INTERVIEW: Mildlife on new album ‘Automatic’ – “Its like a gang-bang of different flavours and genres

Mildlife

Cosmic-beat four-piece, Mildlife from Melbourne, Australia will release their second album, Automatic on 18th September. Lee Campbell caught up recently with bass player Tom Shanahan and guitarist Adam Halliwell from the band.

Mildlife

Hi Guys, how are things in Melbourne now? I hear some restrictions have come down again.

TS: Yeah, we’ve been slammed with another six weeks of what they’re calling a lockdown, We’ve been doing it for one week, we’ve got another five weeks of it. It sucks…it really sucks.

In terms of Melbourne… How does Melbourne shape your music as a city?

TS: It’s difficult to say, because for me anyway, I may have a different opinion, but I’ve only properly lived in Melbourne, and I’ve only properly created music in Melbourne. So in terms of a point of reference, I couldn’t tell you how much it crafted us or what would’ve happened if we weren’t in Melbourne or we were somewhere else. I guess it’s fair to say that in Melbourne there is a culture of music that nurtures music and supports musicians, so I guess we’re lucky in that way. There’s a lot of good music, I think, coming out of Australia, we keep reading about anyway. I guess in that way it’s been great for us, but I don’t have a point of reference. Addy, what do you reckon?

AH: Yeah… There’s a tonne of music here. I spent a bit of time in Berlin. I reckon there’s a comparison there. Obviously it’s a bigger music scene I think, but the intensity of the music scene is similar to here. For us, it shapes us in a way, coz you’re getting exposed to a lot of music and then you try to gel it, but also create something new. There are so many different things happening here, and you want to stick out, you know.

TS: I don’t think we are very representative of what’s happening in Melbourne, myself. I don’t think there’s much of this type of sound, Mildlife sound if I can use that term. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of that here in Melbourne. So it’s not like there’s a network of music that I feel is like us, but music generally, and how it’s supported in Melbourne, I think that definitely helps.

AH: Yeah… But that’s lots of music, there are lots of scenes. There’s also a lot of musicians that are trying to branch off from things. At the moment all the neo-soul stuff formed into jazzy house vibes and there’s a whole bunch of muzos who are doing that, and then there’s a whole bunch of muzos branching out from that as well, trying to make something different, new. There are lots of different things, lots of different pockets.

All four of you grew up together right?

TS: Yeah… Adam and I, we literally grew up together since we were born. Our parents were best friends and they played music together and we had a bit of the same going on. Kevin (synths & vocals), we met when we were in high school and Jim who’s our new drummer who’s only joined the band with this album.

AH: But I met him many many years ago…

How would you describe the dynamics between the individuals within the band?

TS: That’s a good question. First and foremost we are very tight friends and as we’ve been creating music together, you spend a lot of time together. That strengthens the friendship and the bond and it also makes us like brothers in a way, and brothers tend to, you know, one moment you can have a disagreement and then the next moment you’re loving each other very quickly. We’ve become like brothers. Adam and obviously we’ve become like brothers early on coz we’ve known each other for so long. We spend a lot of time together, know each other for a long time, and we’re best friends. The creative process can be a bit of a journey and we figure out how we can do that with as much harmony as we possibly can.

These are strange times that we’re living in at the moment. There’s a lot of aggression, a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty. Has this difficult atmosphere inspired any new music from you guys? Has it brought any new inspiration during the last 3-4 months during the lockdown?

AH: Not so much like a greater world-impacting us, but the environment of having been locked in and have no choice but to sit there making music all day. It’s been bad and great, you know. Sometimes you wanna get out of the studio, but you’re getting forced in there so you can make music all the time, so it’s great.

TS: I guess another thing that could be worth noting, we go through so many phases, we’re constantly writing music together, Lee, and we go through so many different phases. Some phases may last one week, some phases last six months, whatever it is. When I’m talking about phases I mean musical directions, what our influences are etc. and with this going on, if we read into it, we’ve kind of gone into like a bit of a deeper psych kind of zone in the last couple of months. I wonder if that’s because with everything that’s going on, we feel like we’re in this tiny bubble and we sort of go more insular, deeper into our own mind, which possibly creates a kind of a more of a heady kind of psychological psych-jams; we’re going deeper into that kind of music at the moment. This is music that might never get released, but I wonder if with all that’s going on we’ve sort of been sucked into our own mind, sucked into this dynamic of the band.

Would you say that there’s an overall theme or specific message that you guys are trying to convey through your music?

