‘Dollars for Days’: The Making of Tin Palace’s Genre Defying Debut, ‘Nights of Dawn’

Solomon Powell

Tin Palace. Photo / Maddie Jones

Robbie Mulligan and Jimmy Kay, now 24 and 25, fondly recall their performance for the Whangārei Intermediate School talent show. Instead of getting up and playing a tune, like most other competitors, the pair used their guitars to create a live remix from a handful of beginner guitar songs. For instance, Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ was mashed into the opening of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’. “We just picked key parts of like eight songs that people would recognize, and just mashed them together” says Jimmy. “I think our dad still has the video, its crack-up”, he says, laughing. The performance both enthralled the audience and won them the talent show. “I guess it was our first little taste of, oh, we can actually do this” says Jimmy. The pair would go on to become standout stars of the music competition scene; Jimmy, at age 14, was one of the youngest players with a lead role at the Bay of Islands Jazz and Blues Festival, and Robbie, aged 16, won Zeal’s national singer-songwriter competition. Naturally, the pair continued to pursue music, and despite parting ways after high school, have once again found themselves combining forces in Tin Palace. The release of their debut album, ‘Nights Of Dawn’, finds Robbie and Jimmy reflecting on how far they’ve come since that fateful high school talent quest, and the three years spent bringing the concept album to life.

After high school, Robbie and Jimmy parted ways when Robbie moved to Wellington, enrolling in Massey University’s commercial music degree. After his second year in the course, he was informed all students would undertake a major project in their final year, with six months to plan and six months to bring it to life. For many students this is a daunting proposition, a sort of capstone project. But lucky for Robbie, he was already hitting it off with his new flatmate, Harry Ward. After testing the waters with some songwriting, they agreed to form a band. Next, Robbie contacted his mentor Devon Abrams, also a founding member of Shapeshifter and producer for Drax Project, and pitched his ideas. “I sat down, and I was like: I’ve got all these ideas for songs. And I’d really like to do a big work that is kind of cohesive” says Robbie. “And he’s like, well, why don’t you do a concept album? It gives you a good pathway where you can try to keep all the songs on. And when you promote it, it’ll give people something to talk about, because they can talk about the story, and they can talk about the themes that run through it”. This was all the encouragement Robbie needed, and after the meeting he found a quiet spot on campus, sat down, and wrote the first lines to his very own concept album. 

Tin Palace. Illustration by Margherita Cornali.

Robbie went about sourcing more players from his friend group, bringing aboard Tom Brehm, who would play play bass. But when the call-out for a drummer went unanswered, they took to Vic deals. Out of the woodwork appeared Luka Francis-Murray, who had coincidentally been a resident alongside Robbie at the Massey halls. With drums, keys, bass and rhythm guitar, all they needed now was lead guitar. Robbie sent a message to the best lead player he knew, Jimmy Kay, who was still living in their hometown of Whangarei. “And I eventually convinced him to move down” says Robbie. In the meantime, the rest of the band had already developed some rapport, so they tentatively invited Jimmy along to jam. “I went to my first band practise with them, and Robbie’s like; you’ll probably be fine. Just play like how you normally play”, recalls Jimmy. “And I was like okay. And I ripped into a massive solo”.  After Jimmy was finished shredding, the group sat in stunned silence. Luka said one word: “yup”, and Jimmy was in. “So it just sort of started growing from there, and it was real fun to play again […] because Robbie and I just work” says Jimmy.

The band were rehearsing regularly; recording and releasing two singles by the end of 2020: ‘Blackmarket Mangos’ and ‘Clarity’. However, recording the entire album would end up taking over two and a half years, meaning Robbie submitted a partially finished album for his end of year project. The delay was mostly due to a commitment to learning every stage of the recording and production process themselves. Aside from two base tracks, which were done at Massey’s studios, everything was recorded in someone’s bedroom. “That’s why it’s taken so long, it’s just all that time spent tryna figure out how to do all these things. Watching YouTube videos, realizing you’ve done everything wrong previously, and having to go back and redo everything”, says Robbie. Jimmy recalls, several months ago, coming home late at night and opening the front door to find Robbie, who motioned for him to be quiet. Robbie had set up a mic and was smacking the couch with a drumstick. Jimmy stopped and stood silently while Robbie continued to hit the couch. “Then he goes; I’ve got it, sweet”, and permitted Jimmy past, to his bedroom. “It was so I didn’t ruin the take” explains Jimmy. “But it’s stuff like that that is just fun. It makes it way more fun” he adds with a chuckle. Also, the DIY production has only added to the authenticity of Tin Palace’s music. “One of the things that’s really unique about our production is that we keep in a lot of the mistakes and then actually accentuate them” says Robbie. “If there’s somebody talking in the background of a take and that sounds really good, we’ll turn it up real loud, pitch it down an octave and then put it in the background”.

