Whether it’s been the ethereality he created with former band Slowdive, the sunkissed, ever so slightly country-tinged pop of current outfit Mojave 3 (featuring Slowdivers Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon) or the more folksome intricacies of his solo work, Neil Halstead has always been blessed with an ear for mood and melody. The British singer and avid surfer’s second and latest solo album, Oh! Mighty Engine on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label, is a rich blend of delicately picked guitar and Halstead’s gossamer voice, with small amounts of deftly applied accents. Songs like “Witless or Wise” and “A Gentle Heart” reveal an equal talent for flaxen euphony and touching sentiment, Halstead spinning gold out of his misty airs. Like much of Halstead’s catalog, Engine is a record of subtle charms, the kind that will still be with you long after other infatuations have long since faded.
Halstead has been touring the States, opening for Johnson, and we got him on the phone before a date in Boise.
How did you hook up with Brushfire? Was it through the surfing connection?
Neil Halstead: A friend of mine makes surf films, and Brushfire put his first film out. He used a Mojave song, and so I got to know those guys a few years ago and got on well with them.
People don’t really think of England as a place to surf. Is it much different than, say, California?
NH: Well, where I live in Cornwall it’s similar to northern California climate wise. It’s got a pretty good reputation and there’s good surf there. There’s been a lot of surfers since the ‘60s. But it’s not as consistent as California, and as far as the weather goes, this time of year it’s lovely, but during the winter you’re using a pretty heavy wet suit.
Do you see similarities between surfing and making music?
NH: I don’t know. I’m a pretty average surfer. I surf as much as I can and have been for the last 16 years. I’ve been making music slightly longer than that. I guess they both suit the life I live. You’re usually playing gigs at night so you have your days free. There’s definitely a spirituality to surfing; it’s not just something I do to keep fit. It’s meditative, and I suppose so is music. If you’re writing a song or playing guitar or piano, it’s a good way to clear your head. Surfing is as well, a good way to open up.
Why did it take so long to make another solo record? It’s not like Mojave 3 is the most productive band in the world.
NH: I didn’t know we were supposed to be productive! I guess the last one was six years ago, and there’s been two Mojave 3 records since then. So four records in six years isn’t so bad really.
Last year was really the first opportunity I had to do another record. And I also didn’t want to put another record out on 4AD because the way my contract worked, I didn’t get any money for any records I did outside of Mojave 3. And it was the same for Rachel when she did her solo record. With my first solo record, I just wanted to put a record out and was so keen to do that I was happy to let 4AD put it out and not get paid for it. But I wanted to wait until I was out of the contract with 4AD before I did another solo record.
You described making Sleeping on Roads as being somewhat accidental, just kind of finding yourself in a studio. Did you have more purpose in making this one, and did you want it to be more distinct from Mojave 3?
NH: I wanted it to be just a guitar and vocals record, and that’s how I set out. I recorded it pretty quickly, in 10 days, and mixed it in a week. I ended up doing more overdubs than I thought I would, and I realized that it’s really hard to make a guitar and vocals record. It’s just because it’s hard to listen to it and not think of adding something here or something there. So I set out to do that and it turned out how it did. I think records tend to make themselves. You can start out with a vague idea or a really solid idea, but in the end the record tends to lead you. So I guess there was slightly more of a purpose to it, though.
Did recording part of it in the U.S. influence you at all thematically?
NH: Not really, I already had the songs for awhile. I recorded a lot of songs and ended up keeping the more “English” ones. I did a lot of country songs as well, but I didn’t want to mix it up too much. I thought it should have one feel to it, instead of lots of styles of music. I guess the other songs we’ll hear at some point.
More British folk than American country?
NH: I tend to write songs that are country, and they usually end up being Mojave songs. This album fell along similar lines. I did keep “A Gentle Heart” on because I felt like the album needed it.
You described wanting to make a voice and guitar record. Was that at all in reaction to the last Mojave 3 record, which was more poppy and different for the band?
