Graham Reid | | 5 min read
Over the years Elsewhere has listened to and favourably reviewed the interesting and unique sound of Mali Mali, which is the performance name of Auckland's Ben Tolich whose work we admired for its lo-fi and lyrical honesty.
Tolich has remained uncompromisingly true to his style but his lyrics have deepened, the songs become sharper and his latest album Spirit Tide is full of his mysterious poetics and beguiling melodies..
On the back of it we thought it time to find out more about Mali Mali (not the least where the name came from) and ask him some questions . . .
Where did you grow up, and with who?
In Birkenhead, Auckland with my parents and sister
Was music an important part of your childhood?
Not hugely. I was all about drawing. We didn’t have heaps of music playing in the house or anything.
What are your earliest childhood memories of music which really affected you . . .
Disney’s Fantasia was important to me. It used “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky which became one of my earliest musical obsessions.
Was there a time when you felt it was going to be music and nothing else?
Yes… and it kind of still is? It was always the arts. Drawing got replaced by skateboarding and then skateboarding got replaced by music when I got obsessed with songs i’d hear in skate videos and try learning them. I tried doing music full time with my first album and I was well unequipped. Now I balance it with part time work but aspirationally music is my main focus.
When you started on your music career were people around you supportive or did you have to find those people?
I had a very supportive family. Still do. The church environment I was in was also supportive.
The first song of yours which you really felt proud of was . . .? And why that one?
I always felt pretty good about even my early stuff. But the song “Your Glowing Skin” off my 2010 EP Brotherly was when I started tapping into my own thing. I had just dropped the band I was playing with and that new freedom brought a rush of raw material that really excited me.
Where did the name Mali Mali come from?
My Grandpa (or Dida) called me Mali when I was little. It’s Croatian for . . . drumroll . . . “little”. I wanted a name that related to how small and insignificant humans are in relation to the universe. I doubled the name because a few myspace artists were already using it…
Any one person you'd call a mentor, angel on your shoulder or invaluable fellow traveller?
Early on my friend Joel from the band The Glory Sea. More recently my friend Jordan. A long distant fellow traveller with quite a different musical past. We only see each other occasionally but I’ve learnt a lot from him.
Where and when was the first time you went on stage as a paid performer?
The Masonic Tavern in Devonport. I remember getting a bunch of cash afterwards and being so confused and also stoked.
Ever had stage fright or just a serious failure of nerve before going on stage?
Always! never enough to stop me stumbling on through though.
As a songwriter, do you carry a notebook or have a phone right there constantly to grab ideas they come? Or is your method something different?
Yeah it’s weird what role the ol’ smart phone has nowadays. I currently have 2,377 voice memos on my phone. I’m not sure if that’s a lot or not.
What unfashionable album do you love as a guilty pleasure?
I haven't listened to it for a loooong time but the Five For Fighting album “America Town” got me through a rough patch. “I’m only a maaann in a phony red sheeet!”
Any piece of advice you were given which you look back on which really meant something?
My hero was Jon Crosby from the band VAST. He once told me on Instant Messenger “If you want to make music. It a long road” (typo included)
It's after a performance/concert and you are in a hotel room or back at home, what happens then?
Depends on if the show was good or not. If it was good I make a very late cup of tea and sit in that feeling or watch something basic on tv. If it’s bad I curl up in bed and cry and try not to wake my wife. (half joking)
Is there any fellow artist you admire for professional and/or personal reasons?
So many. More recently I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from older artists who have a body of work you can follow. Let's pick the obvious Bob Dylan for a second. He followed his artistic gut and took many U-turns despite being put on one of the biggest cultural pedestals ever? It’s hard to articulate but you can tell when an artist is moving forward authentically in spite of their notoriety or current trends. I’ve been loving Lana Del Rey’s arc as of late for similar reasons.
And finally, where to from here for you do you think?
That's a tough question at this very moment. I just released my 5th album and this time around my mental health has been pretty stretched. More than usual. I love writing… and the music and songs keep flowing but I have a lot of doubt surrounding my own ability to promote it. There’s a lot of factors at play so I need to reflect on this while I loosely plan some shows, find the right areas to spend my energy, and remain open.
You can hear and buy the new Spirit Tide album at bandcamp here where the complete digital discography of Mali Mali is also available in a ridiculously cheap deal.