Mutton Birds back for the songs|
Otago Daily Times (28th Jan 2012)
- Shane Gilchrist
Article from http://www.odt.co.nz/entertainment/music/195851/mutton-birds-back-songs
The Mutton Birds are reuniting for a 16-date summer tour with Gin Wigmore and Avalanche City next month. Shane Gilchrist asks frontman Don McGlashan, guitarist David Long, bassist Alan Gregg and drummer Ross Burge a few questions about hits, friendship and remaining young at heart.
Does it feel surreal to be preparing for a tour 20 years after the release of your debut album, and a decade since the Mutton Birds called it a day? Do you feel some sense of paradigm shift perhaps, in that the songs remain (relatively) the same, yet your lives have changed significantly?
McGlashan: Well, from time to time I tried to write songs about getting wasted and smashing cars but I wasn't any good at it, so I tended to write about other things: household appliances, dreams, landscapes ... With hindsight, that's been a good thing.
Playing songs about getting wasted and smashing cars at our age might be a bit unseemly.
Long: It does feel bizarre but exciting, too. I feel lucky that we were always a "grown-up" sort of band. We weren't trying to be naughty rock'n'roll kids.
That makes it feel like going back to the songs will be a natural thing. Sometimes it seems so long ago but then as I've been looking at the songs and my parts in them they seem very much a part of me.
Gregg: It doesn't seem surreal to me. One of the good things about this wineries tour is that we aren't trying to conquer the world any more so we can relax and enjoy it more than we maybe did all those years ago.
Burge: Not in the slightest.
You'd all been in bands prior to the Mutton Birds, yet this group was the most successful. What do you put that down to? Chemistry? The whole being greater than the sum of its parts? The result of a mutual effort to "serve the song"? Please explain.
Long: I think we all love songs. Don - and Al, too - write great songs. Ross is the most song-oriented drummer I've ever played with; he doesn't see playing the beat in the verse as a time when he thinks about what fancy fill he'll do going into the chorus.
Al is a lovely melodic bass player. Me ... I saw my role as colouring in the backgrounds - maybe I was just there to make things a bit messier.
Gregg: I think the main reason the Mutton Birds had some success was that Don had a bunch of great songs. If you have A Thing Well Made and Dominion Road and White Valiant all on one album then something's going to happen.
Burge: This band was all about songs, not musicianship (thank God), although we all had enough taste, or sensibility, to know how far we could go.
Having five entries in the Australasian Performing Right Association (Apra) 100 best New Zealand songs of all time and two Apra Silver Scroll Awards is obvious external confirmation of Don's songwriting talents. Does persistence sometimes help, in that it can put flesh on the bones of an idea that, in less persistent hands, might have been dropped for something offering a more immediate thrill?
McGlashan: Lately I've come to distrust refinement of any kind. I've been trying to break whatever internal radar I have, in the hope that I'll make interesting mistakes.
Obviously, a band is more than one person. Don, can you describe how the Mutton Birds informed/influenced your songwriting? Did the band members' range of abilities enable you to explore song form in different ways than other projects with which you've been involved?
McGlashan: Over the 10 years the band lasted, we developed a style that excluded everything we couldn't agree on (which was most things). I always found that a big help when it came to writing.
I could cross out my more indulgent shoe-gazing material and run with stronger, more direct things. Also, having such good players in the band changed the way I wrote over time.
As each new song grew I'd find myself leaving space for Ross, Alan and David to throw their ideas in.
They're all great multi-taskers: Alan can play all four strings on his bass, (but not at the same time); Ross can move his feet and hands independently while rolling a cigarette; whereas David can play tunes, dance and twirl his moustache.
Can you describe what the others brought to the mix?
Long: I think I've answered that - but Don also has a great voice.
Gregg [on McGlashan]: First of all the songs, without which there would have been no band. Also, Don's singing voice has a kind of mysterious, yearning quality that really moves people.
I remember the first time I heard Blam Blam Blam when I was a kid and even then his voice really knocked me out.
And Don is a master storyteller so while he can knock off a three-minute pop gem like April, I think it was the story songs like Thing Well Made or Envy of Angels which people kept coming back for.
Very few songwriters can carry off a song like that.
Gregg [on Long]: Dave is a fantastic, unconventional guitar player who never plays a "rock" lick. He didn't grow up learning Led Zeppelin songs or playing in covers bands so he really has his own style and sound, which he has developed himself.
He is really good at doing those atmospheric guitar parts that make songs like White Valiant come alive and he is the master of guitar feedback. And he is very pragmatic so when we'd get stuck Dave was good at moving things along. He was also the main map-reader during our overseas travels so without him we would have been quite literally lost.
Gregg [on Burge]: Somebody once described Ross as the heart of the Mutton Birds and that is probably right. He's a great drummer to watch and he brings a powerful energy and intensity to everything he does.
He plays the drums with his whole body and he really loses himself in the music. Ross and I were the rhythm section and he always made me feel like I was a better bass player than I actually was because everything sounds good when you play with him.
Ross also has great pop instincts and sometimes stopped things getting too artsy. Disgusting sense of humour though.
Burge: Well, for the mix on the first album, we all brought beer and crisps. The second album was a step up and wine was incorporated. Envy of Angels was taking it to extremes, and that's all I'm going to say on the matter. And for the last album mix, we all brought different religious texts and kneeling mats.
Seriously, Don has an innate sense of what would serve his songs best, and was very accommodating in giving us all free reign to try different ways of interpreting his stuff. And he's a great singer and multi-instrumentalist.
Dave was Mr Experimental and brilliant with it. And Al is the consummate bass player.
Does playing music help keep you young at heart? Does it offer escape from the world at large/act as an outlet valve/keep you sane?
McGlashan: I'm never happier than when I'm writing a song, practising with a band or playing live. I'm really glad we all agreed to do this tour.
I'm looking forward to every bit of it, from the first note of the first gig, to the last drop of the last after-show drink.
Long: There's an element of being in a band that allows one never to grow up - especially if you can make it full-time. I realised when I left the Mutton Birds that everyone I knew had bought houses, had real jobs and at 30 I was as poor as when I was 20.
I've sort of grown up now but I still make music full-time, which is very lucky. Sometimes I'm paying the mortgage with music but often I still have that escape where one disappears entirely into what one is creating. Oh, but I've lost my musical technique - if I ever had some ...
Gregg: I'm not sure that playing music keeps you young at heart. Songs seem to come along of their own accord and on the rare occasion when I try to finish a song these days it feels like quite a self-indulgent thing to be doing - whereas when you are 20 it seems like the most important thing to be doing. There is something quite therapeutic about playing music though - a bit like embroidery or playing lawn bowls.
Burge: I've never stopped playing and never grown up.
See them: The 2012 Classic Hits Winery Tour, featuring the Mutton Birds, Gin Wigmore and Avalanche City, will be held on the following dates:Logan Park, Dunedin, February 19 Olssen's Garden Vineyard, Bannockburn, February 21.
A Quick Word - The Mutton Birds
NZ Herald (27 Oct 2011)
Article from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/music/news/article.cfm?c_id=264&objectid=10761820
A quick word with the original line-up of 1990s band the Mutton Birds who are reuniting for a 16-date summer winery tour with Avalanche City and Gin Wigmore. Frontman Don McGlashan, guitarist David Long, bassist Alan Gregg and drummer Ross Burge talk about getting back to Nature ... and their other hits.
What compelled you guys to get back together for a tour?
DMcG: Alan's face appeared to me on a piece of toast and Vegemite one morning. At first I thought it was a vision of St. Augustine, but the nose was wrong.
DL: I played some Mutton Birds songs with Don at the 2010 festival when he was doing a solo show. It felt so good that when the opportunity came up for the tour I leapt at it.
AG: I was having dinner with Campbell Smith (co-promoter) a few months ago and we were discussing the possibility of the Mutton Birds being on the bill.
He said it would be great to have a "heritage act" as part of the line-up. I nearly choked on my tofu salad. Now I have grown used to, and embraced, the idea of being a "heritage act".
RB: It's always fun to get back into a band situation where everybody can speak their minds freely and without inhibition. And it seems to be the right time to do it.
Will there be arguments over what songs to play? If so, who will win?
DMcG: Yes. I'm leaning towards only doing songs that contain references to wild animals, and the others generally start from similarly fixed positions. Ross will prevail, though.
DL: Yes. Ross (but I control him).
AG: After the first 10 minutes of politeness has passed I'm sure we will argue over everything, including what songs to play. Ross will win.
RB: The drummer is always right (okay everybody?)
What's your abiding memory of your early years as a band?
D McG: Mystified disbelief that we seemed to be getting away with it.
DL: It was very exciting; something new kept on seeming to happen.
AG: Feeling completely out of my depth as a musician and trying to keep up.
RB: The happiness of being able to play original songs and the growing number of people who decided that we were worth it.
Had the Mutton Birds continued past 2002 - and you were still part of the band - where would you be now?
DMcG: Talking up our ninth studio album, growing strange facial hair, seeking enlightenment in the East and in Glen Eden.
DL: This is like those alternative history books where people imagine Germany winning WWII. In our case maybe we would still be in the UK and everyone would have a slight English accent. Not that dramatic really.
AG: When I left the band in 2002 you could sense that audiences in the UK were getting bigger and people would travel long distances to see the band. So if we had kept going that loyal following probably would have increased. At the same time The Mutton Birds probably would have been "destined to preserve their cult status" as one reviewer kindly put it.
RB: Probably changed course and now playing oom-pah disco.
Will you be taking any personal styling tips from your fellow tour acts Gin Wigmore and Avalanche City?
DMcG: Hard to tell with Gin. She often seems to forget to get fully dressed. Dave Baxter and I will be discussing waistcoats at some point, I feel.
DL: Al might not wear underpants for every show?
AG: Any styling tips would be welcome.
RB: It's bra, panties and a beard for me then.
Seeing as it's a winery tour - if the The Mutton Birds was a wine, what sort would it be?
DMcG: I'd like to think of us as a rare Dry River gewurtztraminer: vast and inscrutable - but I'd settle for a supermarket mid-shelf pinot if it was tasty.
DL: We would be a case of chardonnay that's a little too old - somewhat out of fashion and a bit too heady but still has something special.
AG: A red one.
RB: Vintage port
Are there any personal habits of other band members on tour that you're fondly looking forward to re-experiencing?
DMcG: I'll be looking forward to the voices in my head having a good old chin-wag with the voices in Dave Long's head. (We're usually okay as long as we don't do what the voices tell us.)
DL: My snoring to piss Al and Ross off. When Don and I shared we never snored; it was all designed to wind the others up.
AG: I'm looking forward to the good natured banter with the other guys before the inevitable plunge into acrimony.
RB: Maybe Don's snoring when Al's rooming with him, Dave's snoring when Al's rooming with him and I'm really looking forward to Al's whingeing when I get the double bed.
Interview with Don McGlashan
Article from http://www.pukeariki.com/en/stories/arts/jackiessong.asp
One of Don McGlashan's haunting songs is set in south Taranaki during Titokowaru's War of 1868-69. But it took a while to get there.
"I had the bare bones of a song about two friends saying goodbye to each other on something like a battlefield," The Mutton Birds' lead singer says.
Then, while reading The New Zealand Wars by James Belich, Don began to imagine what it must have been like fighting in Aotearoa during that time. As the musician became lost in the past, he found a foreign field for his Irish soldiers.
From an historical point of view this was a time of great conflict, also referred to as the Third Taranaki War. It began when southern Taranaki iwi responded with force to the continued Pakeha surveying and occupation of their land, while negotiations were still under way. Maori warriors were led by Riwha Titokowaru, whose guerrilla campaign of lightning raids alarmed Pakeha.
This was also the time when British Imperial troops were led by the colourful adventurer, writer and artist, Major Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky, called Manurau (the bird that flits everywhere) by his Maori enemies.
After a series of humiliating losses, including that at Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu, the Pakeha military machine finally overwhelmed Maori resistance and, in mid-1869, the decade of wars in Taranaki ended.
Don placed his soldiers in this bloody campaign, just after an ambush.
A fine mess we're in Jackie
A clearing in the bush
The trees are all tangled up,
and they're the wrong shade of green
And the sap never stops running
The leaves they never fall
And the birds laugh like drunken garrison girls
Don says these words talk about fighting in a land where nothing is familiar.
"The idea of suddenly being in a country where nature never lets up, where the seasons are the wrong way round, all the familiar things in their countryside are not there, all the sounds are not there...
"It's not about the politics of the rights and wrongs of the colonists going on the attack, but just the predicament of the strangeness of being so far from home, so far from their landscape of understanding, their culture of understanding," Don says from his home studio in central Auckland.
"So many people in that situation lost their lives in this strange new place."
We were told there was a dozen of them
Runaways and injured men
They weren't supposed to put up such a fight
Now who'd have thought blood would have
So many colours
Soaking the grass beneath you like all the others
A spreading stain on the swampy ground
Till the next rain comes down
For Don, the lyrics come first. "I work out what I want to say, work with the words for quite a while, and then start bringing in musical ideas."
With Jackie's Song, he thought about motivation. "I wanted to talk about what might have driven these young guys to search for adventure. Maybe it was the romantic notion of battle and travel."
The Song Lines
Metro (November 2002)
Excerpts from an article by Bevan Rapson, which also featured comments from Neil Finn, Dave Dobbyn, Jordan Luck and Che Fu among others.
Have a look at this unremarkable, unlovely stretch of tarseal. Reaching from the soulless steppes of Bible-belt Mount Roskill to the inner-city dead zone of Spaghetti Junction, crowded here and there by shabby strips of low-rise retail and light commercial, this could be the main drags of four depressed hick towns strung together.
Far too narrow to be a useful metropolitan artery, the road is clotted with traffic, crawling towards more interesting destinations. Judging by the faces in the cars and on the footpath, this is ennui alley.
But as the traffic thins a little, cross the road and glance down the length of it. See how it hugs the isthmus's every undulation. The arrow-straight line seen in a map book or from the air is revealed as all ups and downs, a rolling traverse of the only recently dormant volcanic landscape.
And right about now, if you're of a certain pop music-aware demographic, there's a fair chance you'll see this road "bending under its own weight". No need to call the council engineers, but it's an impressive illusion. If there's rain, and if you've time to ponder the point, the tarmac might even be shining like, well, a strip from a "sheet metal plate".
For alerting us to these small slices of strangeness and, well, beauty in the otherwise mundane urban experience, thanks is due to Don McGlashan, songwriter, once of Blam Blam Blam, then The Front Lawn and now The Mutton Birds, who a dozen years ago wrote:
Dominion Road is bending
Under its own weight
Shining like a strip
Cut from a sheet metal plate
'Cause it's just been raining
Which was always going to be a pretty good starting point for a tour like this, an expedition through the musical past to find bits of Auckland which have turned up in song. McGlashan's composition has almost certainly penetrated the wider consciousness more than any other on our list, giving that particular stretch of Auckland roadway a weirdly disproportionate profile around the rest of New Zealand - and in various pockets of Mutton Bird-mania around the world.
McGlashan, perhaps more than any other of our songwriters, makes a habit of incorporating place names into his lyrics. The Front Lawn's Andy features Takapuna Beach and a songs off that duo's second album was called "It Started on Queen Street". The Mutton Birds' "Your Window", with a reference to Forrest Hill, features later in this collection.
It's an old habit that began when McGlashan was a teenager. "I've always just wanted to write about what's close to me," he says. "I've always actually been asked, 'Why do you write about this place?' It seems a strange question to me, really, I grew up here and most of my friends and my family and most of my impressions and memories are here, so I think it would be weird to write about somewhere else, really."
The practice was reinforced when he visited New York in his early twenties. "I went down Seventh Avenue and a Steely Dan song jumped out at me, I went to Fifty-ninth Street Bridge and a Paul Simon song sprang out at me. So it was as if those places had more colour to them because somebody had sat down and written a song about them."
McGlashan has a theory which might partly explain why more local artists don't share his enthusiasm for place names: something to do with a tension in New Zealand between wanting to celebrate being unique and wanting to downplay how marginal we are. "As soon as you put a place name in a New Zealand song you're actually inviting those contradictions to the surface and you're liable to get a bit of stick about it."
"I was on a bus in Dominion Road," recalls McGlashan, "and I saw a guy and he was one of the inhabitants of one of those rehab houses." He was moved to invent a back-story for the man. "I knew there was something a bit interesting in the idea because the feeling I had that attached itself to that little sketch wasn't one of melancholy or regret or pity or anything like that. It was actually full of hope and redemption.
"I didn't really know where that came from. It was just a feeling I had when I saw him. I thought if I could manage to just try and make up a story for him and then fill it with that sense of hope that I felt on that day then maybe something good would come out of it." So:
...it's getting better now
He rests his head on the window sill
He watches the city
He can see the antennas in the hills
The view of the Waitakeres and the antennas is that from McGlashan's house and the spot where he sits to write. "If you're presumptuous enough to make up a whole story around a stranger then you are in a sense writing about yourself or wondering about various alternative futures you might have or have had."
And how does the writer regard Dominion Road itself? "Its residential and economic history is such a jumble that it's never going to be one thing like Ponsonby or Parnell is. It's always going to be a cross-section, which I think is what makes it such a neat part of Auckland. It's sort of not pretentious." He's tickled it was named so pompously: "It sounds like somebody thought it would be the most important avenue in the Dominion, as it was. It kind of isn't in a civic sense, but it is to me, anyway."
- - - - - - -
Time now for a quick trip across the bridge, to that notorious hotbed of rock'n'roll, North Shore City (well, it produced Push Push).
The trees hang low above the road
And Forrest Hill is waking from sleep
This one is based on Milford-raised McGlashan real-life experiences: "When I was about 15 or 16 I used to climb out of my window and run to my girlfriend's house in the middle of the night and come back at dawn and then fall asleep in the library at school the next day."
He didn't write it until he was in his mid-20s and aimed to produce a simple, one-level song, based purely on that memory of teenagehood. "I don't know whether I got that right because various people have come up to me and said 'Your Window' is an interesting song about serial rapists."
ThePress.co.nz (30 November 2002)
Article originally appeared at http://www.stuff.co.nz/inl/print/0,1478,2126035a6536,00.html
Named after an archetypal slice of Kiwi cuisine, The Mutton Birds have taken their New Zealand-flavoured music to the world, and into the hearts of many at home. Group frontman Don McGlashan talks to NICK GORMACK about chasing the rock-star dream, and about compiling their best-of collection.
Mention The Mutton Birds and most people will think of their hit song Anchor Me or their inspired cover of the 1969 Fourmyula classic, Nature. But there was much more than that to the group.
In a 10-year career they put out four studio albums and two live albums, and produced some of our most recognisably "New Zealand" rock music. Along the way they built up a loyal following not only at home, but in countries ranging from the more predictable Australia, Canada, and England, to Belgium, Germany, and Eastern Europe - at one point threatening to make it really big.
Not bad for a group that Don McGlashan says he started as a vehicle to get him back into writing songs.
"We got a lot further than we ever thought. We pushed a lot of broken-down vans along a lot of roads in New Zealand, but we also got to play in Prague, in Milan, Turin, and some big festivals in England. And y'know, the character of a band gets sorted out on those long van trips."
McGlashan first found a degree of musical fame in the early 1980s with Auckland new-wavers Blam Blam Blam - probably best remembered now for their classic slice of alternative pop (There is) No Depression (in New Zealand).
When they split, the multi-talented McGlashan - who as well as singing and playing drums in the Blams had also played the decidedly unrock instrument the euphonium - briefly joined avant-garde percussion outfit From Scratch.
He then jumped left to form alternative satirical theatre act The Front Lawn, with Harry Sinclair. The team enjoyed considerable success both at home and abroad.
It was when the Lawn disbanded that McGlashan decided to venture back into rock, setting up The Mutton Birds in 1991 - along with drummer Ross Burge, guitarist David Long, and Alan Gregg on bass - basically, he says now, "to help me start writing songs again".
"I was a late starter as a songwriter really. I didn't write my first song (the Blams' Don't Fight It Marsha) until I was about 21. I mean lots of writers have done whole albums worth of material by then.
"So I really wanted to get back into writing, and there's nothing like a bunch of guys sitting round getting bored in a practice room to get you motivated."
McGlashan says they initially didn't think it would go much further than New Zealand, with the turning point being the success of their self-titled debut album. Released in 1992 the album - which as well as the cover of Nature had singles Dominion Road and The Heater - stayed in the national charts for a year.
"We'd financed that ourselves. At the time it was a real breakthrough for a local album to stay in the charts that long. So it kind of just went from there."
The follow-up, 1994's Salty, cemented their position as one of the leading Kiwi groups of the time, and contains many of their best-known anthems - Anchor Me, Queen's English, In My Room, and a reworked version of Marsha.
At the start of 1995, with big things beckoning, the group embarked on a "world tour" - travelling through Canada and Europe before arriving in London, where, as McGlashan says, "we just holed up for three months".
That initial three months led to the group basing themselves in Britain for the next four years as they gave their music the "big push".
"We'd started to get some good press over there, good reviews, and some of the big labels were starting to get very keen."
The group eventually signed with Virgin UK, and with big money behind them and top producer Hugh Jones in tow, they set off to Wales to record their next album. Released in 1996, The Envy of Angels was critically well received and sold well at home, but didn't make the big sales in England that the record company had hoped for.
The group stayed in London another three years but parted company with Virgin UK, releasing their last album, Rain, Steam and Speed, in 1999 on an indie label. At the time McGlashan said the loss of major label support helped make Rain, Steam and Speed their "strongest album yet".
"Getting out of the whole major-label conundrum lifted the lid on the writing a bit. The ideas that came out were generally more outgoing and optimistic - more about celebrating and less about complaining," he said then.
Looking back, McGlashan believes one of the big problems with the group was that "we were too grown up".
"I think you have be young, about 20, to be in a rock band, so you don't mind people wanting to exploit you. That's basically how it is in the music industry - you have a band and you have people wanting to exploit their talent.
"When you're 20 you don't worry about that, or you don't know to worry about it, but when you're older you have a lot more arguments about that stuff and after a while it just wears you down."
The group's line-up had been remarkably stable until they hit England, but the strains of touring started to take their toll. Long left in 1996 (replaced by former Dance Exponent Chris Sheehan), while Alan Gregg left in 1998, to be replaced by Englishman Tony Fisher.
"It is hard keeping a group together when you're always touring and the like, and that doesn't always suit individuals, and it may not be what they want to be doing creatively either. But over all we always got along pretty well."
McGlashan admits the group "were never very good at being fashionable".
