Yuki Chikudate, frontwoman for New York atmospheric rock combo Asobi Seksu, was just a piano-playing teen in Southern California when British singer-guitarist Neil Halstead released his first record with shoegaze heroes Slowdive in 1991. But after a few extracurricular lessons in Sonic Youth and Stereolab, Chikudate traded in classical for a decidedly noisier approach to music. Halstead, now the frontman for country-tinged Mojave3, has quieted down significantly. With Mojave 3's latest, Puzzles Like You (4AD), Halstead (along with Slowdive grads Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon, as well as Alan Forrester and Simon Rowe), rediscovers '60s AM-radio gold. But despite the differences between Puzzles Like You and Asobi Seksu's Citrus (Friendly Fire), Chikudate and Halstead still share a love for subdued vocals and bright, screaming guitars. Here we tighten the gap between their respective homes in New York and Cornwall, England with a telephone chat about atmospherics, arguments, and unexpected studio guests.
Yuki Chikudate: I was reading Rachel's [Goswell, vocalist for Mojave 3 and formerly Slowdive] blog and how she's having health issues with her hearing. Were you guys ever concerned with hearing loss back then?
Neil Halstead: No, we never really thought about it at all, to be honest. And I'm not sure that the problem Rachel has is caused by that. But I know that Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine suffers from tinnitus and stuff, and I think that's probably related to the volume they played at.
Yuki: Do you guys wear earplugs onstage?
Neil: No, no.
Yuki: Really? [laughs] You have no problems hearing at this point in your life?
Neil: I don't think so. People have more problems hearing me because I talk very quietly... I suppose, sort of stupidly, we didn't really think about it, probably because volume was something that really was a part of the experience for us.
Yuki: I've always felt that what made [Slowdive's] sound interesting was the blurring of all the instruments and the ghost tones and reverb, and I've always been curious about how you were able to balance that live.
Neil: The sound sort of came together live, really, with Slowdive. I remember when Christian [Savill] first joined the band, he kind of changed things because he had this crazy guitar sound. And from the very first rehearsal, everything just kind of gelled... I don't know what effect he was using, but it just sounded crazy–and it worked with what we were doing.
Yuki: Did you and Rachel have any problems hearing vocals onstage?
Neil: Yeah, we always had problems like that. We just sort of lived with it, and I think that the reason the vocals are always so quiet on the records is because we were used to the way it would be onstage–you'd never really hear a lot of the vocals [laughs].
Yuki: We have the same problem. People always complain and say 'We can't hear the vocals.' Did you hear that a lot [playing] live?
Neil: Well, we definitely hid behind the guitars and stuff, vocals-wise... [But] it was more about the noise of the whole band, and the guitars were almost more important than what was happening lyrically.
Yuki: I feel like we have to explain that to people, because they don't seem to understand that that's the point--not to hear every single note and word that I sing.
Neil: Everyone's kind of trained to pick the vocals out, because that's how records sound, you know? In the '60s, it was always just the drums and the vocals that would be loud. That's the way people hear music.
Yuki: Our guitarist read somewhere that you guys used solid-state amps. Was that to distinguish your sound from conventional rock guitar, and let the liquidy reverb become the focal point of the sound?
Neil: I'm not really sure how that happened. When we got our first advance, we just went out and bought a whole bunch of stuff, but up to that point we just had these little amps that we just turned up as loud as we could. I think Christian used Marshalls and I use Rolands a lot of the time, just because they seem to be able to deal with all the frequencies a lot better than other amps. I've never been too techy about stuff like that. It's kind of like, what you do is always dictated by your limitations, you know?
Yuki: Do you feel like there's a shoegaze revival with acts like Serena-Maneesh, M83, and Ulrich Schnauss? Do you know any of these bands?
Neil: I'm not really aware of whether there is or isn't a shoegaze revival, but I've noticed that people want to talk about it more now... It's kind of interesting because there was this whole bunch of bands that were around even before us, like Spacemen 3 and Loop and Bark Psychosis. I used to love them, and it's kind of weird because it's almost like no one talks about them now. I hope that those records are sort of rediscovered and people see them the way I kind of see them, [as] records that are doing something different and interesting.
Yuki: What morphed Slowdive into Mojave 3?
Neil: The last Slowdive record was very abstract; everything I'd been listening to was abstract, like Stockhausen and Neu! and all this weird kind of techno. [The record] wasn't very melodic; there wasn't any lyrical content to it. [Eventually we] just kind of OD'ed on that and rediscovered people like Leonard Cohen and Dylan and Hank Williams–just stuff that spoke to you really directly, music that had this kind of raw emotion. With Slowdive, we'd almost kind of reached a point where it was so abstract that it was hard to find emotion in it. So [Mojave 3 was a result of] just wanting to rediscover naivety in music.
Yuki: You guys are all old friends in Mojave 3. It must be great to work with people who you have a deep personal relationship with.
Neil: I've known Rachel since I was 12 years old or something. In fact, we used to go to the same primary school but I didn't know her until I was a bit older. It's kind of nice because we've all grown together, and I guess with Mojave we've been going for like 10 years now.
Yuki: Do you guys ever argue?
Neil: Yeah, obviously you do, but I think it's like anything–if you wanna get past it, you get past it, and if you don't, then you don't. But I think we've always kind of wanted to get past any arguments we've had. At one point, me and Rachel went out together. I think we were going out for two years, at the start of Slowdive, and that was really difficult when we split up. Actually, keeping the band together was really tough, but I guess you sort of figure [out], well, whether it's something you wanna do, whether it's important, you know?
Yuki: I heard that you initially tried to record Puzzles Like You in your own studio but that you had a bit of a mouse problem or something [laughs]?
Neil: We recorded the whole record in the studio, but there was a point where we were completely overrun with mice. It's in an old airfield and there's a lot of farm buildings there. We've always had a mouse problem but, for some reason, last summer it was just insane. There would literally be mice sitting on top of the speakers. The farmer was telling us we should poison them and we didn't really want to do that, so in the end we kind of got these humane trap things. They're probably infesting somewhere else now; we just released them down the road... On some of the really quiet vocal takes you could hear the mice squeaking in the background.
Yuki: So, you guys and mice are on the album. That's pretty awesome.
Neil: There's a dog on there as well. On one track, if you listen closely, you can hear barking.
Yuki: The studio we recorded in had a not-so-cute problem. We had a bedbug outbreak in the building. The whole time we were just so panicked and freaked-out...
Neil: Yeah, well, that's rock and roll.