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Progressive Rock Interviews

The Merlin Bird

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with the Merlin Bird from 2015
MSJ:

Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?

Teleri Holton: I grew up in a musical family with both parents musicians so I'm used to having music surrounding me.  I was encouraged to play instruments as a child but always preferred to sing so I started my singing career at ten through the Young Voices of Melbourne choir which taught me a lot about discipline, reading and learning music by heart.  Spending eight years there and graduating at 18, I then sang in a capella group with folky stuff but was always interested in a very wide range of music from folk to rock and more dancey styles too.  Spending a couple of years with a renaissance group directed by my mother/composer/music teacher, Suzanne Palmer-Holton, I sang in renaissance style private performances. After always having an interest in progressive rock/creative folky vibes, I found myself feeling at home with Geoff and the Merlin Bird. 

Dan Moloney: My mother encouraged me to play music and used to be a decent pianist herself. At seven or eight I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to music after seeing an Elton John concert. I took guitar and piano lessons when I was younger and was serious about my guitar playing in my teens. At age 18, I realized that I wasn't naturally talented on the instrument. Friends that had played for a year or two were better than me! Shortly after finishing school I decided I would be a drummer. Since I started so late I felt I needed to improve really quickly, which I did by practicing like a maniac. At age 20 my drum teacher, Tim Kingsley, believed in me enough to play in his band. He played percussion and I played drumset. Since then I have played hundreds of gigs with lots of bands, mostly around my home town of Melbourne. In late 2003, my mate Dave O'toole and myself met Geoff, who founded The Merlin Bird and released a great CD as a solo project. We had no idea that there were other prog musicians in this town. As good as the music scene is here, prog wasn't really on anyone’s radar. I have played in four or five bands whilst playing with The Merlin Bird but this band has always been my musical soulmate.

Geoff Dawes:  I had piano lessons as a kid but never really practiced, so never got anywhere with it.  The music thing didn’t really resonate with me until I heard some of the stuff Genesis put out in the 70s.  In the end it was their Wind and Wuthering album - one that I still consider to be a masterclass in songwriting - that got me.  I got into music because one day I wanted to be able to write songs as good as that.  (Still trying!)

MSJ:

If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?

Teleri Holton: Dancing!  I love dancing.  It involves music! 

Dan Moloney: The environment is my biggest passion with music a very close second. Music, for me is an extension of nature and the human spirit. We have some of the most amazing ecosystems a stones throw from Melbourne and used to have the tallest trees in the world until we cut them down. The destruction of Australia has been breathtaking since European settlement.

Geoff Dawes: Probably jumping off a bridge somewhere.

MSJ: How did the name of the group originate?
Dan Moloney: I will leave that one to Geoff. I always like hearing this story. 

Geoff Dawes: (Laughs)  Not much of a story really, but one day I was having lunch at a cafe in the Melbourne suburb of Sorrento, overlooking the sea.  I’d been trying to think of a good band name for ages, but just couldn’t get the inspiration to click.  Anyway, the combination of seaside and food obviously meant that I had a number of seagulls for company, all of whom were at least as interested in my meal as I was.  Something made a loud noise that scared all of them off except for one of the older birds, who stayed put still wanting his share of lunch.  I remember thinking “Ah - wise old bird.  The Merlin bird.”  I don’t know where it came from, but I instantly knew I had my band name.

So that’s it - I like the connotations of mystery and magic that the name holds, but there’s no deeper meaning to it.  It’s named after a wise old seagull who wasn’t afraid of a noise.

MSJ:

Who would you see as your musical influences?

Teleri Holton: As far as the Merlin Bird is concerned, my influences include a ridiculously vast range, from Opeth to Lacuna Coil, to the renaissance styles of the Baltimore Consort to more Celtic bands like Gaelic Storm.  Although I've always been a fan of my roots of Britpop and all the amazing British independent bands I loved so much now! 

