Credit to Robert Bellamy
Listening to HTRK (pronounced "Hate Rock") after a party, when the hangover is already starting to kick in, you wouldn't think the duo are morning people. They aren't-- "not naturally," at least, according to vocalist Jonnine Standish. But, Nigel Yang adds, they are trying. When we spoke via Skype, it was seven in the morning in Australia-- the country in which they first formed in 2003, and to which they finally returned just two years ago after a six year stint in Berlin and London. Seven in the morning is probably nobody's ideal time for an interview, especially when you have as much to talk about as HTRK do.
The band's relatively small discography belies a long, complicated career marked by perpetual upheaval-- personal, stylistic, and geographic. The band formed in Melbourne as a duo, with Nigel playing guitar and Sean Stewart playing bass, and were joined soon afterward by Jonnine. Their first album was an EP entitled Nostalgia, recorded live and self-released in 2005. That record captures the distinctiveness of their early sound-- dirge-like paces dominated by Sean's monolithic bass, squalls of feedback and Jonnine's blankly intoned vocals-- which betrays the influence of The Birthday Party. Their music caught the attention of that band's legendary guitarist, Rowland S. Howard, who went on to co-produce their debut full length, Marry Me Tonight. The album was recorded in 2006 but did not see release until 2009, the same year Howard, with whom the band had come to share a deep afinity, passed away. In the interim, HTRK relocated to Europe-- first to Berlin and then to London, with Sean splitting time between the two cities. The band immersed themselves further in the electronic experimentation of their second full-length record, Work (work, work), although the album's production was punctuated by the suicide of Sean Stewart in 2010-- leaving Jonnine and Nigel to complete the album, which was released in 2011, as a duo.
The pair returned to Australia shortly after the release of Work (work, work). Their upcoming record, Psychic 9-5 Club, which is due out this April via Ghostly International, follows within this narrative of flux. It is their first record to be recorded entirely as a duo-- a change which is complimented by the record's stylistic shift. The album find's HTRK's sound stripped bare. The noise and dissonance of their previous work is greatly absent-- leaving behind skeletal, dub-influenced arrangements to accompany Jonnine's distinctive voice. The album was recorded in New Mexico with Excepter's Nathan Corbin, with whom the duo developed a particular bond. It makes sense then that a band as nocturnal-sounding as HTRK might be trying to become morning people. Anything, it seems, can happen, although constant change may not be something someone can get used to. "I wish it wasn’t so early," Jonnine said, as our conversation veered from the Spice Girls to Vladislav Delay, and from Melbourne to Los Angeles. "My brain’s just slowly kicking in."
Ad Hoc: What was the compositional process like for the music on this new record?
NY: It kind of came out of Jonnine and I jamming a lot, really. It was kind of a new thing as a two-piece to be working without Sean, who always started every song with the bassline. So this time around, we tried to really re-think that and get together as often as possible and play with ideas. Jonn was using a sampler a bit more, and I was enjoying the idea of making songs without basslines-- although they kind of crept back in there.
JS: When we moved back to Australia, we started jamming together. It kind of felt like a new beginning for us.
Ad Hoc: I was going to ask whether these songs were more or less written in Australia or New Mexico.
NY: A bit of both. Probably in Australia. We wrote a lot of it in Sydney as well, becuase I moved here just recently. Sydney is really different than Melbourne. I was getting quite interested in the differences. I guess it’s kind of like an LA / New York difference, you know?
JS: Yeah, people are still wearing snakeskin in Sydney. Kind of like LA.
NY: The whole town is an outdoor gym. It’s actually pretty crazy. It blows my mind, being there for almost three years. It’s getting very surreal, actually-- the amount of fitness that is just thrust in your face as you’re walking down the street.
JS: That found its way onto the new album [laughs].
Ad Hoc: It’s interesting to talk about location, because you have moved around a lot throughout your career. How would say that different environments or places have influenced the way you've approached making-music or performing?
JS: We never used to think that it affected it so much, other than the day-to-day practicalities of making music. Like, "Where are we going to rehearse?” “Where are we going to write?” In Berlin, we were rehearsing out in Wedding, so it was a trek of maybe half an hour or forty-five minutes before we could actually be settled. [In] London, it took us years before we could find a studio we could call our own. And you could never jam in anyone’s apartments, because we had flatmates and neighbors. And it’s always been really easy in Australia for us where we could always make music in our own homes. And that lends itself to having a higher output of music.
