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April/May 2016

by Mohamed Hassan

Street Chant: Beyond The Isthmus

by Mohamed Hassan

Street Chant: Beyond The Isthmus

For a band with such a familiar name, Street Chant don’t seem to have done a lot to get in our faces, or charts, since dropping their highly regarded debut album some six years back. There was a digital 5-track EP called ‘Isthmus of One-Thousand Lovers’ in 2013, preceded by a number of student radio-popular singles, but frontwoman and main songwriter Emily Littler has since been more active furthering her solo profile as Emily Edrosa. For a few years now there have been rumours of a sophomore Street Chant album being ready to go, so it is a relief all round to see ‘Hauora’ released. Mohamed Hassan met up with Littler, Billie Rogers and drummer Christopher Varnham at the band’s low-rent Auckland city practice pad.

Emily Littler leads me down a corridor of storage units stretching out for 20 metres in each direction. It’s dimly lit and there’s a horrendous smell I choose not to mention out of politeness.

“I think there’s people living here. They use the bathroom to wash themselves, that’s why it smells so bad,” she says.

Four aisles along, we reach a unit disguised by a wall of makeshift insulation, covering the entire frame save for a cut out door at the front. Inside is a space no bigger than a bathroom, littered with amps, guitars and a scrawny drum kit at the back. On the right side is a desk lamp with the light bulb hanging out, and on the other an orange stage light that’s overheating the tiny space. It’s cosy enough to live in, if you really wanted to.

Littler tells me they share this space with three other bands, two of which are Surf City and PHF, but this place has been here for years. At least as far back as Steriogram. She points to a line of empty cigarette packets stapled to the wall.

“That’s their Marlboro Lights up there.”

A few minutes later, Billie Rogers and Christopher Varnham arrive, and we find a space amid the instruments and sit down. They all look tired, but somewhat relieved. They say a long-winded journey has come to an end, an album six years in the making.

“It’s bittersweet,” admits Rogers.

“You start thinking about how it’s all gone, what you’re gonna do in the next few weeks.”

It has been an awfully long time. They released their debut, ‘Means’ back in 2010. It’s not like they went anywhere either, dropping a 7″ (Frail Girls / Salad Daze) in 2012, and an EP (‘Isthmus of One Thousand Lovers’) a year later. Street Chant have also never really left the local tour circuit.

They surprise by telling me most of the material on ‘Hauora’ was ready not longer after ‘Means’. The writing began almost immediately after their debut album. Drum tracks were laid down in 2012 and by the end of 2014 the new album was ready for mastering.

“It’s been done for quite a while,” understates Littler. “It’s strange thinking that people haven’t heard it, I can’t imagine it.”

She acknowledges the album process has been a struggle for her, between fighting off a looming sense of dread that the band was on the verge of breaking up (their last drummer Alex Brown left not long after the record was finished), and her own suffocating perfectionism. She’s been practising how best to explain to everyone why it had taken so long.

“To be honest I had a lot of people whispering in my ear a bit about what we should do next, and it made me second guess what I wanted to do. It took me a while to really have a vision, and I feel like that vision that I had has been realised, but I don’t think I will ever be a perfectionist on anything ever again.”

The band were unhappy with the production and lyrics on ‘Means’, and wanted to push themselves further.

“When we did our last album, the trend was for the guitars to be really reverb-y, you couldn’t really make out chords, lyrics, but even melodies,” she says.

“So we kind’a wanted to do the opposite of that, and I think we made everything dry and ugly.”

In contrast, ‘Hauora’ has much more room to breathe, with big roaring songs driven by gorgeous melodies that are able to still retain their subtlety, notably on the album opener One More Year.

“It sounds the way we wanted it to sound,” Littler says. “We wanted it to be really crisp, we wanted our intentions to be forward, and I wanted the lyrics to be really audible.”

