A weekend enhanced by Marshmallow|
thisischeshire.co.uk, UK (17 December 2004)
Article fromhttp://www.thisischeshire.co.uk/cheshire/entertainment/guru/ENTERTAINMENT_GURU 6.html+storm+music+marshmallow&hl=en
It wasn't quite what I had expected, to be honest.
A phone call from Manchester's delightfully ... courageously idiosyncratic Storm Music record label - from Conrad, the DJ partner to the ever ebullient Sir Terence Christian on GMR - had indicated that a package would be forthcoming containing a heady cross section of Storm's roster. To be honest, although I have previously admired Storm's perceptive A & R policy, I wasn't overtly thrilled by the prospect of spending the weekend listening to a bundle of artists new to these ears. (I quite fancied a trip to Morecambe. I have no idea why except that, in Morecambe, I once witnessed an early version of Saxon ... in a seaside bar called The Seahorse. At this point the band were called 'Son ov a Bitch' and a Hell's Angel ... well actually a local 'greaser', and a particularly unpleasant one at that, placed his arm around my neck, in the 'Gents' and spoke to me from a distance of one inch. Through a tsunami of spittle I discovered he had an accent that can only be described as Scottish, that he was a greaser of the inebriated variety and that his sexual preferences were, to say the least, suspect. Although I enjoyed the company of Scottish folk, I found the other facets of his personality rather less endearing. I was only 16 and spent the remainder of the gig hiding behind the band's base speaker. I never really forgave Saxon for that. As for Morecambe ... I never returned ... I am sorry, I digress.
The package duly arrived on Saturday morning and, half-heartedly slapping one of my newly acquired CD's in the car hi-fi, I did, indeed, drive to Morecambe. By the time I had reached the seafront, I was deep into my third play through of the album, which happened to be by the band, Marshmallow, a London based melodic rock band formed around the astonishing songwriting talents of New Zealander Alan Gregg.
The Marshmallow album is the culmination of two years prolific song writing, mainly recorded in a Stoke Newington attic.
So there it was. Song after song after song after song. Each one sinking deep into my subconscious and often floating into thought at any given moment. With disarmingly simplistic lyrics that sit on the very edge of irony - "Scooter girl, scooter girl, have you ever seen a cuter girl..." - is probably the most extreme example. Not a word is wasted as Greg pulls the listener through a series of semi-comic scenarios, including a marvellous song, Open Mic Night, which follows the nervy fortunes of a first time female singer songwriter of the Joni Mitchell mould. The lyric evokes a seedy London venue and battles, with the girl, until she wins over the initially disinterested audience. Such vignettes scatter through an album rich with wit, imagery and endless cute melodies. I just couldn't stop playing it and, five days later, still can't.
It's good to see a Manchester based label that isn't prepared to sit within the prevailing trends. To illustrate the disparate nature of their acts, their current roster also includes David Wrench a tall electronic Albino ... he's not personally electronic, it's just his music, which thumps along to an infectious sexual groove. (I was pleased to discover this as it made a pleasant alternative to the other non-Storm electronica album I chanced upon, last week, which came wrapped in critical plaudits and sounded like two fridges in the night ... actually, not as melodic - or indeed as loud - as my fridge which is trying to get a record contract at this very moment).
Back to Morecambe, if we must ... I am pleased to report that no leery greasers littered the seafront. If Morecambe was a rock album, it would be something by The Incredible String Band, I would suggest. It is significantly more pleasant than Blackpool but, then again, so is Gdansk. I mention Blackpool because I have to go their, on December 15 to catch Pete Doherty's band, Babyshambes at The Empress Ballroom. Something tells me that it will be the stuff of legend and will one day resurface on a shaky DVD. Occasionally a gig is thrown up that just seems too intriguing to miss. Unlike Morecambe.
3 Records That Changed My Life: Alan Gregg
TNT (December 2003)
The former Mutton Bird and now Marshmallow mainman shares his life-changing musical moments.
1. The Mamas and the Papas Greatest Hits
"This to me is everything that pop music should be: joyous, uplifting, big tunes, tambourines and loads of harmonies. Whenever I feel tired I put this album on and it had a wonderful rejuvenating effect."
2. Leonard Cohen Various Positions
"Many people think Len is miserable and morose, but his lyrics are full of jokes. This is the album which really opened my eyes and ears to the craft of writing lyrics, rather than just some rubbish cobbled together from a rhyming dictionary."
