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Pop CultureMay 14, 2018

Shoegaze, dream pop and the return of the ethereal side of NZ indie music


Dream pop is the genre of the moment in the worldwide indie scene and New Zealand is no exception, with acts like Fazerdaze and Yumi Zouma gaining huge international audiences. Back at home, the associated sound of shoegaze has made a return, with a raft of new bands emerging onto the live scene. Gareth Shute traces their origins and explains why they’re back in the spotlight.

When Fazerdaze released their first EP back in 2014, singer/guitarist Amelia Murray immediately found her music drawing comparisons to a set of bands she’d never heard of. “I wasn’t cool enough to know shoegaze,” she said. “I mostly just listened to The Beatles and then I suppose Smashing Pumpkins when I was an angsty teen. I tried to make classic rock and it didn’t work so I veered this way. I only really got into shoegaze after I started this project and people recommended bands to me! I identify with ‘dream pop’ more so. My voice is very limited so this kind of music I make was really only a default.”

It’s no surprise that these genres weren’t at the forefront of Murray’s mind, since they first flourished nearly 30 years ago. ‘Shoegaze’ goes back to late-’80s/early-‘90s bands like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Lush, Slowdive and Curve, whose live shows had them staring down (shoe-gazing) at an array of guitar effects pedals which often drowned out the soft, reverb-drenched vocals. Meanwhile, ‘dream pop’ is often traced back earlier to the Cocteau Twins in the 1980s, before being applied to later bands like Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star.

However, there’s always been a connection between the two scenes with bands playing and working together; both genres share a tendency for slow-ish songs with soft, whispery vocals that add to the atmosphere rather than riding over the top of the music.

Shoegaze has come back in the limelight with My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Slowdive all reforming over the past decade (the latter played Laneway in Auckland this year). Meanwhile, the enduring interest in dream pop recently saw Pitchfork naming its 30 best albums in this genre – a list topped by Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star and Beach House. (Pitchfork had already done a shoegaze ranking in 2016). In his introduction to the list, Dean Wareham explained how he thought the two genres differed: “shoegaze bands are more of an assault, a wall of sound, while there is more empty space in dream pop”. (Wareham, I should note, was born in Wellington, but left for New York with his family when he was 14, where he later formed seminal dream pop band Galaxie 500).

This overseas interest in dream pop has been good timing for Fazerdaze, who ranks among New Zealand’s most streamed acts, alongside Yumi Zouma, who have a slightly more of an electro edge but nonetheless mix whispery vocals and ethereal guitars in a similar manner. In fact, Yumi Zouma display some elements of shoegaze too – especially on their cover of ‘She’s Electric’ on their re-recording of Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?

New dream pop acts are emerging fast in New Zealand. The looseness of the ‘dream pop’ label means it’s been applied to everything from indie acts like Womb, Purple Pilgrims, Blue for Noon, and Salvia Palth to poppier acts like Erith, May Project, and Tsorf, or even a hard-to-categorize musician like Alexa Casino. There’s also a wave of shoegaze-esque bands playing on the Auckland scene, including Bespin, Eyes No Eyes, Water and She’s So Rad. Even dark alt-country group Dead Little Penny have recently moved in this direction – their latest single, ‘Honeycomb,’ layers fuzz-guitar over a drum machine beat to create a sound that’s reminiscent of ‘90s shoegazers Curve.

Of course, there were actually shoegaze bands in New Zealand back around the time it first emerged, many of which were on Christchurch label Failsafe. Of those, The Malchicks were the best-known, but singer/guitarist Matt Dalzell found that capturing the shoegaze sound was not an easy task back then. 

