Founding members Nigel Yang, Jonnine Standish and the late Sean Stewart began playing together in 2003, the band experiencing initial resistance to their music for being at odds with some of the dominant conventions of Melbourne’s music community at the time. “We were playing with the themes of being uncompromising,” Standish explains. “Being uncompromising sometimes means you’re not there to make friends, and even between the three of us we were really there for art rather than for a good time, and I think that was in contrast with what was happening in the music scene at the time, which was just really groups of mates having a good time, but not really thinking about the art.”
Labelled as pretentious by many, this did little to discourage the band from their goals, the three members remaining resolute on their artistic aspirations and ethics. “Pretentious has a negative connotation that perhaps you’re being fake or phoney, where I think the three of us were really serious about what we were doing and we were really into it when we were on stage as well,” Standish expands.
In fact, one of the main criticisms levelled at the band was that they were boring live. Static and devoid of any grandstanding stage antics or banter, HTRK shows are exercises in awkwardness where the band explore the tension between band and crowd. “We may come off as cold or detached,” she says, “but we’re actually one hundred percent there and into what we’re doing. It’s a real response and a spontaneous response that you’re getting from us.
“I think that perhaps the stillness of us made people feel intimidated, that we weren’t running around and kicking our feet in the air and jumping into the crowd, and especially with my gaze at the audience. People often didn’t know what to do or how to take it. It was never meant to be a stare of contempt or a snarl, it was really just meant to be ‘I’m looking at you and you’re looking at me, let’s hold this and not run away from it,’ because it was quite an excruciating and awkward feeling we were playing with.”
The band soon overcame these prejudices, in no small part due to legendary The Birthday Party guitarist Roland S. Howard’s interest and support. After catching wind of the band from their live shows, Howard, along with producer Lindsay Gravina, invited the band to record Marry Me Tonight in Gravina’s Birdland Studios. The album, more of a pop effort for the band, would go on to be tied up in delays due to a protracted rights dispute, eventually surfacing in 2009 with an anticlimactic official release after three years of illegal downloads.
Living in London by this stage, after initially relocating to Berlin, the band had built a strong reputation for their live shows and uncompromising musical approach off the back of their self released Nostalgia EP, reissued by Fire Records in 2006. Marry Me Tonight was then released, with critics praising its bold style, and the band making a number of end-of-year top album lists, then being invited by the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Horrors and Fuck Buttons to embark on various European tours.
With ever increasing success before them, tragedy struck in late 2009, when Howard passed away from liver cancer, with Stewart following no more than a year later, taking his own life. Devastated, Standish and Yang have persevered with the work that they know Stewart would have them do.
“The songs are really the three of us, and it’s really his vision. The idea was to make an album that would be exactly the same as if he was here and we really had to self check with every decision to see whether Sean would approve, even just twisting a sound or adding another part of changing a lyric,” Standish says. “Sean was always kept at the forefront of our mind to make sure this was the album he wanted. In fact, I think we kept going mostly to do right by Sean and to get some of these songs out there in the way that he wanted.”
Work (work, work) then, may be more Sean’s album than anyone elses. While various voices in the press have questioned it, often citing the absence of Sean’s basslines as a key criticism, their change in direction has been one informed by Stewart as much as by the other members. “Sean’s presence is going to be with us forever,” Yang tells me resolutely. “His attitudes towards music and his creativity and his style is going to be with us forever and it’s going to inject a positive energy into anything we do. I don’t think we’ll constantly be checking that he would approve of what we’re doing, but he’s definitely a large part of our musical identities.”
Where Marry Me Tonight was the crystallisation of their focus, a clear record, designed for teenagers (by the own band’s admission and Howard’s behest), Work is altogether more hazy. There’s nothing to grab onto here, it’s slippery and sticky at the same time, “like honey or treacle,” Nigel adds.
Labelled by many as dark, Work (work,work) is about desire rather than darkness, with the arid expanses of textured noise and murmured vocals intended to be left blank so as to allow the listener to enter the world of the album and the album to enter the mind of the listener. “It’s really meant to leak into you, into your mind a little bit. I don’t think it’s a dark album or a scary album at all though,” Standish explains. “I almost feel like that if you find the music dark, it might be because you’re dark. If you feel that it’s sexy, then I feel the same way about it. It’s really meant to be a dreamlike album full of sex. The dark themes that are there are more themes of intrigue and surrender and submission.”
The album’s title refers to the divide in our lives between our professional, our personal or romantic and our underground lives, as Standish puts it, that realm of secret desires and lusts few allow themselves to admit to or explore. “It’s meant to be ten scenes in a film, with a vague concept of other rooms within the mind, which all sort of represent different personalities or different temptations we all have as people. Each song is really about giving in to one of those temptations, whether the temptation is contentment, or ageing or becoming passive, giving into taboo, giving in to fantasy, it really is studying the seven sins and trying to invent new ones.
“I think it’s part of the human condition that we interact in three different ways in these three different lives, each with their own desires and taboos, some people more than others, and within this album those three lives are starting to become one and there’s almost some confusion there.”
This is the real focus of the album – the uncertain world between what you want and what you do or don’t let yourself explore, and it is at this shady realm that HTRK have aimed their focus. The album never once takes on an air of certainty, drifting through suggestion and implication. Meaning and intention aren’t obvious; rather only slowly sinking in with repeat listens.
That they would step into such an uncertain territory with this album, taking their already challenging sound and direction and pushing it further, tearing out any shred of pandering to other people’s taste, is an indication that HTRK, like many of their inspirations, live their art. From their involvement with anarchist queer culture in London to their love of Sasha Grey, HTRK focus on the extremities, of experience and of human consciousness and behaviour taking in and engaging with the unavoidable ambiguities that are inherent. Theirs is a fearless human art, art that makes no compromises in its appraisal of what most of us would be too afraid to say, and a lot of us would rather be left unsaid, and that HTRK, alone save for a few, have the courage to articulate.