Black Hearted Brother Return of Pedal Power

Black Hearted Brother Return of Pedal Power
Photo: Sabine Schekel
For years now, Neil Halstead has been hearing requests for him to put down the acoustic guitar and dust off his pedal board. These requests, demands, cries, etc, began for the former songwriter, singer, guitarist and producer of beloved shoegazers Slowdive ever since he dissolved the band in 1994 to go folk with his subsequent band Mojave 3 and later as a solo artist. The past few years has seen him answer questions about a Slowdive reunion with growing interest but also uncertainty, after initially scorning such an idea. For now, though, he seems to be keeping the diehard fans of his old cult band appeased with a new band. Considered by some as a supergroup, Black Hearted Brother finds Halstead teaming up with Seefeel's Mark Van Hoen and regular Mojave 3 collaborator Nick Holton to make some noise — literal noise, of the psychedelic, space rock variety. We spoke with Halstead via Skype to discuss his new project, but also check in and see how much closer he is to truly resurrecting that old project of his, the one no one can resist asking about.

After years of making intimate, acoustic music, what made you decide to go back to using all of those effects pedals with a band again?
There wasn't much of a decision really. This record was finished about two years ago. It was done as a bit of fun. To be honest, I don't think any of us knew how it would end up or sound like. I just started doing a few tracks with my friend Nick. We'd just have a few beers and end up making some music. At some point it became this little project, and we got Mark involved. It's always had its own life, and none of us really thought we'd make this type of record. The fact that it's not an intimate folk record is as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone, I suppose.

You have a long-time relationship with Mark. When did you two first meet, back when he was with Seefeel?
Mark's an old friend who's done a lot of work on some of the Mojave 3 albums. I guess Nick and I were just playing around with this stuff, and Mark has a great selection of old analog synths. So we initially thought to get Mark to add synths to this or just send him a couple of things. But I visited him out in New York and played him some of this stuff Mark and I had been working on and he was digging it. We literally just sent him files and left him to it. And then he just added stuff and sent it back. That's all it was. It was never this big plan to work together. It was quite an organic process.

You say it was sent in pieces to Mark. But when you listen to it, the album has more of a live off the floor feel. At least to me it does. But that isn't the case?
I'd say it was kind of like Chinese Whispers. I'd work on a track and send it through to Nick, and he'd totally fuck it up and do whatever he wanted to it. Then he'd send it off to Mark, who'd do something with it. By the time it got back to me it'd be oftentimes a totally different track than I initiated. And we'd all do that: Mark would start a track or Nick would start one. We would do this round robin thing. The only thing that Nick and I really talked about from the start was doing something unedited because we didn't want to edit the tracks much. Though they are edited in a sense that one person would take what another had done and swap it, move it around. I guess the idea was to keep it open so there would be specific focus for the record. It wasn't going to be a certain kind of record.

So, none of it was really done live. There were a couple of tracks where Nick and I played together initially. It's a real studio record, one that was made in three different studios. We were rarely together, other than some mixing for a week and a half. That actually didn't work out very well, and we abandoned most of those mixes. We ended up mixing the tracks individually. I suppose we couldn't have really done this kind of record ten years ago. Well, I guess you could have, but there would have been a lot of postage fees.

That makes a lot of sense now because the songs do sound a lot like three people coming up with very different ideas.
Yeah. We wanted it to be kind of expansive. I think we all feel like the stuff we do ourselves is quite focused, so I suppose we all need to expand our repertoire.

And there was no discussion about what kind of record you were making?
No, not really, because the record kind of built itself. To me it's a space rock record because it's a little zoned out and there are instrumentals, but we certainly never said, "Let's make this kind of record." We have so much in common as far as the music we love, so we definitely connected over how this record sounds.

I noticed you described some of the songs on the album as "shoegaze-y" in an interview last year.
For me there are definitely tracks where I got the pedals out, so I felt I could justify saying that. Whatever it means.

As someone who's been labelled a "shoegazer" over the years, I found it surprising to see you use the word.
I've been using it for a while now. I just find it hilarious that this term that was originally an insult in a review — which I don't remember well, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't of Slowdive — it's now become this accepted musical genre. I find it hard to take as a term. At least I understand what it means when someone says something is "shoegaze-y."

