Meet: We chat with Josh Mehrtens from New Zealand’s dream pop exponents Mild Orange about the new album ‘Looking For Space’, travel, escape, influences and guilty pleasures (of the musical variety).

Feature Photograph: Kenzie Pigman

Hailing from the world centre of music creativity, Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand, Mild Orange have built a world reputation with their brand of exquisitely dreamy pop (but don’t mention shoegaze). Here at the antipodean offices of Backseat Mafia, the band has caught our attention over the last 12 months with a string of beautifully crafted pop songs released in the lead up to their new album ‘Looking For Space’, out on Thursday, 10 February 2022.

We Zoomed in on frontman and songwriter Josh Mehrtens and asked a few pressing questions:

Congratulations on the album. Is there any one thing you’d like listeners to take from the album?

I would like them to take it on their journeys with them and throughout their life – to keep finding new things in it. I hope it’s like a little companion throughout people’s lives.

 What is it about the album that makes you most proud?

I think perhaps I like the flow to it: it’s quite interesting. We like to jump around, we like to take the journey up and down, so I’m most proud of how we pulled it together.

 So, it’s not just a monochrome  production…

No, we’re not into that – it’s colourised (laughs)

It’s been well documented that you went through some serious health issues during the development of the album and of course there’s the background of the pandemic  – have these things influenced the themes of the album? (Midway through recording the album, Mehrtens came down with pneumonia and pleurisy, a single breath capable of leaving him in excruciating pain.)

 Yeah, I’ve always been quite the optimist – trying to find light within the dark and so even when pushing through challenging times, I think it’s good to maintain an uplifting spirit. A lot of energy is gone into writing these songs and we like to leave people feeling uplifted. There are times when the music is melancholic but that’s part of the flow of life – it’s not always going to be up – but even within those melancholic songs still you will still find – to use a cliché –  a light at the end of the tunnel.

‘This Kinda Day’ was written throughout the sickness phase but that song still feels very positive and is very bright despite coming from a very dark place.

It seems that travel and escape seem to be quite an important theme in the album, and I love the description of Japan in The Time of Our Lives’ – I wonder if this reflects the geographical isolation of New Zealand?

Kiwis carries love to travel and see the world.  Before the pandemic – well before Mild Orange  – I would work long summers in labouring jobs and then spend my money on travelling – for instance me and  Jah (Josh Reid) went to India together and there was a strong influence on the project . So seeing the world has always been high priority for us  – I think Kiwis in general because we’re isolated down at this little corner of the world and we say  ‘Hey there’s a big world out there and  we need to see what’s going on’ .

So that being taken away during the pandemic left a big hole in my life and it’s something I love doing, so I think the songs that come from that yearning for it and acknowledging those moments to find a new perspective moving forward. We did manage to transfer that travel and nomadic feeling within New Zealand which was quite cool because it meant that we got to see so many different spaces because we recorded in five or six different locations in New Zealand. Yearning to travel and seeing different places was there all along within the recordings.

I’m always fascinated by the way NZ punches above its weight musically and I have a great love for like the early Flying Nun scene with The Chills, The Bats, Lorde, Fazerdaze and of course your band. What is it about New Zealand do you think creates this little greenhouse of creativity?

I think within New Zealand we are quite vocal about supporting NZ music .There is a very good support system here – maybe not so much in the 80s  – but now there are certain initiatives for radio stations to play 40% of New Zealand artists on their roster so Kiwis are often exposed to their own music on the airwaves and on TV . A far as gigs are concerned, many artists never make it to New Zealand so you’re going out to live concerts and seeing a lot of NZ artists.

There’s a lot of similarities with Tasmania in terms of being isolated and missing tours. Is there any significance to the album title ‘Looking For Space’?

Yes, there are a bunch of meanings. Looking for space can be referring to the different spaces which we recorded in and how they influenced the album. It can also be that can also be trying to understand where you fit into the scheme of things and then how the world is around you influences you and you influence it.  There’s also the literal view that space is everywhere and if you’re looking for it’s kind of comical because it’s everywhere, but some spaces influence you different to others.

 It’s also the title to that absolutely beautiful song by John Denver –  that’s my dad’s favourite song and the song that was played to me as a kid. The album wasn’t really named after that song but it’s also a song about finding out who you are. He was influenced by his lecturer at university informing him of different ways of looking at life, and I’ve grown up with my dad trying to teach me certain things.

