Mali Mali, the adopted moniker of Auckland singer-songwriter Ben Tolich, is ten years old this year. Starting with 2010’s ‘Brotherly’ EP, it’s been enough time for him to develop a unique voice in his writing, picking his world apart to take listeners on journeys filled with dense symbolism and vibrant emotions hiding just beneath the surface of the mundane. His 2020 album, ‘I Was Told to Keep an Eye Out’, pushed this style even further, abstracting his songs’ structures into fluid, intricate parables and rounding out what Tolich describes as “a kind of trilogy” that began with 2016’s ‘As a Dog Dreams’. It’s a beautiful series of records, but the completion also caps a long vision and years of work. Where are you supposed to go after that? Sam Carswell set out to find out more.
October’s ‘Kill and Throw’ EP seems to be a partial answer to that question. Written, recorded and mixed by Tolich at his home, mostly before ‘I Was Told to Keep an Eye Out’ was released, the EP strips back a lot of the orchestration and layers present in previous releases. We’re left with little butTolich and his piano.
When I ask about the reason for the change, he jokes, “I just wanted to play some piano, man! And write some nice melodies.”
And they are nice! It’s an idiosyncratic way of playing the instrument that, as Tolich explains, draws a lot from his friend Jordan Ireland’s guitar playing (Ireland’s Stolen Violin moniker may well be familiar to Mali Mali fans).
“It’s out of this world. I’ll never be able to play the guitar like that, so it just made me want to work on my piano playing… A lot of it is inspired by Jordan’s playing – the idea of being able to fingerpick melodically. I wanted to do that on the piano… It’s an experiment in melody and momentum.”
But along with pushing himself instrumentally, the EP maintains the lyrical depth associated with his longer-form releases. As we discuss the album’s unusually bloodthirsty title, Tolich explains its origin.
“With ‘Kill and Throw’… those words just jumped into my head and there was something I liked about how direct it was. But then I realised that to me it was an analogy for the self-fulfilling prophecies that we tell ourselves and how to extinguish those before they turn into something nasty.”
The title, and the song, presents a mantra for untangling ourselves from the difficult and contradictory stories we grow up internalising – an anthem for de-conditioning that, for Tolich, has been hard-won.
“It’s like a paranoid thought you can get and you go down a rabbit hole and then you realise you actually have no evidence for that thought, it’s literally just something you told yourself. And I had to teach myself to notice when I’m doing that, because I can become quite anxious or paranoid. And ‘Kill and Throw’ is like the antidote to that… When you can start to see that you’ve just based a thought on nothing of substance and it’s doing you harm, what do you do? Kill and throw, kill and throw.”
It’s a very personal interpretation of the song, but it touches on a wider tension that’s been present in a lot of Tolich’s work – a bind, felt by many in the creative industries, between our art, money and our society’s understanding of success.
“I’m turning 33 soon and it’s been about ten years of, for one, not enjoying my work outside of music, and the mental pressure of that was… a lot. But I’m pretty happy, y’know? I mean, I’m speaking for where I am right now, and that could change. And it is always a tension, and I have my days where I wish music was my full-time job. But I’ve found a balance at the moment which is keeping me creative and not miserable. Especially with the stuff I’m trying to do, it’s not instantaneous stuff, y’know? And you have to find a way to balance that, otherwise you’ll just… not be happy.”
With the EP mostly written in late 2019, the songs are being released into a vastly different world. A world where Tolich has become a survivor of the pandemic; where stripped back records have become a somewhat necessary norm; and where the bind is ever-tightening – growing from, and accelerated by, many of the inherited norms and values embedded in our society.
Contextualised within this world, ‘Kill and Throw’ might take on a wider meaning: a process of reckoning with this inheritance and weeding out the deeper roots of our “self-fulfilling prophecies”. For Tolich, part of that has been finding work he’s passionate about outside of music. It’s a rejuvenation that the track Under Chimes illustrates lucidly – ‘Under chimes you let me in/Under chimes my heart fills again.’
“It’s about my work and how much that’s meant to me… I wanted it to be an ode to without going into too much detail about particular things. Working in disability really opened me up in a way that I didn’t know.”
There’s a growing confidence to Tolich’s work that seems to stem from this self-understanding. It’s evident not just in theory, or from a listener’s perspective, but in his creative processes too. While earlier records were more through-composed, the new EP showcases a growing role improvisation is playing in his songwriting.
“I understand my place now, much better than I used to. I’m pretty at peace with how things go… Not everything I make is perfect but I’m really happy and at this stage I don’t have much self-doubt.
“The idea was to have something that sounded much more flowing and within that you have pockets of improvisation and pockets of writing, not ‘improvised’ but not second-guessed. Trusting the flow of the song… You can lose yourself in it. And that’s what the title means as well – the spontaneity to just toss it out.”
Since ‘As a Dog Dreams’, Tolich has written, recorded and mixed his records mostly solo and ‘Kill and Throw’ is no different, with the only other contributions being mastering by engineer William Bowden (of King Willy Sound) and suggestions from his wife Alice. Writing and releasing music in this way can be mentally taxing, and in an environment where those difficulties can be compounded by the pressures of a release, Tolich’s approach tries to focus on the meaning he gets from the process. Kill and throw the rest.
“It’s this sense of holding things lightly… The whole idea behind making this EP was to do something for myself. It kept me busy and it kept me sane. Having something to work on was healthy… It was a refuge to be able to chip away at these songs.”
There’s something about the final song of the EP, a cover of Bob Dylan’s Changing Of The Guards, that captures the spirit of the record perfectly.
“I used to sing it back in the day when I went to church… I’ve got some history with the song and coming back into a Bob Dylan phase, it just jumped out again. It’s apocalyptic, but also hopeful… right on the brink of his whole worldview changing and this song seems to sit on the precipice of that.”
Like much in the current moment, the song feels transitional and unsure about the future. But it doesn’t back away from it. Instead, it pushes relentlessly towards it, accentuated by Tolich’s fluid piano playing; challenging us to open ourselves to whatever comes next. It’s a message that feels at once unquestionably relevant and ageless.
‘Either get ready for elimination/Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.’