HTRK: “We’re in the afterlife as far as sound goes.” Interview by Zacharias Szumer

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HTRK have been anesthetising listeners since the early thousands with their hypnotic mix of sluggish, thumping 808 beats and ethereal vocal and guitar textures. Their debut album Marry Me tonight was recorded in 2006 and was finally released in 2009. First released digitally and on CD, it received its first full vinyl pressing in April this year. Zacharias Szumer caught up with Nigel and Jonny to reflect on how the album has held up all these years later.

So Marry Me Tonight, your first album was recorded nine years ago, what has changed since then in the way you make music together?

N: A lot, from being a two piece, and being without Sean writing bass lines, it totally changed for the last album. We had to go through some serious re-thinking of our songwriting process, where we didn’t have the safety or support of a strong bass line, and I thought I’m not even going to try and write a bass line like Sean’s, and once I accepted that melodic basis wasn’t going to be there it kind of freed up the sound to be a bit freer and concentrate more on textures and different timings and it just became a bit less heavy, both emotionally and in terms of the weight of sound. We still wrote bass-like parts, but they were more pulsy and sparse, without a melodic line and without many chord changes. So yeah, that was a really big thing for us. With marry me tonight coming out, listening back to it, it is really quite noticeable how much we had to change.

J: Also the process of songwriting has really changed as well. The difference between the energy of the three of us when we used to rehearse. We sometimes wouldn’t really bring so much to the rehearsal, it would be more of an instantaneous feel, the energy off each other, whether there was tension or something happened really fast. I feel like (nowadays) me and Nigel really talk out ideas a lot more, rather than just being in the moment. I can kind of hear that consideration in the new sound. When I listen to Marry Me Tonight, they were ideas that we came up with in two seconds, and that remained the song, which I like actually, its kind of fun listening back to this album, I think its held up remarkably. I think there wasn’t so much twisting or over-thinking in a lot of the work.

I’ve been listening to some of the mixtapes you’ve put together for various magazines, and I’m always interested by the breadth of your musical influences. Within that same time; recording Marry Me Tonight and now, how have your musical influences changed?

N: Not that much, I don’t think, maybe they’ve come full circle, Jonny and I were big on the Rave scene, but when we started a band we weren’t looking to be an electronic band, we were a rock or a deconstructed kind-of rock band. With that whole side of your life, you kind of do it and then you’re over it. Recently ambient has filtered into our listening habits, or mine a lot more. Anything related to dance music culture, in an tangential way, in a second room, coming down when you get home, these iconic stages of going out to electronic music parties. Anything but the dancing, even being in a car driving home a 5am in the morning, all of these are strong memories we’ve had from over ten years ago. I think they started to rise to the top of our consciousness, maybe during Work Work Work and even more so with the most recent record.

J: I was really into drum and bass and jungle for a period of time, it was the only music I could listen to. And the reason I bring that up is that when that music came out it just felt like there that you had to retrain your mind on how to listen to music. The beats were so fast and the groove was almost in slow motion, you almost had to blur your eyes to move to it properly. It was so exciting, and I think I’m constantly trying to get that hit again, where you feel like history is being made and there’s a new sound that adults just cant understand. Those feelings really interest me, like there’s a new thing, I feel like that sensation has been lost, but I feel like we’re kind of on the verge of it happening again, maybe in the next few years, but i’m not sure how. I feel like that was one of the concepts that we were exploring with Psychic 9-5 Club. Which was, if there was a new sound in a club, what would that sound be, and what would the club experience be like. We were flipping everything we knew back from the time when we were clubbing and raving. We were turning everything up on its head for the last record.

I think its an interesting idea, a new sound or musical style that adults just can’t understand, but is also impossible to predict.

J: Yeah cause we’re adults, and I’m really looking forward to really not getting something, and be excited by not getting it. But I’m getting it all, even when it comes to these little micro-trends like PC music, I’m really waiting to have something shock or disgust me, but I get it all, I’m really disapointed. There’s that whole concept that hauntology, all that music that’s really slow, boys in hoods, and ethereal reverb-out vocals and tombstones, and all of that imagery is because the kids can’t shock the adults, so they’re just wandering round this wasteland of every sound and every note that been heard, and there’s nothing new, and the frustration of that equals this graveyard soundscape, but that’s even old hat now, so we’re in the afterlife as far as sound goes.

I think in another interview you were talking about how the pop music of your teenage years has this subconscious influence on the music you make for the rest of your life. You love it to death, and it kind of seeps into you in some way. Do you think there’s an age cutoff, or are you still influenced by the pop-music of today?

