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Does Ride’s Nowhere embody shoegaze, or transcend it?

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Welcome to the Music Roundtable, a blatant rip-off of TV Club’s TV Roundtable feature. Here, music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. For this installment, we’re talking about Ride’s Nowhere, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in October.

Annie Zaleski: With a few notable exceptions, I’m pretty blasé about band reunions at this point, but the return of Ride has been a high point of my 2015. I don’t even remember how I became a massive fan—I imagine I heard the unimpeachable “Vapour Trail” at some point and then just kept going from there—but by the early 2000s, I was hunting down import box sets and writing features about band members Andy Bell and Mark Gardener. Thankfully, Ride’s reunion lived up to my admittedly high expectations: When I saw the band live in early October, they were not only incredibly loud, but also incredibly life-affirming.


In a nice coincidence, 2015 also marks the 25th anniversary of Ride’s debut, Nowhere, which is being reissued and packaged as Nowhere25, with a DVD of the band’s March 1991 London concert. (For completists, this is the 15-track version of Nowhere that was originally reissued in 2001, with the Today Forever EP tacked on after the main album.) Listening to the record again in recent weeks, I noticed how timeless it sounds. Sure, the band’s influences are easy to spot: “Kaleidoscope” feels of a piece with late-’80s U.K. indie-pop; the title track has doom-filled post-punk underbelly; “Seagull” boasts a prominent ’60s psych-pop influence; and “Taste” has a jangly, ’80s-power-pop vibe.

But the members of Ride aren’t slavishly ripping off any of these genres or eras, just simply using them as source material or inspiration for their own songwriting. That’s why I’ve always bristled when Ride is solely considered a shoegaze band: Not only did the band sound quite different from others lumped into the same movement, but its music was always far more complex than this narrow label implied. On Nowhere, this variety felt completely unselfconscious, too—it’s not like the band deliberately set out to create this new musical template or reference past classics.


I interviewed Gardener again recently, and asked him what he recalled about recording Nowhere. Among other things, he laughed and noted that he realized “looking back on it now, there’s quite a few references to dying.” He’s not wrong: When I listened closely, the record’s underlying melancholy and free-floating anxiety also stood out. There’s the obvious moments—I mean, “Decay” has the ominous lyric, “We die”—and more subtle things: “Dreams Burn Down,” from its skyscraping drum intro to its distortion cyclones, conveys a sense of crumbling optimism and acceptance of a bleak future.

Ken, what was your take on Nowhere when you gave it a listen again? What sorts of influences and references did you take from it? Does it sound like a debut album? And does Ride get misunderstood because they were given a shoegaze tag?

Kenneth Partridge: It does sound like a debut, but it’s that rare first album that’s fully realized and fairly different from anything that came before. For anyone who, like me, discovered Ride late (well after the band had broken up and a new generation of pedal-stomping American kids had helped to get its name back in circulation) it’s easy to take a lot of these sonic touchstones for granted. It’s classic shoegaze in the sense that it’s noisy as hell yet stunningly beautiful, but I think it’s important to remember the chronology. Most of the bands to which Ride gets compared (Slowdive, Swervedriver, Chapterhouse, etc.) released their debut albums after Nowhere. Putting aside American influences like Sonic Youth and some of the U.K. acts that skewed more dream-pop, you can say the only shoegazers that really preceded Ride were The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, both of whom did the ugly-pretty thing in completely different ways.

Bell and Gardener never affect that black-leather Ramones/Velvets cool the Mary Chain had, and even at its most abrasive and disorienting—the industrial-strength guitar shrieking in “Dreams Burn Down”—Nowhere is prettier, more straightforward, and to my ears, more vulnerable than My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything.

To that last point, Annie, you mentioned hearing ’80s-era U.K. indie in these songs, and I think that comes across in the words as well as in the music. Bell’s lyrics sound like the ramblings of a really confused, really sensitive teenage stoner, and that somehow fits with the all-or-nothing bigness of the music. A line like “She had dust on her hands from the sky / she said I touched a cloud,” which was inspired by a quote from a J.D. Salinger story, would sound silly if the band didn’t back up the melodrama with this dynamic guitar music from outer space.


