HTRK at Atonal Festival – Interview

HTRK: It’s not as sad anymore because we’re not as sad

HTRK live at Atonal Festival 2019 (Photo: Christoph Voy)

The Australian band HTRK are back in Europe with a new album called “Venus in Leo” (Ghostly International).  Anton Teichmann (text) and Christoph Voy (photos) met Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang ahead of their first show of the tour at Atonal Festival in Berlin.
Having gone through many changes, musically and personally – founding member and bass player Sean Stewart committed suicide in 2010 –, the band talks open about drama in their life, why they decided to bring the guitar back into their sound and what this all has to do with being back in Melbourne.

Anton Teichmann: What was the writing process for this album like and how did it differ from the previous records? I read that you recorded most of it live, how did that work?
Nigel Yang: On this album we tried to really write the songs together with guitar and voice. Previously we would start more electronically with most of the ideas on computers, but this time we really made a decision to get together and jam and come up with stuff spontaneously. After a day or two of writing they just ended being recorded and landed on the album – not much post-production and after thought.
Jonnine Standish: In the recording sessions, the beats and bass came out of the MPC but we were playing off each other live. We might do three takes, listen back and one take in particular would have that one feel that we were looking for and then we would move on to another song. We would leave these songs for a while and then come back to them later. If we still liked the way it was, that’s that was it. We pushed ourselves to do it
Nigel: On the previous album, most of it was electronic, but before that we also jammed a lot.

And is there a theme to the album?
Jonnine: Yes, there is one. What theme did you pick up on it?

Jonnine Standish at Atonal 2019 (Photo by Christoph Voy)

For me it seems to pick up on stories of everyday life. I especially found the two songs “New Years Eve” and “New Years Day” on the album very interesting as I really don’t like New Years Eve and it made me think about that a little
Jonnine: Oh yes, it is very strange time around New Year and Christmas. We grew up in the suburbs – a very mundane, every day taken for granted life, but around that period it’s very hot in Australia, it’s high summer. It gets kind of creepy, because we have all this European traditions around us, like Santa and snow. People actually spray snow on windows but it’s 35 degrees. There are many unfulfilled expectations and violence in the air. There is a lot of domestic violence and arguments. We’ve both been very interested in that period of time and it happened by coincidence that we were writing the songs around that time as well. So New Years Eve and New Years Day crept into the theme. But the overall theme is drama. A life of drama.

Even though it is about drama it still sounds a little bit more optimistic and hopeful than the previous records.
Jonnine: A lot of people have picked up on that sentiment. It’s not as sad anymore because we’re not as sad. We’ve gone through a whole process of healing and accepting and that just comes out in what you create.

It doesn’t have to be a contradiction, right? A lot of time you can be happy but have so much drama around you
Jonnine: It really isn’t a contraction. Our albums are definitely diary chapters of the last three years together and this one is diving into the drama and turbulence we’ve experienced in our lives. However it can’t be denied that we are in a better place psychologically and spiritually. So this makes it a blessing because, when we’ve written Work, Work, Work that also delved into some of these things but we were in a really bad place because we had just lost Sean, our bass player. So going into darker themes, we just didn’t want to do this again then, but we are in a place now where we can go into that territory again

Drama happens even when you are feeling happy – sometimes it’s out of your control.
Jonnine: Well, it is funny you say that because I used “Venus in Leo” as a kind of scapegoat, to say things are out of your control if your Venus is in Leo and you have more dramatic relationships. I am quite susceptible to alternative ways of finding meaning, maybe in a really gullible way but I am the kind of person who, if a relationship goes bad, would call a psychic.

And does the change of location also have to do with how the album sounds and how you felt when you wrote those songs
Nigel: Definitely. The setting we wrote those songs in was quite beautiful. Our studio is an hour out of Melbourne, surrounded by ancient trees, really nice air. Getting out of the urban setting gave us some distance to create our little world so we didn’t have to worry about external influences so much.
Jonnine: We had no distractions, we could do 14h jams and really break through on songs without being disturbed by life-

HTRK live at Atonal Festival 2019 (Photo: Christoph Voy)

Before that you always worked and lived in big cities, right?
Nigel: I still live in the city – but yes.
Jonnine: I live in the rain forest, but it’s only an hour away from the city, I’m there all the time. Before that we’ve recorded in New York, Santa Fe, Berlin, London.
Nigel: I feel like Melbourne, from being home, there isn’t that pressure of a big city like London can have on you. That is probably the main thing that you don’t have to struggle that much. There is a bit more peace.
Jonnine: Yeah, there is no hussle. There is no competitive edge to it in everything you are doing and that affects your music. I’m sure it can make your music a bit more immediate and tougher, because you are at war with all these other bands. Now we’ve got the peace to be us.

