Interview with The Mulligan Brothers

The Mulligan Brothers are a band that formed in Mobile, Alabama and who play a compelling mixture of Americana, Folk & Roots music with a lot of confidence and class. Comprising Ross Newell (lead vocals, guitar, and song-writer); Gram Rea (fiddle, mandolin, viola, harmonica and vocals); Ben Leininger (bass and vocals) and Greg DeLuca (drums and vocals), their sound is a rich blend of melody and classic Country groove that fuels their live shows and has gained them much critical acclaim in the USA. 

They will be touring Ireland in the New Year with a series of gigs lined up for late January/early February. . They come highly recommended and Lonesome Highway has tipped The Mulligan Brothers as one of the hot new bands to watch in 2016. 

So, with the opportunity to catch them on the cusp of greater exposure, we caught up with Ross Newell to ask about their past activities and what the future holds.  

You are due to play Ireland for the first time in early 2016. Have you toured much outside of America and what are your expectations of the upcoming dates?

So far, our only international travel has been two trips to the middle east to play for the troops. Both trips were amazing and exceeded all expectations. I expect this trip will do the same. I’ve always wanted to visit Ireland, however I’ve spent most of my life assuming that it would never be practical to go. I’m ecstatic to not only get to travel to Ireland, but to do so by means of music. This is the best job in the world!

The first release, self-titled, in 2013 received widespread critical acclaim. How did this change your daily reality and has it brought increased pressure with the weight of expectation?

That album certainly got the wheels turning. We’ve been fortunate enough to be working and traveling almost nonstop since it’s release. I felt a great deal of pressure when we started planning our second album, although in retrospect, I think it was self induced and unnecessary. The experience of making the second album with a constant fear of disappointing fans of the first has reminded us of the philosophy that made the first album 

What did Steve Berlin bring to the recording process for your second release that was different to your own instincts in recording the debut record?

Steve helped us to stretch to the outermost limits of our comfort zone. That really helped to add character to some of the songs. We even tried some things that landed outside of our comfort zone. Those things didn’t make it on the album, but at least we learned something about ourselves.

As the songwriter in the band, do the lyrical themes come quickly to you or do you piece them together once you have a melody in place?

The melody hardly ever comes first. Some lyrical ideas expand quickly and jump out and scream “I MUST BE A SONG”. Most of the time, the idea evolves fairly slowly and takes as long as it needs to develop.

The imagery in the songs is quite cinematic. Do you write from personal experience or in character?

Some of both. For me, all songs require some amount of personal experience. So, if the song is based in fiction, I have to be able to identify on a personal level with a character or subject. Otherwise, it doesn’t grab me and the song will likely remain unfinished.

What was the biggest influence in your career as a band so far?

I’d have to say our early meetings about starting this band influenced our career more than anything. That is where the rough draft of our “career strategy” was formed. Those meetings are also where we decided that our plans, goals and strategy would need to constantly evolve, which created a need for constant communication and teamwork. Those meetings were put together my our manager Stuart Logan. So actually, he’s likely been the biggest influence.

How do you view the state of country music at present?

Probably the same as I always will. There is some really great stuff out there! However there is some silly stuff out there as well. Everyone seems to gracefully accept the existence of both. The great debate seems to start when the silly stuff pushes its way to the forefront and pushes the great stuff deep underground where it will need to be searched for. Luckily, the world is not yet void of treasure hunters. There is room for all music. Often the great stuff doesn’t have the financial backing to make it in to the forefront of your favorite radio station and its up to the treasure hunters to tell their friends what they’re missing. My favorite quote on this is by Jason Isbell. “Hate to break it to y’all, but Nashville didn’t “ruin” country music. Lotta good burgers in this town; nobody forcing you to eat McDonald’s.”

Is it difficult to get a foothold in the industry in terms of media acceptance?

It certainly can be. That part of the industry is still miles over my head.

Does a focus on keeping it small and simple work as a philosophy?

I don’t think focusing on keeping it small helps. I think that not focusing on making it big helps. So much can be done with a small group of motivated, hardworking people who believe in the same thing. No bad can come from growing that group as long as everyone believes in the project and no one is afraid of working hard.

You come across as a very tight unit in every respect. I believe that you started playing together in bars around Mobile, Alabama?

Thank you! We did start in bars in Mobile, AL. I think we have our past bands and projects to thank for the foundation of our work ethic.

How many gigs have you played in order to fine-tune your sound to the interplay we hear on the records today?

I wish I knew. We stay on the road more than we are home. While we’re home we fit in some hometown concerts. Even between the hometown concerts, we all play shows individually. I’m sure every member of the band finishes each year with 300+ shows under their belt.

I understand that the band name comes from a perspective of getting “second chances” and that it has nothing to do with golf shots or indeed brotherly connections?

Thats right. We used the concept of a Mulligan in golf. We all felt a familiar bond over our desire to try again knowing what we know now. It really has been a brotherhood from the beginning.

In Ireland many will assume that you have some Irish roots, given the name and the band sound that is influenced by the fiddle playing of Gram Rea so you are off to a good start already.

We’ll take any advantage we can get! There have been a few Irish Pubs along the way where we’ve needed to make sure they knew we weren’t a TRUE Irish band before taking the job.

Your vocals have been highlighted as a key element in the overall Mulligan Brothers organic sound. Have you taken any vocal coaching or does the spirit simply flow through you?

Thanks again! I haven’t had any formal training. In my first band I got nudged in to singing because no one else wanted to. Later on, I read some books on proper singing. I knew I was doing something wrong because it would hurt to sing.

Via Portland, the new release, was recorded under an entirely different set of circumstances. Can you tell us a little about the process and was there a bigger budget to use in order to get you all away from the daily routine and together in a concentrated working environment?

We saved well the previous year in order to record in Portland, OR. We rented a house for the month and recorded almost every day. We certainly benefited from living, eating and working together so consistently. We were completely focused on the album at all times. When we weren’t recording we were talking about recording with no distractions. Whether we record locally or away in the future, I think we will try to create that same type of isolation.

Who were your key musical influences when you were growing up?

I’ve always love the great singer songwriters. Bob Dylan, John Prine, Towns Van Zandt,Leonard Cohen etc.

How important is radio these days?

Incredibly Important. I think there are very few genres in which the listeners have moved on to other formats exclusively . There are relatively few listeners who are willing to get their hands dirty and go dig for their next favorite band. I believe radio is still the best reasonable way to get music out to the general public.

Is You Tube and Facebook/Twitter a better distribution channel for your music and word of mouth in building your profile?

These new platforms are wonderful additions to the musicians toolkit. From an independent artists perspective, they are much more approachable and readily available for everyone. The downside (if you can even call it that) is that because they are available to everyone, it’s very difficult to stand out and not get scrolled right over.

What message do you have for your interested followers on this side of the pond as you prepare for the tour?

We can’t wait to play for and meet all of you! WARNING: We are huggers.

Interview by Paul McGee