NH: No, I don’t think it was a reaction to that. It was just something I wanted to do and probably will still want to do. There’s such a purity to doing a record that’s just a guitar and a voice. But it’s a hard record to make. The songs have to be so good to carry it. With Mojave, we just tried to do a slightly different record, which is honestly what we always try to do. But that one was a poppy record rather than an ambient or slow record.
“Always the Good” sticks out as being different. Lyrically, it’s just a really simple song, and almost seems like a mantra of sorts, which reminds me of other songs in your catalog. Do these simple lines serve as reminders to yourself or mantras?
NH: “Always the Good” was built around loops, and I wanted something that would just build and build. But it’s something that crops up in Mojave, and in Slowdive as well. I like those sorts of things, where you get into a loopy situation. It’s a reflection of my own personal taste.
In contract to that, other songs seem to have narratives, like the title track from this record and “Hi-Lo and Inbetween.” Do you imagine greater storylines behind these songs when you’re writing them?
NH: Some of them are definitely stories. “Oh Mighty Engine” was an homage to living with somebody who is a writer and how frustrating being a writer or living with a writer can be. With “No Mercy for the Muse,” I liked the idea of writing about the classic idea of the muse as someone inspiring and how they’re looked at through rose-colored spectacles because you don’t see the real person. You idealize them, your inspiration.
Speaking of muses, you tend to name a lot of girls. You’ve got Cindy, Judy, Martha—are these real people or fictitious characters?
NH: They’re usually real people, though obviously the names have been changed. Sometime they overlap as well. For me, it’s useful to have the name there.
Putting a face to it?
NH: Yeah absolutely, though I’ll probably have to stop doing that some time.
How deliberate was the whistling style of singing on “Little Twig?”
NH: What style of singing?
There’s a whistling effect.
NH: I’ve got a bit of a gap between my teeth and I think when I sing really soft it’s kind of whistley. That’s song very intimate. It sounds like there’s percussion, but it’s just my hand hitting the guitar. Those things have a weird effect. I’ve never noticed the whistle before, but it’s just my teeth I’m afraid. I have British teeth.
Some people considered Pygmalion (Slowdive’s final album) a solo record. Do you see it that way?
NH: No, not really. It’s a weird one. A lot of that one was done at home in a bedroom, but I’ve never considered it a solo record.
Was Mojave 3’s softer sound a reaction to Slowdive?
NH: I got so immersed in ambient and abstract music, after awhile it seemed like it didn’t have a lot of soul or humanity. It didn’t have much reality to it. I got really tired of the scene. After Pygmalion came out, I did some traveling and while I was traveling I got into acoustic music. I was in a hospice in Israel and saw kids playing acoustic guitars and songs you’d recognize. It was something I missed and I had a feeling of wanting to get back to that. In a way, I had never really tried to write songs before. The lyrics never mattered in Slowdive because you could never hear them. So it was a different challenge.
Were there experiences from that time the made you want to do things differently in the way the band operated?
NH: With Mojave, we’ve been more aware of the industry. So we’ve always done things on our own terms as far as recording the records, when they come out and doing the artwork. With Slowdive, we felt like we were signed to labels we shouldn’t have been signed to and didn’t have control. I suppose there’s a whole bunch of other things that would be hard to break down. Just as you get older, you figure out how to do things.
With you doing your solo records and Rachel having done a solo record, and now with the Loose Salute (McCutcheon’s new band), do you find there are more ideas being brought to the band or is it less because they’ve been used already?
NH: We’ll see. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do another Mojave record at the end of this year or beginning of next year. I don’t know. I hope Rachel will be more involved than on the last one. She was pretty ill and not around that much. Ian’s been doing Loose Salute, and Pete Greenwood, our guitarist, has a really nice folk record out on Heavenly. So it will be interesting to see what direction it goes in. We probably won’t have much of an idea and just get together and see where it goes.