We asked Melbourne musician Dan Flynn, the creative force behind Major Chord and one half of Children of the Wave to sit down with the freakishly talented Melbourne siblings Oliver and Paddy Mann for a chat in the lead up to their double headline show at Melbourne’s Assembly Hall Saturday November 30th.
If an artist’s job is to conjure a world, capture our imaginations and challenge our preconceptions, the Mann brothers achieve this, and quite sublimely. As Grand Salvo, Paddy Mann is definitely a folkie although albums such as Death (2008) and Slay Me in My Sleep (2012) transcend genres moving almost into the classical realm with large string ensembles, wind instruments and percussion. Oliver Mann’s vocal style is a different beast altogether. His chosen medium is Opera and he spreads his beautifully subtle but powerful voice over more ambient soundscapes with sparse acoustic and electric guitar and beautiful, highly original use of harmonica.
I met them in a little Bar in Carlton to discuss the show and I was very keen to delve into the lives of both Oliver and Paddy Mann being a big fan of their individual work.
The upcoming show being a family affair, I thought it appropriate to start at the beginning. Considering the immense collective talent, had they grown up in a musical family?
I had thoughts of Paddy and Oliver’s rural childhood being awash with memories of banjo playing parents and four part harmonies around the dinner table. As it turns out this was not quite the case. While both parents are passionate music lovers, neither play instruments and the closest the boys came to hearing their father sing was in the shower, though as Paddy describes, his Dad does have ‘a deep and tuneful voice’ (as we hear in his narration of Grand Salvo’s Death). The brothers also speak about their mother’s love of singing (she’s currently receiving vocal training from her operatic son, Oliver), but while I’m sure they inherited some of her passion for music, their individual and nuanced talent seems to have sprung from an entirely outside place.
The brothers played in a high school band together but, as high school bands often do, they broke up and the boys parted musical ways, setting their sights on their own journeys. Oliver began studying creative writing but soon discovered this was not his calling when he realised he could not sit down for long enough to write anything without falling asleep, so he went looking for something ‘that involved standing up’. This led him to follow his passion for singing. Listening to his beautiful, crafted voice on Slow Bark, it is hard to imagine that he was rejected from a number of singing schools before he was finally accepted into the Classical Music stream at Monash. At this point, however, Oliver had no particular interest in classical music, and far from having any burning ambition of becoming an Opera singer, he actually ‘hated the idea’. However, after a year of ‘kicking and screaming’, Opera and classical music were beginning to grow on him so much he found he actually rather enjoyed singing the songs. He started to uncover the music’s beauty, depth and darkness, and finally came to the realisation that Opera was indeed ultimately aligned with his orientation to music. While opera holds within it all the parts Oliver loves about music, he has pulled this medium into a contemporary context and imbued it with a pop (albeit avant-garde) sensibility.
The brothers are clearly big fans of each other’s work while adopting quite different styles. Oliver speaks about ‘covering musical territory that is my own’ which he certainly achieves on Slow Bark. The album’s opening track Tin Power Pt 1 showcases Oliver’s deep vibrato sung over minimalist acoustic guitar to create a wholly original sound that, to be quite honest, shocked me a little at first. It only took another listen however for me to completely surrender myself to its beauty. The album’s second track Tin Power PT II starts with the same guitar line but this time on electric guitar, which then shifts into a different rhythm. We then hear that harmonica, surely one of my favourite elements of the album, with multiple layers ‘stacked’ on top of each other creating new textures and building lush soundscapes. With the duet Deepest Temple PT 11 Oliver comes about as close as he ever does to inhabiting the same musical territory as his brother (not very close), with finger picked guitar, saxophone, glockenspiel and a stunningly beautiful vocal contribution from guest Ewah Lady.
Oliver speaks lovingly about Paddy’s music with his ‘beautiful songs, tender songs, little jewels of songs that you could sit next to a stereo and cry to’. Oliver expresses gratitude that his brother’s music already exists in the world so ‘I don’t need to do that’, he laughs. At the heart of it though seems a deep respect for his brother’s work and a self confidence and freedom to chart his own unique musical territory.
