:: Interview: Alan Gregg (March '05)

With the recent re-release of the debut Marshmallow album to another wave of critical acclaim, I caught up with Alan Gregg to talk about the album and other musical endeavours.

First things first, what's the story behind the band name 'Marshmallow'?

I went through the usual process of lists of ridiculous band names which were all rejected out of hand by anyone I suggested them to. A deadline was approaching and I needed something. A friend of mine had been having problems with her fat, bald boss coming on to her - she described him as being like a marshmallow on heat. I liked that phrase, but in the end it became plain Marshmallow. At least you can say the word 'marshmallow' to a cab driver and not have to repeat yourself three times.

Problems with your previous label have resulted in the album being re-issued with new artwork and a couple of fantastic new songs on the Storm Music label. What's Storm's plan of action with regard to getting the Marshmallow album seen and heard? Wider touring?

What, do you mean like Leeds? Storm's plan of action is to sell records. They have already had considerable success at UK radio and they are also licensing the album to labels in several other countries (Australia and Germany already). The details of some live shows outside London are being finalised now. We have had a couple of false starts with the touring thing, but it is important to get it right becasue it costs so much. But hopefully we will be doing some UK regional shows in the next couple of months.

Pretty much all the reviews of your album suggest similarities with Teenage Fanclub, The Byrds, The Go-Betweens etc. Are these kind of bands your primary influence?

It's fair to say that I've listened to all these bands to an unhealthy extent. I've always liked jangly guitars and harmonies. But I would say a bigger influence was the music of bands from the Flying Nun label - bands like The Chills, Sneaky Feelings, The Verlaines, The Clean etc. It was through those bands that I found out about bands like Big Star and The Byrds and The Band and all that stuff. But I was also nuts about REM from 'Murmur' through to 'Document'. Lately I seem to have become a bit obsessed with Paul Simon.

Songs such as Anytime Soon and Scooter Girl sound like potential pop hits in the mould of Come Around, which was the most likely of any Mutton Birds song to break the band in the UK. Does the prospect of a chart hit drive you on?

Not even remotely. I don't think 'Come Around' would get played on the radio in the UK now. It's nice to hear a song you wrote getting played on the radio, but it's a bit like winning the lottery - you don't plan your life around it. Most of the music I really like doesn't get played on the radio. It would be nice if radio programmers were allowed to take a few more risks, but that's not the business we're in. It's kind of depressing if you think about it too much.

The guest-list on the album is pretty impressive. Obviously you've worked with David Long before, and you've previously recorded and toured with Bic Runga, but how did Ron Sexsmith become involved?

We first met Ron sexsmith at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas a few years back. There was a connection becasue Tchad Blake (who mixed 'Salty') also recorded and mixed Ron's first three albums. Anyway, Ron mentioned a couple of times that he liked the song 'Esther'. At first I thought he was just being friendly, but then one day in Toronto he sang that song on stage with us. Before we went on to perform he played the whole song to me. So after I left the Mutton Birds our paths crossed a few times and we exhanged a few e-mails. Then when I was recording the album at home I saw he was in the UK doing shows so I dropped him a line suggesting that as he was one of my biggest fans he might like to sing on the album. He e-mailed back and ended up coming over from his hotel on a night off between a show in Paris and a show in Brighton. I was nervous and he had a sore throat but I really loved what he sang, especially on 'Come Sunday'. Then we got an Indian takeaway and he told us stories about going to Paul McCartney's house for breakfast.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who remembers 'Come Sunday' from a few Mutton Birds gigs just before you left the band. Was it ever in contention for inclusion on 'Rain, Steam & Speed', or did you have one eye on recording it yourself even then?

We did record a version of 'Come Sunday' for 'Rain, Steam and Speed' but by the time we began recording that album I had started playing with Bic Runga so it was kind of difficult to finish it off properly. Also it didn't look like I was going to be around to promote the album with the band so that was another reason not to include it. But I didn't have any definite plans to do a recording of my own then so it wasn't really like I was saving it for that.

The Mutton Birds were, and I guess will remain, a criminally under-rated band. If circumstances were different, and the radio success of Come Around had translated into big sales for the Envy Of Angels album, do you think the Mutton Birds still be in existence today?