"The thing about being fashionable is that you have to ditch the thing you were into last week, and then the next week you have to ditch that. When we got to England, there were bands like Blur that just seemed to be changing all the time, and it was quite strange watching them have to decide each week where they were heading."
While they never went mega, McGlashan says he has no regrets about the time spent in England pursuing the rock dream. And he's proud of what they achieved, a fact brought home to him by working on the best-of.
"I think putting this together has made me a lot prouder of what we did. Y'know, I'm an awful listener to our own records. I haven't listened to Salty all the way through for about five or six years, and I dunno why that is - probably someone put it on at a party one day and I cringed and thought `Shit, I'm never gonna listen to that again'.
"But when me and Ross (Burge) started batting song lists back and forth for the compilation, it did make me appreciate more what we achieved."
The group's enduring appeal at home lies in the strength of their songs - most were written by McGlashan, and have a distinctive "New Zealandness".
"Lyrics do matter to me, as I tend to write them either first or certainly at the same time as the music, whereas some people do it the other way around."
And McGlashan says he "couldn't not write about identity".
"What I write is very much what I see around me, compared with say someone like Martin Phillips (The Chills), who occupies more of a fantasy world."
Songwriting is an inspired business. Take Anchor Me, the song that won McGlashan an industry Silver Scroll award. With its refrain "Anchor me, in the middle of your deep blue sea ..." the song has become a Kiwi rock classic. But McGlashan says he first thought the chorus was "too simple" and told the band he'd change it later.
"Alan said to me: `No you won't, it sounds like it's finished to me'."
Even now, McGlashan says he's not sure why Anchor Me has struck a chord with so many people. "I don't know what it is about that song - but it's a great feeling when people come up to you after a show, as they used to all the time, and say it meant a lot to them, about who they are and stuff; that's worth more than any record sales."
One of five people to be honoured this year with a prestigious laureate of arts award - "that's a fantastic pat on the back" - McGlashan, is now working on a solo album and is still very much committed to his music.
"The whole thing about making music in New Zealand is that it's such a marginal place to do that. So you have to be really committed to it. You have to love what you're doing and know what you're doing to make a go of it.
"I'm just really pleased people still want to listen to our music, I think that's our achievement. That people still want to play the songs is still the best thing."
A Happy Don
Capital Times (18th December 2002)
Don McGlashan is pleased with his latest album, The Best Of The Muttonbirds. It's better than a greatest hits, it's representative of the band, he says.
"A greatest hits is something a record company puts out. This is something the band likes. We had a lot of top five singles and all four albums were top sellers but an album full of singles often doesn't quite flow," McGlashan says.
"A lot of the things we were most proud of as a band were not the singles. This best of is something that is representative of the band."
Released this month, the collection comes hot on the heels of McGlashan being named an Arts Foundation Laureate for services to music. While it makes him feel old the award doesn't feel like the end of a career in music to him.
"I don't feel it [the laureate award] is a case of a gold watch for long service. I feel like I'm beginning something.
The Muttonbirds are not planning a reunion tour to promote the album as each of the former members has their own projects on the boil. McGlashan is currently recording his first solo album and looking forward to performing at the WOMAD festival of world music in New Plymouth next year.
"The Muttonbirds were lucky that we got the chance to be a full time band for 10 years. We had a charmed life. We recorded "Envy Of Angels" in the same studio that Queen recorded "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Interview with Don McGlashan
Tearaway.co.nz (Dec 2002)
Article from http://www.tearaway.co.nz/arts_header.asp?ViewStory=1&StoryID=970
That slender, unmistakable guitar riff, glinting like a powerline in the morning sun after a downpour. Those wry, visually rich lyrics. It's The Muttonbirds' Dominion Road:
Dominion Road is bending
Under its own weight
Shining like a strip
Cut from a sheet metal plate
Cause it's just been raining
Jane had reached the point where she knew
What he meant before he'd open his mouth
He couldn't say the same,
Or he'd have guess she was moving south
With one of his friends…
As well as Dominion Road, Don McGlashan has authored numerous Kiwi classics, such as There Is No Depression In New Zealand (with Blam Blam Blam), White Valiant and Anchor Me.
He has a spare, descriptive writing style that is alternately dark, humorous and moving.
This year he was one of the select few to receive a Laureate Award, for his contribution to New Zealand music. He described winning the award as "a fantastic pat on the back."
When asked about his songwriting approach, Don said, "I'm drawn to the idea of looking hard at what's there, rather than imagining what isn't there.
"I went to the museum the other day and they had an exhibit which was just kids' toys from the sixties. When you look at that as an adult, when you look at this grungy old steel toy tractor, that looks like it's been buried in the garden and dug up, it brings back a host of things. Not only what it is, but what it meant when you first got it and what you could do with it. It brings back the sights and sounds and smells of that time. Each object is like a time capsule. Sometimes if you look hard at anything you can see all of it. And most of us are too busy to see all of something. We're rushing through the day, we're trying not to let other people down, we're trying to live up to this or that TV ad that we've seen, that tells us to be thin or funny or pretty or whatever.
"Most of us don't realise that we are alive. That we are quite miraculous. The most mundane thing about our day is something of a miracle. I think that's what songs and stories and pictures and poems do for us. They remind us that we're alive. That's what my work tries to do."
"Some people just write about relationships. Pop music's usually quite claustrophobic: 'You did me wrong, why didn't you come home last night' sorta stuff. I've guess I've felt more comfortable writing about what I could see, and if I could get across what I'm feeling through that, then that's better than saying: 'I feel blue.'
"I spent a lot of my time in my late teens and twenties in a van driving up and down the length of New Zealand, in Blam Blam Blam or in The Front Lawn and then in The Muttonbirds. "So I had plenty of time to think about that stuff."
I feel fine
Don is currently working towards his solo album, which'll be out the middle of next year. "I've been collaborating with lots of different people. "I'm working with SJD, and he's a fantastic musician, I love working with him. I've done some live shows with me and him and a Russian accordianist called Tatiana Lanchtchikova. She's from Siberia. She lives in Auckland now and she's a most wonderful accordianist. She talks like a James Bond heroine.
"We kinda look like a weird band and that suits me fine."
Rockers Go Back To School
NZ Herald (28th March 2000)
- Rebecca Walsh
Some of the best gigs in town are happening at a primary school near you.
This weekend, Newton Central School will rock to the music of Don McGlashan of the Mutton Birds, Dave Dobbyn, Ma-V-Elle and many more at "A fool's day out" - a fundraising event for the 230-pupil school.
It is not the first time rocker parents have joined forces to help raise funds. In fact, concerts involving well-known and talented parents are catching on throughout Auckland as schools seek new ways to bring in money. McGlashan, whose children Louis (8) and Pearl (5) attend Newton Central, said performing at a primary school was not a huge departure from the norm for him. "One of the Mutton Birds' first performances was at my son's creche when we had just started out ... The history of the Mutton Birds has kind of been the history of me being a parent. It's good to be able to contribute; it's going to be a good day."
McGlashan will perform with Dobbyn, former Mutton Birds bass player Alan Gregg and former Chills drummer Earl Robertson.
"It's actually scarier in a way. You are performing in front of people who just know you as somebody's dad."
Newton Central principal Hoana Pearson said fundraisers such as "A fool's day out" allowed the school to spend more time improving support programmes and developing its character. "Fundraising is an essential part of the moneys needed to run a school. If we can do it in a one-off and utilise the multi-talents of our communities and celebrate our diversity, that's great."
The school had a Maori immersion unit, a Fanau Pasifika class and a number of special needs children mainstreamed. "It's about enhancing and not just delivering the curriculum. Generally, there's not enough money in schools when you want to do some things differently."
Earlier this month Parnell District School hosted the Citizen Band and vocalist Jordan Luck. Principal Gary Pearce said the school was always thinking of interesting ways it could fundraise and had first hosted a concert by parent Neil Finn in 1994. "You have to look at the strengths and resources within your community and try to capitalise on that."
Don McGlashan: Touching the Green, Green Grass of Home
Music in New Zealand journal (2000)
- Matthew Bannister
Classical music, film music, rock music, theatre, dance, TV, experimental - Don McGlashan has done it all. He's certainly one of the most versatile New Zealand musicians of his generation. He has excelled at all of them and, at the age of 40, he's at the height of his powers, presently balancing a career in rock music with the Mutton Birds with teaching at Unitec and acting as musical director for the Auckland Millennium event.
After graduating with BA in English and Music in 1981 from Auckland University, he played French horn and percussion in the Auckland Symphonia 1979-82, while also being a member of the From Scratch Percussion Group from 1979-86. The group performed in Edinburgh, London, the Paris and Sydney Biennales, New York, Singapore, Tokyo, the South Pacific Arts Festival in Papua New Guinea, and on many tours of New Zealand and Australia. They also recorded three albums.
He was drummer, singer and main writer with the rock band Blam Blam Blam 1980-82, during which time his song 'Don't Fight It, Marsha, It's Bigger Than Both of Us' was named 'Song of the Year' in the 1982 New Zealand Recording Industry Awards.
He was a writer/performer in The Front Lawn with actor Harry Sinclair from 1985-90, combining songs, instrumental pieces, dance, theatre and film. They performed twice at the Edinburgh Festival, in 1988 and 1989, winning The Independent newspaper's theatre award for the festival in 1988, and in both years winning inclusion in the 'Pick of the Fringe' season at London's Donmar Warehouse. They also performed in Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand. The group's piece The Reason for Breakfast was described as 'brilliant' by the New York Times. The Front Lawn made two albums of songs (winning three 1989 New Zealand Recording Industry Awards) and three short films. Two of these, Walk Short and The Lounge Bar were purchased and screened by Channel 4 in Britain, and The Lounge Bar was a finalist in the 1989 American Film Festival.
With Harry Sinclair and a group of Auckland theatre performers including Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Michael Hurst, Inside Out Theatre Company and the Topp Twins, McGlashan co-founded Auckland's Watershed Theatre in 1990. He was heavily involved in the developing and programming of the venue in its first years.
He has been singer and main songwriter in The Mutton Birds from 1991 to the present. The group has released four albums; all of which have made the New Zealand top ten. They have had two top five singles and one, 'The Heater' which debuted at No.1. McGlashan's song 'Anchor Me' won the APRA Silver Scroll, the country's top songwriting award, in 1994. The group signed to Virgin Records UK in 1995, and lived in London from that year to 1999, touring all over the world. Don McGlashan has also written music for film and television, including the TVNZ drama series Mortimer's Patch (where he shared composing duties with Wayne Laird and Keith Hunter) (1979), the children's TV series Terry and the Gunrunners (1985); the feature films Other Halves (1984), and Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table (1990). He also composed and arranged several fanfares and incidental pieces for the 1990 Commonwealth Games, and was assistant musical director of the opening ceremony.
In 1993 he composed and arranged an eight-minute piece for orchestra, choir and soprano for the 1993 NZ Expo Pavilion in Seville. The piece, a setting of part of Allen Curnow's 'Landfall In Unknown Seas' was performed by Kiri Te Kanawa and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Matthew Bannister caught up with him in Auckland, where he now lives with his wife and two children:
Matthew Bannister: Tell us about the Mutton Birds' most recent album. When was it released and by whom?
Don McGlashan: The new album's called Rain, Steam & Speed. It came out in May 1999 on shhh! Records (our manager Steve Hedges' new label) and in New Zealand through EMI Virgin.
MB: Who played on it? Who's in the band now?
DM: Ross (Burge) played drums and percussion. I played guitars, euphonium, some keyboards; Alan (Gregg) played bass on most tracks, Chris Sheehan lead guitars, acoustics, and also bass on a couple of tracks. Tony Fisher (from Sheffield) sang most of the backing vocals (he'd just joined the band on bass around the time of the recording). David Mitchell from the 3D's played e-bow guitar on one song, and a pedal-steel player from Edinburgh, Stuart Nesbit (the Proclaimers, Scottish neo-country band The Felsons) played on another.
MB: Why have you come back to live in New Zealand?
DM: I decided that I didn't want to tour so much any more - for my own family reasons. Therefore the band had to switch to a different mode if the other guys were agreeable. They were, which is great. Then came the question of where to live. It seemed, for me, easier to build a life around song-writing and part-time work in New Zealand, rather than anywhere else. The kids are still at the age when moving them is an adventure rather than a trauma. The reputation of the band is growing steadily in the UK. I think we've proved that we're better than most of what's around in Britain (especially with this new album, which has received the best reviews of anything we've ever done). I believe we can become a scarcer commodity over there without losing the friends we've made. Location for writing is a reason, too but I don't know about that one yet.
MB: How will you make a living?
DM: I've been offered a few hours a week teaching. I'm in charge of putting together the music for the Auckland Millennium show-so there's quite a lot of organising to be done there. Keeping communication going with the other band members and our manager in England, and the record companies here and in Australia takes some time as well. The main thing though is to settle in, catch up with old friends and then see what the next batch of songs turns out like.
MB: What do you think you've achieved in your time in the UK?
DM: We've stayed together as a band - which is important to me because I feel that bands can do more in some ways than singer-songwriters. I'm not sure I understand the difference entirely, but there's the sense of support that the other band members give me as a writer - the sense of their stakeholding in the songs. And the fact that I've never wanted to change styles and players with every record; I've always been more interested in the development of ideas than the development of the packaging. I think if we'd stayed in New Zealand we would have broken up by now, and perhaps I would be off down the singer-songwriter road. So, by staying together, we've made perhaps two albums that we wouldn't have made. We've also proved that we are as good as we thought we were, the reviews and audience numbers have certainly given us that. Finally, if things pan out as we hope they will from now on, the bigger audience (and the strong UK-based management) that we gained by going overseas should make it possible for us to keep performing and recording as a band, even though we're living in different countries.
MB: How will the band continue with some of the band members living in the UK?
DM: The plan is to tour once a year in Australia and New Zealand, and once a year in the UK, recording when and where we can in that schedule.
MB: Do you think of yourself as a New Zealand artist? If so, how does it inform your work?
DM: Yes, I do see myself as a New Zealand artist. However I look at this place, my own and my ancestors' memories fill up the corners of the frame-shading and cross-hatching with stories and lives that are linked to my own. After nearly four years away, I feel I understand some things about Britain - but I know that sense of understanding will always be distant, theoretical-like learning to swim from a book. I'll always know more about this country, because this is where I'm from. It's also for someone else to analyse really. The Finn brothers, the Swingers, the Flying Nun bands, Alistair Riddell, Dave Dobbyn - all provided me with the most transcendent experiences of my teen years. I didn't get out to much live stuff from overseas so the most important contacts with live music came from here. As I've got older, Aussies like Paul Kelly and Nick Cave have meant a lot to me as well. I think, musically, I often find myself daydreaming about being surrounded by those people - drawing on my notions of how they would do things - how they would solve a particular problem in a song or an arrangement.
MB: Do you see yourself as working in a specific artistic tradition, musical, literary, whatever?
DM: I guess that's what 'working in a tradition' might mean. Also, all of the band members (until very recently) have been New Zealand musicians, who have grown up with those ways of doing things too. Even Tony, our new bass player - he's English, but we've almost got him to play like Paul Kean, Jane Dodd or Tim Mahon.
MB: The new album appears to be less directly New Zealand-oriented than your earlier material.
DM: I don't agree. I think it's very much so. There are no place names, sure. But 'Envy Of Angels', the song, is strongly about a road north of Auckland, that my father and I used to drive along when I was a teenager. 'While You Sleep' is set in a flat in Herne Bay, Auckland. 'Along The Boundary' is about a beach in the Hauraki Gulf, 'Like This Train' is about the Silver Fern heading north. I think Alan wrote 'Come Around' in Kingsland, Auckland, where he was living at the time (initially there were lines about buses and taxis, with the fares in New Zealand dollars). However, 'Trouble With You' seems very North Finchley, London, to me -and that song seems to be one of the emotional centres of the record. Envy Of Angels is certainly a less outgoing record than the previous two. The first years in London were a very introverted and rather miserable time for me. I felt I'd lead everyone on a wild goose chase over there, and, in spite of the big record deal and all the flash tours, I seemed powerless to make a good environment for my family, and powerless to stop the band falling apart. Unreconstructed male bread-winner self-doubt collided with an inability to communicate with, or motivate an increasingly disgruntled group of people - and my writing dried up completely, the first time that had ever happened to me. Not a good look, considering as it seemed everything depended on what I was about to write. For a few months all I turned out was various versions of 'Trouble With You', a much longer, rambling version of 'Jackie's Song' (which everyone hated) and a few forced pop songs which hopefully will never see the light of day. The turning point was songs like 'Envy Of Angels' and 'Boundary'. I had to go back and remember why I wanted to write songs and be in a band in the first place. That done, my confidence started to come back. Nothing was easy on that record though. 'While You Sleep' nearly got binned because no-one in the band seemed to like it. I'm glad it hung in there.
MB: It also seems to move away from the dramatic towards the personal.
DM: Well, see the above answer, I suppose.
MB: Are you conscious of any recurring themes or subject areas in your work? To give an example, 'Call For Help', 'White Valiant' and 'Too Close To The Sun'. These songs are also musically related. Is the song 'Envy Of Angels' the culmination of that cycle?
DM: Fear of falling off the edge, of what's just outside the lights of the town, has always been something I've felt like writing about. I guess it comes from growing up in a fairly safe, quiet suburb in Auckland and spending so much time driving up and down the country in bands in my early twenties. Not so much in awe of the beauty of the land-more rattled by the sheer emptiness of it. Hopefully as I've got older I've learned to stop banging on about being afraid of things. 'Envy Of Angels' is related, in my mind, to 'A Thing Well Made'- rather than to the others.
MB: You're as much a writer as a musician. Are there any authors you feel have influenced your work at all?
DM: I love to read, but I'd hate to say I'm influenced by this or that writer. I'm very conscious of film. I think it would overburden the songs to say that one was influenced by a specific film or book.
MB: I was thinking that the songs deal with characters and situations in a semi-novelistic manner.
DM: Some of the songs do get a bit top heavy with content. I do want to tell a story and I don't think it would be fair to blame any particular author for that. It was more listening when I was a teenager to songwriters like Joni Mitchell, who were capable of setting scenes, taking the listener through a scene in quite a filmic way. There's that great song on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which starts off, 'Heat waves on the runway as the wheels touch down/He takes the baggage off the carousel/He takes a taxi into town' [The song is called 'Harry's House - Centerpiece']. That sort of economy of story telling as a series of shots. Harry Chapin wrote a song about a guy who holes himself up in a church tower, called 'The Sniper'. Tom Rapp of Pearls before Swine was also an influence.
MB: Some people in New Zealand have derided the Mutton Birds as being musically conservative. How would you respond to that?
DM: I'd be disappointed if people in New Zealand didn't deride us for something or other. I think we've had a very good run critically. The charge of being conservative is one I'm happy to accept - partly my desire to gradually evolve into someone who is trying to find some essential approach to writing simple lasting songs, not to end up with people saying 'Wow, that's innovative', but with them really taking a song to heart. It's necessary to limit myself. I wouldn't prescribe it for others but it's been necessary for me... working in a band is a process of subtracting the bits that no longer fit everybody's ideas of how the music should sound. The set of things that everyone feels comfortable with is necessarily refined, has shrunk. There's a small number of things I'd rather focus on and find a few things that I can get really right. It's been a gradual process of growing up. Being older is a process of becoming more focused. Some of the bands I like best, like Crazy Horse - every note is instinctively right but you wouldn't call it innovative.
MB: You have outlets in other areas. Does that mean you don't feel the same need to experiment in the rock format?
DM: I've done maybe three film scores since I've been in the Mutton Birds. It's generally 'applied' music; it's not done for the sake of it. I've never thought of myself as a serious composer. When I do a commission, it's like there's a four-minute scene where say, the Romans invade Gaul - theatre music.
MB: Tell me more about the Millennium project.
DM: Well I'm the musical director which is pretty strange after eight years playing in a band to suddenly have to coordinate all the aspects. Some of the music's being commissioned. I'm writing some of it, collaborating with Douglas Wright on a piece for the beginning with a dance company put together specifically for the event. Thankfully Vivaldi's already written some of that one for me. It's going to be a great show. Mike Mizrahi and Marie Adams (the directors) have wonderful ideas and it's enlightened of the powers that be to let us loose on an event of this scale.
MB: How do you approach composing for an orchestra?
DM: I might start on piano but through doing film scores I usually work with sequencers and scoring software. That sort of technology enables me to write parts. I can use the sequencer to hear the whole orchestra playing at the right tempo. It doesn't orchestrate for you, though. I did a brass band piece for the 1990 Commonwealth Games and an orchestral piece with the NZSO and Kiri Te Kanawa for the Seville Expo, so I've had a bit of experience. Orchestras still scare me. I played in one at University - they're worse than film crews in terms of a large number of highly qualified people with knife-edge critical faculties all waiting for you to make a mistake. I love it in theory, but I prefer working with small groups.
MB: Do you ever do solo performances?
DM: I've done one or two, playing at my kids' school on benefit night. It feels really strange playing Mutton Birds songs without looking round to see Ross pulling faces. The band is still going and I don't want people to get the impression they can get Mutton Birds songs by calling me up. It would dilute what we are.
MB: Do you have any particular feelings about writing 'love songs'? I was thinking there seems to be a New Zealand tradition of anti-love songs, e.g. Neil Finn's 'Message To My Girl' to Chris Knox's 'Not Given Lightly' etc.
DM: The new album's got some songs about love on it. David Byrne (Talking Heads) said that if you're not really sure of yourself you should work with micro-topics - a subject you can hold in your hand. Love is a very big thing - and in tandem with the standard Kiwi male reticence ... 'Anchor Me' is a love song and so is 'While You Sleep' but they're both about the state of being in love rather than 'I love you'.
MB: 'Anchor Me' seems like a reversal of your usual style.
DM: Well it relates to songs like 'The Heater' ... a kind of heightened magical state. 'Straight to Your Head' is like that too. It probably comes from reading lots of stories to my children about magic. I read a lot of fantasy books as a child. 'Anchor Me' started as a story about a magician who lived under the sea.
MB: It's got all that Shakespeare in it too.
DM: That phrase at the front, 'Full fathom five', has been used a lot. There's a Dave Dee Dozy Mick and Titch song that uses it. It's not that high-falutin' really. Also the idea of the sea, danger and vastness - like my Scottish ancestors getting into boats and coming to New Zealand. It must have been like going to Mars. But it's also a love song, asking the one you love to hold you in a state of peril. Love songs to do with the sea tend to be rather wishy-washy. But if you've lived near the sea you know the sea is nothing like that. So 'Anchor Me' is about love as perilous but it's also about saying I want more of that peril.
