Beginning as a bedroom recording project for Michael Skinner, Mallee Songs has since developed into a four-piece band. Ahead of a double single launch at the Grace Darling we spoke to Michael from the band.
First up, how did the name come about?
All my previous solo recordings were filed under the name Mallee Ensemble. Changing the name to Mallee Songs kind of marked the shift into something less navel-gazing and improvised, something more band-and-song oriented. I chose the word “Mallee” mostly because of how it sounds – I’ve never even been to the region. I think people maybe assume we’re an ageing country band, which is fine.
Mallee Songs began as a solo bedroom recording project, how did you go about getting a live band together?
A few years ago I was playing some solo shows around and trying to re-create the atmosphere of the early recordings – kinda down-tempo folk overlaid with drones, feedback and field recordings – but I wasn’t really getting anywhere with that. I didn’t have the technology – or the willingness, really – to re-imagine those recordings solo and in a live setting. Plus a lot of the songs were improvised in odd, forgotten tunings. The band started when Gerard [Smith, guitar] suggested we start jamming out some of these tunes, as well as some new ones I was writing.
I’ve known Gez for about twenty years, so we locked into a pretty easy groove. Then we phased in James [Allen, bass] and Pascal [Babare, drums]. I’ve been following James and Pas musically for the last decade or so. I was a pretty devout fan of James’ first band, a-mo. They were wild and squally; they made up lyrics on the spot; and they operated in their own irreverent bubble.
Pas was involved in the Function record The Secret Miracle Fountain, which was a hugely influential record for me. There’s a real freedom and ease to that record; it demonstrated to me, as a beginning musician, how to weave disparate musical references into pop music without the whole thing getting bogged down. Pascal’s solo recordings felt like an extension of this too – of taking a single idea and chasing it down to its elusive, unpredictable end-point, and producing something you couldn’t have mapped out in the beginning. That’s how I imagined these guys worked anyway, and that’s how I started recording music.
Now, I bring sketches of songs to the band and they bring them to life. I don’t really have any universal reference points to try to explain partially-formed ideas to the band – apart from knowing the basic chords – so I usually explain things in terms of ‘shapes’ and ‘cycles’ and other new-agey sounding terms. When I’m trying to explain an idea to the band, it’s as if I’m a little kid taking his wonky line-drawing of a suburban house to his parents and trying to convince them that it’s a perfect rendition of a beautiful Turkish mosque. If both parties invest enough imagination, you might split the difference and end up with a sleek converted warehouse, or at least a dowdy block of flats.
What influences your music the most?
The Silver Jews, Galaxie 500, Smog, Pavement, Jim O’Rourke, Jackie-o Motherfucker, Palace Brothers, The Feelies and Mount Eerie. A lot of writers, too – Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, Donald Bartheleme and George Saunders are all writers I’ve been digging lately.
You’ve just released a new single Stolen Flowers (with a b-side Egyptian King) – can you tell us about the songs and the recording process?
Both songs are character-based and attempt to give a glimpse into that character’s world, or an aspect of it. Egyptian King was a single live take on a Tascam digital 8-track. Stolen Flowers was recorded at my family home with my brother Lucas and his mate Stu. They did an excellent job – especially in capturing the squally outro.
What are your favourite venues in Melbourne to play?
The Grace Darling and Longplay.
Can you tell us about some of your favourite Melbourne acts?
Aleks and the Ramps, Atolls, Outshine Family, Oren Ambarchi, Sleep Decade, Pascal Babare and Teeth, Holy Lotus, and Dick Diver.
Much planned for the remainder of 2013?
We’re recording an album this coming weekend, which could be done by the end of the year. Pas recently mastered an album’s worth of my home recordings too, so I’ll be releasing that in some format.
Thanks for the chat!
Mallee Songs launch Stolen Flowers at the Grace Darling on August 23rd with support from Tim Richmond Band and Sleep Decade. Details here.