Without doubt New Zealand’s most successful live drum’n’bass act, Shapeshifter have come to be one of our most enduringly popular and successful bands of any genre. For more than a decade Shapeshifter have consistently been one of the country’s biggest live drawcards and a festival sell-out guarantee. Within weeks of announcing a July main centre tour in support of their newest album half the gigs had sold out, necessitating the addition of more dates in Auckland and Christchurch. After eight successive tours of the UK and Europe the band are also finding an enthusiastic international audience. Gareth Shute talked to guitarist/synth-player Sam Trevethick about their fifth album, ‘Delta,’ and 14 years of survival in the music business.
The effort of trying to make a living from music within the small and isolated NZ music scene has broken up many a band over the years. Shapeshifter turned professional back in 2006, are releasing their fifth album and have managed to survive with an almost unchanged line-up over that time.
Original drummer Redford Grennell left the band mid-tour in Sydney in 2009, with his replacement Johnny Hooves only recently passing the sticks on to Darren Mathiassen.
By contrast Shapeshifter haven’t ever settled into sticking with a tried-and-true approach to their music, instead each record has seen them pushing their music in new, often bold directions. Sam Trevethick (keyboards, guitar) explains that the band were especially keen to keep an open mind when it came to writing for their fifth album, ‘Delta’.
“With this album, we just wanted to have no pressure. When we started writing it at the end of 2010, we just wanted more songs to play live and so we could see, over time, which ideas would become strong enough for the album. We probably wrote 50 ideas for the album. We usually only have about 15, because we’re writing with the album in mind from the start and then aim to chose 12. This time, we explored a lot of different angles and went wherever our feelings took us.”
Songwriting for the album initially began in Wellington, but the pace picked up when the band made the ambitious decision to move to Berlin for six months of 2011. Basing themselves in Europe meant that Shapeshifter were closer to some of their larger overseas fanbases, particularly in the UK, Germany, Holland and the Czech Republic.
The band’s northern European reputation received a solid boost in 2010 when their previous album, ‘System Is A Vampire’, was released through high profile UK drum’n’bass label, Hospital Records. This gave Shapeshifter the opportunity to play the label’s series of ‘Hospitality’ gigs, put them onstage alongside drum’n’bass luminaries such as Roni Size and High Contrast, and led to a remix album that featured Logistics, Camo & Krooked and Netsky.
Trevethick regards the move to Berlin as an essential part of building on their success.
“Because of the whole Hospital deal we needed to be over that side of the world for a while. Plus none of us had ever had a big OE as such, because we were always committed to the band – one person living overseas for a couple of years would’ve been tricky.
“But we didn’t really want to live in the UK – it’s more expensive and there’s not as many challenges because they speak the same language as us. The weather’s not that great in the UK either! Whereas we knew Berlin was a cheap place to live and has a good history of people going there to make music, whether that’s Iggy Pop and David Bowie, or even our friend, Ladi 6. We heard so many good things about it, so it was an easy choice.”
An easy choice maybe, but still no small move for some of the band members, and it was decided that each would bring his family/partner along to keep the sense of band unity. The band’s current approach to touring overseas also reflects their desire to make the lifestyle work for all members. They tour in a bus so they can sleep en route to the next show, rather than constantly filling their spare time with having to rush between airports, shows, and hotels.
Trevethick says he has recently taken a few more steps to improve his own life as a musician.
“I don’t really drink before gigs any more. Alcohol is always there and it’s always free. I always thought I was having a much better gig when I was drunk, but slowly realised that I wasn’t. Now I have a maximum two drinks before I play. More than anything, I just want to nail the gig…
“And I’ve been wearing musicians’ earplugs for a good 10 years or so, but I’m about to switch to a full in-ear systems. As much as I love the feeling of getting blasted off the stage, my hearing is just too precious. It’s not worth it if you can’t have a conversation in a cafe because it’s too noisy for your buzzing ears.”
When it came to writing tunes for the new album, the band decided to move away from the live feel of their previous album and allow more electronic drum sounds to form the basis of many tracks. The beats were often tapped out on the keyboard or drum pad of Trevethick’s Korg Control 49 synth. He says the velocity sensitive keys give him a better rhythmic feel (especially in comparison to the cold calculations of trying to programmebeats on screen).
“We got a Dave Smith Prophet ’08 which we use quite a lot. Also, the Moog Voyager I bought for ‘The System Is A Vampire’, was used a lot for lead lines. More recently, I got a Memory Moog, which is the last keyboard that Moog manufactured before they went bust in the ’80s.”
