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A conversation with Mark Gardener of reunited British shoegaze legends Ride

"We weren't a career band. We were always going to crash the car at some point—that's what made it exciting."

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Ride play at Portugal's NOS Primavera Sound festival in June 2015. - DEEPSKYOBJECT VIA FLICKR
  • deepskyobject via Flickr
  • Ride play at Portugal's NOS Primavera Sound festival in June 2015.

In late 2014, a giant black banner appeared on the side of a building in Barcelona, Spain, the home of the annual Primavera Sound music festival. In a vaguely familiar heavy white font, it read simply ride. Speculation about a Ride reunion, stoked over the years by smirking "never say never" teases from various members, had been at a fever pitch since the breakup that fall of Liam Gallagher's post-Oasis group, Beady Eye, in which Ride's Andy Bell played guitar. The banner confirmed it: the seminal British shoegaze band, almost completely inactive since dissolving in 1996, would finally return.

Following the success of My Bloody Valentine's 2008 reunion and self-released 2013 LP m b v, first-wave shoegaze bands seemed to be clamoring to hop on the reunion express. Slowdive were next, announcing their plans in January 2014 with a media campaign full of selfies that showed them hanging out with Deafheaven and Chelsea Wolfe. Perhaps when Ride saw My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive on their sold-out world tours, they saw a chance for the same kind of money and acclaim, and it was too much to pass up. The members of Ride had stayed busier after the band's split than most of their shoegaze peers, though, which might've kept them ready to play together again but also could've given them reasons not to. Vocalist and guitarist Mark Gardener had several solo releases, while drummer Laurence "Loz" Colbert kept time with the likes of the Jesus & Mary Chain and Supergrass. Andy Bell, of course, would go on to play bass for Oasis and guitar for Beady Eye. The reunion came down to the members being willing to work together again, something that in 1996 had seemed impossible. Ride's 1994 studio record Carnival of Light was famously split in half—the first half written by Gardener, the second by Bell. They were so frustrated with each other that they refused to let their songs share an album side.

But Ride's first practice for the reunion, not long before their announcement, was "comfortable," says Gardener. "We'd all grown up." The chemistry of the four original members, he explains, couldn't be replicated with fill-in players: "It created something like voodoo." In 2015 the band began a sold-out world tour that's included performances at Coachella and Primavera. And on Friday, September 25, Ride will bring their expert blend of shoegaze and pop to the Riviera for their first Chicago show in more than two decades.

Nowadays, Ride are humbled by their own success. Gardener is especially proud that they've inspired so many other bands. "Only when you've got the time to look back do you see how far you've actually come," he says. That statement might be true of anyone, but very few bands ever experience the kind of journey Ride have had—it's been 27 years since their first rehearsals, and they're playing shows to rapturous crowds where fortysomethings and teens stand side by side.

That's Mark Gardener in the hat. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • That's Mark Gardener in the hat.

Meagan Fredette: Shoegaze has such an obsessive fan base today. And there are two schools within the genre: the original bands from your era and the newer bands going today, who are very much still carrying the torch. Which is a huge testament to its staying power. Why do you think that shoegaze has survived, as compared to other forms of music that cropped up at the time?

Mark Gardener: I think "shoegaze" . . . [Groans.]

I know, it's the worst term! It's awful!

[Laughs.] I don't really mind, because ultimately it's not something that we invented—it's a label that was given to us. To me, it's pretty broad: bands who were just trying to do something interesting, maybe more atmospheric, soundscapey, not so much traditional rock. That was all we were trying to do, really. I always saw it as psychedelic, noisy music. Although shoegaze does describe a type of sound, you still need songs. If you've made a good song, but in the shoegaze style, it's going to come through and hopefully stand the test of time.

Sometimes I hear bands trying to create that sound, but I don't always hear the song. My ultimate challenge, which is really at the heart of everything I've ever played—with Ride and solo albums—is that, if all the noise is stripped away, it's still a great song. Maybe we used [effects] as a way to hide, initially. And if a song can stand up in its purest form, with just your voice and an acoustic guitar, then we're getting somewhere. A lot of the Ride stuff came from us just sitting in a room jamming and trying to make something interesting. It turned us on, and we hoped it would turn other people on. We tried to make the music as best as we could. I think we were really quite surprised that it became as popular as it did. The normal daytime radio didn't play our records—they found it too noisy, and it just didn't fit. And then fast-forward five or six years, when a more classic sound started to happen, Britpop and all that—it was all over the radio. I think the thing that served [Ride] well was that we didn't compromise what we were doing at the time. We just made a total racket, really.

How did the Ride sound evolve? How were you able to write good songs, given the amorphous nature of the shoegaze sound?

It's got a lot to do with our earliest influences. [Guitarist] Andy [Bell] and I were really into the contemporary music of the time—the Smiths, the Cure. We were also introduced to people like Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine, and Loop by [Ride bassist] Steve [Queralt], who worked at a record store at the time. Our sound really came from Andy and I loving bands like the Beatles and the Smiths—and Steve, who made us aware of some really interesting music happening. That mix eventually became the Ride sound. And that seems to have stood the test of time. I'm happy that, 20 years in, we've been name-checked by so many other bands, and can play these shows today.

When Ride started out, you guys were so young! I think back to when I was that young, and there's a lot of myopia in terms of how you perceive the present and the future. Did you guys have any idea of what was going to happen?

Oh, absolutely not! We weren't a career band. We were always going to crash the car at some point—that's what made it exciting. And we were very naive, and wrote very honestly about things that were happening in our lives outside the band. It's that first baby step into the magnitude of life—relationships, first loves—but everything goes wrong. That's just the way it works. We kept things going for a good number of years until we crashed in 1996.


