If you happen to be on the East Coast for the rest of this month, it may be to your advantage to check out the Shifting Sands. No, it’s not the title of a foreign movie that takes place in the desert, but rather the name of a psychedelic guitar-oriented rock band out of New Zealand, and whose atmospheric sound is a bit reminiscent of Australian group the Church. Consisting of singer/guitarist Mike McLeod, bassist Tom Bell, drummer Jake Langley, and guitarist Steve Marr, the Shifting Sands is one of bands who are part of the Dunedin Sound that returned sometime in the early ’80s in the university town of Dunedin in New Zealand.
The band released its debut album, Feel, in 2012; three years later, the Shifting Sands emerged with Cosmic Radio Station. It is perhaps one of the most gorgeous-sounding albums you’ll hear these days—for fans of jangly guitar, pop melodies, and atmosphere, Cosmic Radio Station is nirvana (you can hear it for yourself on the Shifting Sands’ Bandcamp page)–from the almost anthemic “Waiting for the Sun” and gauzy-sounding “We All Fall Down,” through the driving and shimmering “Abstract Objects” and the moody Neil Young-like “Dreaming to Keep Awake.”
The Shifting Sands recently embarked on its aforementioned first-ever East Coast tour, which was booked by none other than the acclaimed musician Sharon Van Etten. I spoke with band member Mike McLeod about playing on the East Coast and their music that maybe new to American ears.
Congratulations on this trip to the States to perform on the East Coast. I assume then you had played in the States before? Have you performed in other parts of the world outside of New Zealand and perhaps Australia?
Thanks. We have toured the West Coast of the States before, once in 2014. We’ve never played the East Coast, so very much looking forward to that. We’ve all played in a bunch of bands that have toured New Zealand a million times, and our guitarist [Steve Marr] plays in a band called Doprah, who have played a bunch of shows in New York. Tom, our bass player, has played in the USA a bunch in David Kilgour’s (The Clean) band, and has toured Australia a bunch. As for the Shifting Sands though, this is our second excursion outside of New Zealand.
Can you talk about when and how the band came together? Did you know the other members of the band prior to starting the Shifting Sands? You had been in a band prior to the Shifting Sands called the Alpha State?
The band started more or less as a solo project of mine. After disbanding the Alpha State, I embarked upon making an album which became the first Shifting Sands album (Feel, 2012). It had a bunch of different people playing on it, and was recorded in a bunch of different places. Tom and I put a band together to tour the album and the rest is history really.
I’ve known Tom for about 15 years, and love him like a brother. We are now playing with Steven Marr, and Jonty O’Connor for this tour. I’ve known Steven for a few years through running a venue that his band played at, and I’ve only recently met Jonty who jumped on the tour at short notice as our regular drummer, Jake, who is a super human being, is currently out of action with crippling arthritis.
Based on listening to Cosmic Radio Station, there definitely seems to be an appreciation for this jangly guitar sound and psychedelic pop. Who were some of your favorite psychedelic bands.
I love the Byrds (especially with Gram Parsons), the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, the Clean. I’m currently digging the War on Drugs and Kurt Vile.
I have to admit that I have never heard of the Dunedin sound until coming across your music—I believe it goes back to the early ’80s. How influential was that on the band’s sound? Was that something that came natural or did you think about wanting to go another musical route?
The Dunedin sound is a funny phrase used to describe a bunch of psychedelic pop bands from Dunedin in the 80s (the Clean, the Chills, the Verlaines, the Bats). I’m a fan for sure, so it’s had some influence, and I’m sure some of that translates in our music. Our albums have featured members of all of the bands I mentioned, so I suppose there is a sense in which we are continuing a lineage, but in terms of the music we write, we don’t go about trying to emulate those bands at any conscious level.
Speaking for yourself, are you originally from Dunedin? Who was your earliest musical influences? Did you know early on that you wanted to pursue music?
I grew up in a tiny town in the South Island of New Zealand, called Ashburton. We’re mostly talking pre internet, so a lot of the music I listened to was from my parents’ record collection. Stuff like The Beatles, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, were staples of my musical education. Going to university in Dunedin was where I really developed my musical tastes, thanks to falling in with a great group of weirdos with great taste in music.
Can you talk about the band’s songwriting—who does the lyrics and and the music? What are the lyrics inspired from.
The first couple of albums are mostly my songs, but Tom had brought some ideas to the table as well. We have been writing again lately and it looks like our next album will be much more collaborative, which is exciting and fresh.
Lyrics are inspired by many different things, my life, my friends’ lives, a life I wish I had, or commentary on life as it is for us all, as sentient humans trying to make sense of flying through space on a giant rock.
Would you say that Cosmic Radio Station was a musical evolution from the debut album Feel? I do sense some difference between the two records.
Thank you very much, I’m really glad people can connect with the album. I think there is definitely a musical evolution from our first to our second albums, largely inspired by actually being a band who plays together. The second record is shaped a lot from playing live.
More a comment than a question, but feel free to elaborate: Even though there’s that distinct guitar sound permeates through the entire record, there’s enough diversity on the songs that each of them stand out on their own, from uptempo songs like “Waiting for the Sun” and “Coming Back,” to something slow like “We All Fall Down” and “Whareakeake.”
I like the balance of the album, we like to get really slow on some songs, and I think it’s nice when an album moves, and songs play different roles in telling a larger more complicated story that is the album as a whole.
You also recorded a track called “Lady” by the former Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, which is kind of an obscure song. What prompted you guys to record it?
Tom put me onto this song, it’s such a beautiful simple love song. Dennis Wilson is pretty great and obviously whittled away in the shadow of Brian. It was a humble song we thought we could do justice to. It will appear on an EP sometime soon, I hope.
Tell me about meeting Sharon Van Etten—how did it happen?
Tom and I ran a venue just out of Dunedin, that hosted Sharon, and a bunch of other musicians (J Mascis, Stephen Malkmus, Shellac, Parquet Courts, Sebadoh, and others…). She came to sound check and told Tom, who was production manager at the venue that she loved a Dunedin band called The Shifting Sands. It turned out that was our band! We hung out a little at the show and kept in touch. She booked all our shows for this tour, for which we are eternally grateful. She really has been an angel to help us.
Given that Cosmic Radio Station came out a year ago, are you guys planning on recording a new album to follow that up?
We have an EP that is pretty much finished, and are writing songs for a new record beyond that.
What are your impressions of performing to American audiences compared to the ones back home in New Zealand. Is there a different dynamic to playing in America?
Playing in the States is pretty great. Audiences here tend to be super enthusiastic and supportive. It’s a very different culture to where we come from, where being a rock n roll dreamer is usually met with scorn and disdain. For better or worse, Americans seem to buy into dreams, which is good for us. Also the size of some of the cities here means that many of our shows in the USA are better attended than our shows at home (think tumbleweeds blowing down empty New Zealand roads).
The Shifting Sands are currently on their East Coast tour through October 24:
Mon. 17 Oct – Arts Riot, Burlington, VT w/ 1881
Wed. 19 Oct – The Crown, Baltimore
Thurs. 20 Oct – Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia, PA (w/ Weekender, The Writhing Squares)
Sat. 22 Oct – The Pinhook Durham, NC
Mon. 24 Oct – Exit/In 8pm Nashville, TN (w/ Neon Indian)
Mon. 24 Oct – Grimeys (instore) 5pm Nashville, TN