People are often quite scared of me, and that’s actually a good thing,” Shayne Carter grins across the table conspiratorially at me, “it’s quite useful”. We’re having a coffee in Kingsland to find out what this local music legend has been up to with his band Dimmer, and what the man behind the notoriously dark and brooding image, and lyrics, is really like. I’m not scared of him, which seems to throw him off a little. “Why would anyone be scared of you, Shayne?” I ask, as he’s sitting opposite me rolling a cigarette to have with his coffee looking not the least bit frightening. “Dunno! Maybe I present myself as horrible and scary or something.” He has this cynical drawl to his speech that could be considered intimidating, but I figure it is due partly to decades of having dealt with music journalists and partly to simply being a straight-up honest kinda guy.
Shayne Carter has been a part of the fabric of New Zealand music for over twenty five years now. We all know and love him for his work as frontman of Straitjacket Fits, one of our finest musical exports. The song ‘She Speeds’, first released on the Fits’ 1987 EP ‘Life In One Chord’, has become one of those iconic kiwi tracks played in small town pubs on New Years nationwide. I’m listening to it as I write this, ten times in a row (alright, fifteen…) which would surely make Shayne roll his eyes — he’s said before he refuses to have ‘Shayne “She Speeds” Carter’ on his gravestone. The song deserves the credibility that the adoration of the New Zealand listening public has given it — it’s bloody beautiful. Now considered legendary, it has made it into the top ten on the first Nature’s Best (‘New Zealand’s Top 30 Songs of All Time’) compilation, and two more of Shayne’s Straitjacket Fits tracks landed on the second and third Nature’s Best albums. Seeing him perform live now with Dimmer, you can still see why Flying Nun described Straitjacket Fits as “sensual”, “primal” and “swaggering”. He writhes snakelike onstage, lost in the intensity of the songs. His voice directs all the emotion he’s feeling into the listener and really affects you, a rare genuine rock talent.
He’s incredibly humble and understated about his work. About to head to the States to play a few shows on the West Coast with his current musical baby, band Dimmer, Shayne simply says, “I think it’s a good band…good music. If people see us, hear it, hopefully they’ll like it.” He’s talking about present lineup Kelly Stevens on bass (formerly of Peaches, Voom), Dino Karlis on drums and James Duncan on guitar. Carter himself plays guitar and sings in Dimmer.
The lineup has changed over the years. Dimmer first formed in 1994, from what Shayne refers to as “the ashes of Straitjacket Fits”. “The whole idea with Dimmer is that I would be common denominator and could pretty much bring in whoever I wanted to work with to depending on the circumstance.” Since its inception, Dimmer has included artists such as Anika Moa and Bic Runga on backing vocals, members of other New Zealand bands like SJD. “I don’t make an effort to constantly change the lineup but I like to have my options open. My entire musical career I’ve spent being tied to bands. In some ways it’s like running around in a gang, you just get sick of it. You grow up and don’t want to feel betrothed to the other gang members.”
As an independent artist, Shayne has been in control of Dimmer to such an extent that he created their first two albums, 2001’s ‘I Believe You Are A Star’ and 2004’s ‘You’ve Got To Hear The Music’ with Pro Tools painstakingly on computer. Last year’s release, ‘There My Dear’, was recorded live and goes back to Shayne’s rock roots steering away from the more gentle mood of Dimmer’s first two albums. He wrote all the tracks on ‘There My Dear’ while back home in Dunedin, in the seaside town of Brighton following the Fits reunion tour and a relationship break up.
The music is dark, haunting and heartbroken, fitting in with this brooding image Shayne seems to have acquired for himself over the years. He blames our landscape. “There’s this whole thing about New Zealand art and music being quite brooding and I think you just have to look at some of the places around us, that’s what the landscape is.” It’s the weather that adds to the brooding mood of our artists, especially down south in his hometown of Dunedin. “One thing I find about living in Dunedin, the eight month winters gets a bit much really. Gets you sooner or later, you either get sick or really depressed. It sort of wears you down.”
The beaches awe him the most. “New Zealand is littered with them even though littered is the wrong term to use for beaches. Places like Brighton on the South Otago coastline, that’s beautiful. Mahia is just this incredibly powerful place where you can see all the way to down the coastline, and there are all these beautiful spots around the Coromandel, Auckland has all those incredible coves and beaches.” So how does he feel when he’s standing on these beaches in the middle of such powerful landscape? “Beaches are humbling, aren’t they. The last song on ‘There My Dear’, ‘What’s A Few Tears To The Ocean’, sums up that whole philosophy. We’re all grains on the beach of life aren’t we,” he says with that cynical smile. “It just sort of tends to put everything into proportion, beaches are very powerful and very elemental, like anything great from nature. It’s hard to be a wanker when you’re surrounded by that kind of grandeur, it tends to bring out the honesty.”
He lives in central Auckland these days, but this Dunedin boy refuses to be called an Aucklander. “No way mate. Cut the cable up the mainland. I’m a proud South Islander, but I’ve been domiciled in Auckland.” He asks where I’m from and I admit to having been born and raised in the big smoke. He shakes his head and offers sympathy, “Sorry, mate.”
