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A Quietus Interview

No Dramas: HTRK Interviewed
Claire Sawers , August 27th, 2019 16:46

The dark electronic pop Australian duo HTRK, once described brilliantly as sounding like ‘Sade in prison’ return with their fourth album, Venus in Leo a slow, louche blur with chinks of warm sun peeking through the shadows. Ahead of their set at Atonal in Berlin this week, we caught up with the duo to talk about being drawn to toxic people, a new body oil for merch and moving away from drama.

It’s 1am Melbourne time when The Quietus talks to HTRK on WhatsApp, and 7pm in Qatar. Singer Jonnine Standish and guitarist Nigel Yang are breaking up their journey from Australia to Berlin with a 24-hour stopover in a fancy hotel in Doha before flying to play at Atonal festival today [Wednesday 28th August], followed by a fortnight of dates across Europe and Moscow. Hovering in that liminal space between continents, they have ordered some fancy Middle Eastern breads and dips and are trying to stay awake a few more hours . . .

How’s your jetlag?

Jonnine Standish: I think it kicked in about an hour ago . . . [laughs] I’m in kind of a blur. It’s 37 degrees here and really humid, we’ve just come out of winter too. It was a pretty brutal winter in Melbourne actually, really cold and really long.

That must feel strange. It’s weird because listening to the album just now, it feels as though it has this perfect end of summer atmosphere. There is the trademark, dark goth HTRK sound, but there’s also romance and a softness, and this sleepy, kind of dragged out languor. And I remember noticing a line in ‘New Year’s Eve’ about having a "last romance of the summertime", in December, which sounds strange if you’re in Scotland.

JS: That’s funny. Yeah we’ve timed it for you lot. [Jokes] No, it wasn’t really on purpose. We’ve got the track ‘New Year’s Eve’ and another called ‘New Year’s Day’. Of course, New Year’s Eve is at the end of the summer for us, but it wasn’t until much later we realised that would be completely at odds with a lot of the rest of the world. ‘New Year’s Day’ is about someone getting out of jail but he has a sinking feeling he’ll end up back in there very soon. But I liked the idea of a sunrise at the end bringing a bit of hope. I think there’s a lot of positivity in the album.

We wanted to make songs that sound like HTRK songs, with an emotional quality and that kind of haunting sound, that was important, but we also wanted to rebel against the last album. Psychic 9 to 5 Club [2014] was far more synth-based, kind of like a creepy wellness infomercial. You know, 3am, American TV, but there was a purpose in it. That album was an attempt for us to move into the light, especially lyrically. We were trying to get well and find ways to look after ourselves.

When we toured Work, Work, Work [2011], there was a real emotional heaviness to it, obviously given what had gone on and losing our bandmate Sean. [HTRK’s co-founding member, bassist Sean Stewart was found dead in his London home from suicide in 2010.] We’ve had a lot of drama in our lives. Psychic 9 to 5 Club was always trying to release some baggage, stuff that had really taken its toll on us. We weren’t in a very good place. We were still really anxious, and suffering in so many ways. This album was more of a conscious thing to go back into the drama . . .

Nigel Yang: But we could only do that from a place of peace and acceptance. Musically, for me we were looking for the opposite of the album before; bringing people’s attention to the song construction or lyrical content and guitar parts, not just creating an atmosphere.

I read an interview with you recently where the Australian writer described this album as less ‘cool’ and more ‘daggy’, which is a great word. I guess they were talking about how the lyrics are uninhibited, open, from the heart -- were you taking a different approach with the songwriting?

JS: Ha - yeah it is a great word. It changes track from track on this album, but I feel lyrically, I was more earnest in the last album. I enjoyed that this one feels honest, but not so earnest. I’ve laid myself bare in all the albums, that’s something I’m inclined to do. I think dagginess is something different. I like to use a certain detached humour, to counteract laying myself bare, that’s my personality and also a survival mechanism, I guess.

The opening track ‘Into the Drama’ is about getting sucked into bad situations and in the title track ‘Venus in Leo’ you write that your mum says that you’re ‘verging on dramatic’. What inspired those?

JS: ‘Venus in Leo’ is going in to dramatic relationships that I’ve had with my brother, my parents; different personalities that have come into my life and Nigel’s life too. It’s kind of like the beginning of one of those Shakespeare plays where it starts by showing you how it’s all going to pan out. That song was me reflecting back on my late teens or early twenties for the first time. That’s not the whole theme of the album. There are definitely present day stories as well. But that one was showing that my parents couldn’t understand how emotional or sensitive I was growing up, when it came to relationships. Constantly having crushes on different people, or always being described as lovesick. I’ve known that about myself but it was only recently I discovered that I had my Venus in Leo. Your Venus is about relationships and if it’s in Leo you have the most dramatic and needy, attention seeking air about you. I found it out about a third of the way into writing the album and it felt like a nice little sign off to having such a life of drama. [laughs].

