Back in the beautiful, peaceful, idyllic paradise known as Haleiwa, Hawaii, on the North Shore of Oahu (one of my favorite places in the world), is a small independent label called Brushfire, run by surfer and songwriter Jack Johnson. Extrememly diverse, the label provides a home to the most unlikely acts and seemingly unrelated musicians. The following two interviews are with artists both signed to Brushfire– and honestly they couldn’t be more different in style.
Neil Halstead, founding member of the now defunct British shoegazing band Slowdive, and the every now and then reborn alt-country band Mojave 3, Halstead has moved from 4AD to Brushfire where he has released his last two solo recordings. Somber, acoustic and existential, he seems especially far removed from our second Brushfire artist interviewee– the pioneer and continuing purveyor of hip hop/blues, G. Love.
After conducting these interviews, I realized there is one thread that ties both artists and the label owner together– despite being from Britain, Boston and Hawaii– they are all surfers. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Part 1: Neil Halstead
From his pedal-pushing days in the spaced out, shoegazer band Slowdive, to his more grounded acoustic folk rebirth with the Mojave 3, Neil Halstead’s music has changed dramatically over his 23 year career. But, whether cosmic or country, there has always been an underlying somber, soothing and dreamlike quality that links his songs together. While they were once hidden by distance and distortion, his heartstrings now ring out as if they were strung across his acoustic guitar.
After five records with the Mojave 3, and still an occasional tour, Halstead has taken the band’s indefinite breaks to focus on his solo career. Even more stripped down, his country-folk style and imagery could easily be considered Americana, except for the fact that he’s British. Halstead’s calm and hushed delivery evokes a sentimental reverie, sincerity and melancholy. There’s a bit of hope and a lot of truth. I interviewed Halstead back in the fall before his US tour. His interview was short, relatively shy and not overly informative, but I love his work just the same.
Where are you right now?
I’m actually just in Reading. I was in London last night.
Are you still living out that way?
I live in Cornwall, which is about as south and west as you can go in England. It’s like the little toe at the end of the boot.
Can you explain the name and concept of the album title Palindrome Hunches?
I’d like to, but I don’t know what it means. I guess I like the idea that it’s a contrast of a palindrome where everything works out. Essentially that was it. It was one of the songs on the album, and I guess it just came from that.
Is there sort of a connection between the songs on the record?
I think that they all sit together in a similar mood. There are songs that are a little darker than the songs on the last album. They all sit together in a darker space.
Is there any particular reason for the darkness?
I think that’s just the way the songwriting went. A few of the songs are a little older, so they’re not all written at the same time period. They are a bit quite personal and they reflect certain changes in my life.
Are you in these songs? Are your songs biographical?
Yeah, for me songwriting is always about expressing yourself. So that’s me in the song. I suppose in some ways, the darker songs can be a darker take on my life. Then there are songs like “Wittgenstein’s Arm” [A pianist who lost his arm in World War I, but continued to play] which I was really inspired to write after reading about his family and their story.
The album has sort of an autumn feel. Was there any conscious decision to release this at this time?
No, actually I wanted to get it out much earlier—a year and a half now actually. It’s taken ages to get ready. I didn’t really think about the season, but you’re right– it kind of works.
Where did the idea for the limited packaging come from?
I guess it’s because I like to fill up a lot of notebooks. So we scanned some of the stuff and did something different. We did it like a notebook and I think it looks quite nice.
What is the significance of the artwork, the owls with bars over their eyes?
Yeah, I just found the image. I guess it was printed in the turn of the century. It seems to suit the idea of the record a bit. There’s the idea about the owls being wise and it seemed symbolic to mess with it a little bit.
Are you still an active surfer?
Yes. I surf as much as I can. Cornwall is the main part of England for surfing.
Traditionally surfers who sing tend to be happier. You seem to be one of the sadder surfer songwriters.
I’m not quite sure about that. They can’t all be happy. But maybe they are. I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. That could be true.
Have you ever based a tour around surfing?