TS: We’ve never been a band to create a very specific political stand; we really try not to do that. It becomes a fine line of becoming a political band and saying everyone’s doing this, why are we doing this. We’re more like, make observations and the observations that we kind of made with this album. The theme I guess which we are most interested in with this album in this particular phase that we’re in with this theme of automation. The album is called Automatic, obviously, and the idea of how things are becoming more automatic and then that makes us take note on a bunch of different things that are automatic, even in ourselves things like breathing and things like that which happen without us knowing and things that happen within technology, that world as well that happen without us knowing. That became quite interesting to us through this time of writing this album so it became something that we would channel as we were writing the songs. So the theme of automation and inevitability of things becoming more automatic became interesting to us and we created music around that.

I watched some of your ‘Live to Air’ performance from Melbourne last month. Really good, tight, slick production. Obviously you’re not able to perform in front of your fans at the moment. What sort of response and comments did you get on that performance?

AH: We weren’t sure. This is the first time we’ve done Live to Air, besides radio and that type of thing. For me it was surprising because you can play like in front of an infinite sized room, that depending on how many people tune in, that could be 10 people or 10,000 people. It’s limitless, that was really cool. We got exposed to a bunch of people that we haven’t played to yet, there were some cool people like from around South America…

TS: The comments were great to see, like “oh, I’ve just woken up in Sao Paulo and this is great music, to soundtrack to my morning coffee” and that’s a setting that we did not expect to be playing to at that point. We love playing live, Lee. We absolutely live for a live show, just as I said we are four brothers and we just love getting on stage and playing off each other; we think we’re at our best when we’re playing live. We love the interaction with the audience and the energy that you can feed off and then to give right back and it’s just a kind of feedback loop of energy. When you’re doing it through a screen and a lens and a camera it feels so sterile and stagnant, you’ve got to almost go into your head and just be in a different type of playing.

On the flip side, maybe it’s opened up a new fan base for you? You’re getting exposed to people internationally that maybe wouldn’t have been exposed to your music as quickly, maybe it’s accelerated some new fans for you?

TS & AH: Yeah, definitely, we can only hope so…

AH: It made me realise the importance of it. It’s like an important thing to do, coz you can expose yourself to a greater audience.

TS: Part of me resists. I know it’s a good thing and you both talking about it as being a good thing and part of me resists this idea that it is really good. Even though I know that it exposes us to an audience, there’s part of me that I don’t want to admit and accept that it can do that, because I don’t want the musical landscape to shift in a permanent way.

AH: You can’t beat a live gig. A live gig is unbeatable. The experience of a live gig. So, we’d never beat that.

On the live stream – it was very well done, I thought it was nicely produced and put together. Are style and the visual side of things a big part of the band, in terms of merging style and substance?

TS: Yeah, I think so. We’re very particular, annoyingly particular about it. We have an overall agreement across the band – “if you’re gonna half-ass it, don’t do it”. So, everything we put out, we want to make sure, whether it’s great, or not, that’s a subjective thing I guess, but we just want to make sure that we’re absolutely stoked on what’s released. Myself and Kev, who plays the synthesizer and sings, we’ve had a design studio most of the time together. We do all the design and the branding and everything. It’s all coming from us and because of that, I guess it has a spine that runs through it all. We’re again very particular about many things, we are annoying to deal with when other venues are trying to make posters, and other people are trying to do things, we have a thing in mind and it has to fall under that, otherwise it’s not gonna happen.

The artwork for the band, the logo, it’s quite unusual and very design-led and obviously a lot of time and thought gone into that. Is there a background story to the logo in terms of how that came about, what is that typeface style inspired by?

TS: I created it. I’m very passionate about typography, which is the art of letters, lettering, how many between letters, fonts and that sort of thing. I like creating my own typography and the thought with this was, I did a thesis on experimental typography and part of that was exploring different ways that cultures write and communicate and I’ve studied a little bit of Arabic script and about Korean Hangul and different writing systems. So, I kind of like the idea of something being legible, the relationship between something being legible and something being really distinct and recognisable, and I think with Mildlife part of me was trying to create a logo in how you would imagine in aliens handwriting or something on the side of a foreign alien ship or something and it ended up feeling quite Arabic. But the idea was, I wanted to create something that was quite alien and legible without you even knowing kind of why. That’s what I wanted to do.

Coming back to when you last were touring in the UK. Were there any particular gigs or venues that stand out in that European tour?

