Having had a run-in with a speaking sign whilst running through the Whitechapel subway network in the wrong direction, glued to a mobile ‘phone as somebody Australian chatted at me (don’t ask), I arrived at the Arts Cafe in a State.
I was only a few minutes late, but in a city of diaries and diarisers, a few minutes can spell Doom.
Neil Halstead moved out of London for just such reasons and now wiles away the days surfing at Newquay, Cornwall – when he’s not meandering around the world with Mojave 3 or touring all on his own in support of debut solo album Sleeping On Roads.
As I pant and pontificate about lateness and lax time keeping, an aura of calm emits from Neil. “Drink your drink and chill out,” he suggests with a smile. His sound check over, we decamp from the tiny and noisy Arts Cafe to a nearby pub.
On our way, we bump into Mojave 3’s Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon. Neil’s forgotten to put them on the guest list and wanders back to the venue to sort it out personally. Before long he’s back and, with my breath slightly regained and our party now doubled in size, we finally get to the pub.
He’s back in London, performing a solo, for the second time in a month, so I wondered if Cornwall was too cold for him at this time of year.
“Live work is really the only way I get to promote my record, so that’s why I do it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I played in Spain a couple of weeks ago and I’m playing Amsterdam and Belgium, then the States a couple of weeks after that… and then London on 29th again.” A bit of a hardcore commuter, then. “I tend to live my life like that anyway,” he continues. “One of the things with living in Cornwall is you are driving or on a train a lot of the time.”
So why does he live in Cornwall? It can’t all be about surfing, surely… is the scenery inspirational for writing? “I hardly ever write songs there – I just really love surfing and it is probably the best place in England to surf. It’s really beautiful and there are good people…”
Very different to London, then? “I lived in London for six years and it got to the point where I just didn’t want to live here anymore. A) It was really expensive and B) I felt I burnt out a little bit.” The quiet life was sought and Cornwall provided it.
Anyone familiar with Mojave 3’s gentle musical pace would perhaps have difficulty imagining a Halstead burn-out. Prior to Mojave 3, his band was called Slowdive and produced a very different music. Neil’s burn-out time was around 1993, towards the end of the road for Slowdive. At the time, the band were signed to Alan McGee’s Creation Records. They found themselves label mates to Oasis – but the brothers Gallagher were rather more successful.
“That doesn’t bother me at all,” pipes up Neil. “Slowdive sold far more records than I ever imagined we would. I accept that Oasis and Slowdive were two totally different bands. Oasis is a pop band. We never intended to be that.”
The band changed personnel, label and name and Mojave 3 was born. Three albums later the band are looking stronger than ever, but now Neil is releasing a solo album. This begs the question: why?
“All of Mojave 3 being involved in Sleeping On Roads would have made it a Mojave 3 record, but since it was primarily just me and I guess Nick Holton, it is my record – and a bit of Nick’s record. He’s one of my best friends – we were at school together.”
Holton’s band, Coley Park, contributed to Mojave 3’s last record and are now gearing up to release their own album. On Sleeping On Roads, Holton is credited with “vibes” – and I suspected this was not an abbreviation of vibraphone.
“No, that was meant in a spiritual sense,” clarifies Neil. “He’s a decent bloke, a nice bloke to have around. He was involved in some of the instrumentation and production.” Holton isn’t involved in Neil’s live set, however. Neil is gaining a reputation as a reluctant performer, so touring solo seems like a brave decision.
“I do actually like playing live but I’m not very comfortable with it. I’m not naturally very good at getting up on a stage and performing, so a tour is a bit of a struggle for me. With Mojave 3 there are seven people if something goes wrong. But if you fuck up and you are on your own, it’s obviously just down to you. It’s going to be interesting dealing with that. I’ve always toured in bands and I’m going to be touring quite a lot on my own this year, yet what I like about touring is that you’re with this group of people…”
“If you’re still creative, you obviously want to go and make something better. But that’s human nature.” – Neil Halstead
It was Halstead of course, rather than Holton, who was responsible for writing every song on Sleeping On Roads. Like much of Mojave 3’s output, these nine tracks are largely about travelling to and from loved ones, or about relationships.
“Most of the time I write songs when I’m out and about touring,” explains Neil, “and that’s probably why so many of them are about travelling. I will occasionally write songs in Cornwall but I don’t particularly get inspired by the scenery, whether there are nice waves or a nice beach or whatever. A lot of my songs are about relationships I suppose, so often the people are more the inspiration for a song rather than places.”
Was there more than one relationship that inspired these songs? “Yeah!” he laughs. “I don’t spend my entire life writing songs about one person, but that would, I suppose be quite a romantic thing. But also a bit scary!”
See You On Rooftops starts with a lyric that could only have been inspired by just such a relationship, however. “See you on rooftops with stars in your hair…”
“My girlfriend was stood on a rooftop the first time I saw her,” he explains. “That was the image I had and it inspired the song.” What about the music? “I just sit down with a guitar and start working on a chord structure, then write a lot of lyrics really quickly. Very rarely do I write a song about something…” He ponders a moment. “Songs for me take a long time to finish. It starts very quickly but some of the songs on this record have been around for three or four years in various stages of completion.” That said, he doesn’t believe in demos. Recordings are made for real, not rehearsed.
But what did he make of the finished record? “I don’t very often listen to my stuff once it’s recorded, but if I do I’m usually surprised by either how crap it is or how good it is. Things I thought were bad at the time normally sound a lot better now and vice versa. In a way you’re torturing yourself listening to your own music, so I don’t think it is a healthy thing to do. You always move on and have different ideas about the way things should be. Usually at the time I record a song I’m happy enough with it, though.”
We get to how he started writing in the fist place. His electrician father taught piano part-time and lessons with him were Neil’s only musical education – but his ears were open. “I grew up with Bob Dylan,” he reminisces. “My parents listened to him a lot, so I knew his stuff early on. I don’t know if he influenced me directly or indirectly.”
Aside from Dylan, various critics have compared Halstead to Tim Buckley and Nick Drake, perhaps inevitably. These comparisons do not impress Neil. “Tim Buckley is a totally different artist to Nick Drake so I wouldn’t compare the two,” he says. “So if I read a review that says I sound like Dylan/Drake/Buckley then, like, which one? They’re all totally different. There’s a similarity – anyone who plays a guitar and sings is obviously like them!”
However well Sleeping On Roads does in terms of critical response or unit sales, Mojave 3 fans needn’t worry; there’s likely to be another Mojave 3 record out around September. “We started a couple of months before Christmas. There are a few songs that are complete.”
What of another Neil Halstead solo album in the future?
“If you’re still creative, you obviously want to go and make something better. But that’s human nature. You might build tables for 10 years, but every time you build a table you want to make a better one. Maybe you don’t – but I think that’s what people are like.”
What if he was to suddenly give up music (ye gods forbid); what would he do instead?
“I’d love to surf professionally. That is just the ultimate. I totally accept that I have a good job, though. I suppose the only other thing I have done and can do is work in a bar, so as long as I can keep doing music I probably will do – or I’d have to be a great barman.”
As a selection of Neil’s friends gather around, I ask him how he’d like to be remembered.
“With a certain amount of compassion. I hope that my friends will still be my friends when I die.”
Neil Halstead’s album Sleeping On Roads is out now through 4AD. Tour dates and further information can be found at neilhalstead.com