The video for "Chelsea Girl," from the 1990 EP Ride

Let's talk for a minute about when the band broke up. When I listen to your first record, Nowhere, I can hear such innocence, because it was written when you all were so young. Do you think that the breakup was a product of that innocence?

Sure! There were some references to it in [the 1996 album] Tarantula. You can only write about what you know, and inspiration is all around you if you pay attention. The first times things are happening to you, and your band is taking off—it's quite mad. And the song "Leave Them All Behind" [on 1992's Going Blank Again] reflected that: when your band takes off, suddenly you have other bands that try to copy you.

We weren't really a big druggie band. By the end, you realize that it just confuses the issues even more, and you end up moving sideways. For me, I was a big pothead, and that was my way of dealing with what was going on around me. It put me in a cocoon—a safe grounding place for me when I felt that my life was out of control.

And those career bands from back then, it's like, what are they doing now?

If it means that you turn really bland in the process, I just think: What's the point?

And that shoegaze thing that you mentioned earlier—as I said, it was people trying to do something a bit more interesting with sound and guitars. We also live in a world now where there are more weird effects pedals and that sort of thing, and that comes into play. When that stuff is there, you want to experiment with it.

"Leave Them All Behind," from the 1992 album Going Blank Again

I think about Oliver Ackermann from A Place to Bury Strangers, and how he creates his own effects pedals—the Death by Audio pedals—and how the technology of today allows for a wider range of experimental sound that didn't exist 20 years ago. There are big bands, like Tame Impala, who years ago would have been lumped in with you guys, but today they're huge mainstream indie-pop bands.

We played at Coachella, and I caught Tame Impala's set there—I liked it a lot. I thought they were very good. AC/DC came on after them, and I mean, they're a band that does one thing. They just do rock 'n' roll! But for me, after like half an hour, it's the same thing at each track. Now, with new pedals and technology, you can embrace them, and it makes things more of a journey. You can bring noise into it; you can bring harmony into it. You can make people feel very uncomfortable, but you can also make them feel very beautiful. If it's just noise from start to finish, that's boring. But noise with more edgy, weird discordant things against very in-tune things—that creates something dynamic. It makes the trips more interesting and colorful.

That ethos always set Ride's music apart, especially at the time. There was a lot of noise, and this ecstasy-driven push for a wall of sound. But at the end of the day, they were just good songs. With beautiful vocal harmonies between you and Andy.

You know, the irony is, these recent shows we've been playing are the first time Andy and I can hear each other! It's crazy! When we first did this, it was a trade-off with the loud guitars. When we sang, it was very hit-or-miss. But now the monitoring systems are so much better that the harmonies are finally right. That's a big step up, technology-wise, from where we were 20 years ago. There were some shows where we walked on stage like, "We can't hear a fucking thing!"

I love hearing Andy sing, and I love singing with him, because those are our harmonies, and I think that's something we did really well.

Andy Bell of Ride at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in June 2015 - ⓈⒶⓂ VIA FLICKR
  • ⓢⓐⓜ via Flickr
  • Andy Bell of Ride at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in June 2015

I remember very clearly the first time I heard "Seagull"—I was a teen and put on Nowhere, and when the vocal harmonies kicked in, I thought there was a hymnal aspect to it that felt very resonant.

Yeah, most of it was recorded when we were kind of on acid. [Laughs.] OK, I said that. Maybe it has something to do with Oxford, where we're from. It's got sort of a surreal vibe to it. And there's some drugs with that!

Tell me what that first Oxford reunion show was like.

It was one of the most emotionally charged shows I've ever played. Emotion just took over for me. It was something that I thought I'd never feel again, and I feel very blessed that I can. Ride is the four of us, and whatever weird chemistry we have together—it creates something like voodoo. You don't get it at first, because it's your first band. But then you get in a room together, and you realize, "Oh yeah, that's it." Playing the first show for Oxford was just a really good feeling. I'm really happy, because I'm talking to you, and I can tell that you're younger and didn't see us the first time out. And we did the west-coast shows, maybe 80 percent of the audience had never seen us before. I love that we can play our music for the die-hards and a fresh, new audience.

On Facebook groups and message boards, these obsessive fans who didn't have a chance to see you the first time around were like, Ride needs to reunite! All these shoegaze bands reuniting didn't come about in a vacuum. It happened because lots of old and new fans really pushed to make it happen, to make it successful.

I love the challenge of playing to a lot of people who've never seen us before. As much as we wanted to do this, that was a small part of it. We couldn't really avoid the fact that so many younger people wanted us to do this as well. The people called for it, and we're happy to say thanks for supporting us in this way.

Do you feel like the fans have changed much through the years? Or are you guys playing now to many fans in their 20s and teens even?

The world has changed for me. I don't want to make myself sound like a dinosaur, but when we first toured, there weren't even mobile phones. But in many ways, I think it's changed for the better. It's nice to hear that people like our shows, directly from the fans.

Ride's reunion shows have been so commercially and critically successful. How have you guys been enjoying that?

We are really stoked. The mythology of Ride could only be spoiled by playing a [bad] gig. We have to be better and more consistent. We've made a lot of little changes to step it up a level. And we're headlining festivals and shows around the world, so we've rehearsed more than we've ever rehearsed before. We are taking this very seriously. We want to smash it every time. I don't have sloppy long hair to hide behind anymore.

Ride plays "Dreams Burn Down," from the 1990 album Nowhere, at Brixton Academy in 1992.

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