N: I think the age cutoff is when your hormones start to settle down, and from then on music isn’t as important emotionally, so you are always going to be connected to the stuff you were into when you were a teenager.

J: I think about this stuff a lot, I try to fight it I guess, and try to keep those feelings alive somehow, I think that it’s important and you can do it a little bit. I don’t know if there is an age cutoff, one of my best friends is sixty this year and his passion for popular music is just like that of a teenager. And I’ve met other people like that as well, and they’re rare, but its possible and I think you just need to work on it.

So, do you like new commercial pop music?

J: My tolerance for music in a car, is sort of like a tolerance for films when you’re on a plane. Something happens and I can listen to anything in a car. I’ll take on board anything that you throw at me if I’m in a car. I’m really into radio, I’ll flick through from modern stations to Gold FM. When it comes to modern pop, it can be really awful misogynist pop and I’m right into it.

When you were recording Marry Me Tonight Roland S Howard not only produced the album but also contributed guitar parts. Have you collaborated with anyone else since then and do you have plans to?

J: We’re not very good collaborators

N: Nathan (Corbin) who produced our last album did a lot of programming of beats and synth stuff.

J: Yea that worked out really well, I take that back

N: Good collaborators are hard to find. We’ve got a new collaboration coming up with a Melbourne dance company called Chunky Move. That’s a collab that we’re really excited about, we’ll be performing live, maybe with some choreography and some amazing dancers from that company, in a festival coming up soon.

J: And if all goes well we’ll have a project coming up soon with Mika Vainio, we’re chipping away at that. But all in all we’re not very good collaborators, it must be said.

N: It hadn’t even dawned on me when we were recording Marry Me Tonight that someone else would be playing on the record and it was kind of thrilling, we were working on a song and it wasn’t sounding good and we were all out of ideas and Roland would say he had an idea, and he just strapped on the guitar or got out the synth and laid something down in one take. Yeah that was great, it was a proper recording studio moment. You don’t get those anymore because who goes into a studio these days, you’re usually just in your bedroom or loungeroom. It’s like a moment from the seventies in a wood-paneled fancy studio…

J: …and someone says “Hey I can hear a synth line”, and that is then the synth line on the track for all time, in one take.

N: In another way it was like the seventies is that whole process of going into an expensive studio and recording this thing felt like a relic of a time past when music could afford a recording budget through record sales. This was our first album so we didn’t have any record sales.

J: And we recorded it in 2006, when we could still have plausibly made a lot of money from record sales, which is now an obsolete concept. So we took this record to Berlin, which was kind of like taking an unscratched scratchie in your pocket, with this unknown future. Nowadays things are a lot more simpler and direct, and are still a lot of interesting creative ways to make money in the music industry, but for the moment, money from record sales is over, but that’s not to say it won’t come back.

N: Who nowadays is going to give a band like us 10,000 dollars of studio recording time. We didn’t have to pay a cent, because somehow there seemed to be enough belief in what we were doing that the cash was no problem. That kind of risk just doesn’t get taken anymore, that makes it really quite odd that we had a chance to do it, and we had Roland to do it with. Its quite unbelievable. You know, we went to Berlin with this scratchie in our pocket, thinking we had our fortunes in our pocket, but because of a falling out with Lindsay who produced it, its kind of like having what we thought was a winning scratchie in our pockets for three years, but being unable to scratch it. And day by day becoming more frustrated that we couldn’t cash in on this great thing that we thought we had. And in that time the music world totally changed, the digital music revolution, and increase in Internet speeds, mp3’s and social media totally changed the game. So it was a really odd few years, and when it came out it was a huge relief and that old-fashioned dream of being a sustainable musician wasn’t really in our sights anymore and we had to forget that….

J: We just had to embrace that future, that being a sustainable musician where you can support yourselves and live healthily, purely by doing your music or art was something that wasn’t really available to anyone. It was such a transitional period. I feel that now people are finding their feet, and finding interesting ways of sustaining themselves. And its a really exciting period, but back in 2009 no one knew what was the what, but I think we embraced it in a really good way, and we became independent. I think we could see that all the old structures had crumbled, and rather than be in denial and try to stick them together with tape, we just continued to make music and embrace technology and independence and it’s been really liberating.

Marry Me Tonight is available on vinyl for the first time. More details here.

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Zacharias Szumer is a young writer and musician currently living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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