Would other people close to you say that’s an exaggeration, or would they think that’s on point?

JS: They would say it’s on point, for sure! I’m really aware of it now. I manage it now. I’m getting really good at keeping in check. I have to take precautionary measures. I’m really quite attracted to toxic, dramatic people. But I have this team of people around me, including my husband Conrad [Standish, who plays in CS+Kreme]. They can smell that a mile away. I basically live off other people’s advice! I don’t have a good radar for that stuff at all. Absolutely no sensor. I get totally sucked in to the idea of someone who’s probably quite bad for me. I’m really gullible; I just believe everything that everyone says all of the time.

And in 'Mentions', at first that sounded to me like a song about a crush, having an encounter with someone you fancy and really wanting it to be physical, but it’s actually about going to a makeup counter right?

JS: It’s both, it’s a classic love song, a crush song with the desire for physicality. But my intention kind of turned to the physical sensation of getting your makeup done in one of those big shopping malls. You might only be there for ten minutes, but it’s about comparing the physical sensation of that, to say, getting 10000 likes on Instagram. And the vacuous nature of social media where you’re only as good as your last post. Compared to say, the physical feeling you get from being touched by a complete stranger, which can set your arm hairs tingling. We’re generally less physical in our real lives; we’re on our phones or in a café but online. But then some cute emojis in a DM can put you a high that lasts for 24 hours.

Do you both use social media a lot?

NY: I don’t use it so much. I’m not that comfortable on it. I guess if you’ve got a visual mind, something like Instagram, you can handle it and thrive on it.

JS: We definitely have an online connection with lots of people, as a band. We were the original MySpace band. That was like a revelation for us, having this instant contact with people who were into our music. I remember years ago putting this post on MySpace saying we were touring around Europe and looking for a tour manager. Someone was like. ‘Hey, I’ll do it’. He did, and he’s still one of our best friends. We try to take a healthier approach to it all now. I enjoy that part of social media.

The visual side of what you do, the videos, the photos - is that also quite an important side of HTRK?

JS: The visual side is actually very important, who we work with and the stories we’re telling. We’re both really into photography. It’s not just about the music. We’re actually really hard to collaborate with! We won’t put anything out that doesn’t feel like it belongs in the world we create.

NY: It’s about making all that stuff that conjures things up in your imagination. It has to feel right.

Have you guys ever heard of an Irish photographer called Brian Teeling? He made a photo series, WET DREAM, where he played your last album Psychic 9 to 5 Club while he photographed men he’d brought home with him. It’s about sex, but also loneliness and intimacy with strangers.

JS: No! I didn’t know about that. That’s really, really fascinating. I’d love to check that out. I’m interested that it’s used to document a dark period. We get quite a lot of fan videos where people are moving or dancing or stripping to our songs. I love seeing the body's reactions to the music.

I love that your HTRK merch includes body oil, which seems to match the louche, sensual -- but also kind of wellbeing side -- of what you do pretty well.

JS: We try to think of products that have meaning. We try to think of things that we’d actually want. Or put ourselves in the mind of a HTRK fan, and what they would want, in a kind of romantic way. It’s really enjoyable. We put a lot of effort into making this unisex scent with blue lotus and sandalwood. It’s just divine - it’s so nice.

There’s a slight esoteric theme in the album; you talk about horoscopes and opening sex chakras, are you both quite into alternative remedies or complementary health?

JS: Oh for sure. Almost like when you go clubbing and you’re taking a lot of drugs –– it’s putting that same fanatic behaviour into different kinds of high. It’s a real interest of ours.

NY: I’m really open to it. But I’m also quite skeptical and rational by nature. So I love hearing stories from Jonn about serendipity, or different planes, astral travelling, or psychics or dreams or coincidences. I live vicariously through her for that kind of thing. I love that it’s creeping into the lyrics more now too.

Well, good luck for your tour and your first show at Kraftwerk for Atonal. What can people expect from that?

JS: We’re on at midnight and really looking forward to it. I feel a lot less jetlagged actually after this chat! It’s a simple set up, a pretty stripped back vocal and guitar performance. I love that in Berlin you get this real mix of age groups in clubs. In Melbourne it can be super young, I feel out of place!

NY: Yeah we’re kind of just on the cusp of Gen X and Gen Y, we’re Gen X.

JS: London clubs are really good like that too. You get the old guard in clubs. They’ve got a lot of wisdom, you can’t shock them, I love that.

HTRK play Berlin Atonal this week, for more information go here Venus In Leo is released on August 30th via Ghostly International