It had been 17 years since his previous album and for all of his long career which dates back to his debut in 1985, Mullins has been below most listeners’ radar.
In part that’s because his first three albums came under the band name Last Man Down but also because he performed so infrequently, aside from a regular gig in a Chinese restaurant in central Auckland. Mullins had work commitments as a teacher (he is officially Dr Ross and his degree is in French literature) and a young family.
More than that however is that he has always been very hard to pigeonhole: his critically acclaimed and literate songs rarely approached “rock” and he often used jazz musicians but his albums weren’t in that genre either.
However Mullins’s body of original work is worth close attention because he has always done something which most other songwriters just flirt with: he writes very specifically about New Zealand culture, people and places.
On the Last Man Down debut album State House Kid (1985) he adapted James K Baxter’s ‘The Bay’ (a decade and a half before the Baxter project album helmed by Charlotte Yates) and sang about the massacre of Japanese prisoners of war at Featherston, beneficiaries, those heading off to Australia, dealers and other specifically New Zealand references.
The cover image shows him leaning against a lamppost with the poster from DD Smash’s notorious Thank God It’s Over concert; behind him is a burnt-out state house ... Mullins brought a wry and sometimes cynical eye to his subjects and his knowledge of the French chanson tradition and singer-poets informed his work in way that made it distinctive.
The album was immediately hailed by critics: “A collector’s item in years to come” (Listener); “The sharpest, wittiest and most compassionate lyric writing you’ve probably ever heard from a local recording artist (Rip It Up) and “a power of observation that I don’t think has ever been seen before in a New Zealand album” (New Outlook) ...
Mullins carved out a small niche which was much appreciated by many; Sam Hunt had a State House Kid poster visible in a television documentary at the time. But – despite an excellent and moody video clip for the album’s title track – he largely went past most.
Subsequent albums followed in this manner, as Mullins refined his writing. This Sporting Life (1986) was similarly hailed as he explored rugby culture (‘Pinehead’, ‘The Night of the Test’), horse racing (‘Scratchings’), Kiwi childhood (‘Standard Three’) and an aircraft gone missing (‘Flight 501’).
Mullins’s songs explored New Zealand culture: rugby, horse racing, childhood, missing aircraft ...
He also turned his attention to his local neighbourhood of Devonport where the naval base is (‘The Mating of a Rating and a Wren’), something he would do again when he wrote ‘Where Fairburn Walked’ for his third and final album as Last Man Down, Parting Shots in 1988.
It was the album that gained him most attention: Bryan Staff wrote a lengthy but digressive, somewhat critical piece about it in Metro (he roamed off into the quota issue) but concluded readers should check it out and “that might help ensure that when the next lot of music awards come around Mullins is not left as the Last Man Down”.
Parting Shots – again produced by Steve Garden – had its cover image taken on Devonport wharf and the song titles again alerted listeners to the local content: ‘Hanged in a Police Cell’, ‘Dawn Parade’, ‘Great Barrier’, ‘Ross Dependency’and ‘Farmers’ Bus’ among them, although in some instances the titles were clever word play rather than to be taken literally.
In a lengthy interview with Paul Casserly at the time Mullins said, “If you check out all three albums you’ll see that things are changing, the perspective is. They’re still sketches of New Zealand life, that’s what I see Last Man Down as being. I also see that it’s in the nature of what I do that I’m not sort of ‘trendy’ or fashionable – I’m not a six-month wonder.”
Casserly was impressed by the album – “these are songs about ‘us’ and our history, and as such must surely be considered somewhat of a rare and valuable commodity” – and Mullins picked up on that.
“The problem with rock music is that it has visions of ‘internationalism’ so they avoid specifics, they see that as a limitation. You know, ‘What will they think of that in London?, would they understand what a state-house kid was?’. It doesn’t bother me that we hear songs about Memphis or that Billy Bragg sings about places in England, it’s colourful.
“I mean, you don’t ask a painter not to draw New Zealand, you don’t ask Sam Hunt not to write about Zealand!”
But Casserly also noted that this album was perhaps Mullins’s last shot at something he’d been perfecting over many years. That proved not to be true, but the Last Man Down name was retired and for both Stranger at the Ranchslider in 1994 (the title a reference to Baxter’s death) and King of Mercuries (1997) the songs appeared under the name Ross Mullins and the Snaps.
In 2001 Mullins teamed up with singer Caitlin Smith for his adaptations of New Zealand poems
For Tidemarks in 2001 he teamed up with singer Caitlin Smith for his adaptations of poems by New Zealand writers Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Robin Hyde, Baxter, Fairburn and Ruth Gilbert.
Writing in Real Groove magazine, Brent Cardy said, “Mullins has an artistic subtlety of expression on his records that he wears so well, and bringing true poetry to music fans, Mullins shares his own love of the form."
A family tragedy – which he addresses in The Visit on ‘The Poet and the Fisherman’– took Mullins away from releasing music until last year, and as he noted of the album “17 years in the making ... that’s a pretty serious writer’s block”.
But of course Mullins was always writing, just not recording, and again he “can’t seem to leave these poets alone”. The title track refers to the apocryphal story of R A K Mason throwing copies of his self-financed book of poems The Beggar into Auckland Harbour in 1928.
Through the years Mullins has worked with a roll-call of excellent New Zealand musicians, among them guitarists Nigel Gavin, Martin Winch, Graeme Webb, Bob Shepheard and Mike Farrell, saxophonists Jim Langabeer, Neville Hall, Walter Bianco, Chris Green, David Colven and Greg Heath, bassists Peter Scott and Matt Gruebner, and drummers Jason Orme and Steve Garden.
Ironically for such a distinctively Kiwi songwriter in his subject matter, his most internationally successful song is ‘Where Fairburn Walked’, recorded by Caitlin Smith for her Aurere album (2004).
Her version was picked up for a five-CD compilation set Macca’s Top 100 Australian Songs.
“And I swear,” says Mullins, “I don’t have a drop of Australian blood in me.”