Liverpool mourns bricks and mortar a lot. Especially the bricks and mortar of buildings that provide a space for our favourite musicians and artists. But it’s the people who help populate these places of pursuit that we should cherish. Especially those that choose to stay in the city and give something back. This #LiverpoolLessOrdinary places the spotlight on an unassuming but vital cog in our community’s creative heart, then, and takes a look behind the scenes. By Alan O’Hare.
This feature has had its fair share of émigrés. Fair dos they might not have left their homes for political reasons, but most have ended up in Liverpool for something more important than politics. You know, things like music, art, culture, love and life. Those four boxes could enclose the oeuvre of Yorkshireman Dave McTague. “I came here to study originally,” reveals Mellowtone founder, McTague. “I’m from Leeds and Bradford, but once I left home I never planned on going back.”
The Mellowtone man is a well-known face (well, beard) in this city thanks to his tireless work promoting music that quietly creates a stir. But the PR director also added another string to his bow last year: record label boss. “Mellowtone Records was just a pipe dream,” he laughs. “The idea had been fermenting since Mellowtone’s inception back in 2004. But once we did the ‘Ten Years’ compilation CD, it just seemed the right way to go.”
The label hasn’t looked back. Brilliant and brand new releases from Nick Ellis, Seafoam Green and Anwar Ali & Dave Owen have all been firm favourites of mine and there’s more to come, too. “It was great to launch the label with Edgar Jones’ ‘Soothing Music For Stray Cats’ vinyl reissue with Viper and our own compilation,” says McTague. “But it was really Nick Ellis that was the catalyst.” Ah, Nick Ellis. The ex-Maybes man had lost a bit of musical momentum, but McTague wanted to scratch an itch for the pair of them. That’s what music lovers do, you see, put their money and reputation where their mouth is and make things happen. As good a place as any to start the latest #LiverpoolLessOrdinary, then…
What drew you to Nick Ellis?
Soul. I’d known him for a while, and he’s such a wonderful performer, but he’d pretty much stopped gigging. I knew he had these amazing songs that hadn’t been recorded… so the aim was to capture his live performance of those songs on record and spread the word. That was that.
Was he the only catalyst?
Well, like so many people who start record labels, I guess I was compelled to share what I think deserves a wider audience. Seeing what other labels have done helped inspire me, too, the likes of Island, Creation, Trojan, Factory, The Viper Label, Domino. The list goes on.
What do these artists have that makes you want to tell everybody about them?
Artists who live their lives by music. It sounds cheesy, but they feel it and you know that music is in their bones. It’s about writing great songs and sharing stories.
All about the music, then?
It’s a bonus if the artists on the label are also wonderful individuals and huge music fans themselves! So, we’re in the fortunate situation that as well as making great music, they’re all fun to hang around with.
You’ve been a promoter in Liverpool for a long time… what’s the biggest change you’ve seen?
The Internet. People were online when we started, of course, but more specifically the explosion in social media and the way that people interact online.
Good or bad?
There can be ups and downs with anything. But, in the main, it’s been fantastic… especially for music fans.
Back to you. How and why did you end up in Liverpool?
Like I said, I came here to study and hadn’t really planned on staying, but, you know… I just got involved in things here and never left!
And the music…
I’ve been involved with all sorts: Africa Oyé, LIMF, Threshold, Sound City, Liverpool Music Week, Liverpool Irish Festival, Liverpool Arab Arts Fest…
… you’re a serial collaborator!
Liverpool is that sort of place… it’s a Goldilocks sort of city and just the right size: big enough to have loads going on and small enough to retain a community feel.
Tell me about some of the good times you’ve enjoyed in the city…
There’s far too many good times to try and remember! I do love ‘The Bandstand’ at LIMF every year, there really is something magical about being in the centre of Sefton Park away from the madness of the main stage. It’s also been great to see the likes of Threshold develop and Positive Vibration, too. I love the way Africa Oyé has grown, as well; there really is no atmosphere quite like it.
What about some of the bad times?
The rain is responsible for all of those! You spend all year doing stuff and then the weather just does its thing… you’re at its mercy. This year has been incredible, though, so I can’t complain too much!
Who’s buying Mellowtone’s records, then?
I don’t know exactly – but it’s great that people are buying them. I would say our records are going to real music fans – we’ve had messages from people all over the world who have thanked us for releasing this or releasing that and when someone makes the effort to do that, it can blow you away a bit. It happens at the gigs, too. We just do what we do, so when someone acknowledges it out of the blue it can take you by surprise.
Is all this talk of a ‘vinyl revival’ true?
People are looking to buy records more and more and lots of the limited editions are good, too. Personally I’m not a format snob and I do use Spotify and Mixcloud, for example, but there is something wonderful about the tangible, whether a record or a CD…
… that smell?!
Well, seeing the accompanying imagery, reading the booklet, where it was recorded, who worked on it… it all brings you closer to the music.
What brings you closer to the music?
I suppose it’s the same for all great music and what we were on about before: soul, passion and artists with something to say. All the clichés are true! Some songs are of a time, while some are timeless and I wish I knew the formula…
You wrote a great piece for me on protest music. What makes great protest music?
Cheers. I guess at the bones there has to be a great song in some musical way, but also one that also has a potent message. By the way, I added some songs to the playlist I made the other day!
Great! Let’s talk about Liverpool again. Give us three things you love about the place…
The atmosphere. The people. My friends. The light. The architecture. Sorry, that’s more than three!
Don’t apologise, it never gets old…
Liverpool has a unique feel thanks to the history of the place.
Speaking of history, what classic records do you wish had ‘Mellowtone’ written on them?
How long have you got?! For starters: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’; Massive Attack, ‘Blue Lines’; Curtis Mayfield, ‘Superfly’… we could be here all day!
Let’s finish by trying to define ‘Mellowtone’, then; the label, the nights, the ethos…
It started as a night I would like to go to with live music, nice venues, good crowds, songwriters, bands, DJs, a sit-down audience and a laid-back atmosphere. We’ve tried to progress with grace and by doing things properly, hopefully with a bit of style and substance? You tell me…
I’ve wrote about them. Been a participant. Been a fan. Played a few, too! It’s a unique vibe for this city.
Thanks… it’s always been about the whole night. In a way, it’s kind of taking influence from dance music culture and the way club nights or happenings work: build a night, build an atmosphere, invite people to come down early and stick around. The DJs and the artwork are as important as the live acts… as are the people coming along.
Nights with ‘regulars’ in attendance are surely the future for grassroots live music…
Mellowtone comes at it from a fans point of view and it seems to work well. Along the way, we’ve collaborated with so many people and an extended family has sprouted… a community. And a community that is also part of a wider community. Does that make sense?
I guess we’re a club night. A social. A world people can inhabit. And, I get to go to loads of great shows, too!
LIMF ‘Bandstand Stage’ presented by Mellowtone
July 21st-22nd 2017, 5pm-9.30pm, Sefton Park, Liverpool
Pic courtesy Mellowtone