My only gripe with Nowhere is that you never really feel like you get to know Bell or Gardener. There are all these songs about birds and dreams and the sky, but there’s not a whole lot of personality—not like the Mary Chain, and certainly not like The Cure and The Smiths, who Bell has cited as major influences. Jason, do you think Ride does enough on Nowhere to make you want to come back for more? As it happens, 1992’s Going Blank Again is excellent, too, but you can make the case that Nowhere is the only Ride record you need, and that the band defined a genre without really defining its motivations or giving fans anything more than vague and angsty poetry set to epic guitar sounds. Then again, vague and angsty poetry set to epic guitar sounds might be enough, no? Even taking My Bloddy Valentine’s Loveless into account, did anyone really do shoegaze better than this?

Jason Heller: I was pretty obsessed with reading the NME and devouring import EPs from England when I was 18 or so—which would have been 1990, the year Nowhere came out. Since then, it’s been one of the few albums of that era that I consistently return to; granted, it spoke to me more directly when I was also an angsty teenager, but the album’s overwhelming melodicism and sonic depth is something I never tire of getting lost in.


But is it shoegaze? I’d say most definitely yes, with the disclaimer that at this point in my life, I no longer obsess much over the purity of categories or anything like that. When I wrote a Gateways To Geekery article on shoegaze for The A.V. Club a few years back, I picked Ride as the band that would make the best entry point. Was Ride my entry point into shoegaze? Not even close. But the band did make the most immediately accessible records that also happened to embody everything that shoegaze was about.

That said, I’d agree that Nowhere is more than simply a shoegaze record. There are hints of The Stone Roses in its cascading jangle, and as Ken mention, the influence of The Cure—particularly Disintegration—is undeniable (which makes Robert Smith’s recent remix of “Vapour Trail” even more of a full-circle moment). But I also hear classic rock in Nowhere, with “Dreams Burn Down” being a great example: It’s got Laurence Colbert’s massive, unmistakably John Bonham-esque drumbeat (come on, he must have consciously been trying to copy “When The Levee Breaks”), not to mention Gardener’s Rolling Stones-echoing lament that “You can’t always get what you want.” (Granted, he also sings, “I just want what I can’t have,” which just as neatly echoes The Smiths’ “I Want The One I Can’t Have.”)


I appreciate Annie’s viewpoint that Ride wasn’t trying to rip anyone off, but honestly, I couldn’t care less if they were trying to be copycats. Part of what I love about Nowhere is the fact that I can find all these slivers of influences, some of which work themselves out only after I’ve heard the album 200 times.

Overall, I think Ride was a great band from start to finish—yes, I even love the widely panned Tarantula—and I see Nowhere as being an exercise in adolescent insecurity. The guys in Ride mumbled, buried their vocals, sung in vaguely poetic platitudes, and smeared distortion and effects on everything not just because it was the sound of the time, but because there’s a very palpable sense of wanting to cover up any flaws they felt they might have had. That vulnerability—that decibel-mongering overcompensation—is what continues to endear me to Nowhere. Ride gradually stripped those layers away as the band moved forward and grew more confident in its abilities as songwriters, much to the disappointment of fans who didn’t want to hear anything different from the band. Kevin, where do you see Nowhere in the context of the rest of Ride’s discography, not to mention the rest of the shoegaze pantheon? And what’s made this album endure?


