The Shayne Carter Interview

Tonight in Wellington Shayne Carter will perform his Last Train to Brockville show at Bodega. Next week he will perform in Auckland at Kings Arms. So, let's clear one thing up right away, particularly given the name of the tour: why is there no Dunedin show? Is it due to the Christchurch earthquake?

"Yeah bro, that's it exactly," Carter tells me in a familiar drawl. "The cost of going to Dunedin for one show is, well, we could go to Aussie for the same - so it's a case of waiting really until Christchurch is better - more well - and then we'll do a South Island tour. So it's just the North Island for now, just the two shows. It would be perverse to not take it south and one show just doesn't make sense. But we'll go there a bit later."

I figured that was the question everyone from the South Island wanted to know instantly. So that was how the interview started. Now I must explain that I wrote a feature based on the interview with Carter for The Dominion Post. It appeared yesterday, under the title The Respect of His Peers. That was a newspaper feature and what I aim to do here, as I have done with other Kiwi artists that I have interviewed, is promote some of the comments around the obvious PR-shill. And Carter talked a lot, beyond promoting the gig. He talked about his past. He even gave a tease of what is happening next. We'll get to all that.

But first, and particularly for those in Wellington who haven't yet made their minds up - and then for those in Auckland next week - a bit more about the Brockville shows. This is the first time that Carter has revisited his extensive back catalogue.

"It's just the three-piece, so me and then Gary Sullivan on drums; Vaughan Williams on bass. So it's a chance to take the songs back to the elements. It provides a fresh angle. But then DoubleHappys was a three-piece anyway."

As well as DoubleHappys, Carter will present material from Bored Games and Straitjacket Fits. His current moniker (Dimmer) will also be represented, though he says it will just be the earliest Dimmer material.

The tour was inspired by Carter's set at the Chris Knox benefit/tribute. And it arrives after a year away from the frontperson spotlight. A year that has seen Carter very busy with music - just to the left of the limelight.

"We did some Dimmer shows in the States last April, but since then we've been very quiet. But I've been busy really, with lots on. I did mum's record" - he's speaking about The Erica Miller Experience, a set of Elvis Presley covers. "And, um, there were some shows behind that too and, yeah, I also played bass in a band called Faint Spells, played some shows with Punches, did some work with Jon Toogod on his project, a bit of work on the Toogood record. So yeah, a few things.

"Do you know," he speaks as if he's suddenly decided this, "I really enjoyed just being a bass player in a band after being a singer and guitarist. It's a different pocket to sit in."

Carter had joked at the start of his explanation of side-project events and involvement that it was a chance to "take a holiday from myself". But actually, it wasn't that much of a joke.

And now, finally, he is looking back through his catalogue, presenting material from the teenage songwriting Carter through to near-enough to the present day.

"Music is this huge f**king beast, you know, so to step back from it, move into other roles and then revisit your past is a good way of dealing with this beast from time to time. It was funny looking back at the earliest songs. I mean I was 15 when I wrote some of them. And at first I was thinking that I'd be embarrassed - but I realised that a kid can have a clear eye where an adult sometimes cannot. A kid is not concerned with what you aren't supposed to say. A song like Joe 90 - would I write a song like that now? Probably not, but I think, you know, good on us...good on us for having a go." He adds a chuckle to this.

One of the reasons this project has become important to Carter is that a whole generation is missing out on an era of music that is (currently) unavailable.

He tells me that he "was talking to a young musician in a band and he had never heard The Gordons. It just seemed like a crime that this young guy had not heard The Gordons, of all the people to benefit from it I know he would have. And it struck me that a whole generation should hear this stuff."

His original copies of so many great albums that he played on and many of his peers did are "in some box in a garage in Dunedin somewhere...probably," he adds, laughing. That laughter continues when explaining he had to "use the download torrents" to access some of his earliest material. "Yeah, well, I'd hope that the material gets to see the light of day again, one day. We have made a compilation CD of the songs we selected for this tour, so that's a start."

