Shayne Carter talks Dimmerís latest album, the excellent and unpredictable Degrees of Existence, with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.


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ITíS HARD to go past Shayne Carter when New Zealandís all-time musical heroes are considered. Bored Games. DoubleHappys. Straitjacket Fits. Dimmer. Having made music for thirty years, coming from the Flying Nun stable (not to mention his Xpressway work) and gaining critical acclaim particularly for his Straitjacket and Dimmer work, itíll be easy to think he could just coast. His latest Dimmer album, Degrees of Existence certainly doesnít sound like someone coasting. Itís a dangerous album: snarling guitars, mutating trumpets, that sexy groove that Carterís work always seems to have. Carrying on the guitar work of the third Dimmer album There My Dear, but creating a much more sinister sound in the process, itís a tight, unpredictable piece of work.

Itís pretty banal asking someone who has been making music for so long ďwhy musicĒ, but Carter suggests that it is something that can be taken for granted. ďItís one of the few transcendent things in life. As a fan, as a listener and as an artist. It totally transcends the everyday, the mediocre, and the mundane Ė the good stuff does anyway. Part of the challenge when youíve been doing it for quite a long time is staying connected with that. Thereís a lot of distractions in the whole shamozzle. Itís a matter of prioritising and realising whatís important. Whatís important is staying in touch with your love of music, no matter how trite that sounds. If youíre not passionate about it, or distracted by the other palaver, itís going to come through in your work.Ē

However, itís not the easiest thing being a musician in New Zealand, and itís been a struggle making a living. Despite the first Dimmer album, I Believe You Are a Star being a bona fide classic, his record label Sony dropped him after it. ďItís one of those things where your faith is constantly tested. If you want to get disillusioned with the being a musician, you donít have to look very far. A lot of discouragement out there. Being a musician is an inherently difficult thing to do. Thereís no security. Thereís no guarantees. Thereís no stability. I kinda like the risk though, itís more appealing than the other safer options.Ē

The new album is much more stripped back. The first two albums in particular (the second being the underrated Youíve Got to Hear the Music) are quite lush in their production, and both took considerable time to come out. I Believe You Are a Star for example took six years to make. ďWith There My Dear I really did want to get back to the band thing. That album, I wrote it in two weeks. I really wanted to keep the immediacy of it, and I didnít want to be damned to spending an eternity in front of a Pro-tools programme. At the same time, I put together a band, pretty much a pick-up band at that point. We only had two weeks to rehearse to put it together. Whereas the band that recorded this album, weíve been playing together for two or three years now. Toured the world together, and we shared a lot of experiences. Itís a far more confident band, and a far more together band. We are actually quite close as people. I think that kind of stuff is going to be reflected in the music.Ē Carter admits that ďthe recordís tougher than the last one, itís more assured and more confident sounding. I love my band. I think weíre a real good band and I wanted to capture that in the studio.Ē

Dimmer is frequently seen as a Carter project given that Carter is the song-writer, and there has been a revolving door of band-members. ďThat was the whole idea of the Dimmer project at the start. The responsibility lies with me because Iím the songwriter and I produce the record. At the same time, I donít want to play with people who are just happy to be in the band. I respect people who have got opinions. Iím very mindful of working with musicians who can add a new dimension to the music. I think the musicians in this record have really done it. Stuff like Jamesí guitar work. Weíve been playing together for three years now, and I think weíve got a really unique guitar thing going on, I think we stack up against anybody.Ē

Given the long gestation period of I Believe You Are a Star, Carter started getting reputations for being a perfectionist. However, the new album feels much freer in comparison to the menacingly coiled dťbut. ďThe first album was ridiculous. That actually took me five or six years to put together. That came on the back of the Straitjackets, and I think I was disillusioned with the whole music thing at the time. I wanted to figure out a lot of things in my head. Itís a lost period in some ways, but I was heading somewhere. It just took a helluva long time to figure it. With this one, because I wanted to keep it live, that live vibe, thereís no reason why I couldnít make it real quick. Any album is a lot of work, writing the tunes, honing them. Itís like any artistic endeavour. A lot of it is pure labour.Ē

ďA groove is just part of the primal impulse of music. Without trying to be profound, music really is the rhythm of life, itís heartbeart, itís fucking, itís walking, itís running, or itís being awkward, or staggering awkwardly across the room. As far as groove goes, Iím totally into that stuff. Whether itís Krautrock or James Brown, or hip-hop, you canít help yourself, itís kinda like voodoo. It touches on your basic impulses, itís sexy.Ē


Carter has previously talked about music being about moments Ė something which must be quite difficult looking for when obsessing in the studio. ďThereís stuff like x-factor. When youíre playing live with a band, thatís the difference between a good take and a mediocre take. A mediocre take can be technically perfect and everybodyís hitting their notes, but itís just missing the x-factor. That x-factor is part of music. Thatís why music is that transcendent thing that it is. Itís a mystery, you canít explain x-factor. What is soul? You can look at a performer and say theyíve got soul, but you canít really explain why. They either have or they havenít. I appreciate a beautiful piece of music, or a beautifully formed song as much as anyone, but I do like that idea of where thereís these moments where all these little bits collide to make this sort of beautiful transcendent thing.Ē