NY: In London and Berlin, we weren’t so much aware of how the environment had been shaping our music-- although it kind of always does. I think coming back to Australia, it’s become a lot clearer to us how even something as simple as the climate can have a really big effect on your psychological state. Sydney, again, is kind of exciting, because it’s just really humid. I felt really at home in this constant humidity. A lot of these songs we’re written in the summer, and I was kind of excited by this idea of translating the feeling of being hugged all the time that you feel in your body when it’s so humid. Which you can kind of relate to if you’re in New York, or Japan, or Southeast Asia, but that feeling-- putting it into the music consciously-- was interesting. Who knows if it translates at all. We always get called "cold," anyway, but it’s meant to be kind of warm and a summery record.
Ad Hoc: How did that translate going from Australia to New Mexico to record?
JS: That worked out really well. We really just worked on some demos, I guess, in Sydney together. And we took some sketches over to New Mexico and jammed them out with Nathan Corbin [of Excepter] in Santa Fe. We also wrote some new music with him when we were over there. We were over there in the summer again. We’d never seen anything like the landscape over there. It was a really magical experience for us to be surrounded by the desert and in the company of Nathan. We had a really memorable time.
Ad Hoc: How did you first get in contact with Nathan Corbin?
NY: We’ve loved Excepter for years and years. I think I saw a video clip he had done for an Excepter track, and I had started writing to him to tell him that we’d like to work with him one day. But it was kind of a bad time to send it, because his partner, Clare, had just passed away quite tragically. So I never sent anything. And then a year passes, or something, and we’re in LA about to play a show and we get an email from Nathan saying, “Hey, I’m coming to your show. I’m from Excepter. I make videos. Do you want to make a video?” So it was some pretty crazy synchronicity, because we never had any contact or been vocal about liking Excepter or anything like that. That was the first of a whole bunch of signs that we should be working with him. We did the video for “Bending” which was off Work (work work). Nathan’s got really great gear and this really nice, old school approach to electronic music. It was a really good idea for us to have that kind of clarity and production warmth for our new stuff.
JS: There’s a lot to say about working with Nathan. Our daily routine was really interesting. We would wake up quite early. We would swim in these freshwater lakes every three days. He had quite a secluded studio, where the bedroom and all the analog gear were all in one room. At six-o-clock we would knock off and have margaritas and we’d go for a walk around the mountains and we just bonded like family. We would work in the heat of the day and then we would just talk about other subjects in the night. We’d play records and talk about life. It was a really warm experience.
NY: We’d start the day with a chamomile tea. [Laughs] It was a real escape being in Santa Fe. There was no internet, no showers, no telephone.
JS: Oh my god, yeah. His landline didn’t even work.
NY: You couldn’t even call for pizza. It was really amazing being in Santa Fe, which is one of my favorite places in the world now, that I’ve been to. And I’ve been there since, on a road trip and stuff. It was one of those places that was an unconscious influence on the songs that we created when we got back to Australia to flesh out what we thought was going to be an EP into an album. The Santa Fe sessions were originally gonna be a 4-tracker. And then came home, wrote some more stuff, and hooked up [with Nathan again] in New York, where he'd moved his entire studio, and almost finished the album. Did some more mixing and stuff in Sydney. That was the process.
Ad Hoc: Finishing the record in New York was probably a very different experience from the seclusion of New Mexico.
JS: Yeah. It was a really opposite experience, looking back now, but there were some similarities. The gang was back together, was an obvious one. It was summer again. There was another similarity, which was that Nathan has this amazing ability to really show people the best of a city. He did that with us in LA when we were shooting for “Bending.” We had five locations, and within three days, we felt like we had a good relationship with the city. It was the same experience in Santa Fe and in New York. He’s really been our tour guide for these three amazing cities. Obviously, it was a very different experience as well. The heat wave [going on in New York] when we were there last July really bawled me over a little. Woah! I had never been in New York in that kind of heat and I thought, “This can’t be sustainable. What’s going on?”
Ad Hoc: Were there any musical touchstones you had going into this record?
NY: For this record there were way less talked-about references, musically. In fact I can’t even think of one. We weren’t really thinking about external influences so much.
Ad Hoc: Had that been the case with your past records?
NY: I think for the last record, and even for Marry Me Tonight, it was the opposite of that. We'd have five production references, say, that we’d kind of investigate and get deeper into. For Work (work, work), it was Roxy Music’s Avalon as well as Vladislav Delay’s Mutilia and reading as much as we could about the releases-- what went into them and really observing how those records got made and the feelings they gave off and trying to fuse a bunch of influences-- not just musically but books and films and stuff. For this one, it wasn’t really like that. We were happy with what we had found out in ourselves-- the music we were making.