Kevin Warwick: I absolutely side with Jason’s point on Ride making the most immediately accessible records to embody the basic, color-by-numbers template of shoegaze, whether the band was aiming to or not. And a lot of my reasoning comes from long dabbling in shoegaze worship, but not getting on the bandwagon until the slew of seminal reunions started falling in place. Am I outing myself as a bit of a Johnny-come-lately? Perhaps. But both the past and present shoegaze phenomena became impossible to shrug off as bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus And Mary Chain—and Slowdive and Swervedriver—took to the stage again, with each reunion being less of a surprise than its predecessor. So I was glad to fall in line when the genre’s pioneers re-found their footing during a new era of music, which leaned heavily on the same dissonance (bordering on diffidence) that made shoegaze inescapably fascinating during its initial incarnation.

In fully acquainting myself with the canon, Nowhere has become such a bookend for me within Ride’s discography and the shoegaze pantheon, as Jason put it. The minute-plus instrumental intro of the opener “Seagull” sucks you in dramatically via its looping, bouncy bass line and long whiplashes of psych-tinted guitar swells, so much so that when Gardener and Bell come in modestly with their semi-flat vocals, they coat the clatter rather than consume it, like sand sifting through your fingers on a beach. And in prototypical shoegaze fashion, even as the track whirls about—and the lyrics are pulled along in its wake—the bleakness of the words still resonates. When the much shorter “Kaleidoscope” kicks in, as well as the following “In A Different Place,” the mood has been set. Both feel markedly more structured than “Seagull,” but no less a part of the album as a whole, because they’re just as epic in execution (in part thanks to the behemoth drumming of Laurence Colbert).


Recently, I’ve been mesmerized by the new Deafheaven album New Bermuda—not to mention the retroactive subgenre tag of “blackgaze” that is almost a direct result of its release—and just how the songwriting details of an album like Nowhere have found a new home within the seemingly disparate genre of black metal (that is, if you’re willing to call Deafheaven black metal). As a straightforward example, the dragging, simple guitar riff of “Dreams Burn Down” that hangs in the background of the track would fit in easily on several of Deafheaven’s breaks in between blast beats, and the band isn’t even subtle about how they cop shoegaze’s dark, forlorn vibe. Not only has Nowhere endured in a way that warrants a roundtable of music writers pontificating on the 25th anniversary reissue of the debut, the album’s influence has helped mutate genres and bands that on the very surface might seem like the antithesis of shoegaze.

Annie, how do you feel like Nowhere and Ride have affected the newest crop of shoegaze-praising bands? And where are some of Ride’s greatest influences heard outside of shoegaze? If Ride were to begin writing a new album tomorrow, would you rather they stay truest to the band’s most beloved album, Nowhere, or be content if they chose to let that album define them in the era in which it was produced?


AZ: As with many contemporary spins on classic musical eras, the nu-gaze movement plays fast and loose with historical accuracy and context. I mean, at the time, the term “shoegaze” was actually a pejorative used by the U.K. music press to describe the lack of interaction between bands and the audience. That was unfair then, and it’s even more unfair now, as there are a slew of great shoegaze-inspired bands—including Cheatahs, No Joy, and the criminally unknown Airiel, as well as shapeshifters M83, Ulrich Schnauss, and A Place To Bury Strangers. These groups ably preserve the sonic gist and spiritual essence of the first shoegaze era, as well as its penchant for innovative sound manipulation.

But it’s hard to draw a direct line from Nowhere to modern bands; in fact, I think the album’s enduring impact is mostly abstract and oblique. To me, that’s because shoegaze’s direct influence is hard to pin down, because the genre itself was—and is—so closely aligned with noise-rock and grungy indie-rock. On the musical continuum, Ride wasn’t far from Dinosaur Jr., a band that was an obvious influence on early Smashing Pumpkins—a group who in turn influenced groups such as Silversun Pickups. Yet you wouldn’t necessarily say that Ride inspired Smashing Pumpkins. On the flipside, you can hear hints of Ride on Radiohead’s debut LP, Pablo Honey—along with inspiration culled from Pixies and My Bloody Valentine. Where shoegaze ends and noisy indie rock begins is tough to quantify.


