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.
Don McGlashan and (from top right) David Long, Alan Gregg
and Ross Burge. Photo supplied.
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
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
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
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
Can you describe what the others brought to the
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
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
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
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.