Back in the 90’s, there was a handful of record labels that were closely associated with shoegaze/dreampop/etc music. 4AD, Bedazzled, Creation, Clairecords, Independent Project Records, Kranky, and Projekt each staked out its own piece of territory at the intersection of ethereal and noise. While 4AD was actually releasing a very wide range of music – from the dark electro-industrial pop of Wolfgang Press to the angular abstract rock of Throwing Muses and the schizoid genre experimentation of His Name Is Alive – many people took a reductive approach to 4AD’s output, lumping it all into “the 4AD sound”. In most cases, this meant the lush musical dreamscapes of Cocteau Twins. They were the label’s standard bearers and most popular act.
In 1991-92, 4AD was going through a turbulent period of transition. Cocteau Twins had left, and the label was navigating the complexities of a new American licensing agreement with Warners. From the outside, 4AD’s future looked bright, but the label was struggling to maintain its identity and its unique cachet in the music world. (For more details on this period – and the rest of the label’s first 20 years – check out Martin Aston’s exhaustive history, Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD.
One of the bands that joined 4AD in the wake of the Twins’ departure was a two-person act by the name of Swallow. Louise Trehy and Mike Mason were signed on the basis of a demo tape sent to the label, and their debut album, Blow was produced by frequent 4AD collaborator John Fryer. It was followed soon after by the limited-edition Blowback, which featured radically reworked versions of most of the debut’s tracks. Influential dreampop zine Dewdrops was a big fan of Trehy’s “godhead honey voice” and opined that Swallow “could be the next big 4AD band, maybe even filling the [Cocteau Twins] void.”
But behind the scenes, things weren’t going so well. Mason, and moreso Trehy, were unhappy with the way that Fryer and 4AD’s head honcho Ivo Watts-Russell handled the recording of Blow, and after Blowback, the band and label parted ways. Swallow then signed to Rough Trade and released the 4-track Hush EP, which turned out to be its swan song. Mason and Trehy, who were a couple, split up both romantically and musically, and Trehy moved to rural Wales, leaving music writing and recording behind.
I was a big fan of Swallow’s music back in the day, and I was disappointed when they disappeared after the release of Hush. At the time, there was no World Wide Web to track musicians’ every move, so aside from a few brief references in the music press to some sort of acrimony between Swallow and 4AD, I knew nothing about why they stopped recording and what they did next.
But then a couple years ago, I was surfing the Web and saw a link to a SoundCloud page that featured three new demos from Louise Trehy. Excited to learn that she was recording again, I clicked over to her page, listened to the tracks, added them to my “like” list, and eagerly looked forward to what might come next.
What followed turned out to be the adoption of the band name Strata Florida, and the March 2014 release of the album Made of Stars on Saint Marie Records.
Working with multi-instrumentalist Peter Pavli, Trehy took the beautiful vocals that breathed life into Swallow and married them to a lush, swirling, guitar-driven sonic brew that harkens back to 90’s shoegaze but also feels perfectly at home alongside the gazepop revival of the 10’s.
A year after sharing Made of Stars with the world, Louise was kind enough to chat with me about what’s been happening over the past year and what’s next for Strata Florida.
As you recently noted on Twitter, we’ve just passed the one-year anniversary of the release of your “comeback” album, Made of Stars. What have been some of the highlights of the year for you?
Falling in love with making music again, the simple delight in putting a melody together. The reception I had coming back – I really didn’t expect that!
The music industry in 2015 could hardly be more different than it was when you recorded as Swallow in 1992. One change is that the wall between artists and listeners has mostly been torn down… back in the day, a band might have a fan club PO box that got checked now and then, but now you have a blog and a Twitter account through which fans can reach out and contact you directly. How has it been for you to have that direct communication channel with people who love your music?
I think I get more out of it than they do! My blog isn’t very interesting, I thought it would be a good idea but I quickly got bored. I’m more active on Facebook but I complain a lot, particularly about living with teenagers so I have to really restrain myself from moaning all the time. I genuinely like knowing about people and their daily lives, domestic details, cultural differences, seeing who is as dysfunctional as I am. I could give details about pottery collecting or my love of vintage clothes but I’m not sure who’d find that interesting! I do have some really good friends from social media – some bands and some not, they cheer me up. Musically it has been great to connect with other bands through social media, some we hope to work with, for gigs/releases/recording, whatever. Generally the support in the Shoegaze community is absolutely incredible; I don’t take it for granted.
I imagine that most fans of your work are aware that your tenure on 4AD was far from a positive experience, and it led to a long break from recording. When I first listened to Made of Stars, I was struck by what I perceived as a sense of joyous experimentation in the songs… a playful feeling like “let’s see what happens when we turn all the knobs on the guitar pedal this way.” What’s been the most fun and what has been the most challenging about writing and recording music this time around?
When I started writing again I had no ambition for it really, I was simply enjoying playing with recording. Then I got frustrated by the limitations of my experience; that is when it went on Soundcloud – for recording tips! Pavli had also abandoned noisy guitar for string and orchestral instruments, so for him it was a return to his musical beginnings too. We had no expectations and were only pleasing ourselves. However, when we did start listening to our contemporaries we realised we were envious of the sound other bands were getting, and our DIY recording was creative, yes, but was holding us back too.
