Interview with Secret Shine

Secret Shine formed in the U.K. in the early 1990s, creating high-flying songs that change like quicksilver from blissful calm to soaring sonics, blending glorious, stratospheric guitars, dynamic drum tempos, and ethereal male and angelic female vocals. Secret Shine was on the roster of the acclaimed Sarah Records label, but the band didn’t exactly fit the twee-pop sound that Sarah Records was known for. The band members parted ways in 1996 after having released several singles, one classic EP (Greater Than God), and one dreamy album (Untouched). Clairecords via Tonevendor released a compilation CD of Secret Shine’s songs in 2004, mainly from their Sarah Records output. Secret Shine never officially split up, and now after a near-decade spent musically apart, the band is back with two recent EPs that recapture Secret Shine’s brilliance and a much-anticipated, up-coming album.

Delusions of Adequacy: I won’t go into the band’s past too much since your official web site at http://www.secretshine.co.uk/ contains a detailed biography (which includes the tragic loss of your drummer and friend Tim Morris, the turbulence of being in the band, and the excitement of creating and releasing your music), but I did want to touch upon the origins of your band name. I was privileged to interview you way back in 1996 for my music fanzine Stratosphere, but I never did ask you who thought up the name Secret Shine, and if its meaning can be divulged!

Scott: When we sent our first demo to Sarah Records we were called Amelia’s Dream. Then after Sarah offered to release the After Years EP we were worried that the name may seem like a tribute to Amelia from Heavenly who were a huge band on Sarah at that time. To avoid any misinterpretation we sat in the University canteen in Bournemouth and quickly thought of the name Secret Shine. I’m afraid there’s no interesting or clever answer other than we just liked the two words together and it seemed to be appropriate for where we wanted to take the music. At first it seemed a bit soppy but over the 16 years ‘Secret Shine’ has become us as a group, as friends, and the music we play – no longer just two words. This may sound pretentious but that’s what happens.

DOA: In categorizing your band’s sound, when did you get tagged with the “shoegazer” label? Was it during the early to mid-90s, or was it in retrospect by music critics looking back at that era? How did this label affect you, if at all?

Scott: If I look back to the reviews then the shoegaze tag probably started with the Untouched album and “Loveblind” single. The previous records were a bit more twee. On Untouched we started to let the songs breathe a little more and used the classic quiet/loud structure. Music critics can make everything sound deliberate but we just love noisy layered guitars and gentle male/female vocals which happens to be a signature of shoegaze. Tags can work for you just as much against so it doesn’t really matter to us. Our individual musical influences in the band are very diverse but as a collective we create this particular sound and we know how we want to sound. I would be a liar to say that I/we didn’t like the other bands in this scene or were never ever influenced by them but we don’t consciously sit down to write a song that, for instance, sounds just like the Cocteaus!

DOA: Back in the day, and maybe even now, you were oft-compared to the “gold standard”, i.e., My Bloody Valentine, to the point where at least one of you wore a self-made “My Bloody Secret Shine” t-shirt to a gig. What is/was your feeling to being constantly measured against My Bloody Valentine? Was it a source or honor or ire? Personally, I don’t think you sound like MBV at all, aside from certain guitar loops in one or two of your older songs.

Scott: Yes, it’s funny how that picture of Jamie in that shirt at the Sarah farewell party has become so infamous in our small circle. There were lots of Secret Shine comparisons to MBV around that time, in particular with the song “Liquid Indigo” on Greater than God. So knowing that the Sarah party would attract some press interest I think Jamie just wanted to (with a hefty dose of irony) make it easier for the journalists to draw their comparisons. We love aspects of the MBV sound and it’s an honour to be spoken about in the same breath but it’s not where we want to be, never was and never will be. It’s quite funny because sometimes I read stuff by people new to shoegaze who think that we influenced them…maybe we did…but check your dates first 😉

DOA: What was the music critic and music fan response to your band in the early to mid-90s?

Scott: We didn’t have that many bad reviews except perhaps for an occasional lack-lustre live show. All of the Untouched reviews that I read were positive as I remember. The most notorious negative review we had was in the NME for “Loveblind” which was described rather insensitively as ‘like having cancer’. In our defense, John Peel and Steve Lamacq, who had been showing an interest in us anyway, started playing the record all the time. It helped us sell a few copies as well! They also single-handedly helped us get on the bill for the Radio One Sound City week with The Jesus and Mary Chain and Deus which was such a high point. ‘Fans’ in the 90s were mainly related to the Sarah scene. It’s a bit like the tag thing you mentioned earlier – in some senses it gave us greater notoriety and a ‘ready-made’ audience, but not all of them liked it! 9 out of 10 Sarah fans prefer Field Mice.

DOA: Focusing on the present and future, you have recently made a storming comeback with two EPs and are hard at work on a new album. How is the album shaping up? At what stage are you in the creative process? Any thoughts on an album title yet?

