For Boston-based band Drop Nineteens, the trek back from long ago music newsprints, full-on with glowing praise from the UK press for the genre that was known as 'shoegaze' is nothing short of a weird, winding path that officially had a 'Stop' sign placed firmly in the ground around 1995.
I was a writer for the New England publication Metronome Magazine from 1990-1995. In that space of time, I had the occasion to sit down and talk with vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Greg Ackell and bassist Steve Zimmerman upon the release of their debut album Delaware in 1992. Trouble was, they (including vocalist/guitarist Paula Kelley, guitarist Motohiro Yasue and drummer Pete Koeplin) were unknown in the Boston music scene. And if they were known, there were the band that hadn't, to paraphrase, paid their dues.
Depending on where you stood, that was either an ignorant statement or high praise for a bunch of twenty-somethings who went against the grain of what you were 'supposed to do.' So here we are (where are we?) having stepped out of the Wayback Machine and into a conversation with Ackell (via Zoom, because it's 2023) about the very things he describes as past/present Drop Nineteens, including their new release which dropped Nov. 3, Hard Light.
I feel like we're living on this 30-year cycle. Is it just me?
You know, there was never any real attempt to come back before now. When you come back as a band, you become hyper-aware of reading other stories of bands coming back. This band's coming back now! This band's coming back! It's not that it's a competition, right? But more to the point, it's very rare that it's as long as 30 years.
I know your history because I can appreciate where you started. But I remember that the reason for doing the interview [back then] was because you guys 'sat outside.' You hadn't been sludging along for years before you did something big.
We were certainly an outlier on that front. We never really paid our dues. But what's interesting now is while that's true, I mean, I was tremendously ambitious back then. It's just the way that we decided to go about it. Our desire was to make an album. It seemed to me that the best way to try to go about doing that was to put something together, put a demo together. [There] was never a tremendous desire to play [live].
It was very time-consuming. We were up all night, you know? We would go to rent those 8-tracks from EU Wurlitzer, and you know it costs a lot of money, and you couldn't return that sh*t late. You get a late fee! So, you got a limited amount of time and putting that stuff together... it was intense. And whatever jobs we had at the time we collected our money, and we made cassette tapes, and we sent them to record companies. Playing clubs and trying to establish ourselves as a band around town? It just never occurred to me.
Clearly, there was some backlash in Boston. No one else was aware of this anywhere but just in Boston. I think that there was a bit of like, 'Well, why these guys? I've never seen them play anywhere.' So I think that's fair. But by my way of thinking, it was just a different kind of ambition. It wasn't trying to skip anything so much as it was just trying to do what we wanted to do.
Do you feel maybe then you were more in tune with trying to just make songs rather than having any audience feedback?
I think we were so naive that it didn't occur to me to use the audience as an arbiter for anything really, in fact. We were very much in our own heads. And when I say that I guess I'm primarily speaking about myself there. You know, to the extent that it was all through me. I think that even if the band wanted to bring things in, it was all sort of blinders — Greg blinders — and it was very focused for better or worse. I'm not saying that this was the way to do it. I'm just describing the way that we did it.
But to make this album, we didn't go out and do a Delaware tour where we could probably sell out some places, and maybe sneak in a song or two and like, catch the vibe and see how people felt about it. We conjured this out of thin air, basically in a vacuum unto ourselves. And we've always been like that. We used a producer on Delaware, but he was really more of an engineer. His name is Paul Degooyer. I think that he was frustrated probably a little bit that I was sort of the producer of that thing and not him. We didn't use a producer for the second record [National Coma]. And this record, it's just me and Steve producing.
Sometimes we feel like we could use some help from the outside. But any time that we were approached by someone to produce or someone to get involved, they never seem to get it. The one person that did get us at the time was the guy who signed us, and that was Keith Wood at Caroline. But people outside of that, I don't let them in enough, or they don't have interest in being a part of what we do. One or the other. I'm not sure.
It's like a blessing and a curse. [The people outside] want to conveniently label you and sometimes I guess maybe you felt like you were caught in the middle.
Shoegaze is now such a moniker, I mean, we were considered or regarded as that. I listened a lot to Delaware before embarking on Hard Light, and considering what was good about it. What distinguished us, you know among others, with that record didn't make us better. We could have repeated that. It doesn't really interest me. I'm looking for something more unique than that. And this is not to knock shoegaze.
I was listening with Secretly, our distributor for the album [Hard Light] with everybody there. Which is an awkward thing to do. But at one point I remember asking the question "Is this shoegaze?" And everybody laughed. I don't really know if it's shoegaze. I mean, we proudly belong to that movement, that genre. But it did not occur to me to be particularly shoe-gazing on this record. The vocals are up there. The lyrics are not all about the sky and the waves washing over you. I'm being a little facetious there, but I think it has more of a point of view than that.
I'm not inclined to give people precisely what they might think they want from me. I want to give them something that they didn't expect and ultimately feel like they couldn't do without.
It's hard sometimes when you get to a space where you have this sound and vision in your head. It's almost like a comparison to Brian Wilson, where you want to just be able to explain it enough so that people get it.
The way I would describe Brian Wilson is that I think it is kind of in his head. It's literally in there, and he has to get it out. With us, I don't think that's what it is. But we do a lot of searching. We do a lot of throwing away until I get to something that I think is interesting. That's not to say that people aren't going to find references in our songs and things that we're alluding to. The hope has to be that if it's interesting to us, that's all you can do.
