Singer/leader of popular Auckland rock group Motocade, Eden Mullholland has an (up to now) secret side career composing and recording music for modern dance productions. His first solo album, aptly titled Music For Dance, is an intriguing and highly listenable collection of sound work undertaken for dance collaborator Malia Johnson, which incorporates elements of electronic music and up-close microphone techniques. Gary Steel has a natter with Mullholland on the occasion of the album’s release.
[Eden starts by explaining that he’s set up his own company to write and record music for commercials and incidental music for television and radio].
Eden – A lot of directors complain that most of the “library” music they have is pretty shit. So I take jobs where they could have picked “library” music but they’ve gone for a composer who can write something that’s got more of a signature. A bit more ‘oomph’ than a [makes cheesy sound]. It’s definitely not what I’m interested in, but it’s still a cut price option for them, because I can tear shit out of it pretty quick. They’re getting the best of both worlds, and I like the work so…
WD – Is that your main bread and butter?
Edem – Yeah.
WD – Do you see a time where your more personal pursuits may, uh…
Eden – Pay the bills. I hope that happens. Eventually I want to be doing films, I’d really like to be flown around the world to score films, as a passionate thing to do, apart from playing live with bands and selling records.
WD – How do you differentiate in your mind the band thing and the solo thing. Is one more of a passion than the other?
Eden – They feed off each other, they’re kind of similar. With the band it’s possibly more frustrating, because the music industry in terms of breaking a band is quite cynical and quite hard, it’s a difficult industry and there are lots of setbacks. There’s no money in it and you’ve got to really drive it through sheer doggedness. You don’t really get much out of it except for the possibility that you’ll break…
WD – Break even?
Eden – Yeah break even.
WD – Or break up.
Eden – Ha-ha.
WD – Or break dance. But the band’s been quite successful, hasn’t it?
Eden – It has. In the last two years it’s picked up the kind of success that just kind of fell into our lap, really. We were pretty disorganised about it, and with management, really. We lost our manager a couple of years ago and were really just floundering, not knowing what to do, how to release things, who to talk to. But we’ve been picking up a bit of momentum, we’ve had a bit of commercial success so… Some doors have opened.
WD – Any action overseas?
Eden – Well we went to the CMJ festival in New York last year, so that was the biggest thing that’s happened. That was fantastic. Great fun, made a few contacts, played some great shows, and we talked to Australia on the way there, so we’re hoping to make some moves in Australia.
WD – Was that part of the package deal of NZ bands?
Eden – Yeah it is, the New Zealand Music Commission runs the New Zealand showcase of New Zealand bands. So we made it onto that bill, and it’s one of the biggest, most hyped shows. New Zealand bands have such a good rep, there were queues outside the door, so it’s great for us.
WD – Listening to your solo album – for want of a better description – and the band, you just couldn’t imagine it was one of the same people involved.
Eden – That’s good, I like that. They are fairly poles apart.
WD – Do you expect any sarcasm from people about whether this album would have happened if you weren’t in the band? It’s not exactly experimental, but it’s not commercially oriented.
Eden – Absolutely not. I dunno, I haven’t anticipated anything at all, really. That music is the accumulation of a massive body of work that I’ve been building over the last 10 years.
WD – So if the band had never existed, it still would have been released at this time?
Eden – Yep. And it only happened as an idea because I was starting the business, and branching out into different areas, and I wrote a lot of music for different people and I thought, you know, why not have it so that someone could pick it up and use it in a commercial or pick it up and use it in a soundscape to a film? It’s definitely not the kind of music that’s going to be a hit on radio, but it would be nice for it to have another life other than the format it was made for. I think that was the main reason I did it.
WD – When it’s described as music for dance, it surprises me that… well, so much music for dance is big gestures, and it’s a very small gesture record, most of the songs are very intimate.
Eden – I think the thing is… sometimes choreographers don’t know what they’re trying to say, so they colour it with something that’s really instant. A classic example when we were in dance school would be you don’t know why you’re making choreography or what it means. And you say something and it doesn’t really translate in movement, so what you do is you go and get a Radiohead track that’s big on emotion and, hey presto! So from then I thought you’ve got to tie the two together better, there’s got to be a better way. It’s a difficult thing, because dance is so hard to understand so much of the time. Even I don’t understand it most of the time. When you’re making it it’s a little bit easier. But when you’re watching it, it’s like ‘how did that relate to…?’
WD –Music that accompanies dance or theatre or film is usually so incredibly literal. The Hollywood film is always “ba-boom-ba-boom”, you know exactly what’s going to happen musically or in terms of sound design at that moment. Do you see what you’re doing as being literal or somehow complementing it in a different way?
