Interview with Martin Cilia – part 1
Martin Cilia, who joined Mental As Anything in January 2014, has been kind enough to take the time to do an email interview for this forum, about his time as a member and also about his life in music before and after Mental As Anything. Thank you very much Martin! !
I have divided the interview into two parts, with part 2 being about Martin’s story of going to China with Mental As Anything in 2016.
SECTION 1: MENTAL AS ANYTHING questions
You joined Mental As Anything in January 2014. How did that opportunity arise and what was it like joining the group 37+ years into their history? Were you familiar with the group’s repertoire before joining?
In 2013 I toured Europe with The Atlantics and then took my solo band on a tour of California. Once I came back to Australia we (The Atlantics) got together and decided to retire from playing live. We’d had a good run and decided to go out while the band was still playing well. When I arrived home from that meeting there was a message waiting for me – “Mentals are looking for you”. They needed a suitable guitarist and I was available. I already knew some of the Mentals guys when I joined the band as we had crossed paths at gigs over the years.
What was your first gig and tour with Mental As Anything like?
My first gig with Mental As Anything was 26th January 2014 (Australia Day). It was an outdoor concert on the beach with around 10,000 people. About a week before that show I called up Greedy Smith and asked when were we going to rehearse, his reply was “we don’t need to rehearse, I’ve seen you play, see you at the gig”. They sent me a tape of their live set and I learnt that. There wasn’t even a sound check, just straight into the first song. The band never used a set list, but I wrote one out for myself for the first gig. About 5 songs in it blew away down the beach!
From your point of view as a musician, which Mental As Anything songs did you enjoy playing the most?
There weren’t any favourites really, all the songs are good. My favourites would change from time to time. Although I did enjoy “Mr Natural”, “If You Leave Me Can I Come Too” and towards the end a newer song called “We Get To Kiss” which was the last song Mentals recorded.
In 2015, a year after you joined, the group released the single “Shake Off Your Sandals” which was the first record with new material since the album “Tents Up” in 2009. The single was followed by “Goat Tracks In My Sandpit” in 2016 and the 5 Track EP in 2017. What was it like recording new material with the group and how did the audiences respond to these new songs?
Mentals brought in legendary producer Steve James (Screaming Jets, Silverchair, Monty Python) in for those sessions which worked out well. He had produced albums for them previously, so he really understood the band. He was very easy to work with.
Generally whoever wrote the song knew how they wanted it to sound and the band would try and make that happen. Most of us had been session muscians at one time or another, so it was easy for us to pick up what we were given. Occasionally the songs had been played in the live set for a while, so we were familiar with them and could play them together as a band.
The audience pretty much accepted the new songs positively. As Mentals have so many songs and hits to choose from it was always hard fitting in newer songs but it seemed to work when we did. If they didn’t work they would quietly drop out of the set and something else would replace them.
In Debbie Kruger’s very interesting book Songwriters speak. Conversations about creating music from 2004, there are interviews with both Martin Plaza and Greedy Smith. In the book, Greedy was quoted as saying that Martin Plaza and Reg Mombassa “write like they paint. They paint and they write songs all the time.” I am aware that Martin Plaza has had health issues in recent years, but has he still been writing new songs during this time?
Greedy’s and Martin Plazas writing styles were poles apart. Greedy’s demos were detailed, the guitar solo in Live it Up was written by Greedy and played on a clavinet for his original demo. He went into the studio with the full song mapped out. Martin Plaza’s demos were recorded on a four track cassette with just the basics and he’d work on them in the studio with the band.
Martin Plaza continues to paint and was writing until the band retired. The cover of the Goat Tracks single is one of his paintings.
On the live album At Play there is another new song, “We Get To Kiss”, co-written by you and Greedy. It is a really good song, what was co-writing with Greedy like?
