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A few quiet moments with Neil Halstead
Text: David DeVoe | Photos: Jim Narcy

For those already initiated into the world of "bootgazer" rock, the name Neil Halstead is synonymous with one of the originators of this newest wave of airy folk music. With his band Mojave 3, Neil has taken his roots in the noisily ambient British music culture of the early 90's and meshed it with a distinctly American country-folk feel, creating an exciting new sub genre of music, complete with the accompanying revival of the forerunners and creators of folk music themselves, such as Emmylou Harris. Other newer bands, such as Wilco and Whiskeytown, are more focused on the country side of this new wave, while bands such as Mojave 3 seem to drift more towards an ambience and subtlety often overlooked in popular music, while retaining the powerful ability to convey and draw out emotions with the songs.

All that said, Neil Halstead has taken a break from Mojave 3 to tour on his own, just the man and his acoustic guitar. It is an inspiring sight to behold, one that is beautiful in its raw power. The grace and calm with which Neil delivers his songs is a testament to the man behind the songs. He is a calm and humble man… It is just as easy to talk with him as it is to sit and hear him sing. I recently had the chance to spend a little time with Neil discussing his hopes for the future, as well as the experiences of his past.

In a quietly subdued voice, Neil graciously answered a few questions for me regarding the ending of Slowdive, his former band, and thus, the beginnings of Mojave 3. "With the abstraction of Pygmalion, we had reached as far as the band could go. With Mojave it was like falling in love with songs again. We wanted to write songs rather than just make noises. And it's a different sort of discipline. I think for a while, particularly towards the end of Slowdive, I got to the point where I didn't like music, almost." His admission that for about 6 months after Pygmalion (the final Slowdive record) was finished he didn't feel at all like continuing to play music is not all that surprising, looking at the giant strides that he had made with the band and their sound. The depth of music that Slowdive produced in just a few short years and 3 albums bespeaks an incredibly complex and exhausting musical journey. It would be natural to need some time to recover from the strain of such a demanding relationship with the music. And then he says, he just started picking up the acoustic guitar and falling in love with songs again. The music of Mojave 3 is a testament to that love of songs, and to uncomplicated arrangements in support of the basic needs of songs. Simplify and purify. Neil also confesses that Mojave 3 was a response to the coldness of the music on Pygmalion; the stark techno aspects of what the band was creating at the time and his need to be away from that atmosphere. "I think what was appealing was the sort of organic nature of it, really. Because really, the last Slowdive record was all loops and it was all constructed on computers. We would play loops and then play over them and then steal more loops from what we played over them. So there was always an element [of humanity], although there was something quite cold about it. Although to me, I think it was the best record that Slowdive made, but I wasn't sure that it was the kind of music that I wanted to be making all the time."

Neil struck out on a quest for a purer sound in his own music, and was rewarded with Mojave 3's debut record Ask Me Tomorrow. The record shocked many Slowdive fans with its country and folk-roots influenced sound, distancing some and drawing others even closer with the intimacy of the songs. "When we did the first Mojave record it was really about wanting to get in touch with what I liked about music when I was a kid… The melodies and the songs." 1998's Out of Tune showed a dynamic growth in Neil's songwriting and the band's cohesiveness as a performing unit. The tour that accompanied the record brought many new fans to the fold, and established Mojave 3 as a band in its own right, instead of continuing to force the perception of a band living in the shadow of Slowdive. With the rigorous touring schedule, the band seemed to develop and mature. " I think the band kind of has a life of its own now… It started as 3 people, and now there are seven people. It's quite a communal sort of band. The direction it moves in is not so much influenced by me so much as it is influenced by everyone in the band. And in some ways, I really like that." And then in 2000, Mojave 3 released Excuses For Travellers, a more orchestrated and sonically full album, featuring more use of horns and varied instrumentation. Neil speaks of his happiness with the record, and how he believes it to be the best Mojave 3 record thus far. He softly points out that he feels it is the lushest record he has recorded, and his slight surprise at that fact. "Excuses For Travelers, because we'd been touring a lot, we more or less wanted to go in and record the songs pretty much as we played them live. And really just added the horns and a few more little overdubs was all we did. And so it was very surprising that it turned out to be so full."