The cynicism and darkness associated with Carter is probably also due to his opinionated rants in interviews about the music industry, which surely he’s entitled to after having been in the middle of it for over two decades. Despite struggling to make much of a decent living from music, he doesn’t mind people burning copies of his albums — not that he’s encouraging you to go out and do that. The man does need to eat. “I firmly believe that if you do that there is going to be payback to that artist in one way or another, whether people come to your shows or buy your records after hearing your stuff. If I hear music and I dig it, I’ll go out and buy the records. I had been towing the party line thinking ‘yeah, it’s really bad people take my music for free’ and all that kinda stuff, but then I thought about it and I realised well its not my money that’s so much affected it’s the record company’s money.”
Shayne’s Top Five All Time Records (in no order, and actually there are 6…)
‘There’s A Riot Going On’ — Sly and the Family Stone
‘Hard Again’ — Muddy Waters
‘For Your Pleasure — Roxy Music
‘I Want You’ — Marvin Gaye
‘Neu!’ — Neu!
‘Neu! 2’ — Neu!
The record companies are not organisations Shayne wants his art to support. “The sooner the record industry crumbles the better as far as I’m concerned. Apart from the labels I’m on obviously.” With the rise of independent artists such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who sold over 2 million albums on their own by selling copies online and sending them out through the post, there are increasing numbers of musicians choosing to remain independent rather than support an industry they see as corrupt. “Fuck the record industry, its evil.” He bemoans the price of CDs, which he considers “grossly inflated” at “nearly forty bucks…I’m glad they’re getting bitten on the ass. The thing is, it’s the record company that gets 85% of the profit from that forty bucks, not the artists. I’m glad that their record sales are falling.”
When Shayne started out as a musician, there was a lot less support. “There used to be this whole Winz attitude,” he says of being a musician for a living in the 80’s, “like, ‘when are you gonna go out and get a real job?’” Today more people respect making music for a living as a valid vocation, and he sees the government’s support of musicians these days as a positive. “The fact that NZ On Air gave ya $10,000 towards a record doesn’t mean its going to be a better record or that its going to be better to listen to in 20 years time. All that stuff is peripheral. I think it’s great that the government puts money into the arts, there are far worse things they could be doing. It’s a great thing to be encouraged.”
What is in the CD player of this musician right now? Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra. “I always thought he was this boring old republican asshole, but in the 50’s he made this series of really great heartbreak records.” ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ and ‘Only The Lonely’ are two favourites, Shayne proceeds to tell me all about how Sinatra had his heart broken by Ava Gardner. This is something Carter clearly relates to, given the heartbroken nature lyrically of his most recent album “There My Dear” (with song titles like “You’re Only Leaving Hurt” and “I Won’t Let You Break My Heart Again”). Sinatra calls to Carter’s mind his own experiences, “He’s great to listen to when you’re cradling your whisky at 4 o’clock in the morning with that vision of that woman in front of you…”
His choice of reading material is somewhat on the dark side too. ‘Happy Like Murderers: The True Story of Fred and Rosemary West’, by Gordon Burn, is on Shayne’s bedside table. “Good light fare”, he laughs. “Bit of murder, terrible politics going on, ethnic cleansing, all that kind of cheery stuff…” He’s also reading about soccer in an equally cheerful manner, in a book called ‘The Damned UTD’ by David Peace. “It’s about this English football manager who was a controversial figure through the 70’s. He managed this team that hated him and he hated them. He had a terrible 40 days with them.” The world of Shayne Carter isn’t all as gloomy as it seems though, he plays a lot of soccer in his spare time. “I find it great because everything else I do is completely the opposite of that, so its good to just go out and run around and chase a ball. Rather than doing your head in with music or any of that business.”
He calls himself a “homebody”, making his own brunch then reading the papers on a Sunday. He likes vegemite. Weekends are spent at home, watching tapes of the overnight football. “I’m ashamed to say I used to support Manchester United, but then I stopped supporting them when they bought the best player from their opposition. Thus ruined the chance of the other team. I just thought that sucked that they were so rich they could go around and buy the best players from the team that was closest to challenging them, so that’s my socialistic roots coming to the fore. I just really enjoy the game. They don’t call it the beautiful game for nothing.”
Dimmer will spend most of March playing shows in Texas, San Francisco in LA; places Shayne hasn’t played since the Fits days. “It’s more of an exploratory thing really.” ‘There My Dear’ hasn’t been released in the US yet, so the tour is going to get people to see the band and “arouse interest”. Also coming up, Dimmer has a new single coming out late March, “You’re Only Leaving Hurt” from last year’s LP ‘There My Dear’. The animated video made by his friend and ex-Dimmer drummer Gary Sullivan, has Shayne awfully excited, “It looks really amazing”. He likes the song too — “I think is a really beautiful tune.” And so do I.
Originally published in Brass magazine