interview by Alexander Laurence
Neil Halstead has been cleverly thinking about doing his first solo record Sleeping on Roads for at least two years. While in Mojave 3, he started to write some material that seemed more personal, and couldn't handle the fierce democracy that is Mojave 3. After a while he had enough songs and some time to get together with some friends and try something new. His latest Sleeping on Roads, is a wonderfully low-key affair featuring Neil's distinctive voice and some great songwriting.
Compared to his six albums with Slowdive and Mojave 3, Sleeping On Roads sounds like a road album. It is great music without roots and full of freedom and space. Neil Halstead has been called "one of Britain's greatest songwriters"; and he shows us more of what he is about in a more intimate way.
Sleeping On Roads is about lost love. Halstead got together with some friends and finally completed the album this past summer in Airfield Studios, near his home in Cornwall. Ian McCutcheon from Mojave 3 and Nick Holton of Coley Park appear on the record. The result a folky mix reminiscent of Nick Drake and Bert Jansch.
Halstead is still in Mojave 3. He plans on doing another Mojave 3 record as well as another solo record. I caught him on tour in Hollywood in early April. While we were in his hotel room we were able to watch some VH1 "Behind The Music." Ian was taking a shower while we were doing the interview. Neil is very quiet and shy so it took much talking to get him to come out of his shell.
AL: Do you watch this stuff a lot?
NEIL: At home, not at all. But on tour I watch it. I like "Behind The Music." The story of success, failure, and a return to success, makes them really entertaining.
AL: What point are you at in your career?
NEIL: I started Slowdive when I was 18 and that was about twelve years ago. We did three albums with Creation Records. We did a gig and Alan McGee showed up at a gig and was looking for bands. We sent him a tape and then he signed us.
AL: When you started doing Mojave 3 did you send him a tape?
NEIL: No, because we had been dropped by Creation. So after six months we started to record. I was known in the music industry by then. We recorded about six tracks. I went off to Israel. Rachel called me and told me that a label wanted to put out the record.
AL: Since you did this solo record, many people wonder about the state of Mojave 3. Are you going to do any records as a group in the future?
NEIL: We (Mojave 3) are doing a record right now. We started it in January and we will finish it over the summer. It should be out in January 2003. Sleeping on Roads is a record I did with a bunch of friends recorded at home. It was produced by Nick Holton who was a friend at school. I just wanted to do something different.
AL: Do you write all the songs in Mojave 3?
NEIL: I wrote all the songs on the solo record. On the last Mojave 3 record Ian and Rachel wrote some songs. I do music with Nick quite a lot. We just fuck around. We have always done music together.
AL: Do you write music first or lyrics first?
NEIL: Some of the songs are four years old. I write songs all the time. Some songs make it on a Mojave 3 record and some don't. There was not a big plan behind it. I would go over to Nick's and have a few beers and then we would record a few tracks. Most of the songs are written with me just playing acoustic guitar. If I am in a situation where I need some lyrics, I will sit down and write something, and go and record it. Once you get the basic idea of a song down, then you think about whether you want other things going on.
AL: You have been touring for a while now?
NEIL: I came to the USA for two weeks and then I went to Europe for a few weeks. Now I am doing a month here in the states that will be followed by a month tour in Europe. I might play a few festivals in Europe this summer. And I might come back here too. The shows have been really good. People are generally there to see you play. They seem like they are really into the new music. I like touring and I like being in different places.
AL: Do you get to see a lot of the cities?
NEIL: No, because you are traveling and doing soundchecks and interviews during the day. Whatever free time you have is spent doing laundry. I just got off the plane. Occasionally you can see some sites if you have a day off. I have Ian with me on this tour to drive and to sell T-shirts. He makes sure that we have some beers to drink. I don't have a set list Sometimes you are up there on stage and your mind is a blank.
AL: There is one song on the album called "Driving With Bert" that is a reference to Bert Jansch. Why did you write about him?
NEIL: The song is not really about Bert Jansch. The guitar style on the album is reminiscence of stuff by Bert Jansch. The song is really about the end of a relationship. The songs speak for themselves. They are all stories and they are very specific. They are about sad things or people I have known. Anything is appropriate material for a song. For me, I tend to focus on relationships.
AL: The song "Seasons" is about surfing. Do you follow sport?
NEIL: No, I just love surfing. I am from a place called Cornwall and there is a lot of surfing there. There has been a big surfing scene there since the 1960s. There are some long sandy beaches and some long reefs. The end of the summer is always a good time to go out.
AL: What else inspires you?
NEIL: People inspire me. Books and films. I just read a book called Three To Kings by Magnus Mills. It was about this guy who lives in a tin house.
AL: Are there any bands that you have played with that you are also a fan of?
NEIL: Beachwood Sparks, Sid Hilman, and Turin Brakes. I usually watch all the bands that I play with. The audiences have been a wide range of young and old people.
AL: Do you use computers?
NEIL: Yeah. I always like tape but what you can do with computers and editing is just amazing. I think it's clever. It has lowered the cost of making records. It's like film. Anyone can just go out and make a record now.
AL: What do you think of the Nick Drake comparisons?
NEIL: I like Nick Drake but I don't think I am particularly influenced by him on this record. I think that people just hear an English guy playing acoustic music. That's the only common thing for me. I like other artists like Scott Walker and Johnny Cash. I like some country music. I like Primal Scream and The Stooges. I went through a phase when I was listening to a lot of techno. I like a lot of stuff on Warp Records. It was exciting when Drum & Bass was just starting.
AL: Does your family have an interest in your music?
NEIL: Yeah. They support that I do something that I like doing. They have come to shows. They loved it. My parents are retired. They were not musicians. My father was an electrician and my mum was a secretary. My sister is a classical musician. I used to read music. But I was never proficient as a musician. Anyone can play music. You just play it in your own style. Music is about feelings and emotion. You can write something beautiful and you don't have to be a brilliant technical musician to do that. You just have to have imagination to capture something vital.
-- Alexander Laurence