As guitarist/songwriter Michael Cathro previously noted to NZM, his band Brown was named after a pet rat because he “…wanted something that was a little more abstract and harder to pin anything on if you hadn’t heard us.” With obscurity apparently a lessening priority, Brown have changed up to become Ha The Unclear, and now have a ‘debut’ album entitled ‘Bacterium, Look At Your Motor Go’ ready to… well, go, as Amanda Mills reveals.
Ha The Unclear, the band formerly known as Brown, started out with Dunedinites Michael and Paul Cathro (guitar and bass respectively), and the brothers’ childhood friend Ben Sergeant on drums.
Brown formed in 2009, after Michael Cathro decided he needed a band to perform the music he had written under the moniker Baraka and the Finnish Hymns. Initially named after his rat, Mr. Brown (pet rodents are a recurring theme), the trio had an unfortunate start featuring a boy racer and a beer bottle to Michael’s head. Five years on, things have changed. Adding second guitarist Theo Francis, albums and singles have been released on Bandcamp and they have decamped to Auckland. A third album, the first under new band name Ha The Unclear, is imminent.
The band had a strong following within the southern music scene. Cathro has spoken of Dunedin’s musical altruism, saying “…good folk make extraordinary things happen… out of… a desire to see creativity flourish in the town. So, how does the Auckland scene compare?
“In Dunedin there is a really strong music community, he considers. “Dunedin is a very creative place. That’s inspirational. In Auckland it seems that there is more ambition, more urgency. That might be the bustle of a big city.
Heading offshore, Cathro travelled through Ireland for a year, for much of which he performed as a duo with friend and fellow musician Michael Straight. After adventuring further through Europe and India, he returned home to settle in Auckland.
“I wanted to continue to get that feeling that you get from travelling for a while longer… when you grow up down south… you hear ‘Auckland this, Auckland that…’ When I first arrived, every corner I turned I got a Don McGlashan song stuck in my head! Dunedin is home but Auckland is a hoot.
Following his return, the band (as Brown) recorded their eponymous debut album in 2010, a collection of acoustic guitar-based tracks with more than a little melancholy and social observation, including Our Love is Like a David Bain Jersey. Brown’s 2012 sophomore album ‘Manneqins’ continued the group’s knack for catchy pop and affecting lyrics. Late 2013 single Apostate is hook-laden, while 85 and Kosmonavt (re-recorded for the new album) is particularly sad. Supporting these releases, the quartet gigged up and down the country (despite residing at the opposite ends of NZ), averaging a gig a fortnight.
Cathro says they changed their band name from Brown for a few reasons, one being other bands, with the same name, that were getting annoyed.
“People were [also] telling us it has been impossible to find our music online. Ha The Unclear is an amalgamation of a couple of things and the reasoning should become clearer over time, he teases. “Ha the Unclear is kind of like Pliny the Elder, a character based on a pet rat I once had, called Ha!”
At least this time, the pet rodent-themed band name has little chance of being easily duplicated. New album ‘Bacterium, Look At Your Motor Go’ is different to the band’s earlier releases, if only because they used better equipment, so it sounds superior. Cathro still describes their sound as ‘bedroom pop’.
“Our initial albums were all recorded in various friends’ and band members’ bedrooms. This new album is a bit less bedroom, so it might not be as applicable now, but I think the songs are story pop, maybe a little off-kilter.”
It was mostly recorded over one week at Dunedin’s Albany Street Studios with Oli Wilson (a music lecturer at Otago University, and Chills’ keyboardist), and engineer Mike Holland.
“The rest we did at Oli’s house and I did a bunch of vocals in my bedroom in Mt Eden.”
The album mixes new material with some re-imagined tracks, Cathro saying they had a lot more help to make it. The next single is Secret Life of Furniture and the band plan to tour in support of the album in August or September. Cathro grew up listening to 1960s British bands, and the music that Ha The Unclear make is melodic, with a pop sensibility that comes from a love of the genre.
“I remember pulling sickies at primary school reasonably often so I could stay at home and copy down Beatles’ lyrics. I’m certain that’s stayed with me.”