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Interview: Don McGlashan Talks About New Album 'Bright November Morning'

Interview: Don McGlashan Talks About New Album 'Bright November Morning'

Clark Mathews / C.C. / DARTZ & Don McGlashan photo credit: Callum Devlin / Wednesday 16th March, 2022 12:09PM

Don McGlashan's new record Bright November Morning is finally out in the world, achieving the Aotearoa songwriting icon's first ever number one on the NZ Top 40 album chart. In a magical moment of musical synergy, Wellington's DARTZ are preparing to unleash a rowdy tribute to McGlashan's The Mutton Birds anthem 'Dominion Road', out next Friday. Recently in Tāmaki Makaurau to film a video on location with the legend himself, DARTZ's Clark Mathews later caught up with McGlashan (who had jetted off to Vancouver) via the web for an illuminating conversation about Bright November Morning, recorded with The Others — Shayne P. Carter, James Duncan and Chris O’Connor — and featuring contributions from Anita Clark (Motte), Luke Buda, Emily Fairlight, Hollie Smith and The Beths...

Clark Mathews: Kia ora Don! How are you doing today?

Don McGlashan: I’m great Clark, happy to be talking to you.

First off, was lovely to meet you the other day and actually can’t believe you came to meet DARTZ for dumplings, given you had to fly back to Vancouver last week and the Covid situation. I was thinking to myself, this guy is taking risks left and right.

Good dumplings man, I think [Barilla at 305 Dominion Road] is a challenger for New Flavour’s crown.

That’s good to hear, it’s in the top three for us for sure. How’s the dumpling game in Vancouver, or the food game more generally?

It’s amazing, dumplings are fantastic but we have a place — our favourite — a little hole in the wall just down from where we live, where the guy makes hand-pulled noodles right in front of you. He’s always working on them and it’s food from a specific area of China, I forget which. There’s a peanuty lemony soup with one or two dumplings floating in it, so wonderful. There’s a big Chinatown here but we haven’t actually really gone around finding the best dim sums and noodles just because of this place quite close to us.

Congratulations on the number one album by the way.

Thank you.

Is it a celebratory week at DonCorp?

Yeah, it is. We were able to send maybe half the staff home — because it’s such a large staff, we had them celebrate in shifts. We had to buy a lot of party hats — that was a huge expense.

Alright, question time Don. I have to ask about The Beths being on the album and doing backing vocals on 'John Bryce'. Did that come about through the Bob Frisbee connection?

Yeah. Bob’s studio is in Auckland on Karangahape Road. Hollie Smith was recording the main backing vocal on John Bryce, and the Beths have a rehearsal space right next door. We were just listening back to Hollie’s parts and heard a knock at the door, and all of The Beths were in the doorway asking “can we sing along?” So we got them in, and it was great: they sing the crowd stuff at the end. Should have turned them up louder, I think.

I don’t actually know if we used them at what they’re good at, we used them as a rabble. And it’s probably not something that The Beths have done a lot of, being a rabble.

So I don’t talk to my Dad a lot, but he sent an email, I think the day after we met you, and it was like: “check out new Don Mcglashan album. John Bryce song sounds like Led Zep” — that guy is a Led Zeppelin maniac, so that was his takeaway from the album I guess. I was wondering if that was a comparison that you’ve picked up on at all, that sound in the song? This question is sponsored by my Dad by the way.

Interesting — I love Led Zeppelin and that was one of the first bands that really turned me onto what bands could do. I guess what I really wanted with that song was to write it from a Pakeha perspective and make it so that maybe a Pakeha kid in Taranaki or anywhere might listen, think it’s a cool beat, and take the time to google and learn some history. You know, keep the conversation moving on one step at a time. That’s why I didn’t make it a melancholy song or a lament, or a song with a reggae or more chilled out beat. There were all these avenues I could have gone down, but I wanted it to have a sense of propulsion. One of the templates I was thinking of was 'Sympathy for the Devil', but I’m definitely happy with Led Zeppelin — no one’s ever compared me to Led Zeppelin in my life before.

First time for everything I guess. I really love the bass on that song, it’s so thick and grunty.

Yeah, totally. James [Duncan, bassist] has got such a wonderful arsenal of sounds, he comes up with incredible basslines. I can’t remember if we put a bit of distortion on that one, we certainly talked about that though.

