A Mario Millo live gig is a rare thing these days.
Guitarist, vocalist and composer Millo has spent a lot of time writing award-winning scores for TV and movies but he is about to tour once again.
It was 1975 when I first heard of Mario Millo. His band Sebastian Hardie had been hailed as Australia’s first ‘symphonic rock’ band. With Millo’s eloquent guitar soaring atop layers of synths and a jazzy backbeat, the sound was rich and compelling. Today, they are a favourite among prog rock lovers around the world. Millo has been described as “one of the most significant Australian musicians of the 20th century”, creating “sonic epics of international significance”.
So much so that Millo is about to tour to Japan for some big shows, including one at the famed Tsutaya O-East. Before that though, Millo and his band will be at Lizotte’s this Thursday July 12.
Millo has had an acclaimed career, firstly with Sebastian Hardie, who released two albums Four Moments and Windchase.
Writer Bernie Howitt describes Sebastian Hardie as producing “music of stunning originality, pure passion and glorious power”. The band made a name for Australian prog rock internationally and Four Momments went gold in Australia, no mean feat in the ‘70’s.
After legal action Millo renamed his band Windchase. They released one album called Symphinity which, by the way, had a great cover – see it below.
The nest step in Millo’s career was the release of his debut solo album Epic III, the first of three, with Human Games (1983) and Oceans Of The Mind (2002).
From there Millo went on to work with Jon English on the Against The Wind soundtrack (remember “Six Ribbons”). This started an award-winning journey in writing scores for both television and movies.
Millo has won ARIA, APRA and AFI Awards as well as nominations for many more.
Over the years Millo has shared the stage with international acts like Santana, Lou Reed, Osibisa, Focus and Joan Armatrading.
Newcastle Live was lucky enough to sit down with Mario before his show at Lizottes this Thursday night. We had 20 questions for him and this is what he had to say . . .
1. You’ve been described as a child prodigy – tell us when and how you started out in music.
At the age of five, my dad taught me to play Italian songs on the mandolin and he would accompany me on guitar. I remember him leaning over me and placing my tiny fingers on the mandolin fretboard and showing me the notes to play. It was my eighth birthday when he presented me with my first guitar, it was a Jason 3/4 scale acoustic and that’s when things really began.
2. You even started your first bands (The Wanted, The Menu, The Clik) at a very young age in your garage amid the wild western suburbs of Sydney – what songs did you play and what were the gigs like?
The first band I was part of was The Wanted. It was short lived and we rehearsed and played a few Shadows instrumentals and that was about it. The Menu, however, was a real band playing real gigs and we had a healthy repertoire ranging from Shadows, Beatles, Stones, Animals, Bee Gees, Roy Orbison and many others. The Clik also had good repertoire, though more modern. Hendrix, Cream, Deep Purple, Rascals and many more.
The gigs in those days were so great for teenagers. There was none of this noise pollution crap and many Church, Scout and Community halls on Friday and Saturday nights around the suburbs were rocking with usually two bands rotating sets. It was a time and place where teenagers could interact, listen to live music and generally have a great time. Sadly, those days are gone.
3. At one stage, you were in a band called Fantasy, specifically to promote Fanta soft drink – was that fun or did you dread the commercialism?
Mainly it was fun. We were just young guys excited about all the possibilities being proposed to us which never came to anything in the end, but while it was happening it was exciting and fun. I remember we played on a P&O cruise ship to New Zealand and then played at a couple of high schools. Fantasy was very much aimed at teeny boppers. We weren’t much older ourselves, I was about 15!
4. Most people remember you as a member of Sebastian Hardie, still regarded as Australia’s first and greatest symphonic rock band – how do you define ‘symphonic rock’ and what music was influencing you?
I guess you’d best describe it as a Prog rock band performing a lengthy piece of music you would normally expect an orchestra to perform. I’m guessing we were labelled Symphonic Rock because of the thematic nature of Four Moments. I was eighteen or so when I wrote it and looking back now I see the incredible influence my parents, who were both musical, had on me. Music goes back many generations in our blood line on both sides. I grew up listening to them singing and performing music like Puccini, Verde, Rossini and many other beautiful arias of their time.
