By Rob Feher
Categorising Mildlife into a specific genre box would do them no justice. That’s because their music moves between the psychedelic adventures of the 60s as much as it does the boogie night tunes of the 70s. Their fusion of jazz guitars, electronic synthesizers and kraut rock basslines are always in harmony, ultimately creating the colourful, tonal, and textural music we know Mildlife to produce.
I had the pleasure of chatting to the band’s Tom Shanahan to discuss all things live and studio related. We also touched on musical roots, creative decision making and the past year, which proved to be extremely busy and exciting for all of them.
RF: I guess to get straight into it, you guys have been doing some touring over the past year. How has that all been?
TS: I think we did over 100 shows in 2022, mostly overseas. It’s great to play live but when touring and playing tracks from an album you’ve already released, and then jumping on a plane every few days, it interrupts the flow of music making. Playing shows is great but writing albums is great too and sometimes they get in the way of each other.
RF: Am I correct in saying you're keen to just keep writing now?
TS: When you play a lot of shows, you’re just so keen to get in the studio and write. On the other hand, when you’ve been stuck in studio writing nonstop, you’re super keen to get out and play a show. They need each other. You can’t win but it’s all fun. You’ll always hear me complaining even though deep down I love both processes.
RF: Could you elaborate on the difference between Australian and overseas crowds?
TS: The world’s a big place. To put it all under the umbrella of playing to ‘international crowds’ is hard because all towns, cities and countries behave differently. It’s awesome for us to witness these differences, even when cities are so close together. It all really depends on the crowd and sometimes it might depend on us too. Some nights we might be playing poorly or playing well,. We’re used to Melbourne because we cut our teeth playing to the Melbourne crowd. It’s our home.
RF: Do you guys really feed off the different energies from the crowds?
TS: Definitely! I’ve been finding lately that you’ve got your inner thoughts when you’re performing and then your more outwardly focused mind. When I can feel the energy and crowd is good, I'll sort of point my mind towards the direction of the crowd so I can absorb that energy and feed off it. I love it because it can really lead to some fun moments in the set. But for whatever reason, if the crowd feels quieter (maybe because it’s seated etc.) you’ve got to dig deep into your own tunnels to find a special moment within yourself. That can also lead to something great.
RF: Any favourite places you like to play?
TS: Mexico is always great! We’re headed there in February and they’re always so energetic. The food, culture and people are all just so lovely. We really notice how much they love music over there. We never want to leave.
RF: Coming back from playing all these amazing shows overseas, are you guys hoping to bring anything new to the set for Pitch in March?
TS: I think we are! We were just entertaining the thought of playing some of the new album that we’re in the middle of writing. That would be cool!
RF: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges when translating newer studio material into a live setting?
TS: All of our ideas are born out in a live context in our studio. So all new songs should therefore be performed easily live. As you continue to write and adjust songs, going deeper into the studio landscape, the tracks start to maybe lose their ‘live’ feeling. Its always a bit of a challenge to try indulge those studio sparkles and flourishes into the show performance.
RF: Are the songs born from improvisation?
TS: The short answer is yep - they’re improvised! It’s important to feel the energy of the room. So we usually walk in, start playing, and see what happens. If there is a conceptual thought or intention before that, it’s not conscious. Because we’re all such close friends, we talk about the tracks for hours either over a coffee or a wine. Those chats then subconsciously get carried across into the studio. For us, it all feels like a moment of expression that leads us towards a song. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.
RF: Where is Mildlife heading now in terms of the new music you’re writing,?
TS: We’re hesitant to give away where it's going but that's also because we don’t really know. We’re not saying this will be the funk record or this will be the jazzy record. It’s going to be whatever we vibe off from the energy in the room. When we sew all the songs together, there will probably be some sort of cohesive arch whether it’s slightly funkier or jazzier. We don’t know. But we leave it up to everyone else to decide when it’s finally released.
RF: As a band, I'm sure there are a lot of dynamics that come into play when creating a record. How do you guys find that sweet spot between collaboration and intuition?
