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Baker's Dozen

A Document in Time: Neil Halstead Of Slowdive's Baker's Dozen
Joe Clay , May 3rd, 2017 10:11

With Slowdive reformed and about to release their fourth album (as well as playing Field Day and Roskilde), Neil Halstead tells Joe Clay about the gateway albums that influenced him the most. Photo by Ingrid Pop.

"It's a bit weird when you're suddenly back together," Neil Halstead is musing on life back in his alma mater, the shoegaze legends Slowdive, over a beer in the Strongroom Bar in Shoreditch, East London. "Initially it was like, what kind of record are we going to do? An ambient record or more of a band record? Doing the live shows was a really good way of getting back into the Slowdive mindset and trying to get some momentum – some kind of energy that could take us into making a new record."

That new record is the self-titled fourth Slowdive album, released on Dead Oceans this week, 22 years after their last, Pygmalion, hit the shelves. Slowdive is unquestionably a band record and a Slowdive record – it might be an unimaginative choice for an album title, but it reflects how the band have managed to recapture their distinctive and glorious sound despite the years apart. For diehard fans, it will be a familiar record. It sounds effortless, although, as Halstead reveals, the process of making the new record wasn't simple.

"I wouldn't say it was easy, but it was fun," Halstead says. He is sporting a thick biker's moustache and the laid-back demeanour of a man for whom surfing is a passion that comes a close second to songwriting. "It took a while for a direction to emerge, but it soon became apparent that it was going to be more of a band record than an electronic record, which is pretty natural because it was born out of doing the live shows."

After reforming in 2015, Slowdive returned to the White House Studio in Weston-Super-Mare, where they recorded their first demo, to jam and work on some ideas. Halstead would take these recordings back to his home studio in Cornwall and "mess around with it", and the band would then work on it together again. "It was a very collaborative process, but it falls to me to bring things together," he reveals.

Despite being prolific as a solo artist, Halstead was keen to come to the process without any pre-prepared material: "I didn't want to say, 'Oh here's a couple of songs I didn't use on the last solo record.' I think we all wanted to see what emerged from us as a band together."

The new album really started to coalesce when Slowdive went back to The Courtyard Studio – in Sutton Courtenay near Oxford – which is where they recorded all the previous records, other than the demo. Nothing much had changed. The layout was the same, even the sofas, and Chris Hufford – who engineered all the Slowdive Mk1 records – still owns the place. Halstead is keen to point out that working in familiar environments wasn't planned or necessary ("We didn't need to do it that way, but that was just how it happened"), but it seems obvious to an outsider that the band was hoping to tap into some of the old magic by returning to old haunts.

As is the case with a lot of bands getting back together after decades apart, it is the advances in technology that are the biggest change in the process of recording an album.

"It's a digital record, created in part through looping and stuff like that. Not in the same way Pygmalion was, it has more song structures," Halstead reveals. "We were imagining it as a piece of vinyl so it's structured that way. The problem with digital technology is that everything is limitless. It used to be that you could only do three takes of a song because you didn't want to spend too much money on tape. You'd have to use the best take. Now you can go on forever. 

 "The idea of a record being a document in time is quite important to us – now more so than ever. It grounds it in a way. To think of things as a record so songs have homes, rather than just being individual tracks that someone can download and stream. I know that's the way most people listen to music these days, but I still like to think of records as collections." 

On Slowdive, the band haven't ripped it up and started again. "I don't think we did that deliberately, but almost by necessity it has to be familiar to us so it becomes a way back into the Slowdive world," Halstead explains.   It's not all familiar though, there is progression. The band have matured in fine style.There's an urgency and directness to songs such as 'Star Roving' and 'No Longer Making Time' that wasn't present before, something that surprised Halstead: "You'd think it might have gone the other way, given that we're all a bit older."

And 'Falling Ashes', the stark, minimal closer, is a nod to something new. "It's something we wouldn't have done in the past," Halstead explains. "It's closer, I guess, to Pygmalion. Simon [Scott, drummer and ambient soundscape artist] was really instrumental with that one, in terms of layering some of the Max patch stuff, where it's ambient stuff filtering through laptops in real time. It's got a Steve Reich feel.   "To me it feels like a step-off point for us, for the future, and doing another record. It takes from different records that we've done in the past and has an eye for the future as well. We didn't go into it with any preconceptions. It had to find its own way and that's where it ended up. If we do another one, it will be different."

As well as the new album, I am meeting with Halstead to discuss his Baker's Dozen. Unlike many of the subjects for this slot, you get the impression that Halstead didn't agonise over his choices, instead settling on 13 records that were pivotal in his musical education.

"It's certainly not definitive, but they're definitely 13 important records from my life. All these selections are from the same period, from when I was 15, 16, 17, 18... when you're absorbing everything. It all comes at once. I think these are the gateway records for me – they spoke to me and opened doors."

Slowdive is released on Dead Oceans. The band appear at Field Day on Saturday 3rd June and Roskilde at the end of June. Click the image of Neil Halstead to begin reading through his list

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