Mali Mali
Song for The Sun
Song for The Sun, by Mali Mali

Mali Mali

By Natalie Finnigan

Tuesday 30th April, 2013 9:44AM

After the release of his 2010 EP Brotherly, Ben Tolich (who performs under the moniker Mali Mali) was advantageously sidetracked by the success of another musical exploit. He’d been playing keys for Avalanche City for a while before they shot to national prominence with that song, ‘Love love love’. After riding that wave, and touring extensively with Avalanche City, Tolich was ready to pen to paper again and focus on recording his debut album ‘Gather ‘round the Gooseclock’.

He took a risk and left behind a tight network of friends and fellow musicians in Auckland to record with The Middle East’s Mark Myers in his North Queensland studio, and by all accounts it’s a risk that paid off. I spoke to Tolich recently about the process involved in refining the sound of Mali Mali and figuring out who he is as an artist.

Hi Ben, we're looking forward to the release of debut album ‘Gather ‘round the Gooseclock’ – can you describe the album for me? What was your vision?

Well, I don’t know that I had a specific vision – some of the songs were written two years ago and one was written a week or so before we recorded, so there was no overarching theme as such. The only ethos behind the album was the songs themselves. I just wanted to focus to be on the songs and so I guess I was prepared to take a risk on the other elements of recording the album as long as the songs came through.

It was somewhat of a risk to head to Australia to work with Mark Myers of the Middle East, but I understand he called you and asked to work with you, so that must have been pretty flattering?

Yeah I’m a huge Middle East fan so it was pretty exciting. The connection was through Luke Thompson, who has played a bit in Australia and knew one of the guys from Boy and Bear, who knew Mark. I jokingly suggested they give my EP to Mark, and they actually did. He called me a few weeks later and suggested we record together. Although it was really great to get that call, I was a bit hesitant at first. It was really important to me that the album sounded the way I wanted it to, and I knew if I went to Queensland I’d have none of the assets I have in Auckland in terms of my band and friends and musicians I work with here who act as a sort of support network. But, I guess I decided that I love how the Middle East sound, and that gave me a lot of hope.

What was it like working with Mark?

It was really good – I have so much respect for him and I've always loved the sound they created with The Middle East so it was a no-brainer. I also got to work with some great musicians including Jordan, who was the lead singer with The Middle East. We played a backyard gig together while I was over there, and he actually lends some vocals on the album on one song – it’s pretty faint so it’s probably quite hard to tell that it’s him, but it’s still cool to be able to put his name in the booklet.

You worked quite hard personally to achieve your sound didn’t you? I mean, you started with Mali Mali as a band, but then dis-established it and started again because you weren’t happy with it...

When I first started pursuing music, I believed that when you wrote songs, the next step was to start a band. I hadn’t really thought about other options and didn’t understand the music scene well enough to know that you don’t have to work that way. I found sharing the creativity with other people quite difficult. I wasn’t very good at saying what I wanted or describing the sound I wanted. I sort of felt like if you had drums, bass and guitar that you had to use them, and some of the songs I was writing didn’t suit that sound. I realized that I wasn’t enjoying it and I felt like it was boxing me in, so I decided it wasn’t working. I definitely work better alone, but I’m still really glad I did it. It gave me a huge respect for bands who can work well together, and I’d definitely like to collaborate with people creatively again in the future.

Actually, as soon as I stopped working with the band, the songs for the EP came to me. I guess I just felt so much freer.

And after you took that break you had quite a long stint playing with Avalanche City?

Yes, that success was pretty unexpected but I got to tour NZ, Australia and the States, and was doing so up until a year ago when we did the winery tour. It was really nice to stretch that muscle, take a load off and cruise along for a bit – I love to play my own stuff, and while that’s always been my focus, being a band member for a while rather than the frontman was also really good.

By the end of it I had realized I wanted to focus on my own stuff. It was a great experience to be a part of really successful band and tour and stuff, but I still wasn’t making my music which will always be more important for me.

You learned to play by ear didn’t you? Do you still work that way or have you learned more theory since you first began writing songs?

I took piano lessons when I was younger, but I really just had the music teacher teach me songs that I liked, so I stopped and taught myself. I really just learned the notes and what chords were and basic scales and stuff, but I still have a pretty basic music knowledge.

Has that held you back in anyway though?

Not really – the stuff I was writing when I didn’t know anything was actually quite imaginative. As long as it sounded good it was fine, and once I learned stuff it held me back in ways. There are pros and cons to both, but definitely once I started playing for other people it was helpful to know what scales are and chords and stuff. Playing with other bands was when I needed it the most.

You mentioned earlier that the songs themselves are the focus of the album – who do you admire as a songwriter?

Well, Bill Callahan and Lenoard Cohen are two of my favourites. Bill Callahan’s ‘Jim Cain’ is one of my favourite songs – there’s just something about it that you can’t even describe. It’s perfect.

‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen is another favourite and you can definitely add ‘Deep Water’ by the Middle East to the list. Mark told me about how they recorded it actually. It was a pretty ad-hoc process. A guy just happened to be there who played slide guitar and it was an on the spot decision to include slide. That song just feels like it’s been around forever.

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