SANZ: Now its just been announced this morning that The Mutton Birds are reuniting for a tour
Don:Amazing coincidence isn't it. Isn't that great. We've been sitting on the information for a long time
SANZ: I was going to ask you how long have you been sitting on that info
Don: Been about a year. The whole process has been about a year. Brent Eccles and Campbell Smith approached us, approached me and said what did I think and then I had to kind of put it to the other guys and it wasn't unanimous at all initially. We've never been the kind of band that's chomping at the bit to have a reunion I think everybody feels really satisfied that we had a really good run and we really enjoyed being The Mutton Birds everybody's pretty happy with their lives
SANZ: Because I think I asked you a while ago at another theatre show if there was a chance cos you guys said in 2002 you were in semi retirement
Don: I guess it's sort of an ideal opportunity because the winery tour. I think we always said if we did get together and did a reunion tour it would have to be really the right kind of conditions like there had to be really good publicity really good backing and good conditions so we could do the best shows we possibly could no stress you know and the beautiful thing about winery tours is this one has built up a history, it's built up a momentum and they run really well, it's a really good environment to play and audiences love going to these winery tours
SANZ: They're saying this one's the best line up yet too
Don: Well that's good. They would say that. It's good I feel great about it Allan wasn't into it initially because he lives in the UK and he's got a five year old little boy didn't want to be away from home.
I completely relate to that, my kids are older now
SANZ: That happened when you were in The Mutton Birds when you were touring the UK
Don: Oh yeah I mean it's, the thing is it's a bit different when we were touring the UK we went there specifically to do that so my family was kind of committed to do that and my wife one worked really really hard to look after the kids while we were away. We would be away for two weeks at a stretch going around sometimes going around Europe. We had an Au pair as well for super cheap you can get a non English speaking person in your house who just helps look after the kids and in return you give them an English speaking environment it would be great if that happened in New Zealand bands could do a lot of work here but unfortunately we're not close to a vast store of non English speaking young people who want to learn to speak English. Except Australia Austrlian's do speak English a lot of people don't think they do but they do.
SANZ: What was it like to go solo after being in bands most of your career
Don: Well I was reluctant because of quite a few factors, one was a vestigial sense of loyalty to the band like if you commit to working with some people and you then accept the gig solo then you're kind of taking food off their plate and I think I kind of had to convince myself or I had to grow into the realisation that once I'd come back from England and The Mutton Birds were no more the people that I committed to working with were free agents and they could go and work with other people if they wanted to I kind of had to re learn ways of thinking about that and that was one thing, the other thing was sort of a fear of not being able to do it not being able to get up in front of people and do justice to the songs and I had to work quite hard on that you know cos I never thought of myself as a good guitarist and I've always sought of revelled in the details of what you can add to a song the textures you can add to a song but I'll tell you what I've really come to enjoy it I really get a kick out of it now, I get a kick out of the flexibility of it the fact I can just turn up somewhere with a suitcase and a guitar and also the fact that I can kind of relax with the audience talk to them and tell them a story and I don't have to feel that I am kind of lauding it over somebody else that's sitting next to me on stage who isn't empowered to tell a story because they're just a sideman for me you know. I find getting back into a band situation now it's quite an adjustment to sit in the Bellbirds and actually not be the one that tells all the stories obviously it's a bit democratic and it's not my band so I find myself biting my tongue a bit in that and that's interesting watching the change over the last few years I've really come to get a kick out of playing solo
SANZ: How did The Bellbirds project come about
Don: Sean had had a gutsful of big bands, big expensive tours the logistics of a large number of people and he like all of us in this small country you know you do something where all the imperatives are artistic, creative and then you hit a brick wall because some wally doesn't play your single on the radio and then that means your tour fails which means you're in debt which means you can't do the next record and we all hit that I've hit it a few times in my career. I think Sean just got to the stage he went logistically let's just have a small thing and creatively let's have a small thing too let's see what happens. You got a dynamic spectrum in the noises you can make you know with a band you can play really quietly or you can play really loud and a rock n roll band plays in the upper end of the dynamic spectrum let's see what happens at the bottom end of the spectrum where your'e working on a song and you decide that there's this big moment happens in this song and the big moment is you change from playing the accoustic guitar with your thumb to playing it with your finger nail. We talked about it he kind of recruited us all he'd worked with Sandy before in SJD and we all knew V because of film score work but we never worked with her in a band she has been in bands but she hasn't ever been full time in a band so Sean had quite a strong concept for a vocal group he just called everybody up and we started having meetings he had a bunch of songs, he's really prolific especially at the moment he has alot of wonderful songs we could do just an entire Bellbrids album easily with just his songs but he wanted to encourage everybody to write and so gradually all of us. I'm supposedly always writing but I had to think what I wanted to write for this group and V and Sandy have turned up with some cool songs aswell it's quite an embarassment of riches at the moment
SANZ: Any album by The Bellbirds in the pipeline
Don: Yeah there is. We're about three quaters finished it needs to be mixed and then a few more songs need to be added to it and it's just a question of when we can do that. Sean's in charge of that process because he's got all the stuff at his home studio and he's been busy with the Pyjama Club
SANZ: Yeah with Neil Finn. So he's got quite a bit on his plate
Don: Yeah. We all do. V's been writing music for the opening of the Rugby World Cup and so have I. I didn't do the opening ceremony there was a fireworks display that the Auckland City Council put on and I wrote the music for that and was musical director for that and conducted the orchestra. It was fun.
