Interview: HTRK


HTRK is a band from Melbourne, Australia, comprised of Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang. They’re best known for 2014’s Psychic 9-5 Club, which was followed up with Venus in Leo this past August.

Have you been to Denver before?

Jonnine Standish: No, this is the first time. We know some people from Denver, quite well - we’re super tight with Blazer Sound System, Nathan Corbin and Tony Lowe. They do our videos, we’ve worked with them musically. So we’re pretty excited to just see where they grew up.

I know Psychic 9-5 Club was recorded in New Mexico - does the Southwest resemble Australia at all?

Nigel Yang: It’s totally alien to Australia; Australia does have that similar desert, but I feel like the Southwest desert is quite scenic, but the Australian desert tends to be just red and flat for hours and hours. And the Southwest changes so much; the environment changes incredibly quickly because of the altitude, and Australia doesn’t have that altitude.

JS: It’s so different in so many other ways too. Aesthetically, architecture, plant life, animals [laughs]. Really everything, it’s so different.

NY: But we loved New Mexico.

JS: We freaked out.

I was reading some travel forum where somebody was giving US analogs for Australian cities, and I think they settled on all of them being San Diego.

JS: If anything, Portland gets compared to Melbourne, LA gets compared to Sydney. Some parts of New York get compared to Melbourne. Florida probably is out tropical equivalent. But I don’t know about the San Diego thing [laughs].

I imagine it comes down to that overlap of being both cosmopolitan and beachy, which I think we see as more oppositional qualities here.

NY: Yeah totally, well Sydney’s like there, where everyone’s pretty chilled. But Melbourne’s pretty different.

Is it a decent enough place for working artists? I’m always shocked to hear about the sorts of grants and other support available some places.

NY: There’s really good grants in the state that we’re from, Victoria, and the music scene’s really great. But I don’t think their goal is necessarily so that you can live off the music, it’s just to help you record a project. It’s not like they’re going to sustain you. Most people we know have a day job and music, it’s an expensive place to live.

JS: It’s just a given now that you gotta hustle in other professions alongside music somehow. And grants will fund your album, but not your life.

I guess what’s tricky about grants is that they’re strictly tied to your productivity; you can’t get one for exploring some new space in between outputs.

JS: A downtime grant.

NY: Yeah, we got a grant for the album that we just released, Venus in Leo. It let us kind of relax a bit, take our time so we didn’t pick up as much work.

JS: Yeah, I think in the original demo part we got to spend more time working on it without picking up other jobs.

Do you guys have steady non-musical jobs, or is it just here and there?

NY: At the moment, we’re both in pretty steady nine-to-fives.

JS: Yeah, which I really enjoy. I work at this kind of spin-off company for Vice doing conceptual events, and I work for [Melbourne] Fashion Week as the creative director. Some outside projects. Nigel’s got a really cool job with Melbourne University.

NY: I do, like, audio-visual engineering. I do find it interesting, finding out what musicians do as their day job. It’s so un-romantic, but it’s really the reality. You can make a living, I think, being a musician and touring a lot, but if you’ve got family or you just don’t like travelling that much, you’ve gotta work. In Australia, because it’s really expensive to get overseas.

You guys have been based elsewhere at different times - what drew you to those places?

NY: Actually, just the fact that it’s easier to tour. So we had Berlin as a base and London as a base for European touring.

JS: Yeah, cities that have good music scene and that are Central Europe for touring.

NY: Different ways of thinking, especially… well, in both Berlin and London. Berlin feels really free, and there’s a really strong electronic underground and all the industrial history.

JS: Have you been to Berlin?

No, I’ve only ever been to Cologne, which is still massively more German than anywhere else I’ve gone. But I don’t think it’s the same as Berlin.

NY: Yeah, it’s quite different. And London, just kind of the club scene, art scene.

JS: Yeah, both those cities had a really strong club scene. We play in all sorts of venues - galleries and museums and pubs and clubs, but clubs really suit us. So it was great moving to cities like that, but we’re now based back in Melbourne.

Do you find that there are particular types of places where the band really catches on? Or maybe where you feel particularly at home?

