Interview: Mildlife on playing to penguins, Opera House dreams and messages from afar

Melbourne psychedelic jazz rockers Mildlife should have been embarking on an Australian tour right now, including playing at Vivid Sydney and the revered Sydney Opera House. But COVID-19 had other ideas.

Instead the five-piece, who had been working on a new album prior to the proposed tour, have been stuck in lockdown in Melbourne like many others, unable to tour September LP Automatic.

Amid the chaos, The AU Review caught up with Mildlife bassist Tom Shanahan, with the band keeping fans who missed out on the tour excited by releasing their unique live South Channel Island gig for 48 hours earlier this year.

For those unfamiliar with South Channel, it’s an uninhabited artificial fortified island approximately 120 metres long situated near the narrow entrance in southern Port Phillip by Melbourne.

“We played that a few months ago,” Shanahan says. “That was wild to take a couple of boats, full of crew and gear, and inhabit this tiny abandoned island for the day, and record and film a live performance there in front of a bunch of penguins and spiders get much feedback loop with them.

“They weren’t too stoked, though. I don’t think penguins like fun. But they had to put up with it for a day. It was great for us to see those beautiful creatures.”

The feedback loop that Shanahan mentioned is in reference to Mildlife’s unique live shows where they interweave their tracks and work back-and-forth with the crowd’s energy. Sadly, as he says, the penguins didn’t quite appreciate their sound.

“Typically speaking, we will normally create an uninterrupted set where songs weave between and inside each other,” says Shanahan when explaining how their live shows work. “That leaves great opportunity for little spaces between some where you’re halfway through the end of one and the beginning of another which creates this bubble of sections of new sections.

“We like to explore and get inside those sections between songs and explore them. And they often have little songs of their own. The set is weaving between songs from all of our releases with these little bubbles in between. They’re created so that we can keep some sort of energy flowing in the momentum through the set. There’s usually dancing. If not dancing, I guess bopping of some kind, which we try to create through the set.

“We’re pretty conscious of the energy that we’re giving and receiving from the audience as well. It’s kind of a feedback loop between the two.”

Unfortunately, gigs lined up for regional Victoria and Melbourne had to be shuffled, while the Sydney shows as well as dates in Wollongong, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth had to be scrapped, for the time being at least.

Shanahan said playing at the Opera House was a “dream”, while there was palpable excitement among the band for their Vivid show at Recital Hall in Sydney.

“I like playing the really old and dusty venues… I think it suits the music in my head for some reason, and it just has a lot more character and charm,” he laughs.

The South Channel Island show, which will be made available digitally in December, was Mildlife’s response to the flurry of live streams published during the initial lockdown period. Little did they know, that they’d re-visit it in August.

“We’ve resisted the live stream approach because it’s important the energy with the audience, and the room and the theatre and the sound moves around in the room. When we talk about live streams, it kind of removes that energy,” Shanahan explains.

“We liked the idea of playing live in different places. We were just trying to think about ways to make a live stream actually interesting for us to play and interesting to watch as well, because I don’t personally like the idea of watching a band in a little rough, stale room playing music. Maybe that’s just me, so we like the idea of pushing that to its limit. A good way for us to do that was to take a bunch of gear onto a tiny abandoned island and see if we could do a live performance.

Beyond the live shows, Mildlife have garnered plenty of acclaim with last year’s second album Automatic peaking on the ARIA charts at eight, while lead track ‘Rare Air’ was nominated for the best Victoria song at the Music Awards, won by Sampa The Great‘s ‘OMG’.

The album was also nominated at the AIR Awards for best independent jazz album or EP. The event was held digitally in August in Adelaide, with Mildlife missing out on winning to Katie Noonan but Shanahan wasn’t fazed about not taking out the gong, content with recognition, even if that’s never the goal.

“It’s great to be nominated but it’s certainly not what drives us as a band,” he says. “I suppose it’s just really nice, although it’d be nice to win.

“But anytime that it feels like someone’s enjoying what we’re doing, or paying attention to us as we create music, is always a win.”

They would have since been pleased to learn that they were nominated for an ARIA for Best Jazz Album, too. We’ll find out about that one later on November 24th.

Shanahan feels lucky and privileged that the band, who essentially are a group of mates in Kevin McDowell, Jim Rindfleish, Adam Halliwell along with Tom’s percussionist brother Adam Shanahan, get to work on their art for a living.

“We’ve all known each other for a really long time so we’re very comfortable with each other and because of that we like hanging out,” he says.

“We consider ourselves so incredibly lucky to be able to invest the amount of time and energy into this band and the music that we can. We as a band are constantly celebrating being able to write the music that we like playing and having people out there actually want to listen to it. It is a fortunate position to be in.”

That fanbase and audience extends overseas and while Mildlife have obviously had to suspend plans for tours abroad for now, every now and then they get some foreign love which puts a smile on Shanahan’s dial.

“We have enough of an audience over there to warrant traveling over a vast ocean together,” Shanahan says. “We love that. We absolutely love getting messages from people overseas.

“For example saying, ‘I’m listening to your music right now and it’s the morning in Brazil. I’m looking at over the ocean’. And I’m getting the message and it’s probably 10pm at night. It’s very different circumstances that they are listening to it, but we just love that. And it’s not something that we take for granted. That just really puts a smile on my face.”

Live from South Channel Island will be released on December 3rd. Pre-order it HERE.

Vivid Sydney has unfortunately officially been ditched for 2021, with organisers promising a festival next year. Mildlife’s national tour has been postponed, although the latest dates are below.

You can grab tickets for their headline shows HERE.

Sat 27 Nov 2021 – Flow Festival, Footscray
Sun 16 Jan 2022 – King St Carnival, Sydney
Fri, 28 Jan 2022 – The Eastern, Ballarat
Sat, 29 Jan 2022 – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine
Fri, 18 Feb 2022 – Torquay Hotel, Torquay

Ben Somerford

Aussie freelance journalist, sports, music, entertainment, top 10 lists. Take beach pics too.