“We Get To Kiss” came out well. The reason for that song was that I noticed there was a spot in out set that need something a bit different and fun. We had tried and rejected a lot of songs for that part. I came up with the concept and played it to Greedy and he put the words down. It was all done quite quickly. Audiences responded to it right away and would always get up and dance when we played it.
On your web page, there is an interview you did for J Dubber Music Promotion and it says that there were plans for Mental As Anything to record a new album. Are there any unreleased studio recordings from your time with the group that you think may get released one day?
At the time of Greedy’s passing he had a number of songs that him and myself were going to work on in preparation for a new Mentals album. That was scheduled for the following year. Nothing was ever professionally recorded. That was going to happen in 2020. Because we hadn’t started it’s unlikely that anything will ever be released from it.
Listening to the At Play album, it is obvious to me that this line-up had a great musical chemistry. Do you think you will work together again with Craig Gordon, Peter Gray and Jacob Cook?
Yes that was a good lineup. We had many road hours under our belt. Jacob Cook plays drums on my solo recordings and I occasionally do gigs with Jake, Peter and Craig. We all keep in touch still. Because of our different backgrounds we’ve done a lot of different types of gigs together outside Mentals, from 3 piece Jazz combos to full orchestra shows. I like to get together and work with them when I can.
What is your favourite memory from your time with Mental As Anything?
There are many but in the last year of the band things were starting to gain momentum again, we were getting new audiences coming out to see us and playing some great festivals. The future was looking very bright. One of the best gigs I remember was the Meredith Music Festival in Victoria. Meredith is a small town in Victoria and the festival is held annualy on a farm. It gets incredibly hot and dusty out there. We were on at the end of the afternoon. There’s only one stage, so the full crowd was there – about 15,000 people. It just went off. Everyone knew all the words. At the end we got “the boot” – if the crowd likes you they take off a shoe and hold it up. The crowd was a sea of shoes by the end. We felt very loved.
SECTION 2: Your musical past, including Dave Warner From The Suburbs and The Atlantics
How did your interest in music start and was there any particular guitarist that inspired you when you began playing?
The Shadows with Hank Marvin and The Beatles were my first influences. My father was an electronics tech in England in the 50s and 60s and had a reel to reel tape recorder. He was able to record the audio from TV shows like the London Palladium and other music shows so we had that music playing around the house, The Shadows and The Beatles were very popular at that time.
One of the first songs I played onstage was Apache. I was about 14 at the time.
I always liked George Harrison’s playing. It was a big influence, but Hank Marvin was probably the main one.
You were born in the U.K. and moved to Perth when you were about 9 years old. What was the music scene in Perth like when you started getting interested in music?
The live music scene in Perth was very healthy and the standard of Perth musicians was high. There were some great bands around. Most played in the pubs/hotels and I was too young to get in but still managed to see a few. As I got older and started playing gigs there were so many venues with live bands. There were no shortage of gigs to play. It was a great time for music.
You had been a member of several groups when you joined Dave Warner From The Suburbs in 1988. For those outside Australia who may not be aware of who they are, how would you describe this group?
Dave Warners from the Suburbs is a very Australian band with many songs using local place names, terminologies and observations that are particularly Australian but upon deeper listening they’re probably quite universal. The band plays many musical styles but is probably known for its punk/rock era. Dave is known as the “Suburban Boy”, the normal guy that everyone can relate to. He’s known for monologues that are incorporated into his songs. If he gets inspired a song can go for 2-3 times longer.
One of his songs “Mug’s Game” incorporates an ongoing story about characters Derek, Sandra & Zongo. These have been built on since the song came out in the 70s. He never tells us what he’s going to say, so it’s just as entertaining for us on stage to find out what they’ve been up to since the last gig.
You produced Dave Warner’s album Surplus & Dearth and played nearly all the instruments on it. Was this the first album that you produced and in your opinion, what makes a good producer?
