After fifteen years of Mellowtone’s continuing mission of quietly creating a stir, Mellowtone’s Dave McTague sits down with Getintothis’ Howard Doupé for a chat about the past, present and future.
It seems quite a fair ol’ time ago since the headrush days of the early 2000’s.
While this writer was busy trying to establish his own acoustic nights in the city, there seemed to be one major competition- a superior one an’ all!
Around every corner was a poster, littering every bar end amongst the ‘flyer promo’ culture of the day was this sleek, classy and well-organized future listings from Mellowtone.
On a uniquely shaped bookmark-sized card (doubling up as perfect roach material we’ve subsequently been informed), the monochrome stance seemed to be a rallying call for true, honest, sincere local talent.
A platform that could be trusted to deliver a regular night, with higher sights than the ten-to-a-penny open mics that popped up and disappeared throughout the city quicker than the time it took for a Bandwagon night to sell out.
Initially, the nights were a small but quietly growing affair. Always held in places you’d want to play and sound tracked by the mysterious DJ Richie Vegas.
The night grew and grew, trailblazing a plethora of talent both local and national, hell even international if they were deemed worthy of a set.
Now we’re here, fifteen years later and Mellowtone has become a steadfast fixture in the Liverpool scene. From hosting gigs, curating stages at festivals and launching its own music platform in the shape of Mellowtone Records it’s been one hell of a ride so far.
Sitting down for a chat with founder and all-round good guy Dave McTague it’s evident this happy surprise of being where they are is a little bit of a shock to one and all.
Did the good ship Mellowtone expect their little visionary night would last so long? Absolutely, no chance.
McTague is in fine form. ‘Is this going to be an Alan Partridge style chat show?’ he asks (McTague).
You can guess the mood from the off. Relaxed yet high spirited, fueled with relief that the 15th anniversary celebratory night a few weeks ago at Buyers Club went swimmingly. Naturally, we started with a post-celebratory dissection.
‘It went better than expected really. I didn’t really know what to expect with it being different to what we normally do- putting gigs on or parties. This was a cross between a gathering, party and an exhibition launch night.’
There was no credibility in early fears of it being a quiet affair? Quite the opposite with McTague left feeling quite overwhelmed. ‘It was busy all night, a transient crowd all night. Jazz band The Jubilee Stompers were amazing, a perfect fit really. It was lovely to see some old faces that I really wasn’t expecting to see who just rocked up- artists and musicians alike.’
With nods and pats of the back duly given and received, conversation turns to what the future holds for Mellowtone– particularly in terms of any goals and achievements still left to fulfill. With a somewhat vague look McTague contemplates the question.
‘I didn’t really have a set plan for it we just started doing stuff. And felt our way through. As opportunities presented themselves, we’ve taken them. We have kinda gone with the flow a little bit. (In terms of achievements) I don’t think we’ve achieved what we set out (to achieve) as we didn’t set out to achieve anything.’
Modest words, although he does throw in some reflection, ‘On a personal level it’s surpassed what I probably ever thought it would be because when we started it was just an idea to run a little night, put a few gigs on. If you’d have asked if I’d still be doing it in fifteen years I’d have probably laughed, d’you know what I mean.
In terms of launching the record label a few years ago, I think y’know that was something I’d always loved to have done, that you have as a bit of an idea in your head. In that sense as well, that came about quite organically. The fact that people are still buying the records and we’re still able to put more out is really promising.
More recently, there’s two events that really spring to mind. Nick Ellis’ album launch for Adult Fiction at The Unitarian Church. For me, that’s one of the best gigs I’ve seen Nick play. The sound of him in that venue made for such a special gig. That night felt like a marriage between what we do as a night/promoter and what we were doing with the label. On the night there was a celebration of photographers own work, people who had worked with Nick and a really nice line up of supporting acts in a venue we’d never used before.
The second being Nick’s Speakers’ Corner tour finale gig at St.Bride’s Church that gave a platform for different organisations to share their voice, information leaflets and support charities. A totally unique angle on what a gig should be. We also did a foodbank collection and were just overwhelmed by the generosity shown.’
