Mildlife: Turning a destabilising year into their most successful yet

Mildlife: Turning a destabilising year into their most successful yet

Amongst Melbourne’s 2021 lockdown, we speak to Mildlife about turning tour disappointments into their new film, Live from South Channel Island.

We've hardly been talking for five minutes when Kevin McDowell interrupts himself to apologise.

“Sorry there's not a lot of upbeat stuff to talk about in the interview,” he says, crestfallen. “I guess it's just this is where we're at the moment, really.” It’s mid-August, and four-piece funk outfit Mildlife — along with the rest of Melbourne — are caught in the midst of an all-too-familiar lockdown. Kevin’s glum outlook speaks to stagnation, but in spite of their dashed plans and spoiled sessions, Mildlife are in the midst of a transformative year.

It’s been a minute since Kevin has seen guitarist Adam Halliwell, bassist Tomas Shanahan and drummer Jim Rindfleish, and it’s an absence that’s weighing on him. “That process of jamming and coming up with a groove is sort of a collective thing,” he explains, “and that’s just not as easy to do at the moment.” It’s the darkest days of a grim moment for Kevin and company, a feeling that pervades not only Mildlife, but the broader Australian arts community.

Though the strict lockdown has thrown the group off their rhythm, Mildlife have found an opportunity in the obstacles posed by the pandemic. It’s in their ambitious national tour, cut short by COVID; their radio show, which runs like clockwork; but most of all, it’s in their ambitious Live At Colour show, and the ways it helped make their gorgeous concert film, Live From South Channel Island, a reality.

In spite of dashed plans, Mildlife managed to pull a transformative year from one of the most destabilising in recent memory — and it’s just the beginning.

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It was in September 2020, in the grips of Melbourne’s titanic second lockdown, that the four-piece jazz-rock outfit released their sophomore record, Automatic. Singles Rare Air and Vapour seized space on community radio; vinyl presses, adorned in gentle curves and clean quadrants, sold out in a matter of days; and as a new year came in, Mildlife welcomed it from the stage at Sidney Myer Music Bowl. That triumphant return seemed mirrored in Melbourne itself, their cosmic funk shaking the dust off shuttered venues and dancing shoes. The optimism — shared by artists and audiences alike — was short-lived.

“It's just frustrating, really,” says Kevin, helming the Zoom apart from his distant bandmates. “We were actually really lucky at the start of the year, we got to get out and see a bit of Australia and play some shows. We went to Queensland, New South Wales, Adelaide, and we kind of thought, ‘shit, we've really lucked out here and put a bit of this behind us.’” That optimism, shared by many, was as powerful as it was short-lived. “Then all this just kind of got drawn back to sort of where we were last year.”

The stasis hits hard for Kevin and company, with Mildlife having built an uncommon momentum since the release of their debut, 2017’s Phase. That arrival was itself the end of a long process, one which saw the troupe slowly closing in on their now-signature sound. “The band wasn't as focused in our mind,” says Kevin of those early years, spent solely on stage. “We still loved it, and we really worked, but we were probably just distracted with other areas of our lives back then, and we weren't applying ourselves to it as much as we could.”

“We got a bit better at making the music, and how to take it from the room onto the record, so that skill developed.” Songs that seemed tight came back cleaner, production sharp and sounds shinier than ever before. Even as they closed in on a record, the band took a modest approach to their plans: “we just want to make the record that we're happy with, and if that's all the band does, just put out this one record, which was Phase, we're happy with it,” recalls Kevin. “If we get to play some shows, release it, put it out on vinyl, we'll be like… fantastic!” Phase, then, was a triumph from the moment the test press started spinning — their subsequent successes, fuelled by fierce word-of-mouth, came as a bonus. “Here we are years later, still making music.”

That is, so to speak. Mildlife carries on, but as Kevin explains, making music has never been more difficult. “We were writing, and we were preparing for a tour, and then we were writing again, and now we're not writing together,” he says, thinking through the on-again, off-again chronology as he goes. “We're trying to be productive. It's just very disruptive, because we can't really rehearse.”