Paddy, on the other hand, completed a Bachelor of Music at La Trobe (no longer offered) and began writing ‘pop songs’ for the band he was in at the time. The band eventually broke up and the thought of finding a new one seemed far too much for him, so he settled into writing songs solo. These days, however, Paddy doesn’t seem to have much trouble bringing together large ensembles to fulfil his musical visions. ‘After playing in the Melbourne music scene for a while, you get to know a lot of musicians and they naturally want to play each other’s stuff. Although I’m sure they don’t necessarily like playing the boring parts that I give them’ he jokes, but I’m fairly sure there wouldn’t be too many musicians in Melbourne who would complain about helping Paddy render his art.
I spoke with Paddy about the fact his Melbourne gigs are usually album launches where he plays the album in its sequential entirety, without feeling the need to play older material. Paddy assured me, however, that their upcoming show will indeed include some of his back catalogue as well as songs from his latest album Slay Me in My Sleep. And while his shows are always spectacular, this fan is quite looking forward to hearing the old stuff too.
I first became aware of Paddy’s music back in 2000 through a friend of mine who reviewed his first album, the enigmatically titled Grand Salvo (1672 – 1727). Back then I was a young songwriter warbling away on my cassette four-track recorder and would visit said friend and nervously play him the tapes. I clearly remember standing in his kitchen listening to Sordid Trophy for the first time and how much of an impact it had on me. I went straight out and bought the CD (how quaint) and devoured the rest of the album in the same way I’ve devoured Grand Salvo’s following five albums. It’s a rare thing, you know, to own someone’s extensive back catalogue – the only other band who shares this honour in my album collection is Radiohead.
I couldn’t resist probing Paddy to find out if there is another Grand Salvo album on the boil. To my delight he confirmed there is and it is going to be another narrative-based album in the vain of Death and Slay Me in My Sleep. This is, of course, very good news for Grand Salvo fans out there, but for Paddy it’s an all-encompassing undertaking and there is still much work to be done. Paddy spoke about the album writing process, saying it begins with a clear understanding of the overarching storyline and then he writes all the songs, blocking out the music and vocal melodies first. Interestingly, much of the lyrical content doesn’t come together until much later. I asked Paddy how he juggles all these unfinished songs for such a long period and he says ‘yeah it’s a terrible way of doing it’. Paddy also laments the fact that, when he is working on a narrative-based album, he approaches it largely ‘as an overview’ – a whole, finding it difficult to focus on the smaller details and bring the project to completion, which he says, is an issue with his current project. Maybe the next album, Paddy says, ‘will be a normal one’. Though Paddy may think his method of working is ‘a bad habit to get into’, if it means he keeps on writing amazing albums, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
I remember seeing Oliver and Paddy with their father at the Brunswick Music Festival last year, at the closing night with Irish music legends Andy Irvine and Paul Brady. It was a wonderful show but interestingly the dominant memory the Mann brothers and I had, was when Andy Irvine forgot the words to one of his songs at the climax of his set. Although he seemed utterly disappointed with himself, he showed no signs of embarrassment and maintained full composure throughout. We all agreed that as audience members seeing artists come undone often makes us feel closer to them and we appreciate the performance all the more, as Oliver states, ‘there is something beautiful about catching people in that exposed, primal moment’. I relayed my own experience last year seeing Grand Salvo’s album launch where Paddy, having sensed the groove had fallen apart halfway through a song, halted the entire ensemble, reset the rhythm and to my delight and that of the rest of the crowd, joyfully resumed the song, involving us in the intimacy of his music making.
The Mann brothers both embody the same kind of integrity and honesty that means they are less concerned with how they are perceived and more interested in following their own authentic journeys in making art and presenting it to the world. For this and their sublime music, this fan is eternally grateful.
GRAND SALVO & OLIVER MANN LIVE AT ASSEMBLY HALL
NOVEMBER 30, 2013, 7PM
$20 ON THE DOOR (If available)
*BOOKINGS ARE RECOMMENDED