ABOVE: BLACK HEARTED BROTHER
This year marked the 20th anniversary of Slowdive’s beloved dream pop masterpiece, Souvlaki, which meant it was due for a glossy, overstuffed reissue, the requisite reunion tour, and a flurry of press appearances. Except none of that ever surfaced. Neil Halstead instead spent the better part of the last 12 months in repose, after tours for his most recent solo album Palindrome Hunches came to a close. Well, repose, and making another record. Recorded with the aid of the Internet and a couple of long-distance friends in Nick Holton (Coley Park) and Mark Van Hoen (Seefeel, Locust), Black Hearted Brother’s first LP Stars Are Our Home sputtered into existence. Seemingly beamed from days of neon-plaited psychedelia in the Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized model, the trio’s constructions hew more closely to the work that each was doing in the early ’90s than to any of the divergent paths their solo careers have tread.
On an early October afternoon, we met up with the reunited diasporic trio over a cup at Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Roebling Tea House. Halstead, Holton, and Van Hoen recounted the early days of their decades-long friendship and detailed the motivations for this new collaboration.
COLIN JOYCE: What sparked Black Hearted Brother as a recording entity?
NEIL HALSTEAD: Nick and I have been friends for a long time. We’d always do little bits of recording together when we saw each other. Pre-Mark[‘s joining the band], my memory doesn’t exist, really. I remember when we got Mark involved, we thought he’d make sense of a few ideas we had.
MARK VAN HOEN: Neil came over to visit at my house in Woodstock. He showed me eight tracks, four of which ended up on the record. For some of the tracks, I’ve done nothing, and on others, everything. The earlier tracks were more of Neil and Nick than me, where on others my contribution was more integral. The main reason we did it at all was because we’ve all been making music together in various guises for many years.
JOYCE: When did you all first meet?
HALSTEAD: Nick and I went to school together.
VAN HOEN: I met Neil in London in ’92 or ’93.
HALSTEAD: It was earlier than that, like ’91. When I moved up to London, I moved in with Daren Seymour from Seefeel.
VAN HOEN: There were a lot of late nights. We’d just hang out and go to shows and smoke a few or whatever.
HALSTEAD: We ended up sharing a house a few years later. Pygmalion [Slowdive’s last record] was made there.
VAN HOEN: We made a lot of records there.
HALSTEAD: I remember our landlady was always turning up with plaster casts and a neck brace. She was pretty scary. She kept our security deposit as well.
NICK HOLTON: And Neil left all his clothes on the washing line.
HALSTEAD: I washed everything because I was moving down to Cornwall, but I left in such a rush that I left almost all of my clothes on the washing line [laughs].
JOYCE: So it wasn’t long before you started making music together.
HALSTEAD: Nick and I have always messed around with stuff. Most of it has never seen the light of day, but he’s helped on a lot of Mojave 3 records and all of my solo records in some capacity.
HOLTON: Likewise Neil has helped me with my Coley Park records. And we’ve always done all sorts of writing in between.
HALSTEAD: We’re a little support network in that way. Mark, too, has worked on Mojave 3 records, and he’s done remixes here and there.
HOLTON: Mark and I used to be really big fans when Neil started doing Mojave 3. It was quite unique at the time, that whole stripped-down approach.
VAN HOEN: I absolutely loved the last Slowdive record, and I was sad that he lost all of the electronic stuff, but the songs were amazing. I tried so hard to hate it, but I couldn’t.
JOYCE: Was it clear when you all started working on these songs what the shape of the songs was going to be, or did that take some figuring out?
HOLTON: That was the exciting thing.
HALSTEAD: We wanted it to be open-ended, nothing too focused.
VAN HOEN: We all make records exactly as we want to make them, and we’d all decided that we’d had quite enough of that. We will all continue to do it, but you don’t feel you have to put your own stamp on this individually. You can just go with the vibe of it, like, “Oh, it’s not exactly what I do myself, but it’s great.” It’s something different.
