OUT of an unassuming kitchen in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg, Sophie and Ash Miles have built one of Australia’s most respected touring companies and record labels.
Mistletone has organised a jaw-dropping list of tours over the past decade, bringing us international acts such as Toro Y Moi,
Sitting side by side in that same kitchen, the industrious spouses share amiable laughter and finish each other’s thoughts. The humble setting only reinforces their DIY approach. “We like working in the kitchen,” says Ash. “This was a printing shop in 1910,” adds Sophie, “so the front of the house is our shopfront. It has all our records and posters and our official office. But we do end up in the kitchen a lot.”
Sprung from a series of Christmas Day parties that let music lovers cut loose after their harrowing family lunches, Mistletone has always been a intimate collaboration for the couple. “The start was just us being in love and wanting to do things together,” confirms Sophie. “We enjoyed working together so much, we wanted to do that more and more.” So they eventually left behind their day jobs – Sophie’s music journalism and Ash’s record store stints – to devote themselves fully to Mistletone.
“I actually think that being able to not have a divide between work and life is an incredible blessing.”
While touring bands has proven much more financially stable, the label is still going strong, releasing records by The Orbweavers, Beach House, Ross McLennan and the free-wheeling
“We were gonna kill the label off at various stages,” admits Ash, “but for some reason we just couldn’t.” Good thing, too, because in 2018 they’ll put out new albums from such Australian indie royalty as HTRK and Grand Salvo.
As for working from home with one’s life partner, Sophie shrugs off the much-touted notion of work/life balance. “I actually think that being able to not have a divide between work and life is an incredible blessing,” she says. “I really love the fact that I can be the same person 24 hours a day. All of my life is connected: what I do, who I am. It’s one continuous flow.”
The pair also reject the idea that you have to forever grow your business to succeed. “I don’t buy into that,” says Sophie. “I find that quite horrible, actually. I think being sustainable is much more how we want to work.”
Here are eight key shows that helped make Mistletone what it is today, prioritising lasting human connections and uniquely memorable experiences above all else.
East Brunswick Club, Melbourne, 2006
Sophie: That was our first tour as Mistletone.
Ash: And our first international act.
Sophie: We wrote him on MySpace and said, “Why don’t you come to Australia?” We had no idea what to do. We just bought his flights on Ash’s shiny new credit card, which was pretty ridiculous because we were already in debt. We didn’t get a visa. We got Lewis [Boyes], Shags [Chamberlain], Dan Luscombe [from The Drones], and Evelyn Morris [Pikelet] to be the backing band. They learnt all his songs immaculately, and then Ariel came to Melbourne and made them rehearse for 48 hours. [Laughs]
It was unexpectedly strict and rigorous [but] the shows were amazing. Ariel was just here a few weeks ago, and he did a Face the Music speech where he talked about those shows and how they changed his concept of what he could be as an artist. He’d never played with a band who really knew his songs. So that’s part of what made him become professional. And it changed our lives: we started to become a touring company and a label.
Ash: That Ariel Pink record, House Arrest, was our first release. We licensed it from Paw Tracks [Animal Collective’s label].
Sophie: Because of the Paw Tracks connection, we put out the Panda Bear album Person Pitch not long after. Through that, we also got connected to Beach House and Dan Deacon. All of them happened in quick succession. That Panda Bear record was amazing for us because it was #1 on Pitchfork that year.
Ash: It sold a lot, so we thought that must be normal.
Sophie: We had no idea. We were like, “This is easy!” It got everything started.
Ash: We were very optimistic, so we didn’t think not to be reckless. Everything seemed to work okay. We didn’t have any disasters for a while. [Laughter]
Sophie: [Australian cult artist]
The Espy, Melbourne, 2009
(feat. Rowland S Howard, Dan Deacon, High Places, and more)
Sophie: People said we should have organised a bus to take everyone from the northside down to St Kilda [in Melbourne’s south]. Because almost everyone who was there lived on the northside.
Ash: If that venue was in the right part of town, we would have done it there again. There were three [distinct] spaces.
All the musicians got so drunk! I remember at the end of the night, we actually had to go into the toilet because there were legs sticking out. There were people passed out everywhere. That’s when you realise you shouldn’t provide unlimited alcohol. [Laughter]
Roxanne Parlour, Melbourne, 2009
(feat. Vivian Girls, Bachelorette, Tiny Vipers, Love of Diagrams, and more)
Ash: We had a Winter Tones at the same venue, which Beach House played on their first [Australian] tour.
Sophie: Everyone was stuck in the rain, lining up outside. The lift was broken.
Ash: We had one person doing the door, and it took hours for people to come in. We learnt a lot about organising shows that time.
Sophie: Our solution [for Spring Tones] was to [mail] people hard tickets. I don’t think it would have occurred to us to use a ticketing agency. It was all very hands-on.
Ash: Nao Anzai, the sound guy, was the hero of those shows, because he made them work. And they really shouldn’t have worked.
Sophie: The PA blew up during Vivian Girls, I think.
Ash: It was chaos, but it worked.
Sophie: There was a lot of goodwill too. The people who came to those shows were really interested in all the bands.
I really liked the channel-surfing quality of that show.
Sophie: Because Melbourne has so many little micro-scenes, we used to enjoy that cross-pollination, inviting artists from quite different areas of music and bringing them all together.
Mistletone’s Fifth Birthday
St Michael’s Church, Melbourne, 2011
(feat. HTRK, Montero, The Orbweavers, and more)
Sophie: That was a very significant moment for HTRK. For them to come back as a duo and complete the album [2011’s Work (Work, Work)] that Sean [Stewart] had been a big part of before he died, and then perform it and present it, it was really life-affirming.