5. You mentioned that Sebastian Hardie used to play in Newcastle – when, where and what was it like?
As best as I recall, it was in 1974. The venue was called The Savoy Club, a converted cinema, can’t remember the name of the suburb but it was in Newcastle. It was a blast. I think we used to do two or three consecutive nights and it was where we performed our version of Tubular Bells for the first time. We also did a few nights featuring Jon English after his amazing stint as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Jon’s star was on a rapid rise and deservedly so, he was amazing. He was an Australian treasure and sadly he’s gone, far too young.
6. What was it like for you in the mid 70’s, as the member of a band that scaled the heights of success, with a gold record and all that comes with it?
At the glorious age of twenty, healthy, passionate, excited and fiercely determined to make an impact with music, I lived and breathed for writing and playing my guitar. Touring nationally with Dutch band Focus and then with Santana and performing in concert to thousands of people was such a high. Playing live in TV studios and all the amazing venues that were around in those days was truly a buzz.
7. ‘Openings’ from Four Moments is an incredible piece of music – how does the audience respond when you perform it live?
The irony is that it is such a dynamic and a “give it all you got” piece to perform that we always closed our shows with it. Fast forward to now and guess what, I still close with it. Maybe it should have been titled ‘Closings’.
8. Four Moments is still such a hugely important record both here and internationally – at the time, did you get a sense of the pioneering work you were doing and how important it would become.
In my mind I was aiming to get somewhere close to what bands like Yes, Focus, Mahavishnu Orchestra were achieving musically at the time. Writing and recording the Four Moments album was such a wonderful experience. We had Richard Lush engineering and Jon English co-producing in one of the best studios of the day, EMI. I always felt we were a unique band playing a unique style of music. Unfortunately, because of the lengthy and mainly instrumental nature of the music, it was difficult for radio to program, hence we didn’t reach a potentially larger audience and had to rely on our cult following and word of mouth.
9. You then formed Windchase with Toivo Pilt, from Sebastian Hardie – the album Symphinity – the cover artwork is stunning – how did that come about?
The artist was Peter Ledger, he did a lot of work at an advertising agency called Harris Robinson where my girlfriend Liz, now my wife, also worked. Peter and I were introduced and over some months we got to know one another. I became familiar with some of the artwork he was doing at the agency (promoting Motocross and Surfing championships at the time). Peter was keen to do our cover artwork as he really loved the music so I hooked him up with the art department at Festival Records who commissioned him to do the Symphinity cover. His artwork was superb and prior to him starting, he invited the band out to his home at Carcoar, near Bathurst. We spent a couple of days with Peter throwing ideas around while he did mock up pencil sketches. I still have those original sketches in a scrapbook. Sadly, Peter Ledger was killed in a car and truck accident in the USA, Nov 1994.
10. It has been written that the popularity of punk saw Windchase become out of favour and the band played its last gig to 60 people at a Melbourne pub in October 1977. Do you remember that night? How did that feel for you?
I don’t clearly remember that particular night because around that time there were many nights where we were playing to small crowds, soul crushing to say the least.
With no management and with the bean counters digging their heels into the record companies, Windchase’ days were coming to an end. We were carrying debts from a tour to Perth. Truck breakdown, hire truck and mechanical expenses and to top it all off, we were ripped off by the Perth promoter and had barely enough money to get the band and crew back home to Sydney. The financial stress finally caused Toivo and I to go our separate ways and that was the end of Windchase.
11. It was then 1979 and you set out to record your first solo album Epic III – why the title and did you have a vision for your first solo release?
The title Epic III came about from when I played the rough demo to a few friends who referred to it as another epic piece, in the lines of Four Moments & Windchase. The word “epic” stuck in my head and I added the 3 at the end, being the third long piece of music I had composed.