Dan Moloney: Earliest influences were Elton John, The Beatles and, hmm...Gary Glitter. I was obsessed with Metallica, Guns 'n' Roses, Tool and Pantera as a teen. As soon as I took up the drums my teacher introduced me to all the great jazz artists.  Around this time I got into the classic prog bands. First Rush and then my favourite band ever, Yes. Other influences include The Police, Radiohead, Midnight Oil, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley. Sigur Ros. in my opinion is the best band of the last decade. They have almost all the musical qualities I wish to hear. Finally Jaco Pastorious, my favorite musician. Love his playing, the artists he has worked with and all the crazy stories you hear about his life.

Geoff Dawes:  For me it’s probably just a roll-call of the prog and semi-prog acts of the 70s - Genesis, Yes, Tull, Zeppelin, Floyd, Kate Bush, King Crimson.  That said, I spent much of the ‘80s watching Midnight Oil, and couldn’t those guys just put on a show?  I also saw a fair bit of an Australian folk act called “Redgum,” and still have a soft spot for Gilbert and Sullivan (from the century before last), so make of that what you will!

MSJ: What's ahead for you?
Teleri Holton: Hopefully playing at a festival at some point soon. That would be great! I'm a regular at the National Folk Festival so hopefully soon! 

Dan Moloney: Yes, festivals indeed, although our sound suits confined environments better. We hope to have another album out next year.

Geoff Dawes: It’s an exciting sort of time, actually.  Breaking news is that The Merlin Bird is now a four-piece (so you heard it here first), having been joined by keyboardist extraordinaire Richard Allison - a fellow prog tragic.  We’re looking to complete the live lineup with a guitarist and bassist before long, and keep playing wherever and whenever they’ll have us!

MSJ:

I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?

Teleri Holton: Probably progressive rock/folky/gothic-ey sounding! 

Dan Moloney: What Teleri said. 

Geoff Dawes: What Dan said.

MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?
Dan Moloney:  Yes, hundreds! Not sure if they would like to play with us though. 

Geoff Dawes:  Got that right.  Still, working on the theory that it can’t hurt to try, here’s a quick cheerio to Messrs Hackett and Levin.  If either of you guys are looking for a gig do please give us a call!

MSJ:

Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?

Teleri Holton: It really depends.  As a result of illegal downloading artist now have to rely on tours for their income and not all musicians are in a position to tour.  So I think this forces people who make music to find other avenues of income and just treat it as an enjoyable rewarding thing that they couldn't live without. 

Dan Moloney: Generally a hindrance. Some musicians can thank the internet for their mega success but illegal downloads makes life very difficult for most of us.

Geoff Dawes:  It probably depends where you are in your development, actually.  Early on you want as much exposure as you can get and as many people listening to your music as possible.  You wouldn’t be making a living from your music sales anyway, so the benefits for the artist probably outweigh the downsides.  Later on though, if you’re wanting to work as a musician full-time, the lost income can really hurt.  It’s a double-edged sword, I guess.

MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
Teleri Holton: As much as I don't like being recorded, I don't see much of a  problem with it as the quality won't be amazing.  You're only as good as your last show 

Dan Moloney: I don't mind this so much, although I am not keen on cameras pointing at me.

Geoff Dawes: I go back to the days of my youth when I would eagerly snap up any Genesis bootlegs I could find, so I know just how much those live recordings can mean to a dedicated fan. Looked at it from the artist’s side, I guess if your live shows are good enough to be worth bootlegging then that’s a pretty nice compliment.

MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
Dan Moloney: There would be a few. (laughter) I'm trying to think of a bridge that I don't mind burning. Okay, Justin Bieber.

Geoff Dawes:  Tough question!  I’m trying to think of anyone out there who’s in it purely for the love of money rather than the love of music; they’d be my arch nemesis.  The thing is, I think everyone in this business got into it because they love music, not because they wanted to get rich.  People who genuinely want to make money become accountants, not musicians.

MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?
Geoff Dawes: This may be a bit of a cop-out, but I’d reform either of the Genesis lineups that featured Steve Hackett.  Being born when and where we were, we never got to hear any of those prog acts in their heyday; I’d go a long way to catch a set by those guys.
MSJ:

If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?

Teleri Holton: The Stone Roses, Keane, Pulp, Within Temptation, Lacuna Coil, Opeth and DJ Tiesto and Om Unit.  Yes I'm crazy. 

