HTRK: Love and other catastrophes
The New Mexico desert helped shape Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang’s immersive fourth LP.
“Ask us a curveball question – like our favourite colour or something,” says Jonnine Standish, having just revealed she’s so settled in her new Melbourne base that she’ll be the proud owner of a Burmese kitten within the week. “I like those.”
And so the conversation takes a fittingly unexpected turn, away from the unpredictable soundscapes and love-related musings of HTRK’s Psychic 9-5 Club – the half-Melbourne, half-Sydney duo’s fourth album of their restless, decade-plus career, and second to be released internationally on Ghostly International ( Mistletone is their Australian home) – and towards competitive sport.
Jonnine’s partner in HTRK, Nigel Yang, has less of a vested interest in sport than his vocalist – currently bound by a non-disclosure agreement which prevents her from talking about the “big Australian sports brand” her day job as a graphic designer is currently devoted do – but he does lament the way in which tennis has “lost so much of its charm”.
“It’s just really brutish these days, isn’t it, and there’s too much money at stake,” Nigel offers. “It’s just too serious. They need to go back to the wooden racquets, slow it down a little bit.”
“All sports are going in that direction – it’s a real problem,” adds Jonnine. “They’re becoming a bit ‘rock’. People are losing the zen experience in these big sports. The sacred nature of the wooden racquets and the white uniforms and the eating a sandwich and having a chat... everything’s turning into fireworks and high energy.”
The music of HTRK (pronounced Hate Rock) has no such problems. If anything, the rough and tumble edges of their music are being subtly shaved off with each subsequent album, like the inherent tension of their earlier records has finally been released. That’s not to say that Psychic 9-5 Club is easy listening, though. Its eight tracks are occasionally impenetrable, evolving according to their own internal logic rather than following any conventional ideas of a song having to start at A and progress predictably to B before its journey is over.
“There’s a lot of reflection in the arrangement process,” says Jonnine of their songwriting approach. “We might sit with a song for sometimes three months or six months, and when we have time to reflect the arrangements become pretty trippy and a little surreal sometimes because there’s a luxury of moving things in odd places – but also removing textures or lyrics that became annoying. So that’s probably why the arrangements are a little odd.”
They’re also immersive if the listener is willing to sink into them and float away. Psychic 9-5 Club was completed in Sydney, though largely recorded over two separate sessions with producer Nathan Corbin (of experimental collective Excepter – the first in New Mexico, just up the road from Heisenberg country.
“We went to Santa Fe in 2012 thinking that we were going to do an EP,” Nigel says, “and then we ended up going back the year after to record more songs.” The producer had access to an array of gear that the duo didn’t – including a Space Echo, one of the building blocks of dub – but also a confidence and decisiveness that helped keep the sessions on course, according to Jonnine. And though the finished album may not necessarily conjure images of wide open desert expanses, she says the environment helped shape the recording.
“I guess it’s got a spiritual side that we got out of Santa Fe, the landscape,” she explains. “The community there, the people, they’re really spiritual in a kind of twisted way. So some of the personalities that we met along the way infiltrated some of the vibes on the record, but also the beige desert landscape – I think of that colour, it’s not beige, it’s kind of a light orange. I think that colour had a lot to do with some of the sounds.”
Psychic 9-5 Club is also the first HTRK record not to feature the input of founding member Sean Stewart, who committed suicide midway through production on 2011’s critical fave, Work (work, work).
“The last album was actually a saviour for us in a way,” says Jonnine of picking up the pieces amidst the tragedy, “because we were able to focus our energy into something creative that also meant a lot. So it was actually quite a cathartic experience for us, but this one was definitely so different. It was playful.”