3. The Go-Betweens Springhill Fair
"Mysterious, atmospheric pop music from Australia with poetic lyrics and spiky guitars. I used to work in a record shop in New Zealand and listened to this album every day for a year."
Marshmallow Man - TNT (Oct 2003)
Ex-Muttonbird Alan Gregg has made a great Kiwi album from his new home in Brixton. He tells Garth Cartwright about making Marshmallow.
The self-titled debut album by a band called Marshmallow is one of the year's sublime pop delights. So it's a nice surprise to realise that it was written, sung, produced and largely played by London-based Kiwi Alan Gregg.
Gregg, for readers with long memories, was bassist with Kiwi rockers The Mutton Birds. The Mutts arrived in the UK in the mid-90s with a Virgin Records deal having achieved two platinum albums back home and much critical acclaim. For the next three years they toured constantly, and their fans included bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin (who even mentions them in one of his novels). Yet the UK masses never took to the band and Virgin dropped them in 1998.
"We had a lot of support from Virgin UK, they funded us for three years," says Gregg. "But it always felt odd. I mean, I was staying with my brother in his Brixton flat and then a limo with dark windows would turn up to collect me for a Mutton Birds gig. I recall thinking we were on a gravy train but that we couldn't really justify it. I knew we better start selling records soon or the limo would stop arriving. And, of course, it did."
While the rest of the Mutton Birds flew back to New Zealand, Gregg was ready to test the uncharted waters. Fortunately for him he had befriended a young singer-songwriter when she was just starting out. Her name? Bic Runga.
So when the now internationally celebrated Ms Runga arrived in London to promote her debut album Drive, she called Gregg and asked him if we wanted to play bass in her band.
"I leapt at the chance and it was great. We played a series of UK and European dates and then her and I headed to the US where we toured with the Lilith Fair - that's this massive all-female artist tour featuring the likes of Tracy Chapman and others. Bonnie Raitt was on and she was fantastic - what a great slide-guitar player! We were on the acoustic stage and I'd play melodica, piano, guitar, glockenspiel, a bit of bass... it was great fun and the audiences just loved Bic. She's got such an amazing presence and she sings so beautifully. I don't think there's such a thing as a bad gig for her."
Gregg followed Runga back to New Zealand but Runga was about to enter the 'difficult second album' time so eventually he packed up and returned to London.
"I was involved in the early stages of Beautiful Collision but Bic didn't appear ready to make it just then and my girlfriend was back here. I'd always written songs - the only Mutton Birds song that got much UK airplay was Come Around which I wrote - and not being in a band meant there was nowhere for them to go. I realised more and more people were doing home recording and although I'm a total technophobe I took the plunge and it was a real learning curve."
Marshmallow is an album of sunny pop songs rather than the computer-generated dance beats that are normally associated with home recording. Inevitably, Gregg knew he would have to get some other musicians involved.
"I'm playing most things. I recorded a basic version at home in Stoke Newington then went to New Zealand as the Mutton Birds were hired to play at the Lord of the Rings premiere so I took the album with me and recorded bits with friends down there. Bic sings harmonies on two songs - we tried to go for the Frank and Nancy Sinatra sound! And then I returned to London and mixed it with Sam Gibson who is Neil Finn's engineer."
The resulting album was released in New Zealand to some acclaim. Only problem was Gregg was living in London. What to do?
"I sent out copies to a couple of labels and got no response and then I bought the recent Go-Betweens album album and realised it was on Circus Records - the same label that had released The Magnetic Fields. I thought 'someone at this label might like Marshmallow' and sent it to them. And suddenly I got a call from Circus saying 'we'd like to release your album'".
The charms of Marshmallow are in its lo-fi, sun-kissed melodic joy. Gregg's subtle songwriting and multi-instrumental skills give the album plenty of flavour - he admits his aim was to make an album that "made no great statements." Marshmallow recalls pop from simpler times yet in no way is a retro exercise.
"I remember talking with the guy who was playing some guitar on it and we decided we wanted it to be music you could listen to in the car on the way to the beach. I didn't want to be another whining white boy," he says.
Pop: New Kids In Town - Marshmallow
Sunday Times, UK (26th October 2003)
- Dan Cairns
Who are they?
