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FLOCK - The Best Of The Mutton Birds - OUT NOW

Don McGlashan & The Mutton Birds: A podcast introduction

Added 13 April 2013 by Peter
2012's news that one of New Zealand's best loved bands had reunited for a Winery tour inspired me to go to the back of my garage and delve into those dusty boxes I'd been trying to put off sorting out since I moved to my new house in 2011.

Inside those boxes, nestled between various items of tat that I'll never use but refuse to get rid of, were two cassette tapes, labelled "Uni coursework 1998". Cassette tapes that contain (to use the cliché), “never before heard conversations" with singer/songwriter Don McGlashan.

Those interview tapes were recorded with Don in North London. The interview would form part of a vital piece of university coursework for my production degree.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the band, here's a few facts to put you in the picture:

A: In the 90s, The Mutton Birds were to New Zealand what the Manic Street Preachers were to the UK.

B: Many of the songs have been described by fellow Kiwi Neil Finn (of Crowded House), as "some of the most important songs in the New Zealand cannon".

And C: You don't pronounce the "G" in Ngaire.

The first of those conversations was recorded on the 19th of March 1998, in an environment that, to quote Don, “Sounds like we’re recording in a Latrine or something”.

It was, in actual fact, somewhere a little more comfortable, but almost as unusual.

On arrival, Don handed me a mug of coffee, a custard crème biscuit, then led me through the house, out of the back door and into the garden. He stopped and pointed to a small garden shed.

“We’ll do the interview in there”, he said.

But full of gardening tools it wasn't. It was in fact a mini studio. A burglar’s paradise, should a burglar ever think to look in there. Only the industrial sized padlock gave away that there might be anything of value inside – "...probably just a lawn mower or something", they might have thought, before moving on to the next house…

Don and I sat down among the blinking lights and faders and began to talk. I filled a 90 minute Memorex cassette (tapes eh... remember them?) with our first interview, as Don very graciously answered my questions.

As I write this, I'm listening to the tapes for the first time since the late 90’s, and two things jump out at me: A: How northern I sounded back then; And B: How Don has a talent for creating insightful answers from the most predictable questions a teenager might ask: “Why did you call the band the Mutton Birds...?”

As the interview went on, Don, perhaps knowing that not a great deal of people would actually hear the finished recording that I was making, seemed to open up a little more than he perhaps would, if he was speaking to a newspaper or music magazine. We covered everything from the history of the band, to Don’s disillusion with certain aspects of the industry, but the sense of new found creative freedom having been freed from the constraints of recording for a major label.

I interviewed Don twice again after that – again in London, on the 21st of November that same year, during the recording of the Rain Steam and Speed album. On that occasion I got to hear a new song that the band had literally just finished: "ascloseasthis". As Don played it to me, for those 4 minutes and 22 seconds, I was fascinated by the way he really listened to it – making sure he was happy with every second, and maybe making mental notes of any tweeks he'd like to make back at the studio. He seemed to immerse himself in the sound and forget the outside world for a moment...

"...and the noise was everywhere..."

The band split a few years later, leaving many fans thinking that that was the end of those memorable Mutton Birds shows. Years later, we chatted again in 2010 when Don played a solo show at Dingwalls in Camden. During that third chat, I couldn't help but realise my technique had improved somewhat, as Don and I met in the venue's beer garden shortly before his gig.

It was during that interview that I asked him, “Will you ever re-form The Mutton Birds?” At that point, he revealed they'd thought about it, but agreed it wasn't something they all wanted to do at that time.

But what a difference a couple of years makes.

In the aftermath of the successful New Zealand tour, and in anticipation of the London show in October last year, it finally felt like the right time to get out the old cassette player before the London gig, and bring those conversations full-circle, with their new relevance to the band’s current activity.

Being someone who doesn't really like to listen to those early recordings of my own voice, and having only just built up the courage to listen to the original tapes, I was inspired to digitise them and create a complete history of Don McGlashan & The Mutton Birds podcast. With Don's blessing, I published it last year before the London show. Since that show, I have revised and updated the podcast, using newly unearthed interview clips from my archives that until now, have never been heard.

This new version of the podcast serves as a "timeless" special feature, that can be enjoyed on any day of any week of any month of any year.
Anyway, it took me more than two months to make the original podcast, and a further week this year to update the programme, but my labours finally came to fruition this month.
I feel that the podcast is one of the most complete stories ever told about the history of the band, in audio form.
Thanks to Don’s comprehensive answers, I have been able to structure the podcast so the story is told largely by the man himself, in his own words.
We not only spoke about the records, but Don’s song writing processes, and his thoughts on the struggle of working within the constraints of a major label.

It’s dotted with other titbits too. For example, the band’s stance on nuclear testing in the Pacific, their work for the movie The Frighteners, and why calling the band “the Black Sheep” was an idea thrown into the bin pretty quickly.

Also covered, are numerous aspects of Don’s solo work between the band’s break-up and reformation for the 2012 tour, including working with Neil Finn & Crowded House and his solo records.

We also get to find out what “Giant Friend” is all about...

I have added music to illustrate the subject matter, as well as some candid moments from rare live performances that you might remember. 

The pain-staking process of sifting out the best bits of the interviews began last year, when I decided to weave parts of them together in a chronological fashion, rather than stick with my original running order of questions. As I was 18 and 19 years old at the time, my knowledge of the band far out-weighed my ability to structure an interview in the fashion upon which my career has since come to rely.

The total running time for my chats with Don was between 3 and a half to 4 hours long, so I listened to every question and every answer, making notes along the way about how best to put it all back together in a more sensible running order than the rather hap-hazard order of questions I chose to follow back when I was a naïve teenager.

I re-ordered the content to focus logically on the band’s activities from the early 90s, to their split around a decade later. You'll be able to spot when we jump from one interview to the next, by the differing levels of sound quality. You might find it's best to listen to the podcast on your iPod in a quiet place, as the two 1998 recordings were made on cassette - and after lying dormant in boxes for more than ten years, time has inevitably taken its toll on them. I have however, cleaned up the sound as best I can, using hiss reduction techniques and such like.

If there’s one thing I wanted to achieve with this podcast, it was to share a rare glimpse into the band with like minded fans, and perhaps, newcomers, who are yet to have the pleasure of listening to the band for the first time.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this project for me personally, is that Don has heard it and given me his blessing to release it to the world online. I guess that makes it officially endorsed by the band as an accurate record of one of my, and presumably your, favourite bands.

Listening to these tapes for the first time in more than ten years re-revealed long-forgotten & little known facts to me about the band and the man behind the lions’ share of the songs that have become an integral part of New Zealand’s musical landscape.

Thanks must go to Don, Alan, David, Ross, and all the other fine musicians that have worked on the music that has proved that, in a world of throwaway pop songs, beautiful, intelligent songs endure the harsh test of time.

I also must extend further personal thanks to Don for giving me material during the interviews that enabled me to go on to get my degree. Listening back now, his answers rather than my questions clearly played a huge part in leading to my successful graduation.
Apart from the odd exception of leaving some questions in to add clear context to Don’s answers, I've removed the more basic ones that ooze inexperience and slight embarrassment on my part.

Because for your (and my) listening pleasure, some things are best left in those dusty boxes…..
I hope you find the new version of the podcast as ear-opening as I have.