“We’ve just been playing together long enough that we don’t even have to say anything anymore”.

Robbie

During the process of creating ‘Nights Of Dawn’, the players in Tin Palace grew close. Yet, the relationship between Robbie and Jimmy runs a touch deeper. The pair admit that their musical bond, while certainly the product of time and experience, is still something they occasionally marvel at. “I don’t know what it is”, says Robbie. “We’ve just been playing together long enough that we don’t even have to say anything anymore”. Jimmy says “we can literally just be playing, and we both just stop at the same time, we don’t even look at each other and just walk offstage. And then I think, how did we do that?”. Robbie and Jimmy believe that while their formative musical influences were different, they ended up being stylistically complimentary, and it shows onstage. While Robbie cites musicians such as The Beach Boys, Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton, Jimmy speaks fondly of the likes of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. “And I think you can really hear that difference as well, in our guitaring styles. Jimmy likes very heavy distortion, that kind of Black Sabbath thing”, says Robbie. “Whereas I think mine’s a lot more kind of plucky and into like, blues and the warmer tones, but then also like the kind of funkier tones as well”. Naturally, Robbie’s guitar playing is more groovy and mellow, while Jimmy’s blazing lead can be traced directly to players like Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi.

“You see that everywhere. People kind of getting frustrated by the machines that make their life easier. […] An appreciation and an anger for capitalism”

Robbie

Needless to say, the array of genres and styles present throughout Nights of Dawn makes for a record that is hard to pinpoint; something Robbie asserts is part of the band’s ethos. “It’s a super broad range. Almost every song is a different genre” he says. “But that’s part of our philosophy too, we don’t really believe in genre”. Jimmy agrees: “with having multiple influences, we’re not gonna try to stick to one. We’ve got too many inputs into our brains for one sort of idea. Otherwise everything would just be funk, or everything would just be pop, you know what I mean?”. Also, Robbie explains that different musical influences are always coming and going.  “I feel like when you have those really strong influences, they act like mentors in your life and in your music creation. You kind of move through them as you’re moving through your life, and some might just work for six months”. For Robbie, one notable example might be the NZ-raised musician Skyscraper Stan. “He was writing these folk songs, but he was writing them in a way that was really new. He was constantly trying to push the envelope in the way that rhyming schemes work and moving through lyrics” says Robbie. He admired Stan’s political lyricism and was inspired to explore such themes whilst writing ‘Nights of Dawn’. “On a large scale, I think people are really turned off political music” he says. “And it’s not that I want to be just political, but we wanna try and tell stories. We want to try and make people think in new ways and do our best to say things that haven’t been said before”.

Nights of Dawn Cover Art. Album art / Georgia McNeill

That said, the concept on which the band’s name is based is explicitly political. The idea, about which Robbie waxes rhapsodic, centers on the absurdity of definitions of “normal” within a capitalistic society. For example, a rich stockbroker, motivated by profit and wearing an expensive suit, is seen as the standard, whilst an unemployed vagabond, roaming the world happy and free, is seen as an outcast. In written form, Robbie elaborates: “and thus, those who are last shall be first, spending their days in jubilation with like-minded misfits in a palace made of tin, while those people that our society has deemed “important” sit alone in the dark, on a golden toilet”. This disdain for capitalism is evident in the very same line Robbie wrote after his meeting with Devon Abrams. Also the opening line on the first track of the album, it goes: “Walking through a haze / Trading dollars for days”. While Robbie certainly feels a disdain for capitalism, he also feels a grudging admiration, and it is this dichotomy the song seeks to capture. “You see that everywhere. People kind of getting frustrated by the machines that make their life easier” he says. “An appreciation and an anger for capitalism”. Another line from ‘Dollars for Days‘ goes: “It’s a dichotomy isn’t it? / Capitalism has given me everything”. Political commentary aside, the rest of ‘Nights of Dawn’ is loosely guided by a narrative, which Robbie says is centered on the “interaction of love and dependency”. However, Robbie remains vague about the exact story, perhaps to leave room for the listener to decipher it themselves. Still, he lets one thing be known: it doesn’t have a happy ending.

In a certain way, what Tin Palace do on ‘Nights of Dawn’ is not dissimilar to what Robbie and Jimmy did for their high school talent show performance: they take the listener on a journey. Except, where their talent show performance somewhat unsubtly led the audience from ‘Smoke on the Water‘ to ‘Stairway to Heaven‘, they go a step further on ‘Nights of Dawn’. They welcome you with the grand prog rock of ‘Dollars for Days’, lift you up with the infectious euphoria on ‘The Fly and the Lizard’, seduce you with the sunny ‘Wide Awake’ and see you off with the sombre ‘Asleep at the Wheel’.

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