JS: Yeah, this last tour we did was three weeks or so all around a lot of Eastern Europe for the first time. It’s really mind blowing to find out where you’re popular, and where you fit in aesthetically. We really seem to fit in in Moscow and Kiev, Ukraine.

NY: And the people there… it’s hard to know if they’re just a lot more open, emotionally, and willing to tell you how much your music means to them. It’s hard to know if it’s a bit of that, like their personality or cultural expression, or whether your music is resonating with particular kinds of people. But the people there, they look at you a certain way when they talk to you. And I think we get the same in LA.

JS: Yeah, LA… Ukraine [laughs].

NY: Other places we play, you might get a “great show," “that was amazing" -

JS: It’s not, like, women sobbing on your shoulders. And also Mexico, we were thinking that Mexico and LA have that kind of tropical goth, something about that warmth. There’s like a high summer feel to our music, but it also has that layer of, not so much gothic, but melancholy or something like that.

Those two are interesting because there’s not just the temperature, they’re both massive, sprawling, and very polluted in places. So you’ve got these darker and lighter areas, and I think a lot of living in a city like that now is waking up where you can afford to, then traversing that whole spectrum on the way to work or go out. Then, ultimately, coming back. I could see someone being drawn to your music in that framing.

NY: That’s a nice way to think about it, yeah. I’m sure that, you know, these big cities where life can be a bit hard, but there are other things like good weather to bring some light into your life even though things might be a bit dark at times -

JS: But even growing up, growing up in Melbourne with a lot of good weather - it seemed like there was more good weather then -

NY: Melbourne’s got terrible weather.

JS: It’s got terrible weather now, but - maybe I’m just glossing over my childhood, but I just remember so many blue skies. And I was so bored by the blue sky. I still am, actually, I need texture in the sky. Like some mood.

NY: But it changes a lot. Melbourne really changes a lot. It’s unpredictable.

JS: Yeah, it does change a lot. But I’ve had some of my most depressed days on beautiful days. Some. But sometimes when the weather is nice all the time, you can feel horrible. So maybe that is leading somewhere, I don’t know [laughs].

I know you’ve spoken in other interviews about having this project situated within a relatively specific world or vision that you like to make sure anything you release adheres to. But it’s interesting, with, say, LA and Ukraine, that it seems to resist being tied to one particular place or profile.

NY: Yeah, it’s probably because in Melbourne, any music scene there is, it’s quite disparate. Everyone’s into really different types of things, and it’s not like you’re ever going to have a really strong collective like, say, in Bristol doing trip-hop or a Young Echo kind of collective like they’re doing now. There’s nothing really bringing together a big crew, so you pull in influences from all over the world through the internet, and the music isn’t as linked to place as other kinds of music. It just becomes kind of an imaginary place that we’re making music for. It’s quite internal.

You guys are going on something like fifteen years now - have things come into focus over time, or perhaps expanded?

JS: Yeah, of course.

NY: I think it’s become clearer. I think we’ve become better at communicating through music, both live and on record. It’s been really joyful to reflect on the change that’s occurred in our lives, and how that correlates with albums that we’ve made.

JS: I was just thinking, there’s some more openness - one track on the album, “You Know How to Make Me Happy," probably expands open a little bit more, like the color palette in a way. I can’t imagine a song like that appearing on an album like Work (Work, Work) or Marry Me Tonight. So there’s definitely some different colors coming in, which is kind of following our life chapter. We have this luxury which musicians have, of albums being like diary chapters, or almost like photo albums.

NY: A track like that is interesting, because we like pop music. When I think about pop music, I’m kind of envious of some sort of joyous energy that they’re tapping into. Like, where is this energy coming from? A lot of people in underground music scenes have kind of a depressive tendency and express that through their music. I’m not saying that people who make pop music don’t have those tendencies; they might just flip it, and keep those tendencies for themselves. But it’s been nice to try and let a lot more light in, and then see what kind of music can come out of that. Tracks like “You Know How to Make Me Happy," a lot of the tracks on the new album feel like… I feel like a lot of the old material would be like a heavy pillow on you, kind of pressing you down a bit, but that feeling doesn’t continue on the latest one for me.

