From a teenager in the Dunedin bands Bored Games and the Double Happys, to rock glory in Straitjacket Fitz and quiet introversion with Dimmer Shayne Carter has built up an extensive back catalogue of music across three decades without any real misstep. With the recent release of the third Dimmer album There My Dear, Carter speaks to SALIENT Editor James Robinson.
It was the middle of 2004, and I was at Bodega listening to Dimmer play. They were seven minutes into ‘Seed’ a hypnotic, droning, brilliant song from the 2001 album I Believe You Are a Star. The original song goes for about four minutes, but Dimmer are drawing it out. They lift the intensity of the song again, and I had no idea how this can continue. A packed Bodega move in unison with the driving beat of the song. As the song continues for another quarter of an hour or so not once do the band lose the undivided attention of the entire crowd. The song finished, Carter shrugged, made a joke and then went about playing the next song. It was a stunning dismissal of ego and strut so usually entwined with the posturing rock band jam.
I had the opportunity to talk to Shayne Carter, once before I interviewed him recently. It was a year after Carter had had me so mesmerised, and at the same venue. Carter had just played to a similarly adoring audience as part of the much hyped Straitjacket Fits reunion (and with the results they produced, deservedly so). That night on stage as he felt what he would describe in interview to me a few weeks ago as the “rock glory” flow through him, you could see it twisted on his face. Every movement on the guitar had a requisite facial expression equal in intensity to the way Carter plays. Downstairs in Bodega my friend and I shuffled over nervously to talk to Carter (had we not been buoyed by a fantastic concert and more than a few drinks, we probably would not have). Our conversation was fawning and insipid. Carter, to our disbelief, was engaging, polite and welcoming. There is nothing constructed about him, no ego to barrier out idiot fans. No persona, just a huge amount of talent and class. And one of the most evenly brilliant back catalogues.
Shayne Carter has been making music for an only slightly shorter period than the Finns. He started rock band Bored Games in high school, which soon made way for the Double Happys, where Carter was slowly honing his axe-wielding and song-writing skills that would shine through in the Straitjacket Fits. The Fits signed with Arista in the States, courting international and local audience neglect, at the same time as rapturous reception from the critics. Rolling Stone went as far as labelling the Straitjacket Fits the best guitar band in the world in the early 90s. But these were in the pre New Zealand ‘boom’ times. There were no government grants in these days. And the band broke up in 1994. Carter reemerged at the turn of the century with Dimmer’s debut CD, I Believe You Are a Star. You’ve Got To Hear The Music followed in 2004, and then in July they released There My Dear.
Dimmer is an arena for Carter’s songs. The first two albums were Pro-tools efforts, a process Carter describes to me as “painstaking”, and a system where songs ended up being a conglomeration of “1003 different computer generated sounds.”
“With the previous two Dimmer albums I built tracks up on the Pro-tools. I’d have a basic beat, but I’d still base everything on an acoustic guitar. And then build up the tracks, with the drums being the last thing to go on.”
Carter’s latest effort veers off the creative template set by Dimmer’s previous two albums. There My Dear deals with the break up of a relationship, opting away from slightly cryptic lyrics and beautifully crafted atmospherics towards a straight band feel and heartfelt simplicity. A surprisingly straight up and emotional record, it is at times sparse, playing around with space and emptiness to create vivid emotions. On the other hand some of the songs are by far the most conventional pop songs Carter has released under the Dimmer moniker. I am curious about whether Carter was reluctant at to release such an intensely personal album, at exposing his own vulnerable sensitivities.
“My thing with it was that the personal is the universal, and the things addressed on that record are things most people could relate to. And I think that if you can nail and articulate a particular feeling, that is the purpose of art. Without being pretentious, I think that if you can articulate something that people have trouble articulating, that’s the shit that people can relate to. If you can do that, you’re doing something that works.”
“There was little moments where it was hard. My thing with it was that the personal is the universal, and the things addressed on that record are things most people could relate to. And I think that if you can nail and articulate a particular feeling, that is the purpose of art. Without being pretentious, I think that if you can articulate something that people have trouble articulating, that’s the shit that people can relate to. If you can do that, you’re doing something that works.”
