Christian Savill of SLOWDIVE took time to speak with Attack Captain. Christian’s guitar playing set the gold standard for the shoegaze scene in the early nineties and still continues to this day. This was a great interview, topics discussed include gear, The Smiths, their new single and more. Enjoy.
Question: Since reforming, SLOWDIVE has played a lot of big festivals and shows throughout the world. What do you find different this time around?
The first thing we noticed this time around is that there is a lot more people watching us. When we first got back together we really had no idea who would be there. We thought it might just be people who saw us first time round and were on a nostalgia trip. I guess we were taken aback by seeing so many really young people there. Obviously at festivals it’s different because it’s not exclusively your own audience. Another difference is all the phones and immediate reaction to a show. Back in the early 90s a week or so later a review might pop up somewhere, but now there’s instantaneous photos, videos and reaction. But apart from that it’s still pretty much Spinal Tap.
Question: A long time has passed since the band last recorded together. When you were all in the studio was there a sense of familiarity and comfort or was it nervous energy and a feeling out stage?
Rehearsing for the gigs was pretty easy and felt very familiar, but going into a studio to record was very weird. It definitely took us some time to settle in to it. We’d start working on songs and think ‘is this too slowdive?’ or ‘is this slowdive enough?’ I think it’s possible slowdive works best when we’re not really thinking about it too much. We decided to go back to the studio we’d used for the majority of our previous recordings and we suddenly felt at home. The studio hadn’t really changed. They even had the same couch. That’s when things started taking shape.
Question: SLOWDIVE reunited in 2014 and just released its first single “STAR ROVING” after 22 years. “Star Roving” has some very lovely intricate underlying guitar work. There are these beautiful little melodies that are occurring while the infectious main riff is playing. What was the songwriting process like?
Thank you. Neil came up with that riff and brought it in. As soon as we started playing it we all absolutely loved it. It is so much fun playing it. I remember playing it in a rehearsal room and Rachel was laughing at me cos I was moving about so much playing it. Me moving about in itself is not funny, so I have to presume I looked ridiculous.
Question: SLOWDIVE is closely associated with the Dream Pop / Shoegaze scene and the guitar sounds rely a lot on effect pedals. Now that you are back in the studio, how do you approach your guitar parts? How much of a role do effect pedals play?
Its fair to say that effects pedals to play a big part in the guitar sound. There’s not as many guitars on the tracks as people might think though. Neil uses a lot of different delays bouncing off of each other and some modulation. I use a bit more reverb. Generally Neil might have something very specific he wants for a particular song or we might just try things out. I don’t really have any definite approach, but I reckon I struggle to play the exact same thing twice.
Question: Going back, can you recall what sparked your attraction to effect pedals?
Just hearing bands like The Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and wondering “How are they doing that?”. I was really into Sonic Youth too. I started playing guitar and everything was sounding a bit twee, but then bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine taught me about weird guitar tunings. Suddenly playing guitar got a lot more interesting to me. I had no idea what chords I was playing anymore and it wasn’t sounding twee. I remember going to watch a band called Kitchens of Distinction in my hometown. They only had one guitar but it sounded like about 10. I went right to the front and looked at the guitarists pedals and then started saving up.
Question: Can you run us through your current board? What pedals would be found on it? (please be brand specific if you can … Gearnerds like me want to know).
I feel bad because sometimes people want to talk about pedals with me after a gig and I’m hopeless because I don’t know much about them. They’re just a means to an end for me. My friend has just re done my pedal board, but I expect it will change as we tour. Things are never perfect. At the moment it starts off with Ibanez tube screamer, and then a RAT and a boss distortion. There’s then a Dr Scientist Bit quest. This pedal was a present and it can do lots of things, but it seems complicated so I just use it as a volume boost. Then there is a Strymon Flint and a Gilamondo phase. Then there’s a boss space echo and an Anemnesis Sub Decay going into a Neunaber stereo wet reverb. At that point it goes off into one amp but the other output carries on into a Strymon big sky and then a dig out into the other amp. It all has to be very simple for me because I can’t be bothered reading manuals.
Question: As for studio work what type of amps have made its way onto the new songs? Do you prefer low wattage amps in the studio or full on raging 100 waters? Is there a specific studio “secret weapon” that you or any of the other members love to use?
Neil has used his same two Roland JC120s bought with the very first advance. They sound amazing and are a big part of our sound. I mainly used a knackered old Fender Twin that Ian the engineer in the studio has in house and recommended. I think on one session I used my knackered old AC30. Like I said I’m a gearheads nightmare.
Question: Did you grow up in a musical home? At what age did you pick up the guitar?
Definitely didn’t grow up in a musical house. My mum told me that at the height of Beatle-mania my Dad didn’t even know who they were. I remember one of my first music reports from school said “Christian shows little interest in music and has even less ability”. But who wants to play recorder? It was The Smiths that made me start wanting to play guitar when I was about 14 or 15. My Dad very kindly bought me an electric guitar. A right handed one. It was at this point we figured out I was left handed.
Question: What did it for you? What song or band ignited the spark? What was so special about that moment?
The first time I got interested in music was sitting in a hair salon as my mum was getting her hair done when I was about 8. Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush came on the radio. The radio had been on the whole time I was in there but I hadn’t noticed it till that came on. I guess that flicked the switch for the first time. My 10 year old daughter has just discovered this song too and is having a similar reaction.
Question: What difficulties if any were there being a left handed guitar player?