MB: The Front Lawn was optimistic whereas the Mutton Birds, lyrically at least, aren't. Fair comment?
DM: I don't think so. The Front Lawn were quite often funny but that was often a by-product of the style we chose to perform in rather than the content. The Reason for Breakfast was a piece about forgetting the simplest ritual, about how terrible losing that flimsy fabric that makes us human might be if we were to forget it. It's also about what happens in a place like New Zealand where kids can grow up in an absence of ritual, an absence of behaviour that has meaning in other parts of the world.
MB: Wasn't it about trying to create meaning as well then?
DM: 'Breakfast' was really absurd. Some of the shows were funnier than the others. A piece like The Washing Machine was really quite brutal, where someone ends up with a perverse lust for a piece of whiteware. .. pretty horrific. People found it funny but it was a response to Rogernomics. The whole rhythm of the show revolved around the cycle of a normal washing machine which was working on stage while the show was on. It was connected to the water supply in each theatre we were at. There was no sound (music) except for the hum of the washing machine. Pretty minimal. As for the Mutton Birds, I don't think you could call the latest album pessimistic. On some tracks on Envy of Angels the self-pity quotient was getting up there - it was a function of what we were going through in Britain at the time. You have to be honest when you're making an album. There's a lot of songs on Rain Steam and Speed which have a redemptive quality and even in old songs like 'Dominion Road' I think there's a sense of hope.
MB: So now you're back in New Zealand, do you think you'll try writing any political or social commentary?
DM: When I was starting writing songs I spent a lot of time imitating people around me who wrote political stuff like Richard von Sturmer who wrote the lyrics for 'There is No Depression in New Zealand', adopting a really negative character and letting him reveal himself through what he says. 'Queen's English' is like that but for some reason I don't want to do that so much any more. Randy Newman does it well. There's always layers and you're searching for the heart of the character, where it lies.
MB: A lot of Newman's songs deal with anger at some level. Is that something you want to express?
DM: It's difficult to write a good angry song and be consistent. I've not done a lot of them. Angry songs have to be written fast and I don't write songs fast. A song like 'Goodbye Drug' was written really fast though and I like that. It's got a kind of resigned anger - it's a bit of a departure for me, musically too. You've got the slide guitar and the swing rhythm, the relaxed, open-ended structure. It's not as tightly structured as some of my songs. Yeah I've written a few angry songs but then I've rejected them because they don't seem to stack up. I don't believe them after a while.
MB: Is it because they alienate people?
DM: I've no idea. I write songs to please myself.
MB: What's your favourite of your own songs and why?
DM: Well, there's songs that people talk about when they come up to you after the gig - ones that seem to resonate for a long time.
MB: On the Mutton Birds fan email site (firstname.lastname@example.org) they talk a lot about 'White Valiant'.
DM: Yeah, I still like that song. It was the first one, before the band. The riff came to me between songs at a Blam Blam Blam gig. I picked up the bass and started playing. Then it turned into a completely different song that was a demo for the first Front Lawn record. It was called 'The Telephone Song', about a guy who likes to telephone this woman when he knows she's not going to be home because the phone is ringing in her apartment and he feels like he's getting close to her somehow. It had that kind of distant, obsessive, short story quality. The characters in the songs-it's like taking your family on the road with you and each night you introduce them to a different audience. Certain family members grow up or change, certain members are closely related. There are ways that songs like 'Envy of Angels' and 'A Thing Well Made' talk to each other. They've both got the euphonium. Because it's kind of a mournful instrument it's unlikely I'm going to write something fast and joyful on it. If I'd learnt the piccolo that whole face of the Mutton Birds might be different. When I think of melodies for the euphonium it tends to throw a cast, a particular light over the whole piece. In 'A Thing Well Made' the whole story is related very flat but there's a sense of something terrible approaching...
MB: Perhaps it supplies the poignancy that's missing from the character's mindset?
DM: Yes, because he's not aware of what his acts or omissions are creating and I guess I was thinking along the lines of culpability. In the aftermath of Aramoana you couldn't help but think that what happened belonged to all of us in some way - the idea that a normal day in someone's life could be part of a chain of events which leads to this happening, whether it's the one who sells him the gun or the school teacher who takes no notice of the odd child in the class. 'A Thing Well Made' actually started off being about women and men: how men perhaps live in the world of things and women in the world of people. That's an aspect that tended to fall away as I worked on it more.
MB: That's a theme of a lot of your songs, like 'In My Room', which is about a male narrator and how he arranges his possessions around him as a kind of barrier and the woman who gets through his defences.
DM: That's true.
MB: What do you think of the production of your records? Which sound best?
DM: I'm hopeless with that. I fancied myself as knowing a lot about production when we made the first Mutton Birds record, like using Casiotone on 'Big Fish'. I forced everyone in the band to play to click tracks. Why? I just felt that was the way to make a solid strong rhythmic pop record - I did that with 'Salty 'too. We weren't playing in time when we started so it was probably good discipline but it was an obsession I got into through being out of pop music for so long. When I was a drummer in Blam Blam Blam I wouldn't have been seen dead playing with a click. It can make things a bit soulless. But then I had that long period of film scores and writing stuff for the Front Lawn shows that was all sequenced. You develop a mistrust of live rhythm players - even though I ended up with the best drummer the country has ever produced in Ross Burge. I was obsessed with accuracy. The songs had to have the best engine beneath them. It also came from the steady pulse work I'd been doing with From Scratch and the Laura Dean Dancers which was really anal as far as pulse went. In Laura Dean we had two drummers - we toured all over the world with three or four metronomes with flashing lights mounted on the music stands and we'd be playing these really complicated patterns in 7/8 and 9/8 and we'd do one tempo like 132bpm for 70 repeats and then we'd switch to the next metronome to the right at 140bpm and do 20 repeats on that. That kind of obsession was really knocked out of me by the Envy of Angels recording process because by that stage the band was in revolt anyway. They weren't that interested in doing what I said anymore. We had a producer (Hugh Jones) who was really adamant that the stuff could breath. He was tough on Ross too, as he was on all of us. There were one or two one-take songs but some involved cutting different takes together. Rain Steam & Speed was almost all one-take tracks because we'd played so much. By then we'd arrived at an incarnation of the band that knew each other so well it became hard for us to go out of time.
MB: The Mutton Bird's rhythmic style seemed to be set pretty early.
DM: I guess it seemed like a solid rhythmic vessel to put a bunch of ideas into. It was a case of paring away things I didn't quite believe, like other kinds of rhythms which sound too suave or too ironic or too clever, which is bizarre considering I've done so much rhythmic work but I guess the part of me that wants to write good songs and the part of me that likes fancy rhythms are separate.
MB: Are you a populist?
DM: I always enjoyed it when a crowd of people get into what we do.
MB: You're not fussy about what crowd of people it is?
DM: No. The audience for any kind of art making in a country like this is small enough without affecting to appeal to an elite. Even when I was in From Scratch, which was quite esoteric - there are no singles on From Scratch records - the part that I enjoyed the most was the people getting off on it. That we could do a show based on abstract mathematical ideas with no words, involving notions of circularity and balance people couldn't put into words what moved them but they were moved anyway.
Muttonbirds Still In Harmony
Christchurch Press (1999)
- Angela Crompton
Having a band staying together for the best part of a decade is no mean feat in today's music world, says Don McGlashan of the Mutton Birds. To meet the music industry's demands while maintaining the impetus which kept a band operating was too hard for many groups, the songwriter-musician said in a telephone interview last week.
"The music industry is based on product. But the band stays together because of a love for a sound, an idea."
McGlashan, a name associated with earlier groups like Blam Blam Blam and the Front Lawn, has been the main Mutton Birds' man since it formed in 1991. Drummer Ross Burge is the only other original member.
"There's been line-up changes, but it hasn't really affected the fact it still feels like the (Mutton Birds) band ... the new people are definitely strong partners in the idea."
Original lead guitarist David Long was with the group when it made London its base in 1995. He quit in 1996 and another Kiwi expatriate, Chris Sheehan stepped in. He was unable to come back home for the current Mutton Birds' tour, which started in Invercargill last night and continues north with gigs in the Dunedin Glenroy Auditorium tonight and Oamaru's Opera House tomorrow. Instead, former Dunedin musician Matthew Bannister, ex-Sneaky Feelings and Dribbling Darts, is filling in.
"Matthew's a songwriter I've always respected - and a great guitarist," McGlashan, who plays guitar and euphonium, said. Years ago, he and Bannister shared an Auckland practice room and the Dribbling Darts bass player Alan Gregg even switched ships to join the Mutton Birds for while.
The fourth Mutton Bird member is English bass player / vocalist Tony Fisher and he, Burge and Sheehan remain based in Britain. McGlashan, however, returned to live in Auckland a few months ago.
After four years of living in London, I wanted to live a more normal life ... see my kids more often," he said.
The world felt as if it was getting smaller, anyway, as technology advanced, living on the other side of it from the rest of the band was not a major problem. The band's constant touring in recent years had been wearing them all down, so it was decided to limit live performances to two big tours a year - one in Britain, one in New Zealand. The next question to answer was: "Where is the best place to live?"
McGlashan chose New Zealand. "I can look after the kids, write songs, tour less and stop living like there's a war on."
The Mutton Birds' latest album, Rain Steam and Speed, was recorded in London after he had made the decision to move home and the music reflected the happiness he was feeling, he said.
"It's probably the most joyful thing we've ever made. It was a really good time in the studio with everyone really firing ... part of it was knowing what I was going to do."
He feels confident the band has established a foundation which allows it to keep growing at a pace everyone feels comfortable with. He laughed, though, when asked if other New Zealand musicians could take heart from the Mutton Birds' example and not feel they had to move to more heavily populated places to be part of the international music scene.
"I'm probably the last person to ask in terms of a sensible career path," he said. "But if you're reaching an audience and you're touring and making records you feel good about, you're winning on many counts."
Success in the music industry for many people involved jumping through many industry hoops.
"The industry doesn't have any time for 'developing' people or helping people work towards doing their best work: it's just about product.
"So, you have to fight your own self-preservation battle and everyone's got to do that in a different way."
Sharing time on stage with the Mutton Birds during its tour is Tim Finn (ex-Split Enz).
Home Again, Naturally
Real Groove (June 1999)
- John Russell
Half a world away, in late 1997, the Mutton Birds were dropped by their English record label, Virgin UK, and they dropped longtime manager, failed Sweetwaters promoter Daniel Keighley. Two years on, the band's fourth studio album, Rain, Steam and Speed has just been unveiled here and a local tour is planned in several months' time. Don McGlashan, back home since March, tells Real Groove, "Cocaine helps you get to the gig faster."
When the Mutton Birds arrived in the UK in 1994, I guess Britpop was at its peak.
"It was. The spurious war between Blur and Oasis was being puffed up by all the tabloids and every day you'd have a new picture of some atrocity perpetrated by Liam Gallagher. But there were good things happening around the edges of it, like Supergrass, I Should Coco had just come out. We were doing a few European festivals and we got to see all the UK bands playing."
Did it feel like a fortuitous time to be arriving?
"Only in that there were a lot of guitar bands around and lots of songs, people were talking about songs. It was pretty obvious that people were really high on a 'shades of empire' type nationalism, which we couldn't ever have anything to do with. After a while we stopped buying records and stopped looking at the UK scene 'cause it seemed as though there were a lot of pointless, directionless fads out there - you'd get a band like Menswear being touted as the band that was gonna save English music, but they hadn't even had a single out."
With so much other good music going on in the UK, why did you choose to blank everything?
"To make good songs you've got to go inside yourself and try to crystalise a feeling that you've had. Then it's got to jump through all of the hoops on the way to turning into a record without the feeling disappearing. If you try to do that, but you're always looking over your shoulder at what some magazine might say or what your record company might think, then you're going to trip up and produce something that's thin and shortlived. We're lucky that we're not swayed by anything that goes on outside of the band."
You didn't get into the dance scene then? No drum 'n' bass...
"Not me. There's so much stuff going on and I'm sure there's really neat people working on dance music, but it's not a scene that I've ever had affinity with."
England's still swimming in ecstasy, what did you make of that?
"It certainly leads to a submissive, short attention span sort of culture. I think that Britain displays more of a cocaine/amphetamine culture in its music and youth culture nowadays. London runs on cocaine and that's kind of ugly. What Frank Zappa said, that marijuana makes you hate your parents but cocaine turns you into your parents is exactly right. It turns you into the most penny-pinching, self-involved, back-biting egotist. Cocaine helps you get to the gig faster but in the end, drugs don't write the songs. Movements in music come from the same places that movements in film or literature or painting come from, they come from the world."
In London, you had a mixed time being signed to Virgin UK.
"When we got to London we got signed by Virgin very quick. There was a period of about a year where they were making the right noises and saying they were gonna keep us for a few albums. In spite of the general short termism of the industry, they were gonna look on us as something that would grow, despite the fact that we were rather ordinary and ungimmicky. After a lot of travelling and having a lot of money thrown our way, it became obvious that we were the wrong people for them and they were the wrong people for us. When the split with Virgin actually came, I think we were just really thrilled to discover that we had stayed a band."
The Mutton Birds were lauded by the UK music press, but you never got the radio play that would have moved the band beyond a cult following.
"Yeah, it's not something that I lie awake at night and worry about now, because I've come to the realisation that there's never really any cast-iron notion of what success is in this industry. We've been doing this for a living for eight years, we've reached a lot of people and our audience continues to grow in the UK. That's a level of success that we're happy with because we're in control of it."
Overall, was the four years away worthwhile and enjoyable?
"I hated it for the first three years, partly because everyone was on each other's case; the pressures of working under Virgin, disagreements about management and disagreements about the direction of the band were divisive. That coincided with a writer's block on my part and unreconstructed male breadwinner angst. But once I realised that no hit tune was going to suddenly come down out of the sky and solve everyone's problems, and once the situation with Virgin cleared and our management changed, things started to look up. Then a bit after that we made the decision to come back to New Zealand."
Why did you part ways with Daniel Keighley?
"He left and came back to Now Zealand for family reasons, that was what he said and we had no reason to doubt that. I think at that stage he was already planning Sweetwaters. There were aspects of him leaving that weren't satisfactory from our perspective, but I can't go into because we're still sorting out some paperwork with him that will safeguard us in the future. It was a terrible shock to see what happened [at Sweetwaters]. He's an aspirational manager rather than a practical one. He was always a great one for ends justifying means and I don't agree with that way of looking at things."
Were any major lessons learnt whilst you were overseas?
'If I've learnt anything from being away, I've learnt that in the interests of sanity, the less time that I can spend thinking about or being in contact with the music industry the better. It doesn't actually have very much to do with music."
Any views on the local industry as it stands?
"I don't know that there's that much that can be done short of attaching New Zealand to a giant tug and pulling it off the coast of Santa Barbra or plonking it down somewhere in the Irish Sea. In a place like England, there's a natural tendency for the industry to roam around looking for a new place to shine its big spotlight on. And once [music journalists] start to go to little towns and write pieces about how a tiny backwater can produce such amazing songs, the next step is that the people who write those songs have to get in a van and drive to a big place over the border and sell those songs - they become part of the bigger picture. It's at that point where New Zealand bands always fall down because they can't get in a van and drive anywhere. That's what fucks people up. But I've just [got] back, it's too early for me to start coming up with remedies for anything."
What expectations do you have for the new album? You've been out of sight for a while.
"I don't have any expectations. People's attention spans are quite short here because there's a lot happening and if you've been out of the picture for a while you're deemed to have disappeared. But there's enough people who follow what we're doing and a lot of people quite looking forward to (Rain, Steam and Speed). We've been really lucky with the amount of interest that has remained here, considering how much energy we've put into the UK and Europe in the last few years."
Having settled with his wife and two kids in the Auckland suburb of Eden Terrace, McGlashan admits it will take some time to acclimatize to a stable existence where he'll sleep in the same bed every night. He's got at least until September to get back in the groove, before the Mutton Birds embark on a New Zealand tour and further ahead, a UK jaunt next February.
"Until then, hopefully I can just look after the children and write songs."
Don discusses 'Jackie's Song'
Source unknown (1999)
"Jackie's Song came from an old idea I had about a dialogue between two soldiers, or shipwreck survivors - one who has to leave (or is about to die) and one who must remain. The context came into my mind as I was reading a book on the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s - thinking about the predicament of the (mainly Irish and Scots) soldiers in the British army who found themselves in New Zealand, in impossible terrain facing the hardest indigenous force ever encountered by the colonisers. I also meant it to be about the seductive/coercive power of old songs. How they can lead people into battles that aren't their own; how they can perpetuate ideas that should long ago have been buried (the Omagh bombing had just happened when I started putting the pieces of this song together).
None of this is necessary to make sense of the song. It can be taken as just a love song/farewell song from one friend to another - in the tradition of battlefield farewell songs."
Songs, Senses & Small Mercies
Southland Times (September 1999)
- Michael Fallow
An unglamorous band with glorious songs, The Mutton Birds play at the Embassy Theatre in Invercargill tomorrow. Michael Fallow sounds out singer-songwriter Don McGlashan.
The All Blacks versus England. It's 16-all. Through our television sets we hear thousands of English voices burst into another chorus of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. By way of reedy reply from at least one Invercargill living room couch comes a snatch from a Mutton Birds song.
When the chariot won't swing low enough...
It seemed appropriate, which it shouldn't really. The song in question, Small Mercies, was written by Don McGlashan as a delicate, keening, deeply thankful and comforting piece. Nothing aggressive about it. You wouldn't think so to hear the couch version. McGlashan doesn't mind when we do this to his beautifully crafted songs. He remembers a story Dave Dobbyn told him.
"Dave was in London once, playing for a room full of pissed Kiwis. Which is often the case in London. He was singing 'Whaling' and got to the line 'I feel like Jonah ...' Whoops. He'd conjured up an icon bigger than any mere Biblical prophet.
"Suddenly they'd changed from being respectful audience savouring his songs into something more like a 21st party, and he'd turned into the entertainment for a 21st party. Not that Dave would complain about that..."
It's just a New Zealand thing. And if people sometimes entirely misinterpret his songs, McGlashan reminds himself that for each one he sends out with a clear meaning, there's one that is evocative of something even he struggles to pin down. Songs that make sense as expressions of feeling, rather than of thoughts. Mind you, that hardly explains the engineering student from Lincoln who once enthused to McGlashan about The Mutton Birds 'A Thing Well Made'. So good to hear a song about craftsmanship and pride in your work, the student said. He'd rather missed the intended point, that the appreciative viewpoint turned out to be that of a Christchurch sporting goods salesman who was sending off automatic weaponry to Aramoana's mass killer David Gray.
McGlashan has returned to New Zealand after four years based in England to find that his homeland feels different.
"It seems to have gone further down the road towards individualism and away from a sense of shared, collective future. A lot of people, I think, feel more anxious and more left to their own devices." Mind you, this new viewpoint could be due to nothing more than him becoming a grownup. Even so, he detects a yearning among us for a less doctrinaire government, which he believes election-minded politicians are chasing as a vote catcher.
"So it could be that at last we might get back to policies that look after the less fortunate... and outlying areas don't lose all their services ... and, you know, market forces don't drive every aspect of our lives."
An anti-1984 attitude? Sounds good to him, but he's not yet convinced the parties are doing any more than paying lip service.
His band, meanwhile, remains celebrated in a less than stellar way. It has enough good reviews from weighty publications to fill a guitar case - "Robust, sad melodies and beautifully weighted arrangements" (Q Magazine); "The classic purity of the melodies ... is at times breathtaking" (The Sunday Times); "Unpretentious ingenuity, freshly-baked-this-morning melodies and dark pensive lyrics" (The Times). McGlashan squirms at a reminder that critics tend to underscore the view that the band ought to sell more CDs and be more famous. Rub it in, why don't they. As he sees it, The Mutton Birds are doing all right, with audiences in several different countries and a new management in England, Shhhh Records, which is "still keen to fight the good fight."
McGlashan's songs have a strong sense of place and, because he's a New Zealander, that means a strong sense of this place. They are crafted, melting beauties and tensions into odd alloys that are sometimes exultant, sometimes understated, sometimes almost both. Streets ahead of most radio fodder, then?
"Uh, it wouldn't be appropriate for me at my age to be wagging my finger at young people's pop music," McGlashan says. "Pop music has lots of functions in this world, and a perfectly good one is to make you feel like tapping your steering wheel as you're driving to work. But in with that there are other songs which somehow reflect the world that you live in. If these resonate with somebody listening, then good ...
"I'm always really heartened when I listen to radio charts. Somewhere in there you'll find something that couldn't have been written by a machine. Something with a real idea behind it. It's got sharp edges that would have been smoothed off by the record company, if they could."
Mutton Birds songs evoke Dominion Road on a wet day. The warmth of a heater in a dank flat. White Valiants. They seek stories behind waterfalls and behind old monuments. You could call it folk music, he agrees.
"It's not very fashionable now, but neither am I. And I'm quite happy to be who I am."
McGlashan is also well pleased to have Tim Finn as a special guest for tomorrow's performance in Invercargill.
"The last time I played with Tim I was with Blam Blam Blam and we were supporting Split Enz. We were incredibly intimidated by them all but Tim was a generous spirit. Still is."
The main man of the Mutton Birds is also acutely aware that he's heading back into genuine muttonbird territory. And yes, he has tasted them.
"Do they still have the Muttonbird ball? Yeah? Maybe they need a band..."
Fashion Victim Gathers Speed
NZ Sunday Star Times (1999)
- Grant Smithies
Don McGlashan is about as fashionable as the specials bin at Farmers. He sounds somewhat taken aback with this observation during a conversation about the Mutton Birds' latest album Rain, Steam and Speed.
But I don't mean "unfashionable" in a negative way. It's just the Mutton Birds, whether live or on record, seldom get adjectives like "cool", "hip" or "avant-garde" thrown their way. Like Crowded House or Elvis Costello and the Attractions, they occupy the "serious songwriter with backing band" basket, and so must settle for more measured prose about their "immaculate craftsmanship", suggesting their music's more for beard-stroking audiophiles than trend-conscious pop kids.
"Well, Robbie Williams has very carefully crafted songs, and his whole image is very carefully put together. He's really fashionable with certain people," says the recently returned to New Zealand after four years in Great Britain McGlashan. "There are many ways of looking at fashion. It's not just one check-list that arrives from heaven and gets ticked off by the select few in another country and then gradually filters down to New Zealand.
