Shayne Carter: ‘I’ve Always Resisted Playing Old Material’
He may have an aversion to older material, but Kiwi legend Shayne Carter (Straitjacket Fits, Dimmer) plans on bringing his retrospective show to Australia soon. Ahead of a tour with new collaborative act The Adults, he talks to RENÉ SCHAEFER about getting loose in the studio, the Flying Nun resurgence and having an old-fashioned chinwag with The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis.
The problem with being a songwriter in a successful rock band is that often you get locked into a particular style or sound. When Jon Toogood of Shihad realised that he had accumulated a cache of songs that didn’t fit his band’s hard rock formula, he could easily have opted for that old cliché: the solo album. Instead, he decided on a slightly more lateral approach. Toogood got on the phone to some of his favourite New Zealand musicians and proposed a truly collaborative project, which would feature guest vocalists as well as a variety of songwriting and instrumental contributors.
The list of friends and contemporaries he roped in for the recording of The Adults’ self-titled album ended up reading like a Who’s Who of NZ music from Salmonella Dub’s Tiki Taane to hip-hop and soul vocalist Ladi 6 and Ruban Nielson from the Mint Chicks and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
However, the backbone of The Adults, and the band that will be touring Australia next month, consists of Toogood, Julia Deans (Fur Patrol) and Shayne Carter. In Australia, Carter is probably best known for his work in Straightjacket Fits, the band he formed in 1986 and worked with until their dissolution in 1994. Songs like ‘She Speeds’ and ‘Down In Splendour’ are widely regarded as NZ rock classics, frequently appearing in all-time Top100 lists in that country. (Carter did not write or sing the latter song – it was composed by his band mate Andrew Brough.) Carter and Brough’s styles both complimented, yet also contrasted each other perfectly. Brough was responsible for the softer, more melodic aspects of the band, whereas Carter displayed a harsher, more insistently driving guitar style.
He had honed this approach in his previous Dunedin-based bands, the punky power-pop outfit Bored Games and the highly influential and beloved DoubleHappys, who spawned one of the greatest songs of its era, the anthemic ‘Needles And Plastic’. Much of their work was later compiled on the excellent album Nerves. The DoubleHappys disbanded in 1985, following the accidental death of founding member Wayne Elsey, but soon mutated into the monster that was Straightjacket Fits.
For the past 17 years, Carter’s main musical outlet has been his band Dimmer, whose live appearances and releases have been intermittent and musically eclectic. In recent years though, Dimmer’s line-up has solidified and their sound coalesced into a visceral, electric storm of twin-guitars, that easily rivals the energy of Carter’s previous bands. Clearly, he is a man who is still forging ahead after more than three decades playing music, but is also willing to embrace his past, as recent shows in Wellington and Auckland under the banner ‘Last Train To Brockville’ proved, during which he performed songs stretching back to his earliest efforts in the late ‘70s.
Dimmer’s regular visits to Australia have ensured that Carter’s profile here remains high, and many of his fans are curious to see how his work with The Adults will translate in a live setting.
Jon Toogood initiated The Adults as an outlet for songs that didn’t fit the format of Shihad. The musicians he invited ended up contributing to the writing. How did this process differ to your usual approach to songwriting?
Well being collaborative, it involved giving the other people room to do their thing and letting stuff go whereas writing your own stuff involves more steely self determination. I had a hand in about half a dozen songs in the project. For a couple of them (‘One Million Ways’, ‘Up And Gone’) Jon already had most of the music and I helped add things like bass lines and words. Then there are four other tracks that were the result of jams with Jon, me and Dimmer drummer Gary. These resulted in the two Ladi 6 songs (‘Nothing To Lose’, ‘Please Wake Up’) where Ladi came in and added words, and the songs ‘Long Way Off’ and ‘Most Important’. The two Ladi 6 songs and ‘Long Way Off’ are probably my favourite tracks on the record. The music you hear is literally the first time those songs were ever played, or imagined. I love that kind of stuff – the magic of spontaneity and all that, literally grabbing elements out of the air. Riding the wave with no idea where it’ll take you, and being rather happy and surprised by the final destination.
The songs on the album are quite disparate in style. Was this a deliberate intention behind The Adults?
Well you’d have to ask Jon because in truth it’s his baby. He was the team builder/manager, executive producer and only common denominator on all the tracks. It’s his project. He worked/collaborated with a really wide range of musicians - I didn’t really hear the other half of the record until it came out - so I guess that would account for the disparity you talk about.
Considering the number of contributors on the album, I imagine the line-up that is going to be touring Australia will be a bit more stripped back. How will that work?
Well, there was no practical way you could cart 14 musicians around the place, so Jon went for the totally opposite approach. He enlisted himself, me and Julia Deans and some backing tracks featuring mostly drums for the live shows, covering the whole record. It’s almost a stripped down soundsystem approach. We’ve just finished a New Zealand tour. It really worked. We had a great time and I thought most of the stuff sounded excellent live. I guess all those songs coming out through the same three musicians made the whole thing a lot more cohesive and direct. It’s a pretty good show.