Mildlife’s creative process is an intimate affair, their writing steeped in wandering jam sessions and off-the-cuff experimentation. “Now that we've got these lockdowns, we’re not really supposed to be doing that,” says Kevin, that essential in-person atmosphere unreplicable. “It's a real drag, and it's just hard to find productive things to do when everything that we do is sort of based on that human interaction, whether it be the live thing, or the writing, or just coming up with new ideas. They're such in-person activities.”

“Usually, about two days a week, we're in a room together working on something: working on music, or as it was up until recently, preparing for the upcoming shows, which all got cancelled or postponed.” The quartet managed a string of shows in the early months, but the brakes hit hard and fast.

“That momentum,” starts Kevin, pausing for a moment, “when that gets constantly chopped down, it just gets a bit frustrated.” That’s no clearer than when the conversation turns to Mildlife’s hometown gigs at The Astor Theatre, shows that would have brought live music to one of Melbourne’s most storied single-screen cinemas — and reunited Mildlife with the location of their first music video. “That's going to be a really good show, we're really feeling good about that,” he says of the two-night engagement, which was ultimately cancelled.

Speaking less than a week out from the original dates, sunk by an extended lockdown, Kevin outlined the many unknowns that plagued those two reduced-capacity shows. “We were supposed to get out [of lockdown] before the show, but then it's like… what is the show going to look like? Are we even going to be allowed to do the show? If we do the show, do we have to tell half the people they can't come? Are we allowed to postpone the show, what's the obligation with that? We couldn't even rehearse for the week before the show.”

It’s these battling considerations that have underpinned much of Mildlife’s year, with two large projects — Live At Colour and Live From South Channel Island — experiments in furnishing live music. “We did the Live at Colour show, which was fine, but that felt really underwhelming, the whole streaming thing,” Kevin confesses. “You're taking a live performance and getting it through this tiny little bit of bandwidth. It was really bad.”

That’s not to say the initiative, or even the performance, sits poorly with Mildlife themselves. “It's out there, and it turned out fine, and we're totally cool with it,” he qualifies. “It just wasn't a pleasant experience to create, but we were happy with the results.” The Colour setup “wasn't something we were gonna want to rush back to do,” but the idea of bringing live music to isolated fans persisted. “It was clear that streaming shows in this format isn't going to be the answer, but we probably need to do something to keep it going, and we thought, look: let's just try and do one that's higher production value and higher quality with a bit more preparation.”

It was around that time that South Channel Island entered the discussion: a long-abandoned military fort off Port Phillip Bay, now home to little more than penguins, seals and white-faced petrels. “It just started kicking around: someone was like, ‘Oh, there's this island off Blairgowrie, it's an old fort, it's a public area, you just have to book it out… my mate's got a boat and he could take us over.’”

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In the hands of Mildlife and director Ryan Sauer, the geography — or, more accurately, the architecture — of South Channel Island works as a vibrant visual accompaniment. On Citations, the only South Channel performance to have been since released, shimmering synths score the serene visuals. It’s breezy, uplifting, sometimes otherworldly — but live performances tend to pose problems, even without an audience.

“We were going to do it in late January, and I think that was just going to be too hot. Then it was going to be February, but the birds were still mating, so we had to wait for the birds to do their business,” says Kevin with a laugh. “We pushed it back till the end of their breeding season, and it ended up being perfect weather.” It’s that ambience that helps showcase South Channel Island itself, the cloudless sky making for a soft backdrop, the ebbing tide free of foggy haze.

“We almost didn't get it off the ground, even after setting it all up,” he explains. “It was just things that were out of our control, like the in-ear radio frequency was chopping up, and we didn't have any in-ears to do the performance.” The supplies were meagre — everything, personnel included, arrived by small boat — but by some small miracle, the crew managed to pull off the show by the soft afternoon sun. As Kevin talks, it’s clear the struggle was well worth it.

“It was a real grind and a big day and a lot of preparation,” he says, the tone far removed from his similar Live at Colour comments. “We're really happy with it… it was so much more rewarding to do that as our COVID alternative performance thing. If we can't go to everyone to play shows, here's something that we can send out.”