Photographer: Did you just say you conducted the orchestra
Don: Yeap.Well I studied music when I was a teenager I got a degree in music and English and then through out my career writing film scores some of those film scroes require an orchestra
rather then hire a conductor sometimes i've hired a conductor and sometimes I've done it myself. For Dean Spanley we had two sessions, we had The National Symphony for two sessions one afternoon session and an evening session and the conductor that I hired suddenly went and double booked himself and said I can't do the afternoon session so I didn't have enough money to hire anybody else so I conducted The National Symphony which was really fun, it was really good.
SANZ:What would you prefer to do work and record in a studio or perform live.
Don: The stock answer to that is you need to do both because they're two aspects of this job you know and if you don't work in a studio then nobody can own your stuff and have it in their house and live with it. I think I would have to say that my temprament suits playing live because I get bored really fast I get into the studio and once I've kind of written the song and it's got to the point where it's finished and I can play it I feel my works done and I need somebody else some really patient person to come and make it all happen
SANZ: Since the release of marvellous year aswell as doing the music for the film matariki and The Bellbirds aswell what have you been up to
Don: Alot actually. Oh what have I been up to, many things
SANZ:Any more film scores
Don: Yeah this is not my life which I'm proud of one of the most hardest and in the end the most rewarding it just about killed me one of the most rewarding TV score jobs because it's such a brilliant piece of writing and criminally under recognised in New Zealand it was evidently a big hit on Ondemand (the website that replays tv shows) it was so complicated that people just wanted to watch it over and over on their computers and of course that doesn't add to the ratings so if you could have factored that in the it would have rated really well and the people at TV
SANZ:Yeap. I have found I have been watching on NZonscreen Street Legal the score to that is brilliant I love the guitar work on that.
Don: Thanks man
SANZ:I'm hoping you will release it to the fans one day
Don:Ahh you know those things never sell. So you release it to give you a good feeling so you can pat yourself on the back but film scores just tend to sit around in the music stores, the only one that did sell was No2 and that was because everbody wanted to buy Bathe In The River and for a while there they hadn't released Bathe In The River as a single so the film score for No2 is one of the best selling scores to ever be released in New Zealand because people wanted that single. So This Is Not My Life and that was the beginning of 2010 I think it was through November, December 2009 January, February, March 2010 I kind of started it the same time as Matariki and then what.
SANZ: Dean Spanley
Don: Dean Spanley was 2008 and then what did I do in 2010. My Minds a blank
Photographer: Not enough coffee
Don: That's decafe so it doesn't do anything. I toured solo that's what I did. I did a whole South Island tour and then I went to Europe I did a couple of gigs in London or a gig in London and a couple of gigs across the States in New York that was in July a New York gig and a San Francisco and then in the latter part of that year I did a feature film called Bliss which is a story of Katherine Mansfield early life directed by Fiona Samuels it was a made for TV feature the music was written for the NZ Trio so I had to score that out and record it and then the beginning of 2011 that was the New Zealand festival and I performed in a show called Ship Songs which was down at the Wellington Festival
Photographer: Where abouts was that in Wellington
Don: we performed in the shed it was a temporary venue that they built on the waterfront and that was essentially a solo show Ian Hughes had written a solo show and I had done music for it which was on cd for the first couple of years of the shows life and then we remounted it with three live musicians Me, Chris o Connor and Dave Khan two guys from my band the seven sisters and it was really fun we play kind of the ghosts of old sailors dodgy looking in dinner suits with our instruments and Ians playing all these different characters around us, then more overseas touring solo and then came back and started work on the score for Sionnes 2 which is the sequel to Sionnes wedding and I just finished that a couple of weeks ago.
