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Neil Halstead is something of a British songwriting hero, having had helmed revolutionary shoegaze outfit Slowdive before founding Mojave 3, a dusky folk-rock band. After touring in support of Mojave’s recent third album, Excuses for Travelers, Halstead retreated into solo work with a few friends. The subsequent recordings comprise Sleeping on Roads (4AD), a hushed record that’s winning him even more critical acclaim, as well as comparisons to Nick Drake. And indeed, Roads is mellow and moody in much the same way, but more than anything, it establishes Halstead as a distinct talent, with or without a proper band behind him. PopMatters caught the man by phone in Texas, where he’s on the first leg of his current solo tour of America.



PopMatters:

Where are you now, in Texas?



Neil Halstead:

Yeah, I’m just in Dallas. We drove down from Santa Fe [New Mexico] yesterday.



PM:

How’s the tour going?



NH:

It’s going pretty good. We started off in Seattle, and we’ve been on the road for about a week and a half now.



PM:

Do you have any players with you?



NH:

No, it’s just me.



PM:

How is touring solo, in contrast to touring with Mojave?



NH:

Well, I’ve been doing sort of solo shows for the past year, so I’m pretty used to it now. It’s easier taking a plane here and back because with Mojave, there are usually seven people in the group. But it’s okay…I enjoy it.



PM:

What was the genesis for this solo album?



NH:

I just ended up basically recording some tracks with a friend of mine, Nick Holton, who helped produce the record. Most of the songs were recorded at home, either at my house or at his house. And I guess we got the album together over about a year and a half, and once we got about seven or eight tracks together, we just went to 4AD and asked if they’d want to put it out. Yeah, I mean, it was just sort of something to do really.



PM:

Were you writing the solo songs simultaneously with new Mojave songs?



NH:

Yeah. Well, I mean, Mojave isn’t a huge commitment or anything. I guess we do a fair amount of touring and stuff, but it’s not like working full-time. I just write songs all the time.



PM:

Some things in the press kit hinted that your album might have come from the recent end of a romantic relationship.



NH:

Well, not really. Some of the songs are like five years old. I wouldn’t say it’s a breakup album, because I think the songs are all about different things, and not one particular thing. I think probably some of it is about relationships, but I didn’t write an album exclusively about breaking up with someone. I think very few of the songs are actually about that really.



PM:

Did you enjoy the freedom of working solo?



NH:

Yeah, it was quite liberating. I’m not usually used to being in control in the studio. Usually when I work with Mojave, it’s just like I’ll bring a song in and everyone plays it and we record it. So this time it was fun to get more involved in the production and arrangements, and play more instruments and stuff. Yeah, I really enjoyed that.



PM:

Although it’s much sparser than a Mojave album, there is some nice low-key embellishment, like cello and trumpet.



NH:

Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff like that on there. We used a lot of these crappy ‘80s keyboards too.



PM:

Were those things that never quite fit the Mojave formula?



NH:

I just think this record reflects my own sort of sensibilities more than a Mojave record. Like I said before, there’s like seven people involved in Mojave. And the way that band works is that everyone contributes and then what you get is kind of an amalgam of all those different people’s influences. I suppose this record is more about what I’m into.



PM:

Are the album’s musicians all personal friends of yours?



NH:

Yeah, they’re just friends really. If we needed someone to come down and do something, we’d give a ring. And if they’d come down, we’d give them a few beers. I think that everyone that plays on there is a friend. That’s just the way it worked. I mean, it wasn’t like we had any money to record the record, so we couldn’t just go out and hire session musicians. And I probably wouldn’t do that anyway, because for me, music’s always more about playing with people that you like. It wasn’t like we set out to make a particular sort of record or anything. It was just occasionally we’d record a few songs and get some people to come down.



PM:

Yeah, the album has a relaxed, friendly vibe throughout.



NH:

Yeah, I think it’s a warm sort of record. That’s one of the things I was happiest about.



PM:

Who created the artwork for the album?



NH:

Again, it was a friend of mine, this girl Chantal Awbi. When we finished the record and were talking about the artwork, she just offered to come up with something. And that was like her first art thing. She just delivered it and I thought it was great. I guess because she knows I’m into surfing, she put the wave on the front. So she did all the artwork, which I think is really nice. I like the colors, the oranges and stuff. I think it’s quite an interesting picture because it’s kind of Zen looking, with this wave that’s about to break.



PM:

You mentioned surfing…is that something you do a lot of?



NH:

Yeah, I love surfing. I lived in Huntington Beach [California] for a while in ‘91 and the kids out there started taking me out surfing. Then when I got back to England, I moved down to Cornwall, which is right on the ocean in Southwest England. And there’s a big surfing scene here, I guess since the late ‘60s. I guess it was introduced by some Australians who were life guarding there then. So I’m now a big fan of surfing. I basically go out as much as I can.



PM:

Is that a stimulating or mellowing experience for you?



NH:

Well, I always feel it’s quite a spiritual kind of thing. And I guess that’s what I get out of it. I think Allen Ginsberg said that surfing in the tube is kind of about being completely in the moment, because you have the past behind you and the future in the front. And when you’re in a barrel, it’s like looking at the world through the aperture of a camera. I think there’s something quite nourishing about that. And also, you get humbled on a daily basis. (laughs)



PM:

You’ve always received many comparisons to Bob Dylan, but the solo album is being compared more to Nick Drake.



NH:

I think a lot of the influences are from that late ‘60s sort of folk period.



