Mazzy Star - NME
In Mazzy Star's 17-year absence, a generation of hazy dream-pop pretenders have emerged. As the infamously enigmatic duo return with a new LP, Clan Traynor finds them unaware of their influence and reticent as ever.
"It's very difficult," says Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval. "In the same way that nobody wants to be looked at when they're doing something intimate and private. We just can't get into it if it feels like there's 5o o people or 3,000 people or io,000 people not only looking at you but taking photos while you're doing it."
This may seem like a curious perspective for a 47-year-old who has been singing to crowds for over half her life, but Mazzy Star's live shows have never been conventional. Long before the likes of Savages and Yeah Yeah Yeahs began banning phones at concerts, the American band's shows demanded an intimacy that could veer into quiet unease. Songs of hypnotically hazy dream-pop would smoulder through a darkened stillness.
Singer Hope Sandoval kept her eyes closed and her face hidden. Chattering crowds could be shushed, sometimes chastised for not listening. Unruly sound engineers would be put in their place and, if the atmosphere didn't settle, stages could be stormed off.
Last year, when the band played their first shows since 2000, that dynamic seemed more fragile than ever. Mazzy Star's stature had grown in their absence and a series of sultry soundalikes had helped draw a new generation of fans. But at festivals like Coachella and Primavera, those fans held their cameras aloft, illuminating one of the most guarded figures in music with a succession of flashes.
So guarded, in fact, that new album 'Seasons Of Your Day' is their first in 17 years. Not because the band ever broke up, but because they withdrew from public view to make music on their own terms. "That's the thing with me and Hope," says guitarist David Roback on what makes his partnership with Sandoval special. "We don't really need to talk about what we do. We just do it."
To say they don't really talk about it is quite an understatement. Relatively few Mazzy Star interviews have surfaced over the years, though the narrative remains invariably similar: they shield themselves with clipped sentences and truculent silence, feigning inhibition but implying contempt, leaving their background story to seem as enigmatic as the music.
The pair first met in Los Angeles during the mid-1980s, when a teenage Sandoval began showing up at gigs by the Paisley Underground, a strand of psychedelic post-punk groups Roback was involved with. Growing up in a rough part of east Los Angeles, Sandoval would bunk off school and work on music with her friend, Sylvia Gomez, under the name Going Home. Roback offered to produce them on the strength of a demo but when Kendra Smith, his songwriting partner in neo-pysch group Opal, quit one night in 1987, Sandoval was called in to replace her.
Renaming themselves Mazzy Star, they released debut album ‘She Hangs Brightly’, a brooding mishmash of genres, on Rough Trade in 1990. When the label's American division began to crumble, Mazzy Star were dealt to Capitol in a bid to avoid bankruptcy. But with their next album, 1993's 'So Tonight That I May See', unexpected success led to unwanted attention.
Hit single 'Fade Into You' crystallised the band's languid melodies and wistful guitar work, becoming a staple of romantic mixtapes and make-out sessions. That breakthrough excited Capitol but the band felt like a commodity, wary of pressure and interference. Asked how this experience shaped the band's values, Roback grows testy. “We want to do what we want to do! We don't want someone coming around and telling us what they think we should be doing, you know? You know?"
What we do know is that after retreating to make 1996's ‘Among My Swan', Mazzy Star demanded to be released from their contract and coasted into hiatus. Roback relocated to Norway and Sandoval teamed up with My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, to release two albums as Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions.
Though they've been writing and recording together sporadically since 1997, Sandoval and Roback say they were unaware of any influence their albums may have sparked, oblivious to the slew of introspective and ethereal-sounding bands that struggled to step out of their shadow. "We're sort of... sheltered in our own little bubble," says Sandoval. "We... don't really know... what... outsiders are thinking."
Just getting a straight answer from Sandoval and Roback can feel like a minor feat. The long silences that follow each question seem intended to fluster interviewers into stumbling towards the next subject. Today, however, our three-way Skype call drifts into a series of stalemates, each party waiting for someone else to give in first.
When it's Roback's turn, he'll wind down the clock by pedantically picking apart queries as if searching for an escape clause. Sandoval's answers, meanwhile, trickle out with a terse economy, sometimes deliberately misinterpreting the question, sometimes fizzling into a bratty giggle.
Somehow, the bouts of silence seem to grow louder and longer, stretching on until background noises provide a welcome distraction. Footsteps can be heard creeping away, presumably to a bathroom break. There's some intermittent rustling and scraping, a child making a bemused enquiry and someone skimming distractedly through radio channels.
When one question prompts tapping on a keyboard, followed by a pause and another burst of typing, it's easy to imagine Sandoval and Roback conferring about how well the interview is going.
Roback repeatedly claims that their communication is intuitive — "We can just tell by the look in each other's eyes" —and that to translate that into words feels unnecessary. While that may render interviews pointless, it's as apt a description of their music as they're likely to give.
The effortless interplay between Sandoval's hushed vocals and Roback's guitar on the new album's opener, 'In The Kingdom', weaves in and out like dialogue. Midway through `Seasons Of Your Day', the intoxicating 'Common Burn' proves that rather than trying to revisit former glories, Mazzy Star are simply sharing what they've been holding back.
But as a release on their own label, Rhymes Of An Hour, surely they can spare themselves from interviews if they so choose. So why the caginess? Why does their reticence have to feel abrasive? "It's difficult," Sandoval begins, not for the first time. "Sometimes they feel like job interviews. You don't really know the person, you're asked these questions and..." She trails off, sighing.
"I think they're difficult for journalists too. Sometimes they're just as anxious about it as we are, dreading it as much as we do." She lets out another mischievous laugh and Roback, with deadpan aplomb, asks me to confirm or deny this.
It's been brutal, I assure him, and I can't even tell who the experience has pained more. Then the line goes quiet once again, the stillness filled with the sound of a plane passing overhead.
Finally, Roback says he understands the interest in knowing how it all works — he's often curious about the way people do things too — and admits that interviews can be incredibly enlightening. But it's not the way Mazzy Star do things. "I just don't think we really feel any need to explain it to anybody," he says. "Or, for that matter, to ourselves or each other."