After releasing his debut album “Anxious Heart” to rave reviews, Wellington-based musician Daniel McClelland followed it up with his E.P. Swallow Fear which debuted at #38 on the NZ iTunes chart. The distinctly versatile artist blends various forms of genres to create a very unique, original sound. Making him one of the most interesting musicians within the New Zealand scene.
I sat down with him Daniel to discuss the process behind his music, his influences and his humble beginnings as a musical stand up comedian.
What made you decide to do it as a solo project rather than joining a band?
“That’s a really good question actually. It’s definitely something I should probably think of more thoroughly before beginning a solo career as a Beach Boys wannabe. Because obviously when you’re The Beach Boys you’ve got four or five other guys that can do all the harmonies. It was just stupid in retrospect to do it all solo. *laughs* I think it was sort of that I experiment with the music as I’m recording it and producing it and it ends up evolving massively beyond what the songs that I write end up. They begin different to how they end up essentially and I discover the song as I’m recording it and producing it so it would seem like a giant waste of time to have a bunch of guys all in the studio as I’m essentially just writing the song.
And I guess in some regards that probably is why and I don’t know how much you know about The Beach Boys but Brian Wilson used to lock himself in a recording studio for months while the rest of the guys were on tour. He would just trap himself in a room with a bunch of awesome musicians and then lay down all the prep sounds to come back and record all the vocal parts for. I’m not trying to compare myself to Brian Wilson by any means, I guess if you’re trying to imitate how someone creates music then maybe that ends up being a natural part of that process.”
You played every instrument on the E.P. did you also produce it?
“Yes, it was a stupid amount of work.”
So how long does it take to record a song?
“It’s sort of as I say they’re not finished until I really ship the master. So in the sense of the bones of the song maybe two days. But then I tend to find the song as I go along and it ends up needing a few months to just percolate in my head and I’ll play around with different stems and bits of the track. There is a lot of digital instruments and there are a lot of actual instruments and part of that I think is that process as well and thinking “wouldn’t it be great if there was just a little burst of a trumpet in there… or something extra in here…” and maybe as I go along then I just throw out a third of the song and then re-record it and that takes another two days. So, all up one song I think was in the works for six years.”
So when you initially have an idea for a song do you start by writing on an actual instrument? Or do you engineer a beat first? Or does it flip-flop between the two?
“I think all of the songs on this record began on a piano. I got a sweet electric piano a few years ago, it’s fully weighted so it basically is a piano. And that meant that I could just get a bit more creative with some of my chord choices or change how I would normally write songs because I usually write songs on guitar. That’s something that makes this E.P. stand out from my previous record.”
So what instrument did you learn first?
“Well, my Mum is a piano teacher and I definitely from the earlier stages have always been playing piano but I also was obsessed with Van Morrison’s saxophone playing as a five-year-old and wanted to be a saxophonist so given that I was five I couldn’t hold a saxophone, I had to learn the recorder just like everyone else I had a very deliberate path in my childhood from; recorders, clarinet, saxophone. So, recorder or piano pretty much the usual.”
Do you perform live at all?
“It’s been a while, it’s been about two years since I last performed live. I have been working on how to do it. I’ve been really inspired by Royal Blood, they’re amazing to do what they do and sound like a full band but with octave pedals and playing bass and I think it’s probably the right way to go for me. That’s in the works, to be able to rock out on the bass with my drummer and then I’ll have to have backing harmonies or use harmony pedals to get all of my harmonies in. But not anything looped or if I can avoid it at all playing samples or laptops. Playing with real instruments is totally key in my mind.”
You originally started out doing musical comedy right?
“Yea, It’s a weird quirk of mine. I mean your review called out there is a bit of humour in a lot my tracks as well I don’t think I could ever avoid taking the piss out of myself a little bit.”
I’m a comedian myself so I think I could definitely pick up on the humour in the songs. But I read that way back in the day you actually opened for Flight of the Conchords?
“That was a weird experience, I didn’t even know that I was going to be opening for them. From my perspective it was just a normal Friday night, it was a bit of an unusual Friday night because it was only musical comedians who were scheduled to play, no stand up at all. And I guess that was planned. So I turn up and there was Brett and Jemaine on the stage and they’re like “Hi, hi, how’s it going?” and I’m like “Uhhh.” *laughs*
Was the plan always to transition away from comedy and make more serious music? Or did it just end up happening that way?