Eden – I think definitely my work’s a bit more abstract. What I try to do is complement the tone of the dance or the atmosphere or the emotive theme, anything thematic. I try to generate an atmosphere that the work can exist in. The most important thing is that you’re generating another world, and supporting the work in that way, rather than as you say highlighting obvious points that don’t necessarily need to be highlighted. So you’re generating a pool of sound for this crazy world of dance to exist in. So in that way you can colour very strongly with what’s going on onstage, so the more intimate and readable it can be in that way as music… Music has such a strong, intimate quality, especially with vocals and melody, you instantly hook into those cues through memory and songs you know or a melody line that exists. It could be in a pop song, but it triggers all these emotions and memories. I don’t know what I’m talking about. [Laughter].
WD – What’s the relationship with Malia Johnston, and is the dance fairly unconventional?
Eden – Her work has got a narrative but it’s an artistic narrative, it’s not an a-b-c, beginning, middle and end. It’s once removed from that. But she’s got a really clear idea of how she constructs works. She’ll come with an idea of “I want people to dance in a confined space”, so then it becomes about tension, confinement, all those sorts of things. So it’s really clear in the movement vocabulary that that’s what she’s trying to say. And then we approach the music in the same way. An album of chapters. We design the music to echo it in that way.
WD – It’s interesting, because to me the album doesn’t sound like an album of incidental music. It does sound like music that could be used to accompany something but… so much music for film, music or dance simply sounds like incidental music. It literally is music that has been made from 2000 onwards?
Eden – Yep. The first work, from ‘Miniatures’, was made in 2003 I think.
WD – The recordings are from back then? They haven’t been reworked?
Eden – No, they haven’t been reworked at all. A lot of them you can listen to on their own; some of them that didn’t make it to the record were a bit too… four minutes of rain with clicking in the background.
WD – Maybe you could do that one as a free download, only to purchasers of the album.
Eden – [laughs] That’s good. Good idea.
WD – Environmental records are great, as long as they don’t have whales on them.
Eden – I’d like to try… I’ll do another one of these, and I might release an entire show. I did a work recently with Michael Parmenter called ‘Tent’ and all the music for that is quite a strong theme. I’ll think about doing that.
WD – Did you think you were going to be a dancer, or a choreographer, or a musician, or composer, when you were 15, back when you were thinking about what you wanted to do with your life?
Eden – I wanted to dance for Douglas Wright. I saw his show back in the late ‘90s, Buried Venus. I had been doing ballet since I was about nine, I was interested in dance and performance, and I saw that and I thought “shit, man, that guy can fly across the stage, I’ll do that”, but I had a desire to be a professional dancer and travel the world doing that, and I got a taste of that, but became a bit more inquisitive about the music side of things, because I’d been writing music and playing music my whole life as well.
WD – How did you discover music?
Eden – I’ve always played guitar and a little bit of piano and sung throughout my life.
WD – So it’s in the family?
Eden –Yeah. My father was in touring bands, and Mum writes music and she’s an author, and all my brothers play guitar. He was in a band called The Weight. They were big on the English folk scene. It was a pretty strong influence on us, listening to Leadbelly and all those old-school blues artists, he was right into all that as well as Bob Dylan and folksy stuff. I didn’t get any musical training, the only training I got was I sung in choirs in highschool. But my brother Jol [renowned studio boffin] went to music school and did all the composing stuff, classical guitar and… I think I learnt quite a lot from listening to his music, and the way he constructed it. So I got a computer and started writing electronic music, and sequencing and sampling and learning how to use the tools, and recording vocals and guitars and it just kind of grew out of that. And being interested in environmental sounds, like the sound of a window wiper and how it could become a rhythm and you could put a drone underneath it, it becomes a whole world. You start dreaming up these little environments that you can create. It started from that. And I went to dance school with Malia, so it started about then.
WD – You’re doing a lot of layering of your voice on there, quite intricate layerings.
Eden – Yeah, and it’s all “first take is the best take”, I often follow that rule. If it’s raw and gutsy and a little bit off, if I’ve got a three part harmony and they’ve all got s’s on the end, and I haven’t put all the s’s in the same place. I reckon if it sounds like a guy in a bedroom singing really low because his partner’s asleep, that’s a nice feeling to have, that intimacy, especially when you play it on a huge PA in a theatre, it becomes like this juggernaut. They were all designed for theatres, so I had to remaster them for CD, it was a different process.
WD – What happens to it? How does it change?
Eden – The mastering for the CD is meant to make it better quality on any system. The lows are a little bit higher, and the highs a little bit lower, in volume. If you’re playing it on your car stereo it’ll sound a bit better than the mix for theatre, which is more like a classical mix.
WD – And you’re seeing it as being part of a series?
Eden – Yeah I reckon. It opened my eyes because I’ve just got such a massive body of work from these shows. I just think keep putting them out there and keep making them available. It’s quite satisfying to have it on a CD.
WD – There’s no schedule of how or when it’s going to come out?
Eden – The good thing about it is that they’re all there ready to go, they just need mastering.
WD – How much stuff have you got?
Eden – Hours. Hours of stuff. This CD is only excerpts from five shows.
WD – So it’s like a compilation.
Eden – Yeah.
WD – So you could release specific shows.
Eden – Yeah, depending on how this one goes, maybe I will release Tent as an entire CD, even with the long, slow, boring bits. You’ve inspired me! [laughs]
WD – Boring’s a very subjective word.