A particular highlight in the album is when a deranged trumpet solo comes out of nowhere in ĎWrong Busí, like a demon juggernaut charging through the night, crashing the song apart. Carter admits that ďthereís nothing worse than after the second chorus, when a dude in mirrored shades and a sleeveless t-shirt and slicked back hair comes into the spotlight and plays a sax solo. To me thatís generic, boring, clichťd use of those kinds of instruments, and I donít want that dude in the Dimmer band.Ē

The album also sees Carter re-embracing dissonance and explosive guitar-work. ďI suppose it did. When youíre playing live, you realise those moments are the really exciting ones. For a while there, I rejected my past. Iíve kind of come full circle and embraced it again. With this record, I wanted to deal with songs. I still wanted good tunes, I didnít want to be scared, to be brave enough to try shit, to have experimentation for wont of a better word. I donít know how experimental it is but I donít like predictability in music.Ē

All four of the Dimmer albums sound nothing alike, though Carter draws parallels with the first one and the latest. ďI wasnít afraid to try stuff. I donít like scared music, or music that is desperate to be liked, or music whose sole reason is to not offend you. So much music is like that, itís this manipulative ticking of boxes. I really like that first record. For some reason, in my brain, even though it sounds completely different, itís my favourite record. I wanted this one to be brave, to try shit. Even though itís a sonically different record, itís closest in spirit to the first one.Ē

However, one unifying factor in Carterís work, whether itís the Dimmer albums or the classic Bored Gamesí track ĎJoe 90í, is thereís a groove. ďA groove is just part of the primal impulse of music. Without trying to be profound, music really is the rhythm of life, itís heartbeart, itís fucking, itís walking, itís running, or itís being awkward, or staggering awkwardly across the room. As far as groove goes, Iím totally into that stuff. Whether itís Krautrock or James Brown, or hip-hop, you canít help yourself, itís kinda like voodoo. It touches on your basic impulses, itís sexy.Ē

Carter admits recording Die!Die!Die!ís second album played an influential role in the recording of this album. ďI loved that experience of working with those guys. They kick arse man. Theyíre an inspirational band to work with. Theyíre a great rock n roll. I got a kick up the arse from them. I didnít go out trying to be Die!Die!Die!, but thereís a really good energy to be around and it would have rubbed off Iím sure.Ē

Given this album is full of unpredictable, snarly guitars, itís probably going to be inevitable that there will some Straitjacket comparisons. ďIíve been haunted by that all the way through Dimmer. It used to really annoy me. After I put out the first album, thereís all this Ďit doesnít sound like Straitjacket Fitsí. Well no it doesnít. Thatís why I quit the band because I didnít want to be doing that. Thankfully, Dimmerís been going on its own for quite a while, so itís got its own vibe. People take their own interpretation. To me, it is all connected. Iím a dude who has been writing these tunes. While it might not make sense to somebody on the other side. I donít want to be stuck in the same place, waiting on the bus stop, waiting for something else to arrive. Itís a road, itís a journey, but hopefully you keep going. Itíll be really sad if my currency was still ĎShe Speedsí. Every band Iíve been in Ė DoubleHappys didnít do any Bored Gamesí tunes, Straitjackets didnít do any DoubleHappysí tunes - each band is its own separate entity. I donít want to be that guy you put the twenty cents in the machine and you play that song.Ē

This new album is made to be performed live, and Carter is enthusiastic about spreading the album out. ďWe did a couple of trips to America, before I started writing these tunes. Before that, I had been pretty slack about playing live. We had never played outside of New Zealand. It was so good to take our stuff out and it just gave me a lot of energy. When youíre sitting in New Zealand the whole time, it gets pretty slow, and the horizons can get pretty limited. The game here is you put out your record and Channel Rock either plays it or not, and if Channel Rock doesnít play it, your record is deemed a failure. Itís just so much bigger than that. I heard Robert Wyatt say this great thing: the way the music industry is set up, youíre basically presented by the powers that be that either you sell a million records or youíre a failure. As an artist, especially with the way communication is now, if you do something good, there are enough people in the world who will appreciate it on its own terms. You donít have to compromise, or have a conservative outlook. You donít have to sell one million records. Getting out in the wider world, I realised thereís this whole community of people who are into exactly the same things that I am, into that music. Itís really good for me to do that. New Zealand is pretty small, thereís not a lot of encouragement, like any industry, mediocrity is rewarded. When you get out and see the bigger picture, you see that mediocrity isnít the only option.Ē Given how damn good this album is, and how Dimmer and his previous work have been, I doubt anyone would ever accuse Carter of settling for mediocrity.