Pixilated Pictures

Feb 24, 1999 at 4:00 am
The work of Scottish band the Pastels isn't something you'd immediately consider for a remix project. Over the course of their 15-year "career," they've remained defiantly unconcerned with current trends and flavor-of-the-week fads, preferring to create big albums of perfect little songs that wander in general directions while still managing to contain themselves in complete melodic circles. A line from their song "Cycles" captures the sound of the Pastels best: "Lonely ripples wash the shore/Lazy on the beat and sigh." The "sigh" is the sound of the three permanent members' voices: Aggi, Stephen Pastel and Katrina Mitchell all sing as if they're at the end of a breath, and the guitar-based music underneath is somber and soaked with water. What their voices lack in picture-perfect pitch they make up for with an intensity of emotion.

The Pastels' most recent studio album, Illumination (Up Records), was released in 1997; its ruminative melodies guide lyrics, penned by all three members, that, although written in the present tense, seem to be reaching back to memories and events long since past and recalled with curiosity, and they attempt to make sense of an ephemeral something that can't quite be contained. Their words delicately needle their way into your heart.

Their music is simply quite pretty.
Illuminati (also on the Up label) is a recently released remix record, on which the band employed the services of some of the most adventurous manipulators, including My Bloody Valentine, Kid Loco, Cornelius, Stereolab, Mouse on Mars, John McIntire, the Third Eye Foundation, Flacco and Jim O'Rourke. The collection of these reconfigurations stands as a pinnacle of the remix genre, towering above the recent spate of such projects mainly because of the obvious sensitivity each showed for the inherent melodiousness and tone of the originals. Recently Stephen Pastel discussed Illuminati from his home in Glasgow.

RFT: Do you consider Illuminati a new Pastels record?
Pastel: In one sense I do think of it as an LP rather than a remix project; I think it's a coherent record. It isn't a record of new Pastels songs, so in that way I don't think of it as one -- it's somewhere in between the two.

Are you happy with all the remixes on the CD?
Yeah, I think so. Everyone we asked to participate on it is someone whose music we like; I was surprised by some of the results, but I do really like the music. It's not like we gave the tapes out to people who we had no feeling for their music; it was people who we felt some empathy with in the first place.

Did you make a list of potential contributors?
More or less. My Bloody Valentine was the first band that wanted to do it. We had songs that we thought were particularly well translated by Kevin (Shields, of My Bloody Valentine); then other people came forward when they heard we were having a couple remixes done and said that they would really like to mix us. It really evolved and seemed to work itself out. There were certain ways that we directed it, but in other ways it was something that we weren't that involved with until the tapes were in, and then we started to think about sequencing and just putting it together.

In what ways did you direct the project?
Sometimes there were certain songs that I thought would work really well for someone to do, but I wasn't involved in any of the remixing. Sometimes someone would say, "What do you think I should...." -- like Jim O'Rourke. We met him, and I said that I thought the best thing he could do would be to just do some kind of arrangement for the song, but that was the idea that he already had. The problem with a lot of remix records is I think that they're too abstract. One of the reasons I like our record is that it contains songs and abstractions rather than just pure abstractions, which after a while can end up as empty experiences just listening to them.

I'd like to toss a couple of your quotes back at you from your liner notes to the Pastels' Truckload of Trouble collection. The first is, "So far the Pastels sound best in analogue." By its very nature, Illuminati is a digital record. How do you record now?

Mostly we work from tape and will continue to do so. There are just so many possibilities now. It's so much quicker to use computers for certain things. Digital music has changed so much even since I wrote those notes; there's warmer digital music being made now, like Air and Kid Loco -- both are really warm-sounding. Our initial experiences with digitally programmed drums in the '80s were quite negative; we really didn't like them. People just weren't using good sounds at that point. Since then, probably a lot of the music I listen to now is electronic. But I definitely see the Pastels as a band that will continue to use guitars and be melody-based. That's the type of music we like to make and play together.

Yeah, I listen to a lot of electronic music these days, too. But one of the things that I've found is that it's much harder for me to fall in love with an electronic record the way that I have with, say, the recent Silver Jews record.

I think I agree with you completely. My own experience is that I'm finding that there's less and less memorable music -- though I'd include bands like Silver Jews and Belle and Sebastian as some that is -- but basically there's less and less memorable music being made by people with guitars, and I think that bands like Silver Jews and Belle and Sebastian are almost exceptions. But having said that, bands like that are my very favorite music, and in a way there's not that same sense of attachment with a lot of electronic music. There's a great record by a band called Boards of Canada that's out on Matador, and it's very pretty and melodic, but it's not emotionally engaging like the Silver Jews record. I just find that often if I want that level of engagement I'll listen to a Bob Dylan record or a Beatles record, and I continue to really love those records. But I do find that guitar music -- I'm not coming across that much that's really exciting these days. But when it is, it's my favorite kind of music.The other quote that I'd like for you to consider is, and I'm paraphrasing, "All our music is linked up by an intensity of shared experience." On Illuminati, obviously you lose that intensity when an outsider reconfigures the music.

Yeah, to an extent there's a dilution of that experience, because Pastels music, especially in recent years, has been the result of a shared vision that me and Katrina and Aggi have, and once outsiders come in, it is less intense. I think that they are good results, and from our point of view it was a really interesting experience to hear our music translated into these exotic languages. It's a really nice record to listen to. But I still feel like we'd never work with a producer, and in a way it's made me realize also what's precious about the Pastels. And I feel that more and more, enjoying electronic music as I do, I think we maybe represent something that isn't that commonplace, you know?

As musicians who create their own music, you organize your sounds in a certain way, and that way has a logic that you've probably toiled over to a certain degree. Was it hard to hear that logic dismantled?

Listening to those records was a good experience, hearing the tracks coming back and -- If I felt Illumination had been a disappointing record or hadn't come out as we'd wanted, maybe there would have been some sadness, but Illumination is the record that we've made that I'm happiest with, so I felt fine with people bringing in their own logic.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from your fans?
Most people, I've found, are increasingly open-minded, in that in my own experience people don't listen to just one kind of music. I think some people who feel precious about the Pastels were apprehensive at first, but most people seemed to like the record -- maybe not the record in its entirety, but they liked most of it. And because the Pastels -- you know, the Pastels are almost too precious for some people; it's too engaging. A lot of people aren't prepared to make that effort, and in a way Illuminati is an easier record for them to get into. You can stick it on and not have to listen to it in the kind of close way that maybe you would listen to one of our other records.

Are there any plans for a new studio record?
Yeah. We haven't started recording yet, but we've got some ideas that I'm really pleased with. The way I feel is, there are a lot of Pastels records out right now, and I only really want to add to it when I feel it can be something really special. I think this year we'll probably make an EP and record an LP that will come out next year. That's the time it really takes us to have enough ideas we feel are really good and sufficiently different from what we've done before.