In the States, shoegaze is known as dreampop, which has fewer negative connotations. Ben Daniels of Philly/Brooklyn group A Sunny Day in Glasgow, whose Sea When Absent has just been voted Best Shoegaze Album of 2014 by website Album of the Year, agrees that its dismissal as mimsy noise-muzak for southern, middle-class mummy’s boys is a regional-ist/class-ist attack that “doesn’t translate over here”. Besides, as Cramp notes of the shoegazing bands and their so-called privileged backgrounds, “they weren’t remotely posh, not if you compare them to Frank Turner, say, or the Mumfords”. As for the accusation that shoegaze is populated by male gadget-bores, Daniels’s (female) bandmate Jen Goma counters: “I think Cassandra from the movie Wayne’s World proves that women can like whammy bars, too.”

Shoegaze’s resurrection has been a long time coming. Sonic Cathedral just celebrated its 10th anniversary. On the club’s opening night in 2004, Cramp, vainly hoping to revive the soundtrack of his youth, expected no one to turn up.

“But they did, lots of them, in their manky old Chapterhouse T-shirts,” he laughs. “It was like, ‘there are other people out there!’. Since then, shoegaze has become fashionable. There are younger kids into it, without any of the hang-ups.”

James Wignall, guitarist with Cheatahs, discovered the music in his teens and loves shoegaze, even if he does worry about the genre’s name. “It’s pejorative and reductive,” he argues, adding: “We don’t use as many effects pedals as you might think.” A shoegaze historian, Wignall considers the term outdated. “It’s a snarky remark that a bored music journalist came up with,” he says. He is concerned that “shoegaze” as a catch-all conflates disparate tendencies, from the Mary Chain’s dissonant defiling of classic 1960s pop to the Cocteaus’ shimmery soundscapes. And he defends shoegazers’ right to stand still.

“Mark Gardener [frontman with Ride] said his decision not to move around on stage was an anti-rock statement,” he explains.

“They didn’t want to be, like, ‘hey, we’re the rock stars and you’re the little people watching us’. They wanted to be like the crowd. That appealed to me. As much as I love Iggy Pop and showmanship, sometimes you have to concentrate on what you’re doing. We have three-part harmonies so we can’t be jumping around.”

Ben Romans-Hopcraft is the 24-year-old vocalist-guitarist with Childhood, one of the most lauded new shoegaze bands. Actually, in their wan guitar pop there are echoes (and they use a lot of echo) of Slowdive et al and that other preeminent early 1990s indie movement, “baggy”, the northern, groovier cousin of shoegaze.

“When we started making songs I was heavily into Cocteau Twins, Slowdive and Ride,” he admits. But he insists: “It’s not about replicating the past, or a pastiche. I don’t just want to be a shoegaze band, although I love elements of it.”

Childhood look the (dreamy) part, but in that respect Oxford’s Ride were hard to beat: they were the One Direction of drone-pop. Gardener jokes that Ride’s sound has endured better than his looks. He is far happier today, working on various projects, including a record by legendary Beach Boys manager Jack Rieley. He has just been involved in a shoegaze “summit meeting”: his solo album, which is produced by Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins.

Gardener is aware of the influence shoegazing exerted on several of the world’s biggest bands, from Sigur Ros to Coldplay, “who offered a watered-down version of it”. Then there was Oasis, Ride’s labelmates at Creation, ostensibly the polar opposite of the ethereal Ride. In fact, he remembers Noel Gallagher regularly turning up to the studio with Creation boss, Alan McGee, “so he could hang out with us”.

“He’d go, ‘we got [Ride track] ‘OX4’ on our answerphone!’,” he chuckles.

Gardener is delighted by the music’s longevity. But how would he define shoegaze?

“It’s about feeling lost and transported,” he offers. According to Romans-Hopcraft, “shoegaze” is just another way of saying “psychedelic”.

“It means you can still be experimental with the guitar,” he says. “More so than you can in a standard rock’n’roll band.” Did he meet Slowdive when Childhood performed alongside them on the bill the other week at Latitude?

“Oh no, I wouldn’t want to,” he replies. “They seem too cool. Besides, I like the mystery of them being humble people making this huge-sounding music.”

To Romans-Hopcraft and his peers, shoegaze has outlived more commercially successful  genres. “Britpop might have crushed it,” he decides, adding, “but shoegaze has had far greater cultural resonance.”

‘Sea When Absent’ is released by Lefse on 11 August. Childhood’s debut album, ‘Lacuna’ , is released on 11 August. Cheatahs’ self-titled debut is out now on Wichita. Mark Gardener’s collaboration with Robin Guthrie will be released later this year