The Brushfire Fairytale of a Former Shoegazer

Neil Halstead makes a British folk record for surfers.

Here's some full-circle shit for you: On his first American tour back in 1992 with his old band, Slowdive, Neil Halstead went surfing for the very first time when some fans at the group's Los Angeles gig enticed him to taste some waves the following morning at Huntington Beach. And now, the 37-year-old singer-guitarist is touring the U.S. behind his second solo album, Oh! Mighty Engine, just released on Brushfire, the label owned and operated by surfer and mellow-pop superstar Jack Johnson.It might seem like an odd friendship and business collaboration—the pale, shy, ex-shoegazing Brit and the perpetually tan and shoeless frat-boy favorite—but strong is the bond between dedicated surfers, and Halstead is most definitely that."In surfing you have what's called tube riding, when you're actually in the barrel of the wave, and it's the perfect symbol of living completely in the moment," he says over breakfast in New York City, the morning after playing the closing day of the All Points West Festival that was co-headlined by Johnson and Radiohead. "You have the past disappearing behind you and you're looking at the future right in front of you and you're racing toward it, and it's a really beautiful feeling. I've always tried to get that out of it. It's a great way to lose your earthbound worries and just enjoy the moment. There's something meditative about it, and I think there's a point when you're playing music and you're in that same state as well."It's not difficult to see how Halstead might have arrived at those moments during his Slowdive days, what with all the waves and swells of lovely, blissful guitar noise engulfing him. But, he notes, he gets the same feeling from playing the comparatively placid, primarily acoustic tunes that have become his hallmark in recent years. That evolution wasn't quite so abrupt, of course. Between Slowdive and now there was Mojave 3, formed in 1995 from the ashes of Slowdive, whose increasingly country-dappled pop-Americana reflected Halstead's deep interest in the likes of the Flying Burrito Brothers and solo Gram Parsons. Although there's a bit of that sound in Oh! Mighty Engine, the new disc—much like Halstead's 2002 solo debut, Sleeping on Roads—plays more like a uniquely British folk album straight out of the late '60s or early '70s. Within the airy, wistful mingling of nylon-stringed guitar and barely-there touches of piano, mandolin, pedal steel, and shaken percussion linger the ghosts of nascent Bert Jansch and Donovan; add Halstead's breathy, pensive voice to the mix and those long-standing Nick Drake comparisons become even more acute.Halstead and Johnson first became acquainted not long after Sleeping on Roads came out, when mutual friend Thomas Campbell, who made the 2004 surf movie Sprout (its soundtrack, released on Brushfire, featured a Mojave 3 track) introduced the pair. After hanging out and surfing a lot, "We stayed in contact and he always said 'If you wanna do a record, we'd love to help out,'" says Halstead. "As it happened, last year the deal with 4AD Records had finished, and I ended up going out and using Brushfire's studio for 10 days and recorded the new album. It was all pretty loose, and it all worked out really nicely in the sense that I'm happy that they've put it out. I like what they're about, and there's a lot of mutual respect there."After Oh! Mighty Engine's July release, Halstead spent a few weeks as a support act on Johnson's big summer shed tour before splitting off into his own headlining club tour. "It's kind of a new position for me, having this new label and being able to jump on Jack's coattails a little bit," he chuckles. "He's got such a huge audience, and probably 99 percent of them never, ever heard any of my music, so it's nice to feel like you're playing to some new faces as well as those people who have always been really supportive. I've seen people so many times at gigs over the years, and obviously that core is what's kept me going over the years, and that's completely amazing. Seeing them is like seeing old friends."Some of those old friends are curious whether Mojave 3 is finished. It's not, Halstead insists, explaining that its members are all working on individual projects and all hope to convene "soon" to make another album. And in the wake of the recent reunions of such seminal shoegazer-era bands as My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver, others are wondering if Halstead has any interest in reforming Slowdive."I don't have a problem at all with people asking about that, and I'm glad that people still like Slowdive," he demurs. "But I feel that I still have a lot of creative energy, and I'd rather use it to create something new than go backwards."

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