Perfect Sound Forever

Stephen Pastel

Interview by Jon Dale
(January 2002)

Certain bands come to you, or you happen upon them, at certain times in your life, and their music has all the clarion call giddiness of a beacon in the darkness. At once you fall for the sounds in your ears, simultaneously you feel a leap in your heart, and also there's a peculiar aesthetic about the band that draws you in even further. It's as much about a 'belief system' as it is some fantastic records. Only a few artists have really done that for me - My Bloody Valentine, The Laughing Clowns, early Teenage Fanclub, Mark Hollis, Bobbie Gentry, Charles Mingus - but the band that best exemplify it, for me, are The Pastels. For two decades their relationship with modern music has been that of interceptors and critics, simultaneously observing and interacting. So, beyond the beautiful guitar bliss strum, (Beach Boy sessionwoman) Carol Kaye-like bass melodicism, tumble-down drums and honest vocals, there's a whole other thing going on there - a dedication to musical creation and a particular way of thinking that's graspable in magically unspeakable ways. I suppose this is my 'long way around' of saying that they're my favourite band.

The Pastels are in working mode at the moment, and Stephen Pastel and Katrina Mitchell (nominal head honchos of The Pastels) have taken some time away from Pastelism to curate their Geographic Music label. In cahoots with England's visionary outsider pop label Domino, they've released a small but powerful selection of essential musics. Concurrently documentarian (Nagisa Ni te and Maher Shalal Hash Baz retrospectives) and forward movement (Telstar Ponies, Bill Wells, and the mighty Future Pilot AKA), the Geographic cabal is growing to be one of the finest labels extant on this earth. As with their host outfit, Geographic has a certain stylishness and belief system that makes every release seem somehow special, endowed with magical meanings. And it's with great honour in my heart and not a little humility that I present to y'all an interview with Stephen Pastel on the state of play at Geographic HQ in this year of 2001. Check it.

Q: An obvious, and possibly slightly dull question. Why the name Geographic? What geographies do you hope the label will explore - physical landscapes, psychogeographies, emotional maps and starcharts?

We wanted a name that would naturally reflect the music that we would issue; that felt timeless and resonant and outward-looking. Especially we didn't want to sound trendy or glitch, and so somehow we just decided on Geographic. To us it seems both neutral and also a little bit fantastic, making us think of earth-tones and ring modulators; fantastic canoe adventures and swimming nude in a beautiful still night-time river. Also we knew it would be a good name for a label that Maher Shalal Hash Baz would be coming out on, and that was to be our first record. We don't actually know what we can do with our label, if it will be successful or not; but we are high spirited about things and of course we'll endeavour to explore and to keep changing, and to try to make something beautiful out of the things we come across.

Q: Geographic isn't your first label. How has your outlook on being 'label impresario' changed since your times with 53rd and 3rd in the '80's, and how has the musical/'independent-music' landscape changed since then? Do you think the current mood in music one of compromise and contrivance, and is Geographic an attempt to right a few wrongs?

To be honest, I have never considered myself an impressario. 53rd and 3rd was flawed in so many ways and my involvement was often quite marginal. I was just happy to help some of my friends get their records out. Geographic feels a lot more complete, being myself, my partner Katrina, and one of our best friends, Laurence Bell of Domino. I think we have more of a shared idea. Comparing now and the 1980's, I think that things now, even at our level, are a lot slicker, but at the same time there's so much choice and diversification, and more labels and genres, so less and less things seem mass. I don't really know if there's any more compromise than in the 1980's, but it is a very different set of circumstances. And yes, we'll crusade a little.

Q: So, what do you think makes up the 'very different set of circumstances' that separates now from the 1980s? Of course, social climate, cultural change, etc., but music-wise, particularly in our little corner of the world, what defines this 'millenial crisis' as separate from the mood of the times that surrounded your previous ventures in disseminating (and making) music?

I'm not sure that it's anything so dramatic as a 'millenial crisis', because in some ways, music's never seemed more opened up. But in the 1980s the whole music scene was more concentrated, and in a way that made it easier for recorded musicians to be heard by more people. For people that couldn't find what they wanted in the mainstream, they'd generally look to independent/oppositional music, and voices and guitars, or maybe hip-hop. A lot of people that would have been outsiders came to know each other, or each other's music, so that became like an almost accidental movement. Although these kind of connections will always take place, as things become more and more splintered they can seem less significant, or at least have less impact. Just now there's plenty volume, but maybe the tone could be a little better.

Q: The tale has been told before, but can you recount how you came into contact with the magical and mysterious world of Japanese naif-pop collective Maher Shalal Hash Baz? Your first two releases were by MSHB, so would we be correct in believing that the label was more-or-less begun as an outlet for spreading the word about the once-hidden magic of Tori Kudo? How did work for the compilation album From A Summer to Another Summer progress?