Does that answer?’ Bit of a tricky one, we’ll admit it.
It’s strange to sometimes have these ventures that just catch wind and gallop ahead of their own accord, it’s true.’ McTague continues, ‘What I do with my work is very strategic based for people, y’know we want to achieve this in so many years blah, blah, blah. With Mellowtone, the night especially, I’ve tried to go with the flow. To partner up with as many people as possible, whether that be other musicians and bands, other promoters, festivals, galleries, exhibitions. As people have got in touch with us we’ve been open.
That could be anything. We once gone asked to DJ at an opening at the TATE with Peter Blake which was amazin’. To get to meet someone like that is unbelievable. Must have been a while ago now, I remember getting faxes from his wife with requests for old Chess era tunes.
See, things that you never thought would have happened, have happened. Similarly, when LIMF first started, when it was free, I remember them asking us if we wanted to do a stage. We got the feeling they wanted us to do the bandstand, with bands. To me that was the best stage in the park! Working in the past with Sound City and Liverpool Music Week, we used to do an acoustic programme for them.
It certainly feels from our point of view that Mellowtone has well and truly embedded itself into the fabric of acoustic music, becoming a permanent fixture on the landscape of the city. McTague cautiously agrees, ‘It’s probably not for me to answer, let somebody else! I’d like to think so though, people have said to me musician’s mainly that if they’re playing on the acoustic-ish, folk-ish scene, then to play Mellowtone is almost a stamp of approval. That was really, really flattering to hear because hopefully it’s indicative of the fact that people think what we do has a certain quality to it, something people want to be involved with.
I guess maybe, what we do is a lot smaller and niche than what other promoters may do. We put on less and much smaller shows. I’d like to think that promoters think about us when they’re wanting to put something on.’
Surely, during the past fifteen years there must be particular highlights that for McTague stand out as achievements. ‘I’m personally proud that we’re still going, that’s the biggest achievement especially in this climate! We’ve always tried to look after people where we can, whether that be splitting the door fees or supporting other nights. Whilst they may not be massive fees at the very least we look after artists with food, drink, things like that.
One thing that stands out is the bandstand at the first year of LIMF. Day one there was maybe fifty people, day two say around double, by the third there were hundreds. Seeing how it organically grew through word of mouth as people got onto it- I’m really proud of that.
In terms of a real turning point (for Mellowtone) was being asked one year by Sound City if there were any acts we’d like to work with. We ended up putting a show on with Laura Marling when she was still a teenager. And a shout out to Dave [Pichilingi] and Darren Roper of Meshuggy too.
I just like to put on music that is good and what I like and people that are nice to work with. I actually get more of a buzz, or more sort of whether it’s a buzz or what’s the word I’m looking for, enjoyment, satisfaction from working with artists that are emerging and trying to help them with what they’re doing.’
In an attempt to dig a little deeper we put it to McTague, would he agree that Mellowtone has a history of striving for the next musical discovery, with an ethos that doesn’t pamper to the demands of ‘the cog’? ‘We probably flirt with the cog, dipping in and out of the industry’ says McTague. ‘We tried to almost keep ourselves in our own little thing and forge our own space in that. Whether it be emerging music in Liverpool, or supporting musicians who are working independently.
The artists that are on the label are predominantly full-time musicians. We want to help those who are trying to make a career out of music, but do it in a tasteful way rather than a smash n’ grab. Whether it be with the nights or the label we’re pretty synonymous with Liverpool in the sense of all the artists on the label are Liverpool artists, 80-90% of the music we put on at the gigs is.
When we put on touring artists we try and go for those that are a little leftfield, such as Richard Dawson (sold-out gig at Studio 2 last month). People like Michael Chapman who is almost like an unsung or forgotten artist. Y’know he’s been touring since 1967 and had records out at the same time as Nick Drake and John Martyn but he’s not a household name. I enjoy getting people’s music out to a wider audience.’
It’s all pretty good stuff then and from the chipper banter the past fifteen years have gone by quickly. Looking forwards is always the preferred thing to do with any venture. Naturally we were nosily interest in finding out.