Unfortunately not. I haven’t been able to do that. Maybe one day.
What is the official state of the Mojave 3?
I’m not sure we have an official status. We just did a few shows in China that were fun. We want to do another record, but we haven’t gotten around to it yet. Hopefully this year.
Did you say China!?
Yeah, we played in China a month ago.
How did that come to happen?
I think we all just thought it would be fun. I think everyone was keen to go and see China, play some music and do some gigs. We managed to get everyone and make it work.
Were they familiar with your work out there?
Yeah, for some reason Mojave 3 seem to be quite popular there. It was nice; we got really well looked after.
Looking way back, how did you decided to change your sound so drastically from Slowdive to the Mojave 3?
Well by the time I did the last Slowdive record I was about 24. The last record is really super ambient and experimental. Everything was built on loops and samples and it was a bit of a cold record. I took a break after that and I felt like I wasn’t into music anymore at that point. I felt like I needed to be re-energized and learning to play acoustic guitar and learning to play country songs was a way back into music for me because it was so different from what Slowdive was about.
The Mojave 3 seems like it could be described as an Americana band, but you’re from Britain. And in your solo work, you seem to mention specific places in America. Do you feel an affinity for the US?
To be honest the song about Kansas City is about meeting a girl at a bar in Kansas. As I said, most of the songs are about things that actually happened.
Do you think touring America has provided you with inspiration more so than Europe?
For me traveling is a big part of being a musician and it becomes a big part of your life. You did inspired by traveling wherever you go.
Do you ever miss electric guitars and distortion?
Yeah. I did some projects with some friends with big loud guitars last year, so I got it out of my system for now. But it’s good to mix it up for sure.
Have you received offers to reunite Slowdive?
Yeah. Sure. It’s a big part of the music industry these days. They are feeding off their own paws. The people with the money will never let it go free because it’s another way to sell you the same old shit. Maybe one day.
Part II: G. Love and the Special Sauce
Twenty years ago, after moving from Philadelphia to Boston, G. Love’s [born Garrett Dutton] musical career quickly rose from the streets and subway stations to regular club gigs that eventually landed him a record deal that brought him back to Philly.
After Mark Sandman of Morphine got G. Love a weekly gig at the Plough and Star in Cambridge, interest from record companies soon followed. The headstrong 20 year-old who started merging hip-hop with his Dobro guitar and Delta blues had created a signature blend of musical stylings very unique for the time.
Two decades later, G. Love is back living back in Boston. Nine LPs and several EPs deep, he is now signed to Brushfire Records, Jack Johnson’s label, a person who Dutton frequently collaborates with, and even had as a special guest on his record when Johnson was still relatively unknown. Ladies and gentlemen, G. Love.
Is this G.? Happy New Year!
Yeah, Happy New Year.
I’ve been in Boston long enough and have always been curious what brought you up to Boston in the first place and how you made it as a musician up here?
Well, when you get off the phone, you should check it out. I just put a blog up today about when I first met Jeff, the drummer and when we put the band together. It’s a pretty cool little piece. Basically I moved up there in ’92 and was a musician in Philly and went to school for a year up at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs. Basically a year after college, I wanted to get out there and get a band together and really do something with my music. I moved to Boston because, other than Montreal, I knew it was one of the only places you could get a permit to be a street performer. That was the first time I came to Boston, you know, I got a ride up there and went to Inman Square to get a permit to play in Harvard Square. I moved up and found a room in Jamaica Plain and I used to get on the 39 bus to Copley Square and hop on the Green Line to the Red Line with all my fucking shit. I looked like a homeless person, I had this cart with a folding chair, my amp, a mic-stand and all my gear and my guitar. I would wear a sear-sucker suit with Pumas with the fat laces and a sign and shit. It was pretty competitive out in Harvard Square and I wouldn’t make too much money, but I got my shit together and that led to some solo shows at the Middle East Bakery and the old Rathskellar in Kenmore Square, and then eventually I was opening up for a bunch of other street musicians at the Tam O’Shanter in Brookline and met my drummer there that night and we put the band together. Once we got our deal and hit the road… I mean Boston’s a really transient place. Everybody comes and goes. Back in the day, it was us, Jasper and the Prodigal Sons, and this band called Powerman 5000… and Morphine as well of course. Everybody kind of hit the road and then when I come off the road, everyone was gone. So I went back to Philly, where I was from. Then years later, on a night off in Boston, I went to see my new drummer’s ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend’s band and I met this chick and we ended up having a kid together and living in Philadelphia. When that didn’t work out, she moved to Boston. Now, I live in Boston and have been here for about 6 years or so. So I live here now, again.