PM:

Yeah, you’ve cited Leonard Cohen and the Smiths…



NH:

I love all that stuff. I guess for me, this particular record was influenced by people like Tim Harding and J.J. Cale and Nick Drake, or even stuff like Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson. We also wanted to add elements of Spiritualized, like more layered kind of stuff and more artsy production. There were a lot of influences, but it’s basically a folk record.



PM:

You’ve said that your guitar style on this record is more picking, whereas it’s more strumming with Mojave.



NH:

Yeah, that’s something that I don’t really get to do in Mojave. The largeness of the band means that sort of style of guitar is slightly unnecessary because it takes up too much space in general. So it was fun for me to be able to do that type of guitar playing.



PM:

That picking style reminds people of Nick Drake, especially since his recent resurgence in popularity.



NH:

Well, I’m a huge fan of Nick Drake, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more David Gray and Bert Jansch and even people like Norman Blake I suppose. But I guess they’re sort of less known. Like you were saying, Nick Drake is probably the obvious reference, which is fine because I think he’s great.



PM:

Could you elaborate on the influence of Bert Jansch?



NH:

He was around since the early ‘60s and I guess the first two records that he put out are the ones that I’m really into. He was a big influence on Nick Drake and Jimmie Page. He’s just an English folk guy who’s still around doing gigs, and just an amazing picker really. He has a similar vocal style to Nick Drake as well.



PM:

And he inspired your solo song “Driving With Bert?”



NH:

Yeah, it was just a nod to Bert really, because the song was really influenced by his songwriting. Although the song isn’t really about him, the title just came from that.



PM:

Are you going to do more solo work in the future?



NH:

I don’t know, maybe. At the minute, we just started recording another Mojave album, so I guess we’ll finish that over the summer and get it out. Yeah, maybe I’ll do another record at some point, but I don’t know when.



PM:

How do you predict the Mojave album will be different?



NH:

It’s kind of early to say. The stuff we’ve recorded so far is different from the stuff we’ve done before. It’s not radically different, I suppose. It’s still got that Mojave feel.



PM:

Do you think working solo has informed how you work with Mojave?



NH:

I think it was a good experience for me. It’s been really fun just playing with Mojave again. In some ways it’s kind of rejuvenated my interest in Mojave as well.



PM:

Often when you take a break from something, you come back to it with renewed vigor.



NH:

Exactly. And it’s just nice playing with a band again really.



PM:

I read that the band is working to convert a new studio.



NH:

Yeah, we got a little studio together in Cornwall, like a home studio. Well, it’s not in a home, but it’s just a small studio. It’s an old building that’s been converted. So yeah, we’ve been working there, which is nice.



PM:

What kind of studios had you worked in before?



NH:

Well, we did have a different studio, which we did a fair amount of Mojave stuff in, but we kind of lost that a couple of years ago. Generally, the way Mojave records work is that we’ll do stuff in our own place and then finish it in a studio.



PM:

Your song “Dreamed I Saw Soldiers” was based on the music to a song by Damien Jurado, correct?



NH:

Yeah, I’d played the Damien Jurado song “Ohio” for quite a while. I guess I first heard it like two or three years ago, when his album Rehearsals for a Departure first came out. So I was playing “Ohio” live and I basically had a bunch of lyrics for “Dreamed I Saw Soldiers” but no real tune for it. And one day I was just playing the Damien Jurado song and I started singing the lyrics to “Soldiers” over it. That’s really how it came about. I sent Damien an email and told him I’d stolen his song. (laughs)



PM:

He’s a great songwriter, especially on Ghost of David.



NH:

Yeah, that was the one that came out after Rehearsals. I like it, but I think I prefer Rehearsals. Have you heard his new album?



PM:

Yeah, it’s with a rock band, right? It’s taken me a while to get used to that . . .



NH:

Yeah, I think it’s really good, but I think you’re right. It takes a little while because you expect something different.



PM:

On your solo album, the lyrics aren’t printed in the sleeve, whereas with Mojave they usually are. Why is that?



NH:

I don’t know. For whatever reason, whenever they phoned me about the stuff to go in the record, I probably just didn’t have the lyrics written out and didn’t want to write them all out. That’s what it came down to. It’s kind of weird because I never really think about it, but then you go and play a gig in Germany or somewhere and you realize that it’s quite nice for some people to have the lyrics, especially if they don’t speak your language. And I think I’m singing things fairly clearly, but it’s amazing how often you’ll get a line that people think is just completely different than what it is. That’s kind of nice as well, because it’s open to interpretation.



PM:

The album has recurring themes of sleep, dreaming, and escape. Were those conscious motifs for you?



NH:

No, it’s not really a conscious thing. I mean, there seems to be a theme of travel or escape on the record. I don’t know. For me, when I write a song, I don’t sit down and write about something. Well, not very often anyway. Generally, you start writing and there’s a point about halfway through when you kind of have an idea about what the song is about.



PM:

As a British folk songwriter with strong American influences, how thin is the line between those two sets of influences for you?



NH:

I don’t know. I mean, for me it’s all music. And I think the similarities between people like Nick Drake or Bert Jansch and someone like Townes Van Zandt are fairly similar. That’s kind of what’s interesting about folk music. There isn’t a huge difference between American folk music and English folk music. I listen to it all in the same way. I probably take the most influences from America, judging from what I’ve listened to since I was a kid. I mean, the first bands I really got into were Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney. But I suppose at the same time there was Jesus & The Mary Chain and Spacemen 3 and Loop. There was always an English band and American band, like there’d be Sonic Youth in America and My Bloody Valentine in England. For me, the two things are kind of feeding off each other a lot of the time.

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