I guess you could say that in the late nineties, with releases by Urusei Yatsura, Idlewild, the Delgados, Mogwai and Snow Patrol, US-influenced lo-fi Scottish indie was definitely a ‘thing’. But what kind of thing was it?
For Idlewild, the Delgados and Snow Patrol, it was the kind of thing one does in one’s teens or early twenties before discovering R.E.M. or Brian Wilson or (in the case of Snow Patrol) Lou Barlow, turning down the distortion, hiring orchestras and getting a little more expansive, a little more ‘mature’ and aiming to create big ‘A’ art. For Mogwai, it was a largely instrumental thing, a Slint kind of thing, and that was more or less how it stayed.
In the case of Urusei Yatsura, it was a Pavement kind of thing. Slightly more aggressive and slightly less shambling than Pavement, but just as bratty and smart-alec. I hadn’t heard Pavement when I first heard Slain by Elf (on, I guess, either early XFM or the Evening Session), so its resemblance to the work of Stephen Malkmus and his cheery band of underachievers didn’t scream at me like it would have done to more worldly (or older) listeners. I liked the brattiness, the rough edges, how they seemingly couldn’t be bothered to write a proper chorus and simply settled for sneering the title phrase several times. It seemed cool.
It seemed, and maybe this was what I liked most about it, like something I could do: get a band together, a few simple chord progresssions, some squonky guitar noise (I never could play fast but had a decent sideline in squonk, as befitted any teenage fan of Jonny Greenwood in 1998) and some surreal lyrics – a Peel session and indie cultdom were surely there for the taking! (It didn’t happen, obviously. I set noise-pop aspirations aside, went to university with an acoustic guitar and fingerpicked my way through my twenties.)
Urusei Yatsura disbanded after Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura in 2000 and so they didn’t move into folk music, orchestral chamber pop or the sort of rock that seems designed to soundtrack big moments on unimaginative TV shows, like their peers did. There is little information about the band online. Google ‘Slain by Elf’ and you get a link to the song on YouTube, a couple of pages of links to lyrics websites, some links to dodgy MP3 websites, then an awful lot of Tolkien fanfic. When three members of the band regrouped as Projekt A-ko in 2007, they hadn’t changed a great deal. In line with fashion, the guitars were a little cleaner (but not by that much), but otherwise all was pretty much as it had been ten years previously. Which suggests that a love of lo-fi, Pavement-esque indie ran more deeply in them than it might have seemed to more cynical observers in the late nineties, who could have been forgiven for suspecting mere bandwagon-jumping.
On a slow morning in June, 15 years after it came out, Slain by Elf seems refreshing bracing and unpretentious. A product of modest ambitions, sure, but one that hit the mark squarely.
Everybody loved Urusei Yatsura