Geoff Dawes:  Hmm.  I think mine would be billed as the Grand Reunion Festival, because most of my ultimate acts aren’t currently working.  I’d take Genesis, Yes, Tull, Zeppelin, Floyd, Kate Bush and King Crimson, throw in Midnight Oil for good measure, and top it off with two other Australian acts: Something for Kate and The Sharp (who haven’t graced a stage for some 20 years, last I looked).  They’d all have to be on the one stage though, because I really don’t like the idea of having to decide between Zeppelin on one stage and Kate Bush on another!

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
Teleri Holton: At the moment my current Spotify playlist has IAMX, David Guetta, Silent Film and Joe Satriani. 

Dan Moloney: The last CD i bought was OK Computer. I have re-purchased it countless times because I either wear it out or give it to friends who never give it back because it is so awesome. Unlike Teleri, I have no idea what Spotify is.

Geoff Dawes: I’ve got the greatest hits collection of Something For Kate.  One of the things I always like is a band who has their own unique sound, and these guys do.  It’s edgier stuff than I often go for, but damn, it can really cook! For the record, I fall somewhere between Teleri and Dan on the Spotify Awareness Scale.

MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
Teleri Holton: I always love an Alexandre McCall Smith novel.   Fantastic mix of philosophy and a good flowing storyline! 

Dan Moloney: I am an avid reader but have only ten or so novels in my life. I mostly read books on fish and Australian plants and Animals.

Geoff Dawes:  Just finished The Afterlife of Billy Fingers. - an extraordinary story about a lady who starts receiving communications from her recently-deceased brother - not what I expected.

MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
Teleri Holton: Haven't been to much this year, but I did go to Future Music Festival in March, mainly to see Rudimental and Deadmau5. 

Dan Moloney: Dave Matthews Band. 

Geoff Dawes:  Just saw Ian Anderson, and it was (somewhat to my surprise) one of the most original rock shows I’ve seen in years.  Definitely worth a look if he’s coming your way.

MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
Teleri Holton: Yes, I do love a bit of country music from time to time!  I like Blake Shelton and Rascal Flats. 

Geoff Dawes:  Hmm.  Probably that act I mentioned earlier - The Sharp.  They play (or used to play) tight, three-minute radio-friendly rock songs, so there’s nothing remotely prog about them at all.  They really put on a good show, though - their bassist used to climb all over his double-bass during their set, kick it up in the air lying flat on his back, and throw it around as though it wasn’t a good deal bigger than he was.  It was great to watch.

MSJ: Have you had any Spinal Tap moments:
Dan Moloney: Too many to list. My fondness for beer means I have fallen off a few stages…mostly backward off my drum stool. We don't have the budget to have a true Spinal Tap moment (except for the miniature Stone Henge, which Geddy Lee has already done). I'm sure the rest of the band wouldn't mind me being trapped in a cocoon, ala Derek Smalls. Although instead of emerging at the end of the song, they would prefer that I was trapped for the entire gig. 

Geoff Dawes: I’m intrigued by the idea of trapping Dan in a cocoon for an entire gig, by the way.

MSJ: If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?
Dan Moloney: Jaco Pastorious, Keith Moon, John Bonham. If I wanted a quiet night, I would stay home with my wife

Geoff Dawes:  Yep, there goes Dan’s quiet night!  I think I’d sit down with Christ, Krishna and Mohammed, hoping that the Buddha would crash the party as well.  If there’s no interesting and insightful conversation to be had at that table then a lot of people out there have been seriously gypped!

MSJ: What would be on the menu?
Dan Moloney: Alcohol I'm sure, and hopefully seafood. 

Geoff Dawes:  Hmm.  I think we’d need to do a buffet.  The prophet Mohammed doesn’t drink, but Christ does.  I think Buddha and Krishna would be vegetarian but the other two maybe not, and Krishna would probably find Christ’s loaves and fishes seriously under-spiced.  Yep - get someone else to do the catering I’m thinking, and make sure there are lots of options.

MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
Dan Moloney: RIP Phil Hughes, an Australian cricketer who died playing the game he loved. Our great national pastime will never be the same. 

Geoff Dawes: Seconded.  A fine man, cut off in his prime - one notable loss among so many in the world.

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2015  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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