Neil Halstead on bands, Brushfire, and beards
By Andrea Warner
Neil Halstead’s been around long enough as a working musician — almost 20 years now — to see his whole world come full circle: His first band, Slowdive, which broke up in 1995, was one of the prime exponents of the early-’90s “shoegazer” movement, whose neo-psychedelic sound is currently enjoying a revival among a spate of up-and-comers. Taking a break from current band Mojave 3, Halstead’s latest solo disc, the folky, acoustic-based Oh! Mighty Engine, was released by Brushfire Records, Jack Johnson’s label. Halstead’s taking the opportunity to play a few solo shows while opening for Johnson on his North American tour, and he checked in with WE from Kansas.
Do you remember the first music you heard that really inspired you to write songs?
Well, I suppose from a really young age I was a huge Beatles fan; from 12 or 13, I would just play Beatles records over and over again. The bands that really captured me as a teenager were the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Smiths, the Cure, and then, later on, bands like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr.
I’m always interested in hearing about people’s reactions when they first picked up a guitar or sang in front of people.
I was always really shy and still am, I suppose, but it was always a bit of an effort for me to get on stage and play guitar. I would imagine the first time it was probably a very uncomfortable experience — probably for me and for everyone else.
A lot of the interviews I’ve been reading about you lately have been asking you about the re-emergence of shoegazer, but a lot of music tends to borrow from each other and influence other sounds. How do you feel about that?
Well, uh, I don’t really care. (laughs) I think it’s great if people are influenced by Slowdive or whatever. I mean, it’s nice if we’ve influenced some bands that are around today. And the stuff I’ve heard sounds great. I like it, but it’s not something I’m keeping a close eye on, I have to say.
How is touring on your own different than being part of a band?
To be honest, it can get quite lonely. The last solo [album] I did, I did three tours in America, and I think if you are completely on your own, I found it a bit depressing. I try to make sure I go out with at least one other person now. Oddly enough, it was different in Europe: I did a tour by train in Europe, on my own, and it was sort of more romantic rather than depressing. But there’s a fine line between the two.
Are there a lot of differences being on Jack Johnson’s label, compared to what you’ve experienced before?
I guess the main difference is that you’re on a label with friends, whereas before it was just kind of a business thing. With Brushfire, we’ve known these guys for a long time and are basically buddies, and it feels more low-key but more fun.
You’ve been called one of Britain’s greatest songwriters. What do those kinds of accolades mean to you?
Um, well, I always get weird ones. Like, one I got was “Britain’s best-kept secret,” and I just kind of think, well, why write that about someone? It’s kind of nice, but I’d prefer not to be a best-kept secret, you know? It’s nice if you get good reviews and stuff, but I feel like I’ve been doing it a really long time, and I’ve always just done it because I can’t do anything else.
I was looking at pictures of you from a few years ago versus now, and the most prominent feature that seems to have changed is this beard. I was wondering what your beard says about your record.
(Laughs) I don’t know. I’ve just let myself go, basically. For me, beards are like a seasonal thing — it’s a winter thing, and this one just strayed over to summer, and I’m at that point where I can’t really shave it off right now because I’ll just look silly, because it has a big white patch under it, so I’ll have to see it through for a while. ￼