The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Joshua Ford , April 6th, 2015 18:30

Joshua Ford speaks to Nigel Yang following HTRK's headline show at Chicago's The Smart Bar. Photo by the author.

"I want to love you so bad, I don't know what to do" – Muddy Waters "You fill me up, then make me starve" – HTRK

There is hard-earned dirt under the fingernails of this town as it shakes the hands of Nigel Yang and Jonnine Standish, welcoming them for the first time. It is a meeting of equals. Los Angeles seems a bit too idyllic and optimistic to be an equal, Miami is too warm and too put together, but Chicago is bitter cold and hungry, and tonight it might just be the perfect town for HTRK on their first full jaunt across the U.S.   

The Smart Bar, on Clark Street, has been home to Chicago house heavyweights since the 80s. Frankie Knuckles, Paul Johnson, Derrick Carter; mix them with a bit of Muddy Waters' soul/longing and you have a Chicago cocktail to go along with tonight's performance. Americans that have taken the backseat ride with HTRK from Marry Me Tonight, to Work (Work, Work) to Psychic 9-5 Club were primed and ready to see this work performed live. It's a late show, fittingly, and is helped along by local opening artists Beau Wanzer and Michael Vallera, who are both worth a search/listen as they are unique and dark in all the right ways, much like HTRK.  

The songs from HTRK's three LPs blend together seamlessly live, though they each mark a specific time and place for Nigel/Jonnine. They've been on a journey, and have come through with a clear confidence that is evident in the live setting. Jonnine's voice leads and lulls like a lover, throaty and vulnerable. Nigel switches from synth to guitar and back, pulling out melody and backbone simultaneously at times. Their work is their own, a HTRK song is clearly a HTRK song. The ache is always right behind dry humour. The unfinished business is underneath the fleshly bass lines.  Desire is slathered on top of it all. Recorded, the work is sensual but remote. Live, one can expect a warm embrace from their refined sound; it feels good to be lost in it. For many admirers in the US, this warm embrace has been elusive, with only very limited engagements over the years up until this 9-date tour. Tonight the audience is treated to 'Give It Up', 'Chinatown Style', 'Poison', 'Fascinator', 'The Body You Deserve', 'Synthetik' and 'Ha'. The end comes quick, we are messy, faces flushed. The longing is satisfied, but only temporarily. After the show, I spoke to Nigel Yang:

This is the deepest you've gotten into US, tour wise (thank you by the way, I know people are excited to finally see you live). Can you speak to the decision making process to take on this US tour/ live dates? 

Nigel Yang: We've wanted to play our new tracks in the US for a while, since the album came out last April. Things started to take shape after we got asked to play Festival NRMAL in Mexico City and the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. We got to booking a tour with our label and it all kind of fell into place a month out, which was kind of exciting. Booking shows in the US is super easy for us - it seems like it takes five emails to finalize a show here. I like this old school way of doing it, no paperwork or contracts and good line-ups that we mostly choose. So far we've done a slick house party in a San Diego suburb called Del Mar, a big show at the Echo in LA with friends Tropic Of Cancer and DVA Damas, and Damas were great again in San Fran, and Chicago tonight with Michael Vallera (COIN), which is cool, a more introspective sound. We're really looking forward to the New York show at Baby's with Blazer Sound System, which is Nathan Corbin's project. He produced Psychic 9-5 Club.

How does it compare to European/Australian shows/crowds?

NY: Americans are more engaged with social media and enjoy having fun with the mediation of experience. There is an enthusiasm here we love. Continental Europeans are more private, and experience is more internalised. European audiences are known for being good listeners, but we can tell people are really listening almost at European standard at these recent US shows which allows us to play differently. We started as a band that could be a house band in a seedy club, but now that people are really listening, we can do more subtle things with our sound. 

On the set itself, are you dipping into material from all three albums?  you touch on that decision making process also: are songs curated based on how their mood fits together within the set?   NY: For a long while we didn't want to play 'HA' or any songs that had a visceral or physical bass part, or a part that we thought should always be played by a bass and not a synthesiser. It felt like we would be doing a disservice to the song and the original chemistry between three people that made the song what it is. Things have changed though and we now thrive less on tension. It's more so the opposite. So doing less aggressive versions of old songs can fit into our set quite well.  

For a long time, Sean was becoming dissatisfied with playing bass and really wanted an original TB-303 to sequence his bass parts. He never got one, as we could never afford it. When we started working on Work (work, work), we received a loan from Sean's family to help us produce the record. We didn't have any nice gear or anything. We bought a 303 and used it heavily on Work (Work, Work). In the end we had to sell it, but before we sold it we sampled all the notes, so any baselines now you hear are these unusual, sustained 303 samples sequenced by MPC.

Is part of the selection based on how you feel when playing a particular song in front of a crowd?   Can you speak to your feeling/mood while performing?

NY: Yeah I'm sure it is. I think we feel a whole bunch of feelings during a song, and for me the songs are kind of free and open so you can really drift off into a range of emotions. I enjoy a hypnotic kind of state where I'm super relaxed and get this feeling of a comforting weight being placed upon me. Loops and drones are improvised, so sometimes they work better than other times. There is that element of chance whereby I am listening to how everything is fitting together more than actually playing. I oscillate between performer and imaginary audience member both live and in the studio. This question of how music is designed, what its use/value is, is always interesting to me and when played live the songs give enough space to go there.