Basically, anytime we can use analogue, we do. From the start, the MS20 synth was the sound of Shapeshifter and when the group first started it was just that synth, along with drums and the Juno that’s owned by Devin [Abrams, who plays sax and synth].
“We’re not militant about being all-analogue though and we use keyboard plug-ins like the Arturia synths quite a lot. Sometimes analogue takes up too much of the mix. I remember times when we’ve wanted a soft synth sound and tried to play it on the Memory Moog and it just over took the whole track, no matter how loud it was in the mix.”
The most recent recording sessions also gave Trevethick the opportunity to experiment with a wider range of guitar sounds, extending all the way from the heavy metal distortion on Giving Up The Ghost through to ’80s-sounding chorus effects on the verse of Gravity.
Key to Shapeshifter’s success is that they are able to combine these different electronic and analogue instruments into a coherent sound and this is particularly important during live shows, where live drums have to replicate the booming sound of the electronic beats. For this reason, Trevethick is grateful for the band’s enduring connection with their soundman, Tiki Taane.
“He’s been our sound engineer from day one and he’s amazing. We know that the sound’s going to be fine, we don’t have to worry about that… Even when he became successful as a solo artist, we were never really worried that he would stop doing things for us. First and foremost, he’s a friend and a brother, and he always said, ‘No matter what, I’m always going to be committed to you guys.’ So we’ve been able to work out our commitments between us, even though he’s very busy. So it’s been sweet.
This tight association meant that the band’s first port of call after returning from Berlin was Taane’s studio in Woodhill, northwest of Auckland. There was another productive bout of songwriting and recording before the group finally returned home to Wellington.
One new aspect of their songwriting this time was that lead singer, P Digsss (Paora Apera), had input into each of the songs from the start of the process.
“Usually we will write the tunes and then Paora will come in quite near the end to add the vocals. This time we wanted to build the songs together with him, and he was a little more open to our input with lyrics and stuff like that. We came up with a lot of melodic parts, but just left them as basic ideas until we had some vocal input, so the vocals are more within the fibre of the tune, rather than just resting on the top.”
This new openness to ideas also meant they were more willing to seek input from outside the band, and they called on another group of regular collaborators, fellow Kiwi drum’n’bass internationals The Upbeats.
“Their input was massive. For the first time since our first album, we were opening up our music for other people to have input in, so it was a big move for us. We love those guys’ music and their sense of danger and experimentation. We wanted the songs to grow and mutate to be the best they could be. Sonically, The Upbeats’ music is world class, so we just got the essential musical elements recorded and then handed them over to them and said, “What would you do with this?’”
The result is ‘Delta’, which begins by restating the group’s basis in breakbeats, before using this a grounding to move into broader areas of bass music. While a song like Diamond Trade sounds like it is about to break into a breakbeat at any moment, it instead swerves suddenly towards the funky rhythms of modern house music. Such genre-bending is something they’ve always been interested in says Trevethick.
“If you listen to our first album, we have a lot of house influences. We’ve always been influenced by all sorts of different music – house, reggae and jungle. For me, jungle and breaks culture is actually the thread that ties everything together. That’s what really gave birth to this band and what really gets me going – jungle breaks. With Diamond Trade, we just pushed that tendril of our music even further, into some tribal kind’a shit.
“The reaction we’ve had from some people is that it isn’t really us, but it’s funny because on every album we’ve gone up to that point, we’ve explored that. This is just a further evolution of that part of ourselves.”
After 14 years of making music together it’s no suprise that Shapeshifter are by now comfortable to explore where their sound can take them. Trevethick still finds that their formative years studying at jazz school provide inspiration.
“It’s all about the heat of the moment. Every time we hit the stage, we’re ready for unexpected things to happen – whether it’s somebody taking a lead line in a different way, or if something goes wrong, we’re ready to work with that situation and make it work musically. So improvisation is really the main thing that we’ve taken away from our love and study of jazz music.”
Trevethick knows that the band’s history means they have a reputation that they need to live up to.
“You have to have a commitment to your sound and your history – you can’t deny that. We’re not just going to make an album of whatever we feel like. We all make a lot of music and we all make very different music. I play a bit of acoustic guitar, for example. So we all write a whole lot of really crazy, all-over-the-place stuff. But we’re never going to make a self-indulgent album that just relies on the fact that we already have an audience.
“That said, there were way less rules this time. For our last album, we had the firm aim to put down on record Shapeshifter as a live drum’n’bass band. This time it was more about where we’re moving in our hearts, it was really based on a feeling rather than a strategy.”