Unassuming icons

A treat in store with acclaimed British alt-country band Mojave 3

Mojave 3 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Mojave 3 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Amid the bursting spring and summer lineup of marquee names like Bryan Ferry, George Benson, Jane’s Addiction, Suede, Bob Dylan, and Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger of The Doors arriving on our shores, the name Mojave 3 doesn’t really stand out. The unsung British band’s alt-country music – a tuneful blend of dreamy folk, country and jangly pop – is as unassuming as their profile, which since their 1996 debut on the indie 4AD Records has never risen above a critically acclaimed cult level.
But ironically, their upcoming show on May 7 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv might just turn out to be the most musically satisfying of the bunch, thanks to the inspired songwriting and performing talents of Neil Halstead, Ian McCutcheon and their bandmates, who chip away with equal zeal from the master stylings of iconic folk songwriters Nick Drake and Bert Jansch and the indie ethics of rockers like Dinosaur Jr. and Mazzy Star.
“I suppose I should say that in some ways it has been frustrating that we’re not as well known as we could be, but I suppose in truth, I’ve always felt lucky to be able to make music and have a career in music,” said the gentle Halstead, speaking from his car near his home in Cornwall, in the southwest of England.
“We haven’t been a massive band or anything, but I feel we’ve been able to make the records we wanted to. As a musician, you naturally want as many people as possible to hear your music.
But there’s a thing you have to do in order to sell lots of records, and we’ve never done it – whether it’s writing a really good pop song or… I don’t know. I guess if we knew, we might have done it,” he laughed.
Regardless of Halstead’s statement, Mojave 3’s albums are chock full of really good pop songs, an amalgam of Halstead’s internalization of music that he’s loved since he was a teen.
“The first bands that turned my head when I was 14 or 15 were The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Smiths,” said Halstead. “I also began hearing things by American bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. The country stuff came later through people like Neil Young. I’d read a review of Dinosaur Jr. and they’d mention Neil Young, so I checked him out. It didn’t sound anything like Dinosaur Jr., of course, but it opened my eyes.”
But first Halstead spent his formative years playing loud, distorted electric guitar in Mojave 3’s predecessors, Slowdive, a band he formed with McCutcheon in the early 1990s.
“When I learned to play guitar, I went straight to playing the electric really badly and really loudly with a distortion pedal,” said Halstead. “It was three chords and loads of fun, and I loved that kind of energy. But I had never gone through a stage of just playing the acoustic guitar. After the last Slowdive album, I wanted to record really simple records focusing on the songs, not the noise, and I had started listening to people like Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt. For me it was like rediscovering music in a way that I never had the first time around. That’s where Mojave 3 came from.”
The band’s twangy, slow core acoustic sound, along the lines of The Cowboy Junkies, won them a loyal following; but their 2006 album Puzzles Like You saw them reborn as an upbeat guitar pop band with a slight country lilt and catchy tunes like “Big Star Baby,” a tribute to the seminal power poppers Big Star.
“I loved Big Star and [leader] Alex Chilton. The album is a big nod to their sound,” said Halstead.
The last four years have seen the band in hiatus with solo albums and, in Halstead’s case, the birth of twins, placing Mojave 3 in the background.
However, the band has returned to activity this year, touring England with Band of Horses and Jack Johnson and writing songs for an upcoming album.
“I think it was just life that caused the gap in the band’s activity,” said Halstead. “I guess we were a little older, and you don’t just drop everything to go out on tour. It’s amazing how quickly two or three years can go by without realizing it, and that’s what happened with Mojave. It got to a point that four years had gone by and we hadn’t done a record. But we always had a fairly relaxed attitude toward our career, and we’re lucky that we have our own recording studio right outside of Cornwall that we can use whenever we want for group or individual projects.”
There aren’t many shows coming to Israel this summer that aren’t drenched in nostalgia or remembrances of past achievements.
Mojave 3 is one of the few performances that will present a band not resting on their laurels and, to boot, making some of the most beguiling music that you’ve never heard. It’s the sleeper show of the year, and it will wake you up!
Mojave 3 performs on May 7 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.