SANZ: I heard that was in the making
Don:It's really good it's going to be a great film it's really funny
SANZ: Why did it take so long to record and release your first solo album warm hand
Don: Well I kind of had to work oout what I was going to do you know. I wrote some songs, I was a literary fellow at Auckland University. At the Auckland University English department I got this fellowship and that gave me a chance to just sort of sit in an office and work out where I'd go in the future, from what kind of performer I would be I didn't know then that I would enjoy being a solo performer so I kind of thought I better write some stuff and then see what kind of musical style it turns into and then I met Sean and at that stage we were pretty skint cos we had come back from England and we didnt have jobs so I was desperately trying to get food on the table and I got the job writing music for Street Legal that was a four year process of writing for this TV series so that bought me a bit of time, No it didn't buy me time cos I was so busy writing it but there were a few months each year that I could just actually focus on just trying to write songs. But I really had to reinvent myself and meeting Sean was good cos we tried to work out a duo where we could do my songs. He was busy with his own band making his own music but he kind of helped me by being a sounding board for my ideas and we performed a little bit as a duo then I found a wonderful accordian player called Tatiana latchikova we worked as a trio for a while Sean, Tatiana and I.
SANZ: I've got a great performance by you guys from the Auckland Zoo show
Don: Was that as a trio?
SANZ:Yeap you, Sean and Tatiana
Don: There wern't more people in that wasn't Ross there
SANZ: Nope it's just the three of you cos you were on that small thing they have at Auckland Zoo
Don:A rotunda, and Sean had a laptop and gradually this was developing more and more towards the album cos I had ab unch of songs written and partially recorded and we thought maybe we can make an album like this with accordian and loops and whatever I can play but then this is when it got up to 2006 and I had done another film score by then and I think I was working on No2 at that point. I suddenly realised that this is not the kind of album I wanted to make and I had met with Ed Cake and we had just tried to envisage. We had these songs you know and Sean had helped with the songs and he was going to help with the album aswell but he was to busy just to be the overall producer and control the whole thing and Ed and I just thought why couldn't it just be a band and just put a band together who are the people I really want to play with and out of that grew this idea and we also decided to do it out of Auckland and just live somwhere rural which is a real wonderful thing to do I'd love to do it again and thats how it came about I called up Ross Burge called up John Segovia and Sean joined in aswell and Tatiana so that was the band for the warm hand record and it was kind of a sudden shift you know being away from a band trying to reinvent myself without a band and then at the last minute putting a band back together. I had to go on that journey before I could really come back to it getting the band going thats why it took so long.
SANZ:Now you mentioned over the years before Warm Hand was released that it was actually going to be called Goats In The Machine what happened to that title
Don: (Laughs) Oh well my manager didn't like it. My manager of the day Roger King didn't like it
SANZ: I thought it was a brilliant title
Don: I thought it was good to. It wasn't my idea that's the thing it was a friend of mine called Zach Redden in London he has an occasional mail out which he calls Goats In The Machine and he kind of mails out goat related trivia to people so that was one tick against it as it wasn't my idea it didn't matter. Blam Blam Blam wasn't our idea wither sombody gave us that name Richard Von Sturmer gave us that name
SANZ: wasn't that the same with The Mutton Birds you were given that name.
