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Tone Glow 113: Greg Ackell (Drop Nineteens)
An interview with Greg Ackell of the American shoegaze band Drop Nineteens about the group's new album, playing "Kick the Tragedy" at a commune in Denmark, and his love for Madonna
Drop Nineteens are a Boston, Massachusetts-based rock band that formed in 1990. One of America’s first and formative shoegaze groups, they released their seminal debut album Delaware in 1992, which features classics of the genre like “Kick the Tragedy” and “Winona.” They followed the album with 1993’s National Coma. After members began to depart in 1995, Drop Nineteens ceased further activity for nearly thirty years. The band has recently reunited and come back with a new album titled Hard Light. Its music is true to the DNA of Delaware, but also takes on its own distinctive, mellower voice, adapting to a landscape forged by their own sound. Zhenzhen Yu spoke with Greg Ackell of Drop Nineteens via Zoom on September 12, 2023 to discuss Madonna, the creation of Hard Light, and the current state of shoegaze.
Zhenzhen Yu: I just want to start off by mentioning the excellent Drop Nineteens retrospective that Boston Hassle did a few years back. At the end of that one, when they asked Paula [Kelley] about a Drop Nineteens reunion, she was like, “Who would want that to happen?” (laughter). With the resurgence of the band, how do you feel about that sentiment now?
Greg Ackell: That’s interesting. I don’t think I took part in that retrospective.
I think they specified “five ex-Drop Nineteens” to make clear that you weren’t part of that.
Yeah, I think I’m aware of the article you’re talking about, and I don’t remember being asked about it at all.
I probably was asked and said, “Absolutely not.” What I’m forgetting is Steve [Zimmerman] mentioning it to me. In other words, I’m sure it happened—that I was invited—but I didn’t take part in that. I remember reading it a long time after, and I didn’t know how to feel about it. The truth is, I didn’t think about the band that much in the intervening years—these years in between, the last thirty years. It wasn’t so much me thinking about what the world would want so much as it was… I just wasn’t interested. In the last couple years, Delaware has reached some kind of new audience, and that didn’t have a lot to do with us coming back. I mean, it really was me just thinking one day, “I might like to hear this again.” It’s the first time it really occurred to me. And when that occurred to me, I wrote a letter and posted it on Twitter—Steve created an account for us that morning. What was surprising to me was that there was an audience out there. I don’t even have Spotify. I mean, I’m not a recluse—I live in Brooklyn, you know? I just wasn’t really in tune with that world. It’s been a surprise to find out that there is an audience out there, but it’s a pleasant surprise.
Honestly, coming back and announcing that we were coming back, and along the way making and recording this record, you run into these walls sometimes. Those kind of moments where you want to throw your hands up and go, “Well, I don’t need to do this!” This band knows how to go away. This band knows how to not exist particularly well, so it was always easier to do that. But the fact that I posted that letter and found out about this audience out there—it made me have to follow through with making this new record. If I hadn’t written that letter and become aware of the audience, I wonder if it may not have happened, even though it was my idea. It’s very flattering that there’s an audience out there, but I’m totally with Paula that it wouldn’t have occurred to me. It just wasn’t on my radar.
I’m sure this is gonna get brought up a thousand times during this press cycle, but as someone who grew up with that sort of “zoomer shoegaze” canon, Drop Nineteens had this legendary status—Delaware especially. But, for example, I remember Life Without Buildings blew up on TikTok a few years back, and when they interviewed Sue Tompkins about it, she was like, “That’s cool, but it almost feels like it has nothing to do with me anymore.” Did Drop Nineteens’ cult popularity feel like it was something separate from, you know, the florist life you were living?
(laughter). Oh, the florist life—right, I sold flowers, yeah. “Florist life.” I like the sound of that. I think “a life in flowers” would be better. But in any case, it’s an interesting question. (long pause). I think that’s correct. I didn’t know what it had to do with my life, really. It wasn’t a sore spot for me. I’ve always been proud of those early days: us making Delaware, touring a good part of the world. That was a wonderful time of my life—in some ways. I’ve always been proud that we had achieved that back then.