JS: We kind of view music as a self-portal to get to a new place. We’re using the music to feed us into a new consciousness rather than searching for outside influence. We were kind of using at our own pleasure. With the last album, there was a lot of heavy weight and feelings of loss and blue. We were using music, in hindsight, to get to a better place. Especially with the use of vocal melody and playfulness and letting go, and also connecting with each other. To make music like that, you’ve got to be really comfortable with each other. And I think that this album has definitely lead us to an interesting place in our own lives. A higher sense of who we are.
NY: One influence that we had was, I think, the KLF Chill Out album, and maybe even the manual.
JS: Yeah, It’s a funny story. We were playing some music together in a studio in Melbourne, and we had to move a speaker, which wasn’t working. So we were fumbling around with the speaker and right behind the back of the speaker in a hidden little section we pulled out the KLF manual. It’s the manual of how to write a number one pop hit in the UK.
NY: It’s like a guaranteed kinda thing. Follow this step-by-step, and you’ll get a number one hit record in the UK.
JS: We stopped work and sat down and read it. It actually influenced some of the choruses on the new album, because one of the hot tips on the manual is to make sure the chorus has a positive message [laughs]. And I looked back at some of our writing and I was like, “Man, we’ve been doing this all wrong.” It definitely influenced the choruses.
Ad Hoc: Any other hot tips you took to heart?
JS: Yes. The verses-- you can get as crazy as you want. No one is caring. You can get as nasty and menacing as you like on the verses, as long as you have a positive chorus. So I have experimented with that in the lyrics.
Ad Hoc: There’s a toying with pop structures in a lot of these songs. Was that in someway deliberate?
JS: It’s always been a thing, since the very beginning, actually. We don’t really think about pop music so much, but definitely an accessibility comes into mind. I guess we’ve all had different relationships with pop music. We really have a fondness for it. I’ve always loved the radio as well. I still have a big thing for Australian radio. So I think my love of pop comes from my love of radio.
NY: My parents are clearing out their house at the moment. And I went back and they had two big bags of shit. They were like “Nigel, could you just go through that stuff and chuck anything that you don’t want?" And it was just hundreds of magazines from the late ‘90s-- just pop magazines. I was looking back through them, and was shocked by how crazy I had gone into this whole world of the Spice Girls, or whatever-- that whole ‘90’s world of alternative pop and rock. I had forgotten how that must’ve been such a formative thing for me. Even if now, as Jonn says, we don’t really think about pop, but it’s just kind of in there from having pop icons.
JS: Also, I think a big influence for me is that I’ve always loved listening to the radio in the car and singing along-- especially if you’re feeling emotional. If you’ve been through a breakup or your boss is being a lil' nasty, for me, pop music makes so much sense, where usually it doesn’t. I’ve always enjoyed that human nature aspect where these clichés, when you’re feeling really emotional, feel like they were written just for you.
Ad Hoc: It’s funny hearing y’all talk about pop music in the late ‘90s. Where do you draw the connection from that to the Birthday Party and working on your first record with Rowland Howard?
NY: I feel like I’ve disclosed a little too much. You’re kind of one person before and you become another person when you grow up. When you’re into music so much as a kid, your passion for music just grows when you discover there’s a whole other world out there. It just gets way more extreme. So yeah, Sean and I would draw into noise and experimental, electronic stuff. But the Birthday Party were a revelation for me, because I had never really found any Australian music to really connect with. And they were just amazing. Listening to their live records, especially. Those are the only instances in which their energy is really captured-- that live, ‘81-’82 disk. Yeah, we were huge fans of Rowland’s work in the Birthday Party. And yeah, it was another synchronous event that happened, where he caught us at a show and asked us whether he could produce our record, alongside an album producer he works with a lot called Lindsey Gravina.
Ad Hoc: What was it like working with him?
JS: Working with Rowland was really fun. He had only heard Nostalgia, which was our live, all-in-one-take album. And he heard some pop elements, like we were talking about before, he heard song structures in what most people in Melbourne were calling noise. And he also picked up some of our humor as well. And we got along so great-- the three of us-- with Rowland. We thought he was really great for us on so many levels because he was really quick at making decisions on what songs should go and what songs should stay. He also kept us from overthinking. He really captured the essence of what we were trying to say. The three of us, you know, the pressure of making the debut album-- it could have gone on for another six months or a year. But we really got it finished in about a month.