The album was also the first Dimmer album to be recorded live. Carter says, “I actually wrote everything on an acoustic guitar and recorded it onto a Dictaphone. I’m not a computer programmer. I couldn’t be fucked doing drum patterns, and all that kind of stuff. The songs were quite raw, and I didn’t want to overdo it. I just wrote it, put together a band and taught them the songs and we recorded it live.”
The band consists of a number of musicians of high pedigree in New Zealand. Members from both HDU and SJD played on the album and will head out on the road with Carter when he tours the album through New Zealand in the next two months. “The team selection is quite important and if you’ve got a good team you just let them do their thing,” Carter tells me. Previous Dimmer members have included Anika Moa, and anyone who has witnessed the cordial mood on stage between the members will have realised that it is a band not solely in existence to serve Carter’s ego. “You don’t want to be Mr. Dictator guy, because if you’ve got good musicians they bring their own stuff to the table that you would never have thought of.”
As Carter tells me, looking back into the past and reforming Straitjacket Fits provided him with inspiration and left him feeling ready to explore creative avenues that he’d left closed with Dimmer. “My first albums as Dimmer were quiet and introverted as a kickback against all that rock glory. But Dimmer’s been going a while now and when I went back and felt that rock glory, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Coming straight off the back of the sold out tour with the Straitjacket Fits, Carter headed out to a family home in Brighton, South Dunedin where much of the album was written. “[The Straitjacket Fits Tour] just really reminded me of the simplicity and directness of a four-piece band again. I really wanted to be able to hear the sound of people playing instruments in a room together.” I press Carter for some musical reference points to look for in There My Dear, but he is surprisingly non-committal about other music in his own creative process. “I couldn’t really pinpoint anything actually. Because I listen to all sorts of shit, I quite often find that when I’m writing I don’t really listen to other music, because I don’t want anything to seep in there and affect the songs. I wrote these tunes really quick, all in a month, so I just sort of went into a bubble and wrote my arse off.”
All the various elements added up into an album that Carter seems pretty chuffed with. “I don’t know if it’s the best record I’ve done, but it’s the best realized record that I’ve ever done. Just because what I had in my mind is pretty much what came out. There’s always things that you’d change, but my list of things I could pretty much fit on my two hands. But from the other records it’d be my two hands, feet and every other available bit of my body.”
So with the album done, comes the process of promoting the album, which saw the usually shy of the spotlight Carter thrust onto the front page of Sunday. “I was tempted to go and sit in cafés and read those magazines so people would hopefully spot me and know that I was on the cover,” Carter says laughing. “But seriously bro, I’ve been making music for years and all the publicity thing just kind of goes with the territory. It’s not something I’m out there to milk.”
Carter is honest about how being a supposed ‘public’ figure fits in with his own make up (‘gasp’, he hugged the Prime Minister once!). “There’s actually a whole chapter of my own life where I don’t actually feature in any family photographs, from the age of about nine to about fourteen, because I just got this really weird aversion to having my photograph taken. It’s not something I enjoy, but like I said, it goes with the territory. Recognition is good for what you do.” But Carter has a very realistic attitude to being in the public eye. “There are people who are actually desperate to be famous. And then there are people who are famous for just being famous, they don’t really do anything else. I read somewhere once that all being famous means is that people stare at you on the street, and in the supermarket. That’s about the extent of the benefits.” There’s also the inevitable glut of reviews and public feedback from the album, where work you put months of effort into is either praised or torn apart in seconds by reviewers. Carter is nonplussed by it all. “It’s not something I’d stake my sense of self esteem over. I’ll read reviews if I come across them. I don’t really hunt them out though, it’s good to get a barometer of the reaction to your stuff. But as to getting your feelings hurt by reviews, you’ve got to toughen up because if you took that shit on board you’d go insane pretty quickly. And it’s just one person’s opinion, so whatever.”
