I want to be alone
Telegraph (UK) November 10, 2001 [ Telegraph article ]
LIKE a refugee from sunlight, Hope Sandoval cowers in the corner of the pub's back room. For confidence, she has a glass of red wine. For comfort, curtains of black, black hair. For support, her musical partner, her niece, and someone from her record company.
And, lest her voice and thoughts be heard by anyone more than two feet away, Hope Sandoval enjoys the reassuring proximity of shouty daytime boozers, full of the beery bonhomie one might associate with former locals Robbie Williams and Chris Evans.
It's tea-time on a hot August day in Haverstock Hill, north London. Sandoval has flown in from her home in the student enclave of Berkeley, in California's Bay Area. She sits, petite and curled in on herself, long boots and short skirt, immaculate make-up giving the impression of a beatchick little lamb who's strayed down from the hills of San Francisco.
Possessor of one of the most swooned-over, distinctive voices to emerge from American alt-rock in the past decade, she is here to discuss Bavarian Fruit Bread, the forthcoming album by Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions. After 10 years and three albums as the ethereal voice - and lyrics, and face, and mysterious beauty - of cult duo Mazzy Star, Sandoval is striking out on her own.
Nearly on her own. For one thing, she had help creating the Velvet Underground-go-folk atmospherics of Bavarian Fruit Bread: multi-instrumentalist Colm O'Ciosig, former drummer with legendarily slow-moving and turbulent Anglo-Irish noiseniks My Bloody Valentine. For another, it seems her split from Mazzy Star partner and former lover, David Roback, was only temporary: the pair are well into recording their fourth album.
Finally, it's hard to imagine Sandoval doing anything without help. She would never get anywhere. No one would hear her. Or understand her. She is chronically shy, and preternaturally quiet. Like her ethereal, country-gothic music and whispering-grass voice, Hope Sandoval wasn't built for this modern world and all its noise and speed.
Even when, at 13, she was dropping oblique hints so that her parents would buy her a $50 guitar, she knew she might have difficulties ahead. 'I wanted to play music,' she says in her mellow Californian accent. 'I was a massive Rolling Stones fan, and I wanted to play music like. . . they do. . . were doing. . . ' She fades away, as if acknowledging the incongruity of the quietest mouse in music wishing to emulate the loudest, naughtiest grunters in rock. 'And I thought I might. . . do that.'
Did she think it through, the fact that being a musician meant being a performer? 'No, because there were people like Pink Floyd - although the Rolling Stones' music is in my opinion much better than Pink Floyd's - but the Stones are more performers. You could always be like Pink Floyd and just make music.'
As a child growing up in a Mexican-American family in east LA, with one sibling and seven half-siblings scattered around, timid little Hope Sandoval struggled to cope with high school. She was placed in special education classes but would bunk off, staying at home to listen to records.
Her parents had split when she was younger; her butcher father wasn't around, and her mother was at work at a company that made potato crisps. 'It's just like anybody else - some people, most people don't wanna go to school. They just don't want to. It's. . . not fun. I was just somebody who got away with it.' How? 'I just did. There wasn't really anyone watching.' Oddly, a half-laugh escapes from her throat. She resumes playing with her hair.
Eventually, the school gave her mother an ultimatum: either Hope comes to school, or school comes to her. Hope started receiving personal tuition, but it was too late. She was already slipping out at night, conning her way into clubs to see bands. She failed to graduate from high school. Her parents, she says, were resigned to the fact. She thinks this is funny too. 'They didn't graduate. So. . . what could they say?' A small, burbling titter slips up her throat, meeting a sip of fortifying wine on the way down.
Someone who worked with Sandoval at her former record label, Capitol Records, remembers that as worldwide interest in Mazzy Star blossomed throughout the Nineties, buying Sandoval a bottle of red wine was a useful way of getting her to relax. Still, after three albums and many concerts around the world, she never overcame her nervousness, either onstage or off.
Even with strategic deployment of wine, journalists would exit encounters with Sandoval and the equally distant Roback proclaiming it their worst interview ever. She would, occasionally, get stroppy with strangers; he got the hump when Sandoval started going out with William Reid of the fractious Scottish duo the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Even before Mazzy Star, they were an odd couple. Roback and Sandoval first met when he produced the (unreleased) album by Going Home, an acoustic duo formed by Sandoval and her best friend, Sylvia Gomez, when Sandoval was 15. By her early 20s, she had joined him in his band, Opal, and they had become an item. (He is around 10 years her elder; she won't say exactly how old she is now, only confirming that she is 'around 34'.)