Back when I started out the vast majority of music stores would have either no left hand guitars at all or maybe one boring strat copy. It was a bit frustrating seeing all these amazing right handed guitars and them being unavailable. In a way it was probably good because it saved me spending money I didn’t have on guitars. Had PureSalem been around back then I think I would have combusted. One difficulty we did have was when we flew to Taiwan to play a gig. We arrived OK but our gear flew over separately and didn’t make it because of a typhoon. It was pretty touch and go getting hold of left handed guitars at such short notice, but the power of social media got the gig going.
Question: What guitar player would you consider to be your main influence? Who was “your guy or girl?”
Johnny Marr made me want to play the guitar, but also quickly made me want to quit because I realised quickly that I was never gonna be as good. William Reid then made me realise I didn’t need to be technically amazing. Just so powerful, simple and totally brilliant. Their bass player only had two strings on his bass and I loved that. Then Kevin Shields with the weird tunings and out of this world sounds. Robin Guthrie was also a big influence. I still can’t play guitar properly though. I can’t do anything properly.
Question: Before joining SLOWDIVE, you were in a band called ETERNAL? How did that come about? Can you describe what type of sound the band was striving for and why you decided to leave?
I guess just like any young band you hang out with your friends all listening to similar records and think it would be cool to be in a band and try and make records like the ones you love. One drawback to our plan was we couldn’t really play and didn’t have much equipment. This didn’t stop us getting gigs and booking time in a cheap recording studio. I think the one thing we did have was a clear idea of what we wanted to sound like. We were going for that whole messed up pop music thing. A sort of cross between The Mary Chain and The Cocteaus. Obviously we didn’t achieve that, but we did manage to get someone to put out our record before we could play our instruments. I decided to leave that because Slowdive started going well and also I didn’t like singing in Eternal.
Question: After leaving ETERNAL you joined SLOWDIVE. Is it true they were looking for a female guitarist? What was it about the band that made you approach them?
Both bands were going simultaneously but slowdive were a lot more of a proposition. I had seen them playing before I joined. They weren’t slowdive then, but I could see they had something special going on, even if it was kind of embryonic. I saw they were looking for a female guitarist and they clearly had the same influences as me. So I replied to the ad and said I’d be willing to wear the dress. They said I didn’t have the legs to carry off the dress but I could join anyway. I remember the first practice I had with them. I stood about 15 feet away from the rest of the band and just made a horrible noise through everything. Incredibly they let me join.
Question: What was the scene like in the late 80’s early 90’s? Was there a sense of change or something new musically on the horizon?
Not sure if we sensed any change in the late 80s and early 90s. What I would say is that Indie music started to get more popular and suddenly a few indie bands started having hits. I think this tripped a few bands up. Bands that were previously pretty edgy suddenly sensed they could have some hits got distracted and chased it. The indie scene in Britain was massive for us though. You had great bands coming to play in a tiny venue in our hometown like Spacemen3, House of Love, My bloody Valentine and Loop and this really taught us a lot.
Question: Dream Pop and Shoegaze were terms used to describe the scene. It was a very incestuous scene with many members assisting or playing in multiple bands. Was there any sense of competition?
Even at the time it was sort of portrayed almost like a shoegaze sitcom where all the bands lived together in a big house. Aside from Chapterhouse who were from the same town as us I didn’t really know anyone. We toured with Ride about three times and I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with any of them. I want to stress that is more a product of my social ineptitude than any lack of friendliness on their part. We certainly weren’t competitive but inevitably we did listen out to what the other bands were doing. We weren’t sitting around with little voodoo dolls or anything though. We were more concerned about what we were doing.
Question: Souvlaki was released in May 1993. Was there a sense at the time that it would be as influential or as important of a record as it came to be? Looking back on past works what is your favorite SLOWDIVE record and why?
There was absolutely no sense whatsoever that any of our records would be influential. Genuinely we just tried to make a record as good as possibly could. When we split up in 1995 it seemed like no one was going to tolerate us or our records ever again. It was really weird when after a time our name kept popping up and tribute records were released and all that stuff. Eventually we decided it was safe to climb out of our shelter.
Question: Top five Desert Island records in no particular order?
I’m just gonna pick 5 songs that popped in my head, if you asked me tomorrow it would probably be different – Spacemen 3 – Big City, Computer Love – Kraftwerk, Well I wonder – The Smiths, Party fears two – The Associates, Collision – Loop. My Bloody Valentine – Clair.
Question: What are your thoughts on the current star of music? Are there any bands out there that get you excited?
There’s all these social media communities to hear new bands in whatever genre is your thing and enables people to connect with the bands themselves. In my day there were fanzines which was a similar thing. We’ve been lucky to play a load of festivals and therefore see loads of bands. I think Tame Impala is incredible, Kevin Parker might be a genius. Mac DeMarco is a great performer. Low, Belle and Sebastian and PJ Harvey blew me away. Deafheaven were really compelling. Gnoomes from Russia were great, Spectres from Bristol are intense…and a ton of others I can’t remember right now. In my hometown there are as many bands now as there were 25 years ago. I think that’s exciting because there’s gonna be scruffy kids somewhere who are going to do something incredible.
Question: If you could go back 25 years what advice would you give yourself?
Make the most of your hair cos it isn’t gonna stick around for the duration.
Question: Thank you Christian, any last words ????
Sorry to anybody who has tried to have a sensible conversation with me about guitars, pedals or amplifiers.