Subsequently, it’s true: after leaving music, it didn’t seem to apply to my life, really. It wasn’t a secret to people in my life—it wasn’t something that I wouldn’t talk about—but it certainly isn’t something that I would bring up. And unless someone had a connection to those days in my life, it just wouldn’t come up. But it would if you, you know, start dating a girl. I never had a LinkedIn or any kind of social media platform like that, it’s just not my thing. But if you Google my name, the thing that comes up is Drop Nineteens. I mean, that’s been true since Google started, right? And that’ll be true long after I’m dead. That’s what my small contribution to this world will have been (laughs). And I’m proud of that, and I was always willing to talk about it, but it wasn’t something I’d walk around contemplating. I wasn’t walking around feeling like “Greg from Drop Nineteens.” And these days I do feel like that because it takes up most of my day now.
It’s like revisiting a part of my life that’s long ago. And it feels good—it’s a nice feeling, it’s an interesting feeling. It’s dreamlike sometimes, a little like the afterlife. I just never expected to be doing this again. To be doing this again is like a dream where you wake up and are like, “Was that—? Yeah, of course that was a dream. That’s not my life anymore.” I would have dreams over the years of having to go up on a stage. Those dreams—they weren’t fantasies, that’s for sure, they were a little bit more like nightmares—but I would wake up from them and realize, (with relief) “Oh my gosh, that’s a dream. That’s over.” And the fact that I’m doing it now and it’s no longer a dream—it’s a little unnerving, and disconcerting, but it’s fun.
After thirty years, you’ve returned amidst this new wave of shoegaze—a much more American wave of shoegaze—in a world that Delaware has very much influenced. How does it feel to re-enter the industry in that kind of landscape?
The way I’ve been answering this question—and it’s a good question, but I’ve been asked a couple times about this—is that I’m learning about what we’ve influenced, and what is out there. And that’s the truth! I haven’t been an avid follower of the genre. I’m into music, but that specific world of shoegaze, for example, and certainly the new wave of it that is predominantly American—it’s something that I’m learning about. I’ll be honest: I like some stuff, and I don’t like other stuff. But that’s true in any genre, you know? The extent to which anyone is claiming we influenced them is quite an honor. I can only be gracious about that. But when we were recording Hard Light, I certainly didn’t delve into the new movement of American shoegaze. I still haven't heard most of it, and that was a choice. I could have looked into what’s happening today, but my feeling about that wasn’t so much to skirt the moment and try to have us sound like we’re out of the past; it’s just that I didn’t know how it would be useful to learn what’s going on. It seemed like it wouldn’t do anything good—it would either intimidate or disappoint me. But now that Hard Light’s done, my ears are open. Now I want to hear the stuff that’s in the landscape that we’re in. But I was sort of protecting myself while making this record; I kept my head down and didn’t let a lot of that noise in.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think even initially, the band didn’t necessarily identify with shoegaze as a label—you kind of found out that people were calling you that. Your named influences weren’t typically shoegaze.
Sure. You know, any time you’re talking to a band of our era, it gets a little tricky about what shoegaze is and what that moniker implies. When I was in high school, I was listening to a lot of New Order, Sonic Youth, the Cure—a lot of stuff from England, certainly. When My Bloody Valentine came along in ’88—they existed before that, in ’87 they released an album I liked a lot called Ecstasy and Wine, and they released something before that—it was very pastoral sounding. A Jesus and Mary Chain ripoff, a little bit. But they really did strike a great balance of the “boy/girl” vocal exchange, and I remember being really moved by that. And when Isn’t Anything came out, that was just transformative. That really kind of invented the genre, and we’re all still living in that.
As far as Drop Nineteens were concerned, we were part of the early shoegaze era—whatever you want to call it. The original era. But that’s because we came up in a crop of bands that were all influenced by similar things. The way in which we stood apart wasn’t so much that we weren’t shoegaze; it was more that we were American, and there weren’t a lot of American shoegaze bands, and there certainly weren’t a lot of American shoegaze bands that had our stature in England and Europe. Which is not to say there weren’t American bands, but we were particularly big over there for a bit; it was British bands that were on that level with us there. And when we came back here, people probably thought we were British. They were discovering us the same way they’d discover something like Slowdive: through NME and Melody Maker, even though we were from Boston. So we did reject that a little bit. We wanted to be considered American because we were American! And it didn’t make a lot of sense, that just because we sounded like that, that we’d be considered British… I don’t know why we felt that way. I don’t know what the difference is, really.
