“It’s totally my obsession”, says HTRK singer Jonnine Standish from her home in Australia, talking about her fixation on examining the pros and cons of the average workday. We're having a three-way conversation via Skype with her band mate Nigel Yang across Melbourne, Sydney and London in advance of the release of their haunting electronic third album, Psychic 9-5 Club, out on Ghostly International on April 1 and streaming today on Dazed.
The album title makes clear reference to the "day job", but this is also a conversation that has been going on in the HTRK camp for a while. The first time I spoke to the band about three years ago, we were sitting in Standish’s then-East London apartment, smoking cigarettes and talking about HTRK’s second album Work (work, work). Back then, Yang occasionally taught music to get by, while Standish refused to divulge what exactly her “embarrassingly corporate job” was.
Things have changed quite a bit since then. Not only in the fact Standish has no problem revealing her “cushy” four days a week gig as a graphic designer but also in the band’s emotional and creative evolution, following a traumatic journey through a relocation-turned-miserable from Melbourne to Berlin, to losing third member, Sean Stewart to suicide in London and finally being compelled to move back to Australia for family reasons in 2012.
With this final stop comes the lifestyle change: “cleaning up” and finding natural alternatives to transcending a tough physical reality, HTRK’s third album (the first with no input from Stewart) reveals a certain clarity of focus that earlier records don’t have. With Marry Me Tonight (2009) the trio was still ostensibly a noise band, drowning vocal and sentiment in bass and reverb. The grief of Work (work, work), written with Stewart but produced after his death, was underscored by muffled, darkly funny lyrics and a palpable, existential grief.
Psychic 9-5 Club, on the other hand, is imbued with a newly sunny disposition, however tempered by the sarcastic humour of a band that’s been through a lot. The synthesised high of "Blue Sunshine" mirrors the light and warmth of the temperate climate of Sydney where it was written, while the crystalline rhythm of "Feels Like Love" features a sound byte of Yang and Standish actually laughing.
“We both really like the idea of that energy that can exist between the hours of nine to five, which for a lot of people are wasted hours, or hours of just going through the motions”, says Standish about their loose idea of reclaiming lost time, behind a dualistic title that lingers between spiritual transcendence and social responsibility. “There’s a basis to all this stuff that we’re exploring. It’s real”, offers Yang, “strange things can happen when you’re living in this clean and clear state of mind.”
Here are five clean and clear factors feeding into the Psychic 9-5 Club album:
Accompanying HTRK’s 2013-released Secret Thirteen mix, which in a way marks the emotional and creative transition of the band from near-morbid introspection to life affirming self-reflection, there’s a press shot featuring Standish and Yang’s shadowy figures sat in front of a lurid pinky-purple sign saying “Psychic” – one of many Manhattan clairvoyants that some people might not know is a fixture of New York nightlife. “I love that it’s in nightclub neon”, says Yang about the photo that partly inspired the direction of Psychic 9-5. The pair mixed and selected tracks based on an imaginary establishment “where no one’s taking drugs and drinking but they’re not just being boring and straight. They’re on a whole other level of consciousness through New Age techniques”.
While HTRK stress that “the crystal ball tarot reader” has nothing to do with the album at all, there was a latent interest in cartomancy that eventually found voice in this latest album. “I think we were in Sydney a couple of years ago and we actually had tarot reading for the band, which we recorded,” laughs Standish. “It’s one of those ideas that has manifested over the years and taken shape with this album title, but I think it’s more almost like an intuition, an energetic connection, rather than the clichéd symbolism”.
“Coming to Sydney was kind of like how you’d feel if you were Russian and went to Cuba”, says Yang, who, since relocating to the temperate climate and humidity of the Australian city, after years of living across the so-called “cold North”, has seen a clear shift in his work.
“It was quite fascinating to witness how it was really affecting the kind of music that I was coming up with. This place is so different to Melbourne, or anywhere else that I’d been to and maybe musicians who’ve grown up in Sydney are really not aware of how interesting the combination of insane vegetation and the constant sunlight and humidity, how that can really change how you feel. If you’ve got a tendency to over-think, being in a really humid environment is great because it just shuts your mind down. It’s great.”
Yang reads a lot of books. If he’s not referencing David Toop’s Ocean of Sound – its chapters on ‘chill out’ bleeding into the ambient languor of HTRK’s "Give It Up" – then it’s Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment extrapolating on the inner body mediation and grounding exercises of body scanning. “It’s not his idea, it’s kind of a ‘thing’, but it’s like imagining something scanning down your body and really slowly you’re going to push out negative charge, or energy, through your fingers,” Yang says. “The other night I was lying in bed just visualising a scan going down my head, over my neck over, my arms and then I had this most insane hot flush, like I was ridding myself of bad stuff through my finger and it felt really physical.”
Carrying on from some personal research on new designer drugs that might exist in tandem with a particular type of music –“you know, ecstasy and house music or, I don't know, meth and drum n bass”, Standish says, followed by collective laughter, “I made that last one up” – HTRK soon found themselves gravitating towards exploring new states of consciousness via natural means. “You’d have a small breakfast and just wouldn’t eat for twelve hours,” says Yang about their experiments in facilitating the creative process with fasting. “By the time you get to three in the afternoon, you’re already feeling strangely alert and it’s like, ‘wow, I feel really amazing’.”
“They have shown scientifically on rats that their brains do create new neurons, new connections, when they have to look for food. It totally makes sense. The same thing happens when you take any sort of appetite suppressant, especially drugs. I think part of the high there is also the fasting element of it.”
“She actually goes by the name of Nature,” Standish laughs emphatically and slightly uncomfortably, talking about her "guru" who’s become a permanent fixture in her life since meeting her nine months ago. “It was like one of those recurring dreams we all have where you scream and no sound comes out, expect that I wanted someone to pass me a cup of tea”, Standish says about the severe bout of laryngitis that led her to Nature’s doorstep. “Nigel was also quite stressed so behind the scenes he did a little research and he said ‘I found you a guru’,” she adds with a chuckle, “and I kind of wrote on a Post-it note, ‘great’."
Now Standish, until recently called ‘Tidal’ and currently between self-appointed names, goes to Nature’s group meetings promoting intuitive expression on a weekly basis. “First of all, she taught me breathing exercises and also she stripped me of my first name and said ‘in this room you’re no longer Jon’ and within half an hour I could talk,” she laughs, “it was really crazy. You get to a point where when you’re singing and you can’t even tell that the voice is coming out of your body. It’s quite a relaxing experience. You feel like your whole body’s vibrating and you’re not sure which voice is yours."
Psychic 9-5 Club is out on April 1 on Ghostly, pre-order here.