And then there were two — namely, after the suicide of bassist Sean Stewart last year, a pair of compatriot makers of moodily constrained electronic music known as Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang. The two of them had been members of HTRK since the group first got together in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003, but the band would be a different one with part of its heart removed. Nonetheless, they marshaled on and completed work already started on Work (work, work), an impressive collection of songs squeezed into shape by meticulous electronic means and made sticky by whatever it is that makes haunting music haunted. The sound of HTRK’s second full-length album tips back to the likes of synth-punk godfathers Suicide and numerous neo-post-punk operators, but there’s a personal, lived-in tinge to it that plants markers of its own.
Standish and Yang spoke with eMusic about David Lynch, making a virtue of control, and coping with the death of their bandmate.
On early intra-band bonding over David Lynch:
Jonnine Standish: The three of us were very big David Lynch fans. But being a David Lynch fan these days is almost like breathing, isn’t it? The main movies we’ve been inspired by are Fire Walk with Me (and all of Twin Peaks) and especially for myself Blue Velvet and the character of Isabella Rossellini. The tragic aspects in her character I’ve related to myself.
Nigel Yang: [Lynch's] use of archetypes and his surrealism tap into really simple things and imagery that are part of the collective unconscious. Even between us, as characters in the band, there were clearly defined roles that we inhabited. Sean was a dark, handsome bass player, like Bobby from Twin Peaks. Jonnine was like Laurie Palmer or Isabella Rossellini. But I don’t know who I am, really. [Laughs]
Standish: There’s a scene in Fire Walk with Me with a woman walking into a room full of men and there’s a sense of doom in the atmosphere. I remember Sean mentioning that he wanted his bass lines to sound like what she would hear while walking into that room.
On moving to Berlin for a spell:
Standish: We moved from Melbourne to Berlin to try to find a more interesting, wider audience for our music, which is quite a niche sound in Australia. Berlin seemed like a great choice because it’s an interesting city art — and architecture-wise — plus it’s really cheap.
Yang: As a rock band living there, the scene is pretty small.
Standish: Sean got really interested in the techno scene. He was fascinated by it because it was all new. I think it lent to the new album having more of an electronic sound and maybe unconscious ways of thinking about the idea of “other rooms,” like when we’re walking around and through a club.
Yang: Also there’s the influence of ambient music. It’s very much related to techno but is sort of the flipside of it.
On achieving meticulous degrees of minimalism in sound:
Yang: Some of the influence is more from the techniques of film, like Robert Bresson and his writings on the construction of films. He wrote a book called Notes on the Cinematographer about his sense of minimalism and achieving maximum emotional effects by the driest and cleanest means possible. That was a huge inspiration for editing the music, and our whole production aesthetic. We tried to think of the songs [on Work (work, work)] as 10 scenes that all make sense if you experience them together, with the sum being better than the parts. We tried to make each song, or each scene, as flat as possible, and with its own internal logic in relation to each of the other tracks. There’s a slightness to the album that we’ve gotten some criticism for, but we hope that in its flatness the songs can attain a kind of longevity, or a certain truth. We want to be really true to a sound overall and try to strip back some of our present emotions for the sake of the music, in an abstract-ish kind of way.
Standish: And within all the flat-line atmosphere there’s a lot of emotion. To me it feels like if you let the floodgates open it could pour emotion all over you, but by keeping it tight there’s a kind of tension there.
On the limits of speaking of darkness:
Yang: We’re always getting called dark, but darkness is not what we’re thinking about. We don’t want to take that away from people, but darkness is kind of boring to us. We’re after a rich truth, not some stylistic stance.
Standish: We’re far more interested in surrealism and wit and humor and sadness and mystery. Darkness is too easy. It’s a little see-through, like teenagers rebelling against their parents rather than the experience of living through real pain.
On reacting to the loss of their bandmate:
Standish: We both had very different responses to Sean’s death. I took it on a more emotional level and became quite antisocial and really stayed within the bubble of the studio. I wasn’t able to listen to any other music because music made me feel nauseous. I grieved the whole time, but I think making this album saved my life in a way.
Yang: I don’t know what to say, really. In the wake of Sean’s death, we became kind of obsessed by Sean’s interests, like all the books he listed on MySpace and Fassbinder films and comic books and graphic novels. There was a lot of mystery to Sean that we were trying to unravel while making the album. I had never lost anyone before, so one strange reaction I had was that I couldn’t believe the outpouring of sentimental emotion around me when I myself couldn’t really feel anything. I don’t know if I even have properly yet.
On when they decided to continue on as HTRK and to finish the album as a tribute:
Standish: We still haven’t had that conversation. I remember Nigel said “Let’s finish the album” and I said “Okay.” That was it, and then we just got to work. We were around two-thirds of the way into finishing demos when Sean died, and we were all loving it. There were just so many ideas on this record that we couldn’t let fade away. We just got an email from Sean’s dad yesterday, after he heard the record for the first time. He loved it and that’s meant more to us than anything else. He was very glowing.
Yang: Sean’s dad has really good taste in music. He considered it a greater album than Teenage Snuff Film by Rowland S. Howard, which is a high compliment because that’s one of our favorite albums. He was relating it to other Australian albums, I guess. It was funny because when we were mixing, I said that I didn’t want the album to be co-opted by Urban Outfitters or be able to be enjoyed by parents. We don’t know what’s going on. [Laughs]