I had produced other things before, but this was probably the first album I had total control over. A producers role can vary a lot, but with this album I was working with a limited budget and the resources we had at hand. I had to realise the potential of the songs and present them in their best light. Starting with the basics, song key, tempo, structure, arrangement. Some of the best parts of it came from the restrictions we had. If a guitar solo was needed we didn’t really have time to go back and redo it, so it had to be right first time. I think this is one of my favourites of Dave’s albums.
In 1999 you joined the surf rock group The Atlantics, a group with a very long history. That must have been an incredible opportunity for both you and them. In your opinion, what makes The Atlantics stand out as a group?
In the late 50s and early 60s Australia was very isolated from the rest of the world. The Atlantics are a very individual sounding group. The band is a power force. The band songwriting style was also very different to, say, the British or American styles but did contain elements of them. There weren’t many groups doing this style of music, and especially writing their own material, at this point in time. They remain one of the only instrumental groups in Australia to make it to number one with their own song (locally and internationally).
Joining the group was a great experience. I had started to write songs in that style, so when I got together and started playing with them it felt like we had known each other for years. It was an honour for them to record my songs and play them live.
Apart from The Atlantics, which surf rock groups are your favourites?
Not all necessarily ‘surf’ The Shadows, Dick Dale and some of the later groups like The Madeira, Polo Del Mar & Slacktone. The Insect Surfers are also a really fun band that played at some festivals with us in Europe and America.
The Atlantics toured Europe in 2013. What did you think of touring Europe and are there any differences between Australian and European audiences?
The distance between places is far greater in Australia than in Europe and the population is also larger in Europe, so travel was considerably different.
I was surprised as to how familiar European audiences were with The Atlantics. They seemed to know our more recent songs as well as the older songs.
The Atlantics were very well received. Some of the bands that supported us even played some of my songs. It’s quite someting to travel to the other side of the world and watch a band playing something you wrote.
The other thing to get used to was how they approached things. We played a festival in Finland and didn’t go onstage until was after midnight, because it was still light out. It was an odd thing to get used to. Gigs in Sydney generally start much earlier in the evening.
SECTION 3: Your solo work
In 2007, you released your first solo album Revenge of the Surf Guitar. What inspired you to release a solo album and what do you think of this album now?
The record company ‘Bombora Creative’ approached me and asked “what would it take to get a solo album from you?” And it went from there. The Atlantics had no plans to record at the time, so I thought it would be good to do.
I wanted it to sound different to my Atlantics approach so I chose a different guitar and amp for the project. I played a Fender Jaguar guitar as opposed to my regular Fender Stratocaster guitar. The Jaguar has a different scale length and sounds different to the Stratocaster. I also used a Fender Vibroverb amp instead of my usual Vox Amps. It was a 2 guitar, bass and drums album, like a 4 piece band would play live.
The album was recorded and mixed very quickly over just a few days in Adelaide, South Australia. I wanted it to sound as live as possible even though I played all the guitars on it. I think the Revenge of the Surf Guitar album stands up well today and still sounds fresh.
When you write music for your solo albums, do you always have a specific guitar in mind that you will use for the recording of a particular song? Which is your favourite guitar to play?
When I write a song I try and get the melody to be strong first and then think about the sound needed for the recording. My go-to guitar is my white 1961 Fender Stratocaster that I’ve had for years (and was my main guitar with The Atlantics), but I occasionally play others. If it’s a full on rock song I might play my 1960 Les Paul Jnr or one of my other old Gibsons. If I need a strong sound I’ll use my Gibson Firebird.
Looking at the discography on your web page, it is obvious you have played on many, many albums by other artists. What is this kind of session work like, does the artists have very clear visions of what they want you to play or do you feel you have a lot of creative freedom as a musician?
Yes, I’ve played on many varied recordings as a ‘hired hand’. About half the time they have an idea of what they might require, other times I’m there to save their song as it’s not sounding good and I can do something to make it work.
