Mutton Birds back for the songs

Don McGlashan and (from top right) David Long, Alan Gregg and Ross Burge. Photo supplied.
Don McGlashan and (from top right) David Long, Alan Gregg and Ross Burge. Photo supplied.
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.