“You know what? My comedy was always serious, I would always tackle pretty heavy hitting issues. I would do a song about censorship or I would do a song about New Zealand’s binge drinking culture. I would talk about things that you would normally see on some sort of 7pm current affairs show about New Zealand I would also do as stand up comedy, and sometimes the comedy factor was just the fact that someone was even talking about it flippantly on stage. It was an intense amount of passion and crazy amounts of just guitar and that sort of stuff. I did a song about the financial crisis it was off the wall, it was weird. So in that regard I guess whilst I was doing comedy it also was exercising a lot of the challenges I like to throw at myself musically, so in this regard I never repeated a set, I think I pretty much always wrote new tracks for every gig. I guess that’s the real recurring theme here; I always want to make sure that there is something difficult for me to sink my teeth into which paved the way for me trying to imitate The Beach Boys.”
Is there any desire for you to go back to do some comedy?
“It’s a lot, it requires a huge amount of investment, particularly that stupid goal of never repeating myself that was insane. But actually, I still get stand up dreams where you are arriving on stage and suddenly you forgot all of your gags, or the crowd is just totally sober and not wanting to laugh at all and you just walk into a cold room. I think I may be done on the comedy stuff.”
I’ve lived that scenario many times.
Oh yes it definitely does suck. Now the music video Blotted Out the Background which is incredibly well done, how did that come about? The idea of playing twelve different versions of yourself.
“I’ve got this really great buddy, Rajeev Mishra who is a Wellington-based filmmaker, he’s been in the industry for a long time, he had an itch to make a music video and I had an itch to have one. And then we worked together on it for probably like a year with just collaboration and spitballing ideas and we’re both massive movie nerds so we sort of found that synergy where we wanted to make a Western, and we wanted to make a Horror film, and we wanted to make a Sci-Fi film, and then we sort of realised what if we just shoot for the moon and smudge it all together? And collaborate on our best, most inspired and common influences. So we did that from a genre perspective. We wanted to visualise the fact that I am a one-man band and given that I am yet to perfect my Royal Blood/White Stripes live act this is the closest you could get to seeing me live as a one man band. We did a lot of planning to make sure we could lots of great split screen effects so we could have me all on one stage together. And had lots of planning around the different costumes that I’ll be wearing and the different personality types. I was personally inspired by that really crazy film from the 90’s Multiplicity, it’s got Michael Keaton playing himself like seven times.”
Was it hard to shoot?
“Yea it was insane. It’s just as challenging as the music you have to play each part several times over that means that I had to be on my game the whole time. We filmed it over about four weekends, but every single take once we were done I would have to switch costumes, switch personalities, switch instruments and suddenly be a kinetic drummer. There were days where at the end of the shoot I was just absolutely exhausted, lost my voice, hands were bleeding. If you can film with a whole band do that instead of doing it all yourself.”
Other than The Beach Boys who are your biggest influences? Musical or not musical.
“The other two acts I typically name drop for coming my sound are “91 era” Nirvana and “91 era” Michael Jackson. Just the crazy New Jack Swing sort of drums that he had and the sampling Teddy Riley had at the time were real huge influence. Or maybe it was just because I was six so it really hit into my consciousness in a real big way. And then I didn’t discover Nirvana until a few years later because I guess I was around nine years by the point I found them. But they were absolutely huge for me at that point the saxophone dreams were nowhere near as important as getting a guitar and thrashing around. Dave Grohl style drums they just really drive the beats forward and fill in all sort of gaps. So for me it always goes back to those three acts. That was the moment I realised I had to stop doing comedy once I realised I had a shot at combining all three of those influences into one sound.”
What does 2020 have on the horizon for you?
“Well, the big thing is that my wife is pregnant with our second child so I’m going to have a newborn baby in March.”
“Thanks. So 2020 is going to be a whole lot more reserved on the music front than it was previously in 2019 but if I can squeak out any extra promotional stuff before then that’s awesome. There is the potential of getting another video out before that bit we’ll see how we go.”
You can stream the Swallow Fear here.
Blotted Out the Background music video