When Neil Halstead--vocalist, guitarist and guiding light for Britain's Mojave 3--thinks of Denver, he pictures singer and fellow bandmate Rachel Goswell. In agony.
"We were flying from L.A. to New York last year, and Rachel's eardrum burst during the flight," he says. "So we had to drop her off in Denver--which is quite high in the mountains, I know, but it was better for her than being on an airplane. The pressure decreased, and it was less painful for her to stay there.
"The whole thing was very difficult for her, to be honest with you," he continues. "She went through a lot of shit. After her doctor said it was all right, we went straight on to do a tour in Europe, which we probably shouldn't have done, since she had some panic attacks for a while. The idea of getting on a plane was very traumatic for her, because she never knew if something was going to happen again. She seems to have gotten through that now and her ears are fine, but it's something that's very hard to forget."
If there's an upside to Goswell's aural trauma, it's that she's a member of Mojave 3--one of the subtler acts operating in the popular-music spectrum. The group, which also features drummer Ian McCutcheon, won't be making the Tinnitus Society's Ten Most Wanted list anytime soon, as its latest recording, Ask Me Tomorrow (on the 4AD imprint), ably demonstrates. New tunes such as "Love Song on the Radio" and "Tomorrow's Taken" make a lot of adult contemporary music seem like Judas Priest by comparison. Halstead's twangy guitar stylings, McCutcheon's tasteful drumming, and hushed offerings from contributors Christopher Andrew (on piano) and Audrey Riley (cello) provide a delicate backdrop against which Halstead and Swell croon as pristinely as possible. No shouting allowed.
In Halstead's view, this genteel sound developed quite organically. "We wanted to keep the album very simple," he notes. "It was more or less recorded live, and it was a really quick process; we recorded the first six songs in three days. Our songs are written on an acoustic guitar with vocals, and we used basic chords. I think that's probably one of the reasons that we didn't fuck around with the structures too much. When it came time to mix it, we didn't see the need to make any big changes."
Nonetheless, Mojave 3 was itself a significant change for Halstead and Goswell. The pair first teamed in another outfit, Slowdive, which was signed to England's Creation label in the late Eighties. That group issued three albums, including Souvlaki, which was helmed by production iconoclast Brian Eno. Unfortunately, the last of those recordings (Pygmalion, from 1994) was never released in the United States, due in part to Creation's sudden loss of interest in the outfit. Slowdive was subsequently given the boot--a decision that rankles the otherwise laconic Halstead.
"It wasn't a mutual decision," he points out. "They made the decision--but it was something that we expected. We'd done Pygmalion and hadn't been able to release it for eight months because Creation was trying to get out of a distribution deal with SBK in America. That was intensely frustrating for the band and led to a lot of ill will between us and Creation. But what was worse was that Creation didn't really understand the record. It was quite a different sound from the records that we'd done previously and it kind of freaked them out. At the end of the day, they were fairly honest about it. They just said, 'We really don't think you're the right kind of band for us. You might be better off on a different label that understands you better.'
"I'm not bitter about it," Halstead goes on, somewhat unconvincingly, "but the whole situation really led to the dissolution of the band. Because we had to sit around waiting, all of our energy was completely dispelled. By the time the record came out, we really weren't that interested in it anymore."
At the same time, Halstead's latest compositions were taking him in another artistic direction. In contrast to the drony pieces for which Slowdive was known, these new numbers were considerably more subdued and drew on country influences that bubbled up from his subconscious. Even today, Halstead admits that his knowledge of C&W isn't what you'd call encyclopedic. "I like a lot of Gram Parsons, and Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash, too," he reveals. "I suppose I like the cool people--but I'm not really that big a country-and-Western fan. Some of that Nashville stuff is really syrupy, you know?" He adds that he stumbled upon the pedal-steel-like delivery that's become his trademark: "There was a slide around, and it all just kind of came together."
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The resulting approach has caused Mojave 3 to be likened to Mazzy Star, a quietly melancholic combo that's built upon female vocals and a smidgen of country and psychedelia. But Halstead doesn't buy it. "Personally, I think the Mazzy Star comparison is rather lazy," he says. "I think we're more like Nick Drake or Neil Young than Mazzy Star. But we have a weird country edge, which is why we get bunched with Mazzy Star and Cowboy Junkies--they're the only other bands in this genre that people have heard about. That's a problem of image, in a sense, but the longer we're out, the more opportunity we'll have to establish ourselves in a different way."
The best way to do that is to tour, and thus far Halstead says that the response from gig attendees has been favorable: "People have actually been remarkably good. I've been sort of surprised that they've paid such close attention, because we're not that loud a band."
For which Rachel Goswell's ears are no doubt grateful.
Lush, with Mojave 3 and Scheer. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $14.70, 830-2525 or 800-444-