Never and Insides (which Littler wrote as a 17-year old) feels wonderfully familiar, while the synth-infused Country catches you off guard completely (is that a xylophone?) and was for a short-lived moment the direction the band thought they were going in.

“I don’t think that’s gonna be that anymore, we’re thinking we might go back to being raw and off the cuff.”

Melbourne is a painfully real exploration of the last days of a relationship, the bargaining part of the break-up. Apart from that, the album is sweet, nostalgic, energetic, and dare I say, hopeful. That’s especially surprising given the tumultuous last few years.

After the critical success of their first album, the band found themselves catapulted into the touring arena, with label offers, a spot at SXSW in 2011 (alongside David Dallas, Zowie, Liam Finn, Brooke Fraser and The Naked and Famous), and a national US tour opening for The Lemonheads. It was a wild and exciting journey to navigate as 22-year olds, but when they finally returned to home soil, a harsh reality awaited them.

“For years we were living pretty cool lives, going on tour all the time. In the end we had to come back to NZ and live in a shit fucking flat. We were worse off than our friends.”

Riddled with debt from their travels, and with their primary source of revenue suddenly drying up, the three fought to keep their music, as well as their own mental wellbeing, on track. The flat in question was where Littler stayed for a few years, and would be immortalised on the front cover of the album, for not so great reasons.

“I just remember feeling like the house represented how I was feeling. It made me physically sick, it made me mentally sick, I lost my mind a bit living in that house. Rats were crawling in my mind as they were in the walls.”

Such frightening challenges would serve as the basis for much of the album’s content, as well as its title. Hauora, a Maori philosophy of physical, mental, social and spiritual health, is often described like the walls of a whare, that all need to be maintained for wellbeing. Littler’s flat, where much of the album was recorded, became the metaphor for where the band members were at in their lives, and how they saw the rest of their generation.

“A lot of the content is about where NZ is at from my point of view, and people who are like me. I just feel like there’s zero empathy from the people whose fault it is, the baby boomer generation, and the flats that we live in, all of them are so mouldy.”

“There’s, like, holes in the floor of my kitchen,” adds Rogers.

Littler finds it’s important to check her own privilege, as “…a white woman who’s fairly middle class”, but says it’s becoming harder and harder to dream about a future. For Rogers, living hand-to-mouth is an exhausting and time consuming reality in itself, especially when she is trying to juggle study, work and trying to be creative at the day’s end.

“I don’t wanna complain because my life is cool, but you know, it’s not that simple,” she says. “Like, I’ve run out of money, I don’t have any more money for two days.”

These are woes shared by many millennials, from those like Littler and Rogers getting sick in mouldy flats, to their friends who can’t afford to pay for shows to come and see them. It’s a shared reality that sits heavy on their minds, and inspired much of the content on ‘Hauora’, an annotation of their lives as part of a generation “…seeking existence, commitment or even just a job” as Littler sings in Pedestrian Support League.

“I thought that maybe if I made a bit of a mirror, people or my friends or people like me would appreciate it,” she says. “Because you know, Paul Henry does not represent me, Mike Hosking does not represent me, Story doesn’t represent me… so much stuff out there, and there’s not a lot that does.”

Littler notes they might be wallowing a bit, and that they’re lucky enough to have a platform for self expression most people don’t have access to. Most of the time, it’s fun and at least they don’t lose money.

“It’s a nice life to get up on stage and play my electric geetaar, and show off with my mates and get two free beers,” she laughs.

“It’s social and enriching and you learn a lot and we do it for love,” says Rogers. “We recognise that we’re privileged enough to be doing this.”

Street Chant are planning a string of shows around the country over coming months, as a start. Further overseas experiences will hopefully come later, maybe even the European tour they’ve dreamed about for years.

After such a delay in bringing ‘Hauora’ to market there’s new material already in the works with new drummer Varnham, and two albums from Littler’s other projects (including a new Emily Edrosa release) expected later this year. All the while Street Chant work to maintain their own hauora.