Marshmallow is Alan Gregg, formerly bassist in New Zealand's much-loved the Mutton Birds. In the potentially unpropitious confines of an attic in Stoke Newington, north London, Gregg has struck gold with 11 songs that carry the listener to a wave-lapped idyll where jingle-jangle guitar-pop gems strum you into reverie. Guest appearances by Ron Sexsmith and Gregg's fellow Kiwi Bic Runga are a bonus, but Marshmallow's eponymous debut album succeeds and delights on its own considerable merits.
Who does he sound like?
Any fans of the Byrds, the Go-Betweens, Crowded House, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet and Fountains of Wayne should buy this, if for no other reason than to hear Do the Decent Thing, an in-denial wail about an unplanned pregnancy set to a bossa-nova beat, and Scooter Girl. Not only does the latter contain one of the most cynically manipulative chord sequences and bass progressions (anoraks will note the latter's deadly descent into the minor as the chorus kicks in) committed to tape, it glories in lyrics that rhyme "scooter" with "cuter" and "commuter", and Lambretta with "forget her", and sees no harm in it.
What's his eyrie got that mine hasn't?
"I didn't have to please anybody else when I made it," says the man responsible for one of the most downright pleasing albums of the year.
It's a Marshmallow World
NZoom.com (October/November 2002)
- Cameron Officer
Article from http://entertainment.nzoom.com/entertainment_detail/0,1846,137288-129-133,00.html
Alan Gregg has spent much of his adult life adding bass to some of the best Kiwi music - having played with the likes of The Stereo Bus, Dave Dobbyn and The Mutton Birds. Now he has released his first solo effort. Despite the impressive CV, music isn't really a legitimate career, he tells Cameron Officer .
The Datsuns are on the cover of the NME. In a recent live review featured in the same publication, the reviewer - in bold print - proffered the opinion that the hairy lads from Cambridge are the most exciting live act in the world. Their first UK single is, as I write, placed at Number 25 in the charts.
Elsewhere, The D4 are featured in industry news columns, ads and reviews the length and breadth of England. Both bands have an energetic, rockin' sound. They are hip. They are flavour of the month for the headphone wearing, wine bar inhabiting, name-checker set. In short, they are fashionable.
These young upstarts are beating a path to the UK record buyer's door like so many Viking warriors coming up the garden path, battleaxes in hand. They are rapidly swarming the radio play lists and magazine columns of England - something The Chills and Split Enz never managed to do.
The Mutton Birds were never this fashionable either. To be fair though, they never set out to be. They went to England to play their music and meet people and have a good time. They did all that; packed out the Shepherds Bush Empire on a number of occasions and have a loyal following to this day. Some people know all the words to all their songs, and as the 'Birds bassist Alan Gregg says, they never felt like they were pissing into the wind.
"The UK music scene is very fashion conscious," he says, "and I don't know if the Mutton Birds were ever destined to be on Top Of The Pops ."
Speaking from his residence in London on a chilly autumn evening, Gregg is a softly spoken Kiwi, who has just released his debut solo album, under the name Marshmallow. He answers my questions in a halted, carefully chosen manner, apologising that "it's been so long since I did an interview... I kinda forgot about this part of the business." More than once his response peters out as he realises he hasn't really answered the question.
Not that I mind, as he's a real pleasure to speak with. In fact, I'm the one who feels guilty, as we seem to spend more time talking about other artists and albums than his own fresh-out-of-the-wrapper endeavour. In the course of 40 minutes, the aforementioned antipodean wunderkinds, along with Stereolab, Kraftwerk, early Flying Nun alumni Snapper and Radiohead are all discussed at great length.
I do still manage to get some questions in about Marshmallow though, like the name, for example.
"I didn't want to stick my name on the album, I knew that straight away. So, some friends and I sort of became this little focus group, thinking up names. Unfortunately my friends all hated every name I came up with.
"I've got this woman friend who had this co-worker who was always coming on to her. He was fat and bald and about 20 years older than her and she described him as a "marshmallow on heat"," laughs Gregg. "I thought that was brilliant. I also like the idea of the marshmallow being hard and crusty on the outside and warm and soft on the inside... a bit like me. So, Marshmallow it is."
In addition to bass duties for The Mutton Birds, Gregg has also played with the likes of Bic Runga, Dave Dobbyn (he featured on two of Dobbyn's solo efforts - Twist and The Islander) and was an early addition to The Stereo Bus, contributing to their underrated first album.