When you’re working with collaborators that are so experienced and skilled like James or Shayne Carter, what’s your approach in terms of bringing songs to them? Are you more prescriptive with the parts you bring in, or more laidback letting them develop things?

With this one, I made demos of all the songs on my own, and all those had rudimentary basslines and lead guitar and really basic drum parts. Everybody heard those songs first in that form, and generally next they’d ask me for a version with the bass or drums or guitar taken out, so they could work on it themselves. On occasion we’d go back to my first idea, but not often — generally new ideas come up, we’d all throw new ideas out there. It was open season, if there was an issue with a drum part or a bass part, everyone could come up with ideas. It was very collaborative.

Because the first part of the record was made in Lyttelton at Ben Edwards’ studio, we were all living and eating and working together, all the waking hours — which is a fantastic way to make a record if you have a good team. You have to argue about everything, about why this chorus starts in this way, or why a certain line is in there, or why you should even record this song and put it on the record at all in some cases. We ended up even discussing the topic of, why do this at all? Why make records? I reckon if you don’t examine your reasons for doing things then you’re just sleepwalking, so we had some fantastic raves along the way. I’ll always remember that fantastic backdrop of Lyttelton Harbour, and the cold wind blowing at us, having those arguments. I really do think that it’s a great way to make a record.

I was interested that you went to Lyttelton to record. Was that because you were looking for a more immersive recording experience, as opposed to doing it wherever was easiest or most comfortable?

I really wanted this record to be like that. I think it worked well because we had already had the opportunity to road test the songs. We took about three-quarters of them out on a New Zealand tour, explaining to the audience that they weren’t gonna hear just the hits, they were gonna hear the new album. But yeah, to take these fantastic players out of their routine and their comfort zone was great, and Lyttelton was great for that.

After working on a song for a few hours you’d need some time and space, or to go for a walk to get a bite to eat, and there was a really long hill back up to Ben Edwards’ studio. That walk back up the hill became a great time to talk about stuff and ideas really came out, sometimes that one better idea we’d all been waiting for.

There hasn’t been many times I’ve been able to take this approach though. The third Mutton Birds album was made in a residential studio in Wales, but we weren’t really talking to each other by that point, so it was really a waste of that environment. My first solo album though, we made it out at a big house at Bethells Beach, and we moved the recording studio into the barn. That was fantastic, and I loved the routine of that drive out to Bethells every day from Auckland. But Lyttelton was really ideal, staying at a studio that you can record at.

DARTZ had to make a decision on that recently, weighing up where to record our first album later this year — either to do it locally where we’d be more comfortable, or somewhere else where we might be out of our comfort zone and I thought potentially working harder. Honestly I wonder if you ideally want to find a mix, somewhere that’s comfortable but presents its own challenges and forces you to focus.

Definitely. I’ll say this, you never want to be sitting there waiting for people to turn up. You want everyone there, so when you have an idea you can rally them to work on it straight away. We did really long days in Lyttelton and ended up breaking the studio into two at one point - Ben and Shane working on guitar parts on one side, and James and I doing vocals and overdubs on the other, which was pretty cool. Later, there were a couple songs which I didn’t think we’d nailed, so we did them again at Bob Frisbee’s studio — and then there were even more songs that turned up just after I’d got back to Canada in early 2021, and I demoed them here to send to the band. They did their parts at Bob’s studio, and I finished them here in a borrowed garage.

I wanted to ask you something that I think about often with regards to songwriting. How do you deal with cheesiness when you’re writing a song? Like, when you’re feeling that something you’ve written and really like is cheesy, or when that’s the critique you get when you take it to a collaborator — what’s your approach? Do you double down and lean into it, or do you keep working until you find another angle or meaning?

That’s a really good question. The thing is, songwriting is so ubiquitous — for me it’s about trying to write something that can be grabbed by the audience and used by them. I think of writing a song like handcrafting a beautiful tool, a kitchen knife or something like that — it’s gotta feel good in your hand, it’s gotta be useful, otherwise the audience is gonna leave it in the drawer. That in itself presents danger though, you don’t want to knock the strangeness off it so it feels like something bought down at the shop. That’s how I feel about trying to write a good love song. Everybody’s tried to do it, and there’s such a risk that you’ll sound like a Hallmark card. The thing to do is to put the song down, then pick it up again and keep looking at it from different angles.

Neil Finn once said that the difference between a good song and a bad song is often very small. I think that’s really useful advice, because in a lot of cases all you’ll need to do is change one word or fix one small thing. Over time, you’ll find that your cheese radar becomes very finely tuned, and it’ll come down to tiny things.