‘The birthday celebrations didn’t end there, we carried on with a string of five free entry shows at The Handyman. It was a great opportunity to sample the Handyman IPA X Mellowtone 15 ale that they’ve brewed for us. As a venue they’re really supportive of Liverpool music, most of the acts on the label have residencies. Kev, one of the guys who runs it DJ’d a couple of shows for us back in the day.’
At the start of next year we’re going to do three or four little shows, almost going back to our roots (after a few big ticketed gigs) around 80-100 capacity working with newer artists. Maybe one a month for the first few months.
One event that’s totally different for us that I’m really excited about is Krewe Liverpool 2020 coming up on 7th February. Promoted by us and rooted in music we love it’s in conjunction with Laura Brownhill one of the original founders of The Kazimier. Imagine a take on New Orleans Mardi Gras but through the filter of Liverpool, a surreal masquerade ball if you like.’
Definitely sounds like a right curveball to us. McTague fills us in, ‘there’s going to be a New Orleans Jazz band (Frog & Henry) playing 1920’s and 30’s dance music. Local act The Jubilee Stompers are doing a live set, resident Mellowtone’s DJ Jonnie O’Hare, hosted by MelloMello’s Howard Storey.
We’ve asked five different Liverpool art organisations to form a Krewe. As part of the night they’ll each do a performance and a parade inside the Palm House. It’s going to be crazy, what was essentially a conversation has turned into a full-scale event.’
Really? How on earth do you expect people to get involved with a project like this? ‘Well we’re encouraging those who come along to get involved with the theme of ‘surreal masquerade’, you can wear whatever you want. There’s costume ideas on both the Instagram event page and were encouraging people to wear ethical, upcycle or recycled fashion. People can then create their own krewes and join the parade, or join in with one of the five themed.’
Sounds like one hell of a bash, ‘the people we’ve got involved are ace. There’s Movema, a world dance organisation. Mersey Swing who are the local swing dance class group. EAT ME + Preach, Liverpool’s finest queer disco and alternative drag dinner cabaret. The Invisible Wind Factory and finally a krewe bringing together elements from The Harlequin Dynamite Band (The Kazimier and MelloMello).
We’re hoping it’ll be a spectacular event- with the backdrop of the Palm House it’s bound to be.’
With a final subject brought up we quiz McTague over the future of Mellowtone Records and how 2020 looks in terms of releases. ‘Now the birthday celebrations are out of the way we’re looking ahead. Dave O’Grady has been over in the States recording another record and Nick Ellis is probably one of the most prolific writers in town…’
The future looks pretty healthy for the good ship Mellowtone, the city is certainly a musically healthier place for its existence and continued striving for a wider cultural impact. May it be venues, promoters, organisers, musicians, DJ’s or illustrators. It’s a rarity in this fast age of digestible instant streaming.
With final pleasantries done and a sincere word of thanks from McTague for the support shown over the years, our whistle-stop delve into all things Mellowtone is done. Long may the wind fill the sails.
*** EXHIBITION NEWS ***
This week it’s been announced that the ‘Mellowtone 15’ exhibition has been extended at the Buyers Club till January 2020.
Fifteen original screenprints featuring artwork by fifteen different artists, in limited editions of fifteen. Each image has been lovingly hand-printed by Liverpool studio The Paper Moon Print Studio, and 50% of proceeds will be donated to local foodbanks ahead of Christmas.
Works by Charles Williams, Danny Allison, Mak.Ink, Paul Straws, Michael Snowdon, Thomas James Butler, Laura-Kate Draws, Jack Ehlen Design, Amber Badger, Johanna Wilson, Iouka, Eimear Kavanagh, Scott Duffey / Toucan Tango, Sketch Stance, Andrew Berry, Mook Loxley and more.
The exhibition also includes a brand new specially commissioned illustration by Laura-Kate Draws, in addition to historic posters, flyers, illustrations, prints and ephemera from the Mellowtone archives.
Images by Getintothis’ Warren Miller