Possibly. Having money certainly gives people more options. I think Don had already suggested around the time we started 'Rain, steam and speed' that he was thinking about moving back to New Zealand in the next year or so. Having a family in London with an uncertain future probably was difficult for Don at times. So he kind of gave us advance warning of that. We could have all moved back to New Zealand I suppose. But I don't know if it would have lasted much longer even then. When we arrived in the UK I firmly believed it would only be a matter of time before we were huge! Then we weren't huge and we had to re-assess the situation.

What was your primary reason for leaving the band?

I guess we were all a little bit ground down after getting dropped by Virgin, although we thought it was their problem really and not ours. Steve Hedges was keeping things going and was working tirelessly for the band. Sometimes it felt like four grumpy men sitting in a van. It did feel a bit like things had run their course. So when Bic Runga came along and suggested that I go to America and play in her band it was a bit of a no-brainer. It just seemed like a way of moving on. The idea was that I would go and do the stuff in America with her and then come back to The Mutton Birds. I taught Tony Fisher the bass parts. Then Bic's stuff went on longer than expected and Tony fitted in well and that was it really.

In certain circles, much has been made of your love of clichés in the songs you've written, and there are some absolute gems on the Marshmallow album. Is it always done with tongue firmly in cheek?

Yes I suppose it is. I don't really think about it too much. I really like it when you take two unrelated phrases and put them together. Sometimes they really spark off each other. For example: 'I've been burning up the midnight oil/Waiting for my blood to boil' (from 'Anytime Soon') appeared in my head one day and made me laugh, which is usually a good sign. Or in 'Come Around' it goes 'It's only walking distance/Take the path of least resistance'. You don't usually see those phrases together. Neither of the phrases are particularly interesting in themselves, but put them together and they rhyme and it's a nice surprise. It's not supposed to be deep and meaningful. Loads of songwriters use cliches just to fill up the lines. I try not to do that. But often it's precisely because I'm drawing attention to a ready-made phrase that I get in trouble. It's not like I'm trying to hide it. Quite the opposite. Sometimes I play a song to my girlfriend Angela and she tells me to take out the stuff which is too self-conscious or playful. She says that it will be too controversial. To tell the truth I quite enjoy the fact that those lines get on some people's nerves.

What is your songwriting process generally like?

I don't really have a process. A lot of songwriters say that they feel like songs arrive fully formed. That has happened to me but it's very rare. Those are usually the best ones though. I tend to write loads of awful songs and eventually a good bit from one will match up with a good bit from another one and a new song will emerge. The trick is to make it sound effortless. There are a lot of clunky songs around. Someone described the songs on the first Marshmallow album as having a lightness of touch. For me, there is no higher compliment than that. Usually songs begin when I'm doing something else, like cooking. Sometimes they start off by me mis-hearing the words of another song. I wish I could say that it gets easier or that I'm getting better at it. But really the songs come along when they are ready. Benny from Abba describes it as like waiting for a bear to come out of a cave. I think there's something in that.

Judging by the liner notes, the album was recorded in numerous locations, seemingly as diverse as your own London attic and Neil Finn's home studio. Did the geographical differences affect how certain songs ended up?

When I was in the attic at my house in London I just played around with things until i liked what I heard. But after a while I started going around in circles. As soon as other people started playing on the songs it became much more interesting. Going to New Zealand was good because people there are happy to help each other out. A few people there owed me favours and were keen to step in and play on things. We mainly recorded drums at Neil Finn's studio with Sam Gibson engineering. I spent a week or so in Wellington where I basically handed everything over to David Long. He had a fresh perspective on the songs and he has a community of musicians he can call on, so that was where we did trumpet, pedal steel, more guitars etc. Dave is very pragmatic and helped me to finish things off. I don't see the songs as being particularly about New Zealand or London though. In the song 'Come Sunday' there is a line about 'washing lines hanging from windows' which was something I had seen in Italy. Then there is a line which goes 'You can smell the bread baking' which is from the Tip-top bakery which was not far from where I used to live in Auckland.

You're permanently based in London now - do you stay aware of how your album has been received back in New Zealand?

It was released there but I never played there or anything to promote it. I probably should have. In New Zealand if people know me at all it is only in connection with the Mutton Birds. I found it refreshing in the UK to play the album to people who weren't aware of the Mutton birds and could take it at face value.

This album was first released in NZ at the end of 2002. What with the recent re-issue, you must be pretty keen on getting a follow-up record released?

Yes! But I have learned not to rush these things. Recording the next album has already begun, but we're going to take our time. I'm very keen to let things take their natural course and not be too careerist about it.