So is Black Hearted Brother a proper band? Will you do shows and a tour?
We're just trying to figure that one out. We're just out in Woodstock, NY trying to see how possible it would be to do it. I think we'd like to, it'd be a lot of fun. We're kind of in this weird situation where we're asking, "Is there an audience? Will anyone come?" We're definitely deciding whether we can do it.

You released Palindrome Hunches last year while you were making Black Hearted Brother. Is your solo folk music something you feel will remain your main project or do you see yourself returning to do more rock music with bands?
I don't know. We all really enjoyed making the record, so I hope we do some more stuff. But there really isn't a plan. I imagine we'll try and do some more stuff together sooner rather than later. The fact that we can make it work without having to be together is nice. That means there are always options to do it.

In 2008, you told me that a Slowdive reunion wouldn't happen because you couldn't see the point. And then last year you told MTV that there was a chance and that it was possible you could get back together. I know it was blown out of proportion and you've since said it was unlikely. A year later, how are you feeling about Slowdive reuniting?
We all get asked about it from time to time. We're still all friends who talk, and there have been some offers we've discussed. Everyone is up for doing it. It's just a case of whether we would. The question is what is the point? Why would we do it? Because it's kind of an exercise of nostalgia. But it would be nice to play together again. That part of it is really cool: getting up with those guys again. We were at school together, so it's not just about music for us, it's also about friendship as well. I guess it's always in the cards. No one has said they wouldn't do it.

Do you think you'd enjoy going back and revisiting those songs? Would it interest you to play Slowdive material?
I think I would definitely be interested in playing it. A lot of those songs are really special to me, but I'd obviously want it to sound good. I can't even remember the guitar tunings on most of those songs. I never play them. But it would undoubtedly be a real buzz to do them again. I just don't know. It's a weird thing, doing reunions.

Does seeing a band like My Bloody Valentine come back after all those years show that you can do something like that really well — both performing and releasing new music? Does that help motivate you?
Well I liked that they did a new record and that it was good. When I was a kid they were one of my favourite bands, along with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. So as a fan I was really happy they got back together. And I saw them play and they sounded good, if not better than they did back in the day. So I didn't have a problem with that in itself, as a fan of music. I guess there are people who say you shouldn't do it because it's not the same, you should just leave it in the past. But I think it's nice for people who never got to see the Valentines the first time back in the day.

I saw them play twice back in 2008 and they were great. And obviously they have amassed some new fans. I was talking to a girl the other day who's a Slowdive fan and mentioned that I saw you guys play back in 1994. She told me that was the year she was born. So, I'd say the same for Slowdive. You have found a new, younger audience interested in seeing you reunite and perform gigs.
I think that's cool. Toronto itself was always good to Slowdive. We always had great shows there. Your city had a lot of love for us, which was really nice. So, yeah, we shall see. I'm sorry I can't be more specific.

I also wanted to ask about Mojave 3, who have don't some recent gigs. What is the official word? Is the band on hiatus?
Yeah, we have a strange way of doing things. I guess we're on hiatus but occasionally we do play gigs. We were just in China two months ago. And we actually did some recording very recently, so we're kind of on the move a little bit. We're all right here and see each other quite often, so we talk about doing a record, then have a few more drinks, then talk more about doing a record. And then you forget about it until the next week. We've never really been a prolific band, but it would be nice to do another record. The last one was 2006 [Puzzles Like You]. If we can get one in before the ten-year mark that would be awesome.

What can people expect from your upcoming solo gigs in London that have people talking? [Slowdive singer] Rachel [Goswell] will be playing? Will that include both Mojave 3 and Slowdive material?
Basically it's just a solo show I'll be playing with the guys from Band of Hope, who played on my last album. And I asked Rachel if she'd like to come sing some Mojave songs, and a few Slowdive songs as well, and she was quite keen, which is great. We've not sung together since at least 2006. So they're two shows back-to-back. The original idea was to record them because I want to do a live record, so I can catch how they've been sounding. I've been doing solo shows and shows with the band, so I wanted to combine them and have a record of it. And then I was talking to Rachel and mentioned the shows and asked her to sing. The recording will depend on what goes down on the night of the shows, but if we like it it will be a record. So yeah, that's happening.