by: Thomas D. Mooney
Last week, we caught up with Ross Newell, lead vocalist and guitarist for The Mulligan Brothers, an Americana outfit via Mobile, Ala. and Baton Rouge, La. The four-piece is currently hot off the release of their second album, Via Portland, out this past January.
Via Portland finds the band picking up where their self-titled debut left off and simultaneously honing in on their strengths all the while continuing to explore their warm blend of country, folk, and blues. The 11 tracks captured for Via Portland show off the band’s lush harmony prowess and poetic storytelling.
The Mulligan Brothers will be opening for Sean McConnell tonight (Tuesday, Sept 15) at The Blue Light. Watch/Listen to “Cecilia” below. Read our latest interview with Sean McConnell here.
New Slang: This new album, Via Portland, you worked with producer Steve Berlin. What do you think he did to ensure that these songs of yours translated into being great recordings and a great album? What were the buttons pushed and strings pulled if you will?
Ross Newell: Steve, generally speaking, is kind of a mad scientist. Us, as a band, we get really familiar with the songs and come up with particular parts for playing live and kind of stop re-evaluating them at some point. Steve has this fresh outlook on them. He’s new ears, but also very trustworthy ears as well. He was more capable than we were with rethinking parts. With the demos we sent him, he was able to latch onto a few things. We want certain elements to ride through a song and be able to keep the essence of song intact. He’s just a very thoughtful producer. He’s very methodical and seasoned enough to be able to, when he gets that vision, be able to handle the execution of it. He just has that magical bag of tricks that I don’t even pretend to understand [Laughs].
NS: Was there any specific thing you guys did, that you’re glad he pushed you to do?
RN: I think there’s definitely some implementation of some instruments that we wouldn’t use typically. We have a strong philosophy of being able reproduce anything live that we record so we’re pretty terrified of recording a record that uses a whole lot of instruments that we’re not going to have at the live shows. We don’t want the live show version of a song suffer in comparison to the recorded version. We were probably a little more cautious about that than Steve was. But, he was able to bring out a bunch of really cool tones. Like we miced this mandolin, but also re-amp it through this really warbly, reverby tube amp. Then, put 15 layers of delay on it. It was a fun challenge. Once he talked us into something, it was then our job to go home and figure out how to get those sounds on a stage. Those are probably my favorite things–when we were pushed outside the box a little bit.
There was a song, “Wait For Me,” there’s an intro part there that’s this very exposed vocal part. We went through several experiments. One, they put down some pillows and laid me on my back and then miced me up. Maybe it put a little more strain on the song. Being a day-to-day, show playing and performance kind of musician, you’d never think about those things just to capture a sound for an isolated moment. He was full of those tricks.
NS: How long did you guys record the album? Was it all in one general bunch or spread out?
RN: We were in Portland for just a little over three weeks. We kind of played our way to Portland and then played our way home. We were gone for a little over a month. It was about three solid weeks in Portland with a few days off here and there because of the studio and Steve’s schedules. But for the most part, it was every day for three weeks.
NS: One of my favorite parts of this album, when I first heard it, was the harmonies. I think they’re one of the strong points of the album. Harmonies in general, are something that I think can be a little thing that can go a long way for a band’s sound.
RN: Thank you. That’s a whole lot of practice. I think they were maybe born out of necessity. We’re primarily an acoustic band and with that, you’re very limited with instrumentation. There’s four guys–drums, bass, I play guitar, and Gram [Rea] plays mandolin, violin, and harmonica here and there. I think most musicians are looking for a fullness and have a hard time ever achieving it. For us, it was what can we add to our instruments? It’s easier when you have the cling of an electric guitar or a distortion pedal you can click on to help those notes sustain and hang out. The acoustic guitar, it almost has to sit back in the mix a little bit. You’re immediately limited. With those harmonies, I feel like we can add that extra dynamic–that other gear we need.
NS: Yeah. What was the most difficult song to write or record on the album? Anything give you a difficult time?
RN: From the beginning to the very end of the process, I’d probably say “Calamine.” It’s actually my personal favorite song on the record. When I started writing it, I had such a grandiose idea for it. It’s hard sometimes as a writer, to chop out what you feel are the details of the song. So when I started the song, I had all these ideas for the detail of the song. The first draft of that song came out to be incredibly lengthy. It was more like a short story than a song. It just went on forever. I realized it, but it’s also very difficult to start cutting. I had already fallen in love with all these details. It probably took the longest amount of time to write.
From there, I ended up with a demo that the band started working on. We did a lot of pre-production in preparation for recording in Portland. We had come up with big parts for everybody. Then, we had to kind of go through another chopping process when we got to the studio with Steve. It was one of the songs that he just loved the essence of the demo recording. He asked me for the recording that I had done at home. We then added several things onto it. So again, a lot of the parts that we had come up with leading up to recording, they were edited and ended up on the cutting room floor. I’m really glad that it happened that way. Going in, it was probably my favorite so I felt like I almost was trying to protect it [Laughs].
NS: Yeah. It’s interesting how those that can seem the most difficult to write or whatever, they end up your favorites. You’ve been around it so much. You’re maybe a little more invested in it. As a songwriter–you mention the parts you’ve had to cut out–do you end up saving those parts and trying to go back and use certain phrases or imagery in other songs?
RN: I very much wish I could use more stuff that gets cut from other songs. For me, the genuine nature of a song is probably the most important thing. For me, by the time I start working on another song, I feel like the new song deserves some sort of palate cleanse [Laughs]. Songs should be thoughtful and deserves the time. I think it’s pretty necessary to start off with a clean slate.
NS: Are you able to write out on the road or do you need to be home and in a more controlled environment?
RN: I’m constantly trying to evolve. My process is one of extreme solitude. I definitely finish songs and move along with songs way more efficiently and comfortably if I’m able to be home and able to lock myself away for a little while. But, it’s getting harder and harder to do that as the band is traveling a lot more. We’ve not had more than a week at a time at home for the last several months. And then when you’re there, you’ve got to get your laundry done, bills paid, and all that good stuff while you’re home [Laughs]. So it’s getting harder and harder to carve time for solitude out of the schedule.
More and more, I’m able to write down some stuff, whether it’s on the bus or a hotel bed. I’m trying to at least jot down thoughts when they come. So far, that’s as far as I’ve made it. I’m not really writing songs on the road, but making reminders.
NS: You’re writing song ideas versus songs.
RN: Yeah. Exactly.
NS: Do you think in time, this will lead to more collaborative efforts? I mean, I know they’re collaborative efforts when you’re writing the music aspect, but I mean when it comes to what inspires a song’s origin and lyrically?
RN: I certainly hope so. So far, I don’t want to say we’re stuck in a pattern by any means–it’s all felt very natural. It’s still very much a collaborative effort. It’s been me strumming a song for the guys or recording a demo and going from there. I trust the guys in the band immensely. They’re always creative and brining elements to a song that I’d never be able to think of on my own. Some words get jotted down along with some chords to give it a vehicle to be sung, but from there, the band definitely makes the song what it is. It’s all four of us locked in a room. So it does feel very much like collaborative process already, but I do hope that we’re able to expand.