AH: Yeah, we did (Europe) in 2018 and 2019. The big one was playing Best Kept Secret and seeing Kraftwerk? That was big.

AH: That was cool. XOYO (London) was great.

TS: We loved playing the Brudenell Social club in Leeds. We always love playing there. We’ve played there on both European tours.

AH: Great pies, great people. And Glasgow, we played for the first time in Glasgow.

TS: Yeah, Glasgow was a great show. We like going to a place we’ve never been to before, Lee. Those ones usually stick out for us.

The Glastonbury Festival in England would’ve been 50 years old this year, as you probably well know. Are there any aspirations to play there or are there any iconic festivals that the band have set their sights on as a bit of a benchmark?

TS: We actually got an offer to play Glastonbury, it would’ve been for this year. For one reason or another, I can’t remember how and what happened, but we couldn’t make it work, so I think it’s definitely on the cards and we’d obviously love to play it. I think it will probably happen if the virus lets us do anything.

How do you go around making the right sound for the album and how has the creative process differed from your first album to making Automatic?

TS: It’s interesting because our first album was engineered by a man named Jim Rindfleisch? So he engineered the album and recorded all the drums, bass and all of that and then what happened was, he is now our drummer. He engineered our first album, he obviously has a knowledge of what we’re after, but now he is obviously in the band, so he is the Mildlife drummer, and what a drummer he is, we love him, we will never have another drummer again. He has such a wealth of knowledge around recording and production, so we have had this tool up our sleeve, whereas before we were more poking in the dark with it. I mean we’re pretty particular again about the sounds we want. We have a very, very clear picture, a united picture usually between four of us, of what we want and what we don’t want and Jim has that same vision, and he also knows how to achieve it. So I feel like with this album we’ve been lucky because we have more tools at our disposal to create the sound that we want.

AH: Yeah, the production also is very collaborative, it’s mostly done by everybody in the room together; trying to communicate the idea and flesh it out. Sometimes I go into a take on my own and send it to everybody and see if they dig it, but it’s generally all done together- what’s the word “democratic”? Yeah, that’s it.

TS: The thing out of that is again we are a bit of a nightmare to deal with when it comes from a mixing point of view because we are so particular about what the sound should or shouldn’t be and that even comes from when we’re making and writing the music. For example, Jim might have a drum-beat in mind and we’re obviously jamming on that, and as we’re creating it he’ll be like “that has to be the driest fucking drum sound – that snare needs to have, 70% of the thwack of Michael Jackson’s Thriller”, and we’re thinking about it as we’re writing it, which means by the time we get to the mixing stage we are so set in our minds about what it should be and probably in a very annoying way for other people.

Listening to the tracks on Automatic, there are some funk and groove on there. Are there any musicians from the 70s period that had an impact on your music?

TS: Yes. Pretty much, it’s only the 70’s.

AH: Yeah, it’s a lot of ’70s, but also really 80’s. I mean we channel certain things with the music, but then we also try not to seem like it’s too derivative of that time. So you want it to feel natural and you want it to be honest and you want it to have a timeless quality. We definitely take from all that stuff you know, there’s a lot of stuff on this record that it’s leaning towards disco-funk stuff and acoustic kind of like funky stuff, Cocaine like funk acoustic rock kind of vibe.

TS: It’s like a gang-bang of different flavours and genres that we’re all listening to and we would like to keep it that way because if we’re all 100% on the same page listening to the fucking French ‘74 disco song, we’re gonna create a French 1974 disco song. But if we’re all trying to channel different things within ourselves when we come together in the middle it will be something that you can’t quite put your finger on genre-wise and we’d like to keep that in that way, so it’s not so derivative, we love that. I personally love that when we get reviews and all the press that we’ve ever got from the start is people fumble around what the genre is, they don’t know what it is. Even people like yourself, Lee, maybe who has loved music for 30 years and have been right into it, they are struggling to put it in a box. I secretly love that, not secretly, I love that! I wanna keep doing that. If we’re all gung-ho going for a particular genre it’s gonna sound like that genre, so we have to keep it … french disco, electronic music from the ’50s, music like Kraftwerk and all that, 70’s psych-rock, just bang it all together and see what comes out.

AH: Yeah. We predominantly listen to music from the ’50s, ’60s, downwards to 1989, 1991 maybe even?

TS: (laughing) I’m not going that far ahead.

