Affecting, intelligent rock with a twist - that's the mark of New Zealand's Mutton Birds. They're just about to embark on a British tour before returning to NZ to record their fourth album

It was way back in 1995 when New Zealand's pre-eminent melodicists The Mutton Birds packed their bags and headed for England, but this tour is the first time they have ventured into the provinces for dates. They still flit to and from New Zealand regularly, but gradually both they and their considered, mellow rock have grown into the British consciousness. "The first year was a bit dodgy, with the sense of not being inside the environment that made us want to write," remembers songwriter Don McGlashan. "It was pretty strange, especially surrounded by manufactured product which sounded like it was made by computers in the record company office, but we needed to come through that. You carry yourself wherever you go. It doesn't matter where you are - you still write about your friends and how you feel when you wake up in the morning."

The Mutton Birds left their homeland to escape the "big fish in a small pond" syndrome. Even before the band started, Don had scored the music for Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table, while the band's first two albums went platinum in NZ. In Britain, though, they've had a decidedly up and down time. 1997 saw the eventual release of their first Brit-based album, Envy Of Angels, which underscored the band's reputation for gently affecting prose and added twists to everyday emotions. "I tend to look at what's strange in the familiar," explains Don. "There's a kind of writing pattern among New Zealand bands who, unless they are really drug-addled and sing about how it is to be a squirrel, write in a pretty deadpan way about stuff that really happens. You can do that with a song without using formulas. And although we are not a country band, I have always liked that storytelling, kitchen-sink simplicity to country."

How about more soundtracks? "I have, for the New Zealand contribution to the BFI `100 Years of Cinema' season - Cinema Of Unease, directed by Sam Neill. New Zealand is a small place; as long as you get your face around you're liable to get lots of jobs, if you put your hand up."

The Mutton Birds are already over halfway through writing their new album, but as they parted company with their label Virgin a few months back, plans are still vague. But optimism is something Don isn't running short of. "We go back to New Zealand for three weeks after this tour, then in March we make our fourth studio album somehow, for release by the summer. There's an air of uncertainty at the moment but if the way we are writing and playing are indicators, we're still very strong."

Shepherd's Bush Empire (0181-740 7474), tonight