How does this varied sonic palette translate into a live setting? Do you swap instruments a lot on stage?
Yes we do a lot of instrument swapping. Personally I sing, play bass, guitar, synth and even shake some bad ass maracas. We have our Three Stooges moments where we bumble about and trip over each other’s leads but that just probably adds to the entertainment factor.
Dimmer drummer Gary Sullivan also plays in The Adults. Does this mean you two hold the balance of power in the group?
Well, Gary ended up drumming on most of the tracks I was involved in – about five songs - but there are at least three drummers across the whole record. But I’d like to think we impacted on those earlier tracks I was talking about where it was just me, him and Jon playing. For example, “Why change chords, Jon, when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the one we’re on?” Maybe we encouraged Jon to be a bit freer with music? Shihad is all about being tight, and on, like a machine, whereas Gary and I very rarely play a song the same way twice. We like to leave room to explore and try things in the moment. To me that adds an element of risk which often makes it more exciting, and, because it’s in the moment, perhaps more powerful and “there” when it works.
Do you regard The Adults as a side project, or is this band going to be your main focus for the time being?
No, it’s a side project for everyone involved really. Whether it’s a one off, or goes off in another direction, is up to Jon really. Like I said, ultimately it’s his baby.
You recently performed a couple of shows in NZ which reprised some of your back catalogue, including songs by Bored Games, DoubleHappys and Straitjacket Fits. Is this something you are likely to repeat at some point?
For sure. Those shows went off. It was a true joy to rediscover a lot of that music because, being a forward looking kind of guy, I’ve always resisted playing old material from my earlier bands. I just didn’t want to be the codger trading exclusively on his early glories. But I got over that. I realised that all that music is my music in the same way that any author should be proud of any decent book he or she has written. It’s all part of my story so I’m only too happy to tell it. I feel like I’ve continued to do enough good music anyway to validate my ongoing relevance as an artist.
Judging by the videos on Youtube, people were pretty thrilled to hear ‘Joe 90’ and ‘Needles And Plastic’. How did it feel to be playing those songs again?
Fuckin’ good. Without tooting my own horn it just reinforced that old truism that if it’s a good tune it’s always going to be a good tune no matter where it’s from. If it kicks ass and/or affects people – well, it kicks ass and affects people. End of story.
When you toured Australia with Spectrum in 2008, Dimmer performed the old Spacemen 3 song ‘Suicide’ with Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember). Whose idea was that, and were you just a little bit chuffed?
That was Pete’s idea. Interestingly enough he formed a full band after that. But no, we did quite a few shows with Spectrum in the States, NZ and Australia around that period. It was great to hook up with him because he’s someone whose work I’ve always respected. But you know, it’s like the Brian Jonestown Massacre who we’ve also done quite a bit of touring with. What those guys were getting up to as kids on the West Coast, or what Pete and his mates got up to in Rugby, England – well, it was exactly what we all got up to back in Dunedin. It was the same story but it was just being played out in different parts of the world.
Like, I met Warren Ellis for the first time at a festival last year and we had a great old chinwag. All these people are people you should meet - part of a community. Like-minded spirits dotted around the planet. It’s only right that your paths do eventually cross. There’s enough people out there who aren’t like you, so it’s actually a relief to meet people where you have an attitude or philosophy in common.
“I love that kind of stuff – the magic of spontaneity and all that, literally grabbing elements out of the air.”
Dimmer have been over this way a few times now, and the live shows are always spectacular. Are there any plans to grace our shores again?
Yes I’d really like to do that. I’d really like to bring my back catalogue show over soon, actually. It’s just a matter of getting off my ass and finding the right people to help put that together.
A lot of people got excited when Roger Shepherd re-acquired Flying Nun Records and began re-issuing the label’s classics. Has this led to a renaissance for musicians of your generation in NZ?
Well I don’t know about a renaissance. Apart from a low key period in the ’90s, I’ve never really gone away. But I do think there’s been a rediscovery of that music by a younger generation, as there should be. It’s good music and good music lasts. Kids finding that music now – it’s like when we were young and getting excited about all those great ’60s psych/garage bands that had languished in obscurity, or you’d never hear on the radio. True fans will always find the true music.
Dimmer played a show in Brooklyn last year with The Clean. It was sold out in front of 500 Brooklyn hipsters. The Clean were playing almost exactly the same set I’d heard them play years ago at Coronation Hall in Dunedin and it still sounded great. It felt like a vindication. The Clean, like all of us connected with that Flying Nun scene, have always been pretty much ignored by the mainstream in New Zealand. But I can’t think of any mainstream band in New Zealand from the ‘80s, ‘90s or even now, that could go to Brooklyn and do that.
Finally, did you know there was a band in Melbourne for a few years also called The Adults? Don't worry though - they are nice guys and unlikely to sue you.
Well, thank God for that. I was sweating up over here.