It feels like there's been a very lofi approach to a lot of the soundscapes that you're producing. Like "Rose with Smoke."
We were going for Vincent Gallo. I wanted it to sound like it was recorded in a prison or underwater in Buffalo. I wanted a dark, wet sound on that. Lots of mood on that one. Steve came up with most of that, and it was just me painstakingly directing him on certain things. But it's how it's sequenced, how it holds together. And we needed that song at that moment on the record. We worked around with a few instrumentals, but that was the one that really moved me.
You're quite right about where its place is on the album. And then "A Hitch" comes on next, and I'm like, 'Wait a minute. Hold on here.'
I had to look at that record [Delaware] and decide what is good about it. And one of the good things about it is, you really do not know what's coming next. It's kind of a ride because of that. You are literally flipping the album at that point. "A Hitch" is the first song on side B. By the way, I say 'side B' quite a lot in that song. People may not know that yet, because they don't know how the sides are gonna work. But I'm always trying to think of cool sh*t like that.
Did you do that intentional reference to Dr. Robert and the Beatles? I listened at it from Lennon's point of view, if he was here, this is how he would have remembered it. He would have been calling Dr. Robert out for exactly who he was, and sort of singing it in that style.
That's an interesting take on that song. I'm reminded of a thing that Justin Vernon said about Lykke Li once. It was widely reported and quoted. But it was how he loved that all her drug songs sounded like love songs, and all her love songs sounded like drug songs, and I've always liked that.
I don't necessarily write drug songs, and I do write some love songs. Like "Winona," for example. "Winona" is a song, not about Winona Ryder. It's a song about Drop Nineteens and it featured Winona Ryder in the song, but it's a song about the band. And so I would say that like "A Hitch" is one of those songs. What is it? A drug song? Is it a song about the band? There's some songs on Hard Light that are love songs. Are they love songs about a person, or are they about music? I like that it's deliberately not clear.
The things that you said before all of this came about was you had a lot of apathy about getting together. Then you basically dropped a bombshell about a year and a half ago on Instagram. I mean, did you literally flick a switch and say I'm ready to go?
I've been answering some of these questions a lot. Don't get me wrong. It's a great question, but I still don't really have an answer for it. I don't know what the switch was. It wasn't for years and years that people were knocking down my door to make an album. It would come up periodically in my life. I just knew for a fact that I just didn't want to do it. And not only did I not want to, I knew I was never going to. I was convinced of this more than anything in my life.
What can I say? I was wrong about that. I was on the phone with a friend who raised the subject, and for the first time ever it got me thinking. The thing that was different, though, was that it was the first time that I actually was curious what a Drop Ninteens song would sound like. That was the start of it.
We were asked recently 'Why didn't you get together before?' And Paula said 'Why would we have?' And I love that answer. Like, for what reason? And so why do we get together now? Because it was time. I wanted to hear it.
It's very hard to have these kind of circumstances, where you're having to explain that.
I had done what I wanted to do and it wasn't making me happy. I don't know if that's a result of high turnover in the band or not. I've never really figured it out, but I know I was unhappy. I felt proud of what we had done, and why relive that?
With a lot of these band anniversaries, you could have conceivably got everybody back together, gone on tour and then 'Let's let's do a record again.'
You are pointing out something kind of interesting. It always does start with the music with us, and it always has. It was music. We didn't play out live. We had no social connection to other bands. We were not part of that lifestyle. Then with Delaware we had to tour because it was successful. We could have just gotten back together on the strength of Delaware. But that just doesn't occur to me. And now I have to think about touring. And that's okay. It's a privilege. It's fortunate for us that our music has kind of been rediscovered in a way. And that's why we take that very seriously. So we want to make sure it's good when we do it.
It's tough to find old copies of Melody Maker and NME, but now you can call up anything from your past out of context thru social media channels. How does that make you feel?
I think if anything, it's kind of refreshing to hear it out of context. I like that it's getting recognized. And we have apparently a very young fan base, is what I'm learning. I mean they don't even know what Melody Maker is. And it's a bit of a mystery what their perception of us is. My hope would simply be that now that we're entering the proverbial fold again, or at least attempting to, that we don't burst that balloon for them.
In a way, you have to buy into that consciousness of being able to be appealing to an audience who almost literally were not born when you were making music back then. But now here's also the great thing of hearing you in context and your thought process, with the vocals brought up to the fore. Paula's delivery on "Policeman Getting Lost" — I love it.
That's a Clientele cover! Did you know it's a cover?
I sort of tuned out of music in the late '90s, I just got sort of deeper into film and movies. And in the early aughts, a band came along called The Clientele and they're a very, very British band. They're as British as they come. They brought me back to music. Paula hadn't heard of The Clientele either, and I gave her that and she put that together. Steve and I put a few flourishes on it. I think she knocked it out of the park.
You had to move your upcoming shows to next year now. What's happening with that?
The expectation for this album has been growing, it's been getting some buzz about it. But we're like, why are we pressing to get these shows in before the thing even comes out? It just didn't make sense. It was a tough decision. There's really no template for coming back after 30 years. But in any case, we're moving them. We're gonna be reissuing Delaware in February and then releasing the unreleased songs that got us signed in the beginning, in March. We're calling that 1991 and then we're probably gonna do an EP that will be kind of connected to Hard Light.
This feels strange, but not strange at all. You know it's us.