Domino had often mentioned the idea of The Pastels having our own imprint but we just weren't sure. It seems like there's too many functional or vanity labels, and of course there's many other things you can do with your life. But hearing Maher for the first time (at our friend David Keenan's house), both Katrina and I experienced a strong feeling of connection to their fantastic, hopeful music. We wanted to share what we'd heard and felt with other people, and so now we'd found a good reason, the idea of what the label should be started falling into place. And naturally it wasn't too far from where we already were. "From A Summer To Another Summer" still feels like quite an epic project when you think of how long Tori's been making music, but it was a beautiful experience to listen to the old cassettes with him and help him with his selections.

Q: You have plans to release a Nagisa Ni Te/Hallelujahs retrospective, and The Pastels covered The Hallelujahs' "Star" on the Domino on the Wire compilation. What is it about the world of Org Records and Shinji Shibayama that you feel touches on the same enigmatic character that The Pastels and Geographic possess?

I'm not sure. We just feel drawn to and fascinated by that label. Again I suppose we're inspired by it's simplicity; of the idea of putting something beautiful out into the world un-hyped and unaware if anyone will even find you.

Q: Now, I'm a little biased, of course - David Keenan (Telstar Ponies, Phantom Engineer, music writer par excellence) is a mutual friend of ours - but not only is he incredibly important when it comes to spreading the word about the world's hidden musics, but he's a hidden music master himself, in his unfairly underestimated neo-folk outfit Telstar Ponies. You've recently released their single "Farewell, Farewell." What drew you to the music of the Telstar Ponies? Do you think they'll ever see the mass acclaim they deserve? (Voices for the New Music was an incredible yet shamefully overlooked album - experimental in the RIGHT way - still interfacing with the modern, the accessible.)

In the first instance I liked the name, 'Telstar Ponies,' and Dave Barker at Paperhouse was completely mad for them. Then I heard their first single which I thought was really, really good. Then I guess I re-met David when he interviewed me, and I could see how serious he was about music, and of course I really liked his intensity, which he also conveyed in his music. Both their albums were really imaginative and powerful, and back then it seemed like they might break really big, but I just don't know what happened. I do sometimes think about how Mogwai became really popular and not the Ponies, but I don't think the answer's got very much to do with music, actually. One thing is that David's a completely crusading guy and playing music is only part of it with him; a lot of people see him as a writer first and a musician second, and maybe at heart that's how he sees himself. But that said, I think he's rightly proud of participating in Telstar Ponies, playing with like-minded people, and pulling off completely fantastic songs like "Farewell, Farewell" and "Terrible Night."

Q: Further to this, there's a peculiar folksy lilt to all the great Scottish bands - Orange Juice, The Pastels, Vaselines, Teenage Fanclub, Belle and Sebastian - a grand continuum that the native releases on Geographic is perpetuating. You can sense a certain 'urban folk' to the works of International Airport, Telstar Ponies, and especially Future Pilot AKA. What is it about the music of Glasgow that brings out this certain strain of folkish melancholy? Surroundings, weather, nature, the urban landscape? Any ideas?

I think it relates to all these things and consciously and unconsciously traditional Scottish music; the intervals and the drones.

Q: The International Airport album Nothing We Can Control is probably the release on Geographic that most combines the 'now' (John McEntire production, a certain approach to incorporation of electronica moves) with the 'timeless' (great songs, an endearing naivety). Tom Crossley is/was (???) second guitarist for The Pastels. Did the connection come up through this? How does the line-up of IA 'work'? It appears to be quite a shifting morass of characters. (Similar to V-twin in that respect, I guess.)

Tom has been playing on our new music (keyboards, flute, melodica), but International Airport is mostly him, with sometimes Stephen Aston and other friends. I think the Airport and V-twin are far apart, although there is a bit of chaos round both, and Tom was actually in the original V-twin. But Tom's pretty focussed compared to V-twin, which is mostly baffled looks and head-scratching; although I do think they're magic. I'm not sure how Tom came up with that sound (isolation, I guess) but I suppose it was quite instinctive and just reflected that he wasn't in a group situation anymore. I think it's a beautiful album but like most of my friends, I still feel nostalgic for the group International Airport, and that too brief moment (around 1997/98) when their live show ruled Glasgow; Tom always the musician with quite elaborate ideas and flourishes, nodding the others on with the merest gesture that seemed in complete contrast with a typically door flying open entrance. They looked great too; like a mad modern day approximation of United States Of America, quite studious and musicianly, but also very out-there, like they might be on LSD or something. But I think Tom's getting some of that back on his new stuff. Maybe playing with Stephen again, I don't know, but the track they've done for the Geographic compilation is incredible.

Q: Bill Wells feels like the 'visionary outsider' of the Geographic cabal. His Octet live disc is free, wild and beautifully Mingus-damaged; the Future Pilot AKA collaboration a swap-meet of tape traders lo-fi beats and sensual jazz melodicism. Geographic released the Bill Wells Trio disc Incorrect Practice which is his most late-night proposition yet. How did you come across his music, and can Bill lay claim to the title of Glasgow's Galactic Supervisor aka Sun Ra? Is the man as big-hearted as his music?

