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
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
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.
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