From humble origins as a Canterbury University covers band, Mako Road have remarkably quickly become a force to be reckoned with, a staple act on annual summer festival lineups and selling out their own tour gigs in just hours. In celebration of the release of their debut album, ‘Stranger Days’, the band booked eight August tour dates in major venues between Tāmaki Makaurau and Ōtepoti, plus three (sold out) September gigs across the ditch. Before NZ’s latest Covid lockdown got in the way of things Ella Glannaz met with guitarist Connor McErlich to talk over the 2021 Mako Road map.
The journey for Mako Road members Rhian Ward (guitar and vocals), Connor Jaine (bass), Connor McErlich (guitar) and Robbie Day (drums) from a covers band to one of the country’s hottest indie-rock acts seems to have happened quite naturally. A natural communicator from the stage, McErlich’s recollection pours out rather like the beer at an Orientation gig, fast and bubbly.
“We just started playing covers during student events and we sorta got to a point where we were seeing a lot of successful bands coming out of Dunedin, and they were playing festivals and releasing music and people were really into it. We were like, ‘Man we could try this.’
“Rhian wrote our first song, The Sun Comes Up [recorded and mixed by Jaine back in 2017], and it got a lot of attention straight away which was incredibly lucky for us. We recorded in a garage, CJ was YouTubing how to mix songs! We put it up and were like, ‘Let’s do a Christchurch release party.’ Then we booked a show in Wellington and people actually bought tickets… and we were like ‘Oh man, let’s keep doing this.’ And somehow we’ve ended up here!”
From that first single release to now releasing the debut album they’ve titled ‘Stranger Days’, the only thing slowing down Mako Road has been song development.
“The album is a big step for a band, it’s almost like a rite of passage, and we were trying to write an album for ages. We were kind of struggling with it initially, our writing process is pretty haphazard, we’ve always got ideas floating around. We booked a bach on the edge of Lake Taupo which was beautiful, really isolated ourselves, and booked studio time, and then wrote the album and went straight into the studio 10 days later.”
Engineered by James Goldsmith the album was, as with previous releases, produced by the band, namely Connor Jaine and frontman Rhian Ward.
“Rhian is definitely a creative force within the band, he would come together with some sort of chords, it would be an idea for a melody or something like that and he’d show us this idea. Then from there we’d flesh out our parts and discuss the structure, or just jam it out for as long as we can, and then think about what’s the best way to make it flow. I guess whoever brings the core idea, in their head, has like a direction for the song, in a way it’s their baby.
“So we managed to fit eight songs into 10 days using that formula. We didn’t really sit down and do one song over one day. We got a song to a point and we were like, ‘Okay, not too sure where to go from here, let’s take a break and then we’ll do something else for a little bit.’
“Our approach is to just release it, play it live. We’re so live orientated, the recording thing’s almost like a fun experience. Writing music’s always the best part, but it’s the live performances that are our thing.”
With Mako Road currently on an eight-date national tour specifically to promote the release of their debut album release, it’s likely audiences have been getting a taste of the band’s next one, along with some prime picks from their two 2018 EP releases.
“We’re already getting new jams and wanting to write new music, even though we’ve just, from the listeners perspective, released this music. To us it’s like a year ago since we recorded it.
“I think that’s the perpetual thing for musicians, as well for anybody who goes through that, they’re just wanting to get straight back onto that creative process. But we’re stoked that it’s finally out there and that people are going to listen to it.”
‘Stranger Days’ has been well received by avid Mako Road fans – outside NZ that’s especially by Australians. A quick look at Spotify in August 2021 shows many of their songs’ streams in the multi-millions, and a solid monthly listenership of nearly 600k individuals. No wonder then that ‘Stranger Days has been able to remain in the local album charts since its release, in spite of the nearly impenetrable domination of the usual suspects.
McErlich laughs about a surprise hiding in plain sight within their super catchy recent single Surfing On Mars.
“When we were rehearsing for the tour last November we had this lovely couple Sheree and Jeff who had this garage space that they set into a stage, so they practically had a gig room in their house. We rehearsed there for a few weeks and did a couple of vocal takes in a little studio space that Jeff had built on his property, and there’s one little hidden sound in Surfing On Mars. It’s like this ‘Jeeeeefffff’, but you won’t be able to tell. It’s in the bridge where Ryan’s vocal goes into this trippy delay and it sounds like he’s saying ‘yeahhhhh’, but he’s actually going ‘Jeefffff’!”
Surfing On Mars is also the song McErlich is most excited to play live.
“It’s got that sick little disco outro and I just love seeing people’s reactions! I think it doesn’t matter what genre of music you’re in, if you’re doing that tension release, or what you’d call the ‘drop’ kinda thing, we love doing that with all our outros. We have a filthy habit for outros and we’re super well aware of it!
“It’s just mean watching everyone suddenly up and jumping. And that’s the thing with the album, when we go to write music our main focus is like, ‘Okay so we’ve got this cool idea, but how does it translate live?’”
Mako Road are festival favourites on any lineup during summer with their catchy tunes and grooving energy, and McErlich confirms it’s performing that make the band feel most alive.
“That’s your core source of interaction with people, and music is about that connection and interaction. I think that’s the thing that has got artists reeling after Covid, it’s that they’re missing that in-person interaction. It’s such a crucial element to what we try to do, and what I think every musician cherishes about their music career is the playing live element. It’s a surreal experience and it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.
“I remember at RnV we were looking out before we were on and there wasn’t much happening. We went backstage to warm up and when I came back out the crowd was just like all the way up the hill! I felt like I had my stomach in my throat the whole set, it just felt like chaos, like un-bottled chaos, like I couldn’t even really recall the set I just remember sitting there just trying not to freak out and not fuck up my parts!”
He extends that very refreshing personal honesty when discussing the band as a whole, acknowledging that their evident and early success can at times feel awkward.
“There’s definitely a pressure element for sure, and I think for us the rise has been so quick and we’re not trained musicians or anything like that. We’ve just sort of been doing it for ourselves for the fun of it, and we’ve been privileged enough to be put in a position to play to sizeable crowds, but I think what comes with that is a bit of imposter syndrome almost?
“We’ve had lucky breaks and we’ve got super lovely fans who just really dig the music, but I suppose for us learning to cope with that pressure has been a bit of a journey. We’re still just trying to manage our own expectations about what we can expect from ourselves and just try to cut ourselves a little bit of slack. It took us a while to come out with this album, just because we were coping with that pressure and learning to just sort of accept that there are uncertainties as to whether people are going to like it, just trying to be okay with that uncertainty.”
Despite already having over half a million monthly Spotify listeners and live shows frantically selling out, Mako Road are most definitely still down to earth, vibrant former students doing what they do best; creating tunes and playing them to excited crowds full of new and established fans.