From the Archives: HTRK in Oyster #93
Like most people, I have an inner sap that falls for things sometimes.
HTRK formed in Melbourne in 2003, a noisy, experimental reaction to the garage rock revival that was so popular at the time. The trio singer Jonnine Standish, guitarist Nigel Yang and bassist Sean Stewart quickly became frustrated and bored with the local scene, relocating first to Berlin and eventually to London, where they recorded their critically acclaimed first album, Marry Me Tonight, with The Birthday Party's Roland S. Howard. Last year, Stewart sadly took his own life and yet in September HTRK released their second album, WORK (work, work), which 8 the basslines Stewart recorded before his death. Standish and Yang are about to embark on an Australian tour, so we thought we'd revisit this interview from Oyster #93.
Ariane Halls: Why did you decide to leave Melbourne?
Jonnine Standish: Leaving Melbourne feels like a long time ago now. A place can be so familiar, yet strange, at the same time. We left for Berlin in May, 2006. HTRK was a little ignored and I guess we had gone as far as we could at that point. The band scene in Australia was stacked full of boys playing good-time fast rock and sending out man-vibes, saying "let's fight or fuck." This was totally at odds with our live show, which was working more within the themes of restraint and fascination. I remember we had about ten dedicated fans who came to most shows, but the majority found us too loud or intense. Anyway, I booked three tickets to Berlin on my credit card and presented the boys with them at rehearsal that night. We had discussed moving tentatively, but this act was still kinda thrilling.
And now that you are in London, how has that move affected you?
Standish: London is such a city of extremes; I'm finding the middle ground can be kind of rebellious. I don't try to stand out as much as I did when I lived in Melbourne. I'm more of a spy amongst the high-fashion superstars and uniformed drones.
Nigel Yang: London has toughened us up! I'm ready for a fight when I leave the house hence, a more intensified search for beauty.
Sean died just over a year ago. He was such an integral part of both the band and your lives ? it is very difficult to comprehend how hard it must have been, especially after the death of Roland S. Howard just prior. Was it a difficult decision to continue HTRK without him?
Standish: Yeah, there's been so much loss for us. It's been too much and too hard to believe. Continuing, as a concept, was something for us to hold onto when everything was sliding all over the place. We had a lot of support from Sean's family and friends to keep going with HTRK. It was natural to at least finish the album and keep Sean with us in some way for longer.
You rewrote some of the lyrics intended for the new album after Sean died. How did they change?
Standish: The studio was a space [in which] I could work through some of my own feelings in the months after Sean died. My lyrics changed in their delivery, as they became more of an internal dialogue, rather than words addressing a perceived person or crowd. I was still writing about lusting over tangible things, like skin and breath and the body, but singing to the intangible ... Some lyrics were reworked to incorporate a strong theme that was developing around the idea of submission. Every song you hear on the album is a study, in some form, of submitting your power over to another. Some lyrics changed to deal directly with our own compliance in the corporate world the last song on the album, 'Body Double', references Sean's double, corporate life.
What are your greatest influences outside of music?
Standish: I get totally into and emotionally affected by graphic images, photography, films and certain books, the kind of art that depicts elements of surrealism in what would otherwise seem to be a realist piece of work. I'm deeply attracted to the uncomfortably strange, the creepy, the playful; the unexpected coincidences of ordinary and everyday life. The mystery is in front of us. Some stuff I really love: Lux et Nox, a book of photographs by Bill Henson; teenage Tumblrs, such as www.stuckinmeditati0n.tumblr.com; X'ed Out, a graphic novel by Charles Burns; Guide, a novel by Dennis Cooper; Stranger Than Paradise, a film by Jim Jarmusch; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
If you could create the soundtrack for a film, what would you do?
Standish: An American teen flick God, I would love to do that. I'd write a soundtrack that was just one, radio-length, pop kind of song. It would come in and out of consciousness throughout the movie you would hardly notice it. It might be heard under conversation noise in the supermarket, at a pool joint, or for a couple of seconds from a loud car stereo that speeds round a corner you can see where I'm going with this, you would hear it out of a young girl's headphones. The whole city is listening to this one song.
Sentimentality is one of the main themes of the new album. In another interview, you referenced the Wikipedia entry for sentimentality, which describes it as, "A literary device used to induce a tender, emotional response disproportionate to the situation at hand, and thus to substitute heightened and generally uncritical feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgments." How have you approached this?
Standish: Guitar, in particular, can manipulate the listener to feel far more emotion than what they have earned. I think this might piss Nigel off about the nature of the instrument; he was considering dropping it entirely.
Yang: Yes, there are a few HTRK guitar parts and songs that aim for tender emotions, but there's always a healthy level of detachment, I hope. The more saccharine or emotive a song is, the greater my ambivalence toward it, which I quite enjoy. Ambivalence is often understood as meaning an apathetic kind of 'could go either way', but it actually means experiencing strong, conflicting feelings at the same time. I think estrangement from music is interesting - who wants to have a simple relationship with their favourite music? To love a song absolutely and unequivocally can get boring. It can be more interesting when you love a song, but there's a bit of guilt and distaste mixed in there too. In a lot of cases, the guilt comes from feeling an emotion that you know is being elicited by a particular chord change or lyric or sound. Your emotions are being extracted. As 'the band', we're complicit in that. Like most people, I have an inner sap that falls for things sometimes. Of course, the encroachment of sentimentality into public life, especially in the UK, is reprehensible, but with some music it feels good to submit, to be manipulated emotionally, especially by your own music! It's like an alienated form of good old self-indulgence.
Saturday, November 19 @ RAOBGAB, Melbourne with Lost Animal, New War + Free Choice Duo * SOLD OUT
Wednesday, November 23 @ Emma Soup Gallery in Newcastle (Emma Soup 1st birthday celebration) with In the Dollhouse and Stitched Vision. Tickets $15 + booking fee on sale now from Oztix. 7pm start. All ages.
Thursday, November 24 @ Goodgod Small Club, Sydney with Lost Animal + Kirin J. Callinan. Tickets on sale now from Moshtix.
Friday, November 25 @ St Michael's Uniting Church, corner Collins & Russell Sts Melbourne: Labels Live showcase curated by Mistletone to celebrate the label's 5th birthday and presented by Melbourne Music Week. Featuring HTRK, Beaches, The Orbweavers, Montero & Wintercoats. Tickets on sale now from Moshtix. 7pm start. All ages.
Saturday, November 26 @ The Bridge Club, Brisbane with Lakes, Secret Birds, Nite Fields. Doors open 7pm. Tickets $18 + booking fee on sale now from Oztix. Presented by Mistletone, The Thousands and 4ZZZ.
Photography: Milos Mali
Make-up: Corinna Wilmshurst using YSL Beauty