An interview with Steve McDonald

by Jennie Scotcher

New Zealand freelance journalist

You were in five different bands in the sixties and seventies.  Were they all playing a similar style of music?

My brother’s band The Strangers played early pop music covers– Gerry and the Pacemakers – that sort of stuff. I then joined The Dizzy Limits who played lots of Beatles songs. We became Timberjack and played our own heavier rock music.  We were nominated for a golden disc award for “Come to the Sabbat”.  

 I went back to playing keyboards and joined Taylor who played country rock.  My last band was Human Instinct – an Auckland progressive rock band who had fifty different members over the years.  The only constant was the founder Maurice Greer.

Steve McDonald is a musical chameleon.  

Working in the music business for four decades, he

has written over two hundred soundtracks for TVNZ,

been  a member of five rock and pop bands, won

international song-writing awards and released six solo albums.

From experimental synthesizer to heavy rock and  jazz,

McDonald has flirted with many musical genres.  His colour

for the last decade has been Celtic, selling over one million

copies of his new age albums. But the only thing which has

stayed the same about McDonald is his trademark long hair.

Did you have a musical upbringing?

Neither of my parents were musical.  I was sent to piano lessons when I was five. My brother had a band in the early sixties which I joined when I was 12 as the drummer. I wasn’t a drummer but that was the only vacancy they had at the time.

My father owned a radio repair shop in Wellington which was started by my grandfather in 1923. I did my apprenticeship and worked for five years there.  

Did your family support your musical interests?

My grandfather thought music was something little girls did.  I finally earned his respect when I won the 1986 Asian Pacific song writing contest.He was in his eighties then.  He conceded then that I had musical ability and it was a career for me.

 You had one of the first synthesizers in New Zealand – how did that happen?

The Shand Miller music shop in Wellington imported the first synthesizer.  The owner, George Miller, was my piano accordion teacher at the time.  He asked if I would have a look at it as no one knew how to play it.  I found I could understand the workings of it using my radio engineering background.  I bought it off him in the end for $1600.  I then bought a Melatrome in 1968 which cost $3600.  It took me two years to pay that off.  I later sold it to Status Quo who I don’t think ever used it.

How did you move from synthesizers to Celtic music?

In the eighties I worked with Bernie Allen, the musical director of TVNZ. Together we produced soundtracks for over two hundred films and television documentaries from the Tuesday Documentary to the America’s Cup Challenge and Miss New Zealand.  He helped me to think orchestrally – what goes together.  

In the early nineties a friend sent me one of those name origin scrolls and I got interested in the history of the clan system in Scotland.

I set some of the stories to music.  The soundtrack work  gave me the experience to put the musical score together. My first album was Sons of Somerled in 1996.