Really!? I had no idea. You’re probably on the road most of the time. I feel like I would have seen you on the streets.
Not really. I’m home a good deal. We tour like 100-150 shows a year these days and I travel a bunch when I don’t have my boy, but I love Boston. It’s a place where I get down with my music and do a lot of shedding and I find it to be such a useful place because there are so many people who are here to learn music– and I can tap into all that music and those thousand different practice rooms where everyone’s getting it together and stuff. I feel that energy, you know?
Obviously you still have a big place in your heart for Philadelphia. The last time I was in Fishtown it seemed like it’s becoming the next Brooklyn.
Yeah, it’s funny because I think a lot of people from Brooklyn and other places in New York who are successful move down to Philly because it’s so much cheaper. There’s a good scene going on there. It kinda slowed down in the early 2000’s because of the economy, but last time I was there, I thought Philly is really popping off right now and that’s cool.
Over the years, do you feel like you’ve seen a change in your sound and your music? When you look back at your first record, do you see that as a dramatic change as to the music you record today?
Well, it’s funny. It’s our 20th year right now. We started out with our first and second record and were very lucent of what we do. But over the years we’ve messed around with a bunch of styles and recording styles, but part of what we do stylistically and especially live, deals a lot with what we did on the first record. Actually, the last record we did, Fixing to Die, was really a tilt of the hat back to the time before I met the band, when I was really immersed into the Delta Blues and folk music and Bob Dylan. I think the next record is going to be back into the more familiar territory of blending the hip-hop and blues. I think that’s because of the confidence we felt with the last record—a really roots record—I think that the next record the recording style will continue to be really blues oriented and raw, and honest. Right now in the studio, I just want to make really honest and raw music without getting caught up in producing and stuff like that. My manager put it in a really good way… we’re in a really good position right now because we don’t need a radio hit and don’t need any commercial aspirations because no one really sells records anymore. We make our living on the road and we can write songs and be in the studio and it can all be about the music and the purity of the expression. Of course, as a writer, you always want to come up with some catchy shit that people want to hear, but just because it’s catchy, doesn’t mean it can’t be raw and dirty. For me there are no rules right now. It’s just about making amazing records. We’re gearing up to hit the studio in the spring.
What do you think about the term and genre “Blues/hip-hop”? Does that satisfy you as a category? Is there a better way to say it?
Well, you could say hip-hop/blues [laughs]
Right, right. But do you find that a strange term?
Well, no, because I made it up! [laughs]
Okay, that leads me to the next question… When you began, did you know of anyone doing anything similar to your style of blending hip-hop and traditional blues or do you see yourself as the originator?