And then on the tail of Excuses, the solo project took shape. "I was wanting to do something different again, really. I was just wanting to work out certain things. Whenever you're in a group there are certain confines that happen whether you want them to be there or not. I just wanted to work outside of that. I wanted to do something where I wasn't tied to who played on the record, or what kind of music it was. I guess I'd sort of had a lot of tunes that I was thinking, 'Well, they're not going to work with Mojave because they don't sound the way Mojave sounds'. And Mojave does have a certain sound, although it has kind of developed. I like the way Mojave sounds, and I like the fact that I can go in with a bunch of songs and trust the people in the band to be able to make them into good songs. But I like being able to do something else other than Mojave, also." This decision led to a small tour of England to "see if the songs would actually work", and then a few select dates in the United States, including his stop at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He was well received there, playing a wonderful set on Friday night and sharing the stage with former Throwing Muses diva, Kristen Hersh. Neil even took the opportunity to play an intimate in-store set at 33 degrees, one of Austin's finest independent record shops. The new songs that Neil played (for most of us it was the first time hearing them) are full of depth and emotion, and create an incredible ambience when presented as a solo acoustic set. I asked Neil if he had plans to tour with a band for his solo record. "I haven't figured it out, but I think it would be fun to tour with a band. But the record's not done. I guess when the record is done, I'll think about whether we'll try to go on tour or not."

And so the truth is out. Neil Halstead is indeed recording a solo record. Who the players will be who are featured on the recording was certainly a question that I was eager to ask. "Really, I just used friends. I guess there will be quite a few people who play on the album. But they're just people that I've messed around with before, you know? They're basically just friends that I've gotten drunk with and played music with before, but we've never committed anything to record." The skinny on the record goes a little something like this: Neil is hoping to finish the recording in April and May. The record is slated to be released on the 4AD label, home of Mojave 3, and so will most likely be released on Beggar's Banquet here in the US. No word as to how long or how many songs the record may contain, but I can guarantee you it will be well worth the wait if the solo shows were any indication.

The release of a solo recording will in no way hinder the continuation of Mojave 3. According to Neil, the band is scheduled to be back in the studio in May to begin work on their next album, as well. His outlook for the band is very optimistic and he seems genuinely pleased with where things are headed, and how things have changed for the band thus far. "We never really know what, if anything, is going to change, you know… until we go in and record. I do think that I'll be writing less of the tunes on [the next record]. I think it will be more of an even split on the songwriting. The album will probably be a little more diverse, but I'll say that and it probably won't be… so. I don't know." The quiet man laughs like a gentle saint at this remark, betraying a smile that would disarm the most wary of onlookers. When asked about his comfort level in Mojave 3, as opposed to the seemingly difficult efforts put forth in Slowdive, Neil is fairly quick to answer, "I think there was a conscious effort to make certain that we were doing something different on every record. I'm not so concerned about that with Mojave, personally. In some ways it's kind of artistic really, and I should be concerned about it… I think you should always strive to do something that's challenging… I like where I am with Mojave, really. I guess it is comfortable. I like the fact that we can go out and go on tour and play songs that we like playing."

When speaking of what the future holds for himself and for Mojave 3, Neil speaks humbly and very matter-of-factly, "Well, that's really it. For me, I guess the thing is to finish my record, which I'll be doing when I get back to England. And then I know we'll be doing the Mojave record pretty much straight after that. And… so that's really all I'm thinking about at the moment. Hopefully we'll be back out touring in September. And we'll be playing festivals in the summer… Summer is always good because there are always a lot of festivals in Europe, and fun things to do." Neil speaks somewhat bleakly of the English music scene at the current time, and says that he finds what is happening in America to be much more exciting for him. And it seems that a week in Austin for the largest American music festival was very motivating for him. "It's been really great being here in Austin… There are so many bands playing everywhere, and that's really been very inspirational."

With a solo recording on the horizon, and a successful band right next to it, Neil Halstead seems to be doing well in his life. It is a fact that someone of his character does not take for granted. To put it all in perspective, here are a few final words from Neil. "I don't really have that much pressure to deal with. My life is a fairly good one… If the only pressure you've got is to be in a band and write a few songs occasionally, then you're doing pretty good." Pretty good, indeed.

David DeVoe

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