The quirky, colourful and heavily detailed hand-drawn artwork adorning The Shifting Sands ’ new album brings to mind those art-rich Flying Nun releases of yore, and musically it comes as little surprise to learn that the band hail from Dunedin. Indeed David Kilgour lent guitar to a couple of tracks, while the wild environs of the Otago hinterland also played a part, as Amanda Mills discovers in talking with Mike McLeod, principal songwriter, vocalist and player of guitars, synths and Indian harmonium.
Mike McLeod fell in love with music from an early age, taking piano lessons as a child and picking up the guitar when he was about 13.
“I was always heavily into music throughout school… it’s always been a really big part of my life.”
Moving from Ashburton to Dunedin to study at Otago University in the early 2000s, McLeod became enamoured with Dunedin and its surroundings, and decided to stay. He started The Shifting Sands as a project after his previous band, Alpha State, ended.
“Alpha State sort of hit a brick wall [creatively], or it felt like that to me,” he laughs. “I sort of wanted to do something slightly different… I had a bunch of songs, and I put them together with a bunch of friends, so that was the first Shifting Sands record.”
‘Feel’ was essentially a solo project, created and recorded in 2010, but not released until 2012, on Fishrider Records. The album had a revolving door of performers as he reveals.
“I think we had about three different rhythm sections, and about 15 or 16 different musicians ended up playing on the record.”
A move to Auckland lasted only about six months, before the lure of Dunedin drew him back. On returning, he established a live band to play ‘Feel’, leading to The Shifting Sands morphing into a three-piece band rather than a solo project. First drummer Rob Faulkner moved to Invercargill, opening the door for Jake Langley to join the band in 2012. Bassist, synth player, and recording guru Thomas Bell joined around the same time, soon becoming integral to the band.
“Tom… has been the driving force in the production of the album,” McLeod enthuses. “He does all the recording. He’s played synthesisers and things… he mostly plays bass, but plays a few other instruments just to add flavour as well.”
The Shifting Sands’ beautifully swirling new psychedelic-rock album ‘Cosmic Radio Station’ has been in development since 2012. The trio made good progress, with 90% of the album completed before being sidetracked that year by the opportunity to run legendary Port Chalmers venue, Chicks Hotel. They have turned it into one of Dunedin’s premiere gig venues, which McLeod admits “…put the album on the backburner for a good year or two.”
One track did make it out of limbo in early 2014 – the beautiful, hazy All The Stars (the album’s first single) – was released on the Fishrider label’s ‘Temporary’ compilation. ‘Cosmic Radio Station’ was recorded in remote and picturesque locations around Otago Peninsula.
“I had a little crib out near Purakaunui… that I ended up buying off the supermarket noticeboard,” McLeod laughs. “We recorded probably half of the album there.”
Whareakeake (also known as Murdering Beach) was another location, where friends had a converted woolshed that was available. Further recording happened at Chicks, in a small recording space where McLeod and Bell have equipment, and expertise at hand. Otago Peninsula’s remote, raw and elemental environs almost inevitably played a large part in ‘Cosmic Radio Station’.
“Geography has inspired at least some of the songs on the record, so it was quite nice recording at these locations, slightly removed from Dunedin in Purakaunui and Whareakeake. My little crib… it’s really isolated… it was quite nice to go out there and feel far removed from the world. You can get quite introverted and into your creative projects without any distractions, which is good.
“Other songs are sort of inspired by life experiences, without going into too much detail about particular ones,” he laughs.
The album’ title itself stems from a conversation.
“I was chatting with a friend about songwriting… We were talking about the cosmic radio station, which is something you tune into to get creative inspiration. I thought it was a nice idea.”
The album is structured for vinyl, each side ending with gentler sounding instrumentals – Whareakeake and Radio Silence.
“I really like instrumentals,” McLeod explains. “I like a lot of other bands, like The Clean, say, that have instrumentals as part of the repertoire… I think sometimes you can express [things] with music, when you can leave words out of it.”
Textural elements abound, and strings feature in All The Stars and Whareakeake.
“Alex, who plays the violin [on Whareakeake] is a dear old friend of ours. He’s a neat violin player, so we roped him into doing a couple of sessions.”
Another rope in was David Kilgour, who played on ‘Feel’, and here features on Coming Back and Radio Silence.
“I’d like to think of him as an honorary member,” McLeod laughs, citing Kilgour and The Clean as influences, and naming the band as one of his favorites. “I played on one of his albums a few years ago, Tom is also his bass player, so we… share a member. We ended up touring the States together last year – The Shifting Sands supported David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s. I usually ask him if he wants to come along and play. He’s usually quite generous with his time.”
McLeod agrees with the ‘psychedelic’ tag being used to describe ‘Cosmic Radio Station’, but admits they wanted this album to be a bit more rocky than their last.
“The intention was for this one to be a bit more in your face.”
‘Cosmic Radio Station’ is heavier and more cohesive than the earlier album, which he puts down to the band influence.
“‘Feel’ was written at home on an acoustic guitar, not really intentioned for a rock band, but this has been written as a guitar rock band album. Most of the songs are mine, but there is a lot more creative input from the band on this record, and one of the songs is Tom’s.”
The Shifting Sands played a handful of shows in Australia at the end of September and early October, touring ‘Cosmic Radio Station’ nationally throughout October and November. They hope to get back to the US in mid-2016. An EP was recorded last year in LA while touring there with Kilgour and the Heavy 8s.
“It might be another year before that makes its way out. It’s probably a slightly different sound… I guess it’s more LA rock or something,” McLeod explains. “We recorded on a Neotek analogue console, onto two-inch tape, so it was a bit of a vanity project in some ways.”
That EP was recorded in three days with Manny Nieto, who has produced The Breeders and Mars Volta.
“Normally, we’re just quite self-directed when we want, but suddenly we were being told what we were going to be doing, which worked out quite well. His ideas were really good, and they were different to ours… it’s nice to do something a bit different.”