Don: No Mutton Birds I thought of but it was kind of negotiated between me and Harry Sinclair cos he has a Mutton Birding side to his family because there's a family connection to Mutton Birding initially he was a bit miffed that I was heading off with a new career and using a name that was part of his history but then after a while he became really generous and decided he'd be really happy for me to use that name but so Goats In The Machine, I got to the point to where I wanted a name that wasn't too clever with a pun in it or anything like that I wanted somthing which was more straight up and simple
SANZ: Over the years you have played alot of instruments which would be your favourite one
Don: I don't know I mean I'm playing drums at the moment because we're doing a benefit show with Blam Blam Blam end of this week in a couple of days
SANZ: This is the first I have heard about this Blam Blam Blam show
Don: Well we have done a Blam Blam Blam reunion in 2003 we toured around the country with The Newmatics and since then we've gotten together once or twice to do shows. so that means I can play the drums and get a kick out of that it's fantastic catharsis playing the drums. Quite hard to sing and play the drums quite hard to sort of sell and really deliver a song with ideas and stories and things like that cos when you're playing the guitar people can kind of see you telling a story where as you're playing the drums they're watching you pat your head and rub your tummy you know
SANZ: How did you become involved with the project Seven Worlds Collide: When The Sun Came Up
Don: Neil just asked me. We were on tour with crowdies and we were talking and Neil just said there's another Seven Worlds Collide coming up would you like to be in it. Which is a wonderful opportunity and just really generous of him to pull me in. I was by far the least known songwriter there but the way that thing worked it was very equal like everybody there their ideas are listened to equally and it doesn't matter how many records you've sold you start playing a song and sombody would come in and say can I play tambourine on that you know before you know it everybodies involved there's Wilco sitting down working on the rythm section and Jeff Tweedy working out a guitar solo and Johnny Marr playing the tambourine giving advice it was a real high point in my career.
SANZ: I'm going to bring up somthing that happened in 2001. In the NZ post ad the tune for Miracle Sun was used if I'm right
Don: Good spotting
SANZ: How did the tune come or did the song come before the tune
Don: No the tune came first. It was quite interesting I wrote the tune and we wrote the ad which was an instrumental thing with sort of a vocal tune but no words and then after it the NZ post people talked to the agency guys about it. I rarely do ads but every so often only once a year and the NZ post people went this seems like it could be a song wouldn't it be fantastic if it turned into a song and it became a single and NZ post helped it and it became a big song which helped advertise NZ post you know and the agency got back to me this is after the thing had been out for about six months or so and the agency got back to me and said would you consider doing that I went no not really I couldnt really think of how to do it and then a year or so later I was working on miracle sun and I needed a chorus for it and I suddenly realised that that tune would be really good for that so I pulled that tune in and then I thought fantastic I hadn't made the record yet I've got no money maybe NZ post will help because they said they were interested the songs not about mailing mail basically what they wanted might of happened by accident and so I rang the agency back and they said oh no no that persons been fired so I had a brief moment where I could have. Bcause I have this thing where I don't let my songs be used in ads
SANZ: I remember didn't Anchor come to you for Anchor Me
Don: Yeah oh god yeah everybody has Mercury Energy, Anchor BNZ at somepoint and Mcdonalds wanted to use Pulled Along By Love I could have a really big house if I'd said yes to any of these but the ironic thing is I don't let it happen but with Miracle Sun it sort of almost happened by accident but then it didn't because the person who's idea it was at NZ post had got to another job, Hopefully a good job hope they're doing well
SANZ: Now there have been rumours over the past few years of a Front Lawn reunion aswell as a film can you confirm this
Don: There's no likelyhood of a reunion, Harry and I did work on a film for a while which is not now going to be a Front Lawn film it may still come out Harry's working on a bunch of projects now. One of them is a film which looks like he will write and direct it but looks like the germ of the idea maybe the collaborative idea that we started about four years ago. But it's not going to be a Front Lawn project we did work together on and off because he lives in Los Angeles and prior to that he lived in New York so it was hard to work together but over the last four years we've worked on an idea .
SANZ:When you first started out writing songs did you ever think that later other people would cover them I point out such case Canadian band Captain Tractor for covering Dominion Road
SANZ: Yeah. Aswell as the many covers of Anchor Me
Don: It's really reinforcing, it's incredibly vindicating in this job, when somthing you've done matters enough to people that they might want to cover it. Thats a great thing and I guess when The Mutton Birds started we had this manifesto thing we sort of sat down and said what do we want to do and one of the things we could all agree on was that we wanted to make some records which people would be glad to have on the shelves in ten years time or twenty years time and they wouldn't be ashamed of them and I guess the fact that we've been asked to be part of this you know it's kind of a bitter pill to swallow to feel like you're a heritage act after all these years but you have to be honest with yourself you have to look in the mirror and realise you are a heritage act but the good thing is if people care enough about what we did to want to see the band again after twenty years, it's been twenty years since we relased that first album I guess we must have achieved atleast some of that objective.
