Known for the superficially quirky yet oddly academic narratives of their songs, inspiration for their music comes from many places as it turns out – from human behaviour and the limitations of Western scientific method to… chickens. With their second album, ‘Invisible Lines’, newly released, Ha the Unclear songwriter and frontman Michael Cathro talks with Kirsten Marsh about the band’s progression over the last four years.
Michael Cathro, his brother Paul Cathro and Ben Sergeant (drums) have been making music together since 2009, guitarist Theo Francis joining them in 2014. The time since has seen them change band name, change city, release a debut album and a couple of singles heralding a second. Hardly earth-shaking progress but impressive given their determinedly off-kilter indie pop sensibilities. Despite being unique among many of their contemporaries who have changed members or disbanded entirely, Cathro says it hasn’t been hard to make it work.
“We’re pretty much like family, we stick together. And everyone made the move up to Auckland… which is pretty special.”
Although the whole band has been settled in Auckland for a few years now, Cathro reflects that they enjoyed a better pace of life in Dunedin. The pressure he feels from Auckland’s “capitalist drive” comes through both in his music (Big City) and conversation, but he doesn’t think it extends to the music scene.
“All the bands that we play with, or friends that are in bands, aren’t like that… Everybody seems to be friends.”
And in some cases become parents – Cathro joyfully revealing that he’s also had a baby with his long-term partner.
“That really changed my creative process and time!”
Thinking over other developments in recent years, he notes that the local music scene has shifted somewhat unexpectedly.
“There’s been a renaissance of guitar bands. There didn’t seem to be people across the country filling out venues for guitar shows… four years ago”.
Social and political commentary underpin much of their musical output, but Cathro isn’t setting out to spread a message.
“I try to write about things I feel strongly about. I’m just exploring my own thoughts and concerns… it’s never intended to be preachy.”
One of the band’s more memorable songs is based on a heavier subject matter but somehow avoids sounding like the moral high ground. Released earlier in 2018 on the collaboration album ‘Corduroy Cape’, Battery Farm tells the autobiographical story of 18-year old Michael Cathro responding to a job ad to ‘work with animals on a farm’.
“I went out there and it was a battery chicken farm. They had rows and rows of cages,” Cathro recalls, gesturing with his hands to indicate the scale and size of the visual nightmare.
“I lasted an hour. It scarred me! I haven’t bought a non-free range egg or chicken since then.”
Despite the band’s initial concern that the track was “a bit rugged”, Battery Farm has become a fan favourite, enjoying 20,000 Spotify listens in three months.
Superimposed onto such personal experiences are ideas about the human psyche and relationships, likely the result of Cathro’s foray into psychology during his university days. Supermarket Queues, seemingly an ode to the mundane parts of relationships like grocery shopping, also gives as an unlikely middle finger to Western norms.
“I’d been thinking a lot about the scientific method and how it can be quite fallible… Western science treats individuals, but other holistic methods will treat everything around the person so that they don’t go back to an environment that fosters a particular behaviour. There’s this line about the scientists saying you can’t go back in time. Fuck them, you know?”
Their new album’s title of the also ties a few big ideas together, including an evolutionary faunal divide between islands in Indonesia. A line in Fake Flowers (‘A child stares at a finger but not where it is pointing, invisible lines are all around us,’) was inspired by a sweet personal experience Cathro had with his own baby.
“I liked that line, it kind of alludes to the not always explicit interconnectedness of everything,” he muses.
‘Invisible Lines’ represents a definite departure from their past, but it’s no coincidence that the frantic energy of Bacterium, Look At Your Motor Go is reminiscent of their 2014 debut album of that same name.
“That song was originally supposed to be on [the first] album but then it got cut, so we re-recorded it for this one. We couldn’t get it right, we had to move on…”
“I don’t know, we played it for four more years,” he laughs.
The new album was recorded at Paquin Studios in Mt Eden by Tom Healy, who has worked on projects with Die! Die! Die! and Tiny Ruins, among others. The band were more interested in playing with effects and getting the right sound for this album, than preserving the bedroom quality that characterised their early songs.
“We wanted to go bigger, and Tom was the guy to do that.”
Healy had a collaborative role in the creative process and instrumentation of the album. Songs like Where Were You When I Was All You Needed and Wallace Line in particular evidently owe their upbeat, beach-pop quality to Healy’s eclectic percussion collection.
“He had agogô bells, and woodblocks, and he’d pull out all these bits and pieces…it was fun to use that stuff. We wouldn’t have thought about that if it hadn’t been there in the room.”
Going bigger has definitely paid off, landing Ha the Unclear on the Silver Scroll Award shortlist with Wallace Line, though Cathro says the band didn’t set out to win accolades.
“It is definitely nice to be acknowledged… it’s an incredible list to be a part of.”
They’ve progressed slowly and suffered their share of setbacks, but with the benefit of time, that sort of acknowledgement and some great videos by Kelly Gilbride and Alexander Hoyles, Ha the Unclear are now enjoying commercial radio play and motivation for a future that looks bright.
“We’re definitely interested in doing more collaborations… I think we’ll also try and get back to the studio to do an EP before summer. If we get caught up with touring, we might not have another chance. We have songs sitting there, we just want to get in and record them, work some stuff out. That’s the funnest part.”