Neil Halstead, frontman of influential shoegaze outfit Slowdive and Mojave 3, describes his third solo album, Palindrome Hunches, as a “happy accident.” Over the phone from China, Halstead tells Hive: “I like the sound of the record and I like that it has a certain feel to it, even though I never knew it was what I want.” Though Halstead says he never had an aesthetic in mind, the artists he listened to while writing the album over the past few years, like Bert Jansch and Annie Briggs, have an obvious influence on its folky blend of English pop and Americana. And it was a greater coincidence that Halstead found his ideal backing band in Wallingford, England and stumbled into recording the album with them in a primary (i.e. elementary) school music room. Halstead proceeds with this kind of ease on the album too, even though the lyrics are some of his darkest. Here he speaks on the origins of Palindrome Hunches, recording in an elementary school and the sonic light at the end of the new record’s tunnel.
What’s the personal significance of palindromes? I read that you set out to write the title track so that it’d read the same backwards as forwards.
That was the idea but it didn’t work out that way. The song is a bad effort to do that, really. I like palindromes and think there’s something quite neat about them. Unfortunately, life isn’t always that neat.
How’d you decide to record the album in an elementary school?
I spent a really long time recording the songs in different ways and basically my friend Nick Holton, who ended up producing the record, said to come and record it with him and a bunch of guys that he knew in Wallingford, England, the town he lived in. I ended up jamming with the guys and thought it would be a cool idea to do the record with them. Nick’s kids were in school in Wallingford and we kind of looked for a studio close to where everyone was living but couldn’t find one and in the end it was like, “Well, fuck it. We’ll record in the primary school.” So we kind of snuck in one weekend, gave the caretaker a couple bottles of wine and some money, and set up with a tape player on a little desk in the school music room. Most of the record was done in four days. It was done pretty quickly. “Full Moon Rising” was done in one take.
What kind of different ways did you try recording the songs before you went to the school?
I tried to do it as a bedroom record over the last two years, but it wasn’t quite working. I really needed this to be done live and with a band, so a part of the jigsaw was getting that group of guys together to play and get an instrumentation that works for the songs. It’s quite minimal; there’s not loads of instrumentation but there’s enough there to give it some flavor.
Even though you wrote all of these songs at different points, they feel cohesive together. Are there themes that run throughout the record?
Relationships and faith. Time passing. It seems to me that it was a record where those things came up quite strongly. It’s kind of a darker record than I thought it would be. I wrote “Spin the Bottle” about myself and my wife and we split up a couple years ago. “Wittgenstein’s Arm” is inspired by reading about Paul Wittgenstein and their whole family and it was quite a dark story. His four brothers were killed; he had this crazy family that was ripped apart by war. The interesting thing to me was that he was this musician who lost his arm in the war and came back and became really, really famous as a one-armed piano player.
As dark as the songs on the record are, they never feel as though they were a struggle to write.
Some songs would come easier than others but I think, for me, part of the elegance of songwriting is that you don’t see the work behind the song. I like songs to appear that they’ve been easy but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were easy to write. I like songs like “Sandy” because it’s simple and I don’t see myself in that one as much.
Despite all of the darkness on the album, you’ve got a fairly upbeat song towards the end. What kind of space do you see “Hey Daydreamer” occupying on the record?
It’s a nice one to put on the end of the record because it’s fairly aspirational. It’s a real simple song and it’s basically saying, “I kind of want to be everything at once,” which is not really realistic but it’s a nice thing to aim for.