SANZ:When you wrote songs such as Dominion Road and Queen Street did you write these to encourage other NZ musicians to write about their home patch
Don:When I sit down to write I'm just trying to write well thats all and my habits as a writer are observational and close to home pop songs are very small condensed style if I could sit down like Leonard Cohen and write like a sweeping philisophical idea that's trying to put across in a really kind of coded way that he does so that you listen to a set of words thats sort of conjure up whole worlds. If I could do that I would do it but I'm not that songwriter if I could invent a ficticious south american country where all sorts of bad stuff happens like Nick Cave does and there's this sort of dream landscape full with blood and lust I could do that but I don't because it's not what I'm good at what I do is look at whats close to me and I try to write about it and try to get the light right here and the way your glasses reflect the light I would try to get that right you know that's the way I see my job and that leads me to write about the place that's around me happens to be New Zealand
SANZ: My Photographer here has a question about songwriting also
Photographer:Do current events come into your writing like the deaths of the Kahui Twins or the oil spill or anything like that does it come into your songwriting
Don: There's songs that ive written that have got really specific echoes A Thing Well Made is a bleak look at the Aromoana masacre that's a song on the first Mutton Birds album and there's a song called 18th day which is about Te whiti and Tohu who were taken away and put in prison without trial there was a period where the followers just waited and I sort of had a dream about that and wanted to write about what that might have been like, like a song of deliverance like a song saying things are bad now but when the two prophets come back things will be great you know there's a long histroy of songs of deliverance in the folk cannon I just kind of got the idea to write about that. It's current events but it's also a historical thing.
SANZ:You also wrote a song called Toy Factory Fire about Kader
Don: Toy Factory Fire is about a global thing about somthing that happened in ThaiLand but it implicates us everybody in the west cos it's about globalisation and outsourcing of work
Photographer: Like slave labour
Don: Thats what the songs about. It's about an industrial accident.
So I write about that stuff but I'm not only writing about that stuff that's a kind of slightly rare aspect of it. I've also written about somthing that happened in the islands after the Bounty with the mutiny of the bounty a song called Queen Of The Night
Photographer: You must have a really big internal world.
Don: Well I read alot. There's only so many I love you baby songs you can write, there's lots of other things you can write about we're not here for very long and we should really apply ourselves to whats around us.
SANZ: you have a few songs like that c2006p1 and Marvellous Year
Don: Marvellous year and c2006p1 are about the comet that went over this part of the world in 2006 and they're kind of fun songs. I go through kind of series. When we were living in England there was a comet aswell that was Hail Bop it was around the birth of my daughter this was seventeen years ago a long time and I started working on a whole series of ideas which were about portents big cataclysms and celestial events that acompany an important birth you know how in the bible there's a star over an importent birth, it happens all the way through history it's a common human theme so I've been mucking around with that you know, they didn't turn into songs then when I was living in England but they eventually turned into songs much much later
SANZ: If one of your songs comes onto the radio do you sing along or switch stations
Don: Well if I'm on my own I tend to turn the radio up and drive along thinking my god what an amazing life I lead this little idea I had is now being shared by a whole bunch of other people if they happened to be tuned to the same station, if there's other people around cos we're kiwis and we don't like to blow our own trumpet I tend to switch the channel, turn it down, talk loudly whatever. The worst things in the supermarket, if I'm in a supermarket and a song comes on I tend to sort of go and hide in an aisle
Photographer:Thats must be hard
Don: very hard
Photographer:That's a very New Zealand thing isn't it you can't say you're good at anything otherwise people think that you're arrogant
Don: Yeah I think that's changing a wee bit. I think all the hip hop stars in New Zealand have actually helped us all puff our chest out and go actually we're really good at somthing. But indie shoe gazing music where white boys complain about their lives is not an element I'm in so there's not alot of self aggrandisement in that style.