Certainly, coming back and making Hard Light, we did not set out to make a great shoegaze record. I set out to make a good record! I mean, I don’t know how else to put it. I was in a meeting at Secretly [Group]—our distributor—and the whole office had a listening party for Hard Light. Which is a little strange. I mean, there’s no party for me. I’m sitting in a circular room, and we’re just listening to the album really loud, and everyone’s staring at me…
I have always wondered how those work. It sounds a little sterile.
Yeah, pretty unnerving. They do stop—there’s a little silence between the songs—and they’d wait for me to say little things. And I would just say things between them because I thought I was on a stage; I thought it was appropriate for me to say, you know, “Oh, I had COVID when I sang that one!” Just some little tidbit for them to enjoy. And in this one moment after like the sixth song I said, “Is this shoegaze?” And I wasn’t trying to be funny! It was a legitimate question—I really had to ask, because I didn’t really know! And they all said “yes.” And these people, they know this; this is their livelihood, these are really smart people at Secretly and Wharf Cat Records. They’re much smarter than I am. And I had to ask the question: is this shoegaze? And they said it is. But it was a ponderous “yes.” Because it’s not template shoegaze—let’s put it that way, whatever that means. So I guess we’re still shoegaze! The verdict is in.
Can I just ask which one you had COVID on when you were singing?
Okay, so it was on the song “Lookout.” It’s a quiet song, and it was built on a voice memo. That voice memo was actually in the song—it was the basis of the song, we just put a few things on top of it. It’s just me hitting record on my phone and singing. In fact, at the end of that song, you can hear me [turn off] the record button. It goes, click! So that’s the one I had COVID on.
The initial question you asked yourself—the question that got you to reform Drop Nineteens—was, “What would a modern Drop Nineteens song sound like?” And when I was listening to the album, I was also like, “I don’t know what they’d sound like after thirty years.” But on “Another One Another,” or “The Price was High,” you can hear the skeleton of Delaware in that, but there’s also a very new feeling to it. Paula’s singing on “The Price was High” was unlike anything off the old material. Did you find that you answered your own question conclusively?
Emphatically. Yes, yes, yes. To answer your question: absolutely. I know what we sound like now and I like how we sound. I like it—and I had better! I had a choice in how to sound, I suppose—to the extent that you can choose how to sound. All the choices that you make are rooted in what your limitations are, right? So you can decide that you want to sound like Spoon, for example. “But you don’t sound like Spoon, Greg. You might like Spoon, and there might be something that gets into your music because of that, but you sound like Drop Nineteens, man! You sound like you.” And that’s a very interesting thing—when bands are influenced by or inspired by other things. There’s not a lot you can actually do to shake the way that you sound, try as you might. I think, actually, on our second record [1993’s National Coma]… it was a… (searching for words) not a controversial record, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of fans. It has some fans, but that was definitely us trying to not sound like us. And it successfully does that, but it wasn’t as good a record. We realized that Delaware is what we sound like. It’s what we’re responsible for, it’s what we created.
To answer your question, it didn’t take a lot to sound like that. But then again, I didn’t want to make Delaware the sequel, you know? I didn’t want to make Delaware 2 with Hard Light; I wanted to follow up Delaware in a way that National Coma did not. And that’s what we’ve done with this record. So it’s got new sounds on it, definitely things like you were mentioning. The thing I was going for with Paula on “The Price is High” was, producing it, I wanted her to sound like early Madonna, honestly. That’s what I was going for. There’s lots of guitars in that song, and stuff that pulls it away from that, but if you just break down her vocals on that, it’s actually very Madonna, that first album. Like “Lucky Star,” and “Physical Attraction,” those songs.
And it’s not like I said, “Paula, sing like Madonna on this.” Paula sang like Paula, you know? But the way you use the mics, you can kind of produce it in a way, and then you add some flourishes, a little delay, that will evoke that era. I don’t think that people necessarily pick up on that. I don’t think people will hear that song and go, “Oh my god, this sounds just like Madonna.” But to me, she does. Because that was the creative way in which we wanted to frame the sound of her voice on that, even though it sounds just like Paula. There are choices you make when recording something to have it meet the concept you had—this wild idea you have in your head about how this might work and what might make it interesting. And that’s the kind of thing I never stop thinking about: what will make this interesting? What will make it fun for me to listen to, for us to listen to, for people to listen to? You’re constantly thinking about those kinds of things.
I did want to ask—because your cover of “Angel” is honestly my favorite Drop Nineteens song—is Madonna a huge influence, or is that just coincidence? Because there is that connection to Delaware…
She is. I’m a huge Madonna fan. That cover wasn’t a joke; some people think it was.
