Slowdive’s Neil Halstead on travel epiphanies and musical development
The year was 1995 and Slowdive had just split up after three albums. I was around 24 years old so I decided to go travelling around the Middle East – I really wanted to go see the Valley of the Kings and Karnak. I was staying in a lot of hostels and at each stop, you just got chatting to people. They’d always ask what I did. I’d reply, “Well, I’m sort of a musician.” Inevitably, someone would hand me a guitar. That’s when I realised that I couldn’t play guitar. Because Slowdive used weird tunings, I never learned proper guitar chords and I didn’t know how to play anyone else’s songs either. It was always a really embarrassing moment for me. I said I was a musician, but I couldn’t actually play a song for anyone. Very convincing.
This experience started me on a course of getting into music that I hadn’t really listened to before. I’d grown up really into bands like The Cure, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth and Cocteau Twins. After my travels, I was set on learning to play acoustic guitar – not relying on pedals – and so I started listening to Leonard Cohen and country music from the 60s, like Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and Townes van Zandt.
That was a huge turning point for me, and it set me off on a journey of playing country music and folk music for pretty much the following decade. This has been a really important part of my musical development. Feeling like a crap musician because I couldn’t play a song for people on my travels was the moment that caused a big change in my mindset. I’d never really thought about music as entertainment – I just played with the band and didn’t particularly think about the audience. This taught me that music is something to share.
Slowdive’s Everything Is Alive is out now via Dead Oceans