His connection with The Stereo Bus is strong in other ways. Having produced their second album Brand New, Gregg's solo effort also has the unmistakable dreamy, jangly pop tones of Dave Yetton and co - sounding by turns as bright and sunny as The Stereo Bus and Bike or as melancholic and fragile as some of Don McGlashan's more subdued moments. Many of the tracks are also backed with a whimsical charm reminiscent of another of Gregg's past projects, The Dribbling Darts.
"It's not wildly experimental," he confesses, "but I guess it is a bit indulgent in places."
Indulgent? Well, certainly not indulgent in an "I'm going to play this sitar piece in the wardrobe - I want a "woodier" sound for it" kind of way. The songs are straightforward catchy pop tunes, with the instrumental "Interlude" being a lo-fi exception.
"The Ballad Of Wendi Deng" is an interesting song in that the lyrics are taken directly from a newspaper article in The Observer. It seems that media tyro Rupert Murdoch's Star TV was having difficulty getting the necessary permission to broadcast in the virtually untapped populous expanse of China. Coincidentally he soon divorced his wife and began an affair with a young Chinese intern at his company - Wendi Deng.
"They eventually got married and it got me wondering about the lengths some businessmen would go to in order to secure a deal. It's not a big political statement or anything," he explains. "Who knows - they could be really happy and have a wonderful marriage..."
"The Ballad Of Wendi Deng", which makes mention of places, names and facts all appearing in the newspaper article is Gregg's very own "For The Benefit Of Mr Kite". The "it just happened that way" circumstances that led to that song being written seem to be present throughout much of the album.
"I didn't really set out to make an album, but I had recorded a lot of stuff. I went back to New Zealand late last year and I wasn't even sure if it was finished or not.
"I gave what I had so far to David (Long - lauded producer and ex-Mutton Birds man) and let him play around with a few of the songs. I think it was good for me to let go of it for awhile."
He struggles to think of a favourite composition on the album.
""Anytime Soon" is a bit of a throw away song, but I really like the spontaneity of that recording. It's hard to say... I'm quite proud of "Come Sunday", as it has everything I like in a song in it."
"I don't like describing music," he explains. "I don't really think about themes too much. A few of the songs are about being away from someone, but I never really noticed that at the time. If there is a theme (to the album), then it's definitely not intentional."
Gregg feels strongly about the New Zealand music community, despite having relocated to the Northern Hemisphere. He states plainly that he initially set himself up in London because his girlfriend lived there. Even after living and playing music there for some time, he still doesn't get as excited about being a musician in the UK as he does when playing with New Zealand artists. And he's not in it for the money.
"I don't expect to make a lot of money out of this. Money is the last thing on my mind when I'm making music. I've been in situations where there is a lot of industry attention, and the atmosphere is completely different," he says.
Would the Marshmallow sound be different if making money was an issue?
"Oh definitely," he states. "If I wanted to make money - especially in the UK - I'd be writing dance anthems. I've toyed with the idea too... for about 30 seconds."
Gregg's laid back approach to making music - even launching albums - ensures that he will never take the industry, with its hyped hopes and despairing pitfalls, seriously.
"Making music isn't what I would call a career," he states. "I don't plan and I don't give myself deadlines. My biggest goal is to create a Marshmallow world that exists for people who want to go there - and I do this through music. I get encouragement from the responses I've had so far, so I guess I'll just keep collaborating with people who interest me, keep making my music and try not to have too many expectations."
He is an assistant to a rare book dealer on the side, and is quite happy with his life. No deadlines and no - in his own words - "one-dimensional record industry types" to pander to. You get the feeling he likes being able to come and go from his Marshmallow world as he pleases - and if you want to visit, the welcome mat will always be out.
Bird on the Wing
Sunday Star Times, NZ (29th September 2002)
Article from http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/sundaystartimes/0,2106,2064520a6621,00.html
The singing on Alan Gregg's debut solo album is a touch shaky. Perhaps the ex-Mutton Bird should have asked his drummer Bic Runga for some tips. Grant Smithies reports.
The biggest challenge when recording your own songs, croaked noir-as-tar musical auteur Tom Waits in a recent interview, is that so many other people are involved in the process that it's easy to lose sight of the original song and "end up listening to the feathers instead of the bird".