A former employee of Opal's label, British independent Rough Trade, recalls them coming over to London in 1989, to play one of their final shows before Opal mutated into Mazzy Star. 'Hope and David sat in the Rough Trade office all day long, smoking and silent. They weren't horrible or anything - they were polite - it was just difficult to know how to please them. They were only there for two days but it felt like an eternity.' Later, they refused to fly to Britain for promotional duties. They wanted to come on the QE2.
Ask her why she decided to form a new band, and Sandoval squirms for five seconds. 'It wasn't really an idea to have a different band,' she says softly, eventually, 'it was just to make a record, play some of the songs that Colm and I had written.'
She first met Colm O'Ciosig around four years ago, at a gig in London. She was, she thinks, living here at the time. She and Roback had been regular visitors to the UK since 1989, when Rough Trade released Mazzy Star's landmark debut album, She Hangs Brightly.
Four years ago, though, her relationship with William Reid meant she was here more often than not. They parted after three-and-half years; she will admit that she is now in a non-cohabiting relationship.
But Sandoval is still talking, with her characteristic long pauses and uncharacteristic plurality of sentences. 'Somebody pointed Colm out to me, said who he was. I just thought, "Oh, I have to meet him, he's a brilliant drummer." '
Much as it frustrates to have difficulty hearing someone sitting two feet away, and no matter how unnerving this fidgety woman's habit of answering every question as if you've asked to see her underwear, we indulge Hope Sandoval. Her compelling singing voice demands respect: when the Chemical Brothers were looking for a female vocalist who wouldn't be lost amid the clashing beats and 'sturdy' male vocalists (Noel Gallagher, Bernard Sumner, Bobby Gillespie) on their Surrender album, they chose Sandoval, writing the track "Asleep From Day" especially for her.
Furthermore, her distant demeanour is no act, no rock-person aloofness. It's not even Californian hippie-dippiness. It's just her - on stage, notoriously silent and still between songs; nervous, halting, vague and economical with language to the point where she misses out extraneous words such as pronouns and conjunctions.
Even Mazzy Star selling 40,000 copies of their second album, 1993's So Tonight That I Might See, didn't help her confidence, or feelings of insecurity. That album's beautiful single, "Fade Into You", crystallised the band's appeal. Mazzy Star were ponderous, quiet and classic. Their music offered a welcome respite from the grunge hordes that were at the time rampaging across the American airwaves.
'Well, that's what people said. We just thought the music was a little bit slower.'
A song appeared on the Batman Forever soundtrack album, but it didn't make the finished film. 'I saw a bit of the film because the person I was with wanted to go to the premiere. So I went, and we walked out after five minutes. So horrible.' The premiere or film? 'Both.'
Another track featured in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty. Sandoval managed to sit through all 119 minutes of that. Well, most of it. 'I walked in late. I thought it was all right. I think Liv Tyler's a nice-looking girl. Seems sweet.'
Mazzy Star took the rock world by storm, then the rock world took them. They may have Neil Young's heavyweight management looking after them but Mazzy Star were no big-league rock act - in fact the band's success sat ill with Sandoval's fragile sensibility and purist personality.
'Mmm, it got a bit awkward after a while,' she murmurs, 'because it just starts to become a sort of shallow, you know. Basically, it got a little bit unnatural. It's much better now, now that people who come to listen to Mazzy Star play live know that it's just not like that. They're not gonna expect craziness or a conversation.'
The mad fools! Pity the Mazzy Star fan, too, who asks for an autograph. Sandoval once witheringly commented that signing something was too much like surrendering control. 'I said that? Mmm.' She gives an amused bleat. 'I mean, autographs are so funny. I don't think it's good to encourage that sort of thing. Why do people want to have an autograph? What does it do for you?'
It's the only physical part of someone that a fan can take away with them. 'They don't really need it. They've got the record. They've already had the best part. It's not that big a deal. I just feel it's a little bit. . . a little bit silly.' For some, being asked for your autograph is one of the minor trappings of success. For Sandoval, it's a distraction. 'Having some kind of popularity is just strange.'
Sandoval would rather not be popular. And although she is polite and measured, she would rather avoid detail and say something is 'nice' than get into a conversation. She can appear joyless, but really she's singularly motivated, her own woman, her own artist, and a bit picky. It's just that she'd prefer to sing for you than talk to you - thank goodness.