Do you feel an album like this would have been possible in Berlin where you also spent some time?
Jonnine: Probably not. We would have been trucking all of our stuff to Wedding, broke and crazy. I can’t even think what it would sound like. It has also been such a long time ago. We were here from May 2006 until about May 2007. It seems like it was a very different place. No one was into Y-3 back then (laughs)
Nigel: Or maybe we just never crossed into Mitte.
Jonnine: We hung out a lot at West Germany. We are still friends with some great people that we knew back then
Nigel: Our last show here was a while ago though – in 2011.
Jonnine: Back then we didn’t really work. Sean was a foot model, we all had ten shitty job that actually didn’t make any money. One of the reasons we had to move to London. We left as a band to Berlin, because we had gone as far we could in Melbourne at the time. We played every venue, there wasn’t anywhere else we could go. You can’t really tour in Australia. You can go to Sydney and that’s it. We were confident about what we were doing. And it worked over here, we got some really big love. And we are happy to be back here, we are also coming here as festival groupies. We are looking forward to seeing the other bands. We have a day off so we have time to see a lot.
Nigel: But now I feel like we’ve just been away for far too long, we don’t even know how much of a European sound or thinking is in this album. It’s very much a Melbourne project now. We’ve been listening to our community radio a lot, there are lots of new indie bands and there also is a particular kind of electronic music. It’s all really different to over here where it feels more industrial and experimental as the main strand of music, this festival (Atonal), is a good example. In Melbourne you are away from all that.
Jonnine: It’s like being in the Bahamas, music-wise
Nigel: We embraced the non-Europeanness of where we were at in our mind.

Jonnine Standish at Atonal 2019 (Photo by Christoph Voy)

What does that mean exactly?
Jonnine: Probably means bringing back the guitar. There probably is a bit more of that Melbourne rock of the 90s and early 00s in our sound. We didn’t actually reference any of those bands, but we had a memory of what music we listened to when we were growing up in Melbourne that might have washed into the sound.
Nigel: I played the guitar more on this album and I was wondering about why we are drawn to the guitar. I had to stop playing guitar at some point because it was really linked to the bass guitar. And when Sean died, we thought there is no point of using the guitar without a bass line and I wanted to explore electronic stuff more. It was about getting that away from the bluesy bass guitar riffs and trying to do something new. And that’s what we did with “Psychic 9-5 Club”. And then enough time passed so that I could return back to the guitar with quite a different approach and I learned to play it differently, less as a noise instrument and just more melodic. I got more into melody in songwriting and I wanted to bring this into the new songs. There still aren’t that many bass lines, that is always a challenge. It’s easy to write guitar and vocal songs without bass lines if you don’t have a beat but because there is a beat, it’s a challenge. That was a lot of the time we spent writing, trying lots of guitar ideas and seeing how they work with the vocals so we could be minimal enough not to add bass lines. We wrote bass lines sometime,s but we figured we don’t actually need them and left them

Jonnine Standish at Atonal 2019 (Photo by Christoph Voy)

What is the contemporary music scene in Melbourne like? Do you consider yourself part of the scene?
Jonnine: The scene has really changed. When we first started out over ten years ago it was more of a rock scene. It was very male. Now the scene is amazing. There is a couple of different things going on: There is a non-binary, femme, queer hiphop scene and a huge RnB, soul and hiphop scene as well with a lot of indigenous Australians who are breaking into America. But there still is a lot of guitar music and rock bands but with a lot of girls. They are super tough, very punk and very political. They have a lot of political agendas in the lyrics which is something we don’t really do but that is very exciting. Lots of trans kids on the scene. Everything is just much more feminine now. Even in our rehearsal space, there are roses and girls with electronic gear ,before it was just eight guys sweating and drumming and smoking. That’s all I need.
Nigel: We feel part of the music scene, right?
Jonnine: Yeah we are definitely part of it but we are the old guards now.

HTRK gonna perform at Stadtgarten, Cologne, on Tuesday, 3rd of September. 


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