I still love the original song. Our version… okay, it’s fine. I can live with it. But that’s just fandom there. That’s an 18-year-old kid being like, “god, I love Madonna. I want to somehow put it on my record.” That’s almost as simple as it was. I think I was even thrilled with the idea of just having “Madonna” in the liner notes; that was a thrill to me. That’s how silly it all is, really. But I love that song, and I was a fan, and I am a fan… but more of early Madonna. That first album is untouchable. “Angel,” I think is on the second one—some good tracks on that one as well, but that first album is one of my favorite albums of all time. In the top three, certainly. Every song on that one, they all send me.
You know, the first hundred times I listened to “Angel,” I had no idea it was a Madonna cover. I was like, (self-mockingly) “Oh, wow, this doesn’t sound like any shoegaze song I’ve ever heard before.” And then I found out, and I was like, “Oh… that makes sense.”
(laughter). Right? That explains it! Yeah, that would make it different—the fact that it’s Madonna.
Do you think pop songwriting has influenced your own songwriting—that kind of structure?
I don’t know. In the band, I know Paula throws these terms around a lot: pop, rock. Steve not so much, but I know Paula is really good at that. Defining what a pop band is compared to an indie band, a hardcore band, whatever… all these genres… but when it comes to pop, that word “pop”—I really don’t know what it means. Let’s get a baseline definition here. Taylor Swift would be pop, right? Justin Bieber is pop. Or is that R&B? I don’t know! I don’t know what all these things mean. It’s all just music to me. I’m not trying to place my head above it all; maybe I’m beneath it all, frankly. That I can’t really discern. What would you call Empress Of, for example? It’s R&B, it’s indie, it’s shoegazey sometimes, sometimes she sounds like Cocteau Twins, sometimes it’s hip-hop… there’s some cool shit out here that I wouldn’t know how to categorize, but I love the songs. Like, Car Seat Headrest. I’m a really big fan of Will’s. There’s shoegaze guitars all over that thing! To me, I hear all kinds of stuff that totally relates to shoegaze, but no one would define that as shoegaze.
But it goes back to your earlier question, like, how do we envision ourselves? We fashioned ourselves a little bit more after… (pauses). Okay, I want to phrase this correctly, because I don’t want to say that we fashioned ourselves after the Pixies, as if we thought we were going to be the next Pixies. But being from Boston, the Pixies had just broken up, and having a man and a woman in the band… I usually say “boy/girl,” these words today, you know, it was never cool to say boy/girl, or man/woman, and I don’t know what to—
I feel like “boy/girl” is the one I see the most as a genre term.
Boy/girl, right? Yeah, boy voice, girl voice, whatever. It’s a motif, certainly, in shoegaze. So we call it boy/girl. And the Pixies had that boy/girl thing going. And because we were from Boston, early on there, they were saying, “Oh, you’re the next Pixies!” But if you listen to the Pixies, there’s kind of shoegaze in that as well, in the guitars. To me, I hear it all the time. So when people say “shoegaze,” I really don’t… all these term… if there’s guitars in there, and they’re distorted and they’re cool and there’s something understated about it, and there’s something sexy or intellectual, or something going on that is arresting, then to me, that’s just good music. And that can be pop, it can be any genre, including shoegaze. From time to time, shoegaze is interesting.
I also wanted to ask about this: you said you had tuned your guitar down to drop C to make Hard Light, and you didn’t realize it, and now the whole album has that distinct sound.
And I know that there were no demos from Delaware because you did most of it on the spot, in-studio. Do you think there’s something inherently off-the-cuff or experimental about Drop Nineteens, or your own songwriting style?
Yeah. I think there absolutely is. We’re known for Delaware, right? But if you let us name one song that everyone agrees we’re best known for, it’d probably be “Kick the Tragedy.” And “Kick the Tragedy” is just one big experiment. I mean, that song isn’t really quite a song. At least we never considered it such. It’s an experiment. There’s no verse, there’s no chorus, there’s no vocals: it’s an instrumental with a spoken word interlude.
Wait, so you didn’t consider it a song?
No, we didn’t! We played it, I think, two times live, and it just wasn’t… it’s an experiment. I mean, it’s a song, but it’s an experimental song. Let’s put it that way.
Yeah. I listened to one of the only live recordings of it, and it doesn’t sound anything like the studio version.