Well I really believe that. I remember the exact moment that I stumbled upon it and I was playing on the street in Philly and I finished playing this sort of driving blues groove of mine, and it was just a two-chord jam like G-to-B, nothing fancy—and I just started rapping these lyrics from Eric B. and Rakim “Paid in Full” track over the groove I was playing and it just sort of happened and it worked. I was like, “damn that’s some shit right there!” and later that week, I wrote my first rap, “Rhyme for the Summertime”, which is on my first solo record. And that really was kind of an epiphany for me. That was back in 1991 or 1992 and I was like “oh shit, there’s no other white kid on the street playing Dobro and rapping I bet, anywhere in the world. Actually the next year I was out in Harvard Square and there was this kid up there and I saw him rap this De La Soul song, “Me, Myself and I”, and I thought that was pretty cool. But when we went to get our deal. We had a producer and after we made some demos, we went out to LA to meet with Columbia and he said, “hey we have some bad news. There’s another white kid rapping and playing guitar.’ I was like “how can that be?” And I asked, “What’s the kid’s name?’ and they said some guys name Beck or something. And they’re giving him the deal at Columbia. But a couple months later we signed our own deal at Epic and the first year, when both our records dropped, everyone was comparing the two of us. And I never even met the guy. We’ve only played one gig together at a Belgian Festival. One thing about Beck, and one thing that we thought was different between the two of us… yeah, his records were awesome and super raw, but a lot of it was looped, and more traditional hip-hop recording. What we were doing was something way different from all other hip-hop at the time, except maybe Rage Against the Machine. We were a white boy garage band doing our unique take on hip-hop, which was a unique blend and right away. Whether we sold a million records or not, we had a niche and we were connecting with people and that earned us our spot. We just keep producing material and keep riding around.
You did some of your early stuff as 10″s with Okey records, which is a traditional blues label, right?
Yeah, Epic actually revived that label, and that was an imprint for Epic and we were the first release on that along with Keb Mo and Poppa Chubby.
I was always curious where those releases came from. I had those early 10”s of yours and wondered when and why the label came back into print.
By the way, now that you’re on Brushfire, you must have some amazing business trips to North Shore, Oahu.
Ha! I wish there were more. I’ve been up to Jack’s spot and we did some shows with Slightly Stoopid in Hawaii this past June and we were out there for our day off. And I’ve seen him for a couple of days while he’s recording, but it’s funny, Jack and I are great friends and I consider him a brother and we have an amazing musical friendship—we’ve never stopped collaborating since the day we met. But, you know, I think people have this impression that I sit at his house in Hawaii and just surf all day and drink lemonade, but the reality of it is, we’ll more likely see each other in cities like Pittsburgh or some other random cities on tour. We’ve been surfing a bunch of times together.
I was going to ask if you were a surfer. Most of the people on that label are, even the ones you wouldn’t think.
Yeah, we all go surfing as much as we can. On this tour we play Boston, New York and Philly and we head down to Florida, so we have the boards in the trailer. Yeah, you know I surf a lot around Boston. My parents live down on the Cape so I surf a lot there. There are some really great spots up here.
I try my hand surfing in Truro sometimes… or Hampton Beach.
Is the band still the same? I know you have a lot of guests on your records. But is the core band still the same?
The core is a trio. It’s me and Jeffrey Clemens, who is the the original drummer and we have a Boston legend, Timo Shanko, on the upright bass. He plays in some other bands around town like the Dub Apocalypse. And Timo and I have a side-project called the Butter Band and we play a handful of shows a year on the Cape, Nantucket and around Boston. Timo and I have known each other since the early 90s when we first put the band together because he was up there and I was up there and we were all doing our thing.
Did the band change when you moved back to Boston?
No it was always a Boston band. Jimi Jazz was in the band for about 15 years and it just got to the point where he didn’t really want to be on the road anymore. I think the road was just getting to him. We’re still good friends and I’m sure we’ll make music again, but right now we have a really great unit which is Jeff, Kimo and I– and it’s just smoking. We have a lot of great improvisation and musical freedom and we’re doing some writing right now.
Thanks for your time G.
Cool man. We’re excited to be playing at home, in the town where this whole thing began.
This piece is dedicated to my surfing buddy, Beau Sturm, and his wife, Trina. Besides them hooking me up with tickets to see G., they are more importantly true pals. There are points in life where you think you’ve met everybody and think you’ve seen it all– then you realize you’re wrong and you meet new people who reaffirm your faith in friends and lasting friendships. Cheers. Thank you.
For more information visit:
Brushfire Records: http://brushfirerecords.com/
Neil Halstead: http://www.neilhalstead.com
G. Love: http://www.philadelphonic.com