TS: That’s a tricky one. I like to think that we’re quite unique in the sense that it is a true collaboration. We have a lot of respect and trust for each other, and we usually have a policy where if anyone wants to try an idea, we all put energy into exploring it, even if we all can’t picture what the outcome of the idea would be. That can only come from trust because you're constantly investing time into other people’s ideas. We’ve learnt over time that the investment is beneficial as the songs wouldn’t be what they are without each other’s input. We collaborate and it’s the only way Mildlife could be Mildlife. If one person dominated an album, song or moment, it just doesn’t feel right. Obviously, that has challenges because there are four very complex brains in a room together trying to create one song. It ain’t easy but it’s the way we do it.
RF: What was the defining moment for you (or the band) when you felt that music was going to play a major part in your life?
TS: I guess it’s always played a part in our lives. Adam (Halliwell) and I grew up together and our parents were best friends. There’s plenty of photos of us barely walking and we’re banging our hands on some kind of percussion. I guess music has always been in our lives which we’re thankful for. We’re very lucky to be involved with it every day now. I don’t know when we started to realize that it was going to play a major part. The first album Phase, we just made because we were always making music together. It just so happened that the Phase collection of songs resonated with someone. We weren’t even going to release it. It was just a little something for ourselves that we wanted to show our grandkids. But some people said that this was really good and we have to get this out. From there it became something that we thought a bit more seriously about in terms of a career.
RF: Is there one particular artist that you felt played a significant role in your musical journey growing up?
TS: My Dad listened to so much Led Zeppelin, The Doors, a lot of blues and 70’s rock n roll music. We had so many VHS tapes of live footage of guys like Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. I got such a kick out of watching them live that I would say that would be the early inspiration for me wanting to play live band music.
RF: Are there any artists in Australia that you feel super excited about?
TS: There are but for the most part, we’re kind of in a bubble ourselves. I wish I was more active in going to gigs because there’s so much music out there. I guess it’s because we’ve been playing so many shows ourselves or even finishing music in the studio. I’m not as in touch with it as I wish I was. Our friends King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have always been inspiring, especially in their work ethic. They’re also just so down to earth and lovely. They’re super inspirational to us.
RF: I know it is a bit late but congratulations on the Aria!
TS: Thank you haha!
RF: I know that happened a while ago.
TS: Nah that’s all good. When people say that I still imagine they’re saying it to someone else or it’s usually my Mum. It’s so strange and so great.
RF: How do you feel about it all? I know artists can have complicated relationships with award shows decided by strangers. Obviously, you guys are focused on the next thing but it really is a big moment for the band.
TS: It is! Whatever the recognition is, it’s great whether your Dad is saying "Your latest album is awesome son!” or it’s a pointy award that says Aria on it. It’s always good! I think the Arias are mostly for our mums. They just get stoked for us! Adzee gave his to his Mum. But, it’s not what we make music for, that’s certain.
RF: Absolutely! It seems really wholesome for the Mum’s in particular.
TS: Well they get the most kick out of it haha!
RF: I got a little sidetracked with the Aria but coming back to the album that won the award, ‘Live From South Island’, could you give us an insight into the work that went into making that? Was it all one take?
TS: Pretty much one take. We got to that island at around 5am. We planned to start recording at 11am. We had to bring everything including power, equipment, film crew, recording crew – so much stuff. By the time we were ready to record, it was 4pm and we had to be out of there at 7pm. It just got to the point where everyone was like ‘this is it’. We had one shot to get it all right front to back otherwise the whole exercise would’ve been a waste. So that’s one of those moments that I was talking about before where we all just get into our own minds, thinking that it must be done and don’t make any mistakes. When there’s 50 people around you filming and recording we had to make it good! It’s not cheap either so the fear of it all being a waste drove us to truly nail it. We’re really proud of what we pulled together. We trusted each other to come together.
RF: That sounds nuts! I couldn’t imagine the come down after that whole experience.
TS: Oh yeah. We were just so burnt because the sun was just beating down on us all day. Of all the things to organize, sunscreen wasn’t one of them. By the end of it, we were so tired. We just looked like corpses on the boat back. We had some pasta at a pub on the way home and that was the best meal we ever had - we were so stoked and satisfied with the long day.
RF: What a crazy experience! Well, I’m super excited to catch you guys at Pitch and hopefully I get to hear some new music there. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, especially in these busy times.
TS: Thank you, it has been a total pleasure!
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