We revisit Mick's Archive and travel back in time to 1997.
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. I 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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 gun. 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. 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 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 that 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 came together very fast when we recorded it. 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.”
Don McGlashan now has a splendid solo career now, you can jeep up with his adventures here. There is also a fine site that keeps up with current info as well as past adventures here. There are B Sides and fine live sets to download here.