Sometimes all you need to do is mess with the attitude of a song. If for example 'Go Back In' was played too cute, too sweetly, it might not work. But it works because there’s an attitude to the song, it plays with the notion of the unknown. In the bridge it goes “there’s something there in the water, we can’t quite see it but it’s there, I saw it”. It’s one of those real conversations that you have standing by the sea, looking at fish jumping or stingrays or whatever, but in spite of that unknown there’s the call to go back in, to jump back in. If we’d married that danger with a really sweet performance, it wouldn’t have worked, so I made sure everyone played the song with a really down and dirty feel and attitude, kind of like Edwin Collins’ 'Girl Like You'. I wanted that to be the feel of it, which I thought would pair up in a strange way to the idea of the song.

You just gotta keep trying. When you write something cheesy, there’s always the temptation to justify it by wrapping everything in layers of irony like you’re Weezer, but not everyone can pull that off, and irony can really be a dead end if you’re not careful. Being cute and sweet in inverted commas can be tricky, because you don’t know that everyone can see your inverted commas.

Keep playing it to people you trust. A song like 'Start Again' — for a long time I couldn’t finish it, because it just felt too straight up. I’d always wanted to write a song like that, just offering help and support to somebody else, but at a certain point the focus of that song changed for me. It stopped being just a love song and became about wanting to put the word out to someone I knew who was struggling, and that shift of focus made it easier to finish the song.

Are there any songs that you’re still specifically looking forward to playing live from the album?

I don’t think we’ve ever played 'Now’s The Place' or 'Go Back In' live, because they were finished after the bulk of the album was made. They’re both going to be so much fun to play live, they’re both quite bandy songs. Things like 'Sunscreen' and 'Nothing on the Windows' feel much more delicate to me and I’m treading carefully round them, but 'Now’s the Place', 'Go Back In', even 'All the Goodbyes', they’re really going to benefit from a bunch of people turning up and getting really excited. On the tour prior to making the record, we started the show with 'Lights Come On', which sits really naturally at the start of the show, I wouldn’t know where else to put it. It just builds and grows to such a big degree.

Is that what you’re looking for in a set or album opener? Something that builds up and eases you in?

There’s just so many ways to go about it. One option is to really come in strong and nail your colours to the mast, come out with a big song, surely DARTZ would know about that — but the other option is to start with a more meditative song that functions more like an overture, then the big hit as your second song.

With the Mutton Birds we’d often start with 'Envy of Angels' which is quite a slow building gentle song, really get people to lean in, then hit them with something big second. I always think sets work better like that than doing the other thing — sometimes we’d start with 'The Heater', and I felt there’s nowhere you can go after that. The craft of that is super fun, isn’t it, and when you have a new record and all these new songs it’s exciting to see how they build and bounce off each other.

I imagine with a mix of songs that have been played live before and some that haven’t, fitting that setlist puzzle together would be really interesting. You must really be looking forward to those shows when they come around.

Yeah — when we do get to do this tour, hopefully in October-November, we’re going to have a fifth band member, Anita Clark who plays fiddle on the album. She’s learnt vocal parts, fiddle parts, mandolin parts for all the songs. I’m really looking forward to having five people on stage when that comes around.

Don, I have to ask. You seem like an educated guy, have you been hitting the daily Wordle?

Very much, Clark. I started the Wordle quite recently actually, so I’ve been going back and doing the past archived ones. They don’t affect your overall tally though, so obviously completing them doesn’t give you the same psychological treat as the daily Wordle.

Do you have a go-to starting word?

I do, a family member put me onto starting with IRATE, and now when I don’t do that, it kinda freaks me out. My wife’s better at it than me, she’s even got me into all the different versions — Worldle, where you guess countries by their shape. There’s Sweardle which is rude words, Bardle which is Shakespearian, Chordle which is music-based. From that list, I think you can see there’s got to be a lot of people out there with too much time on their hands.

Maybe someone needs to make the Dondle.

I hope not!

Cheers Don, thanks so much for your time. And thanks again for coming to meet us the other week.

It was a lot of fun! The cucumber salad was stellar.

'Bright November Morning' is out now on major streaming services via Doncorp Ltd + on vinyl LP and compact disc HERE.

DARTZ's new single / video 'Dominion Road (Dumpling House)' launches on Friday 25th March.


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