Ash: And to do it in such a beautiful church…
Sophie: It gave the moment a bit of sacredness, which was called for. It was a homecoming too, because they were such a Melbourne band. And very uplifting, even though it’s very dark music.
Ash: And we had a lot of our roster on that show.
Sophie: The Orbweavers did a really amazing performance where Marita [Dyson] was talking, as she does, about Melbourne history. It made us all re-envision Melbourne through her eyes. Montero played as well – they did this magnificent, over-the-top performance. And now they’re conquering the world, touring with Mac DeMarco. Which is so great to see.
A&I Hall, Bangalow, 2013
(feat. Beach House, Sharon Van Etten, Jack Ladder, and more)
Does that appeal to you, choosing places that don’t usually do these kinds of shows?
Ash: It appeals to us if we can do them in a way that’s not going to make us lose thousands of dollars. (Laughter) Or not going to kill us in terms of work. But it’s awesome when we can do them.
Sophie: I think people remember those special venues. That [hall] was incredible.
Ash: That was ridiculous because Beach House had a massive light show.
Sophie: We brought this outdoor-festival light show into a tiny local hall.
Ash: Pretty much all the [costs] came from trucking the lights from Brisbane and back.
Sophie: We couldn’t get half the lights they wanted: they were these really specialty lights. It looked incredible. But it was so hot in there that I thought we were going to have people collapsing.
Ash: But it sold out and they just opened all the doors. I think everyone from the town just came in for free.
Sophie: Yeah, we had to open all the windows and doors. It was in the middle of this beautiful parkland. There were kookaburras. It was magical. Sharon Van Etten played solo, and Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders also played. That’s where those two met. They collaborated [after that]. Sharon sang on his record [
"Because Melbourne has so many little micro-scenes, we used to enjoy that cross-pollination, inviting artists from quite different areas of music and bringing them all together."
Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett
The Shadow Electric, Melbourne, 2014
Ash: Kurt [was finishing] a big sold-out tour, and we had time to do one show.
Sophie: It was so last-minute, we needed someone big to support. And Courtney was just breaking. It was the last time she’d support, let’s put it that way.
Ash: We thought we’d just ask and see what happened.
Sophie: It turns out she was a really big fan of Kurt’s, so she said yes. They didn’t talk much at that show, but they met. We saw their Philly show [following their
The Julie Ruin
MONA FOMA, Hobart, 2014
Sophie: Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox are heroes of ours. We’ve always wanted to work with them. [But] when we got to Hobart, they remembered that with
Ash: I think the children survived, but the mother died.
Sophie: It was an incredibly intense event, and it was the same pier. They were so spooked by that, and it brought back a lot of memories. The performance was incredible.
Ash: So much energy. MONA FOMA crowds are always amazing because they’re actually all ages, [including] seven- and –eight year-olds.
Sophie: There were lots of kids and teenagers. And then when [Kathleen] did [her] Q&A, she was approached by so many people who wanted to talk to her and connect with her. She was so generous with her time and her energy, even though she was quite sick at the time. She suffered from Lyme disease, which they go into in the movie, The Punk Singer. She would come off stage and have to go right to bed. But you’d never know: when she was on stage and talking to fans, she just gave it her all. I was blown away by her spirit.
Same with Kathi Wilcox. She’s such a quiet, humble person, but so incredibly talented and with so much knowledge about music. And also people who cared so much about the politics they’re engaged with, and really live it. Same with Sarah Landeau, who teaches girls to play music. That for me was feminism in action.
There’s this recurring theme here of making human connections and building relationships.
Sophie: It is a family. I mean, we don’t have children.
Ash: That’s all we’ve got, really. That’s one point of difference we can offer. We’re entirely independent. We haven’t had any backing from anyone ever. So it’s all personal from us. And I think that should come across us in our relationships with who we choose to work with, and who chooses to work with us.
Sophie: I think that’s the only way we can compete with big companies who have a lot more money and resources than we do: our personal commitment. We’re devoting our energy and our care to them. When you’re touring or when you’re releasing your music, what you really want is someone who cares – and who’s going to work hard for you. And that’s what we do. That human connection is what it’s all about for us.
Cash Savage and the Last Drinks
Golden Plains, Meredith, 2017
Cash had played Meredith a few years before that, and the Old Bar crew had known who she was then. But this was her coming to fruition.
Sophie: Totally. They hit the stage [in the morning] and it was just so powerful. They started really hard, and they just kept that intensity during the whole set. They finished with ‘Run With the Dogs’ – that wasn’t their intention [but] they’d mistimed the set. It ended up being such an incredibly anthemic final song, with Cash singing: “For you, for us, for everyone.” There was something about the emotion of that line that really resonated with the crowd. Cash spoke about marriage equality on stage from a personal perspective, and there was this huge rush of emotion through the crowd. It’s actually giving me chills thinking about it right now.
Ash: It also made me realise that there isn’t any stage that would be big enough for her. [Laughter] Stadiums?
Sophie: And her ability to command a big crowd like that, and also to ride that wave of emotion. I think a lot of people had underestimated where she was at, and how far she and her band had come. They had been touring in Europe a lot, and had become this force of nature. So that was really unleashed. It was such a cool moment to be part of.
To not know what each show’s going to be like and what each record’s going to sound like – that must keep it really exciting for you.
Sophie: Absolutely. We were just over in the States. We hadn’t been in about five years, so we thought we’d better go over and visit everyone. A lot of our artists played us parts of their newer albums. That was incredibly exciting, just seeing what people had been working on. Seeing how people grow and develop in their art – that’s a real privilege to be able to witness.
"We had to open all the windows and doors. It was in the middle of this beautiful parkland. There were kookaburras. It was magical."