It’s been a long time since I’ve even heard the words “the Pastels” spoken.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s so many bands were coming out of the UK with “influenced by the Pastels” or “sounds like the Pastels” or “the next Pastels” (that last one always followed by either an exclamation point “!” or question mark “?”), that as a teenager from a small town with one little tiny indie record store, I was envious of those who could find their records at all, and curious as to what the hell the Pastels even sounded like.
The confusion came from the fact that bands as diverse as the girl fronted Talulah Gosh, Primal Scream, the Wedding Present and Age Of Chance were all being lumped under the banner of Pastels inspired “indie” thanks to NME and their wave of passion for new DIY groups on the C86 smapler.
Then in 1987 I got my first Pastels album, Up For a Bit With the Pastels. Slightly dark, not quite goth, but with intense guitars and some little synth splashes that gave the album this odd sort of Lee Hazlewood sound, I was hooked. The single “Crawl Babies” was intriguing and the electro drum driven “Baby Honey,” which sounded like the kind of murder ballad I was into at the time, made me an instant fan.
But then grunge happened. NME moved on, and all those wonderful C86 bands were left in the dust.
Honestly, I don’t think that bothered the Pastels at all. They never wanted to be lumped in with all the indie bands of the day in the first place. They were such a loose collective of players that when it came time to record they all just seemed to pick up instruments they’d dropped the year before and make a few more hits.
45 after 45 was released, eventually culminating in a collection of sorts with the 1994 album Truckload Of Troubles. A de-facto “Greatest Hits” with some older tunes re-recorded by the core trio of Stephen (guitar, vocals), Aggi (bass, vocals, artwork) and Katrina (drums) and lots of help from friends. With the release of this album I finally got to hear some of the songs that made the Pastels legends, even if in new ways with new band members. With the beautiful duet on “Nothing to be Done,” the love song (I mean, what indie group was writing love songs at that time?) “Thank You For Being You,” “Speeding Motorcycle,” and “Speedway Star” (their paeans to motorcycle racing) I finally got a glimpse into the lives and minds of one of the most obscure and sometimes obtuse acts to come from that time.
A year later came Mobile Safari, the trio’s tightest work to date. The great vocal arrangement on “Yoga” (bah bah baaaaaaah bah bah baaaaaaah) the jazzy tones and syncopated rhythms of songs like “Worlds Of Possibility” made the album simultaneously loose and tight. Such a great listening experience!
At that time The Stranger hired its new editor, Emily White. Her husband, Rich Jensen, was the head of a new little indie label here in Seattle called UP Records. This was how I first heard 764-Hero and Modest Mouse. One day Rich told me they’d signed a distribution deal with a band from Scotland called the Pastels. My mouth hit the floor.
The upcoming album was the amazing Illumination. Produced by Kevin Sheilds of My Bloody Valentine fame, this album had all the hallmarks of a classic. (It also had contributions from just about every Glaswegian musician of the day, including most of Belle And Sebastian). The production was full of lazy guitars that had this weird sonic background, and lyrics delivered in a style that would lead one to believe Stephen and Aggi were prone to serious drug binges. It’s an incredible album. I think one could use the term “Masterpiece” for Illuminations.
I’d just had a baby, so when they came through town on their one and only trip to Seattle, ever, I missed them. I was pretty upset, but seeing as my little family would be traveling to Glasgow the following summer, Rich helped me out by telling me where Stephen held down a day job.
In Glasgow I forced a friend who had no interest in tracking down a long lost indie star (he was way into Madonna—the antithesis of the Pastels vibe) to take me to the city’s University area to a little bookstore that had a second floor record shop. I started looking through the CDs and found every single Pastels single and album that I’d always wanted, including strange one offs with Jad Fair and a collaboration with friends called “Sandy Dirt”. I picked them all up and went to the front counter. As I laid them down the guy behind the counter turned to me and started to get them ready to ring up, removing their security cases. He had this smirk on his face and I realized Stephen Pastel was going to sell me his own CDs. The moment felt so “meta” that I didn’t know what to do or say. Apologize for being a big fan? Ask him if it was really him? What the hell do you say in that situation?
So I politely asked him, “Are you Stephen Pastel?” He answered yes. I told him I was on mission to find all these CDs, that I’d come to Glasgow partly with this in mind, that they were so hard to find in Seattle. Then I asked if he would give me, my partner, and our child a tour of what he thought was cool Glasgow. To my surprise he said “Yeah. Sure.”
The next day we all met in a little coffee shop, had tea, and discussed Glasgow with the quintessential Glasgow band. He told me he actually had a degree in library science and wanted desperately to become a librarian, but there weren’t too many library jobs out there. Then he walked us over to Aggi’s apartment to meet her. They shyly regaled us with tales of motorcycle races, and told us the band actually sponsored motorcycle racers. They’d give some of their little profits to a guy who’d put “The Pastels” on his racing jacket. It was so funny and strange. It was the highlight of my trip.
The band have recently released a soundtrack album to The Last Great Wilderness which includes a cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star” and a duet with Jarvis formerly of Pulp. Stephen runs his own record label, Geographic, which distributes quality independent music from around the world (Nagisa Ni Te, Barbara Morgenstern, Appendix Out, Maher Shalal Hash Baz to name a few) and owns a little record shop in Glasgow’s downtown, and Aggi does her graphic art thing and helps out with Geographic. I’m not sure what Katrina is up to.
As genres come and go, get rehashed and become the “new” retro; even though it’s been awhile, you can expect to here the words “The Pastels” in some way in the coming years. I guarantee. They’re just that cool.
Never heard the Pastels? It’s okay, just go here.