On occasion I’ve replaced other players parts, as when it came to mixing the track they’ve realised that the playing was not up to standard and wasn’t working in the mix. This can be a bit sensitive as the producer or band leader generally don’t want the player to know that they’ve been replaced.
On your solo album Espresso Martino from 2018 there is a cover of The Shadows’ “The Rise and Fall of Flingle Blunt” which features Mental As Anything. What was it like having them play on your solo album, was it any different to working with them as a member of Mental As Anything playing Mentals’ songs?
We had been playing “The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt” live in our set for some time. So when it came to recording we just had to play it and press record. The Shadows and this song in particular were a huge early influence for me. It was one of the things I liked about Mentals before I even joined. I knew if they liked and played this song they were the right band for me.
A few years ago when we were playing a gig in Perth, Western Australia, Hank Marvin (the guitarist from the Shadows) was in the front row. We played this song. After the show he came backstage and we had a good chat about how they originally wrote and recorded it. It’s not every day you get to play one of your favourite songs for someone who has made such an impact on your life. It was quite a thrill.
You have just released a new solo album, Everest. For those who have not heard it yet, what’s it like?
The Everest album is more rocky and in some cases heavier than my usual albums, with some funky moments, but it still has songs with strong melodies. It’s certainly not in the surf guitar style. Even so, it’s been picked up by a lot of the surf rock and instrumental radio shows across the world. It’s good to know they like my music even when it’s not so heavily surf influenced. Just this week I found out that the English instrumental magazine Pipeline named it as their Number 1 Editor’s pick for 2021.
For Mental As Anything fans wishing to explore your solo work, which album(s) do you recommend them to check out first?
All of them, haha. But probably my first solo album Revenge of the Surf Guitar, then Going to Kaleponi and the latest album Everest. Also Surfersaurus as there are a few familiar tunes on there that people may recognise.
Obviously, the pandemic has affected the whole world, but it must be really tough for all musicians who haven’t had the opportunities to play live that much, if at all, in the last 18 months. What are your musical plans when touring becomes possible again? (It’d be great if you were to come to Sweden for a gig, by the way!)
While we were in lockdown I wrote the score for a short film called “Run, Girl Run” that has been getting some awards at festivals around the world. The director is from New York, so we’ve only met over video calls. That was an interesting avenue to pursue while I couldn’t be out playing.
I would love to tour overseas again but I suspect that is still a few years away. I’ve just started playing guitar with another legendary Australian band called The Radiators. The band have been on the road almost as much as Mentals, so we became friends, always meeting up at airports and backstage at gigs. They’re usually busy touring around Australia and hopefully soon we’ll be able to travel interstate for shows. I’m looking forward to getting back out on the road again.
What do you think are your greatest strengths as a musician, writer and producer?
I have a good sense of melody and arrangements and can listen to everyone’s performance objectivity when required. As a guitarist, I know my instrument, have good sounds and can play many styles if required, plus I have a wealth of experience and I’m up for any challenge.
In 2020, you were part of the group North Melbourne Surf Club together with guitarist Tony Naylor, bassist James Gillard and drummer Geoff Cox, and recorded an album which was produced by former Little River Band guitarist David Briggs. From my point of view as a listener, it sounds like you all had a great time recording this album. Will North Melbourne Surf Club more albums or was this a one-off group?
The North Melbourne Surf Club came out of David Briggs Production Workshop in North Melbourne, Australia. After finishing a project together, David Briggs and I got to chatting. I mentioned to David that I’d like to meet Tony Naylor. We’d communicated a bit online, but I wanted to meet him in person, as I’d always liked his guitar playing. So David, Tony and I got together one day at the studio. After a couple of glasses of red wine it was decided we should record an instrumental guitar album together.
We recruited old friends, Geoff Cox to play drums and James Gillard on the bass guitar with David producing. Joe Camilleri guests on sax on Souled Out.