I would say that Bill is naturally a big-hearted guy, but that it's tempered with a sense of injustice about wrongs which he perceives have taken place against him and his music. Hearing of these it's natural to want to rally round and to support Bill by taking his side and attacking his 'enemies.' But lately I've started to wonder what good that does, and so recently my favourite times with Bill have been spent in the studio helping him realise compositions like "Wiltz" (on the Geographic compilation) and tracks from the new Trio record. The root of our relationship is music (I met him when he brought the Live 93/94 CD into the shop where I used to work) and I think Bill is a completely natural musician with a real talent for lateral thinking. I love so many of Bill's compositions but I certainly don't think of him as my 'galactic supervisor', and I don't know anyone who does.

Q: On to Future Pilot AKA, whose Tiny Waves, Mighty Sea perfectly exemplifies the communal vibe of the Glasgow secret music crew. How did this landmark recording come together? How long have you known the Future Pilot himself, Sushil K Dade, and how do you view his musical development? Will the Sushil/Bill Wells/Richard Youngs live recordings ever see the light of day? And what's this I hear of a Robert Forster collaboration...?

I've known Sushil since school - I was in the same year as his brother, Sham. Sushil's a very funny warm person and it seems natural for him to make his music in collaboration. But whatever the context, the most important factor is Sushil's own idiosyncratic mode - his very personal approach to life and music. I think Tiny Waves, Mighty Sea is a really pure expression of everything that is important to Sushil at this moment - meeting someone to share his life with, starting a family, and friendship. It's a love record. I know he's starting to get ideas together for a new record (maybe made with children), and also preparing an ep of "Maid Of The Loch" interpretations which Robert Forster is on. And yes, I'm sure that those live recordings will come out someday, maybe on Via Satellite. Sushil has spoken of this idea.

Q: The Empress mini-album was a succinct send-off for that most elusive and fleeting of late-nite lover's pop outfits. Do you see parallels between Stewart Empress' 555 Recordings imprint and Geographic? A certain belief system, stubbornness and diligence (not to mention a quality control faculty lacking in so many labels these days)? Are you as sad as I that Empress are no more, and that 555 of Leeds is now 555 of Philadelphia?

Empress still exist - Nicola and Chris are making music as a duo and sometimes with The Remote Viewer. I love their music and their modesty and their whole way. When we first came to 555, they seemed so much outside everything else, and it was just really inspiring. At the time it was hard to get the records other than at 555 shows and what they were doing reminded me of K, with Stewart obviously the Calvin figure. I think 555 is maybe more energetic than Geographic, throwing out records like a bunch of maniacs. 555 also seem very taken with the world of glitch. We were very taken with Empress and I suppose that's the tangible connection between the two labels. But of course we consider them our allies and think of Stewart and Nicola and Chris as our friends.

Q: Can you tell me of Geographic's future plans? How's the Nagisa Ni te retro looking, and what's due after that? Can you talk about the Geographic compilation, and the appearance of mystery-shrouded K. Shields - a coup indeed!

The Nagisa Ni te (& Hallelujahs) retro is looking totally beautiful, actually. We want it to convey a special feeling and the sense of uniqueness and fascination we feel for this music. In practical terms, it's a very natural development from our involvement with Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Shinji Shibayama's fantastic archive work for that group. When we started the label we had certain dream projects which we were determined to realise - Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Nagisa Ni te (& Hallelujahs), Bill Wells Octet and a definitive compilation of music from the early 1960's Jean-Luc Godard films. Recently, I've felt that I would love to add to that a compilation of unreleased / unavailable TV Personalities music from the early 1980's. The Geographic compilation (You Don't Need Darkness To Do What You Think Is Right) is simply music we are close to - people who trust us with their music. We're especially pleased to be introducing some completely new music (Plinth and Directorsound, for example) alongside some old friends (Sister Vanilla being Linda Reid with her brothers Jim and William, and of course Kevin Shields). In a way we just tried to bring a sense of narrative to the idea without making it like a mix album and we're very pleased with how it came out.

Q: Finally - things are quiet on the Pastel front. Is this a tactical retreat, or are you waiting for the right moment for Pastel music to devastate? What's been happening at Pastel camp 2001?

No tactical retreat other than as you make more and more music, it becomes harder not to repeat yourself. We knew we didn't want to make another Illumination (even though we all consider it our best album) so we've just been slowly gathering our ideas and imagining how our next music should be. We almost need to design it first and then work towards being there inside it. We're underway, and in the meantime we've been working on some film music with a Scottish director, David Mackenzie, for his first full-length, The Last Great Wilderness. We've learnt a lot from that and we're looking forward to learning some more when John McEntire comes to Glasgow to help us complete it. But a new Pastels album shouldn't be too abstract or incidental - more, a bizarre looking, fabulous concrete structure, right in the middle of things.

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