“When you’re doing this sort of thing, like it or not, the music industry is a business. That’s why I have a manager. He can take care of that sort of thing and I can sit in my room and stare enigmatically into the midspace.”
For the most part of his career Carter has stayed on the right side of the critics. But at times (especially on the Dimmer Myspace site) a cynicism for the business side of the music. Carter laughs when I ask him this: “The last thing I want to be is the bitter guy, and when you’re doing this sort of thing, like it or not, the music industry is a business. That’s why I have a manager. He can take care of that sort of thing and I can sit in my room and stare enigmatically into the midspace.”
Sales have picked up in recent years, and Dimmer’s previous two albums have both gone Gold. Carter tells me that he doesn’t “really worry about sales. I’ve made records before that have sold nothing. I’ve made records before that have sold well. All that stuff is marketing. The only thing I get frustrated by is that in all the years I’ve made music, I still don’t get played – apart from the bNet stations – on commercial radio. But when you see some of the crap they do play man, that’s not a bad thing.”
I bring up a comment Carter made in the Sunday cover story where he talks about a Jack Johnson album placed on top of an amplifier to provide something to “rally” against. It fascinated me that Carter and Johnson for all intents and purposes begin their creative processes in the same place. But fast-forward to the finished product and one ends up as café music wallpaper, while the other does not. What is in Carter’s process that sets him apart from Johnson? “I couldn’t tell you mate.” Carter tells me. “The worst thing you can be is afraid of turning people off by trying things. That’s a terrible thing. I don’t want to just offend one individual, but when I hear it, it’s just so incredibly bland and its main reason for existing is not to offend people. Its sole purpose is to ingratiate itself upon people, in this horrible, wallpaper kind of fashion and I just find it fucking offensive. I don’t respect it and I enjoy good pop music, but it’s not even good pop.”
I press Carter for some of his favourite big bands of the last few years, and he is dismissive of a lot of the globally dominant rock trends. “I can’t really say that I dig the new guitar stuff. I mean I can hear it and it’s enjoyable, but I guess it’s just my old guy talking. I’m old enough to have been around when the Gang of Four and Joy Division came out and I don’t think there’s anything for me to learn from their imitators. I actually find stuff like R’n’B more interesting at the moment. It just seems like a more now kind of music.”
Carter’s longevity is an indicator of how talented he is. He has made it to the top of the Flying Nun batch, done the obligatory New Zealand semi-successful band quest to conquer the United States, and had his band fall apart. Dimmer isn’t a comeback band for Carter as much as a continuing avenue for a man to produce music who has done so his whole life. But after trying to take Straitjacket Fits to the world, where does he see Dimmer heading long-term? “I would like to head overseas man, but that’s solely for my own amusement. I’ve got some contacts on the West Coast in the States and I’d just like to get on a plane and go overseas and play some shows. You don’t need the official sanction of the powers that be to do that kind of shit. As far as spending a year in a van traveling around Europe, I’ve done that and I don’t feel like I need that again. I don’t really feel the urge to sell a million records. But, I still think that the Dimmer thing has its voice and it is its own music, so I definitely want to get out there and play it.”
“I’m not really in it to be famous or sell heaps of records. American record labels can’t really understand that, they don’t get why you’re not willing to do anything to be on TV.”
If Carter left these shores again to play music, what would be the difference between himself now and the Shayne Carter of 1990? “At that point I was hungrier. I’m sure I had world domination plans in my head, or one part of my head, and other things going on in other parts that we won’t go into. That just comes with being ambitious and not really knowing what you want to do. But I tasted that world bro. And I’m not really in it to be famous or sell heaps of records. American record labels can’t really understand that, they don’t get why you’re not willing to do anything to be on TV.”
Which brings Carter to a point that I think sums it all up. Why after all this years he’s still just on the brink of being a household name, but the music still keeps on getting better. Integrity: a tough thing to hold on to.
“If you haven’t got a sense of integrity, you haven’t got anything. I just want to feel happy and not like I’m getting fucked up the arse or anything, and just make cool music.”