I had the chance to interview Don McGlashan from Blam Blam Blam, Front Lawn and Mutton Birds fame after his gig at Villa Maria supporting Marlon Williams and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. I received some wonderful insights about what made Don tick musically, the process of writing, the upcoming movie Daffodils and what the future might hold.
Don and I found a quiet spot to catch up and kicked off with a question around the song White Valiant and why it seems to be a staple to his live set. Don said that he finds it quite lucky when playing live that he doesn’t have to feel like pulling out all the old hits that people like. He wasn’t sure why he wrote that particular song, but when it came to putting it on paper he reflected that, as with many others, that much comes from the subconscious as it does from the conscious idea it started with.
The key is tapping into that subconscious space, the more you do the better the result can be.
Over the years, fans have given Don their own personal meaning of the song... which usually surprises him a little but also pretty cool just how a song can come to life in different ways for the audience... no matter where they live or when they might have heard it.
The reason I kicked off our conversation with that song was that I saw Don at the St James Theatre just after he had broken up with the Mutton Birds (many years ago) and it stood out as a classic deep cut that, when played live, really took on a life of its own. Don mentioned that SJD was also playing along with him that night, and the duo has played together more than Don has performed with the actual Mutton Birds, some 14 years. That gig was a time of experimentation using technology and loops to add to the layers of the night and this is something that he has been interested in for some time.
Smashing technology and traditional formats together live, especially in his one-man band shows, is something Don McGlashan really embraces.
Don’s last studio album was Lucky Stars in 2015 and he opened with the title track off the album earlier on the same night. The album was a stripped-down release where he spent a lot of time locked in a room, just him and his guitar, capturing the feelings of the day. He also played a new creation called A Song For Sue, which is a hint of what’s to come on the next album.
Don said, “that song will definitely be on the new album and I just love playing it”. However, notwithstanding the fact he has to play it on piano, which is a little bit out of his comfort zone. He learnt piano at a young age and spent time while growing up in his parent’s house that had an entertaining lounge (you know the one where the nicer furniture was but was hardly ever used) so it was a quiet spot and as he said he regresses back to those times when playing the piano live.
I couldn’t help but ask Don how he still feels about Anchor Me which is permanently intertwined into our music Kiwiana and what he thought of having his song in the play and the soon-to-be-released film version of Daffodils.
Don elaborated, “for any project like that to get off the ground and deliver it to the big screen is a massive feat and I really hope that the movie goes well”. To me, the gift of reflecting on times gone by and weaving in some iconic Kiwi music over the decades seemed to be a perfect way to celebrate our recent heritage... it was great to see the song amongst other Kiwi classics.
We then moved on to what we could expect from Don's fourth coming album (yet to be named). Splitting his time between Auckland and Vancouver, it’s the latter where he has the luxury to spend the time he needs to write the songs he wants. He said the toughest part is “breaking the block”.
What happens normally for Don is that he has the one really hard song that he has to write before the floodgates open. The excellent example he used was when he was writing the Lucky Stars album and wrote a song about Archie Baxter, the conscientious objector of World War 1. It was a huge subject and a lot harder writing about something factual than made up. The funny thing was it never made the final cut of the album and may not even appear on his latest. But after it was finished, it was plain sailing from there (relatively speaking) to complete the album. It seems, in his words, “the Protestant in me needs to bang my head against the wall to get it out”.
In other words, it can’t be fun let alone enjoyable but a means to an end and having to put in the hard yards first.
Don also recalled a song called Not Ready dealing with mortality, which was on Marvellous Year but unlocked songs like Harbour Bridge that he really loved and eventually landed on Warm Hand. Don felt that he was not quite there yet to build a clutch of new material for the new album but it’s not too far away.
This led me to ask what his approach was to write songs. Is it the lyrics or melody first or a combination of both? Don said, “I need to know vaguely what the idea or song is about”. He used a wonderful analogy of laying down a whole lot of compost to kind of prepare the ground. Then he thinks about some stories or characters around the edges before waiting for the right day to pull out the chorus and bring the whole thing together. From that moment on, it’s more traditional with the melody first then lyrics to follow. Interestingly, he said music is more of the bully than the words, which was an interesting turn of phrase.
Asked if he had a theme for the upcoming album, "at the moment, there isn’t one that comes to mind", said Don. Lucky Stars for him was very personal, which led to a more stripped back affair... however, now he’s got that out of his system, he is looking forward to stretching his legs out a bit this time. He can’t wait to get back to writing, especially as there was no rush or pressure to get the next album out, which is a bit of a luxury these days and that isn’t a bad thing I suspect.
One last question I popped into the conversation was around a project Don was involved with called the Bell Birds. It was comprised of the very talented musicians, Sandy Mill, Victoria Kelly and his buddy SJD. Popped into the can some eight years ago, I asked when or if it will ever see the light of day? “Probably not in the short to medium time given there was still much work to be done and finding the time and space would be challenging”. But who knows one day the time might just be right.
The calling of Marlon finished our chat and we were off. I got a signed copy of his vinyl album Lucky Stars, which was exactly how I felt after a personal chat with the man behind Blam Blam Blam, The Front Lawn, The Mutton Birds and countless other projects.
A Kiwi music legend and a true gentleman.