12. For you, did it live up to the vision? (By the way ‘Castaway’ is genius!)
The album is a bit schizoid, but at the time I was totally happy with it as my debut solo album. Thanks for the compliment re Castaway, which BTW, I wrote after coming back from our Fiji honeymoon on beautiful Castaway Island, which was one of the first island holiday resorts opened in Fiji. I guess the song depicts how I was feeling while on the Island. Still love Fiji and love going back.
13. You’ve written the hugely successful soundtrack for the TV series Against The Wind with Jon English, you’ve won both ARIA and APRA Awards for score for Brides Of Christ, you’ve won an AFI for your score to the Lighthorsemen and you’ve been nominated for countless awards – is Soundtrack composition your main activity now?
After co writing and producing the music and soundtrack for ATW with Jon and the success that followed on from that, it gave me at the time a great introduction into composing for film. I remained performing live until 1983 and then pursued a successful career in film composing, which I enjoyed for the following twenty plus years. Throughout those years I gained a huge amount of skill and knowledge in orchestration working with Symphony orchestras, and various ensembles. Since around 2003, I decided to take a break from the pressures of film scoring and resumed performing live to promote my third solo album Oceans Of The Mind. It was that year I put together a show for a concert tour of Japan, which included Mario Millo Band, an intermission and then Sebastian Hardie. The same year Sebastian Hardie was invited to perform as special guests on the YES 35th Anniversary Tour. That was a great year.
I may consider scoring for film again, but for now I’m focusing on performing live. The nature of the music is timeless and with my new band of great musicians, it’s sounding better than ever. So while I still have the desire and ability to perform I’m going for it.
14. You are described as being able to capture the Australian landscape perfectly in music – how do you go about composing something like that, what’s your process?
I’ve not ever set out to capture the Australian landscape but I guess somehow my music must have that effect on some. I guess also that may have been a major reason I became a film composer as I always found it natural and clear as to what the music should be when looking at images. The main thing with me always in the music I write is achieving a feeling. I love to create atmosphere, moods and emotions, colours and changes in music. Music does conjure up images and parts of Four Moments, especially the Dawn Of Our Sun section does that.
15. You are known as a Gibson man. What’s your favourite guitar to play?
My 1968, black, Gibson Les Paul Custom is on top of the list.
I also love to play my Moreno classical guitar and my father’s 1963 Maton acoustic.
16. Which of your compositions do you consider your best or which is your favourite to play live?
Hard to go past Four Moments as it’s quite a journey and it feels part of my DNA, though I do love playing Openings. I am performing Epic III with my new band and it’s a real challenge but the band is up for it and we are all enjoying the journey. There is nothing like playing live, especially your own original music and pushing to reach a high point with every piece that you perform.
17. You are about to head to Japan for a big show, why Japan – tell us about that . . .
Four Moments was released in Japan way back in the 70’s, and then re-issued on cd in the mid 90’s, as was Windchase, Symphinity and Epic III. However, Four Moments particularly has struck a chord with Japanese prog rock fans and they’re hanging out to hear it live again.
In fact there is a Japanese band that do a tribute show performing Four Moments.
We’re very excited to be going to Japan and perform in concert, can’t wait!
18. I believe that the Japanese want the real thing in terms of the set list?
Yes! The promoter has asked if we could perform the music from the Four Moments album in the original order. He claims it will thrill the fans if we do and so I have agreed to do it. They are so into the music, they know every note and sound and have high expectations, but a very respectful and responsive audience.
19. What can we expect to see this Thursday night at Lizottes?
A performance that will be very similar to what we will be presenting in Tokyo. The entire Four Moments album, excerpts from Windchase (music not the band), Epic III and various tracks from Oceans Of The Mind album and also something new.
20. What do you have in store here in Australia when you get back?
Hopefully more shows. With the current talented band line-up, the sky is the limit. The intention is to record a new studio album and to continue to perform Four Moments and other classics as well as some surprises.
Mario Millo & band perform at Lizotte’s this Thursday night, July 12.
Get your tickets here: https://lizottes.com.au/live/shows/booking/2377