SANZ: What advice would you give to singer/songwriters starting out
Don: somebody in Australia I think said the best advice to young musicians start at the bottom and get used to it. Which is a joke. Just try to find what you're good at and work at it, write as many things as you can, play to as many people as you can and be patient with yourself but if you're really hungry for it if you are just in it for the wrong reasons you will get the stuffing knocked out of you pretty fast and you wont stick at it so those that are going to stick at it you know you'll know that relatively soon and if you are that's a big calling you're part of a small group of people whose job it is to notice stuff and who try to filter that into their craft or their discipline and make somthing which will be useful to people.
SANZ:What are your thoughts on the New Zealand music scene compared to when you started out
Don: There is much more depth to it now you get the feeling
there's a sense that people music as a career and they're not reinventing the wheel all the time there's a structure there's managers who know how to manage and agents who know how to book gigs you don't have to make it all up as you go along
Photographer: Do you think it would have been easier if that was been in place when you started out
Don: Yeah it would have been i've been very lucky that I've always only done music I've never had a proper job and that's very rare cos most people in New Zealand they do music but they do other stuff on the side everything I've done has been involved in music. Would it have been easier yes it would of but as I say alot of good things happened to me sort of early on Blam Blam Blam we got to a point where we had top five singles pretty quick and we were all pretty young. I mean you could go all what ifs
Photographer: Did it happen faster then you expected
Don:Yeah yeah I didn't have a plan at all I just wanted to be in a band and have fun I guess in some ways I was lucky in that for my own sort of personal growth that there wasn't much of a recording industry in those days and there wasn't much in way of management we didn't have management at all and if we had had really savy management sombody would have said right we're getting you guys to Australia and you're going to live in a van in Australia for five years trucking around the place and I might've really burnt out or got a herroine habit or all the things that happen to you. But that didn't happen there wasn't any of that infrastructure there and also the band sort of stopped all of a sudden because we had a van accident and one of the guys got injured and in a way that sort of catapulted me out of this place and I went and lived in New York and sort of looked around and tried to work out what kind of song writer I would be if I was (missing word will figure out) or somthing so in a way it was good luck and then for the next six or seven years I was trying to work it out through writing my own songs privately and also being in The Front Lawn and learning about story telling and song writing during that whole period I didn't really start writing songs properly until The Mutton Birds although by that stage The Mutton Birds started when I was thirty that's very late to start a band possibly if there had been bigger,stronger music industry in New Zealand somthing else might have happened and it might of distracted me from that process of learning
SANZ: Do you feel it's much stronger now
SANZ:What are your plans for the remainder of 2011 and 2012
Don: The Mutton Birds reunion thing is going to take up February next year at this stage we are planning it hasn't been completly confirmed yet we're planning one gig in London with The Mutton Birds in April and I'm going to do Ship Songs, There's another season of Ship Songs in Auckland at the Q theatre in March and apart from that I really don't have any plans. There's a Bellbirds album we're going to try and release that next year and tour with that as much as we can. It's difficuly with the Bellbirds cos there's small kids V and Sandy both have got little kids, Seans kids are sort of in the middle and mine are old teenagers .
SANZ:Yeah because Pearls on shortland Street
Don: Pearls on Shortland Street yeap she's seventeen, she still lives at home she's very busy and my son Louis is in a band he's a fantastic musician hasn't found the style he wants to play yet but he can play many things.
SANZ: Final question. Dave Dobbyn released a book that gives insight and stories into some of his songs is there a chance you would be interested in doing that
Don: I would love to write a book
SANZ: Or somone else could write it for you
Don: Oh god no I'm a good writer that sounds boastful but I love to write but what I would probably do is would not be a book with songs in them and stories behind the songs it would probably would be somthing like a work of fiction
SANZ: I'm sure alot of the fans would love to hear the stories behind alot of your songs
Don: That would be good. One of the coolest things I've read lately in that area is Paul Kellys book it's a fantastic book it's essentially songs and the stories behind the songs, meditations on writing on the creative life, meditations on Australia politics in Australia, social life in Australia. It's a really really strong work and I don't think I would want to do anything like that but I'd love to write somthing. I've been approached by publishers over the years to write different things. The thing with me is time I'm the main bread winner in the family so I'd need to be sure that I was going to earn enough to keep them fed while that happened If somebody came up to me and said stop doing what you're doing here's some money go away for six months and write a book I would jump at it but it hasn't happened yet