That being said, I also think the idea of Ride is more influential than the band’s reality, if that makes sense. The group actually created straight shoegaze for a relatively short period of time. By 1994’s Carnival Of Light, the members of Ride were heavily into classic rock bands such as The Byrds and Led Zeppelin, and 1996’s Tarantula was even heavier than that. Even 1992’s Going Blank Again, which is actually my favorite LP by the band, shows signs of leaving shoegaze behind. The songwriting is more deliberate and well-defined, the production is much crisper (hello, Alan Moulder!), and even its obvious shoegazing moments—the churning “Cool Your Boots” and the mammoth “Leave Them All Behind”—are far different than Nowhere’s approach to shoegazing.

Anyway, because of Ride’s ever-evolving sound, I actually have no idea what a new album from the band might sound like, other than I’d hope it would maintain Ride’s signature characteristics: Andy Bell and Mark Gardener’s hypnotic harmonies and intricate guitar work, drummer Laurence Colbert’s effortless rhythmic backbone, and Steve Queralt’s nonchalant bass grooves. Ride’s most successful moments also featured delicious tension between its disparate influences, so perhaps songwriting reflective of that would also be smart.


Ken, what’s your take on all of this?

KP: I think you’re absolutely right about Ride’s relatively limited influence on the nu-gaze bands. You also raise some good points about that “movement,” such that it was one. This wasn’t “the scene that celebrates itself,” the term given to the crop of early-’90s London bands, including a lot of the seminal shoegazers. Nu-gaze was a scene celebrated by critics and fans eager to play “spot the influence” and add the suffix “gaze” onto things, and it comprised a whole lot of groups that drew from a whole lot of places. If you look at the Wiki page on “nu gaze”—the definitive word on the subject, obviously—you’ll find everyone from those glitchy electro-ragers Crystal Castles to indie-popsters The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart to grungy alt-revivalists Yuck listed as examples. M83 and the great Ulrich Schnauss (props for mentioning him, Annie!) deal more in ethereal electronic music, and Asobi Seksu and No Joy hark back to Cocteau Twins.


To my ears, most of the noisier guitar bands—A Place To Bury Strangers being the prime example—pulled more from the Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine than they did from Ride. I think that goes back to what I was saying before about personality. There are very obvious things you can love about and swipe from Psychocandy and Loveless, but what about Ride—a band that only made one proper shoegaze album before venturing off in other directions—is truly ripe for theft? Even focusing on just Nowhere, how would you recreate this? The album has its share of pulverizing guitars, but as we’ve discussed, there’s plenty of twinkle and jangle and other sounds to go along with the distortion. A song like “Taste” makes me think more of the Doves circa The Last Broadcast than it does any of the next-gen noise acts we’ve mentioned. If it would be impossible to make an album inspired by the whole of Ride’s varied discography, it would be nearly as tough, I think, to make a nu-gaze record that people would hear as distinctly Nowhere-ish.

None of this should be read as negative criticism. Ride stands as an important band precisely because it defined a genre with an album that’s way more eclectic and better crafted than most of the ’90s shoegaze records that followed. It reveals itself slowly and subtly, and that’s probably why we’re still talking about it.

As for what a new Ride record would or should sound like, I, like Annie, am at a loss. I must confess that I haven’t kept up with Gardener’s solo material, and with the obvious exception of his work in Oasis, Bell’s post-Ride stuff (both as a producer and a musician) has passed me by. And because I rarely come back to Carnival Of Light or Tarantula (neither of which made a huge impression on me), I don’t have strong opinions about where Ride was headed. Jason, since you celebrate the band’s entire catalog, where would you like to see them go next? Would you even want them to take the risk of making another album?


JH: I would love to see Ride make a new album. My disenchantment with reunion albums has almost gone out the window in the wake of such solid (if not incredible) comebacks as Swans, Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine. Maybe it’s just a symptom of getting older, but I no longer see the creative arc of bands as necessarily being a linear, better-to-burn-out-than-to-fade-away kind of proposition. I’m really enjoying the notion, made much more tenable in recent years, that a band can pick up more or less where it left off twenty or more years prior, not rehashing its past, but finding a new way to interpret its established sound and inhabit its own skins.

