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Neil Halstead - Interview

  by Anthony Strutt

published: 22 / 5 / 2009

Neil Halstead - Interview


The frontman with both Slowdive and Mojave 3, Neil Halstead has recently released his second solo album, '‘Oh, Mighty Engine !' He speaks to Anthony Strutt about it and his work with both bands

Neil Halstead was the founder of the influential early 1990s shoegazing band, Slowdive. Signed by Alan McGee to Creation Records, Slowdive recorded three albums, 'Just for a Day (1991), 'Souvlaki' (1993) and 'Pygmalion' (1995). When the latter album was poorly received by both the press and public alike, Slowdive were, however, dropped and split up shortly afterwards, Halstead and his co-singer and guitarist Rachel Goswell in Slowdive going on to form their current band, Mojave 3. Mojave 3, who until recently were signed to 4AD, have recorded five albums, 'Ask Me Tomorrow' (1996), 'Out of Tune' (1998) , 'Excuses for Travellers' (2000), ‘Spoon and Rafter’(2003) and ‘Puzzles Like You’(2006). Whereas Slowdive were ambient and noisy, Mojave 3's records are fragile, and, drawing critical comparisons with acts such as Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley and Bob Dylan, have a country sound. While Goswell co-shared the singing with him in Slowdive, Mojave 3 has also found Halstead increasingly taking over the majority of the vocals. Recent years have seen Goswell, who suffers from the neurological illness ataxia, have to take an extended absence from music, and Halstead focus on his solo career. Halstead released his debut album, ‘Sleeping on Roads’, on 4AD in 2002, and followed this with ‘Oh ! Mighty Engine’, a second album of acoustic folk/country rock last year, which came out on bestselling American singer-songwriter Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records in 2008 . In a third interview with Pennyblackmusic, Neil Halstead spoke to us before a solo gig at St Giles’ Church for shoegazing club/record label Sonic Cathedral about ‘Oh ! Mighty Engine’ and his past two decades in music. PB : The last time Pennyblackmusic spoke to you was at the time of ‘Spoon and Rafter’ in 2003. You are now promoting your current solo album, ‘Oh, Mighty Engine !’ To go back to the very beginning though, prior to Slowdive, you had a band called the Pumpkin Fairies ? NH : Yes, we did indeed. PB : Is that something you did at school ? I believe the songs still exist on the internet. NH : We were like 14 or 15. We did one demo. We did a nice version of ‘Stephanie Says’ by the Velvet Underground. The rest of it I can't remember, but that was our first attempt at songwriting. It was pretty bad. PB : Who was in the band ? Was it you and Rachel Goswell ? NH : It was me and Rachel and also Adrian Snell, who was the original drummer in Slowdive and I'm ashamed to say, but I can't remember the name of the bass player. That's terrible, isn't it ? PB : It was a long time ago. Since we last spoke all the Slowdive albums have all been reissued on Sanctuary. Were you involved in that at all ? NH : No, I wasn't, I sort of regret that now, because I think ‘Pygmalion’ could benefit from remastering. To be fair they did email me about doing that, but I wasn't in the right space to deal with it and so I just let them put out the records. It was nice to reappraise them. They got good reviews. PB : There was a compilation, ‘Catch the Breeze : The Best of Slowdive’, which was released at the same time and which had a previously unreleased cover of Syd Barrett's ‘Golden Hair’ from a John Peel session on it. Why was just that track used and not the other tracks and the rest of that session ? NH : I don't know. I wasn't involved in the track listing. We did a lot of stuff that wasn't released. A lot of it is on the internet. There was a lot of good stuff which they could have put on it, but I didn't have access to it. PB : Ride brought their song rights back from Alan McGee when Creation Records folded. Do you own your rights ? NH : No,I don't know who owns them. It has gone through the mill. It went from Creation to Sony, I don't know if Sanctuary licensed it from Sony. More likely Sony own the rights. PB : Shoegaze was massive for a short while in the early 90s before it became a dirty word. Now there is Nu Gaze, and clubs and record labels like Club AC30, and Sonic Cathedral are all part of a big scene. How does that make you feel now ? NH : It is not something that is part of my life. It is not a scene that is big in my part of the country and in Cornwall where I now live, I get asked to do interviews about it, and people bang on about it (Laughs). PB : But the last time you played a Sonic Cathedral night, you played with Daniel Land and the Modern Painters. NH : Yeah, and they are a Nu Gaze act. PB : That must have been heartwarming. NH : Yeah, they were interesting to see, but it wasn't loud enough for me. I saw them in a church, and it was super quiet. For me Shoegaze was all about the volume. That was what it was about for all of us in Slowdive. As a result of that we couldn't get gigs. We couldn't get booked for ages and in fact until we got signed. We used to do a gig for someone and then they wouldn't let us do another one. PB : You did a remix for Miranda Lee Richards for ‘Lifeboat’, the single she did for Sonic Cathedral. NH : Yes, I knew Miranda from before, from when her first record came out (‘The Herethereafter’, Virgin, 2001). Out of the blue Nathaniel Cramp at Sonic Cathedral said he was putting a record out of ‘Lifeboat’, and asked if I fancied doing a remix of it. And I was like, “Why not?” I did a crazy mix of it which was fun. PB : You have now left 4AD records. I believe your contract ran out with them. NH : At that point we didn’t have another record planned, and we just felt it was best, rather than re-sign to them, to keep our options open until we did another record. Then I started doing ‘Oh, Mighty Engine!’ and ended up signing to Brushfire. PB : That is Jack Johnson's label. They are affiliated with Universal in the States. Is that much different as you have always been on indie labels up until now ? NH : At Brushfire, there are only five people who work there. I have known those guys for some time now. They also make films. They look after Jack and the label, and they have a studio there. There is a lot going on and I like that. It is not a lot different from Creation or 4AD in that they have their own thing. They mainly make surf films. They also have Mason Jennings, who is one of my favourite musicians, on the label. As there are so few people there, it is not like dealing with a big company. PB : You have now played with and toured with Jack. Did you cross over to his audience at all ? NH : I have definitely picked up a few sales through playing with him. When you play with him, you play to about 25, 000 people a night. If I pick up one percent of his audience, then that's good. Jack and I are quite similar in some ways as we both play acoustic guitars. PB : It is different too though. NH : I don't have his pop touch. He is good at writing songs that cross over to people on the radio. I don't have that ability. PB : 'Oh, Mighty Engine!' has got rave reviews everywhere and a lot of critics are saying you are under valued. Do you think this has got better reviews than previous material or is it about the same ? NH : I don't know to be honest. It has has some good reviews. It has been fun, I have been touring it for the best part of the last six months, I have been to America three times with it. PB : You seem to be touring with this album this more then you have in the past. NH : I toured the first album, 'Sleeping on Roads', a lot. It is so much easier if you are doing it solo. I just go out with three guys. I just get in the car and chuck in the guitars and away I go, whereas with Mojave 3 it is five to six people. It is a big production. It is not so easy to do. It is harder to get everyone together and tour for any length of time because people can't do it, so you have to pick your time and go for it with a quick tour here, a quick tour there. I have been getting out a lot more and it has been fun. PB : Has this been an easier record to write ? It sounds different. NH : When I recorded it, I just wanted guitar and vocals. I had a lot of songs that I had written since the last Mojave 3 record, so I just went into the studio for ten days, just recording and putting it down and I ended up doing more overdubs then I thought I would. I thought it would be nice if there was a little bit more there. It was a quick record to make certainly. It took a while to get around to mix it and to get it all finished, but to get the first bits down was very fast. PB : Have you started the next one yet ? Nh ; I haven't started recording it yet. PB : Have you written any songs for it ? NH : I have a few songs for it. I hope to start it in June or July. PB : Does Mojave 3 still exist ? NH : In the sense that we are all there. We have been talking about doing a record. PB : What about the state of Rachel's health ? I heard it is on the mend. NH : She wants to be involved with the record, At least she will come in and sing. I am not sure how involved she will be with the creative process. She wasn't much involved with 'Puzzles Like You' either. She came in and sang on it, but couldn't do much else. It is not ideal, but if that's the way it works then that is the way it has to be. I don't think she will be able to tour. PB : Why did Simon Rowe (ex-guitarist-Ed)leave the band ? NH : He wanted to go and make some money, get a job. He got married. He didn't want to leave the band. He loved playing and touring with us. He just couldn't realistically do it anymore. At some point you have to grow up and get a job, so he did that. PB : Do you have to be in different states of mind to write solo songs and those for Mojave 3 ? NH : I just write. If it is for Mojave 3, I will just come in with a song and we will play it as a band and it will evolve as a Mojave 3 song. The start of a song is always the same, whether it is a Mojave 3 song or a Neil Halstead song. PB : You are now a happily married man with two little girls, aren't you ? NH : It is a boy and girl. They are 14 month old twins. It has been a crazy year, PB : Have you taken to fatherhood ? NH : Yeah, you have too. I love it. PB : They haven't got all your albums out and scribbled all over them ? NH : No, they are always chucking things out of the CD rack though. I do notice that I am always picking up Slowdive or Mojave 3 records. I don't know why they keep on chucking them on the floor and whether they know something that I don't know( Laughs). PB : Has MySpace been good for you? NH : It's been good, because it is for people whom don't know how to use a PC. I use it as my web page. I like that because you have some control over it. I like MySpace. PB : Do you sell many downloads ? NH : It's about forty per cent. I imagine that by the next one it will be fifty or sixty percent. PB : What are your future plans ? Will you carry on touring this album ? NH : Yes, I will be playing shows up until June. I probably won't do much touring after that, I just want to record another record and will do that over the summer. I will also be doing a soundtrack for a film which is called 'Weakness' too. PB : Thank you. NH : Thank you.

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Neil Halstead - Interview

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