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Mountfort de rigueur
by Brett Thomas

When Helen Mountfort first began playing music, she had no intention of ever joining a rock band. Her instrument of choice, the cello, was hardly de rigueur in either the sweaty pubs or cavernous arenas associated with rock and besides, she grew up surrounded by the grand sounds of classical music. But now, more than a decade later, the New Zealand born musician finds herself the preeminent cello player in Australian rock, with gigs in both the acclaimed NDW and its curious offshoot MFTCC. How so?

"I grew up in a family of classical musicains and I was obsessed by the cello from a very early age," Mountfort said. "All cellists are classically taught and I became obsessed with classical music. I didn’t listen to much non-classical music until my late teens and now everyone has great fun at my expense because there are still (famous rock) songs that I don’t know."

In the end, it was a chance encounter with a Talking Heads album that turned Mountfort’s musical life upside down.

"My boyfriend in New Zealand joined one of those record clubs and when a whole packet of albums arrived one day, I opened it up and took out a Talking Heads record," she recalled. "I put it on and I thought: ‘This is great.’ I must have been in one of those open, receptive moods. Now, I don’t listen to any classical music - all my old vinyl records are classical but my CD’s are non-classical."

Nine years ago, Mountfort moved to Australia and in 1988 she happened upon a show by a quirky Melbourne based outfit called NDW, a band which specialises in an intriguing blend of indigenous, ambient rock. From the instant she saw them, she was hooked.

"I fell in love with then," she said. "I realised they had a lot of cello and I thought to myself:’I want to play in this band, this is the band for me’."

Only a few months later, fate engineered a meeting with NDW’s David Bridie and Mountfort found her dream coming TRUE when she was asked to accompany NDW on their Claim tour.

"It was very different but very exciting," she said of her first rock tour. "There were a lot of new things, like doing sound checks and travelling in a Tarago. It was interesting."

Since then, things have moved ahead in leaps and bounds for Mountfort. NDW have received international praise from the likes of Peter Gabriel and their critical, if not commercial, success in Australia grows. Then there’s MFTCC, a band put together by the prolific Mountfort and Bridie to occupy their time between other musical projects.

Tomorrow, the band releases its second album ‘Brood’, an indication that the formerly sideline project might be getting a little more serious.

"It kind of is," Mountofrt tentatively agreed. "It has definitely changed colours, it has turned into a different project now. When we made the first record in 1991 we didn’t even have a deal, we just wanted to something with the extra money we were making from gigs. The first record did realy well and we wanted to play live shows every three months or so. Then it became quite absolute that we wanted to do a second album."

Mountfort said there were no difficulties in separating NDW from MFTCC.

"They’re very separate in our minds," she said. "For a start, there are four people in the band who have nothing to do with NDW (Andrew Carswell, Hope Csutoros, Andrew Richardson and Michael Barker) and that gives the band a different identity. MFTCC uses all acoustic instruments, so that gives it a very different sound."

"I think the sound is warmer and a bit softer (than NDW) and MFTCC is a very poppy band. MFTCC doesn’t see itself as part of the (music) industry, it does what it wants."

Mountfort said the idea to form MFTCC came when she and Bridie began listening to a a lot of instrumental music. The pair though it would be fun to record something using only acoustic instruments, with an emphasis on strings.

"We wanted an arena to expand some different things and that is what it has become," she said. "It’s very strong and financially viable."

From a basis of Mountfort and Bridie, the band grew bit by bit with friends and friends of friends joining as rehersals progressed over the weeks. Now MFTCC and NDW complement each other perfectly.

"In a way there has always been a lot of expectation on NDW and that has put a lot of pressure on us," Mountfort said. "With MFTCC neither the media nor the industry put pressure on us at the beginning and it was very easy to do."

Mountfort doesn’t restrict her work to her two bands - she’s an in-demand session player (Let’s face it, who else would you call if you wanted a bit of cello on your album?) and has worked with the likes of Paul Kelly and, more recently, Linda and Vika Bull. And she is aware of a growing popularity of strings in rock.

"I think that style is quite trendy at the momnent, which is good for me," she said. "I see many people using cellists here and I think it is just being seen as a great insrtument. It’s great for playing melody on and the deep tones are fantastic for sad songs."

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