"To me, real fashion is whatever creative people want to do; whatever pushes their buttons. Opening a magazine and being told you ought to go out and buy a particular record this week, and then being told the next week you're not supposed to like it any more - if that's being fashionable, then I wouldn't aspire to it."
Anyone opening magazines like Q and Mojo lately, or British papers like The Times or the Guardian, have been told to go out and buy Rain, Steam and Speed. After the more expansive (and expensive) sonics of their previous album Envy Of Angels, recorded with major label backing before Virgin UK dropped the band for "poor sales", the album has a tougher, more stripped-back sound.
The Brits have called it a 'pop masterpiece', with one of the blokes from Radiohead naming The Mutton Birds as his favourite band, yet critics here seem to be putting a bob each way.
Perhaps their appreciation has been dulled by over-familiarity with McGlashan's thematic interests and writing style? Whatever the critics say, he believes Rain, Steam & Speed is the band's best record. "With Envy Of Angels we had a lot more money to spend but weren't awfully happy as a band. This new record is more similar to our first album, in that we decided how we wanted it to sound and who we wanted to work with, without having to justify our decisions to the record company. And I think these songs spring from a much stronger set of ideas."
Ahh, the songs. Carefully crafted? With meticulously built arrangements? "Well, half the people in the music industry are trying to make lasting, meaningful songs which describe the world the way they see it, which is a really ancient notion. Meanwhile, the other half are being marketed as a disposable fashion item.
"Sometimes those two sets intersect and in the middle you'll have a really fantastic band that's making music to last but who're lucky enough to be doing it at the right time and be marketed by the right people so it takes off. That's been us at various times in our career," he adds philosophically. "Maybe this will be another one of those times."
After spending more than 20 years touring in various bands, including Blam Blam Blam, McGlashan has decided to get a life. While the rest of the band remains in the UK, he's brought his family back to Auckland. He'll get more time to relax, write and be a more available father to his two children. The band will re-unite to record and tour, here and in the UK, at least once a year.
With a month-long tour kicking off this week, punters from Auckland to Invercargill will get a chance to evaluate the Mutton Birds' salty new sound. "It's always interesting to play small towns everyone else avoids," says McGlashan. "We played in Timaru once and all the males stood about ten feet away with their backs to us and all their girlfriends stood facing them, and therefore us, but they had to look over their boyfriends' shoulders to see us. Now that," he laughs, "was interesting."
Mutton Bird Up In the Air: The Mutton Birds' UK Tour Diary by Don McGlashan, Part 1
NZ Herald (18th November 1999)
On tour again. Will we have enough rehearsal time? Will Andrew Claridge, who's stepping in on guitar, fit in? Will anybody come to the shows?
First things first, though. The plane has to take off - in spite of it being impossible. They know it's impossible, that's why they get you drunk. It makes up for the sinister rattling sounds and the bad-tempered stewardesses and, anyway, it's traditional to consume all the booze and peanuts they can throw at you, at least on the leg to LA. Everyone knows that.
"The captain has turned off the seatbelt sign." Really? Why couldn't someone else do it? Shouldn't he be flying the plane?
Calm down. I wonder if anyone, ever, has locked an aeroplane toilet door behind them without thinking, "I bet they can see me from the cockpit," and scanning the ceiling for the hidden camera.
Back in my seat, and the in-flight TV news is brilliantly inconsequential.
Here's a must-see: an item on an international finger-skateboarding competition. The thrill of flesh on 2mm plywood; the squeak of tiny wheels; the high-fives after a particularly tricky manoeuvre ... I'm so engrossed in that, I miss another impossibility. We cross the dateline and suddenly it's yesterday. Who are they trying to kid?
I begin to suspect that they're moving the seats together incrementally, a few millimetres at a time, so we won't notice. I'm sure my knees weren't touching the back of the seat in front when we left Auckland. I make a note to check in LA to see if they've sneaked in an extra row at the back of the plane.
It's been a long time since that bag of peanuts. What else is there to do?
The stuff you're given to read on aeroplanes is meant to relax you, make you feel affluent and sophisticated. There's a magazine called Long Haul Mail or something, full of the most amazing junk that you'd only want if you already owned everything remotely useful that had ever been invented - a CD player for the shower; an automatic rotating tie rack; a home snow-maker that connects to your garden hose.
Imagining buying these things makes me feel less empty-handed, more attached to the world, even though I'm stuck inside a metal tube 10,000m above the ocean, with no eftpos terminal in sight.
Brief touchdown in the US. Coffee, a magazine and a muffin costs a withering $NZ30. I sell the snow-maker to a passing religious zealot. He rips me off good.
Finally I get to London. I stay for the first few days in Wembley with Ross Burge, drummer. Even after four years living in this city, it all now seems unfamiliar; seething, exhausting, overwhelming.
Getting to Andrew's place takes an hour-and-a-half, which is most of the available daylight. He sounds great, though. Incoherent with jetiag, I dredge up everything we might play and a lot that we won't, but fail to find anything that he hasn't learned thoroughly. Aye, it's a wild and crazy idea, Captain, but it might just work.
Back down in the underground, the walls of the stations are covered with travel advertisements for places that the tube riders can escape to in their imaginations. Places filled with space and light, like the place I've just come from. That's impossible too, but I'm here.
Cocoon Breaks Open After Night Caught in the Storm: The Mutton Birds' UK Tour Diary by Don McGlashan, Part 2
NZ Herald (25th November 1999)
Steve, our manager, has found us a practice room in the centre of London. It's more light and dry than the place we always used in Holloway Rd, but it still has pin-boards covered with the familiar tragic ads: "Kick-ass bass player wanted for up-and-coming band. Influences: Suede, the Beastie Boys and Janis Joplin. No time-wasters."
After a few days I go to stay with friends in my old neighbourhood, which means I'm coming into the city on the Northern Line again.
Rehearsals finished, we leave for five shows in Wales, Scotland and the North. The first gig is in Wrexham, North Wales. On the way, in the traffic jams around Birmingham, we pass a median strip with a stunted outcrop of shrubbery on it. Almost hidden in the bushes, we can see a tent, with gas bottle and TV aerial. Surrounded by miles of busy exhaust pipes, it's a strange symbol of grit and eccentricity.
Wrexham is pretty, if you don't count the people. It's Friday night, and I'd forgotten how large Northern lads and lasses like to squeeze themselves into undersize bits of latex and leather, get lathered, then stagger around looking for a fight, or someone to go home with, or both. We keep our heads down.
The gig goes well. Ross [the drummer] has given up smoking, and he's as wired as a suspension bridge.
That, and the energy that Andrew [the new guitarist] is bringing to the songs, makes us louder than we've ever been. While You Sleep is so full on that no one could sleep through it without industrial sedatives.
We drive north the next morning, through Cumbria, and heather the colour of rust. Dry stone walls marking divisions between long-dead neighbours - occasionally a tiny cottage with smoke curling from a chimney.
It reminds me of Central Otago, but I know it's the other way round. Generations of Britons went out and peopled the world, and we grew up stuck in their homesickness like ants in honey.
Onstage at the Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh, I'm having a bad gig. I can't hear which notes to tune to in the squalling, rumbling storm of each song; can't remember how to stand or think of anything to say to the audience. And yet the place is full and jumping, and people come up to me afterwards and rave to me about how it's the best they've seen us in the five years they've been following the band.
Scottish thriller-writer Ian Rankin collars me to tell me he's named his next book after The Falls, a song from our latest album. He's excited, speedy and wants to tell me the whole plot right there and then. Unable to quite follow his accent, and still cloth-headed from the gig, I mutter thanks and flee to the hotel.
In the morning I skip the traditional Scottish continental breakfast and go for a run up the Royal Mile, down past the railway station, across Princes St, to the New Town. To my right, every long street finishes in the pale, grey sea at Leith. The castle rises histrionically out of the rock like a Lord Of The Rings promo still.
We load the gear up the icy cobblestones and drive south on the A702 through tiny villages that seem to have grown out of the hillsides.
I drift in and out of the traveller's constant daydream: What would it be like to live in that house; to know that place with the kind of soft, easy knowledge that piles up, like leaves, over time? So that what looks (from the van) just like a hill, a church, a stream - becomes The Hill, The Church, The Stream ...
But we're round the next bend now, and suddenly in beech trees, nearly bare in the waterlogged fields, but catching the sun with their last remaining bits of orange and yellow.
I feel myself coming out of my normal early-tour cocoon (worried my voice won't hold, not coming out to the pub after the gig, not saying much in the van ...) It hits me, as it always does about now, that this is not really a job; I should be paying someone to let me do this.
It's the Grand Old Puke from York: The Mutton Birds' UK Tour Diary by Don McGlashan, Part 3
NZ Herald (9th December 1999)
We are on the road to York. It's almost dark, so it must be mid-morning. After staying the night in a bleak truck stop on the Manchester ring road, we're on the M62, in the rain.
York is an old, walled city, with buildings leaning at crazy angles and cheery signs saying: "So-and-so was martyred on this spot in 1342." The flooding has hit hard. The Travelodge carpets squelch with river water as we check in.
The travelling has made me thirsty so I drink water from the tap in the room, forgetting I'm not supposed to do that. The pub is old. Although there are no obvious traces of 14th-century lynchings, the walls bear evidence of evil goings-on. I'm talking of tribute bands, and we seem to have stumbled on the motherlode: the Jamm, the Rolling Clones, T Rextasy, Fleetwood Back and, my favourite, By Jovi.
In a dark corner, there's a poster for a band called Crowded Trousers (what sort of show is that?)
Over generous after-gig whiskies, the promoter tells us about an outfit called Rock Bitch (a sister act to Crowded Trousers?) who play at the venue regularly. Their show-stopper seems to be "throwing the golden condom," a witty parody of wedding reception bouquet tossing, in which the punter who catches the condom gets to go up on stage and ... (At this point I start to feel ill, but don't immediately connect it with drinking York water.)
By Sheffield the following night, I'm a pale green. I stagger through soundcheck, have to crawl under a pile of old backdrops to sleep before the gig, then manage four and a half songs before falling off the side of the stage and puking into a rubbish bin.
I black out, and wake in London the next day, to hear that the entire Sheffield audience refused to have their money back, but promised to come to the next gig instead.
They do just that. The Flower Pot pub in Derby is loaded to the rafters, and the show is blistering. It feels like we're hitting our stride; Ross and Andrew throw musical challenges to each other with the swagger of TV wrestlers; new sections of songs appear out of nowhere, teeter on the brink of falling apart, then come back together in unrepeatably inspired ways. And I manage to keep my lunch down. Everyone's so happy afterwards that the gear seems to load itself into the van.
Back in London, we do some interviews and live acoustic songs at Bush House for the BBC, then drive to Cardiff for another radio session. There's a momentary break in the showers, but the sun's not coming out because it'll be dark soon, and anyway, he wasn't given enough notice. The M4 is flanked with fields of bagged Christmas trees, ready to be trucked in their millions to hardware superstores all over the country. The beautiful single arc of the Severn Bridge into Wales is spoiled only by the weird shade of hospital green that all the steelwork is painted. I try not to think of Sheffield.
All the signs are suddenly bilingual. "Newport" is "Casnewydd," "Services" is "Gwasanaethau." Suddenly I'm spouting Dylan Thomas and demanding that we stop for a pint of stout with an egg in it. The rest of the band remember Sheffield, and they decide it's a bad idea.
The gig, at the Toucan Club, is just as good as Derby. Queen's English seems to go on for half an hour, we're having so much fun with it.
It's two days after Wales is defeated by the Springboks; the pub dinner lounge is filled with a South African supporters club barking triumphantly at each other in Afrikaans, so we take our after-gig party back to the hotel.
The next morning, we wander around the town looking for breakfast. Cardiff swims in a grey light, as if all the people and buildings are in a giant fish tank that needs a good clean. There are just a few more shows left before the big one, Shepherds Bush Empire in London. That seems to be selling out already, so, with a spring in our step, it's one last look around, then back in the van.
Brighton Rocks Towards Finale: The Mutton Birds' UK Tour Diary by Don McGlashan, Part 4
NZ Herald (16th December 1999)
Brighton is the next gig, and I'm getting the train down early to see some friends. First I have to walk to the tube and take the Northern line to Victoria, a journey of about 12km which takes about as long as driving from Auckland to Hamilton. When we lived in London, I used to write a lot of songs on these trains.
Once through the outer suburbs, all the London lines choose their points to dive underground, away from light, parks and supermarkets and into the murky subconscious of the city. On the Northern line it happens after East Finchley and it seems to involve a time change as well. The next stop, Highgate, has tiled walls that look like they haven't been touched since the Blitz. Then Archway, Tufnell Park, Kentish Town, Camden, where the carriage suddenly fills with noise and colour (ah, the real London - pink hair, leather thigh-boots, Union Jack skirts - and that's only the Spanish schoolchildren), then under the West End to change at Embankment for Victoria Station.
I buy a ticket to Eastbourne. I doze off as we trundle through Clapham, and hear ancestral voices in strange, 19th-century inflections welcoming me back, making odd, clipped speeches of post-colonial forgiveness and reconciliation, except they're not. It's the conductor saying that, because of flooding all over the Southeast, the train will divide at the next stop. The front two carriages will go to Brighton, the back two to Eastbourne, the one marked "S" will stand still, and any left over will become exhibits in a transport museum in Scunthorpe. I feel like a penguin on a disintegrating ice-floe, and the uniformed staff all seem to be Croatian refugees, whose command of English extends to "No," but a bunch of elderly, hair-netted women come to my rescue. "The 10.15 always divides, luv. Has done ever since the War. You come with us - we'll see you right." They do, and I get to Jevington village to meet my friends, and then on to Brighton in time for soundcheck.
We rehearse a new song, Stay Hungry, and decide to put it in the set. It's not really finished but sometimes it's good to throw songs into the water and see if they swim, before they get too sure of themselves. It works. Big smiles in the audience tell us it was the right time to try it.
Back in London, and the final gig at Shepherd's Bush. The Empire sits at one end of Shepherd's Bush Green, with an incongruous, decaying grandeur, like an old Shakespearean actor standing in line to use an ATM. Inside, the venue is much bigger than the others we've played in the past month. There are staff hovering to plug things in for us, tune our guitars and tape our leads to the floor so we don't trip on them.
At soundcheck, we finally agree on the song list after tinkering with it all through the tour. I want to start with Envy Of Angels - mainly because it doesn't fit anywhere else in the set and I'd hate to leave it out. Ross thinks it's too wimpy. I say he can choose the songs for the first encore if he'll let me choose the opener. After the normal amount of swearing at the umpires and throwing our racquets on the ground, we walk up to the net and shake hands.
Before the gig, the nerves kick in. Standing in the wings with Tony and Andrew, watching the support acts, we can see it's a full house. The punters are noisy and good-natured and steam rises from them, thickening the tunnels of light that slant down towards the stage.
Andrew tells me he's just noticed he's been pacing continuously for the past half-hour. He reckons this is the biggest headline audience he's ever played to. I'm glad he's excited, it helps me to get my own butterflies in order.
Suddenly we're on. The little red lights on the amps are glowing, and I'm watching myself standing, listening for the sound of drumsticks clicking together. Ross' voice sounds calm, quiet, and far away as he counts in Envy Of Angels ...
Don McGlashan - Home Alone
NZ Musician magazine (April 1999)
- Jennifer Scott
When Don McGlashan of The Mutton Birds tucks his children in at night, the bedtime stories he spins - like his songs - are no doubt filled with a plethora of weird and wonderful characters.
I get this impression when talking to him about how the single Pulled Along By Love from the band's fourth album, 'Rain, Steam & Speed' was recorded. McGlashan talks enthusiastically about recording it at London's Blackwing studios, a grimy, ghostly converted church. I speculate that the joy was in the acoustics of the old building but am corrected: "It was more the sense that something slimy might crawl out of an alcove," he says gleefully.
McGlashan recently returned to New Zealand from a four-year stint in the UK. Here he will stay while the rest of the band, drummer Ross Burge, guitarist Chris Sheehan (ex-Exponents) and new bassist Tony Fisher, stay in London. McGlashan's return is the latest in a series of changes for the band, but one McGlashan does not see as a terminal problem. In fact, he says if anything, this geographical difference will make the band more prolific.
"From my perspective, I'm now in a situation where my family can be more comfortable, I'm touring less and I'm home more and have got more time to write which is going to result in more albums, not less."
'Rain, Steam & Speed' was recorded last year in London and released in the UK on the band's own label, shhhh! records, the band having been dumped by Virgin UK owing to sales of the third album, 'Envy of Angels' not meeting the company's expectations. McGlashan says rather than being a kick in the gut, Virgin UK's action came as a sigh of relief for the band.
"Most bands think that major label involvement is going to be some kind of heaven. You struggle away on earth and suddenly an A&R person with wings comes down and carries you up into the clouds, and from then on there's nothing to worry about. You're completely creatively free and you've got lots of time to spend wasting in cafes. But it doesn't work like that because major labels are not organised around music. They're organised around selling and foisting stuff on people that should know better."
While they appreciated the money Virgin UK put into 'Envy of Angels' at the time, they are pleased to now have complete creative control, and although the album will be released through Virgin in New Zealand, McGlashan says he is pleased that the band can relegate the whole 'major label episode' to the past. "The 'major label episode' is kind of a cliche. Most bands that we know speak of their 'major label episode' as you would talk about a really ill-advised affair with someone. It's somebody that didn't really suit you and you roll your eyes and go what was I thinking of?"
Ironically, since losing major label support the band's UK fanbase has increased considerably and McGlashan says he understands 'Rain, Steam & Speed' is selling faster than 'Envy of Angels' in the UK and there are some leftover benefits from the Virgin experience.
"Everything we got on the major label, like the little plastic dividers in all the major retail chains saying The Mutton Birds, they're still there and our visibility hasn't decreased, it's increased."
Although he is decidedly sick of it now, four years of continuous touring around the UK paid off for the band and McGlashan says the band has tried to capture this live appeal on 'Rain, Steam & Speed'.
"The record was made very quickly and in a really organic way because we knew we didn't have all that much time in the studio, and we'd been touring a lot so we knew we were playing well. We wanted to get in there and actually get the atmosphere down without it evaporating. That was the task of the record." The album was engineered by Sam Gibson (Crowded House, The Stereo Bus, Garageland) and produced by the band.
"The reviews so far in the UK - not that I take any notice them of course (smiles) - are pretty unanimous in saying that it's the best thing we've ever done, and I agree with them."
Indeed the album, except for the single Pulled Along By Love, has a very stripped down, almost folkish sound. Although he has since left the band to tour with Bic Runga, Alan Gregg played most of the bass parts on the album and other guests include fellow ex-pat David Mitchell (3Ds) playing guitar on Jackie's Song and Scottish pedal steel player and - McGlashan says - demon tequila drinker, Stuart Nesbitt on Goodbye Drug.
McGlashan himself experimented with new sounds, using an e-bow for the first time with his guitar on As Close As This."I'd never used one before and so it kept falling off and so when we finished the take I said 'Okay, I think I know what I'm doing now' and the others were all like, 'No! Leave it the way it is', so we have. The e-bow usually has this continuous tone but on this track you can hear it stop and start as I drop it and cuss at it."
One of the most obvious things about McGlashan is that in spite of everything that has happened he still loves being a Mutton Bird and is more than pleased with what the band has achieved.
"We went overseas so we could keep going as band. We decided that we needed to make more records and if there was a chance that we could make them on a bigger scale and reach more people, then we could keep the band going longer, make more records and do more shows. It wasn't a burning ambition to get out and make it ... when we left we had no idea we were going to be away so long. As far as we were concerned we were on a world tour but more and more it appeared we would have to stay there (in the UK) to take the opportunities as they came up.
"As far as we're concerned we have a really big audience. Apart from Crowded House and Pauly Fuemana I don't think anyone has reached as many people as we have. I don't know of any other New Zealand bands who have got two four star reviews in Q Magazine."
The band will tour New Zealand and Australia in May to promote the album and then McGlashan plans to return to teaching music part-time - and of course to write heaps of songs.
"We've done pretty well out of music and the royalties from The Mutton Birds keep coming. There are aspects of the job which I feel tempted to complain about often but really, when you stand back and look at it, most musicians should thank their lucky stars for being able to be able to basically show off in front of a whole lot of people and be paid for it. I've got no complaints."
They're Using Our Name Over There
excerpt from an article on www.stuff.co.nz about the inspiration NZ has on other countries
"At least one slice of Kiwi life has appealed to a very specific overseas audience. Songs from the Mutton Birds feature in books by Ian Rankin and Christopher Brookmyre - both Scottish, both thriller writers.
The latter will use direct quotes from the songs "The Heater" and "Envy of Angels" in a book due out next February. He says the band's songs are inspirational.
"Sometimes these songs have struck a chord with me because they echoed a sentiment I was already considering, and other times because they offer a way of looking at something that hadn't occurred to me before."
Don McGlashan, front man for the Mutton Birds, says Rankin made a direct approach after a gig in Scotland.
"He said he was a huge fan and did we mind if he named a book after one of our songs ("The Falls") and we'd both had so much lager it seemed like a great idea - it still seems like a great idea, even without the lager."
McGlashan is at a loss to explain the band's author appeal.
"I don't have a clue. I just think it's the perverse likes and dislikes of the individuals involved. Maybe they're searching for something exotic to put in their book, but I don't think it's that. I hope it's not that. I think it's more that these guys liked the atmosphere of what we were doing and they wanted to have some."
NZ Listener (1999)
I'm sorry, but it just is. It is probably one of the worst names in the world for one of the best pop groups. The Mutton Birds. I mean, if there is a Naming Baby book for bands, then I think Don McGlashan must have got his copy from the Planet Zog, where the sky's made out of green flannel suiting, and if you want an extreme sport, try breathing out in unison. Why, it makes his previous incarnation, the Front Lawn, sound positively sexy and hillocky with mystery (did the turf move for you?).
Why not the Pukekos? Or the Keas? Or the Kakas? They could have called themselves the Sandhoppers - it's got that chipper, insecty thing going for it. And the Nikaus is awfully nice (try it with me and see). Or hang on - they could have been the Singing Swanndris. But no, they're the Muttonbirds. I mean, let's face it, boys, no one else in the world even wants to eat mutton, let alone listen to it.
Still, it's all part of McGlashan's deadpan irony, that curious Kiwi humour that pretends to have had a charisma bypass but which, not so deep inside, is bubbling away with more black weirdnesses than you could shake a geranium at. And some of it was nicely on show in National Radio's 'The Muttonbirds', airing in the late-Friday-night music spot - like, f'rinstance, McGlashan's phobia of the young army wives pushing prams around his London neighbourhood - "all really strapping and athletic-looking and all about 18. Quite fearsome!" Absolutely.