NY: He was a really strong presence in the studio, even though he wouldn’t say too much. When he would pop up everyone would pay attention, because he’s made so many records. He’s pretty wise, you know, while still coming across as so youthful. He would come in with the blue Powerade in the late afternoon after we had been expecting him for a few hours and he would listen back to what we had worked on and just call stuff either "pretentious" or "great." And if it was "pretentious," it got left out-- whole songs got left out. He was pretty happy with our approach, because our approach was pretty spontaneous. We only had a week to track everything, and most of the guitars were done in one take. All the vocals were done in one take. Sean took the most time-- the basslines took up like five of those days. Rowland was also very generous with his time. If a song needed another part-- we’re all just pulling our hair out, like, “This song is not working. It needs something else.” He’d be like, “Ah! What if it had a synth part or organ part.”
JS: He played some guitar on the album as well.
NY: Yeah, he hadn’t recorded anything for years. So it was his first time back on the recording chair, putting parts down. And you could see him pretty quickly warming up and laying down some really awesome parts, all in one take. He ended up playing on five or six songs, and he ended up borrowing a keyboard from the Models, which is an Australian band, and he dialed up some organ sounds which, weirdly, really worked on “Fascinator” and “Rentboy.” He was really happy with the album, I think. He would listen to it a lot.
Ad Hoc: How has that experience and his process carried over into the work you’re doing now?
JS: We’re highly aware of not losing the essence of our initial demos. There’s always something in those demos-- and this is for any musician-- where a year later, when you’ve been recreating that song, sometimes you lose something. You lose the energy or you lose the message or you lose that something that you can’t put into words. And Rowland’s teaching is not to overwork something and to be aware if you’ve captured that initial intention. And that intention usually comes from a place of not thinking. That’s why demos work out so well. So that’s definitely carried over from Rowland; we’re highly aware. Even with the new album, if we go back to the demos and something was lacking, sometimes the demo parts would sneak back into the final parts.
Ad Hoc: You’ve described this record as “being a love album” in previous interviews-- could you explain that a little more?
JS: I think it’s an oversimplification, obviously, but it was a good begining point when we were making the demos, even if the concept changed. It was a good starting point, mentally, to have something that was challenging, cheesy, playful, and a cliché. It meant that there was no agenda. It really has twisted into something more complex. I think it’s an album that’s just on the cusp of finding meaning-- meaning within one’s self. And I think yeah, love was an initial object to start searching for meaning. Some conceptual ideas were, “What is a world like without love? What is a world like when love has made you passive or obsessed?” The subject matter was an interesting starting point, but it definitely becomes something far more complex.
Ad Hoc: And I guess it’s a starting point that contrasts with your previous work.
JS: Yeah, and it had to happen that way. One of the first things when me and Nigel started to play music together as a duo was, “Let’s do everything for pleasure.” There was a lot of heaviness on the last album that we wanted to lift melodies, lift sounds into a brighter territory.
Ad Hoc: I’m curious about where the album tile came from?
JS: The album title is kind of interesting. Me and Nigel, we’re always talking about different projects we’d like to work together on. One idea we had was to actually create a space which was the background of a club-- a kind of chilled environment. The best room of the club where all the good conversations happen between nine and five, Monday to Friday. And we had been talking to this space and the music we were making lends itself to this space. And we thought, “What could we call this club?,” and we were throwing ideas around and we thought we could call it “Psychic,” because people could make connections from nine to five rather than these lost hours where people sometimes find themselves. They’re kind of dead hours sometimes, for a lot of people. Then we thought that we would call the album Psychic 9-5 Club, because there were a lot of psychic connections, like with Nathan Corbin. And so that’s how the title came about.
NY: In a way, it’s kind of like having a muse, but the muse is this club space that exists in our head. It kind of became clearer as an imaginary concept. All the mixing and everything is kind of what I’ve done for this space. It’s this club where no one’s doing any drugs but everyone is on a totally different mental plane of connection. This kind of interesting energy that can come from altered states, and reaching highs from non-chemical means was something we wanted to play with.
Ad Hoc: That’s a really cool idea-- the idea of an imagined space that can act as a muse.
NY: Yeah! We were talking a lot about drugs and music. And all the great music scenes come out from there being a new drug on the dance scene. That hasn't happened for such a long time. You just go to these lousy kind of methadrone-- really crap drugs. Nothing new and exciting is being synthesized. Maybe that’s all over. If there’re clubs now that, say, aren’t fueled by drugs, but still have great music, what kind of music would this club play? This record is that music for us.