Eden – I don’t think it’s really the sort of music that you’d sit there at a dinner party and listen to. I don’t really know how people would listen to it, to be honest.
WD – It’d be a very intimate dinner party.
Eden – It would, it would.
WD – But it could quite easily be a background, because it’s not noisy stuff for the most part. Some people might enjoy it as a nice background rather than putting some rancid jazzy groove on.
E – [laughs] Or “library music”! [laughs]
WD – It’s an interesting question, what it’s for, and does it become something else, and how do you expect people to engage with it without the visual aspect.
Eden – Maybe it’s just art, pure and simple. In the sleeve design I’ve included some of my father’s art works. He’s an artist and is looking to get his stuff out there. I included it to kind of align it with art. Maybe it’s just art for art’s sake. That’s alright. There’s so much out there. You trawl the internet for this type of stuff, and it’s amazing how much gets put out. I think it’s great. Hopefully I can add to it.
WD – There seems to be more of everything coming out now, and it’s difficult to wade through it all, but that doesn’t mean you should stop.
Eden – You CAN just put it out. You don’t need to have a label or a huge big marketing push or a huge bunch of money. You can just slap it up yourself and do it.
WD – Have you collaborated musically with a lot of different people, or is it mostly with Malia?
Eden – In terms of collaborations with choreographers, I think I’ve worked with pretty much everyone there is in New Zealand, over the years. I haven’t worked with Douglas Wright, which I’d really like to. If I can’t dance for him, I want to write for him! [laughs].
WD – You’ll have to excuse my ignorance about dance, it’s not on my radar. I remember going to see Limbs in the ‘80s thinking “I really want to get into this”. There’s some kind of block. My own imagination is failing me.
WD – I think that’s the biggest hurdle for dancers; do you dumb it down or do you try to follow that explorative process to make more ‘out there’ art. I’ve struggled with that for years. The more experimental it gets, the less likely it is that people are going to…
WD – I love experimental music, I can deal with abstractions of sound, but… it’s probably just the failings of my intensely Christian upbringing, I look at bodies onstage and all I can think about is the sweating and…
Eden – [laughs].
WD – I’m also kind of worried that someone’s going to trip up and make a hash of that line or something. Self-consciousness about the fact that it’s existing in real time. Live music is different – it’s easier for a musician to make a mistake and pretend that it’s improvisation.
Eden – Absolutely.
WD – But I really enjoyed the CD. Most music is very… lyrics and melody, it’s become so very mundane in that way, so it’s nice to hear something that does extract a bit, has a mood.
Eden – That’s good. I like character voices and things like that. I think in a cinematic way. Have you seen that movie Underground? The main character has a troupe of musicians that follow him around, and that’s his soundtrack. Classic Eastern European sound. It’s so saturated in character and otherworldliness. I’m really interested in generating environments through using character instruments or using them in a character way. So a lot of the music I make I try to play around with those sort of things. So it’s not just a pure voice, it’s a strangled voice or a faux-opera voice, or the melody’s slightly off so it sounds like someone’s just learnt to sing, those gnarly little things.
WD – So it has an aroma to it, something a little askew.
Eden – Yeah, that askew quality is really important to latch onto. To catch human frailty and vulnerability, it’s not this huge polished gem of an orchestra, which is often the case.
WD – So you’re interested in the sound design aspect?
E – Definitely.
WD – Are you interested in working for movies?
Eden – Definitely, especially indie films or art films. I think my music would be suitable for it. I’m hoping to break into that. The relationship between music and cinema is very strong. I watched a movie with my wife the other week called Wall-E. Fantastic. I watched the sound design extra on the DVD, the guy who did Star Wars and stuff. Fascinating. That whole movie is hardly any dialogue, it’s all noises and the whirring of motors and the wind. It took them years to make. That’s art. I wouldn’t go into sound design proper, generating sound effects, that’s not my cup of tea, but generating a strong world like that, an entire world for a film, would be great, to be part of a team.
WD – There was that period of the auteur director, where the narrative wasn’t so important, and the film could explore a more abstract universe, and so the sound design and music could be more imaginative. Now… it’s like Lovely Bones, they couldn’t even have a sad ending. They have focus groups around how the movie should end.
Eden – Yeah. Because it’s got to go to market.
WD – What’s happening with the band this year?
Eden – We’re recording some new songs. We just played Homegrown. We released our first album last year, so we’re ready for something new. It’s quite a different approach for us, another evolution for the band’s music. We’re fairly relaxed about all those big aspirations, taking over the world and all that, fairly realistic about all that, just want to put out really good music, in our own time, step by step.
WD – What’s your perspective on the Kiwi music scene?
Eden – Not sure if I have much of one. I’m not sure that it’s changed much. I think people buying and selling music has changed heaps. People still go out to gigs, and there’s a shitload of really good music around. But it’s the same hard industry to break into that it was 10 years ago. Same people running it. As far as I know. But what do I know, I write music, I’m not a label.