The band’s name is a tongue in cheek reference to the fact that North Melbourne is nowhere near a beach and is a couple of hours drive from the nearest Australian surf break. This didn’t stop us from making great surf music!
The album was recorded the ‘old’ way, where the band played live together in one room, 10am – 6pm over three days. In fact, there was possibly more time spent sharing stories of the road than actual recording!
There are no plans for a second album but, never say never.
On your new solo album Everest there is a beautiful tribute to Greedy called “Farewell (Mr Smith)”. Can you say (write) a few words about the writing and the recording of this song?
The thing is, in life, you often don’t notice the journey as it’s happening. The song “Farewell (Mr Smith)” was written in tribute to my band mate and friend, Greedy Smith, who passed away December 2019. He was a great friend and an enormously talented, larger than life figure.
This song takes you on a journey.
If you ever had a conversation with Greedy when he was in full flight you’d find that it wasn’t a single idea, it was really 4 or 5 things at once. You’d go away with your head spinning and have to unravel the threads to find your way back to the original idea and then everything that followed from there.
Listen to the song, go back to the beginning and you’ll experience the journey.
Interview with Martin Cilia, part 2: Mental As Anything in China 2016
In this second part of the email interview, Martin Cilia tells the story of Mental As Anything’s visit to China in 2016. Thank you very much Martin for sharing this story!
With Mental As Anything you played in China in 2016. What was that experience like from your point of view?
Four plane flights, one gig. I’d never been to China before so I was keen to see how things worked there.
Things were a bit weird even before we got there. An “interview” was published in The Bejinger Newspaper, with quotes from “Mental”. We talked amongst ourselves, and even asked management, and it turned out no one had spoken to the paper. It was entirely made up. Greedy was a bit upset that the interview was described as “terse”, because that’s not at all like the band. (Here’s the article if you want to read it: Mental As Anything to Rock Australia and New Zealand Ball January 23 )
When I found out that a gig in Beijing, China was in the works I thought, how can I play this gig without taking any music gear at all, because it was going to be too hard to take our own gear with us. No guitar, pedals, leads, straps, nothing. Travel only with carry on luggage and no music gear at all.
My main concern was finding a Fender Stratocaster that played and stayed in tune. I figured if I spent a bit of time setting it up it would get me through the gig. I requested a vintage style Fender Stratocaster with three single coil pickups and no modifications.
What turned up from the Chinese hire company was a Mexican made guitar with a single coil size humbucker pickup in the treble position. My first thought was “who’s got a soldiering iron?“ Anyway, this was not to happen, no soldiering iron plus it was a hire instrument and the Chinese crew might get a bit edgy if they saw the guitar in bits. The vibrato arm was also missing. A crew member was sent off to obtain one, which he did. This arm needed some ‘bending’ to make it useable.
Next, the amplifier. With the band we asked for three guitar amps but only need two. That was our insurance policy – thinking there’s a good chance of getting 2 out of the 3 to work OK. Lucky we did. My first choice was a Vox AC30 but when I played it it didn’t sound good. No headroom and I couldn’t get a clean sound no matter what I did. On to the back up amp – a Fender Twin blackface reissue. This amp sounded great straight away so I used that.
I arrived at soundcheck to find several Chinese crew setting up the guitar rig, pedals included. I don’t think I could have gotten a worse sound out of the equipment that they had set up, even if I tried really hard.
I had to re-arrange the order of the pedals and adjust the settings, after a few minutes I had a rough handle on the pedals (I’ve never seen these pedals before) we had a very limited time to sound check, so had to be fast. Also the level control on the overdrive pedal was broken and needed a screwdriver to adjust it – not very convenient.
We opened our set with “Too Many Times” and the crowd were with us from the first note, dancing and singing along. The audience was made up of mainly Australians, New Zealanders and Chinese people who had lived in Australia and returned to China.
All in all a fun night was had. The crowd were still partying as we headed back to our rooms to catch a few hours sleep before heading to the airport at some ungodly hour.