Neil Halstead on playing solo without a setlist and being able to react to the audience
Neil Halstead was one of the guitarists and singers in pioneering shoegaze and ambient band Slowdive in the late '80s and early '90s. Taking guitar sounds and often blurring the sonic signature with synths through creative use of delay pedals and loops, Slowdive was more of a dream-pop band through its 1993 album, Souvlaki. Two years later, Pygmalion came out and probably confused everyone high on a wave of "Cool Britannia." Influenced heavily by more experimental music and electronica than the rock and roll of the day, Pygmalion is an enduring, haunting landmark of ambient rock.
Slowdive was soon dropped from its label, and the band dissolved shortly after, with Halstead, Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon going on to form Mojave 3, a more organic, acoustic band that sounded like it was created in the middle of a desert, as the name certainly suggests. For over a decade, the band released a string of noteworthy albums and continues to do one-off shows these days.
In the last ten years, Halstead has earned a reputation for himself as a talented singer-songwriter apart from his more high-profile older projects. Drawing comparisons to Nick Drake for his sparse melodies and emotive vocal delivery, Halstead has achieved critical acclaim on the considerable merit of his solo material. Currently touring in support of his latest album, Palindrome Hunches, we recently spoke with Halstead about Slowdive, Mojave 3 and the new record.
Westword: What kind of music did you grow up hearing and seeing before you started forming your own bands?
Neil Halstead: I was pretty young when I started my first band. I was probably like fourteen. One of my favorite bands was Jesus and Mary Chain and that kind of stuff. One of my friends' brothers was into the Smiths.
When did you start playing guitar, and was it electric or acoustic?
My dad was an electrician, but he used to teach piano. He was quite a good piano player, and he would teach some of the local kids. I learned piano when I was young, and I started playing guitar when I was ten or eleven.
You had a band before Slowdive, right?
Yeah. The Pumpkin Fairies, with Rachel Goswell. That was like our school band.
How would you characterize the kind of music you did at that time?
At that point, I don't know. We did cover versions. We did "Stephanie Says," by the Velvet Underground. We did some Cult songs, like "She Sells Sanctuary" and "Rain." I think we did a Primitives song, "Thru the Flowers." That was the kind of stuff we were into, really.
How did you get interested in manipulating guitar sounds with pedals in the various ways you did in Slowdive?
Just because all the bands I liked were noisy, and that was the sort of music they were doing, too. I'd save up and try and buy distortion pedals and delays and stuff.
How did you find out about what they were using?
Just from seeing other bands play and stuff and seeing what kind of equipment they used.
What did having two Roland JC-120 amps, as you did during at least the Souvlaki period on, enable you to do that maybe one amp did not?
For me, it was the stereo thing. I'd set up a little delay between the two amps so you get that sound that bounces around the room a little bit. A band called the Chameleons used to use two amps. I remember seeing them. Billy Duffy from the Cult did as well.
You also used two Boss DD-3's for delay as well. Why two delays of the same model?
Just so you could layer another delay on top of the delay you already had, basically. It makes a more spaced-out sound. A lot of it you just experiment with and find your own sound. Terry Bickers from the House of Love used to use delay a lot, which was great. Of course Cocteau Twins.
Pygmalion is one of the classic albums of the last couple of decades, at least certainly within the realm of ambient and experimental music. When you were working on that, what kinds of electronic and other experimental music were you listening to at the time you were coming up with the material for that album?
We were listening to a lot of drum-and-bass, lots of techno, lots of early Warp stuff like LFO and Aphex Twin. There was a club in south London that used to have nights month to month. A friend of mine used to run it and they used to play ambient and experimental music. I was going there all the time and getting immersed in Steve Reich, Stockhausen and lots of other experimental music. Also the Talk Talk albums Laughingstock and Spirit of Eden were big influences. Mostly it was created out of loops and samples made from guitar, really, and it was the first time I really got into using sequencers and samplers and stuff.