“In the days before websites, clips, and wiring diagrams of various rigs, we just had to apply ears, lateral thinking and budget constraints, and focus on what we wanted to do,” he says. “We spent ages getting the right tunings. There are some double dropped Ds, a Csus4 open tuning, and a D slack-key. That gave us plenty of chime and drone to build the songs around before we ever hit the studio. My main pedal sequence was Dunlop Wah, a phaser which might have been a Korean copy of a Boss, and a Boss Superfeedbacker. That was it. No delays, flangers, vibe or tremolo pedals, no extensive pedalboards … For texture we would often layer an acoustic 12-string under the main guitars. The rest was all in the playing, chord choices, harmonic combinations, and some unexpected time signatures. And, of course, the whammy bar…”

Dalzell notes that Bailter Space and JPSE were similarly influential on the group’s sound, though Flying Nun was always more interested in hazy psych-rock pop than shoegaze or dream pop. By the mid-nineties, The Malchicks had come to an end with band members going overseas, while overseas the UK shoegaze scene was seemingly made irrelevant by the ascent of Britpop (though The Verve did manage the move from whispery psych-rock to pop balladry).

The first hint of the shoegaze revival was when Kevin Shields wrote a much-heralded soundtrack for the movie Lost In Translation – which was fitting since Japan had its own emergent shoegaze scene at the time. Back in New Zealand, The Shocking Pinks toyed with shoegaze on their breakthrough album, Infinity Land (2005), though their deal with DFA would see them push their post-punk, dancey elements to the fore. A few years later, She’s So Rad became one of the first contemporary local acts to adopt the shoegaze/dream pop sound. Singer/guitarist Jeremy Toy was still playing for soul/funk band Open Souls at the time.

“I was mixing the Open Souls record in LA with David Cooley who had produced the Silversun Pickups record,” he says. “I knew about My Bloody Valentine – when I played guitar in Sommerset, the drummer was a huge fan – but I hadn’t heard of Slowdive. David was like, ‘You have to check out Souvlaki Space Station’. It just blew my mind. Then he told me about the entire guitar recording process for Slowdive and that got me into the effects units they had used – the Yamaha SPX90 and the Alesis Midiverb II.”

A small selection of Jeremy Toy_s shoegaze records, including a signed Swervedriver LP from when he loaned them a guitar (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Even today, there remains some truth to the idea of shoegaze bands being obsessed by guitar effects, as Jonathan Lee from Auckland band,Bespin explains: “I have waves of kids checking out my pedal boards at the ends of sets and taking pictures. They don’t want to meet me, they just want a pic to study later.”

Lee believes that there are multiple reasons for the shozegaze/dream pop approach of turning down the volume of vocals in the mix. “To me, it’s about trying to represent the feeling of live immersion in a recording. You’re trying to represent large room spaces which is extremely hard to translate to smaller spaces, normal stereos, headphones, and iPhone speakers. Design-wise, if you turn the vocals down, then the instrumentation feels louder in the mix. Also, cinematic and ambient styles of music lend themselves to a meditative immersion; thus de-emphasising the vocal and turning it into more of another instrument in the mix such that the listener continues to project themselves onto and into it.”

Anji Toy (She’s So Rad) also feels that having your vocals buried in the mix can be freeing: “With the loud guitars, you’re able to disguise your expression in a way. Lots of my songs I feel overly cheesy expressing myself because I’m uncomfortable with emotions. Another thing is that the shoegaze sound hasn’t really aged – unlike 90s rock, for example, where the production and the drum sound really dates it.’’

Jeremy Toy, She’s So Rad (photo: Gareth Shute)

But, why now? Is there a parallel between the music scene when shoegaze/dream pop first emerged and the current moment? Think of ‘80s music and you imagine super-catchy pop with crystal clear vocals; meanwhile the indie acts were rebelling with a sound that was the opposite – drawn-out melodies buried in layers of guitar. These days, we seem to be in the midst of the similar pop (and hip-hop) oriented era, with producers taking a maximalist approach to getting listeners to stream their tracks beyond the first 30 seconds. If hip-hop and pop are loud and overwhelming then one response is to go quieter, take the vocals down and push the atmosphere of your songs.

Certainly, it’s working for Fazerdaze. After arriving at the dream pop sound on her own, Amelia Murray has emerged into an international scene primed for her style. Last month she played Coachella and supported Haim in the US, and now she’s in the midst of a European tour. She may sing in a whisper, but she’s being heard across the world.

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