“Hey, my shoes are kinda nice!” The Shoegaze Revival
above: The Jesus and Mary Chain, Photo by Andrew Catlin
The term ‘Shoegaze’ has always bothered me. The notion that an entire musical genre could be defined by the act of looking down at one’s shoes while playing seems absurd, and even downright offensive. I had all but written it off, dismissing the genre as a mere gimmick comprised of posers with a complete lack of interest in what they were doing. That is what shoegaze looks like; at least from an outsider’s point of view.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I was informed by my good friend after playing a gig with my band Segrasso, that we were in fact, shoegazers. My confusion, in part, owed to the fact that we are usually quite lively performers, and definitely didn’t stand completely still on stage, scrutinising our footwear. Upon further inquiry, it became apparent that there was more to shoegaze than just the aesthetic after all.
Just as punk music gets associated with mohawks and safety pins, grunge with ripped jeans and plaid shirts, glam-rock with elaborate hairstyles and make up etc. shoegaze music has been trapped by our culture’s unfortunate obsession with classification, particularly that based purely on visual aspect. The truth is, shoegaze has very little to do with visuals and there is no distinct ‘style’ that can be identified as typical of the genre. Rather, shoegaze is all about sonic depth in music.
Let’s rewind then, and figure out where the term and the music itself came from. After doing a bit more research I was introduced to two bands to whom credit is usually attributed for influencing the genre: The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Cocteau Twins, both British alt-rock bands from the mid to late eighties. The former were pioneers of ‘noise rock’, making extensive use of distortion, feedback and lo-fi production values while the latter were known for their lush, ethereal soundscapes and soft, dream-like vocals. The combining of these two elements: the sensual and the gritty, would result in what we now know as shoegaze, manifested in the 1991 album Loveless by Irish group My Bloody Valentine.
The discovery of MBV completely swayed me on the topic of shoegaze and I became fascinated by the band and their sound. The juxtaposition of the aggressive, extremely loud guitars and the whispered, hazy vocals is, from what I can infer, the definitive trait of shoegaze music. The dizzying, hypnotic quality of the guitar sound is achieved by frontman Kevin Shields’ unique method of strumming while holding the tremolo bar on a Fender Jazzmaster guitar, which causes the pitch of whatever he plays to bend in and out of tune. This technique, along with a multitude of effects pedals creates an enormous, multi-layered blanket of noise (so loud, in fact, that MBV are required to hand out ear plugs at their live performances). Vocalist Bilinda Butcher’s soothing, luscious voice hovering delicately on top of Shields’ ear-shattering guitar tone is what gives the band their distinctive style and may be considered the quintessential shoegaze experience.
Following in the wake of Loveless, other bands became heavily influenced by MBV and more shoegaze music started emerging from Britain, including the likes of Slowdive, Ride and Lush. Older, established bands like the Smashing Pumpkins even began incorporating elements of shoegaze into their own music. There was a brief time in the the nineties when shoegaze rallied a significant following and was a legitimate subculture to rival britpop and rave.
The term ‘shoegaze’ first appeared around this time, and was allegedly coined in a review directed at British indie band Moose. It referenced the band’s non-confrontational, aloof performance style. The phrase caught on and was applied broadly to bands previously considered as simply Indie or Alternative. Other connotations of ‘shoegazing’ include perpetually looking down at one’s pedalboard while playing gigs.
The slow demise of the genre came about in 1997 when MBV unofficially split up. Slowdive and other pioneers subsided and gave way to the growing fad that was britpop. Although the prominence of the genre itself disappeared, the horrendous ‘shoegaze’ label did not. Consider, for a moment, the senselessness of classifying music by visual aesthetic. It goes against all logic to organise the products of an audio medium according to the way the musicians look. It’s something we do over and over again, as I mentioned earlier with punk etc. More recently, the Emo genre became popular for a while. I still have no idea what Emo music actually sounds like – there is such a wide disparity between all the acts lumped into that category that all I can safely say about it is that it is whatever people with long fringes and eyeliner play. For about a decade, shoegaze was just an insult to be used against bands with little onstage charisma.
Miraculously, in 2013, shoegaze made a surprise comeback. Just as they had brought about the first wave of shoegazers, My Bloody Valentine ushered in a new era for the genre with the release of their third studio album MBV. This was the first exposure to shoegaze for my generation, and I could finally see the reason for the comments directed at my band. Slowdive, Ride and Swervedriver have all followed suit and staged reunion tours. New, younger shoegaze bands are popping up around the country: Elastic Sleep, Princess, Galants, and of course, Segrasso, to name a few. An independent internet radio show, ‘The Primal Radio Show’, hosted by Del Chaney, promotes local and unsigned shoegaze acts in Ireland. The release of the film Beautiful Noise last year attracted even more attention to MBV and the whole genre. The shoegaze revival is happening in a big way.
A beginner’s guide to shoegaze: 5 essential tracks to convert the cynic.
- The Jesus and Mary Chain – ‘Just Like Honey’
- The Cocteau Twins – ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’
- My Bloody Valentine – ‘Soon’
- Slowdive – ‘Machine Gun’
- Ride – ‘Vapour Trail’
Word: Jake Regan