You guys speak very collectively in terms of the band, your lives as they track along with it - would you describe music, then, as a co-autobiographical endeavor?

NY: Yeah, for us it is. It’s always been very personal, that’s been part of the project since the beginning. Always linked to our lived experience -

JS: What we’re getting into at the time, lifestyle choices, mental health. 100%.

How does that extend to a project like Over the Rainbow, where you’re doing the music with an external impetus?

NY: That was hard, because the brief was absolutely no darkness, because the director didn’t want to color the audience’s impressions of the people talking. And so everything was supposed to be quite uplifting.

JS: Uplifting, but not too uplifting, it was like a fine balance. Too uplifting and they would seem like psychos, so it was this emotional window of like one centimeter that the music could sit in.

NY: Compared to our regular albums, of course the emotional range isn’t there. But I’ve always loved ambient music, and emotional range isn’t a necessary component of good music, I don’t think. So I think it’s more spiritual, and instrumental music can sometimes be more… mysterious. More reflective, introspective.

How did that commission come about? You’re maybe the last band I would think of for that specific criterion.

NY: Yeah, true. The director wrote to us and told us that he had driven around doing interviews with these Scientology believers, and had happened to pick up two of our records in a music shop and listened to the CDs for the months that he was driving around. So it kind of soundtracked the shoot for him. So we just kind of knew that we had to do it. He was a good director, directing us, in a way, to make the music that was on his film. A lot of references to ‘70s German Kosmische, kinda Kraut stuff.

To what extent do you have creative urges or impulses that fall outside of the HTRK project itself?

JS: Not really, no. I pretty much feel like HTRK’s at a point where, expressively, I can get 90% - I’m using lots of percentages, feels like [laughs] - of creative expression. It’s exciting to know that I don’t know what the next album will be like; I feel like if I knew exactly what it would be like, then HTRK might be too restrictive. But I’m looking forward to see what comes out myself.

NY: Yeah, I don’t have any other creative ventures. I’m really happy making music. It’s not just music when you’re in a band; we love making cool merch. Playing live also satisfies some of that element, social connection through social media. I don’t have the tendency to make other things outside of the band, like art or anything like that. I think it’s more trying to be creative in your life, just in a chill way. Just thinking about your relationships with people in a creative way, not so much making objects.

JS: All my university background was in visual art, so I get to do all of that within HTRK as well - artwork, posters, designs on t-shirts. So all of that fulfills my visual side, even through music.

Do you have a strong theatrical urge as far as performance goes, or do you tend more towards recital?

NY: It’s interesting that you say the word “recital"; I think we’re both very critical of live performance, and we aim for a certain thing that’s very specific. I think a lot of the pleasure comes from restraint, and… “stillness" is too strong a word, but some sort of containment whilst the music is expansive. I really like that kind of contradiction, some people might see it as I’m a terrible performer. But I’m actually feeling quite charged on stage, and I hope that somehow that translates.

With the recital component, I actually do really like quite non-expressive performances. Like with classical musicians, any sign of virtuosity or, like, over-the-top-ness is quite off-putting. I do like a lot of elements of just keeping a straight face and just playing without too much expression.

You obviously give a great deal of thought to fidelity - do you find touring difficult in that you’re subjecting a relatively consistent, rehearsed output to all these ever-changing parameters of venues and crowds?

NY: We find it a challenge, and it keeps things interesting. We take a long time to soundcheck, ‘cause we’re changing how we sound to the room, and we play a vast array of different venues. We played this club in SF last night, and it was really cool, but the stage sound was, like, I felt like I’d been shot in the head. It was that bad, that I just had to pretend that my hearing wasn’t a part of the show [laughs].

JS: I had a pretty good time on stage last night, but I have had a show where my fallback blew up, and what came back at me was me as a robot. But in the room - it was like a church - it was just a wash of reverb, a metallic robot with a wash of reverb. So it sounded pretty good, but sometimes what we hear is insanity. Once you’re up there, you have to work with it, and a lot of times I’ve got to really let go, as a performer, and focus on connecting with the audience.