Makes my unreasoning fear of axe-murderers and rabid Social Welfare Ministers look pretty silly, I can tell you.
The programme concentrated entirely on the songs from the latest album, Rain, Steam and Speed, interrupted only by McGlashan's own words - so it's just as well he's one of the few rock musicians with anything interesting to say. Songs, he pointed out, "don't have all of that paraphernalia of importance that other kinds of art have. There's no marbled foyer to walk through on your way to a song." And what songs! Lyrics like these: "The trees are all tangled up and they're the wrong shade of green / And the birds laugh like drunken garrison girls." A guitar-ry, dense-textured drone that suddenly flowers into something quite lovely and then heads back to being a drone again. Bit like life really, if you must have a moral out of it.
So how does he do it, bless him? "Flat speech," said McGlashan. "Sad chords." Hearts razored into little shreds. Ah, those sweet, suffering lads with their sensibilities all a-shiver.
Somebody give 'em a swanndri, quick. - Jane Hurley
Great Tunes With Strings Attached
Dominion Post (September 1999)
- Pete Barnao
Trying to re-arrange Kiwi pop songs for a band with full orchestral backing would leave many musicians feeling caught between a rock and a very hard place. Especially if the songs are your own and your formal music training is a fading memory.
This is the challenge for Muttonbirds frontman Don McGlashan when his band joins forces with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for a concert in Martinborough this month.
The Muttonbirds will play four of their best-known songs with the orchestra at the Concert in the Vines at Alana Estate. The collaboration follows the orchestra's teaming with Split Enz for the ENZSO concerts and recordings. But McGlashan says this gig is more about creating an orchestral backing than heavily reworking the songs.
The Muttonbirds songwriter, who studied music at university and played French horn for the Auckland Sinfonia, is arranging one of the songs, Queen's English, himself. He admits the task is "pretty scary".
"This approach of having the band playing at the same time as the orchestra is quite different. A rock and roll band is necessarily louder than a whole violin section. We have to work out a way of doing it without annoying the orchestra."
The project has highlighted different writing techniques and musical cultures - between an orchestra's formality and the improvised ways of bands, McGlashan says he has enjoyed delving back into his formal training while touring to promoting (sic) the album, Rain, Steam & Speed. He puts the main musical challenge down to "the tyranny of the printed page."
"If you stand in front of an orchestra, you can't really say, 'hey, that doesn't work, let's try this' like you do in a band. The orchestra is such a huge mass of highly trained people, all sitting there with the clock ticking. But there's an enormous respect among rock musicians for classical performers [and] I think a lot of people in orchestras have a lot of respect for rock and roll musicians, who can be spontaneous and relaxed and play without music."
McGlashan has asked composer Gareth Farr to arranged Muttonbirds favourites Anchor Me and Dominion Road for the collaboration. The show will be conducted by Kenneth Young, the NZSO's principal tuba and a former resident conductor, who will arrange a concert version of Nature. Young, too, is relishing the challenge.
"It gives the orchestra a chance to play a style of music we're not used to playing. The idea is not to get in the way, too much, of the rock band, but trying to enhance the sound. It's about adding an extra orchestral texture to the song."
Young, who played with the orchestra in the ENZSO shows says the real challenge lies with the sound manager, who has [to] achieve a balance between the band and the orchestra. Tickets to the concert are $45 and numbers are limited to 5000.
The Don of Song
New Zealand Herald (22nd May 1999)
- Russell Baillie
There are plenty of chapters in the Don McGlashan songbook. Russell Baillie looks at what's behind the lyrics.
It would be easy just to turn up to Don McGlashan's place and talk shop. After all, there's been plenty happening. His band the Mutton Birds, a 90s Kiwi rock institution based for the past four years in London, have put out a fourth album, Rain Steam and Speed. It's the first record since they split with Virgin Records in Britain and they've now gone out on their own label. It also marks other changes, with bassist Alan Gregg departing part-way through the recording and being replaced by Englishman Tony Fisher. And it's the first to feature the guitars of onetime Exponent Chris Sheehan, who took the place of co-founder David Long shortly after the late 1996 album Envy of Angels. It also marks a new stage in the Mutton Birds set-up, as McGlashan and family have recently returned to Auckland to live. The other three, including drummer Ross Burge, will remain based in Britain but get together for recording and touring - a New Zealand tour is booked for September. It might sound like a winding-down, but McGlashan doesn't see it that way. "I don't have much time for spending the rest of my life knocking on doors in Britain trying to get on Top of the Pops or anything like that," he says. "I no longer think that sort of behaviour is necessary for being where we want to be. Where we are now is with more albums in us but a clear decision not to be going up and down the M1 every second week." And there's evidence the band has established a solid fan base Up Over. In the McGlashans' Kingsland hallway is a poster from the band's sellout February show at London's 1800-capacity Shepherd's Bush Empire. The album, released through their own label shhhh! (and picked up by Virgin Records NZ for release here) has won many and glowing reviews in the Brit rock press. But that's the shop talk. We have other plans for McGlashan on this cold night. We have designs on his body of work. For, like Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn, McGlashan's back pages now form one of the great New Zealand songbooks. Its chapters stretch from the angular artpop of Blam Blam Blam, the comedy-song-theatre-movie multi-hyphenate of the Front Lawn, or the askew and often cinematic pop'n'folk- rock of the Mutton Birds. There have been songs which come delivered in character with a story to tell, or as RS&S increasingly shows - speak from McGlashan's own heart and personal observations. He's long had a great eye and ear for songs set against a New Zealand backdrop, whether urban (the upbeat ones like Dominion Road) or rural (the slow broodings of White Valiant). And the onetime Blams drummer, From Scratch percussionist and Angel at My Table soundtrack composer turned Mutton Birds singer-guitarist, also remains undoubtedly the best euphonium player in rock'n'roll today. But it is that body of work we have to dissect. So we have come armed with CDR of 10 McGlashan tracks. Songs we think are among his best. His very own "this is your songwriting life." Let's press "play."
Track One: Pulled Along by Love - The first single from the new album. Swings from churning guitars to a sweetly giddy chorus. Lyrics sparked by crowd-watching on the London Underground. Not the first time he's found inspiration in trains or other public transport. "I guess it was just looking at that train and seeing just a mass of people ... suddenly got knocked over by the enormity of the fact that there is an enormous engine driving each of these individual people. Or one engine driving them. "I heard it on ZM in the car today. I turned it up really loudly. I punched the air. I swerved. I changed lanes. I upset people in later model cars. But what more you can do?"
Track Two: When You Come Back Home - A track - and single - from the 1989 album Songs from the Front Lawn. Exuberant ode to domesticity with a folky/brassy backing written with Lawn offsider Harry Sinclair while playing a season in Melbourne. "I never thought this song worked really well. It was always fun to play live - we would do it at the end of a Front Lawn show. But I never thought we made a very good record of it. We'd been in Melbourne for quite a long time. Paul Kelly's Gossip was stuck permanently in the malfunctioning cassette player. The car had something wrong with the fuel line. So the Melbourne streets, the heat, that album Gossip and the smell of petrol are just mixed up all together. Whenever I hear songs from that period it all comes flooding back."
Track Three: Andy - The saddest, loveliest track of Songs from The Front Lawn. Acoustic strumming propels a song set on Takapuna Beach, where a one-sided conversation is taking place. Had some lyrical steerage from Sinclair, but autobiographical. "Yeah this is really about my brother who we lost when I was about 15 ... it's not really an attempt to create a story too far away from that. Front Lawn is probably the only time I have ever really collaborated with other people. I have collaborated a few times in Mutton Birds, but it's generally not to do with the sense of a song or where the song is coming from."
Track Four: White Valiant - Brilliantly creepy, automotively-referenced track from Mutton Birds self-titled 1992 debut album. Flip side to Dominion Road. "This is one of my favourite Mutton Birds songs. The riff was written at the end of Blam Blam Blam and then it briefly surfaced in a Front Lawn song called the Telephone Song. I kind of knew where I wanted it to go."
Track Five: Anchor Me - Nautically-themed emotive and anthemic ballad. A single off the 1994 album, Salty. "I remember writing it and coming to the practice room with the verses and the bridge very clear in my head but no idea for the chorus, and playing it to the band and improvising the chorus ... and they all said: 'It's got to be like that, that's the song, what are you talking about?' I always thought the chorus was way too simple an idea. But when you make mistakes sometimes you get good songs out of them.
Track Six: While You Sleep - Insomniac's love song of dreamy tune and wiry guitars from the 1996 Envy of Angels. "This is probably one of my favourite songs, but what Tom Waits would call a redheaded stepchild. That's what Dave Dobbyn told me - the songs that refused to behave are the redheaded stepchildren. The band thought the structure was really wonky and didn't go anywhere and the producer wanted it off the record. "But this song really grew as we played it. It became something that felt like the centre of what we did."
Track Seven: Envy of Angels - Title track which closes the album on a contemplative note over a propulsive guitar jangle suggesting open roads and wide horizons. Features very nice euphonium solo. "This song is a letter to my Dad, really. It's about driving along roads north of Auckland with him as a teenager and having him point out the march of progress up the bays in pragmatic but generally glowing terms because he's an engineer and involved with the growth of suburbs ... he looks upon that with approval and I didn't then. I just saw, arrogantly as a teenager, more and more empty lives and more ugly carports. It took me years to go away, grow up, and come back before I realised I was one of them. I grew up in the shadow of an ugly carport. And what's wrong with that?"
Track Eight: Last Year's Shoes - Lilting mid-tempo chiming charmer from half way through RS&S. Not the first McGlashan song to mention footwear. "This song is about reaching out to somebody. It's about shedding an old skin and it was just the image of shoes. I went out to Piha and sat in this bach and it was the first thing to come. There was only me, the cicadas, the long-drop, and I was still writing when I went to the long-drop. The cicadas explains 'leaves hissing static' in the beginning of that song. It's got all the landscape."
Track Nine: Ray - At six and a half minutes, the longest Mutton Birds song from the end of RS&S. Starts small and intimate. Ends big and strident. "This was the redheaded stepchild of this album. It wouldn't sit still. It's just a direct song to somebody. Who? Can't say, but nobody called Ray. I've always wanted to write a song called Ray because it's such a nice word. It's quite strange for the Mutton Birds' songs to have a big outro - and that outro [on the album] is nowhere near full length. It was eight or nine minutes when we played it."
Track Ten: Don't Fight It Marsha, It's Bigger Than Both of Us - The heftily named classic Blam Blam Blam single with the peculiar lyrics - "there's five blue figures in a white circle" among others - from 1981. Arguably, where it all started. "I still like the kind of knife-edge quality of it, but compared to the Mutton Birds this sounds really young and nervous. "This one came out of nowhere. It is sort of an imitation of early Talking Heads lyric approaches where you have a really unsympathetic character standing up and stating his case - like Psycho Killer. I was listening to Talking Heads quite a bit and XTC. I don't know where 'five blue figures in a white circle' came from. "Some people come up and psychoanalyse that song. Somebody came up with a numerological reading of it. Completely off-beam but interesting."
Q&A with Don McGlashan
Newcastle Herald (18th November 1999)
Full name: Donald Vain McGlashan. It's an old Scottish name.
Date of birth: July 18th 1959
Earliest memory: Eating a nasturtium, or it could have been a hydrangea. I was only two years old, so I didn't know the difference. They both have long names and they both taste bloody awful.
Childhood pin-up: I was into sailing, so it was probably some great yachtie like Paul Elstrom or Lou D'Altuget. I actually represented New Zealand in cherub racing when I was 18.
Silliest thing you've done: Swimming naked in the Auckland Domain duck pond in the middle of winter.
Bravest thing you've done: Have children. I've got one of each (Louis and Pearl).
Is image all about hair: Yeah, I've got good hair... and it's still red!
Favourite indulgence: Single-malt whisky.
Worst habit: Staying up all night to finish songs. I do that a lot and it screws me up for days.
Three things you would take to a deserted island: My wife (Marianne) and two children.
Favourite kitchen appliance: The coffee-maker.
If a movie was made of your life, who would play you: I would like to say Harrison Ford, but it would probably end up being Richard Dreyfuss.
Whom do you most admire: Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tea of coffee: Coffee, black and short.
Free as a Bird
Sunday Times Culture (10th January 1999)
They were dropped by Virgin, but, judging by the Mutton Birds' new album, it is the record company's loss. ANDREW SMITH meets New Zealand's finest.
We have previously remarked upon the mysterious ability of some American groups to stand onstage in cruddy jeans and their dads' geeky cast-off shirts, yet create an impression that they are the coolest hep cats you will ever see. Unfortunately, the Mutton Birds are from New Zealand and they don't have that ability. They may be the least cool, most tragically unhip guitar band in Britain right now, but what they do have, in Don McGlashan, is one of our most intelligent songwriters and poetic lyricists. McGlashan frowns at any mention of fellow Kiwis Crowded House or the antipodean tradition of clear, concise, unashamedly classic songwriting, but the Mutton Birds are superb exponents of that currently undervalued, underpractised art.
The quartet formed in Auckland nearly eight years ago. They first came to Britain in 1995, and have since spent more time here than anywhere else. Before that, McGlashan had acted in an extremely well-travelled comic acting troupe called The Front Lawn, who went to Edinburgh and performed seasons at the Donmar Warehouse in London and elsewhere. He also played drums with a touring dance company ("weird, trippy, minimal stuff') during a year he spent living in New York and composed the music for Jane Campion's fine breakthrough film, An Angel at My Table. Towards the end of his time with The Front Lawn (1985-90), however, McGlashan began to catch himself looking forward to the few songs they included in their show. He decided that it was time to return to music full time.
Let me tell you why I'm glad he did. You can say anything with prose that you can say in poetry. We value the latter because we recognise that to communicate a thought or feeling in five words is five times more powerful than using 25. This is also the reason why a three-minute pop song such as Freda Payne's Band of Gold, or Stevie Wonder's I Was Made to Love Her, or Ray Davies's Waterloo Sunset, Tim Buckley's Song to the Siren, or Nick Cave's (Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For? can be as emotionally enriching as a symphony or a soaring Coltrane improvisation. To those of us who grew up with it, the pop song is a magical and esoteric medium. Many artists stumble across one good pop song in their career - often for no apparent reason - but few bring anything to it with consistency.
We're not going to claim that any of McGlashan's songs are in the same class as those mentioned above, but Envy of Angels, the Mutton Birds album that Virgin released in 1997, was clearly the work of a very considerable songwriting talent. There were no frills, no flash, nothing unnecessary; the music was pure and simple and in harmony with the words. Particularly enchanting were tunes such as She's Been Talking, which began "At the high tide line / Driftwood and shells / That's where she said we could leave our clothes / Where the moonlight dissolves on the wet sand...", then opened into a brilliant evocation of the paranoia and uncertainty that is never far away in a new relationship. McGlashan could pull off a dizzy love song such as While You Sleep without resorting to a single cliche, and a humorous number such as April without cloying.
Needless to say, Envy of Angels didn't chime in with anything else that was happening in 1997 and failed to sell in very great quantities. Surprisingly, this was enough to persuade Virgin to drop the band, but, having got this far, they weren't about to give up and go home. Instead, they took to touring incessantly, building what has become a substantial following for an unsigned act. Another tour starts on January 26, with a self-financed album to be released on their own label on February 1. Rain, Steam & Speed is more raw, less full and expensive-sounding than its predecessor, but suffers little for this. The catchy As Close As This is reminiscent of early REM, while Winning Numbers is the pop equivalent of pure driven snow (the first song ever to mention Belgian Airways in its first line) and the first single, Pulled Along By Love, is far too subtle to appeal to the increasingly myopic Radio 1, but all the better for that.
McGlashan speaks with the gentle Kiwi lilt you'd expect, though he looks much more like the comedian Frank Skinner than you'd have guessed from a distance. This, I suppose, is an advantage. He sees Rain, Steam & Speed as a more extrovert album than Envy of Angels, as being "more about offering help than asking somebody for help". More of it was written in London than in the past and this shows, too. Pulled Along By Love, he says, is about "watching people streaming past in that way that you can only do in London and suddenly realising that you're not stationary, you're one of them".
"These songs surprised me when they first started to come out, because mine have always tended to be quite solitary songs, though, then, as now, there is often a tension between the music and the lyric. A lot of the songs I like are like that, where the music seems to know what the song's about, but the singer doesn't necessarily. That gap in the self-knowledge of the singer can be really interesting. If I could write something as unalloyed as I Will Survive, I would, but it doesn't seem to suit me."
McGlashan attributes this new optimism in his writing to the split with Virgin, where he never felt entirely comfortable.
"I didn't weather it well. What bothered me was the constant sense that they weren't really what we were after, that their ideal artist would be a kind of beautiful, vivacious archivist, someone who spent their entire young adult life cross-referencing every note and word and gesture that's been made in pop music since the 1960s.
"I think the idea of originality ... there's not as much of it here as I thought there would be. I remember when I was about 16 and I first went to university in Auckland [studying English and music], the first period we studied was the Augustan period and we were reading Pope and things like that, which were very cynical, very self-referential, with lots of time spent merely attacking other critics for being crap writers. I remember thinking: 'is this the best you've got?'; and I must admit that when we arrived here, I got some of the same feeling. At the same time, I think there's room at the fringes for some extraordinary stuff, and I'd rather be there than anywhere else."
Which, all things considered, is probably good news. Even the Mutton Birds' name implies as much. Often criticised as ugly and inappropriate, it refers to a species of pygmy albatross that lives in the extreme south of New Zealand, migrating thousands of miles to Russia in the southern winter. Having decided upon the grimmest places to live, they disappear for long periods, but have tended to show up when hunters and settlers were hungry, once saving an entire penal colony from starvation. For this reason, they are also known as "birds of providence" and have what McGlashan describes as "a slightly magical aura" about them. At the same time, they're the only bird you can buy in chip shops, though they taste appalling, and people in the north of England "seem to assume that the name is some sort of femal genital pun." In there somewhere, you'll find the spirit of the Mutton Birds.
Interview with Don McGlashan
Mojo (March 1999)
Sometimes, it takes a sack load of stamina to survive the fickle music business, and no matter how many albums you fill with warm, enigmatic melodies commercial success is not guaranteed. It's a dilemma that The Mutton Birds have suffered from since the release of their self-titled debut which, like it's four descendants, marries a Byrdsy melodicism with beguiling lyrics. Luckily, Mutton Bird singer/songwriter Don McGlashan is not short of stamina or, for that matter, a sense of humour when he talks about why The Mutton Birds were recently dropped by Virgin: "We told them we'd sold a lot of records and they checked up on us," he deadpans. "It's a big company and they've got somebody who can do that. We thought we had sold a lot! When you come from New Zealand selling outside your immediate family is considered selling-out."
Beyond the bravado, Don McGlashan really does feel liberated away from the clutches of a major label. "The main thing is," he tells MOJO while in transit to a radio show in Wolverhampton, "we don't have to explain the songs to anybody but each other. The tours are more fun because we don't have to measure up to anybody. I think we've made a good or better album as we did with the big budget and the big producer."
Their new album Rain Steam & Speed, certainly sits on the same podium as its predecessor, Envy Of Angels: brimful of class-A material - each track a potential single. "It's probably the result of being able to forget about the tensions of being on a major," Don continues. "Right from the beginning it felt like we'd been signed as the result of some typographical error. New Zealanders tend to look a gift horse in the mouth but we didn't form a band to be picked up by big cars and ferried to flash interviews."
Interview with Don McGlashan
NZ Radio (1998)
Growing up with music
"I grew up in a family on the North Shore of Auckland. Both my mum and dad were teachers. My mum was a school teacher and my dad was a civil engineer, but taught civil engineering at the Auckland Technical Institute. So there was time for the kids. And there were four children in the family. Whenever anybody showed the slightest aptitude for music, or the slightest interest in anything, my parents would race out and organise the lesson, or the membership of the club or whatever it was. I was interested in music and I could sing in tune and I was very keen to be the centre of attention, right from a very early age. And so, my dad would buy or rent bits and pieces of old musical instruments and there were lots of them lying around the house as I was growing up. And I think I started learning cello and piano when I was about seven, and then gradually added more instruments to that. I went through the tune-a-day for whatever instrument it was, for just about every instrument I think."
"By this time I was about 14 I suppose. I was playing in a youth orchestra and I was writing songs and I was starting to get interested in bands. There was some sort of nightclub bands that were formed out of some of the more dangerous-looking guys at the school I was at, and that was really attractive - the idea of basking in their reflected danger - that was pretty exciting. So I did that, I had a residency playing keyboards in a band when I was about 15. This band was billed as the loudest band on the Shore. I think the promoter of the venue couldn't bring himself to say anything about the quality of what we were doing, but it was certainly... it was like the loudest band on the Shore. We lasted in that for, I think about three years, during which time I was still studying the French horn. By that stage I'd started to learn the French horn and I was really keen to play that in an orchestra. I carried on sort of following those two strands - of learning how to write songs, learning how to be in a band, learning all the sort of extra musical stuff that you have to learn - and on the other side I was learning the French horn. I had a really cool teacher who would sit me down and make me listen to Bruchner and Mahler, make me listen to stuff which was the really romantic end of music. The kind of stuff that sort of makes you punch the air with your fist, it's so exciting. And that's the way to come into that kind of music I suppose, especially if you're a French horn player.
'Inside Information,' 'The Plague'
"About [the] second year of university I was really good friends with a group of people that were centred by Richard Von Sturmer and Charlotte Wrightson - they were both writers and performers. They started a group called Inside Information, which was sort of a music theatre collective. I joined in on that and I ended up throwing song ideas into the pot, and we did shows around Auckland. Richard was a really prolific writer - and still is. He writes more working with his poetry and short stories I believe at the moment, but in those days he would churn out lyrics all written with this old typewriter, everything written in, and all the lines were really short and they were all really sort of political diatribes. He had a song called "Frank Gill's An Idiot," - Frank Gill used to be an MP. It just repeated that over and over again. A lot of these songs were arranged and performed by Richard's band The Plague, which was a really notorious band around Auckland. It was quite famous for shows where the whole front line of the band would be naked and painted different colours. I played with them a few times while I was actually in the Symphonia, so occasionally I'd come from Symphonia gigs still in my Symphonia penguin suit, with my French horn and I'd stand up on stage with them and the naked painted people would jump around me. We'd play these songs like "Frank Gill's An Idiot' and "Private Property." It was a really vicious noise, but it was really fun, fun to part of. Three of the members of that group floated off to form another group called the Whiz Kids which was a... probably more conventional rock 'n' roll band. So the Whiz kids travelled around the country being a band and made a record and did all the things that bands do. I was a member of that for the last year, I think, playing saxophone and guitar, none of which I could play very well, but it seemed like a good thing to be... a good thing to do. I didn't really want to finish my university degree, so I was kind of a bit at a loss at that stage.
