Frustrated Desire, Twists & Turns: An Interview With HTRK

Steph Kretowicz talks to the London-based band about new album Work (work, work) and the difficulty of losing friend and band member Sean Stewart during its writing process

As a band with a thematic focus on frustrated desire, crawling build-ups (with none of the pay-off) and an endless struggle with delayed album releases, HTRK’s eight-year existence has been anything but an easy one. Their first LP, Marry Me Tonight, recorded with iconic Birthday Party member Rowland S. Howard in 2006, didn’t surface until 2009. That came after a protracted rights dispute, three years of illegal downloads and an anticlimax of an official release. They had a crack at Berlin after relocating from Melbourne four years ago but citing depression, near-starvation and an insurmountable language barrier as major factors, band members Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang found themselves on tour in London and refusing to go back. They moved to London in 2007, and brought late bassist and core member Sean Stewart unwillingly with them.

Several years later, and we’re in Standish’s East London apartment on the August bank holiday. Dub music drifts in the background, while Yang struggles both to locate a lighter and to get blood flow to his legs while seated on the floor. Sadly, Stewart is no longer with us after tragically taking his own life a year and a half ago, while Howard, too, is gone, after immortalising Standish on the track ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny’ for swansong album Pop Crimes. He lost his long battle with cancer in 2009.

HTRK speak of Howard with great affection, while occasionally slipping into present tense when talking about their bandmate Stewart. His presence is still very much felt with the release of their second album Work (work, work), which was two-thirds completed while he was still alive. While retaining the glacial pace of its predecessor, it’s a frostier listen, Standish’s half-sung, half-whispered vocals drifting between gaseous clouds of guitar and the metallic thunk of a drum machine. With no immediate plans to bring another member into the special fold that is the Hate Rock Trio, one becomes acutely aware that it’s not every day you get to meet your soulmate, let alone a handful. Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang seem grateful for it.

So was Work (work, work) recorded before Sean passed away?

Nigel Yang: Well, we’d written a set of songs. ‘Skinny’ was finished, ‘Synthetik’, ‘Poison’, ‘Love Triangle’. They were actual demos we’d done. We’d planned to go to an actual studio – we were visiting studios, talking to producers and stuff, but then Sean died in March [2010]. So we just remixed the demos, recorded new stuff over the top of them. The other songs were in ‘Sean-only’ demo form. The first song [‘Ice Eyes Eis’] is a strange one because I pieced that together as a sound collage, in a way, of a recording that I’d found on Sean’s computer hard disk afterwards.

Jonnine Standish: We’d been asked to do a field recording for someone, and Sean had done one in his bedroom.

NY: The field was his bedroom.

JS: It’s incredible. It’s Berlin sex TV. The ads in Berlin are just ads for sex channels between programs, and that’s constant.

NY: He titled this recording ‘Late Night Sounds’ and he’d never told us that he’d done it. I think he recorded it in 2009 alone in Berlin, probably 5am, feeling pretty isolated and alone. I just took some of that field recording and mixed it with some new sounds.

JS: I can remember I said ‘let’s slow this down’ because some of the ads on the TV that you can hear are really corporate, slick, well-produced jingles. So Nigel slowed it down by two thirds. It’s quite something.

How are you re-imagining yourselves now? Do you think you’ll go forward as the duo?

JS: I think so, yeah. We’re going to give it a shot. I’ve got a couple of concepts in mind for the lyrical content that’s taking Work (work, work), and pushing it even further. I don’t like straying too far from the themes that I write about. Since the beginning of time it’s always been ‘desire’. There’s been no love in any of the songs. I want to keep that up.

I really enjoy working with Nigel. I can imagine what’s going to happen, will be self-checking whether Sean would like it. If anything, Sean gets his own way now, 100 per cent.

I never had the opportunity to see you play live as a three-piece.

NY: Yeah, so different.

JS: Sean brought the danger. Maybe danger’s not the right word, because I think we’ve got some of that as well but he certainly brought… Just the bass sound that he had. Also just the way that he stood. It was quite a masculine dynamic to the band. I think we’re going to struggle to keep that up.