NY: Yeah, so many factors go into how good a show is, and our enjoyment of it is just, like, a tenth of it.

Do you view your music as being emotionally directive, or is that part of the intent? Or is it just a presentation for the listener to react freely to?

JS: I think it’s got some emotional manipulation for sure.

NY: Definitely, we’re really trying to bring back emotion in a very particular way. At a certain time in a song, or musical progressions that bring about a certain emotion.

What about collaborating with other musicians?

JS: Not so often, but we do a little bit. Nigel’s played with CS + Kreme.

NY: Yeah, there’s a project of Jonnine’s husband and another musician in Melbourne called CS + Kreme. But yeah, we don’t really collaborate musically that much.

JS: I’ve done some vocals for different, maybe like in my whole life, like four people. I’ve been getting a lot of offers to collaborate recently, and it’s the first time people have been offering me money to collaborate, which I haven’t accepted. Couldn’t think of anything worse, actually; if it works, I’m really quick, but most of the time, if I can’t do it then I just can’t do it. It’s not like I’m choosy, it’s just either there or it’s not for me.

I know there’s a split of sessions from some LA radio station with you and Tropic of Cancer. I don’t think it’s was an actual collaboration, but I liked that you could keep flipping the record back and forth and each side seemed to keep continuing and intensifying the other. I think a lot of splits, you end up listening to this side and that side, and then it’s one or the other forevermore.

NY: Yeah, they’re friends of ours and we kind of met right around that time. And yeah, it’s rare for splits to be listenable like that. I’ve got a few in my collection, it’s always just one side that you really take to.

Going back to the place that you said you were making music for, how would you characterize that? Either from an aural perspective or something totally different.

NY: It’s pretty hard to put into words, it’s just kind of a feeling that we get from the combination of the elements of the song - a vocal, a guitar or synth pattern, really simple, three or four elements that take us into this place that we’re really familiar with, but that’s hard to explain.

JS: And there’s a reason for that, it’s definitely a conscious decision to not try and evoke emotions that are overplayed in music in general. For instance, pop is just, like, straight-up sex. Or straight-up sadness. Trying to get in between emotions, so that you can’t really put them into words. Sometimes there’s a feeling of, like, happy mundane… sex. There’s a puzzle, you can’t name it.

I do see HTRK described with phrases like “erotic gloom" or something like that, which isn’t really a descriptive phrase as an attempt at triangulation.

JS: Yeah, that’s been happening a lot. I don’t think it’s so much on this album as the last album we made, though.

NY: Reviewers have still been saying, like, “sex and sadness" and that kind of stuff. I think there’s some stuff that maybe isn’t by design for us, we’re not thinking like that, but it might just be what people get from the songs.

Do you find yourselves using specific compositional strategies to try and enter that zone you were talking about?

JS: The answer’s kind of no, every song’s got its own thing going on, but one thing I did want to nail, personally, was a really good intro. I feel like a good HTRK song has a good vocal intro, it doesn’t matter where it comes in. More of a statement, rather than anything too floaty. I was trying to evoke that conscious composition style for the last album, compared to, say, Psychic 9-5 Club, which kind of lost the idea of the statement intro in a way.

NY: Yeah, as far as compositional things that I fall back on, there are probably loads, but I’m maybe not so conscious of them.

JS: We were both, guitar and vocal compositionally, kind of working on killer choruses as well [laughs]. What I mean is that the guitar and vocal are equal in leaving space for each other, so the guitar is also a hook in itself. It could be a bigger hook.

NY: When we’re jamming, we’ll both know when something has potential to be catchy - “oh yeah, that bit was good, so let’s work on that bit." What I try to do all of the time with little instrumental melodies, whether it be on the synth or guitar, is repeat the same passage as a loop, but change the rhythm of how two notes might fall. Like they’ll be the same three times, and then the fourth time might be shifting by one division, one semiquaver. That kind of change is really common in funk, a lot of EBM, stuff like that, and that kind of guitar line work is something I’m always trying to bring to the songs.

As far as output goes, do you work on a fixed schedule at all, or do things accumulate and then gain some momentum as you get closer to a finished product?