Blam Blam Blam
"That group broke up in about 1980, late 1980 I think it was, and the remains of it was Blam Blam Blam - Mark Bell, Tim Mahon and myself. I had done quite a bit of percussion but I hadn't really been a drummer. I could read music and play orchestral percussion but I couldn't really join all the hands and feet together. But I figured I could do it; I figured that it wasn't very difficult. The whole punk ethic of trying to deny technical ability as much as you could (if you could actually play an instrument then make sure that's not the one you play in the band) - that really suited us, although deep down we were really interested in music. Like we probably used more outlandish chords and more angular melodies and more interesting rhythms that a lot of the other bands were using at that time. But the basic impetus was that kind of breath of fresh air that was blowing through pop music that blew away the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers and all that horrible stuff that we had to grow up with. And all that horrible stuff that served as the backdrop for our first dates in cars all the way through the seventies. That was great; that was a wonderful time being in that band. It was just brilliant. There were only three of us. Musically we were moving really fast, learning stuff all the time. Every time we made up a new song, sparks were flying and it was a wonderful thing to be in. And, I think, we made some good records and did some really good shows with that band. There's a song called "Call for Help" which is one of the first ones I wrote for Blam Blam Blam. ...I suppose it's about fear of the unknown in the countryside and I didn't know where it came from, it sort of came from a dream. It proved to be... the first of a whole series of songs like that that I've done. I still don't know really where they come from but it seems to be a recurring dream that then wants to be made into a song. I've made quite a few songs like that with The Front Lawn and with The Mutton Birds, but "Call For Help" was sort of like the blueprint for it. There were lots of Blam Blam Blam songs that were really fun to do - and really fun to play to people for the first time because you could feel that we were different; we knew we were different. The first time we played "Don't Fight It, Marsha, It's Bigger Than Both Of Us" on a Students' Arts Council tour of New Zealand, to have what's essentially a loud, thrashy band suddenly put down their instruments and turn on a weedy little drum machine and play this very, very still piece of music, a rather strange ironic idea - we didn't quite know why it was good, but we knew it was good. When I left Blam Blam Blam, the first thing I did was I went to Australia to tour with From Scratch. I was really unsure of writing, or being the centre of attention I suppose. It was really getting to me - the idea that I had kind of turned into a writer and I really didn't know what to do with that... status. There were other things floating around at the time, [like) From Scratch. I'd already done some work with From Scratch. It was kind of attractive to slot in to someone else's big idea and to have a role that I could understand, a role that was manageable. Also to have the opportunity to go somewhere else, to get out of this place, learn from this, and I really needed that. From Scratch was the brainchild of Philip Dadson, who's a composer who lectures in sculpture at Elim, Auckland Art School. It was in those days - and it still is because the group's still going - essentially a kind of performance that's based on a really thorough-going idea; an idea that dictates how the music's going to be written, step-by-step, how the instruments are going to be laid out in the space, how the performers are going to come into the space, what they're going to do in the space before the instruments are laid out. The nature of it is organic, and it's a very simple idea - the idea of balance, the idea of circularity, the idea of equality of parts. If you take that right down to musical composition, if you're working with balance then you're working with, say, rhythms where you play the same number of notes on your left hand as you play on your right hand. And if you're looking at equality, equality of parts, that means you're not going to have solos, you're going to have three people sharing roles. Also if you're looking at equality as a kind of democratic way of making music that then lends itself to the idea of 'hocketing' which is where a group of people share a melody or a rhythm by each playing a little bit of it."
The Front Lawn
In some respects, The Front Lawn was very much a grab-bag of possibilities - anything we woke up in the morning thinking would get thrown into a piece; would probably become a piece. It might be one minute long and it might be a song or it might be a little piece of dialogue - or it might be a completely mime thing. Anything could be in a Front Lawn piece and that's completely opposed to the kind of rigorous rule-based organic sort of quality that From Scratch had. So in some ways The Front Lawn was kind of a reaction against the structures of being in From Scratch. It was the strangest thing, because we started off taking ourselves quite seriously in the rehearsal room. (We had] quite high flown ideas about our culture, and about men - because we sat down facing each other saying "what are we going to make pieces about? What have we got? We're not oppressed. We're not minorities. We come from good homes, we're talented. Basically we should just shut up really, because we're gonna get good jobs at some stage. What have we got? We're men! That's right!" So quite often stuff would come out about men and initially - this is terrible to admit to anybody - initially we wanted to call ourselves The Y-Fronts because it seemed that a lot of the ideas were to do with maleness. Thank heavens we didn't! But anyway, we'd have these serious ideas, we'd make these pieces which didn't have punch lines. A lot of them were about madness. A lot of them were about what happens when you step outside of what's normal, what happens when your responses aren't appropriate - [like] that whole piece, the "How You Doing" dance which we used to do. We'd take these quite serious ideas onto the stage and people would laugh; people would just fall about. It was quite a shook. When we wrote all the stuff when we did the first tour we had no idea it was going to be fumy and that people would write reviews saying "these two are rapidly becoming New Zealand's best-loved silly goats." We didn't want to be best-loved silly goats, we were serious artists! But we actually embraced that as well I think, I guess because we were learning on our feet, we were making decisions as we went. I think most of the best stuff of what we did was just looking at very ordinary situations, looking at the rules and the rituals that makes us who we are and seeing in situations that you normally take for granted the sort of vastness of what it is to be human, the enormity of what it is to be human. The huge landscape that's inside us and that's inside every gesture. Most of that landscape is unknown. There are little paths that we walk along with our heads down, but the idea of turning and looking to the right and left and seeing this enormous landscape that you haven't recognised, that you don't even know is there - that's shocking, and shock is a close cousin of laughter. We used all the old musical stuff. If it was available we used it. The intention was always to find out something. We wouldn't sit down and say: "here's a situation that would get a laugh," we'd sit down and say "what is it that happens when you do 'this'? When you go for a job interview, what's that about? What happens to your spirit? To your psyche? What happens psychologically?" We'd generally explore things because we didn't understand them and we wanted to get in and have fun with it. I think that's what it was like when it was at its best. Those kind of collaborations don't come along very often in your life; that was really rare. Basically The Front Lawn had a natural shelf life, because it didn't work when we did it into microphones. It didn't work to try and make the venues bigger. So when we did a New Zealand tour we'd do ten-night seasons in 400-seat theatres. As we got more popular the only thing you could do is extend the runs so that you're doing 12-night and 15-night seasons. It was kind of obvious that we couldn't just keep doing that, it's pretty exhausting to do that. To move to a bigger audience the natural thing would be to make films, so we made the short films that we made and then the idea of TV came up. But after about a year we both realised our hearts weren't in it. I was writing songs in my spare time. Harry was really keen to get into directing his own stuff. So it was sort of inevitable that we'd separate and head off on our own paths at that stage. I'd been away from the band scene for about six years, because that's pretty much how long The Front Lawn lasted and it was a full time job for six years. I hadn't been into a sweaty pub, standing on stage, so I was keen to know what it felt like and complete the circle I'd started on with Blain Blain Blain that I'd broken in '82 or whenever it was."
Forming The Mutton Birds
"I had started - really tentatively - trying to get some songs together with David Long who had played on The Front Lawn album. The Six Volts, the band David was in, was drawing to a close in Wellington. He wanted a change of scene so he move to Auckland. We worked occasionally together just trying to get songs going. I wasn't going at any great clip, I was writing quite slowly. It still seemed possible that we might get more Front Lawn projects under way. I was pretty consumed at that stage also with the Watershed Theatre. I was part of the founding group for that so... I was kind of split. I think I might have been doing some film scores as well, to keep food on the table. We auditioned drummers, David and I. We ended up playing our first gig on St Patrick's Day in 1991 with a stand-in drummer. But eventually, I'd heard that Ross Burge was living in New York and could be persuaded to come home if he liked the music. So I sent him a tape. I hadn't ever met him, I'd just heard some records that he'd played on, and a lot of my friends in Wellington and Auckland had said this is the player that you need."
Early days of The Mutton Birds
"It was a strange period, because The Front Lawn... I suppose we'd lived reasonably well for a while because we knew that we could get round New Zealand and play to thousands of people, we'd got pretty well known. That had all fallen apart. [In The Mutton Birds) we were doing something that most of the people I knew that were anything connected with the industry were very sceptical of. The kind of band that we had was not what was fashionable at that time. The kind of songs we were writing were much more crafted as songs and much less of a kind of primal scream than what was cool then - or even now, actually. We were rehearsing in a garage in amongst all the car yards above Newton Gully in Auckland. It felt grim, it felt like a bit of a backwards step. Musically it felt good - musically it felt like a good thing to do, but it didn't feel like a very good career move, I think, for any of us really. Until we started gigging, and I think that first year of gigging we went round the country playing as a three piece. Partly, being a three-piece too made it kind of difficult unless you're all really wonderful players. A three-piece can be quite a minimal experience and it's pretty hard work for the person in the three-piece that isn't the wonderful player, and unfortunately that was me! I'd elected to play bass and sing, and nobody should ever do that. Sting can do it, but he's, y'know, he's Sting. So it felt like a bit of a lost cause for that first year. We had people saying really nice things about the songs but it looked a bit like a hobby band."
First single; Positioning of the band
"I think it was probably when we put something on record first - I think that was when we really sort of worked out who we were. We put out "Dominion Road" and on the back of it we put out "White Valiant' which is another one of these 'fear of the countryside' things. That atmosphere and sense of 'otherness' that that song has got, or the way we played it has got - the brooding quality that it's got - it just didn't sound like anybody else. It didn't make us all of a sudden a 'new band' in that sense that the other young bands were around New Zealand at the time. It didn't make us suddenly valid in terms of the small number of people who write about "new in inverted commas" music in New Zealand. But I don't think we were ever going to be a part of that. I think we were always going to be viewed with some suspicion by people who pride themselves on being at the cutting edge of music simply because we're older, I'm older - I'm even older now! - and other things. So it didn't immediately pull us into the fold that we'd left, or I had left when I left Blam Blam Blam - if I was ever in the fold. ...God knows, I don't think I'm really an insider in that way because I've always followed my instincts and tended to jump the wrong way compared with everybody else.
Comments on 'Salty'
'[With] 'Salty,' we were trucking around New Zealand, we were touring in Australia a bit. I haven't really ever summed up 'Salty' as an album. I think it's a development of the first album. It goes in lots of different directions at once. It's not as focused as the first record, but it's got some really good stuff on it. I think "Too Close To The Sun" is, and Alan's song "Wellington" is really good - and "Anchor Me" is on 'Salty' and I think that's really good."
"At the edges of pop music there's what we do. Pop music is a big enough and complex enough thing to accommodate a band like us. I think that somewhere there will be, there already is, there will grow a really dedicated following for what we do and there'll be other bands imitating what we do. And there'll be people who've bought our records that are really proud to have them in ten years' time. That's really what it's about. It's got nothing to do with the centre of pop music, which is that sort of surface, image-based thing. It's ironic that a band as little-interested in image as us can have washed up - oh, not washed up - that didn't sound very good! - 'ended up' shall I say, in the UK - which has got such a fickle sort of industry."
The Situation in the UK
"I think probably we were really miserable buggers for the first year in the UK. We had premonitions that the whole record company thing was going to fall apart at some point, even though we were in a good position to really sprint away with it. We were in a sort of dream position in terms of lots of bands - to be on a major label, in a new country, to be doing interviews with big newspapers in England about your little life - that's pretty amazing. As it happened, we weren't very healthy as a group, we weren't communicating very well. We were very pessimistic about the whole thing, about how it was all going to turn out. I wasn't writing very much, and the stuff I was writing was quite miserable. Some of the best stuff on 'Envy of Angels' is that very-late-at-night, full-of-fear-for-the-future sort of writing, and some of it works, because you should write about what you are feeling and that's what I was feeling at that time."
Comments on 'Envy Of Angels'; Writing in England
"'Letters home' was a phrase that I tended to use about 'Envy of Angels' because just looking at it there's a song for my son, there's a song for my dad, there's a song for my nephew, It just seems to be kind of one-to-one type stuff that characterised it. I was really unwilling to write about anything in England. ...People in London, people in England can sing about hedgerows and about oak trees and about the number 221 bus - and when they use those words they echo inside them in a way that means something. If I was to do that it would just be 'stuck-on' I think. So I don't find myself writing about much in England. I've got a song on the go that has the image of the tube in it, the train station underground. I dunno - it's difficult! Every time I start singing it, I wonder if it's really me singing because when I look at a bus stop in New Zealand, I'm looking at the bus stop, I'm looking at what might be happening at the bus stop right now, but I'm also looking at the times I was waiting at that bus stop when I was six and the time when I was sixteen when I spray-painted "No Tour" on that bus stop, and misspelled it."
Don on his own song writing & performing
"What do I do? I sit down and I think about what I'm feeling and I write about it and it turns into a song. Then in a relatively short space of time I'm standing in front of a whole lot of strangers with a guitar on and I'm telling them about it. And if it resonates with them, if it hooks up somewhere with something that they've felt, then it's really achieved something. The best moments are when somebody comes up to you after a gig and says, "that song crystallised something that I've been feeling." And that's wonderful when that can happen. The way I tend to do that is by trying to write about people that I know. I suppose 'write letters' to people, or try to unpick a moment that I've lived through and either tell the story in the first person or make up some characters who then tell the story in their own words - and by using what they don't say as much as what they do say, try and paint their world in a song. Songs are wonderful for that, because you can have somebody saying something that contradicts the music, or you can have the music contradicting. You can have somebody saying something quite positive or optimistic and then the music is floating along pessimistically in the background - and in the gap between those two things you've got some tension. When that works it's really good. It might be an over-used trick, and I might have used that trick too many times now.'
New music; The future
"I'm actually finding with this new stuff, that's coming out now, after 'Envy of Angels' - it's the whole batch of songs that I'm writing now - they're more redemptive. They seem to be more about people connecting, more about love, more about hope. With the support of the band, I came through that period of not really feeling like writing - and writing grim stuff when I did write. (I've] come through that to now, where I'm writing a lot. And we're all really looking forward to the next record. We're going to record it pretty quickly but ourselves in a more sort of home-based recording way. We're moving around to different garages, different small studios and finishing it sort of at our own pace. I would say it'll be ready about June. We're trying to make stuff more often now. There was a big gap between the first album and 'Salty' because we were trying to find a record deal. There was a big gap between 'Salty' and 'Envy Of Angels' because we had found a record deal, but we relocated to England and we were touring an enormous amount. We should have been writing and making and recording new songs but we were sitting in the back of a transit van in Prague somewhere. Where we're at now, even though we're not involved with Virgin anymore, we've still got the platform that they built for us, and we've still got some albums in us - better ones than we've made, I think. And that's what matters to us."
Migrating Mutton Birds
Music Press magazine (18 March 1998)
There were Mutton Birds at Te Papa during last month's opening celebrations but they weren't embalmed, stuffed and on display. Instead the 40-year-olds who continue to survive in the British music swamp were performing.
It's image versus talent on the streets of London. That's what the Mutton Birds have noticed since leaving New Zealand 18 months ago to base themselves in England's fickle music capital. "The English music industry is very vast and hard to understand. There's an enormous amount of hype over there for an enormous number of bands," says songwriter Don McGlashan.
So, when the Mutton Birds arrived in England, armed with a stylist, courtesy of their record company, Virgin, they set about trying to create a marketable image that would help them on their way to chart success. The band says Virgin were trying to make them into beautiful people and were pushing them to act more like pop stars. During a video shoot, the company suggested the band wore black suits while McGiashan wore white and positioned himself in the foreround.
But, as drummer Ross Burge explains, the worst was yet to come. "When we worked with the stylist it made me really uncomfortable. She made me untie my shoes. I'm 40 years old, I should be able to tie my own shoes by now."
Bassist Alan Gregg says, "Certainly there's the case in the UK where a lot of bands have press kits together before they've got any songs." He points to British band Menswear, who appeared on the cover of NME before they had released any material. "Bands come out and they've got haircuts, they've got clothes, they've got huge budget videos and photos with windswept cheek bones and pouting lips. These people are careerists and they start off when they're 12 years old and they go, 'Right I'm going to be a pop star.'"
But the Mutton Birds' idea of selling, and more importantly, playing music isn't about creating a sparkling new image. McGlashan says the looks, the press and the hype that surround bands is peripheral to the music. Listening to the songs is what really counts for the Mutton Birds. However, the band does believe there is actually a place on the charts for groups with an aesthetically pleasing image but wants to produce their music without changing the way they do their hair.
The success of the Mutton Birds has been proven. The three seasoned musicians - who are very good at drinking lots of coffee while talking about themselves - have not had to take on other jobs to support their music in the last three years. They have also been receiving radio play and rave reviews in England for their latest album Envy of Angels and the single Come Around. Gregg says the band plans to stay in England, although it is a tough market to break. What will eventually provide the band with success in England will probably be the same thing that made them so popular in New Zealand - the quality of their music.
But, as for what makes a good song, that's a secret not even one of New Zealand's best songwriters can answer "I have a hard enough job knowing whether I like a song, let alone taking it to the band and seeing if it lights a spark with them" says McGlashan.
Interview with Don McGlashan
Sunday Star Times, NZ (22 February 1998)
It's a position most New Zealand bands would dread: Sign to a major British label. Base your life in the United Kingdom. Then watch the deal disappear. But if anything, the recent trauma of losing the support of Virgin UK has been a boost for the Mutton Birds. Far from signalling the end of the band's fortunes in Britain, the loss seems to have been a shot in the arm.
Don McGlashan, certainly is seeing the good side. A few days before he jets home the Birds' lead singer is painting a rosier picture than many might expect. Despite going it alone in the last few months, the band has already released a live acoustic album, "Angle of Entry", which has sold handsomely through a rapidly growing mailing list. "Something's turned that around to make it look like we're going to be here a year longer.... there's so much happening that makes it look like we should go another lap." McGlashan says on a sunny winter afternoon in his north London home. "Virgin spent all that money putting us on a platform, giving us legs, and then they seemed to run out of steam. But we have a growing following - and it all changes when you're not pushed by a major. The majors are reviled over here, and rightly so because of the things they do and the music they foist on people. We seem to be a cause now. "When we used to play gigs, there was this really small knot of people who wanted to know everything we were doing and wanted to be part of the family - they all had this hunted air of people in the wrong place at the wrong time," laughs McGlashan. "They were passionate, but you could tell there was a slightly unhinged quality - the love that dare not speak its name is the love for the Mutton Birds!"
A few months ago, a betting man would have put a safe wager on the Mutton Birds packing up and leaving Britain. The last year had been a minefield for more than the end of their contract. The recording of their third studio LP, "Envy of Angels", had been an unpleasant affair, and the tense atmosphere was the final straw for founding member and guitarist David Long, who decided to leave the band at the end of 1996. After a last local tour with Long, McGlashan, bass player Alan Gregg, and drummer Ross Burge returned to England, recruited former Dance Exponents member Chris Sheehan, and prepared for the release of the album. Despite widespread commercial radio support for Gregg's "Come Around", the album failed to set the UK charts on fire and was soon forgotten. Virgin UK started to talk of letting the band go, and with the end of the record company wages looming, Sheehan decided to leave.
"The fact is, we were quite uncertain with what we were doing, and after a while it became obvious that he was only available as long as we had a major deal. It made it hard to work on new material," say McGlashan. "So many things have been changing this year. Virgin didn't pick up the option, and EMI in Australia and Virgin in New Zealand didn't pick up the option either. Basically they didn't want to stay stuck at the roulette table when all the big players had gone. Now that we know what's going on, it's cleared things up. There's a home for the songs now."
The band's latest return home is their first as the unsigned, independent Mutton Birds. It's also probably the last chance to see the original lineup; Long, who has been living back in Wellington, is back in the ranks for this tour. Auditions for a new, permanent guitarist have been happening in London since Christmas, and McGlashan is quietly confident they've found who they need.
"We've played with some really exciting people, and I suppose it's a measure of what we've become over here that we didn't say: 'Signed band with UK/US touring', we just put 'Mutton Birds looking for guitarist' and better people rang up; people who have been doing some really good, high quality work." It may sound illogical , but there's a stability on the Mutton Birds camp for the first time in a year. Despite being signed, there was always the feeling "Envy of Angels" had to be a runaway success for the band to hang on to their contract. When "Come Around" failed to make the influential Radio 1 playlist, the label seemed to lose faith, somewhat unfairly, in their Antipodean signings.
"I always thought they had cold feet anyway - but I suspect anybody who's being nice to me of having cold feet," says McGlashan. "At the time we really knew the writing was on the wall. We'd had meetings with an American record company, and it looked like Guardian, a small US arm of EMI, was going to pick us up. When we hit the road in Canada (with locals The Tragically Hip), we'd just learnt that Virgin was not going to pick up the option and that the Guardian deal wasn't going to happen."
Despite the forboding future, the band hit the road last June as part of the Another Roadside Attraction Tour, alongside Wilco, Los Lobos, and self-confessed Mutton Birds fan Ron Sexsmith.
The final blow was the departure of Daniel Keighley, their New Zealand manager who had travelled to the UK in 1994 to start the band's Northern Hemisphere adventures. He too returned to New Zealand when it became apparent Virgin's support had finished.
The last year has certainly given McGlashan lots to think about. He's no longer happy with "Envy of Angels", perhaps because the album's too associated with one of the band's unhappiest periods. "It was an unhealthy time because David was leaving - nobody was talking to each other." McGlashan has returned to the studios in South Wales where the album was recorded, but it was a "horrible time. There's a lot of things I had to learn from it. There was immense distance between us. It was stupid to put a whole lot of people who are apart anyway in the middle of the countryside so they can get even further apart. Better to shut then in a steamy little dive in London and make them shout at each other, if that's what they needed, and it's certainly what we needed."
The last three months have turned round the writer's block that had been with McGlashan for the last year. Now, both he and Gregg have more than enough songs to start work on the band's new album, expected to be out in June. The need to sign up to another major label is no longer there - it's almost unheard of for an "unsigned band" to fill London's 1600 capacity Shepherd's Bush Empire, but that's exactly what they did a few weeks ago.
And on their recent jaunt through he UK, they were told they could have sold out their 250 - person show in Cambridge three times over.