Ride in particular might make for a better than average comeback, though: The band always had a better grasp than most of its contemporaries on classic songwriting—which isn’t the end-all-be-all, but certainly doesn’t hurt—as well as a sense of dynamics and melody that far outstrip most shoegaze bands, as much as I love two chords and a simple hook buried under an avalanche of dissonance, modulation, and distortion. The thing is, though, as we’ve already discussed, Ride was so much more than that. I remember seeing Oasis in 2000, when they band was touring behind Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, its first album with Andy Bell on bass. He couldn’t have looked more bored onstage. He was probably making more money than he ever had in his life, but fuck, I couldn’t imagine a more underused talent than to have such an amazing singer-songwriter relegated to plunking away at the root notes of Oasis songs. If years of doing that (and yes, he did wind up contributing more to Oasis on a creative level, although not during the band’s best period) didn’t put a fire in his belly to write more Ride stuff, I don’t know what would.

Of course there would be no guarantee that a new Ride album wouldn’t plain suck. But I also don’t believe, like I once did, that a lousy comeback means a band’s catalog or legacy is ruined. If they’re feeling it, and/or just need the money, and/or want to indulge in a midlife crisis, more power to ’em. If it sucks, well, I’ll just go back and listen to the first four albums (and those amazing early EPs). Or my own favorite Ride-influenced album, which I feel compelled to mention every time Ride comes up in conversation: Kill Holiday’s 1999 swansong Somewhere Between The Wrong Is Right, the best example of hardcore kids (ex-Unbroken, to be precise) gone shoegaze/Britpop. Not that I’d mind some new bands trying to tap into a similar vibe: sprawling, melancholy, immaculately constructed songs with a heavy blanket of hallucinatory noise, the kind of music that carves out its own vast world and then drowns you in it. To me, that’s as timeless as it gets.


KW: I’m with Jason in that I would gladly trumpet a Ride reunion album. And it’s not just because I often find reunion albums interesting and/or peculiar, based on the motivations of the band’s members. Many of the records are money grabs, while others seem based upon the band’s irrational fear of fading into obscurity, but I genuinely feel like Ride would enter a studio clear-headed, with a real understanding of where they came from with Nowhere, as well as an understanding that they cannot remake Nowhere.

It’s also been easy to read between the lines of Gardener’s enthusiasm during the recent string of interviews he’s done—Annie’s very much included. I know that at least during one he makes mention of Ride reuniting as a kind of inevitability, as if the steamroll of social media and the hype of shoegaze’s forebears reforming were unstoppable forces. Fact of the matter is, the band wanted to kick the dust off of those pedal boards. No question. And Ride seems to be doing it for the right reasons. Hell, the self-awareness that Bell and Gardener have displayed over the years in regard to the first dissolution of the band—because perhaps they were both being stubborn snots at the time—had already been foreshadowing the return.

To Ken’s point that Ride defined a genre with an album that he explains as “more eclectic and better crafted” than most of the shoegaze records that followed it: Not only did that versatility keep Ride relevant, but, over the years, it also helped them rise to the top and become one of the genre’s premier examples. So while to many Ride supersede the genre, it’s also tethered to it in a way that in the end does the band a great service (because we’ll keep the discussion going forever).


Whether Ride fits snugly into a genre that by definition couldn’t probably care less about accommodating them, it was the domino effect of the genre’s revival—and the popularity of bands like the aforementioned A Place To Bury Strangers and the Radio Dept.—that have been significant catalysts in Ride’s return and in the reissue of Nowhere. And for that I’m thankful. So while I’ll always love the cryptic album art of Nowhere—on which a nearly colorless cresting wave slithers its way deep into the background—I think we can probably agree that the album has been, and will continue to be, an influence through every new shoegaze iteration for decades to come.