Profile image for Don McGlashan

Don McGlashan

Composer

Familiarity with a wide range of musical instruments is a useful thing for a screen composer. In that sense Don McGlashan has the perfect skills for the job; he was able to play many instruments before leaving puberty.

McGlashan's CV of popular music — a run of classic songs, including 'Dominion Road' and 'Anchor Me' — has overshadowed his work for the screen, which ranges from award-winning music for TV's This is Not My Life and movie No. 2, to a trio of on-screen appearances with The Front Lawn. McGlashan's soundtracks demonstrate his skill for knowing where to place an instrumental piece, and where to place a song  — whether his own, or that of others. 

McGlashan's mother was an English teacher. His father was a civil engineer and "thwarted musician", who began bringing home secondhand instruments for Don to try out. He was "hungry" to learn. By age seven he'd sampled cello, piano, percussion, brass and more. As a teen, McGlashan thought he'd take the classical music route — even though he'd already begun playing keyboards in underage cover bands. At Auckland University he continued his studies in the French horn (an instrument he later compared to "a prison sentence"), and playing second horn for the Symphonia of Auckland (now the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra). 

His guitar and brass skills won him invitations to work with other bands — which worked fine, since at this point McGlashan was far more interested in collaborating than playing frontman. His enjoyment of many types of music would feed into his soundtrack work, which has ranged from mournful guitars to orchestras. Early on, he played horns for punk-influenced band The Plague, still wearing his orchestral tuxedo. In short-lived early 80s band Blam Blam Blam, he played drums (and sang). In experimental group From Scratch he made percussive sounds by hitting PVC pipes. 

In the 1980s McGlashan began venturing into composing. As well as writing his first songs with Blam Blam Blam, he composed music for police series Mortimer's Patch, alongside fellow From Scratch member Wayne Laird and director Keith Hunter. In 1984 McGlashan was invited to compose his first feature film, crosscultural romance Other Halves. He went on to win a Gofta Award for kidult adventure series Terry and the Gunrunners.

After a year in New York, drumming (and occasionally composing) for American choreographer Laura Dean, McGlashan returned home and formed The Front Lawn, with Harry Sinclair. Mixing theatre, dance and kitchen utensils as musical instruments, the duo stretched McGlashan's performance skills in new directions. It also bought him face to face with filmmaking. The Front Lawn co-created and starred in three notable shorts. They began by playing every role in Walkshort (1987), then co-directed The Lounge Bar, before enlisting new member Jennifer Ward-Lealand in time for Linda's Body (1990). Thanks to a superstitious belief that live performance is all that matters, little other Front Lawn footage exists.

McGlashan helped composer Jan Preston, by handling percussion on classic goldmining movie Illustrious Energy (1988). Then McGlashan finally took on the mantle of frontman, by launching The Mutton Birds. With two notable exceptions, the next decade was so tied up with the band, there was little time for soundtrack work. The exceptions were Jane Campion's acclaimed An Angel at My Table (1990) and the sparse, guitar-led score for Kiwi film history Cinema of Unease, in 1995 (the same year The Mutton Birds signed to the British arm of Virgin Records).

In 1999 The Mutton Birds released their fourth and final album, and McGlashan returned home, somewhat dispirited after four years trying to conquer the United Kingdom. Soon after, he began an extended run providing music for crime show Street Legal, in which Jay Laga’aia played a Samoan lawyer in Ponsonby. Short-lived border security series Orange Roughies followed, on which McGlashan collaborated with his frequent musical companion Sean Donnelly.  

Composing for the screen subsidised his own musical projects. But it has also proved "valuable" for his songwriting, by giving him with the confidence to reattack troublesome songs with renewed energy. The collaborative nature of creating soundtracks has offered a refreshing contrast to the more solitary world of writing a new song.

McGlashan scored an NZ Television Award for Street Legal; another award (and two nominations) followed for a trio of movie collaborations with director Toa Fraser — Pasifika family tale No. 2, the English-set Dean Spanley  and Māori action movie The Dead Lands (he also composed and performed a song for Fraser's ballet documentary Giselle). Asked to provide a "big song" for the scene in No. 2 where the matriarch watches her family partying and says "look at all that life", McGlashan wrote APRA-winning number 'Bathe in the River'. Released as a single thanks to public demand, the rich slice of "secular gospel" spent 22 weeks in the Kiwi charts. Hollie Smith handled lead vocals. McGlashan's version can be found on his 2009 album Marvellous Year.

Shaggy dog tale Dean Spanley also sticks out in McGlashan's memory, as his first "fully orchestral" movie score. He wrote much of the music on an Apple Mac, while touring the United States with Crowded House. As McGlashan says in this interview, the experience of working with the NZ Symphony Orchestra proved both freeing and terrifying.

McGlashan's shelf also holds Kiwi screen gongs for his work on dystopian series This is Not My Life and TV film Bliss: The Beginning of Katherine Mansfield. Ensemble movie Matariki (2010), which scored McGlashan another nomination, combined his own compositions with a wish list of local musicians (including Bella Kalolo for 'See What Love Can Do'; the song drew claps from some cinema audiences). In 2019 McGlashan was nominated once more for animated show Kiri and Lou, which saw McGlashan collaborating again with his former Front Lawn partner Harry Sinclair. 

Back in the days of Blam Blam Blam, McGlashan occasionally performed in prisons. In 2014 he was invited to join the team of musicians helping prisoners develop their own songs, for TV series Songs from the Inside

McGlashan has also written music for the 1990 Commonwealth Games, an Expo performance in Seville by Kiri Te Kanawa, and the opening of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. 

Profile published on 24 October 2019

Sources include
Don McGlashan
Don McGlashan website. Accessed 24 October 2019
Don McGlashan: On composing for film and television… (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director James Coleman. Loaded 11 June 2009. Accessed 24 October 2019
Talk Talk - Don McGlashan (Television Programme) NZ On Screen website. Director Brendon Butt. Loaded 18 October 2009. Accessed 24 October 2019
Sunday - Don McGlashan (Television Programme) NZ On Screen website. Producer Brett Cammell. Loaded 10 October 2019. Accessed 24 October 2019
Vicki Anderson, 'Don McGlashan - counting his lucky stars' (Interview) - The Press, 18 June 2015
Rick Bryant, 'Creating No. 2's first class soundtrack' (Interview) - Onfilm, May 2006, page 24 (Volume 23, no 5)
James Croot, 'The Inside Word' (Interview) - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 18 February 2014, page 3
Kerry Doole, 'Matariki shines at Toronto' - Onfilm, November 2010, page 14 (Volume 27, no 11)
Paul Kean, 'Interview: Don McGlashan Talks About Blam Blam Blam's Reunion Tour' (Interview) Under the Radar website. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 24 October 2019
Gary Steel, 'Don McGlashan' AudioCulture website. Loaded 21 August 2019. Accessed 24 October 2019 
Mark Webster, Interview with Don McGlashan Mac NZ website. Loaded 26 May 2010. Accessed 24 October 2019
A Religion of a Kind website. Accessed 24 October 2019