Right! I wasn’t aware of it because I had no memory of ever playing that song. I thought for the longest time that we had never played it, and then someone showed me that recording. And there’s not a lot of live recordings of us, thankfully. I mean, because you know, recording on a little cassette in ’92, ’93—it’s not going to sound good. So I hate that that stuff’s out there, but what can you do? So someone showed me that and I said, “Oh, we played it,” and it was because we were all, like, really high on drugs at that show. And it was a weird show. Everyone was seated on the floor, and we were like, “Fuck it, let’s mess with these people and play ‘Kick the Tragedy.’” That’s how that exists. It was at a weird place that probably still exists in Denmark, a weird venue—a commune, that’s the best way I can describe it—so it makes sense to me that we played that song there. But of course it didn’t sound like the song.
Now, we are going to tour and we realize that the song means a lot to people. And it subsequently means a lot to us as well. So we are really gonna bring that song. We never really tried to play it, is what I’m trying to say. We never gave it much thought. Thirty years later it’s like, okay, that song is important. And if you’re in Drop Nineteens, it’s something that… it’s what we’re known for, we realized. It’s like going to Coney Island and not riding the Cyclone, you know? We couldn’t avoid it if we wanted to. So we are figuring out how to really, really, really bring that song.
On the topic of looking back at Delaware and that time period, something that gets mentioned for one of the reasons that you guys broke up is that you felt very young around then, that you were thrust into the music industry and, you know, Delaware is about youth. How do you feel now, thirty years later, working again in such a differently shaped music industry?
Any kind of industry was going to be new to me at 18, 19 years old, right? Let alone the music industry. So a lot of it is just: this is not so much about being in a band than it is life in general. Whether we like it or not, I think we’ve all embraced it. We’re older now. We’ve lived life. We’ve all had successes and failures and loves and breakups—some of us had children—it tends to temper your ego, your emotions, the way you treat one another with so much more respect. The inner workings of this band, to answer your question, has been nothing short of a delight: working with the people again, who I really do consider friends, many of whom I didn’t speak to for decades. There’s no acrimony; we’re all good. And it’s not like we had to sit down and figure anything out. We’re different people now, we’re better people now.
As far as the business goes: anything would have been new to me back then, and we handled it pretty well. It was a wild ride. To be signed, especially when that was your dream. A person’s dream when they’re 16, 17 years old… that’s huge. So for that dream to come true when you turn 18, 19 years old—shortly after you kind of develop this dream—is a powerful thing. And we really enjoyed that. Every aspect of it. Making videos, being on MTV. It was a total thrill, and surreal, and crazy. Going on tour. Going on planes! And going to cities that we’d never been to on our own. It was a wild ride. We all probably handled it poorly in terms of dealing with each other, but that’s just ’cause we were young and stupid.
Back to the industry: the industry aspect of it has changed a lot. We signed to Caroline… there was a bit of a bidding situation going on between labels, and most of them were in England—Creation and Dedicated and 4AD, those kinds of labels. And we ended up signing to an American company. Because, again, we’re an American band. But Caroline back then, was… you walk into that office, it was thirty people. Now our label’s office is like three people. Our distributor, Secretly, is a bigger office: that’s the size of what our label used to be. There’s less manpower; I’m noticing that that’s different. It’d be a long list of things that have changed. The actual units of what you’re selling too. Now it’s vinyl! There actually wasn’t even any domestic vinyl of Delaware. There’s no American Delaware. If someone has a copy of Delaware out there, it’s either a British or a Japanese import, if I’m not mistaken. And that’s because vinyl was out. No one was buying vinyl in ’92. There’s a cassette of Delaware, and the CD, and that’s all that we had in America. England consistently had the record shops, and that’s why they printed vinyl there. But there’s no such thing as a domestic vinyl copy of Delaware. And we’re working on getting that on there. We’re doing a reissue and it’s coming out in February. And we’re working to make it sound good… remastering it and all that jazz.
The industry now is about touring, it’s about merch—those kinds of things. That’s how bands make money now. And I don’t know if we’re gonna necessarily make a lot of money doing this. I suspect not. But to the extent that there’s gonna be money in it, that’s where it comes from: playing live, selling merch. It’s no longer about getting on the charts. That’s not gonna make a lot of difference to us.
Thank you for reading the 113th issue of Tone Glow. You must be an angel, I can see it in your eyes…
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