Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels Talks Record Shops, Belle and Sebastian + His Band’s Unique History
Shortly before Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels is due to Skype with Diffuser.fm from his home in Glasgow, his publicist asks if the conversation might be pushed back an hour. This is no problem for two reasons — three, actually. First, the Pastels are indie legends who don’t do a ton of interviews, and when this lovable warbler and wordsmith is game for a chat, it’s worth rearranging the old schedule. Second, Pastels fans are no strangers to waiting. Prior to this year’s ‘Slow Summits,’ the band hadn’t released a proper full-length since 1997. What’s an hour in the grand scheme of things?
Lastly, McRobbie’s lateness isn’t rock star BS. He’s stuck late at Monorail, the independent Glasgow record shop he owns and operates, and that means he’s doing the lord’s work. The guy lives and breathes music, even if the Pastels have only managed five albums since forming in 1981. Early on, the group gained notice for its raggedy guitar-pop sound, and while they’re seen as the quintessential twee band and godfathers of the “C86″ movement (named for an NME cassette sampler from 1986), these tags fit McRobbie about as well as a Gold’s Gym muscle tee.
Produced by John McEntire of Tortoise and built around the core duo of McRobbie and his longtime girlfriend, drummer Katrina Mitchell, the sublime ‘Slow Summits’ has little in the way of amateurish jangle. It’s confident and romantic, filled with muted horn and string arrangements. Even when it rocks — ‘Check My Heart’ reveals why fellow Glaswegians Camera Obscura owe Stephen and Katrina a pint — it’s taut and precise. When McRobbie finally hops on the computer, he explains how the Pastels have arrived at this point in their career. He also reveals the challenges of running a record shop and looks ahead to the next Pastels release, which might actually arrive before 2030.
Late night at the record store?
Yeah, just as we were closing, a guy came in to sell a massive collection. I’m not in tomorrow, so I thought it’d be easier if I priced it then. It was a bad decision. It took too long.
Did the guy have anything good in there?
It was quite typical these days. A lot of people are selling their CD collections, and they just want credit to the shop to buy vinyl. So yeah, a lot of Sonic Youth, Wu Tang Clan, Pavement. You know, it was good stuff.
What are some of your biggest sellers?
Well, we’re quite a niche store, so probably the biggest independent records, at the moment, would be things like the F— Buttons and Mogwai’s soundtrack for ‘The Returned,’ because the series is on just now. And Camera Obscura is selling quite well, but then more niche things, too. Like, there’s a local Glasgow-based Polish musician, Ela Orleans; her records are selling really well. And the Pastels record is selling well.
That’s good to hear.
What happened in June, when you were going to play Brooklyn but had to scrap the show on account of visa issues? Was it just one of those typical bureaucracy things?
Yeah, exactly. We were given an estimate in terms of turnaround on an application, which was six weeks. We put it in maybe eight weeks [prior to the show date]. Domino were extremely confident that it would be no problem. As it came near the time, we at first started to panic, then realized it was becoming impossible. The visas went through one week after the show. But we’ve got visas now, so I think our plan will be to come over in the autumn or the spring.
You’ve talked recently about touring and recording more frequently. Do you feel like you’re more gung-ho about the Pastels than you were, say, a couple of years ago?
I think that we’ve got a good working lineup just now. In terms of a group like ours, that’s existed for a long time, there’s just moments where you feel you’ve got a good creative unit, and you can do lots of things [you can't] other times, when it seems to be slower. It does feel quite good now. I think we can make more records, definitely.
The Pastels haven’t been terribly prolific, but some might say you have a dream situation. You run a record store, do all this cool stuff in Glasgow with films and the local arts community, live with your longtime girlfriend (who’s also in the band) and put out records at your own pace. It’s a nice arrangement, no?
Well, it took us a long time to get into this situation. In some respects, it’s really good. In other ways, it might be easier to be able to do the group full time, which isn’t always possible, because of other members and other commitments. But it’s quite a good situation that we’re in now, and it took a long time to get here.