Scott: The album is coming along really well. I sometimes feel impatient to get it out there cus I know we have many more albums in us and want to record those as well. There is a tendency to want to hang on and hang on and produce the perfect record but I think this can be a mistake – look at Kevin Shields with the never-to-appear follow up to Loveless. I bet all those recordings he allegedly chucked away were brilliant. The creative process can be both a mind-fuck and magical. It feels good this time because Jamie, Dean and I are all contributing songs and liking what each other is doing. When we recorded Untouched Jamie and I wrote everything, demoed it and told the band what to play the night before we went into the studio. No titles yet – I don’t think we could give it a name until after it’s been recorded.

DOA: The Elemental EP, true to its title, has a more stripped down sound compared to your previous songs. Was this intentional? The Beyond Sea and Sky EP goes back to the dynamic dreaminess of your older songs – how do you get such a massive, “shining” guitar sound? Is it the guitars themselves, the recording process, your skill, magic, or a combination of all of this? LOL

Scott: The Elemental EP was our first stab at ‘home’ recording which is why it’s a bit rough around the edges. When we play those songs live they’re much fuller. Elemental was also heavily influenced by Tim who was instrumental in the ‘reunion’ leading to this record. Tim loved Stereolab so we tried to give “You are Inside” that kind of skippy, lo-fi feel. Lack of experience and some intention seem to work. By the time of Beyond Sea and Sky we were a bit more ambitious and used lots more guitars and other instruments which is why the sound is more dynamic and dreamy but it’s still quite lo-fi recording-wise. I don’t know if there’s an art to it – it’s just the sounds we use and like, and the way we play and sing. Rather than play a screaming guitar solo, we’d rather put in another backing harmony. That’s what makes us Secret Shine and not Guns n’ Roses.

DOA: You’ve self-released these two EPs on Razorblade. Who runs the record label and how is that working out? It’s another responsibility to have your own record label – I’m wondering what all that entails.

Scott: I started Razorblade because I didn’t want Secret Shine to be label-less. It can help to ‘be on a label’ when you’re trying to promote and sell the record. We’ve since put a couple of other records out on Razorblade by other artists (The Great Admirers and Vincent Callan) who we’re friends with. Antony from Julie Skies gave me the idea to start a label shared by the artists on it. Maybe this is the new way of creating a true indie label now that indies are really majors. The philosophy is that the artists pay their own way but you unite together for gigs/events/joint promotion etc. It’s the strength in numbers theory. Vincent Callan and myself do have plans to take it more seriously in the future and would like to involve other bands but Secret Shine is priority for me at the moment and Vincent’s currently promoting his own record.

DOA: You’ve now played shows in the U.K. and U.S. (am I missing any geographical regions?). What have your shows been like lately? Are you enjoying the experience this time around?

Scott: Yes, we played a few shows in the UK in 2006, some on the East Coast USA, including the Popfest and also Pop Revo in Aarhus, Denmark. We’ve taken this year off gigs to direct our rehearsal time to working on the album. Having said that – we played a Bristol show in June and have just accepted a gig in Sweden in September. We love playing live now. The difference between now and the 90’s (mostly-poor) shows is that this time we rehearse every week (sometimes more than once) and we know our live sound inside out. Back in the 90s, rehearsals were quite rare and not that focused. When we walk on stage now, we know exactly what we’re doing. Our only weakness is occasional alcohol consumption, especially if we have to play late…but we’ve even managed to curb that desire lately. We sound really boring…no Pete Doherty’s here…until after we’ve played maybe 😉 Playing in the States was brilliant because most gigs we’d just walk on stage without a soundcheck and play through other people’s amps and still sound good. This gave us loads of confidence knowing we could do it.

DOA: After all this time that has passed, what do you hope to achieve as a band now, as opposed to your dreams and plans during your earlier years?

Scott: Speaking for myself (scott@secretshine.co.uk), I want the same now as I did back then but being 10 years older I’m a little more realistic and resilient. The digital age has in some ways made it easier for us to reach our audience via the web (http://www.myspace.com/secretshine) but it’s also made it difficult to sell records which we need to do to continue doing more records. Everything seems to be free on the internet which might work for the Artic Monkeys, but not for us. It’s a whole different question and one that’s been debated to death. Anyway, our dream is for lots of people to hear and like our music without having to compromise. If it happens then fantastic, if it doesn’t and we continue to reach the same people we do now and they like it and we do – then so be it – that’s fantastic too!

DOA: I’ve been lucky enough to hear some of your singles (“Each To The Other”, “Wasted Away”, “Wish Coming True”) that never officially made it out (due to record label problems not associated with your work), mostly through a zinester named Sheila who put out the music fanzine Plume in the 1990s. Is there any way you can re-record these songs to include on your new album or make another EP with them? I think that would be brilliant!

Scott: It crossed our minds to put “Wasted Away” and “Wish Coming True” on the new album but in the end we wanted to do something completely new throughout. We’re really proud of those two songs and still play one/sometimes both in our live set. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we’ll record them again one day. Those two are also the only Shine songs that Tim Morris played on. We also pondered re-recording “Last Words” from Greater than God because it’s so far away from how we wanted it to be. It’s also perhaps a predictable step from a thirty-something band but we want to do another acoustic album after the ‘proper’ electric album is finished. We’ll see what happens but for the moment we’re back and enjoying Secret Shine more than ever.