Ironically, with things going so well, McGlashan is already talking of the band's return to New Zealand - not in the next year, but inevitable nonetheless. In the meantime, the fight goes on.... "I'm glad to be able to make records the way we want to make them," says McGlashan, "for people who are turned on by that. It's a tremendous privilege to be able to find that audience and give them something."
Rolling Stone (Australia, August 1997)
- Matthew Hall
Never mind the bluster of Britpop, the noise of nouveau punk or the post-Nirvana takeover by grunge. It turns out that the future of guitar-based rock has been right our noses all along.
It may have taken a move to the UK to receive strong notices from the fickle British music press. It might have been a version of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" that turned on Australian radio (and was oddly all but ignored by Triple J). Whatever. The bottom line is that after seven years of paying dues, New Zealanders the Mutton Birds have finally arrived.
"Quiet achievers?" muses lead singer and chief songwriter Don McGlashan. "I think we have to achieve something first," he laughs.
"It's probably fair," suggests bassist Alan Gregg. "You have overnight sensations, the fashionable bands, and the ones with notoriety for a few months. We have never been part of any scene. People just hear about us through our songs. It's kind of old fashioned in a way."
The brainchild of McGlashan, who had previously scaled the NZ charts in the 1980s with Blam Blam Blam, as well as composing film soundtracks - including Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table - the Mutton Birds follow a golden musical path laid through the last decade by fellow Kiwis the Chills, the Bats, and the Verlaines.
Where those bands were a product of Dunedin, somewhat isolated in the South Island, the Mutton Birds, however, are very much the sum of New Zealand's many musical parts.
"I was living in Auckland," explains McGlashan of the band's formation at the start of the decade, somewhat obtusely. "If you talk to other New Zealanders, well, Auckland may as well in Australia."
"What he means," says Gregg, "is that Auckland is full of money and foccacia bread."
"Yep," continues McGlashan. "It's full of food you can't pronounce and I'm burdened by that."
"There is also a lot more hustling in Auckland," he adds. "More people who are making music are prepared to shake the hand of the devil."
Under the influence of Auckland's burlesque, McGlashan was rescued by Gregg, drummer Ross Burge and guitarist Chris Sheehan, who had all been involved with, or on the fringes of, the South Island's Flying Nun scene. What followed was a Shaky Island fairy tale. A self-titled DIY debut went platinum in New Zealand and picked up a host of local awards. The band's follow up, 1993's Salty, saw the single "The Heater" debut at number one on the NZ charts.
The band's third album, Envy of Angels, recorded with producer Hugh Jones (whose credits include the Bluetones, Dodgy, Died Pretty and Echo and the Bunnymen), has all the credentials of a contemporary classic. Think the Go-Betweens minus their awkwardness. Add Guided By Voices if their songs stretched over a minute. Throw in the angles of radiohead and, just when you're seeming settled, the Mutton Birds introduce the mystery ball - possibly the only euphonium in rock. In short, Envy of Angels could well be the greatest album REM never got around to make.
"I like songwriters who tell stories," says McGlashan of his inspiration. "People like Jimmy Webb and Ray Davies. Also a lot of country writers such as Jimmy Paycheck (of "Take This Job and Shove It" fame).
"When I was about 11 years old I had a very early Al Stewart record - Love Chronicles," continues McGlashan. "Jimmy Page was a session musician on it. It was basically just about the women he'd shagged. It was a beautiful record. It had fantastic stories about all these different people in different towns."
Having conquered New Zealand, the band relocated to the UK in 1995. An earlier planned move to Australia was scotched when the local record company delayed the release of Salty. Not wanting to lose momentum our loss became Britain's gain.
"You hear so much about the UK," says McGlashan. "How everyone believes it is the centre of the world with so much going on. It's actually a revelation when you arrive and see the bands who are so horrendously always in the magazines and press are such a crock of shit," he laughs.
Two years after arriving in Blighty the Mutton Birds are themselves now darlings of the British press. A trawl through their clippings sees tributes from the regular music media as well as "respectable" national newspapers. Having seen the power of the British media, the band are treating the attention with typical Antipodean indifference. "Yeah, even Pigeon Fanciers Monthly is big on us at the moment," quips Alan Gregg. "And Guns and Ammo magazine."
It hasn't been a completely smooth flight however. Original guitarist Chris Sheehan returned to Wellington prior to the recording of Envy of Angels fed up with touring and life in London. Sheehan's replacement is David Long, a New Zealander who has lived in the UK for 10 years and who made three albums for ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart's Anxious Records with the Starlings.
Like their avian namesake, though, the Mutton Birds are adapting to the migratory way of life and taming potentially hostile climes. The trick, by all measures, is in the way they tell it.
"We've had some instances in places like Scandinavia where they ask what a mutton bird is," explains McGlashan. "We tell them it's a fierce and gigantic cross between an albatross and a sheep - and they duly print it."
True, the Mutton Birds do bite. But it's all pure charm.
Postcards from the Edge of the World
Mojo (July 1997)
- Paul Du Noyer
When you've sold a record to nearly every human being in New Zealand, argues Don McGlashan, there is nobody left except the sheep. Then again, since they're sheep, you'd only have to interest one of them because the rest would follow anyway. As a marketing plan it's magnificent, yet somehow flawed. Fortunately for his band, The Mutton Birds' Don McGlashan is profoundly better at songwriting than at marketing.
Failing the woolly embrace, he says, a top New Zealand band would normally move on to Australia. "Then they get beaten up. The Australian music scene is not all that friendly to New Zealand music. Crowded House were generally considered to be an Australian band so they didn't figure in that equation."
The Mutton Birds were spared this fate when a three-month visit to England turned to in indefinite stay, thanks to interest from Virgin Records. The band's two 'platinum' NZ albums (sales of 15,000 each) were compiled into a 1995 set called Nature, followed soon by the UK-recorded Envy Of Angels. Carrying the recent single Come Around, their new record is lean and tuneful, bright with harmonies and guitars, yet with a darker undercurrent of melancholia. McGlashan believes it's something to do with coming from the edge of the world. "There is a thread running through a lot of New Zealand songs that is a fear of falling off the edge. You're so far away from the centre of things that you might disappear and nobody would know. A lot of myself seem to involve driving along, looking at the countryside with ambivalent feelings. It's a strange place because it's apparently very normal, but there's a sense of the absurd. The whole Anglo-Saxon part was conceived as a bit of Britain miles away from Britain, so the idea of being an outpost, rather than a real place, is somewhere in everybody's psyche. There is that sense of being marginal, of being from nowhere."
McGlashan's own ancestors left their farm in Scotland, unable to pay the rent. And in the jangling beauty of The Mutton Birds' music there is often something unsettling. One song, The Heater, has a man talking to a domestic applicance. There are tales of rural suicides. McGlashan's original manifesto was: "Write about ordinary things - cars, streets, gunshop owners, mad people on the street. Use well-worn phrases that make you shudder." He draws inspiration from the neat suburbs of Auckland, "where you express yourself through your choice of car-port roof rather than through words."
He's also worked in theatre groups and with film-maker Jane Campion, hence the narrative strength of his own songs: "Wherever you're from, you're writing about your childhood. Overt or covert, you write about the place that surrounds you." A reluctant exile, McGlashan liked the freedom New Zealand gave him as a young writer. There isn't the crippling hipness of Britain, nor the forlorn craving for fame. "If you do the wrong thing, you're denied fame. But fame in New Zealand is not something that anybody worries about, because its a small thing anyway. The Prime Minister flies around the country on domestic flights and probably does his own shopping in the supermarket."
Pausing at our restaurant table, the Kiwi waitress hears Don's accent, correctly guesses he's a Mutton Bird, and declares him a real "Jafa", just like her. A Jafa? Even McGlashan looks puzzled. "Oh, you know," replies his starry-eyed admirer. "Just Another Fucking Aucklander."
Kiwis Bearing Fruit In Wales
Top magazine (Jul/Aug 1997)
The Mutton Birds are big in New Zealand - which is a bit like being big in Scunthorpe. Going platinum in Britain would get you a nice house, a Porsche and a nice haircut. Going platinum in New Zealand (which they've done twice) doesn't even get you enough to make another record. "If everyone in New Zealand owned our albums and all the sheep could be persuaded into the record shops, then that would be good," muses frontman and founder Don McGlashan. "Sheep are very loyal..."
So they came to Britain where they released an album called Nature, a melodic, jangly, edgy pop record made up from both Kiwi releases - and VH1-esque critics drooled. And places with high sheep-per-person ratios, previously low on the pop scale, became hip. Wales became the new Seattle and the Mutton Birds were mentioned in the same breath as the Byrds, Beatles and mega-Kiwis Crowded House.
So they went to Wales and made another album, Envy of Angels, which is even better than the last. "It was where our producer Hugh Jones wanted to work," says Don. "Living all together in a house at the studio and having 24-hour focus on the music was a new thing for us - kind of like being in a monastery.
"Our first record we financed ourselves. We'd do a few songs and then go off and do our jobs, so it took six or seven months. For the second we were on EMI Australia but that was also a long-winded process because we wanted to work in a derelict TV studio for atmosphere, and we moved all this vintage equipment in, which of course broke down.
"This time we had a proper grown-up producer and a good place to work. But writing it was strange. I had to throw out a lot of things, which is new for me. I tend to write about mundane things, things close to hand, but of course what was close to hand wasn't the country I grew up in. So a lot of the album ended up as letters home and because of that it's a more personal, inward-looking vibe than our other two records. Hopefully the next one will be more sociable."
Homesickness took its toll on the band and one guitarist succumbed. McGlashan, together with Ross Burge and Alan Gregg auditioned "lots of English guitarists" and eventually gave the job to Chris Sheehan, a Kiwi. As Don explains it, being a Kiwi musician is about developing your own style at your own pace without the pressures of whatever is selling at the time. "Music in New Zealand is musician-driven, not faddish. When I was a kid I was really into the Kinks and the Beatles. What made me want to write songs was Neil Young and Van Morrison. There are things Kiwi bands share without even knowing it, like an unconscious Celtic sense of melody - the country was mainly populated by Scottish and Irish stock - plus the subject matter, landscape and the fear of falling off the earth."
The Mutton Birds
Bucketfull Of Brains, Issue 48 (Spring '97)
- Mick Dillingham
The Mutton Birds are something special. There's a resonance and quality about their work that's all too rare a commodity these days. Everything about them is right, brilliant songs, emotive playing and integrity of attitude all blend together to bring out that unique Mutton Bird magic. Nowhere more so than on their brilliant new album "Envy Of Angels", which is going to be album of '97 on many people's lists.
Originally from New Zealand, the band have been based over here in London for the past year. Bucketfull met up with main Mutton Don McGlashan one quiet Wednesday morning in Holloway to talk about the history of the band, the recent shake up in the line up and that brilliant new album.
How did you first get into music?
From the age of about five, my father would scrounge musical instruments for me to learn how to play. He was a thwarted musician himself. He'd been brought up in mining towns around the hinterland of the North Island of New Zealand, where there wasn't much music going on, so he wanted me to have a better chance. There were always battered old cornets, cellos and violins flying around the house. I think we went through every Tune-a-Day manual for every instrument at some point. By the age of seven I was starting to learn the guitar and me and my older brother were listening to pirate radio, Radio Hauraki, which broadcast from a boat sitting way, way out in the Pacific. People often fell overboard and drowned, and you got to appreciate that they were taking enormous risks to bring you something new. Stuff you couldn't just hear on the mainstream radio, The Kinks, The Small Faces and Pink Floyd. The first band I was in, when I was fifteen, I was playing keyboards. We were called Ethos, a terrible name and we played this curious mix of Spencer Davis stuff and Ziggy Stardust era Bowie. I was writing various bits and pieces by then but I had no ambitions to put any of it together. I was heading in all kinds of directions and wasn't even surrounded by a culture of people who were into cool music. At school we didn't really have an atmosphere of informed listening, it wasn't that kind of world. Most of the people were poets and writers for the stage and I ended up wandering into those kind of camps. In 1978 I got a particularly nasty job, cleaning the undersides of fishing boats. You would get right underneath and scrape the barnacles off with a big scraper and they would all fall on your face, the smell was just dreadful. I was doing that in the morning, then playing french horn with an orchestra in the afternoon and at night, still dressed in my tuxedo, I was playing the horn with this punk band called The Plague. The lead singer Richard von Sturmer, was a mad performance poet who would churn out reams of political lyrics. He also had this predilection for stripping off and painting himself blue for the performances. It was quite a strange band and quite a strange lifestyle for a while. Then Richard went off to write for the theatre and the band continued, still working with these piles of lyrics that Richard left behind and over a couple of years that gradually congealed into a three piece called Blam Blam Blam in 1980. I was the drummer and lead singer and the main guts of what we had was Richard's words and our music. We made a couple of albums, one of which went top five in New Zealand. The music industry only laps very slightly at the shores of New Zealand, it doesn't engulf it. There are indie labels who are very idealistic and very poor and also not very connected with the rest of the world. The majors were all, until quite recently, not much more than warehouses for overseas product. So you could be in a band, have a lot of fun and make music on your own terms. You never really had to deal with anybody asking hard questions like an agent or a manager. The type of hard questions that make people say "I don't want to do this no more!". Consequently there are still people over there doing music who probably would have been weeded out in any other country and I'm probably one of them.
What was the live scene like?
It was really exciting, really vibrant. There was the beginning of the Flying Nun scene in the south, bands like The Clean and Chris Knox's first band Toylove, he's a really fine songwriter. The Chills were just starting up. Sneaky Feelings supported us in their early days. There were a lot of bands touring together, it was the kind of shared vibe that only exists when it's musician driven. It can only evolve away from the industry predators, and I guess now the scene's growing up down there, it doesn't happen so much any more.
So what happened with the band?
I just had a gut full of it in the end. It suddenly got very serious when we had an accident in the van and one of the band got badly injured and couldn't play for some time. We then had a roadie die on us and suddenly it all became very dark and I was rather scared by it all. By the I had become the main songwriter in the band. People wanted to know what I had to say about things and I didn't feel I had the authority to do that. That aspect of it scared me because I didn't feel I knew what I was doing. So I quit and went to New York for a year and played drums with a dance company. Back in New Zealand I met up with an actor friend Harry Sinclair who wanted to put together a small music and theatre group which combined the directness of what you could get with a band with the story telling of theatre. We did that for about six years. That group was the Front Lawn. We developed an audience in New Zealand so we could tour for six weeks, playing to full houses and then we could live on that for six months and do whatever we wanted to do. I was gradually able to get the nerve together to say I think I know what I want to write about now, what to do with my songwriting and to get people on board who will know what to do with my songs. So that's what I did. David Long had played on the Front Lawn albums, so I already had him in mind and we auditioned drummers and found Ross Burge. The first year we supplemented it with other jobs, David worked in a book shop, Ross was a postman and I did a bit of school teaching and teaching music in a prison. The Mutton Birds did our first gig on St Patrick's day in 1991 as a three-piece, with me on bass. I was a crap bass player, I found singing and playing bass at the same time impossible.
So how many songs did you have?
I had three or four songs from the period since Blam Blam Blam and once The Mutton Birds got going I wrote about one a month. We rented a rehearsal space which we shared with a silk screen printer, so there's a strong smell of acetone that's running through the whole of the first album. I can't hear those songs without smelling that ink!
Once I had the band then it was a real spur to write, building this vision and trying to negotiate what kind of band you are, it's crying out to have something poured into it. We really wanted to make an album, but Flying Nun's roster was full and none of the majors were interested, so we formed our own label. I got a mortgage on the house, that my wife and I could afford, Alan Gregg joined on bass and I switched to guitar. We had a mate who had a tiny studio, about as big as a bathroom and he gave us studio time. We paid him back as the record sold and that's how we got to make the first album.
You put out Dominion Road as a single.
And it got ignored by all the radio stations. But then White Valiant got picked up by student radio, which is really strong in New Zealand and that got us an audience. We got a distribution deal with Virgin and just as we were about to release the album a radio station in Wellington started playing Nature. It rated really well so we had to put it out as a single, though we weren't keen on the idea since it's a cover song. It went to number two in the charts and really got the ball rolling for us. The album paid for itself, we got to gig all round the county and that gave us the confidence to look for a deal with a major.
So how many singles did you release off the album in the end?
Dominion Road, Nature, Your Window and then Giant Friend. Four singles all with non album B sides and when they got released in Australia, with different b sides again. So there's a whole lot of non album material floating around, mostly morose stuff. There was a scale of mildly optimistic to rather pessimistic with my songs then, and most of the stuff that got left off the album is on the pessimistic side.
I'd like to talk about some of the songs, White Valiant for instance.
'White Valiant' is, I think, one of the best I've ever done. It's based on a dream I had about being a hitchhiker and being picked up by somebody and then being a part of a long queue of cars that were on their way to something like an outdoor concert which I was supposed to be playing at. I knew that and the driver knew that, but neither of us would mention this. It was one of those dreams of frustration, of not being able to get where you are, but then it turned into one of those meet the Devil type stories, that are everywhere in folk music and the blues. What I was trying to play with was the idea that you meet someone and you chat away and they know the landscape you're passing through intimately and then it turns out they know you intimately as well and you're going somewhere though you didn't think you were going anywhere and where you're going to is a place of ritual. I wanted to leave it really open-ended. When the band got hold of it, it had a spaciousness about it, that every one put into it, the way you can in a band without really talking about stuff. That's why bands are what they are, the words and the melody make a building and then the furniture and fittings are put in there by these other people who are making it their own in their own way. I don't know whether it's particular to me, but it seems to be that a lot of people writing in New Zealand seem to talk about what might be beyond the lights outside the town. Because it's a place so far away from everything, the fear of nothingness, of falling off the edge is palpable there. Once you go off the beaten track, you may be standing somewhere where no one's ever stood before and that's a feeling you probably don't get in England. You'd have to go a bloody long way in this country to stand where nobody's ever stood. The idea of driving and looking out the window while driving has come up in quite a few of my songs. 'Too Close To The Sun' on 'Salty' is a similar take on the same theme and 'Envy Of Angels' is part of the same idea. It's not a conscious decision to make connections between songs but I think if you try to listen hard to what's inside of you and get it out into a song then of necessity there's going to be links between things, album to album and song to song.
How long does it take you to write the lyrics?
I tend to sketch things first and then pare them down. Sometimes they start off as stories of sets of scenes in a film and then if they look like they can turn into a song they'll gradually, over a period of months, become lyrics. I usually try to keep music at arm's length until as late as I can. Some songs work that way, but sometimes when you do that, when you've got a word based idea, it can become a bit stuck to the page and it doesn't work as a song then. With 'White Valiant', I had the line "You can still see the moon, though it's the middle of the day," but I didn't have the idea of the car. I had the bass riff and the atmosphere, so it was just a question of working backwards and finding the story. For 'A Thing Well Made', it was a story but it started off as much more like a manifesto. A well intentioned, but leaden idea to talk about the way women see things as against how men see things. I was going to do a two voice kind of thing. I worked at that for a while, the way women divest energy in people and the way men invest energy in things, which is kind of a main division in the world. There was this massacre in 1989 in this little town in the south, this guy killed all his neighbours. I wanted to start with the bloke who had sold him the gn. I wanted to look through his morning, make up a story about him and his missus. But in the end the man and woman aspect of it kind of fell away leaving the idea of the smallness of his life. I wanted to get the feel of the gun shop, the smell of it, the warmth of it and the sense of the fog outside. Let the music carry the feeling of dread and melancholy. It was one of those songs when you start something off and you want it to go in a certain direction. Then the band get hold of it and you just look at each other and you all know you've got something special happening here, but you don't want to say anything about it because you know you might then spoil it.
There's a different rhythmic feel to New Zealand bands that's like nobody else and it's quite special.
I've heard it put more unkindly that that. Somebody once said that in New Zealand the need for drummers had atrophied and dropped off like a vestigial tail. But that's not true, New Zealand drummers are different, they do simple stuff and the back beat isn't as important as idea of flow. Certainly when most New Zealand bands go to Australia they end up lost because the Aussies have much more sense of hard rock. You need biceps to play Australian music.
So after the debut album, what happened next?
We toured New Zealand and Australia and we signed to EMI Australia and recorded 'Salty'. We produced it ourselves and it gave us a No. 1 single in New Zealand, 'The Heater'. That was a song that started with the music. I turned up late for rehearsal one morning and the band had this circular riff that they were playing. It had this hypnotic quality to it and we knew it had to turn into something special. I had this fragment of a lyric, which was about magic, about buying an old object and taking it home up to your room and suddenly it starts talking to you, it seemed like a handshake between you and a world of myth. I just want to write about what works for me, and inside the mind and the daily thoughts of an ordinary person are as difficult to explain as the birth of the solar system. People are enormous things and the world is where you are now. If you can put something in a song and do it in a way that's fresh then you can get people to turn and look at what's normally in the corner of their eye. If you can achieve that then I don't think it gets any better than that.
So let's go back to after 'Salty' came out.
We were all set to move to Australia but then the label started to voice doubts on how successful we could be. So rather than just sit on our hands we did a tour of Canada and stopped off over here to talk with Virgin about the idea of putting out a compilation of the albums and that became 'Nature'. We envisioned staying over here for just a couple of months and doing as many festivals as we could. The record company was getting behind us, which was a new experience for us, and so more and more it felt like we should stay. We toured a lot on the continent, at one point we were going to tour with Daryl-Ann but that fell through. We played in France during their atomic tests in the Pacific, so we took the opportunity to read a prepared statement to the French audiences about it. The young people were very much against the tests. We all grew up knowing people who had sickness in their families because of atomic testing, so if your government tells you it's just Greenpeace propaganda, then they're just full of shit.
We went back to tour in New Zealand at the end of '95 and when we got back here we suddenly realised that we had moved, that we didn't live there anymore, so we felt rootless for a while. We weren't very happy and David, our guitarist, became more and more unhappy with the loss of control. We seemed to be doing somebody else's bidding all the time and it wasn't a hands-on process any more. I suppose when we got to the stage of making 'Envy Of Angels', because we had a producer for the first time ever, that feeling of turning up to play rather than actually working with ideas and letting them take shape on our own terms, became quite strong. David was unhappy and straight after we finished the album he left.
It must have been a shock for you?