HOLTON: You wanted something unexpected. Often the tracks would come back completely different. There were one or two cases with Mark where we’d get his track back and I could never see it coming.
JOYCE: Was it tough working in that mindset?
VAN HOEN: Not really. We’re not like kids who are precious about making it exactly what we wanted it to be. We’ve done that already.
HALSTEAD: It would be a case of one of us starting something and sending it off to the next person and the next, and then you’d think, “Okay, what the fuck happened.” You’d readjust. At a certain point, it’d be clear that the song had found itself or a structure. I really enjoyed it as a process. It was way different than how I’d work in a studio with other musicians. The time between, too, where it’d go off and then come back, made it like getting a really nice letter in the post.
JOYCE: Were there any songs that made particularly striking transitions?
VAN HOEN: “I Don’t Mean to Wonder” made a big change.
HOLTON: Every once in a while you’d have a song that wasn’t quite working, and you’d salvage what you could and maybe even nick some bits from other songs and put it all in together to make psychedelic odyssey.
HALSTEAD: There were a few that seemed to appear in thin air. I wouldn’t know where the idea for the track that I got back originated from.
JOYCE: This record is a pretty big jump from the music that you all have been doing lately…
VAN HOEN: That was the idea. We fancied a space rock album.
HALSTEAD: And it is a pretty indulgent record in a lot of ways. I like the fact that we’ve made that.
HOLTON: We could’ve gone further though.
VAN HOEN: The five-LP box set.
HALSTEAD: When we compiled the album, we left a lot of songs off.
JOYCE: It was a surprise in a lot of ways. It’s not what i expect hearing from you all in 2013. It sounds like the product of influences from a long time ago.
HOLTON, HALSTEAD, VAN HOEN: Yeah.
HALSTEAD: Definitely some influences like Spacemen 3 and Loop, and all that krautrock, is something that I haven’t let into my music in a long time.
VAN HOEN: It is in a way like going back. The most profound musical influences are when you’re young. You still get influenced when you’re a bit older, but when you’re in your teens particularly, it’s really profound. It never really leaves you.
HALSTEAD: It’s like your first love affair, isn’t it? The music that first hits you really sticks with you.
HOLTON: For me, it was about making choices I was uncomfortable with. I wish we had done even more of that.
JOYCE: By that same token, it seems like this album is very conscious of not being retreads of ideas you’ve had before.
HOLTON: The songs lead the way, don’t they?
HALSTEAD: I never worried about it being a shoegaze record or turning into one of Mark’s very dark electronic records. I never worried that it would happen. I was always just happy to see where it went. We never were even sure we were making this record to put it out.
HOLTON: That’s how Neil has always worked on his records, though. He never says, “This record is going to be like this.” I’m certainly the same. You follow the music.
HALSTEAD: But this is even more open-ended, because of the process.
JOYCE: Is it rewarding to get back to some of those things that haven’t cropped up lately?
HALSTEAD: It’s really nice. It’s quite liberating, really. It’s nice to play noisy guitars on a record. I really enjoyed that.
JOYCE: It seems to be a more creatively fruitful way to revisit the ’90s than to just do a reunion tour with your old bands.
VAN HOEN: Yeah, definitely. I suppose that Seefeel is still going, not that I was even in the band when they were releasing records. But I know that Neil has had a lot of requests.
HALSTEAD: We’ve just never been offered enough money! Once that happens we’ll be out there, don’t worry about it [laughs].
JOYCE: Since you started this project with the intention of a low-pressure, open-ended situation, how have your goals shifted as time has passed?
VAN HOEN: Personally, I’d like to do another record, however this one does. We did a couple of tracks in two weeks and it made me realize we could do it a hell of a lot quicker. We had a whole 18-month period where Neil did his solo record; it didn’t take a full four years to do it.
HALSTEAD: It’d be really nice to do a few shows. The songs would go somewhere else live. I think that’s the next challenge.
STARS ARE OUR HOME IS OUT TODAY. FOR MORE ON BLACK HEARTED BROTHER, VISIT ITS WEBSITE.