If Live from South Channel Island looked to scratch a live music itch, it did more than just that, the guided eye of the camera casting a close gaze over the album itself. The visual juxtaposition of nature and man mirrors that of acoustic and electronic, forces that counterbalance one another across Automatic. “Having the acoustic numbers in there ended up being a nice counterpoint to the electronic stuff,” Kevin explains, speaking to the “bigger palette of sounds” the group experiments with in the studio. “If more of the songs on the album had the sound of [the song] Automatic, perhaps that might have been a bit more narrow than we wanted to go.”

Automatic became the foundation stone of that album,” he says, the synthetic centrepiece an organic anchor for the record. “We called the song Automatic, and then the album kind of sprung up from that, which anchored the themes a bit.” Key to the record is the idea of automation, the electronics intertwining with the organic human edge. The twin pillars of the “evolving” and the “automatic” run through the title track, that binary crossing to the internal, where thoughts become habits and actions turn routine.

They’re ideas accentuated by South Channel Island, with a Citations lyric such as “What surrounds? Nothing found / Look out from the station” manifest in that isolated island rendition. Rare Air, on which the group are “longing for clarity in the suffocating grip of everyday tedium,” finds space to breathe by the lonely ocean. It’s a meditation of the mind, and South Channel Island only adds depth to the questions posed.

In pushing out the walls on their sound, Mildlife are laying new pillars about an oft-invoked foundation — the distant Krautrock movement. “I think the essence of the breadth of what Krautrock can be is more where we align with it, not necessarily the more tokenistic aesthetics of it,” says Kevin of their relationship with the loose genre. Nonetheless, as Kevin tells it, that philosophical alignment crossed into the real when the group caught a live performance abroad.

“We were on tour in Europe in '19. We played at Best Kept Secret in Amsterdam, and Kraftwerk headlined it, so we put on our 3D glasses and watched Kraftwerk in 3D. We'd all been fans of Kraftwerk, but just seeing that performance live was very vivid… like, ‘ah, this is the complete experience of what Kraftwerk is.’” The robotic setup, the mannequin-esque poses, the towering screen abuzz with retro-futuristic graphics in 3D: it’s as though the group aged into the visions they could not then realise.

“We were driving around on the Autobahn listening to Autobahn,” he adds with fondness. “I think some of that was an ingredient that definitely came over to the group, and then throwing that into the mix of some songs that we'd written that had acoustic guitar and our general sensibilities, it ended up becoming what it became.”

In a way, that feels like a mission statement for this moment. Far removed from one another, making the most of their means, Mildlife have turned some of their hardest years into a string of their most successful. “I mean, there are plenty of people who are in much worse positions than ours,” admits Kevin, honest in his frustration but conscious of his blessings all the same. It’s easy to feel that, while Mildlife owes its success to Kevin, Tomas, Jim and Adam, they owe something to that creative unit as well.

“Success to me is just making music that I’m proud of, making things that I'm happy with,” waxes Kevin, “the idea of creating music that I feel happy with, that I'm proud of, is the big part.” The auxiliary spoils “feed into allowing you to do more,” with success a means to Mildlife’s funky ends. Their recent ARIA for Best Jazz Release is more than just an accolade — it’s a vote of confidence right when they needed it most.

“There's no reason to think it couldn't be as fucking big as it wants to be,” says Kevin with confidence. “It's not out of like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna go out and be fuckin Bono,' but it's more just, 'Yeah, I could make music that I like, and I think people would like it.'”

“It's a lot of hard work, but it's also just a shit tonne of luck,” he muses. “There are probably amazing bands out there that you never heard, or who never kind of got it right, or had certain setbacks that just didn't allow them to get through.” In spinning gold from the copper of 2021, Mildlife have put in that hard work — and made some good luck of their own.

“Hopefully down the track, we'll put that out as a general public release on one of the platforms,” he says, deliberately vague. There’s really no saying what’s next for Mildlife, and after the last two years, it’d be unwise to guess. If anything’s for sure, it’s that Kevin, Adam, Jim and Tomas will ride out the ebbs and flows, ever approaching something beyond that stifling day-to-day.

Mildlife's ARIA-winning latest album, Automatic, is out now. Find their forthcoming tour dates here.