NY: Yeah, that’s how it has kind of worked. We were living in different cities for ages, so it was quite stop-start. Now we’re both back in the same town, we’re gonna try and do it regularly. We’re really good when we’ve got a routine.

JS: We need to keep a self-imposed deadline, and the only way to make that work is to share that deadline with a record label [laughs].

NY: Otherwise we could just float away.

JS: We kind of did float away, and then kind of came back.

NY: When I was in Sydney, I remember sometimes Jonnine and I would be having a pretty good talk about something, and we’d get cut off - the signal would get cut off, or someone would say “oh, hey, I’m just about to have dinner - I’ll call you back." And then, like, three months would pass [laughs]. We don’t have that kind of discipline and ambition, so it’s really good for us to know that weakness and put aside time, get shit done. The last album was very, like, we had a schedule. We’ve got so much other life stuff, we really need to do that to make something.

JS: In the world we live in right now, actually finishing something is way more exceptional than it used to be. We’ve got way more distraction than ever, and then if you tell someone you’re doing something you get the reward from doing it and you’re less likely to do it. You’re actually meant to not tell anyone if you want to get anything done [laughs].

It seems like more and more the traditional units of different artforms are exceeding the attention span of not just the consumer or the media cycle, but even the artist. Would you say HTRK is still pretty comfortably album-based?

NY: I think people are always gonna respond to lots of energy being condensed into a work, whether it’s a film or whatever. Even if it’s an album that’s cut live with not much time spent multi-tracking or tweaking, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about time, it’s more about the energy that accumulates.

JS: It’s depthless, how much time you thought about - it might come together really quickly, but the demos and the thought could be years. It could be your whole life - songs, lyrics, ideas can come from fifteen years of thought, even if it came up really fast in that moment.

NY: Hearing or reacting to something that’s had so much energy put into it, it’s always going to be novel.

JS: Do you like albums?

Yeah, absolutely. What’s tricky for me is that sitting at a computer all day for work, it can be hard to keep even a very intentional sequence of things that I’d like to listen to from becoming a massive blur rather than a set of discrete works about which I’m retaining any information whatsoever.

NY: Yeah, totally. Music’s everywhere, and it’s been devalued for sure. People don’t listen as well as they should be. I’m just as guilty; I’ll listen to something countless times over, but then when I sit down and actually listen to it, I hear all these other things. It’s like I wasn’t even listening the first few times, it’s kind of a waste of time. It’s nice to put some work into it as a listener or a watcher as well.

Do you guys like doing interviews? I’ve started to think recently about how odd it is for the album cycle to present both the new art and the artist’s explanation of it concurrently, rather than allowing some lag time for the audience to build their own relationship.

JS: Nigel told me about this Lady Gaga video that changed my life in regards to interviews. It’s Lady Gaga being interviewed about A Star is Born, over and over and over again the same question. Well, you just described it to me, I didn’t see it.

NY: She’s just got a line, something about Bradley Cooper, and she just says the same thing as if it’s just popped into her head, a million different ways. But yeah, teaching yourself to approach each conversation as if it’s new.

JS: Yeah, I had a bit of question fatigue about the album when we first hit Berlin for the European tour, and the thought of that Lady Gaga quote clicked… it’s actually genius.

NY: Interviews are really good to get you back in the zone of when you were making the album, bringing all those thoughts back. I think it connects if it’s around a show, because when you’re on tour you’re on a phone, stressed about catching the right flight.

JS: We’ll only do our interviews over the phone or in-person, we’ve shut down for years now doing email interviews. That’s helped, actually. I just felt like a content farm - here’s some questions, make some content. But I really enjoy the tangents, you learn a bit about yourself.

NY: Interviews are one of my favorite things to read. What’s it called - Book of Changes, have you read that? I can’t remember her name, but she’s an amazing interviewer; she interviews everyone from Iggy Pop, James Brown, all the big names, but her line of questioning is just… I read loads of interviews in magazines, there’s definitely an art to the questioning. And to answering; it’s really cool to get the opportunity to talk about stuff, to get better at things and find out from writers how your art is approached.

JS: The only thing is, we might have to shut the interview down - I think we’re on in half an hour.