Shayne P. Carter
In the early 1980s Shayne Carter was sharing a flat in Dunedin with Graeme Downes. Downes, who as protagonist in New Zealand guitar band The Verlaines, would become a central influence in creating the so-called ‘Dunedin sound’, was at the beginning of an impressive academic career. Carter, on the other hand, was working as a radio journalist. When Carter’s band, the Doublehappys, was offered a tour, his employer denied Carter leave. For Carter, that was the end of having a ‘real job’. “I found working in the newsroom a reasonably miserable experience, so I left my job. And that was pretty much it,” Carter says.
While Carter has no regrets about leaving his job as a radio journalist, he does concede that the journalistic skills he practised were valuable when he turned to writing lyrics for the Double Happys and later on, Straitjacket Fits and Dimmer. “You’re writing words to be spoken as opposed to be read and that’s exactly the same as lyrics,” Carter says. “Lyrics are like poetry, they’re to be heard in the air. There’s many similarities between that type of writing and writing music - it’s all in the editing. It all springs to life when you take out the dead wood. All those disciplines definitely inform each other.”
In the late 1980s Carter hit commercial pay dirt with Straitjacket Fits. With its lush guitar sound and intense musical personalities, Straitjacket Fits attracted the attention of Arista Records, the label established by former CBS boss Clive Davis. But by the mid 1990s, Straitjacket Fits was no more, with Carter having grown tired of what he perceived was the conservative direction in which rock’n’roll was heading.
“I think we managed that period with some dignity and integrity really! We managed to hold onto both of those things, which aren’t things easy to hang on to in that business!” Carter laughs. Carter’s next step was away from Straitjacket Fits’ sound. “I know when Straitjacket Fits finished I felt really over the glory of rock. It was when grunge was taking over and for me I wasn’t excited by that music,” Carter says. “Rock music seemed to be getting more reactionary and conservative. Around the mid 1990s there started to be some really interesting stuff with electronica, so I went away and listened to that sort of thing.”
Carter’s initial reaction was to form Dimmer, a more ‘groove-based’ outfit that, behind the impersonal band name, was largely a Carter solo project. But despite the rock edge of Dimmer, Carter’s focus was never limited to his immediate musical interest. “I’ve always been interested and exploring different avenues of music. I think that thinking one genre of music is the right genre of music is an idiotic thing to think,” Carter says. “There’s fantastic music everywhere and I get inspired by music everywhere. Personally I try and find new angles in what I do. And that means I find new varieties of what I do.”
It’s in this context that Carter embarked on his most recent recording project, the piano-based album Offsider. Acknowledging that he was largely unfamiliar with classical music, Carter embarked on an intense immersion program to prep himself for the writing process, listening to Beethoven’s sonatas, Chopin, Debussy and Chopin. In doing so, Carter affirmed his own view of “the soul, the truth and the resonance of music that’s made by people who mean it”. “When you’re operating in this commercial world when music is so often cheapened and demeaned, it was a wonderful thing to experience the true depth of it, Carter says. “If anything it made me realise the true power of music, because it’s a transcendent thing. It’s not an economic unit - it’s way beyond that.”
This week Carter returns to Australia for three shows under his own name, backed by former Dimmer colleagues James Duncan on bass and Gary Sullivan on drums. The set will include songs from Offsider, as well as material from Carter’s Doublehappys and Dimmer back catalogue. “I’ve got to the point where I’ve realised I’ve written a shitload of songs, and playing under my own name I can pull out any song I want,” Carter says. “My whole trip with the classical thing just reaffirmed my view of music. And I know with my own thing that the stuff that’s always felt the truest to me is the stuff that’s lasted and invariably is the stuff that resonates with other people. If you’re not convinced by the music you’ve written then no-one else in the world is going to be convinced.”
By Patrick Emery
Shayne P. Carter will play The Yarra Hotel on Thursday December 15, Friday December 16 and Saturday December 17.