Husband and wife duo Justin Walshaw and Bianca Prujean are Strange Harvest, a Dunedin duo that create (mostly) synth-based music that shimmers in its darkness. Their third album, ‘’Pattern Recognition’’ continues with what Stereo Embers magazine called their ‘shifting, sci-fi, post-punk landscapes’. Amanda Mills caught up with the Palmerston North natives in their adopted home of Dunedin.
The musical backgrounds of Strange Harvest’’s Justin Walshaw and Bianca Prujean (aka Skye Strange) are eclectic. Prujean is a keyboardist (having been familiar with the piano for a number of years), who played bass in a Blink-182 covers band when she was younger. Walshaw says he’’s always seemed to have a guitar around.
“I think the first song I learned to play was an Oasis song. It was basically three chords. But perhaps it was more about how you hold the guitar.”
After meeting in their hometown of Palmerston North, the pair travelled to Europe for their OE. Seeing bands like American experimental neo-psychedelicists Gang Gang Dance inspired them to collaborate musically.
Returning to NZ, Prujean was the first to move to Dunedin in order to study theatre at Otago University in 2002. She became part of all-girl experimental no-wave bands The Autoharpies and Rise of the City Cat Cult, before she and Walshaw created Strange Harvest in 2011. The band name came from a nightmarish dream Prujean had.
<a href=”http://strangeharvest.bandcamp.com/track/astronaut”>Astronaut by Strange Harvest</a>
“Sort of like a ‘’Children of the Corn’’ horror of the last supper, of dripping meat and various characters from Gossip Girl, Walshaw explains. “By the next day we had the name… and then it’’s just a name that other people project things onto, which is just human nature.”
Nz’s south felt like a good place to stay says Walshaw.
“Dunedin obviously also has a strong musical heritage and there are cycles of time where venues open and a new crowd comes in with new sounds –– so it’’s a good place to be a weirdo. The conservative nature of a relatively small place is off-set by the art scene.”
And how about fitting in with any of the local scenes?
“Everything fits, that’s the problem!” Walshaw responds seriously. “I feel like we’’re the older guys, but that’’s a good thing… I hope we can show the younger people that you can write bizarre lyrics to a beat, and maybe it inspires kids to make their own music.”
‘’Pattern Recognition‘’ is an evolution from their last two albums, 2011’’s lo-fi, jangly ‘‘Here Is Where You Are’’ released on Lttl Paisly Records (‘a little music, art, fashion & screenprinting label from Dunedin, NZ’), and 2013’’s self-released darker synth-based ‘’Inside A Replica City’’. Recorded at producer Tommy Thomas’’s home, Pattern Recognition’, and second track Astronaut in particular, are his favourites.
“We recorded very quickly over one weekend at Tommy’’s house. We knew the songs really well and it just sounds fresh. I think it’’s quite accessible and the keyboards and vocals are right up front.”
The nature of change and growth caused Strange Harvest to move on from Lttl Paisly. “[It wasn’’t] because we didn’’t want to be on Lttl Paisly… it was more about the self control, Walshaw explains. “And, such small runs, there weren’’t many copies.”
The album title comes from dystopian cyberpunk author William Gibson’’s book of the same name, though the album is not sci-fi influenced.
“It’’s not really a futuristic album –– but there are themes about how people interact with technology,” Walshaw notes.
The duo’’s music is minimalist, based on beats, and combining Prujean’’s drum machines and Walshaw’’s fuzzy guitars. The lyrics are split mostly evenly between them, and during the writing process their influences were fluid, as they investigated aural touchstones they were compared with – both negative and positive.
The songs have been gestating for a while. Both spent time listening to ’’80s underground synth tracks, linking them to modern sounds through their influences, piecing together a timeline from old school to the new, while picking through new pop and hip hop sounds for interesting and referential points.
“After we put out our last record, ‘‘Inside a Replica City’’, people told us that we sound like coldwave, Walshaw says. “So we were like, ‘What is this coldwave business?’ And it led to listening to lots of French electronica and synthesiser-based music from now and the ’’80s…… We had a sound we wanted to capture……kind of embracing the coldwave label, which suits the futurism themes on the album. And at the same time, we were listening to lots of hip hop –– like Earl Sweatshirt and old Wu-Tang.”
While ‘’Pattern Recognition’’ takes from these influences, pop sensibilities come through, especially on Colonies and Dominican, both of which flow melodically against walls of synthesiser. The title track is more rhythmic: a driving beat underpins almost robotic vocals from Prujean, while Walshaw intones semi-dramatically, over a wall of fuzzed guitars, with synth chords and keyboard motifs buried a little more in the mix. Lyrically there is some element of storytelling, but not often from first person narration.
“The lyrics can be a bit cryptic!” he obliges. “I know what Skye is on about because I asked her, but I’’m not going to spoil it for other people.”
Their 10-track album has an interesting dual emphasis of guitar and synth.
“I felt like my guitar playing had improved to a point where I could match what Skye was playing, confesses Walshaw. “She’’d give me the chords and I’’d try to find a bit of a riff without having to rely on distortion for every song –– just some delay and really let the keyboards guide the track. I think beats are… important… when we write songs, the song sits on the beat.”
He sees Strange Harvest as an amalgamation of sounds.
“I think we’’re thought of as a minimal-synth band. But we’’re also kind of crunchy –– the guitars are often distorted and glitchy. Our aesthetic is conceptual futurism –– with some tracks about technology. We also have more personal tracks based in the here and now.”
The cover art (a black orange) and videos also add to their aural and visual aestheic. Local artists Phoebe MacKenzie and Emily Berryman have created the artwork and visuals, including the video for Amnesia from ‘‘Inside A Replica City’’.
“They understand where we are coming from, says Walshaw. “It’’s naïve but psychedelic and a bit dark.”
Alongside Strange Harvest, Prujean, has an electronica solo project, Embedded Figures, and has recently released a digital EP, ‘Fig. 1’ (also mixed, recorded and mastered with Thomas). Does this impact on the band?
“These are songs that stand alone from Strange Harvest, there’’s no need for a guitar,” Walshaw explains. “In terms of the impact on Strange Harvest… she’’s getting good radio play and it creates some buzz.”
‘’Pattern Recognition’’ will be released on cassette. The original plan was for an online release only, but they considered vinyl and CD before deciding on cassette accompanied with download codes. Mostly obsolete to the masses, this format, is important to the duo as they cemented their personal relationship through creating and sending cassettes to each other, a sonic love-letter, if you like.
“Skye makes the best mixtapes,” Walshaw enthuses. “I’’m talking about old C90 cassette tape mixtapes –– it’’s how we really found each other. Making a mixtape is like an artform.
Unsure of the next steps following the album’’s release party at Port Chalmers’ Chicks Hotel in late April, he thinks they will likely start something new.
“Once the record’s out there, we lose control of it. It’’s all grown up and left the house. So we’’ll probably want to build up something new to replace it.”