The director Gregg Araki regularly uses your music in his films. Have you had direct contact with him about that?
I know Gregg. I met him years ago and he's always been a big Slowdive fan. I think I probably met him one of the first times we played in L.A. Gregg's great, and I love all his movies, and it's really nice that he uses the music, as well.
With Mojave 3, you wrote music that some people might consider to be almost the polar opposite of Slowdive. What got you interested in a more country or folks-y sound?
For me it was a way to reconnect with music a little bit. I think that after Pygmalion, I felt a little like it was a kind of cold record. Then Slowdive finished, and I was able to get back to playing acoustic guitar and just reconnecting with making music in a more organic way.
Your singing seems to have evolved or maybe grown more distinct in the mix over the years. Is that something you feel you developed as a songwriter and performer, and do you maybe think it had something to do with the placement of your voice in the context of your bands?
Obviously, Slowdive relied on effects, and vocals were just [like another instrument]. What I do now is just guitar and vocals, and you don't really get much else to focus on so it's more up front.
What do you like most about being a solo performer?
I like to focus on playing live. I can go out there without a set list and play and react to the audience. I always found it hard in bands that I had to have a set list and do it by rote a bit, and it's a bit less spontaneous, I suppose. I can feel whatever feels right on the night. I guess if you're in a jazz band or in a jam type of band, you can do that anyway. I've not been in that sort of band before, though.
What's the most challenging thing about playing solo, and is there anything you miss about being in a full band like you used to be?
I enjoy playing bands, and I miss companionship, and you miss just playing with other people. Occasionally, I get to do that. Mojave 3 played in China, recently. If I'm in the U.K., a few musicians play with me, and I have a few musicians with me on tour. I suppose there's more pressure [in performing solo]. You don't share it with your band mates. If you're not having a good day or if you're not feeling great, then it's a bit more challenging to get up and take it all on.
On the cover of Palindrome Hunches there's an image of two owls with their eyes covered by black triangles. What's the significance of that?
I don't know. It was sort of an accident. My friend was doing it, and we sat there one day and he said, "Why don't we do the punk rock version?" which would have been the yellow tape across the eyes. We started laughing about that, and then, I just thought, "It kind of looks cool with the eyes covered." So we just made it black. I think the imagery works for me because the owl is a symbol of a wise, all-seeing, all-knowing, mysterious creature. I think the idea of having the eyes kind of closed out is a potent symbol. It fits in with the "hunches" element of the title.
On the tour EP you put out, you do an acoustic version of "Alison." What made it appealing to rework that Slowdive song instead of another? It's probably safe to assume you couldn't do "Albatross" or "Blue Skied an' Clear" on acoustic guitar.
I guess the idea of the tour EP was just to put some stuff out that I do live. I was doing also doing "40 Days" for a while live. They kind of work because they're the more song-based of the Slowdive music. I'd just play them because I knew people would come out who were Slowdive fans.
What was the idea for that notebook format release of Palindrome Hunches?
We were just thinking of interesting ways of presenting the record, really. I go through a lot of notebooks writing songs. I just thought it would be a nice idea to present it with the CD -- something interesting, if they wanted to get something that wasn't a normal CD cover.
What is a "Palindrome Hunch"?
I'm not sure. I kind of felt like the songs were hunches. Something that's slightly undefined some of it's still fresh and it just seemed to fit the mood of the record.
MTV Hive had an interesting interview with you recently. Has anyone offered you the "shitloads of money" you joked about requiring for having Slowdive reform?
I just got asked if we would reform and said there were all sorts of possibilities. Then I joked and said, "If someone offers us shitloads of money." But no, I don't think we've ever been offered money to reform.
Neil Halstead, with Tennis, 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 16, eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce Street, Boulder, $20, 303-443-8696, All Ages; With Chella Negro at the Walnut Room, 7 p.m. October 17, Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut Street, $10-$12, 303-292-0529, 21+.
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