16 November 2012
Articles | Interviews

Interview: Neil Halstead

Reading songwriter on the Slowdive reunion rumours, Spotify and his dark new solo LP

Words Colm McAuliffe

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For a brief period in the mid-nineties, Thames Valley shoegazers Slowdive were caricatured as all that was insipid about the so-called ‘scene that celebrated itself’. Their final two albums, Souvlaki and Pygmalion, were singled out for particular venom; Melody Maker describing the former as a “soulless void… I would rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again.”

Almost twenty years on, the tide has turned entirely; and the band are revered as beacons of nu-gaze inspiration, despite being inactive since 1995. Their primary songwriter, Neil Halstead, has just released Palindrome Hunches, his third solo album, a remarkably deft, intricate and elegant collection of folk songs which hones his former band’s passionate indifference into expertly constructed, bruised vignettes touching on subjects ranging from his recent marriage break-up to the story of Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian concert pianist who lost his right arm during World War I. This isn’t to say that Palindrome Hunches is a difficult listen; in fact, the record exhales with stately grace and charm.

“The album was recorded in [producer] Nick Holton’s kid’s school,” says Halstead. “I had been taking ages to do it, I was recording at home in Cornwall and ended up doing it three different ways and wasn’t happy with it. Nick suggested we go to Wallingford as he had just moved there and met these musicians [Band Of Hope, who accompany Halstead on the record] and he was like, ‘Fuck it, let’s go into the music room at the school.’ So we gave the caretaker a bottle of wine and a few quid — it was done within a weekend.”

It was a relief for Halstead to play with a relatively unfamiliar group of musicians. “It was unlaboured, and the way the album sounds is down to playing with those guys,” he admits. “You can almost hear everyone feeling their way a little bit, we hadn’t played with each other very much and I think the recorded version of ‘Full Moon Rising’ was only the second run-through we had of the song. There’s a very uncluttered production sound and this something Nick was after, there’s a lot of space on the record.”

The lyrics on Palindrome Hunches seem more considered than on previous efforts, shaping rather than simply accompanying the music. “Well, since all the way through Mojave 3 and the solo work, I have been more interested in lyrics. In this album, I guess there are a few songs that are ‘outside of me’ and I hadn’t done that much before. I generally just go at it in the first person, which may not always be the most interesting. But this album, apart from the title track, is darker and heavier than the previous album [Oh Mighty Engine]. It’s definitely darker.”

Of course, the danger with being a hirsute singer-songwriter is that you are, by default, lumped in with any earnest-sounding folkie on the go. “I probably fit right in there,” laughs Halstead. “Wispy men! But yeah, if you’re doing anything slightly folk-based and in English AND you’re a man, then it’s hard to avoid that. I think my voice is quite similar to Nick Drake’s and I’ve always had that comparison, even when I was in Slowdive. I was getting compared to Nick Drake even when I’d never even heard him! I remember thinking, ‘This guy sounds nothing like us!’ But I also love John Martyn, Anne Briggs and that whole period of folk revival in the sixties. For my ears, I hear more Bert Jansch than Nick Drake, but then again, I know I listen to more Jansch than Drake. But I’ve covered a lot of bases in the time I’ve been doing music.”

Having started out in Slowdive at the tender age of seventeen, Halstead has amassed a considerable amount of time working as a full-time musician. But this has been interspersed, by necessity, with periods of extra-curricular activities. “I’ve done bar work”, he reflects. “I’ve done loads of stuff, even daffodil-picking — fucking hard work actually! — but I’ve been lucky, I’ve managed to get by for a long time. It’s definitely difficult these days because people don’t by records anymore, and it’s very hard for musicians to make a living — it’s a labour of love. I can’t believe anyone is actually making money from records anymore and if they are, they probably owe their record company loads. We’re like glorified buskers these days, but it does kind of annoy me that musicians aren’t more up in arms about getting paid. You ‘pretend’ get paid — you might get eighty dollars for two million downloads. People go on Spotify because they think musicians are being paid properly so it’s a bit of a con. It feels like the music industry, as a whole, has sold out musicians. The record companies just signed up to this thing and no-one seems to give a monkeys. Everyone has their head in the sand.”

Of course, one way for Halstead to ensure the money starts to roll in would be to reform Slowdive, an option which seemed to be mooted in the press in recent months. “There would be plenty of work for us, but I did this interview with MTV where I said there was a possibility, and that’s still true, but it’s unlikely”, he admits. “After that interview, it got misquoted a bit. I got e-mails from agents in Australia and America saying ‘call me urgently!’. Over the years, we’ve had offers to do Coachella and whatnot but we’ve never really sat down and talked about it to be honest. I doubt it will happen. Basically, it’s almost expected you do it because it’s the norm. I think that’s the biggest industry in music at the minute. It’s like a heritage industry! That’s where most of the money is being made, people are most willing to spend money on something they enjoyed when they were kids — it’s a sure bet. Also, Rachel [Goswell] has really bad issues with her ears. She can’t deal with loud music at all so it would have to be a very quiet version. I’m sure the kids would love that!”

The shoegaze sound is a far cry from Halstead’s current musical set-up, but he hasn’t dispensed with excess pedal work yet. “I did a record with [Seefeel member and one-time Mojave 3 producer] Mark Van Hoen and Nick Holton which is coming out next year, called Black Hearted Brother, which is quite shoegazey, it’s got big guitars on it. It was fun to do that, to bust out the pedals a bit. I suppose the idea of going out and playing that sound live is a bit alien to me now, though.”

The last time Halstead performed with such an electric intensity would have been around the time of Slowdive’s swansong, Pygmalion. “Well, that wasn’t the sort of record you’d derive much enjoyment from — it was quite a dark record! That actually came out of a period where I was living in London and going to this club in Brixton called Quirky. And it reminds me of that period — we rehearsed it a few times before we split up, but we never played it live. The thing is, we never tried to recreate the records live anyway, it was just a case of playing them as songs and seeing how they panned out.”

Of course, with the new record and the increased interest in Slowdive, it seems like Mojave 3, Halstead’s crossover outfit, are destined to be forgotten…”We’re on hiatus”, he laughs. “We actually played in China a couple of months ago although not with Rachel. We always talk about doing another record — it actually might happen within the next year.”

Nevertheless, it must be galling for Halstead to be consistently asked about his previous efforts when he is in the midst of touring arguably his finest release to date. “I honestly don’t mind speaking about Slowdive and Mojave but as solo artist, I’ve just finished a five-week tour of America and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. In fact, I tend to do better there than anywhere in terms of audiences. And I’ve got the Black Hearted Boy EP coming out on Sonic Cathedral in January before I go back out to America again. So, yeah, I am always asked about the other stuff, but there’s so much going with this new album, and I just really enjoy being able to do all this on my own.”

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