One solution, if you have the musical skill, is to play all the instruments, and sing, record and produce your songs yourself, which is precisely what former Mutton Bird Alan Gregg has done on his debut solo album - Marshmallow (CRS/Universal).
During his 10 years with the Mutton Birds Gregg primarily played bass, though he managed to sneak a few of his own songs in among Don McGlashan's on a couple of albums. One of these - Come Around from Envy of Angels - was the Mutton Birds' biggest radio hit when the band lived in the UK.
Gregg is living there still, in a house in London with a tiny studio in the attic.
It is here he strapped together Marsh-mallow in a bid to "clear the decks" after so many songs built up that he started tripping over them.
"My record's not going to worry Radiohead too much," quips Gregg down the line from grey old Blighty. He's just woken up from dozing on the couch and sounds slightly distressed to have been jerked back to the material world from the middle of a pleasant dream.
"But hopefully it will find an audience, however small, of people who are looking for things that are more heartfelt. A lot of music I hear these days is primarily about attitude and marketing; there's not much genuine emotion.
"I'm not interested in all that fake angst. I wanted to make something that felt uplifting and life-affirming, and that wasn't trying to be deep and meaningful in any way. A lot of my songs have a sort of naivety that I didn't want to disguise. I didn't try to be hip or current, and I hate the whole moaning "complaint rock" style that's everywhere these days. I prefer little personal stories, really."
"Diary rock" might be a good genre name should Gregg ever need one and he agrees this is perfect, letting loose a giggle in the middle of a string of yawns. He stopped taking the music industry seriously as soon as he left the Mutton Birds, he says, because he no longer had to worry so much about "making it".
Ahh, the Mutton Birds. They certainly were an interesting band, polarising local punters like few others. People who loved them did so passionately, citing principal songwriter McGlashan as the unsung poet laureate of local pop and Neil Finn's heir apparent. Many of these people were from Wellington - I have no idea why. To its detractors, however, the band was dull and predictable - McGlashan's lyrics merely self-consciously quirky neurotic vignettes; the backing instrumentals sturdy and workmanlike rather than truly inspired.
Gregg left the band in 1998, just before the Rain, Steam and Speed album came out. "I'd been touring with Bic Runga through Europe and the US and when I got back to London I just didn't feel like doing the Mutton Birds thing any more," he says with a sigh.
"It was amicable enough. I even helped them find another bass player. I had been writing songs during this time and had an album's worth, so I thought, it's now or never, really, and slowly started recording them.
"I never really had any ambitions as a singer, but after auditioning a few other singers I thought I'd be better to do it myself. I played 90% of the instruments too, up there in the attic, so it's ended up with a real home-baked quality that I like."
Some might even say half-baked, when faced with some of the more twee and cutesy offerings, but the best songs here sparkle with wit and whimsy and give your day a perceptible lift. Come Sunday, which features Bic Runga on drums and Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith on backing vocals, is one such delight.
The guitar jangles away slowly like a Byrds song on valium, Runga whacks the drums like a carpenter banging home nails, and Gregg raises his endearingly shaky voice to the rafters with Sexsmith beside him to prop it up where required - it's a hit.
Elsewhere there are songs about surprise pregnancies, Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng, surreptitious London love affairs, sexy girls riding scooters over Grafton Bridge, the importance of living passionately in case you're hit by a bus tomorrow, even the occasional wobbly electronic interlude, and lots of unashamedly corny rhymes because Gregg loves the way they stick in your head and compel you to sing along.
Some songs are so sweet you'd probably want to only sample them very occasionally (hence the name Marshmallow, perhaps?) but there's a guilelessness here that many will find appealing.
"I didn't have to please anybody else when I made it," says Gregg. "Nobody cared whether I made an album or not, or whether I wrote another song in my life. On one hand that thought was kind of depressing, but on the other hand it meant I didn't have to cater to anyone's tastes but my own.
"I didn't have to consider the opinions of record companies, radio programmers or other band members, so I could just play around with things. I didn't even have to worry whether these were the sorts of songs that might help pay the rent, because I'm working part-time for a book dealer these days.
"I just had to be brave enough to go ahead and do it because, playing bass, I've always been able to hide behind somebody else. Suddenly I'm having to step out into the spotlight. It's liberating in some ways and frightening in others, but what the hell. If it doesn't work out I can always just go back to hiding behind someone else again."