In fact 14 songs from the 20-song set-lists will be available on CD. Carter says he hopes more of the material from that era will resurface because it is of historical significance. He believes that, in some way, the Brockville tour might inspire some young musicians and young fans who never got to hear these songs the first time.

"I've often been something of a contrarian - you know with the Fits I didn't play She Speeds a lot of the time, I didn't want to, I didn't want people thinking that's all we were about."

Music has been Shayne Carter's career ("I've been at this for pretty much all of my adult life") and it's been hard work, but the work itself is rewarding.

"I don't live in a mansion with a speedboat you know, it's still f**king hard, but I've always liked to think that if the work stacks up and if you have the respect of your peers then you've got something. To me that's what it's about, really."

Next, he reminisces about going on tour with Bic Runga, as one of her backing vocalists; telling me it was an "extremely rewarding" situation. "I suppose, when you go off and do something like that it does inform the work you do next".

So, if that's the case, how will revisiting the old material - including songs he has had to relearn - inform the work he will go on to do? Has it already? Is there a new Dimmer album in the works?

"There is a new Dimmer album actually. Well, there will be another one. Last year when we were in the States I had this time there, this holiday, and so I started to just walk around and check things out...I'd start humming these melodies as I went and so I actually had to go and buy a Dictaphone and I just started recording myself humming these melodies and sometimes I'd think I was on to something then I'd listen back to it and think that it was probably a bit s**t actually, but I've got about 50 pieces of music from about a month and a half of wandering around collecting these melodies. So yeah, something will come from that."

He adds, "it's got that New York energy. It's gonna be my urban album." And then there's a very subtle laugh (I could be joking/I might not actually be joking).

So that is, very possibly, the future. What about the past? The DoubleHappys and Bored Games songs are getting an airing. The Straitjacket Fits songs were revived a few years ago with the reunion. And if this all came from the Chris Knox tribute is there some sadness knowing that Knox will likely never get to stage his own version of a show like this?

"Um, yeah, you know what, there is...but, there's a lot of sadness in working through this material, I think of Wayne Elsey, my partner in the DoubleHappys who died at the age of 20. I think of David Wood from the Straitjacket Fits who died just four months ago," there's a pause here. "So, yeah bro, it's pretty heavy. But it is nice to go and give these songs another run, to offer them out there to an audience."

Shayne Carter's material is strong - across all four bands - but the one that many people still hold a torch for is Straitjacket Fits. There are so many stories of wasted potential, or missed opportunities, or wrong place/right time and then right place/wrong time - so what does one of the men at the centre of the band think?

"Straitjacket Fits was a really good band. But I don't think there was ever really any missed opportunity; I think the story has been built up. I do think that all the records had good parts and that it was a killer live band. I think we struggled to capture that essence on record - something that happens a lot with bands. With the Fits I guess where we were unlucky, or whatever, is that there was no real template for that kind of music - and so we suffered on record; production-wise and so on. It just didn't come close to what we could do live.

"But I don't get too caught up in that bro, I don't think we missed out on the big time. I think we wrote some good tunes and played some good shows and I've always been interested in looking forward."

So this looking-back project, which is essentially what the Brockville tour is, comes at an interesting, reflective time for Carter. He agrees. And then laughs at being now considered one of the elder statesmen of Kiwi music; something he's had to deal with for a while and it's annoying.

"They always call me a stalwart or a f**king veteran - what a boring word that is, 'stalwart'. I'm a lot better than that," he laughs knowingly as he realises he has guaranteed those mentions in another article.

"To me it's about the respect of your peers - that's the really important thing. And I think I've been very lucky to have that. And that means the world to me. It's more important than a positive review. It's hard work in this country making music, it's very small. But to me it's about the body of work."

And now we get to hear that body of work - tonight in Wellington, next week in Auckland. And hopefully soon for the South Island.

Are you planning on going to one of the shows? Would you go if Carter and his rhythm section came to your town?

What are your favourite Shayne Carter songs? What are you hoping to hear? What is your favourite band/era of his work? Or are you not a fan at all? If so, why? What are your thoughts on this reluctant veteran?

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