It’s sort of double-edged sword being the proverbial cult band. You’ve got the respect of tons of newer groups, but many that followed in your footsteps — Camera Obscura, Belle and Sebastian, etc. — have enjoyed more commercial success. Does part of you wish you’d made that jump to the next level?
We don’t really consider ourselves a cult group, to be honest. It doesn’t come into [it], and anytime we do something, it’s in the most ambitious way that it can be in. Belle and Sebastian’s success was absolutely phenomenal. I can’t think of another group that it happened like that for, and they just wrote so many great songs at that time, and there was just something. Their group seemed really magical in that moment and super intriguing for people, and Camera Obscure is different. They toured a lot in the States [and] in a way made their success through touring, much more than the Pastels really ever have.
In Glasgow, it doesn’t feel like Belle and Sebastian has so much more success than us, or Camera Obscura. But I know in the States, certainly, they have much bigger presence. I think with the States, you really have to give it a lot of time and tour. Yo La Tengo‘s an example of a group that just goes around all the time, and they’ve got a good show, and their audience grows all the time. In the U.K., groups can blow up much quicker. There’s hype here. But in the States, it really takes a lot of work. The Belle and Sebastian thing was very unusual.
Glaswegian bands tend have a lot of romanticism in their songs, but also a lot of wit and self-deprecation. Where does that come from?
A lot of music from Glasgow’s got a lightness of touch, but also, it’s mixed with effective intensity, too. The music always reflects the people who are making it, and I suppose we grew up in this city with a sense of optimism. Maybe the self-deprecating thing is a Glasgow quality … maybe an anti-London arrogance. It’s just the way that we express ourselves. But I think most of the best music from Glasgow is very confident, actually. Yeah, there are characteristics. It tends to be quite melodic. There tends to be some melancholy in the music, sometimes some kind of drone in the music, like a note that kind of just seems to be there, always in the music. Although everyone in Glasgow isn’t making the same kind of music, there is something in common between a lot of the people that are making music.
Quite a few younger bands have picked up on one aspect of your music, this early jangly pop thing. Obviously, ‘Slow Summits’ sounds nothing like that, and you’ve explored many styles over the years. If you had to give someone a starting point for the Pastels, what would it be?
In terms of music that we make [now], in some ways, [1995's] ‘Mobile Safari’ was important. That was when Katrina joined the group. I think that lineup, with Katrina and Annabel [Wright] and myself, that was the beginning of a lot of the things we do now, and it probably has more elements from earlier Pastels music. It’s probably closer to the 1980s independent noisy-pop thing. It’s hard to say there’s one record. Different records represent different points in the group, and not one record would represent them all.
‘Mobile Safari’ was a really important record for us to make, because we almost didn’t know if we would be able to carry on. Annabel and I split from the people in the original group, and it was just really important for us to make an album. The other records were important, too. [1987's] ‘Up for a Bit With the Pastels’ is really important. It was different from the early singles, and it slightly took people by surprise in terms of what it was.
I suppose the first record’s very important, because it creates a certain impression, and once you’ve made a first record, people judge you by that. A lot of people, if they consider the Pastels, there are probably older songs that might come to mind first for a certain generation of fan. Maybe younger fans would think of some of the things we did in the 1990s, but for a certain generation of fan, if they think of the Pastels, they think of [early singles] ‘Baby Honey’ or ‘Nothing to be Done,’ or ‘Comin’ Through.’
You mentioned possible tour plans, but how about future records. Have you thought that far ahead?
Well, I haven’t thought in terms of an LP, but when we finished ‘Slow Summits,’ there was quite a lot of music that we left off. We’re thinking of maybe some kind of EP, maybe towards the end of the year. And then maybe next year, we’re hoping to reissue a couple of records but also go back into the studio and try some new things, just try to find a slightly different direction to go with things.
This would be all the old LPs out on vinyl again?
I hope so. The ones we have the rights to. Certainly, I think, [1989's] ‘Sitting Pretty’ will come back out, and ‘Mobile Safari.’ I think [1997's] ‘Illumination’ is still possible to get, but definitely those two.