Sex and sadness in HTRK’s ‘Psychic 9–5 Club’
The Melbourne band's new album owes as much to tragedy as to the clubs of London and Berlin
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Psychic 9–5 Club is the third album from HTRK (pronounced “Hate Rock”), a band that began in Melbourne in the mid 2000s as Hate Rock Trio, and released their first studio album, Marry Me Tonight, in 2009. Between that album and the release of their second, Work (work, work), in 2011, they lost bass player and founding member Sean Stewart. He committed suicide in 2010, at the age of 29. HTRK are now a duo – Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang – and their new album is the first to be completed without any contribution from Stewart. The band have moved from Melbourne to Berlin to London and back again; most recently, they recorded Psychic 9–5 Club in Santa Fe and New York with producer Nathan Corbin.
Sonorous bass pulses, created in part using Roland TR-808 and 909 drum machines, underpin this album. The music’s pace is measured, and the stately yet dynamic atmosphere, overlaid with Standish’s languid vocals, recalls most obviously the work of the Berlin-based production duo and record label Basic Channel, who pioneered the genres of minimal and dub techno in the early 1990s. The bass weight of dub reggae combined with the crisp repetition of programmed drum patterns characterises such music; Basic Channel and its associated sub-labels, Rhythm & Sound and Burial Mix, exert an immeasurable influence on dance music to this day.
“When we were in London we were listening to a lot of that stuff,” says Yang, talking down the phone from a Melbourne street corner. “The idea to make our previous album [Work (work, work)] have that sense of space and depth was something that we’d spoken about, the three of us. It didn’t work out like that for various reasons, but we still wanted to make a record that had that kind of production quality.”
The connection between Psychic 9–5 Club and this lineage of minimal, bass-driven dance music is more than superficial or accidental: the album was mastered in Berlin by renowned audio engineer Rashad Becker at Dubplates & Mastering, a company set up by Basic Channel in 1995 to meet the label’s own rigorous sonic standards. Psychic 9–5 Club is an album that reveals its full dynamism only with a decent stereo set-up – or, ideally, through a proper club PA. At volume, the stereo field envelops the body, and the music’s rhythmic structure seems to mirror the heart’s beat.
“Me and Nige had got into that music in the ’90s – in fact, in the early ’90s that was the only thing I would listen to,” Standish says. Even down separate phone lines from different parts of Melbourne, she and Yang share an intimacy that is particular to long-term collaborators, conversing with each other as much as with their interviewer. They recall how Stewart immersed himself in dance culture while the band were living in Berlin, around 2007. “It was fascinating to watch Sean really get into this techno scene,” says Standish, “and listening to how he described the culture, because I knew it so well.”
“A lot of that minimal techno, especially from Finland and the more outsider and isolated places, has a real elegance to it that I think we found really attractive,” says Yang. “Living in London, you kind of need that.”
The band’s hand-to-mouth existence in Europe throughout the mid 2000s – “down and out in Berlin and London”, as Standish describes it – meant that the sense of community they discovered in certain London dance clubs became central to their lives. An old video store on the Kingsland Road in the London borough of Hackney was converted into a club that was home to a night called Faction, “where we felt like there was a community, a club community that we were a part of”, says Standish. “It didn’t matter whether there were ten people or a hundred people in the club, it kind of felt like that was your space.”
The club of Psychic 9–5 Club is an imaginary, utopian space – one that gestures towards the band’s own history. It is a space that brings people together, explains Standish, “and you know that there’s going to be an ear that you can talk to that will understand what you’re going through, and if not you can take it out on the dance floor”. Psychic 9–5 Club forms a soundtrack to this imaginary club; Yang describes it as a “semi-concept album”.
Dance and rock music audiences often seem to value different, and opposed, musical philosophies. The focal point of a rock gig is the band, but the star of a dance club is the audience, gathered in a mutual pursuit of the sublime. If rock is escapist, all about the Friday night that strives to banish Monday morning from the mind, then dance is transcendent – the most dedicated club-goers push on through Monday, and beyond. “There’s a grey area in between that we’re kind of in,” Yang says. “We’re distanced a little from the rock scene, just in how we think about what emotional purpose music should serve.” This purpose is not straightforwardly pleasurable, but it does foreground the ebb and flow of desire. “Everything we do always mixes sex and sadness,” Standish says.
The musical progression of HTRK from their debut EP Nostalgia (2007) to Psychic 9–5 Club has been gradual and logical – if not entirely deliberate. Gone is the guitar feedback that Yang incorporated into the band’s early work, and gone too are Stewart’s basslines; nevertheless, the band are still connected to the experimental spirit of their post-punk origins. Their Berlin lineage is twinned: the controlled minimalism of Basic Channel, but also the raucous, cathartic rock of The Birthday Party. HTRK’s first album, Marry Me Tonight, was co-produced by Rowland S Howard, former guitarist with the Melbourne post-punk band whose legacy continues to shadow Australian rock music. The Birthday Party left Melbourne for Europe a quarter of a century before HTRK did, and likewise acquired a reputation for compelling, emotionally dark performances.
“We found in London that there were lots of great people around, but there were some really fucked-up, dangerous people as well,” says Yang. “We would attract that kind of person, because we were in that mindset, too.” In the aftermath of their bandmate’s self-destruction, says Yang, he and Standish talked about “attracting people who are on the same wavelength as we had reached, in terms of cleaning up and looking at life pretty differently”.
This new emotional wavelength is best represented by Standish’s vocals, which recall not only the vocal work of Rhythm & Sound but also the beautifully controlled singing of Tracey Thorn, one half of the British duo Everything But the Girl. Standish has spent some time working with a vocal coach and mentor, who has also been “more of a spiritual adviser”, she says. “The voice is really just a way to get you in the room and start breathing – she calls it sculpting with energy.” The line between emotional indifference and emotional intent can be played with, manipulated; the lyrics of Psychic 9–5 Club recall fragments from self-help manuals, and there’s no real telling whether Standish’s delivery of lines like “You can now get the body you deserve” should be taken as sincere or sardonic.
“The female vocal in music is always – well, it’s a lot of things,” Standish says. “I could talk about this for a long time.” Melodies and lyrics written by men and sung by women that require the performance of an overwrought, almost lachrymose distress are a staple of pop music – and serve to reinforce the notion of female singers as emotionally vulnerable. Standish says melody is embarrassing, precisely because it makes a performer vulnerable, “so I play with how much to give, and how much to hold back, rather than letting it all go”.
“Healthy dose of inner peace / Blue sunshine,” sings Standish on ‘Blue Sunshine’, the song that she and Yang agree was the starting point for Psychic 9–5 Club. This inner peace, such as it is, has been hard-earned. “The last few years,” she says, “have been an existential crisis.”
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.