Four new friends from different corners of Aotearoa came together during their time at Otago University to form a band. Sound familiar? This version is a dream-pop, indie-rock act so chill they named themselves Mild Orange. Six years later they are living together in London and promoting their third album, ’Looking For Space’. Jemilah Ross Hayes spoke with bassist Tom Kelk and vocalist/songwriter Josh Mehrtens.
Initially just frontman Josh Mehrtens and lead guitarist Josh Reid, aka Jah, Mild Orange was completed with bassist Tom Kelk (aka Barry), and drummer Jack Ferguson. Living apart since they left uni and Dunedin, the quartet have recently moved to London, with their partners, and a plan to stay there and make music for at least the next two years.
Already having toured in Europe in 2019, Mild Orange had planned to be back there in January this year, until Covid intervened. Instead when we talk they are not long back from playing six shows in America. Issues around moving in and out of Aotearoa convinced them to take the plunge and move to the UK.
“We were always keen to live overseas,” says Barry from their new digs in Golders Green. “We’d done the NZ thing for three or four years, and we felt like it was time for us to do something else, spread our wings a bit, I guess.”
“When we booked the tour that we’ve just done, that was when the borders were closed, so we weren’t sure that we would be able to come back. So we just decided to commit to moving overseas. It’s all been pretty good timing,” adds Josh. “We’re all from relatively small places, so coming to a city that is twice the population of NZ is the complete opposite. It’s quite refreshing in that regard.”
They seem to be in a post-move honeymoon period, and perhaps the only downside about London for the band is living right next to a train station – they are currently building a home studio. Asked how often the trains go by, the pair reply in unison, “Every four minutes,” before cracking up with laughter.
Unable to tour their last album due to Covid, the band used the time to write instead, and album number three, ’Looking For Space’, was born.
“Since uni days in Dunedin when we formed, we’ve all been living in different cities,” Josh starts. “After we graduated, we all went to our hometowns. Barry moved to Wellington, I was in Arrowtown, Jack Ferguson was in Westport, and Jah was in Carterton.
“We started writing in March or April 2020, just after the first lockdown, and we linked up in June and started jamming. We had plans to go overseas to tour our second album [’Mild Orange’] which we released in May 2020, but those plans weren’t able to go ahead, so we just got back to writing and making music. It was actually great because it meant that we played more shows in NZ and came up with this album that we love.”
The band’s vocalist and songwriter, Josh, also plays guitar and involves himself in the recording and artwork processes. He co-produced ’Looking For Space’, and mixed most of the songs together with Paddy Hill of Auckland’s Roundhead Studios. The recording sessions happened in five different locations, a random spread around NZ associated with each other’s hometowns; Bannockburn, Arrowtown, Carters Beach, New Plymouth, Oakura, plus Roundhead.
“All over the country,” says Josh. “What we found is that each of these spaces had its own influences on the music that we were making and the way it was sounding. Whether that be the actual physical properties of the room affecting how we had to do things. We did things in living rooms, which are less than ideal for recording studios, but great for the vibe.
“But in terms of what is outside the walls, in Carters Beach there were horses outside and the beach so close. And in Bannockburn we had a hoar frost. It’s been written over the space of about a year and a bit, so we’ve had all the seasons influencing it, and all the different spaces. Huge thanks to Aotearoa.”
The shared mixing process was also logistically challenged as Josh explains.
“It got to the point where a lot of the song files were living at Roundhead with Paddy, and I was driving to Auckland to do the mixing sessions. Then we had more lockdowns and I was in New Plymouth, and so Paddy and I figured a way to route the studio through Zoom onto my computer and through my monitors, and we were having these mixing sessions like that! That was pretty satisfying, very 2021,” he laughs.
Learning that, the album title seems self-explanatory, but ’Looking For Space’ has a few other meanings behind it for the band. Josh recalls he suggested the name because it encompassed all the things they’d been doing over the past year.
“The many spaces where we are in our lives. There’s so much life lived between the recordings, during them a lot of the time. It’s just trying to understand stuff.”
“It definitely has nautical meanings as well,” adds Barry.
“It does get a bit galactic,” laughs Josh. “I think as well, we’re all really finding our space in the mix, and the way the songs are formed. Finding space for ourselves and each other in the songs.”
Having mostly grown up in small NZ towns, their writing is naturally influenced by a sense of spatial vastness, and having nature at their doorstep. Being in London alternatively provides a feeling of accessibility to so many more places and opportunities.
“It’s making a lot more cities that we want to tour accessible,” says Josh. “And we’ll just be writing more since we are living together. We’ve got a little studio in my room right now, so I guess we’ll be recording more, and be able to do recording tours to Europe, and more touring.”
“It’s more exciting being a small fish in a big pond now… and quite a small fish,” laughs Barry. “So that’s cool as another aspect.”
Colourise, the opening track of ’Looking For Space’ is his favourite from the album. It’s a song Josh wrote about staying positive, when he was recovering from pneumonia.
“We started playing that on our most recent tour in the States as an opening song. I just loved playing it, and it hit so well, I think. There’s something about it. It’s quite a simple song in itself, but it just sounds great live, I think. I really love playing that one.”
“It’s quite euphoric, I agree,” says Josh. “That one is quite up there for me. The meaning of that song is just like an outlook on life. I often find myself just reciting the words from it as little reminders of perspective. Along those lines as well, This Kind Of Day would be a big one for me, it’s an optimistic song, and I try to remain optimistic.”
“Hearing people sing those songs live in the States after they had only been out for a few weeks was awesome,” Barry enthuses.“That was crazy. That was exciting.
“We didn’t experience that with the second album because we never got to tour it, and the same thing happened with ’Foreplay’, so it was a good test of how people are listening to the music. If they can actually sing the song back to you it’s quite special!”
“It was a cool feeling finally playing the songs live,” agrees Josh. “They all went down well. We strive to have no backing tracks on stage, so what you hear in the recordings translates well live.”
They were meant to be playing Europe over January, but with those plans pushed back, in September they will be returning to some familiar places. Josh recalls the last time they played in Budapest as a huge highlight for the band, saying they are all excited to go back there.
Mild Orange have been on a consistent upward climb since the band first started, but they aim to stay appreciative of all they’ve achieved and how far they have come, even though still in the midst of their journey.
“I think we’ve always moved forward whilst looking back,” Barry offers. “It’s quite easy to forget to look where you’ve come from if things aren’t going right. And you’re like, ’If I thought I would be doing this a year ago, I’d be so stoked,’ but you forget to think about that.
“I think we’re quite good at being reflective on where we’ve come from and why we started doing this. From day one it’s always been that we love playing music, and we love doing it together, so let’s just keep doing it.”