5 Nov 2016

Shapeshifter Shooting Stars

From RNZ Music, 2:25 pm on 5 November 2016
Shapeshifter 2016

Shapeshifter 2016 Photo: supplied

One gets the feeling that Drum n Bass band Shapeshifter are either going through a fundamental crisis of confidence or, at the very least, some very confusing growing pains. Following the departure of founding member Devin Abrams, the band are down to only two original members and are releasing their sixth studio album Stars today. The summer tour circuit is all lined up too, but Shapeshifter aren’t exuding the confidence you’d expect from one of New Zealand’s most beloved live bands.

The plan is for us to sit down, listen through the new album and joyously riff on how much fun it is to be Shapeshifter. But Sam Trevethick and P Digsss aren’t feeling that today. They’re at the end of a long day of promo and although they’re happy to talk about the songs, they don’t want to listen to them. They’re too close to it right now, they say. 

Surely just before you release a new album you’re so excited you just can’t get enough of it, right? Apparently not.

Alex Behan: What are the challenges you faced in producing your sixth record?

Sam Trevethick: I think the challenges are to not repeat yourself, but also to stay within a spectrum of familiarity to your previous work. 

P Digsss: And then there's making ourselves happy.

I understand that. You've got to maintain your fanbase. If you guys came out with a completely different genre of music or this was your jazz album, you might not be able to play that at festivals.

Sam: Yeah, and there have been examples of artists that have done that.

P Digsss: Some of the tunes on the album don't really translate in a live format and we've got to revamp them a little bit. We do a lot of that stuff. Some songs, as soon as we're writing them, we go 'BOOM, that's going to be a stadium monster'. And then when it comes times to rehearse, you've just got to revamp it a little bit because sometimes they're just not quite right.

Sam: Exactly, because what sounds good coming out of a six to eight inch speaker is not necessarily going to translate to a band environment and a P.A.

You guys must be pretty stoked with the cultural impact that Shapeshifter have here in New Zealand. You guys are summer festival favourites now - it must be quite vindicating.

Sam: It definitely feels like a privilege and we never take it for granted. This is our sixth album, and I think people are listening and that's a privilege as well – that they're going to pay attention to this. We're always sort of examining our music and saying 'is this relevant?' 'Is there a place for this music?' 'Are we just making it because we have the opportunity to make it, or are we making it because we feel like it's going to give something to our listeners?'

P Digsss: We look at it also as making music that makes us in the band feel good. Writing stuff for us is another really big important thing.

It must be tough to second guess yourself in the studio, though. 

P Digsss: I think that's a good thing, because you've got to keep yourself in check. 

Sam: Sometimes it's just hard to have that perspective because making a song is like a continuum that you're always on. And when you finish it, you could continue. There's that choice you make and when it's nearing completion, you have these moments like 'hang on a minute, this is all wrong' ... what am I doing? Am I having a flash of objective inspiration, or have I just heard it too much and I'm just sick of it?' There's that conversation that you're always having.

Let's say you're working on a song all night and you're like 'this is amazing!' Then your bandmate comes in the next morning and says 'this is just like The Cars'.

P Digsss: There's that classic moment where you'll be up till four in the morning and you go 'we've wrote a banger!' [Then you] play it first thing in the morning and [it's like], 'what the hell were we smoking? Were we just drinking all night?'

Sam: You want your music to be original. You want it to be – like I was saying – relevant. You want it to contribute something [and] to be something new. We came up with a lot of different ideas for this album so we're confident with what's on there.

I get the feeling that Shapeshifter will always have a safe and welcoming pair of arms in New Zealand music live scene. How important is playing overseas at the moment?

Sam: Well we've had a couple of years of not going to Europe or the Northern Hemisphere, just because we took a whole refresh with writing this album. We really just needed to ask ourselves the question, ‘do we want to keep doing this? Is it the right thing to do, to keep this band alive and to keep making music?’

Is that a creative consideration?

Sam: [It's just about] if it feels right. Like you say, New Zealand is very receptive to us and we're very lucky and fortunate that people listen to us and they'll come to our shows. We have a back catalogue of songs that people know and when we play them, they seem to really like them, and we're so privileged and lucky to be in that position.

We could theoretically keep doing that and not put new energy into it – it's possible to do that, but it doesn't feel right. We were like, 'we're only going to continue this band if it keeps growing'. 

And it's not just you in the band. You've also got to think about people's families etc. They must be some pretty difficult conversations.

Sam: Absolutely. And we're a successful band in this country but, having said that, there's really not that much money in music and you do start to think, 'this has been fun but I'd really like to buy that house', or something like that. You do start asking those questions [and] you've just got to be honest and say 'have I still got this passion and do I really still want to do it?' We had to take time to examine that, especially writing this new album. I'm really glad that we did because it feels right.

Stars is out today.