NY: We’re not going to try to emulate it or anything, or recreate it. I’m not going to try to write basslines in a ‘Sean-style’ or anything. The direction is going to change quite a bit.

I noticed in this album the bass isn’t so prevalent and at your show you knew whether it was old material just based on the lack of bass. Was that a conscious move?

NY: This was happening before Sean passed away anyway. He was moving into using a lot of synths. I think he thought he’d done the bass guitars.

JS: I think after ‘HA’ he thought that that was the perfect bassline. [laughs] I’m being serious.

NY: He was really excited by other sonic possibilities. He’d been hanging out with this Finnish producer in Berlin. His name was Mika Vainio, he’d played in Pansonic and things like that. He was really excited about tone generation and subby bass tones and lines that hit you on a more subconscious level. The lack of bass on Work (work, work) isn’t through Sean not being there to record, it’s very much his vision as well.

You know how everyone talks about Marry Me Tonight being the ‘pop’ album. Would you agree?

NY: Yeah, it was a concerted effort to make something listen-able.

JS: I think it’s really pop. I know some people might find that kind of funny but it’s totally radio friendly, great driving music, really immediate. I know that’s an overused word, but you don’t have to really think about the concept at all. It is really quite a literal album.

NY: That was our intention but a lot of feedback has been from people saying, ‘We don’t get this album.’

JS It’s too slow. [laughs]

NY: Then about a year later it will have seeped into people’s heads and they’d be like…

JS: ‘Why didn’t you give this to me?’ And we’d say, ‘We sent it to you five times, we really sucked up to you and you just ignored us.’

NY: Music writers.

There’s obviously a sense of humour in the lyrics and your attitude to making music. Do you think that people miss that sometimes?

JS: I think they’re starting to pick up on that a little and I think Rowland got it straight away. But we’re not that humorous, we’re pretty serious at the same time. Humour’s like breathing, everyone does it. It’s really just taking a step back and looking at something from a different angle and I think that’s important with everything.

It’s also a coping mechanism.

JS: Very much so. Some of these subjects are painful so humour is a good way to balance that pain and make people feel like we’re in it together. Rowland was the first person who laughed out loud when we played ‘Disco’. We had to do this X Factor routine in front of him behind the glass as we went through every song we’d ever written. He was just watching patiently, deciding what would go on Marry Me Tonight. You couldn’t hear him when he was behind the glass but when we played ‘Disco’ he just couldn’t stop laughing, and I was so happy because it’s hilarious. The fact that I sing in the most deadpan way, ‘Everybody, let’s go’. No one had found that funny before. They had just found that scary. I think more and more people will get that there’s always a little bit of a twist, or surrealism, to our work.

The studio that you use in London Fields, do you record there or is it just a rehearsal room?

JS: We recorded there too.

NY: It’s hardly a studio. It’s just our rehearsal room. We used a computer and hired a nice mic for a couple of weeks.

JS: Yeah, a really nice mic but then we went back to the shitty one because it sounded too good. [both laugh]

NY: We were thinking of going really pro with the production for a while because a lot of the songs could work – they’re really crisp, clean, spacious.

JS: That changed after Sean died. [Nigel’s] attitude was, ‘Make this as lo-fi as possible.’ Looking back I think grieving had a lot to do with that. All those sounds make no sense when you’re grieving. Instead it’s lo-fi, gritty and just a bit ‘fuck you’ when you’re in a lot of pain.

NY: The production’s really personal. We had no regard for any commercial intent.

JS: [addressing Yang] You wanted to release 2000 CDs. No download, no vinyl, in a photocopied piece of paper and then we never talk about the album again. That was the initial plan with the release. We never spoke about not continuing, or continuing. Nigel said to me, ‘Let’s just finish the album,’ and we haven’t spoken about the future at all other than that. We know we’ll make another album. I think that’s the best way to do it. Talk doesn’t achieve that much sometimes.

Work (Work Work) is released via Ghostly in the USA and Blast First Petite in the UK

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