So roll it all into the idea of looking for space and the different perspectives and outlooks on life – it is sweet too.

It’s amazing how you can revisit these old artists like John Denver and fall in love with them – I’ve been listening to Glen Campbell who I think is absolutely brilliant…

I love Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb  – and Burt Bacharach too…

Absolutely love Burt Bacharach –  especially as sung by Dusty Springfield…anyway, let’s not get off track…  (laughs) I love the graphics for the album and lyrics sheets –  can you tell me a little bit about that?

 So, I do the graphics and art work. The album cover is adapted from a photo I took in Switzerland after show we played in Baden which was one of our favourite shows  –  just everything felt right and that’s when we had found spaces – we were touring, and we were doing the thing we loved and were able to keep finding, discovering, experiencing, new things.  It’s quite sweet that the photo has made its way into the project.  

I had been uploading tracks to SoundCloud to show the band demos, and kept using this image. As I kept uploading new demos and mixes, I was  updating the photo each time and editing it in tandem with how the album sounded, so by the time the album was complete, the artwork had been created the whole way through that process too, and so I quite like the flow. It had a Ying and Yang feeling to it and the space that you feel and some sort of warmth, even though it’s dark –  I don’t normally like really dark images but this is quite bright in a way.

 You’re about to embark on a world tour and you already mentioned how touring is an important part of your life – what can we expect from the gigs?

 I think something that people will experience is that we are a lot more livelier than some of our earlier  records have sounded, and we bring quite a lot of energy to the stage. We also like to create a  journey  – an up and down sort of feel to the set . We want people to leave feeling uplifted having just gone through an experience or journey. The four of us are super tight on stage. We’re very insistent that everything that you see is what you’re hearing. We will never be using backing tracks and stuff…

I respect that greatly …

(laughs) One of the things about this album is that we wanted to sound bigger, and I think we are able to capture that sound on stage –  so having that parameter of four of us on stage has really pushed us to get the most out of our equipment and techniques and things. We sound pretty damn big on some songs. Live is going to be epic  – hearing the songs live will be amazing.

 It’s a shame Australia has missed out on the tour…

We tried (laughs). We had about five different tours scheduled for Australia which all got cancelled just before the announcement, due to COVID.  We will get there as soon as we can – it’s a high priority for us.

You are doing a two-pronged attack –  the USA and England now and an European tour a little later in the year.

Yes –  it made sense to keep the UK shows going ahead there, and it’s on the way to New York which our first US stop, and we’ve had to postpone Europe.

 What were the important musical influences in your life that helped create the band’s sound, and what are your guilty music pleasures?

OK I can’t speak for everyone in the band – we all have very different tastes in music, which I absolutely love. For me it’s been Burt Bacharach and Ennio Morricone growing up then as I grew older,  I got into Washed Out, Radiohead, and Kings of Leon when I was like 12  – I was always learning their songs and it influenced my playing a bit.  In terms of production,  it would be War on Drugs and Neil Young who would have a huge influence on how I try to make our production sound.

Guilty pleasures? I do love a bit of boy bands (laughs) and really super pop produced stuff. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of K-Pop (laughs) I just love it!

(Laughs) Is there anything in particular you’d recommend for a beginner?

There’s this group called Loona… I’m actually loving BTS  – it’s just the whole production – it’s just so smooth. It’s amazing  – all the dance work, the videos …

I’m interested that the list of influences you described don’t include archetypal dream pop or shoegaze bands that you are often compared to…

I don’t know  – I don’t really know any shoegaze bands (both laugh). About three years ago someone called us a shoegaze band and it’s stuck…

Are there any local bands that we should keep an eye out for?

Plenty!  I really like Marlon’s Dreaming  – we grew up with them in Dunedin and began at the same time. My brother is has just released an album   – Sam Wave – I’m biased but he’s just released the best album I think. (laughs) There’s plenty more – keep digging!

Thanks very much for your time and good luck with the album and tour.

“Looking For Space’ is available to pre-order here and will be available through all the usual streaming and download sites. Tour details are below and tickets available here.

Feature Photograph: Kenzie Pigman

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