You signed with 4AD at a time when the label was going through growing pains and a bit of an identity crisis, and it ended up not being a good fit. This time around you signed with Saint Marie Records at a time when the label was rapidly growing into the go-to source for new shoegaze/dreampop/etc bands. How has it been to work with Wyatt Parkins and Saint Marie?
I think back then I was extremely inexperienced. Blow was all of the first songs I’d ever written, I had never been in a band before and Swallow had barely existed when we were signed. I’d also no studio experience and had my own quirky way of working, which I should have insisted on in the studio to be comfortable. I was intimidated by everything, so was Mike really – we didn’t feel we deserved to be on 4AD so we messed around a lot. Now I am much more careful about what ends up being recorded, I’m not saying I like perfect performances because I don’t – they are too clinical, I like the human element to be heard, but now if I think something sounds a bit wrong or I don’t like it, I say so, apparently rather bluntly too!
I immediately thought Saint Marie was the natural home for us, musically of course, but also it is more about putting out decent music and is not too sales orientated. I genuinely like all the bands and have become good friends with some of them. Wyatt is very supportive and just lets you get on with it, he’ll step in and help when you need it. It also helps he has a good eye for design and I really liked the layout he did on Made of Stars. I think it just all feels effortless, there’s no hierarchy, you really do feel part of something very special, I am very happy there.
Last October, you posted on your blog about new music you were working on, and you contributed a new track, “Falling”, to Saint Marie’s Static Waves 3 compilation. Can we expect more new music from you in 2015? And if so, what can you tell us about it?
At the moment, the songs are more like “Hang-On”… slow melodic songs, less noise maybe and more dreaminess. We will release an EP by the end of the year, maybe on some vinyl, well that’s the plan. The quality of the sound is better and closer to what I think we should sound like – a warmer, richer sound. Oh I’ve put the vocals up so I must be more confident!
Last summer you blogged about going through a period of writer’s block. What did it take to get you past that block?
I made myself play the guitar every day, which I am quite lazy about, and I changed the tuning. I seem to write in groups of three songs at a go, typically the one you spend weeks working on is never as nice as the one that pops out in an afternoon. I really need complete solitude to concentrate but having the house to myself is a luxury, I am at the mercy of teenagers.
How has your writing and recording process changed since you worked on Made of Stars? Have you and Pavli changed the way you work together?
Pavli moved to a bigger place and we set up a room solely for recording music. Before, we had to set up and dismantle equipment on a regular basis, which was frustrating. There’s always that thing you forget to plug in and wonder why nothing works – this made things easier, so more relaxed.
When I met him I had already written the songs for Made of Stars so he had to work around structures that were in place, hence the one, two, three go formula! This time, we started working together from basic riffs and melodies. He is encouraging more variation in the song structure, and the use of intros, which are lacking on Made of Stars. He writes beautiful melodic bass lines so we’ll be using more of them. We both like to record separately and then get together to mix, I think why it works is neither of us think we’re any more important than the other.
Do you find yourself going back to listen to Made of Stars? What do you think of it now, a year later?
I think there’s a huge amount of noise on there! Even though there are a few things that I should probably change – technical stuff, some balances in the mixing – I wouldn’t, because overall it represents where I was at the time so I am very happy with it. Sure it’s unpolished but that’s how we were recording. The energy is there.
Although Blow was the result of a painful creative process, it is still well-regarded by a lot of people — at the Sounds Better With Reverb site, they ranked it as #49 in their list of the Top 100 Shoegaze/Dreampop albums of all time. What’s your feeling about the album 23 years later?
I didn’t listen to it again until last year; there are some nice moments on it, some really good songs and some not so good. I don’t hate the record, just the experience of making it. It wasn’t the sound I was hoping for, but then again I couldn’t articulate that in music terms at the time. Maybe it would have been a worse record if I did, who knows? It marks the beginning of the demise of Swallow, which up until recording in a studio had been exciting and joyful. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to it if I did allow Ivo to replace me with Kelly Deal (his suggestion!). Either way, myself and Mike Mason would have ended up splitting up anyway.
On a different note, what are your three favorite films?
The Turin Horse – not much happens, its existentialist, has a scary ending and a great soundtrack.
2001 – I love sci-fi films but this is the best.
Elf – I asked my daughter this question and she said you know you love Elf at Christmas and I thought, yes I do!
What’s a song that’s guaranteed to cheer you up? What’s one that can make you cry?
Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is my favourite song ever. I don’t think there is a song that made me cry – maybe The Beatles’ “Julia” is close.
If you had to pick a genre label for your music, what would it be?
Maybe more dreampop than shoegaze? You tell me, either is fine with me.
For my last question, I’m going to turn it over to you — what is a question that you wish interviewers would ask? (And what is your answer?)
Hmm. I can tell you what I don’t want them to ask: “Why do you write songs?” Because I’m not sure I know, but it is where I am truly content!
Thanks, Louise, for sharing your time and our thoughts with Step On!