The passing of founding member Sean Stewart is a crucial chapter in the story of HTRK. The bassist took his own life prior to the production of their 2011 album Work (work, work). The group's remaining members, Nigel Yang and Jonnine Standish, were still coming to grips with Stewart’s passing when the album was released. The posthumous use of Stewart's basslines gave Work its eerie aesthetic. It also presented HTRK as disaffected and withdrawn figures.
The collaboration between HTRK and Howard represented a passing of the torch from one generation of Australian independent music to another. It says a lot about HTRK that Howard sought to work with the band on Marry, leaving his unique mark on its arrangement through under-produced instrumentation. And in HTRK's songwriting one could sense Howard's same forlorn, narcissistic take on love.
The mutual admiration between HTRK and Howard has been well documented over the years. In a Quietus interview last year, Yang spoke of how he was inspired by Howard's "fallibility, his ferocity. His phrasing and timing… His lyrical imagery and imagination."
HTRK's close professional and social relationship with Howard has made them crucial figures in strengthening his legacy among younger Australian and global audiences. The pair recently flew to London to perform at the UK premiere of the biographical documentary Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard.
"You know Karl O'Connor was one of Rowland's biggest fans?" I ask. Yang and Standish didn't know, but they're interested. I read them a passage written by O'Connor in a 2013 FACT article:
"Rowland S. Howard quite simply is beyond comparison. His guitar playing could penetrate the soul in a way that no one else's could…No man has ever looked as good, or ever will look as good, playing a Fender Jag."
I sense a contemplative silence on the other end of the call. "You know what?" says Yang, completely deadpan. "I always wonder why people don't write that sort of stuff about my guitar playing." And with one irreverent joke he embodies all the egotistical and playful tendencies of HTRK's music. You can hear this sardonic humour in their latest album, Psychic 9-5 Club, released last week on Ghostly International.
The album has been a long time coming. Directly after Stewart's death and the release of Work, Yang and Standish were emotionally drained. They'd headlined a European tour (with Tropic Of Cancer in support) and had made little time to focus on grieving. "The Work experience had pushed us on a downward spiral… All the sounds have a downward spiral and the lyrics pull you down," says Standish. "And if you've been through something intense in your life I think that sound registered well."
"Just letting time pass was really important," follows Yang. "We approached this new one with a renewed positive outlook."
This was hinted at late last year when HTRK commissioned a Mika Vainio remix of the Work track "Poison." After such a long break from the spotlight, the 10-inch, released on Ghostly, was exciting not only because the remix itself was a pulsing, twisted odyssey from the Finnish stalwart, but also because Vainio wasn't an obvious choice. It hinted at a revitalised HTRK.
Psychic 9-5 Club is a statement about freeing oneself from grief; about trying to love yourself again. This idea is explored in wildly different ways on the album. From aspiring to a platonic body image on "The Body You Deserve" or the emotional confusion of "Love Is Distraction," to the opening line on "Wet Dream," where Standish purrs: "I'm in love with myself."
These narcissistic track titles and lyrics are littered throughout Psychic. Standish's vocals, though serene and poetic, cannot be absorbed with a cursory listen. Her words take on an improvised feel of free-association, which constantly allows new pathways to emerge throughout the album—from one lyric or track to the next. This aesthetic was greatly informed by the last year she spent receiving counselling and training with a spiritual advisor.
"Like a voice coach," she qualifies. "She's all about the loss of ego and the loss of gender and loss of identity. It was therapy through vibration and voice as a connecting tool."
The way this practice manifests itself on Psychic makes the record's vocals very different to those elsewhere in HTRK's catalogue. "From the beginning the idea was not to have a veil over the vocals, like there might have been on the last album," explains Standish.
With this in mind, Yang and Standish enlisted the help of Nathan Corbin to produce and record the album. As a member of Brooklyn-based experimental group Excepter, Corbin brings a formidable sound and texture to the LP. The drums are penetrating and cavernous, yet Standish's vocals stand out in the mix. There's no choice but to contemplate their meaning.
Corbin and HTRK crossed paths through a "psychic connection," Yang cheekily says. "I had drafted up an email saying, 'It'd be really nice to cross paths one day,' but I never sent it," he continues. "It was bad timing because his partner, Clare, had just passed away from cancer. Then when we were in America touring for the first time, he wrote us an email totally out of the blue—we'd had no previous contact with Excepter or him. We bonded over each of us having lost a close person in our lives and over an unsent email."
Corbin filled some of the void left by Stewart. "[On Psychic] it was the first time that Jonn and I were jamming with just the two of us," Yang says. "And Nathan's production is a huge part of this album. We flew over to America to record with him. It was really nice to have that third energy."
Corbin's production helped reveal characteristics that had been hidden in the murky depths of HTRK's previous work. The tangled pop music clichés are no longer obscured by lo-fi production. The vocal clarity and percussive precision give Psychic a pop feel, but the free-flowing song structures and Standish's exposed lyrics makes everything much more complicated.
"Songs like 'Love Is Distraction' are suspended with few dynamic changes, but as is normal with our stuff there'll be a series of changes towards the end of the song," says Yang. "This is one way we work against certain expectations of a pop song."
It's an idea that Yang refers to as "dilation." "If you've ever had an E you'll know what it means. Visually everything is vivid but your depth of field flattens out. Time is stretched and you get the feeling of suspension. Emotionally you're very open."