AH: For the band we are predominantly 70’s and 80’s focused and sometimes it lands between those two worlds. There’s never an objective to come out with like a sound, coz we all kind of listen to the stuff from that period and if someone would come up with an idea that would be inspired by whatever band or a group, like a Herbie thing with a Floyd thing you know, its mix those two things together and see what happens.

The vinyl version of Automatic has a special locked groove feature. Can you tell me a bit more about that – who’s come up with the idea and reasons behind that?

AH: The idea was floating around for a bit.

TS: It just fits with the album Automatic, it automatically plays forever, it will just automatically go on, until someone manually turns it off.

AH: When you hear the last song it makes sense. When we wrote the last song, we were like we should do this thing to it, and were like oh yeah. It makes perfect sense for the concept and it just ties it all together.

TS: You don’t know how these things are gonna come back (from final production) because you have an idea of how it’s gonna repeat. The loop is very dependent on the radius of that particular groove on that vinyl, so although we had an idea in mind of what it’s gonna be, it was still quite interesting and refreshing to us, especially after a few wines when the final song and it’s looping and we are all going whoaa!! What I want is for you Lee and for whoever else, I want them to be listening to the record, maybe after a few wines and you’ve fallen asleep and then you wake up at 4 am and you can just hear this groove just slamming you in the face and you’re like “fuck! I didn’t turn the record off”. I really want that to happen.

From what I hear, there’s a bit of astronomy and outer space interest between the four of you?

AH: Yeah, we all love Space, but more in a sense of cosmic music. I think we always try to aim to make the music cosmic or have a cosmic element, and cosmic music for us is just being able to transport people into a world that is not familiar and not in their normal habitat and make an escape. That’s the general cosmic vibe.

TS: It’s less about Carl Sagan? In a lot of interviews, we’re getting so many interviews with people who mention Carl Sagan. I don’t know why. Although we love and really enjoy Carl Sagan, it’s definitely not really influenced by our music at all. We don’t have a shrine of Carl in the corner of a studio. It’s more about moving the mind.

Just talking about the cosmos and outer space, a slightly different take on a desert island discs. If you had a top three that would take with you to space, what would they be?

AH: First, probably, John Coltrane, Live at Birdland; Kind of Blue by Miles Davis ….shut up and play the hits, coz that’s life-changing stuff

TS: I’m gonna say Ege Bamyasi by Can; Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. I also feel like, maybe its just thing I’m into at the moment, what’s that fucking Talking Heads album? Remain in Light. I always go back to that. It’s got a good emotional tone to it. I feel like I’m just flying through the sky, helping me to reflect on myself.

AH: What’s that fella? Francis Bebey…

Your music can be quite ethereal and atmospheric. If you could’ve written music for a particular movie what would it have been?

TS: A friend of ours is in a band called Krakatau and they did a film score for the movie Fantastic Planet, which is an early 70’s cartoon, animated. I would personally love to score that.

AH: But also… Holy Mountain.

TS: Oh, that would be so fun! Which is a Jodorowsky film.

AH: Or… I would like to do Rene Laloux. The soundtrack of that (Fantastic Planet) is really great. It’s quite cosmic and it’s a super cosmic movie.

The band has said there might be a few videos planned for this year? When you’re putting a video together, do you find that the music dictates the visual or do you prefer to keep them unconnected?

TS: We want them to be connected. We never want to do any acting. Basically we just want to play the music and play the instrument that we are playing. It’s the same thing when we are writing the music for the album, we want the album to be reflective of what can be done with that instrument and how we can do it live, it’s the same with the video. We don’t really have any ambitions to be acting and get whoever, Leonardo DiCaprio and we’re all acting together and creating this scene or something.

To wrap up, are you a sort of band that sets goals for yourself? In terms of over next year, what would you like to have achieved or where do you wanna be – or is it more free-flowing than that?

TS: We’re not just sitting around, fucking around hoping for the best, we’re passionate about music and we’re passionate that we have to enjoy what we’re doing and in order for that to continue we have goals and we want to achieve them and we wanna then go onto the next goal. It’s all music-based and it’s all pursuing the music that we like making and listening to.

Good stuff. I really appreciate you taking the time, during a busy period. Best of luck with the album in September.

 

mildlife automatic

Track List

  1. Rare Air
  2. Vapour
  3. Downstream
  4. Citations
  5. Memory Palace
  6. Automatic

Mildlife’s second LP “Automatic” is due for release 18 September via Heavenly Recordings. Pre-Order “Automatic” LP.

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