I was really shaken. I still think it's a good record despite the fact that it was a really lonely time for us because we didn't communicate with each other. I know that my songs on it were written during that time of doubt and they didn't come easily. David did one last tour of New Zealand with us and simply didn't come back. We were in a panicky position because we knew that as soon as we got back here on January the 3rd this year, that we would have to start gigging to promote the new album. We did loads of auditions but could find nobody The first person we had asked was a New Zealander called Chris Sheehan who had been in a band called The Starlings. I had produced an EP for them in about '84 and remembered this marvellous guitarist. When we called him he had been living in Devon for some years and he wasn't interested because he wanted to do his own stuff. I sent him a copy of 'Envy Of Angels' anyway and he immediately called back and said he'd changed his mind. He's great and it feels like he's been part of the family all along. He already knew our bass player because they grew up in the same small town. He's a passionate player and it feels like we should have always been like this. It's a really great time for us and if we can continue to make the records we want to make, then we've exceeded our greatest expectations from when we started the band.
Let's talk about a couple of tracks from the new album, 'Along The Boundary', and 'Straight To Your Head'.
That's a love song to my son. It's about imagination and the world a five year old lives in. Like 'The Heater' it's a song about magic. 'Anchor Me' started off as a fairy story, about a magician that lived at the bottom of the sea and then it gradually turned into a straight love song. 'Straight To Your Head' has the same story book imagery. 'Along The Boundary' is an actual memory of a specific beach in New Zealand. It's about the sense of power when you're little and how you feel the whole landscape has been arranged just for you. I wanted to capture that sweeping feel of it and it cam together very fast when we recorded it because it was something that's deep inside the memories of everyone in the band. When Chris started playing with us, 'Along The Boundary' became one of his favourite songs, it touched a chord in him.
So there you have it. Three days after our chat, the band debuted the new line up at a heaving and worshipful Mean Fiddler gig and they were fucking excellent. New guitarist Chris Sheehan played like he was born with Mutton Bird plumage and the new songs shone like jewels. The Mutton Birds are maybe the best band in the world and 'Envy Of Angels' is definitely the album of the year. What more do you need to know.
With thanks to Don, Dan and Rebecca (with one B).
Band Down The Wire
Rip It Up (November 1996)
- JESSE GARON
So the worst has come to the worst. Daughter has come home with a less-than-healthy glow and delivered the final blow to your hopes to trouble-free parenting: "Mummy, Daddy... I'm in love with a rock star..."
By the Gods. NO! But we live in the modern age, permissive parenting in the catchery so you must bow to the pressure, let it all hang out, and go with daughter's wishes. Still you pray, and plead to the heavens: 'if it must be a rock star, let it be Don McGlashan.'
Less associated with the seedy world of groupies and bags of green powder than smiling slices of pav-flavoured soft'n'happy Kiwi pop, Don McGlashan and the Mutton Birds while not defining the antipodean pop song itself (surely in the eye of the beholder), did manage to fill a gap, bridge a cross-section, and create songs to sing on the way to the barbershop.
As the Mutton Birds are temporary residents in London I begin my phone conversation to Don with the usual trans-world small talk.
"Oh yeah, the weather's great. I've just dropped Louis off at school, and now I'm getting ready to do a few things." This does nothing to dispel my image of Don McGlashan as the friendly older brother of New Zealand music. While other phoners begin with sordid tales of hangovers and the thud of groupies falling out of soiled four-posters; this one is as charming as an English garden (as described by Thomas Hardy not Mike Leigh). And Don speaks with a satisfied tone that only comes with rock solid domesticity. Domesticity, but not in New Zealand. How can this be? The Mutton Birds resident in England is like lending out national assets. A great pop band maybe, their songs about Wellington and Dominion Road, and about heaters. (The heater is the most New Zealand of all appliances; the English have fires; Americans have central heating; and it's too hot in Australia to bother with anything except beer).
But away they are, for almost 18 months now, recording and writing; making friends and playing gigs. The aforementioned recording is a new album from the Mutton Birds (due out this month), lovingly created at Rockford studios in Wales with producer, Hugh Jones.
"Hugh is an interesting character, and the sort of person you're more likely to find here or in America rather then New Zealand. He's one of, I guess, the last rock'n'rollers; he never gets out of bed before about one or two in the afternoon and has this pale look. He was the sort of person who was caught in a timewarp of about twenty years ago. But he was a fantastic producer, he had worked with Echo and the Bunnymen way back when they were good, and recently he's worked with Dodgy. It was the first time we've worked with a producer, so I think it's brought a different dimension to the band and the album."
Not surprisingly, Don has respect for Hugh Jones, and Mr Jones' rock'n'roll sensibilities. The strong tradition of pop music in England is a contributing factor to the pleasure of the collective 'Birds who have taken in the Motherland, and recording in Wales with its history of both ancient and modern rock'n'roll Druids, there was more to the valleys than leek soup and rugby.
"There was quite a sense of history in Wales, not just the ancient history, but also in a musical sense. It seems the whole thing about popular music is far more ingrained here than New Zealand, the culture is older and, in a way, there is far more respect for it as an art."
The artists and the general psyche gets Don's approval, yet we have not breached the bug bear of all who encounter it - that demon of half truths and flowing adjectives, the British music press.
"In Britain there are a lot of people who have devoted their lives and careers to music, people who really care about music. Some of them are in bands and they continue to be in bands, others go on to write about it. The press here are quick to grab hold of something, so I guess that's why they get the bad reputation but I think there are many journalists working here who genuinely care about what's happening at the moment.
"As far as we're concerned, the press have been good to us. We've had good reviews for the compilation album (a condensed package of the first two albums), and built up a fairly good following."
Oasis vs Blur? Are the Mutton Birds considered honorary Britpoppers by fans and critics? Or outsiders peeking into a closed scene?
"All the Britpop thing has died down quite a bit. Again, I think people here do have a genuine love and interest in music, and they appreciate good songs over anything else."
Good songs are what it's all about, what better way to create for yourself new writing opportunities than through lots of travelling and playing. Before the band settled in they toured through Canada; they played shows and festivals in Europe; a festival in Texas, as well as touring in Australia. So, harking back to an earlier statement, how do the fans respond to songs about New Zealand landmarks and the squishy warm glow the Mutton Birds put onto Aotearoa?
"It's funny because only New Zealanders ask me that. I think people who like the songs don't need that reference, they get by just enjoying the song. I can't really say if my song writing has changed, and I don't know in what way being here has changed my writing, but I have met a lot of songwriters I admire, like Robyn Hitchcock whom I met at the festival in Texas, and Vic Chestnut in Holland. On stage we are the same, just trying to catch the vibe of the night and have a good time which will hopefully go through to the audience."
Having ripped the guts out of one band vehicle (an ex-public school transit van which was cursed the day it was sold by young aristocrats to a New Zealand rock'n'roll band) and has been dedicated a fan club a helluva long way from Ponsonby, the Mutton Birds are making it where many who have gone before have failed. They may be ready to play songs from Envy of Angels to already sold out venues in London, but the band still keep one eye on this glimmering South Pacific jewel. "We're always interested in what's happening at home. The elections are of big interest to us, as we were active in getting MMP voted in, I think it's a positive step for democracy."
Yep, Don cares. That's why he still gets the approval in the daughter marriage stakes.
New To Q
Q magazine (February 1996)
Award-winning Kiwi quartet escape the indie oppression of their motherland to settle in the UK, yet Crowded House comparisons remain.
The Mutton Birds' Don McGlashan has a theory. "You're starting to see a lot of great bands coming out of New Zealand because the scene is quite unique," he says. And if that sounds like the kind of patriotic braggadocio you'd expect to spout from the latest highly-touted Kiwi rockers, fear not. McGlashan isn't beating a drum, just stating facts.
"The place is so small that most of the action is on indie labels. It's vibrant. Hundreds of records are printed up in runs of 500 and never go beyond the shores of New Zealand. You'll never get rich being a musician in New Zealand, so there's no incentive to follow fashion. As a result, you form a band and you play the music you care most about, with no commercial pressure to do anything else."
When McGlashan pulled The Mutton Birds together from old friends he'd worked with in sundry local outfits, he cared most about singing his songs in a manner influenced by the sounds he'd heard as a five-year-old, listening to his brother's radio in their darkened Auckland bedroom. "He was cool. He tuned to a pirate station, Hauraki, outside New Zealand waters. It played The Beatles, The Kinks, The Byrds, Syd Barrett. I've never really got beyond that."
Even a cursory listen to The Mutton Birds' UK debut, Nature, reveals that McGlashan has at least got as far beyond his 60s influences as REM and, yes, Crowded House. But then again, Neil Finn of Crowded House did contribute his production skills to this compilation of their two antipodean albums.
Although their first, self-financed, album secured the Best Group and Album awards in the 1993 NZ Music Industry Awards, and their second album included Anchor Me, which scooped the country's top songwriting award in 1994, they're now based in London.
"We may suffer as a result. When Crowded House moved to Australia, their name all but disappeared from the New Zealand press."
The Crowded House connection goes right back to the late 70s when McGlashan's first band, Blam Blam Blam, supported Split Enz and befriended the Finn brothers. "I've no objection to being compared with them. We share a melodic feel and sense of place, but a bigger influence is all the bands we worked with in the warehouses in Auckland."
The Mutton Birds release Anchor Me as a single next month and are preparing for some live dates in the UK.
"I love New Zealand," McGlashan insists, "but we want to keep growing, and that's one thing you can't do back there."
- Johnny Black
Source unknown, Canada (1994?)
"Just getting over my jet lag...we've been here two days and we're getting acclimatized..." declares Don McGlashan with a voice one would expect to hear singing lullabies, not rock 'n' roll songs. "Sitting here in the SkyDome, looking out ... it's fantastic!" marvels the frontman for the New Zealand-based band the Mutton Birds. When questioned about the size of the dome, McGlashan says "It's ridiculous, it's quite ridiculous." Born and raised in New Zealand, one can see where he is coming from.
"New Zealand is full of pretty cynical people. You live in a place that small, you don't have a lot of respect for the things that you're supposed to have respect for. I mean, 'cause none of the institutions are very big. The government isn't very big. If you fly on a domestic flight around the country, you may end up sitting next to the prime minister." McGlashan states that because of this, musicians from New Zealand aren't easily intimidated and don't possess the grandiose illusions of the record companies that many North American musicians have.
However, making music a career in New Zealand is difficult, not due to a lack of support on the home front, but because the music industry isn't very strong. A lot of records are made, states McGlashan, but there just aren't enough people to buy the records. Also, getting their music to Europe and North America is a challenge for New Zealand bands. As with musicians everywhere, money is a problem. Travelling across the equator to play gigs and plug the band is costly, and if a group isn't successful the first time, many give up simply because they cannot afford to travel so far to push their material.
There is a positive side to all of this, McGlashan declares. "People can concentrate on songwriting and developing a sound which is really a unique voice without the distractions of the bigtime." Listening to Salty, the Mutton Birds' second CD, emphasizes McGlashan's point, at times steady, driving rock with a strong bass line and a catchy groove, at other times folky and romantic. "When the Mutton Birds approach a new song", McGlashan says, "everything's based around trying not to get in the way of the idea of the song. We try to support the song as much as we can." Each member coming from a different musicial direction (McGlashan studied at Auckland University and graduated with a BA in music and English, guitarist David Long worked with New Zealand based band The Six Volts, drummer Ross Burge is known as one of the best drummers in original New Zealand music, having worked with Sneaky Feelings, and bassist Alan Gregg is formerly of The Dribbling Darts of Love), one would wonder whether this would help or hinder the creative process for the Mutton Birds. Says McGlashan: "Even though we've had quite a lot of playing experience in different kinds of groups, I think what's happened with us is that it's a really focused sound... it's become like a personality."
Lyrically, the Mutton Birds' songs are as diverse as the musical backgrounds of the members. Songs as serious and heartbreaking as You Will Return mixed with the funky, satirical Queen's English. The opening tune entitled The Heater, is about just that: an electric heater. Drawing from his roots for inspiration, McGlashan is a gifted storyteller, and his lyrics are more like complete stories rather than vague pieces of scattered poetry. "I guess those were the kinds of songs that turned me on most when I was growing up listening to music ... it's a strong medium; people are really relaxed when they listen to songs ... everybody actually has experiences when they feel a particular way and a song pops into their head and they start singing.. that's something that everybody shares.
"Fragments of things I see and things I see in the newspaper." These are the predominant ideas behind McGlashan's lyrics. Queen's English is based on a true occurence involving a Texas senator. "He was being lobbied about the importance of bilingual schools in an area that had a lot of Latinos in it. He said that if the Queen's English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me."
Looking back on his younger years, McGlashan reflects that the music he listened to as a teenager had the biggest impact on him. "When the punk thing happened in'77, people immediately formed bands and I was in a band called The Plague and it was a really forlorn band. We used to perform naked, painted blue. At that time, bands like The Clash and XTC were a big influence. "As a songwriter, I guess the first stuff you listen to as a kid is probably the stuff that makes the biggest impression."
As much as McGlashan is influenced by musicians like The Kinks and Neil Young, he also makes the point of how closely the bands in New Zealand work together. Music is a vital scene down under, and McGlashan is just as influenced by the bands at home. "There's an emphasis on finding your own voice and working on it and there's a lot of groups that are really weird, or they write a particular way and they sound a particular way..." His favourite New Zealand based bands are The Chills and The Vilaines.
Signed with EMI Canada and connecting with Germany, backed by musical talent and an extremely articulate frontman, the Mutton Birds are on their way to becoming a known and respected name in the music industry. Sincere lyrics that listeners can relate to and music that can bring out the emotions in an audience are the criteria that separate a band that lasts from a band that experiences a fling with stardom. The Mutton Birds are far too down-to-earth to be categorized as the latter.
Much Ado About Mutton
Rip It Up (1992)
- Fiona Rae
What's this? An album at number two in the charts and the McGlashans have got a guard dog already? You haven't got that gold one on the wall yet Don, I can't see any screaming hordes outside your Kingsland pad, buddy. But, no, the dog which has been growling and barking at me from the McGlashans' front porch slowly gets up, still barking, and slinks away - to next door.
"The dog isn't ours," sighs McGlashan on his doorstep. "We don't know why he does that."
One of life's little mysteries, perhaps like the one where an album that was partly recorded in a garage shared with a printer is at number two in the charts and the second single, 'Nature', a fairly grunty version of the Formuyla's 60s hit, is on everyone's lips.
That album, the self-titled debut from the Mutton Birds, has had an interesting journey already. It was originally scheduled for release in April, but fell prey to a number of delays, including the closure of the New Zealand branch of Virgin Records, which was distributing the band's own Bag Records label. While he waited, McGlashan, singer, songwriter, musician and actor, never thought he'd end up number two to God (Eric Clapton, maaan) in the charts.
"I was so pessimistic about radio play and the idea of a single, because I didn't imagine that anybody would buy Mutton Birds singles, I thought people would be interested in buying an album and we wouldn't have that feeling of pressure that a single generates - that that's the album that everybody has to buy that week, I didn't anticipate that. I've never been involved in anything like this, it's fantastic."
But there were darker days, like when the album was being recorded in that practice room. "We'd be struggling away with the rain beating on the roof and noxious fumes from the printer swirling around and on our hands and knees trying to work out where the humming was coming from. At times I was painfully aware that every recording project I've been involved with since Blam Blam Blam has been on a lower budget. At times when we were going to try and borrow a mike lead so that we could keep going I started to think what was wrong with me, why hadn't I been able to get a deal for this record, why hadn't I got anybody interested."
It's been largely the success of 'Nature' that has made normally disinterested radio types listen. The success of the cover version is ironic, considering that McGlashan has primarily been known as a songwriter since Blam Blam Blam, through From Scratch and theatre group The Front Lawn.
"I think it's a really good song," says McGlashan. "I don't want to do lots more covers, I didn't want to go out with a cover first, but I felt that people would like 'Nature'. It's one of the things on the record that really worked for me.
"I think there is a recognition factor - most people will have heard the original, even if they're too young to have sat up glued to Studio One or Loxene Golden Disc when it first got aired. There's something neat about the unalloyed joy of the song - the energy about it - there's a looney, pastoral sort of hopefulness. I'd love to write something that direct and the stuff I'm doing now feels a bit closer to that."
And this is the main reason McGlashan formed the Mutton Birds two years ago - so he could write songs.
"The fact that I've got a band who are really supportive when I turn up with songs and they've got great ideas to throw in is pushing me into taking more risks with writing and being able to write from a more instinctive place. I've written a certain number of songs and I would love to have written double that number in the next couple of years. I'm 33 and I've got maybe 10 or 15 songs that I think are good."
McGlashan also cites the Fane Flaws-directed video for 'Nature' as a reason for the song's success. "I think nowadays a video is what wakes everybody up, including radio programmers, all sorts of mainstream radio got interested after seeing 'Nature', it gave them a picture of what the band's trying to do, made them listen to the song in a different way." Ideas for the video started with Graham Campbell, the Front Lawn's manager, and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who worked as DOP on An Angel At My Table.
"Stuart was really keen to do it, he'd phoned us up after hearing us on BFM and said 'Are you going to make a clip of that song? I'd love to be involved', so that was fantastic and I'd talked to Douglas Wright, I've composed for his dance pieces, and Doug was going away overseas so he quickly choreographed the dance sequence which we then used."
So just how far are the Mutton Birds willing to push their poppy, crafted wares? Rest assured, this is by no means just Don McGlashan's Latest Thing. David Long (guitar) has moved from Wellington to Auckland and Ross Burge (drums) came back from New York to work with McGlashan. Along with Alan Gregg (bass and vocals) they're prepared to take on the world, which means touring overseas, something now more possible in the wake of bands like the Chills, the 3Ds, Straitjacket Fits, the Bats and the Verlaines. McGlashan and his family have made a commitment to the Mutton Birds.
"It's taken a while, a couple of years of working this out," he says. "But I've gotten to the stage where I'm now free, it's a decision that me and my family have made, we've decided that we could give the next few years to this if that's necessary."
The birth of McGlashan's son, Louie, to he and partner Marianne Shultz has caused something many new parents find out - suddenly you are more aware of your priorities and it's a lot easier to focus on what you really want. The birth of the Mutton Birds and Louie has a definite connection.
"There is a tie-up, although I am the father, the rest of the band aren't the father!" laughs McGlashan. "Parenthood organises your life, it organises your priorities, because if you're trying to share this full-time job of looking after a kid then you've got less time to waste on things that aren't as essential. I find it easier to say no to things, because there's something very specific, there's this little person I've got to look at. Previously, I've had trouble saying no to things, because the only reason was this large and fairly non-specific idea in the back of my mind that I should be getting on with my own work, writing songs. Now, in a sense, it's clarified what I want to do, there's things that are really important to me, there's him and Marianne and there's the Mutton Birds and I'm able to work really hard at my writing because I want him to have a dad that's fulfilled in his work, because I think I'll be a better dad."
Louie gets treated to a few McGlashan originals at home too, although none release-able according to the artist. "They're mostly about his bowel movements," he says. "It's quite hard to rhyme bowels with anything. Towels, I suppose."
But seriously, McGlashan also now feels that he's ready to deal with the industry.
"It's taken me this long to come back to songwriting full time, being in a band full time, come back to dealing with the whole dark and sulphurous landscape that is the recording industry. I've not wanted anything to do with it for ages. Maybe in a year I'll have had a gutsful and I won't want to have anything to do with it again. I think I've changed a lot - the industry hasn't changed, it's capitalism in its purest sense and it's never going to change.
"There's only a tiny proportion of the record industry that's about music. If you really get hot under the collar about what the industry is putting all its energy into selling and consequently what the poor old public is putting its energy into buying and the sort of dreck that most of the time people really like, then I think you're wasting your time. It's like getting really mad because people want to spend all their money on buying mutant ninja turtles instead of sending it to the Horn of Africa."
And despite the self-financed independence of The Mutton Birds, if a big advance was offered to record another album, McGlashan's answer would be 'that'll do nicely thanks'.
"Yeah, my analogy with this record is that we've decided we want to fly somewhere, so we go out in the back yard and we build a plane. Next time, I'd just like to buy a ticket! I'd like to go to the travel agent and say 'this is where I want to go, give me the ticket' and I think in New Zealand, you can invent your own method of doing things and that's one of the neat things about being here to a certain extent.'
In the future of the Mutton Birds, we'll probably also be seeing less of Don McGlashan's face too, as the working band develops.
"I'm the one the interviewers ask for, because they want to talk about the songs and my background," he says, "but the next set of interviews will he all of us or more of us. I did set up the band so that I would write more songs and the original idea was not to be as collective as other things I've been in, but the personality of the music is something that is the net effect of all four personalities."
Another favourite media topic has been the 'Don McGlashan documents kiwi culture' theory. Strange, in a way, as many other local bands also mention place names of other such kiwi stuff.
"If that's all that strikes people, then that's unfortunate," says McGlashan. "In the final analysis it's whether something sticks around and stays and continues to be arresting or moving or continues to have a life after the year it was released and I don't think that aspect of trying to write good songs has anything to do with the detail in the lyrics, the local flavour, I think that's a sort of cosmetic thing.
"The neat thing now is that I grew up in a country where occasionally you'd hear Peter Cape on the radio, you'd hear 'Down the Hall On Saturday Night', that was kiwi music, or you'd hear John Hore singing about the Waikato, that was when I was little and then there was this explosion through the late 70s and beyond where there were punk bands singing about Grafton Bridge and now I think it's not that weird to be singing about this place.
"The great thing about what's happening now, is there's a music here that doesn't owe much to anybody else, it's not the New Zealand answer to anything. It's music that grows out of our experience and that is something that goes a lot deeper than mentioning Dominion Road in a song."
That very direct, filmic writing style may change in future years, anyway. McGlashan has a professed desire to write more pop songs, although says he's never managed to write a "completely irony-free one". The band's sound is changing too, "becoming louder and more distorted as we grow into a band", he says. No desire, yet, though to get butt naked, paint their bodies and grunge out?
"I understand there's quite a few people who would like to see our bass player get naked and paint his body, or possibly get naked and paint their body. I think we'll save that for the fourth single!"
It's a full circle for McGlashan, back now to touring with a band - he's seen more of the country than most, having done seven national tours with Blam Blam Blam and six with the Front Lawn. This tour is something of an experiment in that the whole family will be on the road. It's a far cry from the highly portable days of The Front Lawn, when McGlashan and partner Harry Sinclair had to ask everyone individually in the public bar of Stewart Island's pub to come through to the lounge bar and see the Reason For Breakfast show.
"They were all such hard case people that we had to perform parts of the show to just about everybody in the pub to prove to them that they might have a marginally good time going next door," remembers McGlashan with a grin. He's full of great little stories like this - like his songs. No matter whether the dreams of success come true, no doubt the life and times of the Mutton Birds will be eventful and they will create stories and a history of their own.