A Slowdive, a Locust and an Opulent Oog walk into a bar… “The plan was just to have some fun,” explains Neil Halstead, of his new supergroup.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Self- indulgence isn’t an alien concept as far as most musicians are concerned. Groupies, substance abuse and diva-like behavior don’t exactly add up to abstinence. Yet it’s rare to find artists who bow to their artistic ambitions as opposed to their bank accounts. So credit Neil Halstead — he of the British bands Mojave 3 and Slowdive — for giving imagination and spontaneity free reign, absent of any commercial concerns. Halstead teamed with frequent collaborators Mark Van Hoen (Seefeel, Locust) and Nick Holton (Holton’s Opulent Oog) for an experimental endeavor they’ve dubbed Black Hearted Brother, a loose trio whose initial offering, Stars Are Our Home, lives up to its title thanks to its cosmic trappings. Experimentation is a key component; Halstead, Hoen or Holton would demo a melody, send it on to the next man, who would add his ideas and then send it on to the next musician, who, in turn, would overlay his ideas and then send it back to the first guy, completing the circle of round-robin creativity.
“The plan — if ever there was a plan — was just to have some fun and just record without any edits, and give it free reign,” Halstead explains. “It was a kind of fun, interesting way to work. It was also open-ended because we were never focused too much on what the end result would be.”
Although the three musicians have known each other for many years, the music took awhile to gestate. Between his blossoming solo career and occasional work with the largely defunct Mojave 3, Halstead himself had more than enough activity to keep him busy.“We never even thought about it as a record we were going to release until much, much later on,” he insists. “We were just making the music to see where it went really. Most of this record was recorded two years ago, so it’s actually quite an old project at this point.”
We recently had an opportunity to chat with Halstead from his home in the U.K. He was only too willing to give us the lowdown on his past, present and maybe, just maybe, his future…
BLURT: Black Hearted Brother seems to boast no boundaries or expectations. Is that an accurate summation?
HALSTEAD: Yeah, exactly. One of us would get an idea started and then send it to the next person and they’d add their bits and send it along to the next person. It was like musical chairs. After one person would start it, it was pretty much unrecognisable by the time it had done the circuit and then it would kind of do the circuit again.
It sounds like a very fluid process.
Exactly. One of us would start with a very vague idea, just kind of a sketch. But the process wasn’t just about adding stuff. Oftentimes I’d be sent something and I’d leave all of it and send it on again. Or it would start out one way and it would end up with a different emphasis once it made the rounds. It was fun. It was very nice to hear your answer come back maybe completely different or reappraised or whatever, or even unrecognisable. (chuckles) I like surprises. It was quite exciting to get that little notice that there was a file awaiting me in my inbox from Mark. It was like, what am I going to hear this time?
Had you done anything like this previously? Was this common practice for you guys?
We’ve known each other for awhile, and we’ve messed around together in the past. Some of it’s been released and some of has not. Nick worked on my solo records and the Mojave stuff as well, but this particular process was a new one for us.
In light of the fact that you’ve known these guys for awhile, had there ever been any talk about putting a band together before?
No, not really. Nick’s always been involved in my music, and he’s always been there in support. But we’ve never actually discussed putting together a pop band. We’re meeting this week to see if we can actually go out and play this stuff live.
That will be an interesting proposition in light of the fact that this music was made so spontaneously. Won’t it be a challenge to recreate it in concert?
It will. I think it will be very good fun if we can do it. We’re literally going to get together and sit down and figure out if we can. We also have to see if we can afford to do it, and if we have enough time to get it together. So we’ll see.
What’s the state of Mojave 3 these days? Is that still an ongoing entity?
Well, yeah. We did a bit of recording about a month ago. It’s the first time we’ve done anything since 2006, other than a few gigs here and there. We’ve done a few gigs, but we haven’t been seriously active with the band for a long time… for no other reason than everyone has had other things happening, family stuff included…I don’t know. There judt hasn’t been that much interest from the band for much else, but we did manage to do a bit of recording and it was quite nice, so we may try to have a record out in the next year or so.
Your solo career seems to be at the forefront of your efforts these days. So when it comes to recording, how did you decide which songs would go towards the band and which material would be used on your solo records? Is there a clear divide?
Well, the original impetus for me to do my solo works was that I had a bunch of songs that weren’t being used by Mojave. And it still happens that way because there hasn’t been a Mojave outlet for me for the last seven years. And when we were active in Mojave, I’d write songs that were much more like folkier songs that probably wouldn’t fit into the Mojave canon. I’m always aware of whether a song would fit Mojave or not.
Your earlier band, the first that brought you to prominence really, was Slowdive, and they became closely identified with the whole so-called “slow-gaze” movement, that hushed, mellow, low-cast sound that set the precedent for so many other bands that followed in its wake.
I think there was a bit of a period after Slowdive where it felt like a bit of an albatross, and it was very hard to get away from that, and even though Mojave were making basically country records, there was still this comparison to Slowdive. But I feel quite lucky to be a part of something that has people still listening to the records, and it did seem to influence other bands. So I sort of feel like that’s really nice. So I actually don’t have a problem with it at all. Whatever name you put on it, it’s not really important I suppose.
It’s just that Slowdive was stereotyped with that particular distinction.
I think we all feel lucky that we were kind of a part of that and that we can maintain that status. It’s great. I’m still very proud of the records we made.
So how did you come up with the name Black Hearted Brother? That sounds rather ominous.
(laughs) I’m not really sure. I think that might be Mark. Our relationship’s been quite brotherly over the years. Mark’s always been the dark brother. As I tell Mark, I always hear dark, sort of atmospheric music just before he knocks on my door.
Cue the music! Yeah, that would be a forewarning.
It was kind of a jokey expression of our relationship I suppose.
So do you feel liberated by being a part of this band?
Yeah. I really enjoyed making the record. I think everyone did. I do feel it was quite liberating for me. It was good to feel like I could make certain noises on the guitar again. It was like, fuck it, I can do whatever I want to in this context.
Have you had any indication of how your fans might react to this? This is quite different from anything you’ve done before. Is there any concern that people might not get it?
No. If people get it, they get it. If they don’t, they don’t. That’s fine. I know there’s a contingent of people who have gone to the gigs and seen me play live. They’ve kind of made that journey with me from Slowdive and I hope those people will enjoy this record because it might take them back a bit to when we were all younger.
As I said, we never planned to make a record and put it out. We made a record and we’re putting it out now. I can’t really deal with the drama about whether people like it or not. It’s just music. If they like it, they like it.
Photo credit: Sabine Scheckel. An edited version of this interview appears in issue #14 of BLURT.