New Zealand’s Shapeshifter have been cranking out deep, soulful drum’n’bass tunes for more than a decade now, and their fifth studio album, Delta, builds on their signature sound in new and surprising ways.
“The album entered the charts at number one in New Zealand, which really blew us away,” keys and horn player Nick Robinson says. “You really get nervous when releasing an album, spending so much time locked away in the studio not thinking about what people are going to like, just working away at songs in private, then suddenly it’s exposed to the world! It’s daunting, so to hear all the positive comments, to hear people say that they are taking something they value from this album is a real buzz.”
If there’s one thing that unites many of Shapeshifter’s tracks, it’s a sense of euphoria – a hands-in-the-air abandon that’s infectious. Delta is full of tracks like this, and I ask Robinson whether or not the upbeat nature of the music reflects the personalities of the band’s individual members. “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m any happier than the next guy,” he tells me. “I think we just all like music that ramps up, and we like music that is uplifting, so that would actually have an influence. I think some of our music is quite dark and deep – kinda thought-provoking – although it probably depends on the track. If there’s one thing that unites us, it’s that we’re all lovers of nice synthesizers and making beautiful pad sounds.
Shapeshifter gained a new drummer late last year in Darren Mathiassen, following the departure of long-time member Johnny Hooves, but according to Robinson, the transition has been fairly seamless. “We’ve always known Darren as a quality drummer,” he says, “so after Johnny left, he was our man. He has actually fit in better than we expected, and has the ability to really feel the Shifter feels, but then add even more of his own personality in there.” His ability to breathe life into the music, Robinson says, has made the live show even stronger. “Darren just fits in,” he says. “We all have similar backgrounds and he’s played in bands with our singer Paora before so he just adds to the dynamic.”
A formidable live band, Shapeshifter spend a good deal of time on the road, although Robinson assures me that their tours are not glamorous in the slightest. Their days typically start at 7am with an annoying hotel wake up call. “After that, it’s throw hotel telephone across the room and go back to sleep,” Robinson says, “then wake up 30 minutes later, and shower and pack bags in three minutes.” From there, it only gets more arduous. “Leave favourite t-shirt in hotel room and run down to the van,” he continues. “Race to airport, fly plane to next destination, land and drive to sound check…” In Europe, the itinerary gets a little more cosmopolitan, with car park soccer games and Tesco microwave bangers and mash to keep the lads busy.
I ask Robinson if he and the rest of Shapeshifter have enjoyed any especially memorable touring experiences in recent times. “We played a show in Poland last year,” he begins warily, “having just arrived in Europe on no sleep. Sam the guitarist and I went out into Warsaw and accidentally stayed out till the morning – it was the friendly locals’ fault – and we then had to drive to Plock in the middle of nowhere, while hung over as fuck, with 41-degree heat and no air con.” It was the most hideous journey they had ever taken, and they fully expected the gig to be a disaster, but when they arrived at the Audioriver festival a crowd of 25,000 was waiting, and they somehow rallied and pulled off what Robinson insists was the gig of their lives.
Given the level of debauchery in Europe, I ask Robinson if he and the lads plan to get into any similar mischief when they return to Australia this month, for a tour that includes a stop-in at The Metro. He assures me that professionalism is the order of the day this time. “We’re in the studio at the moment, rehearsing a bunch of new material off the new album,” he explains. “Sydney crowds are always crazy for us, and The Metro is always a highlight of the tour when we’re over there. We’ve got some new big tunes that we can’t wait to play, mixed in with a bit of old stuff and a bit of jamming. There may be some mistakes in there,” he says, “but that’s on purpose of course.”
It seems the secret to Shapeshifter’s longevity is their ability to muck around as friends, and not take themselves too seriously. I ask Robinson why, in his view, the band has stuck together for so long. “Money!” he says with a laugh. “No, I’m definitely kidding – the money’s pretty terrible in the music game. I’d say we’re all doing our dream job. As a kid, I would play bands with my friends – rocking on stage with tennis racquets, stuff like that. Now we get to play gigs and make music, and we all know that we make better music when we’re together than when we’re by ourselves. So we make sure we work through any shit we might have because what we do is worth it, and it’s a fucking buzz doing it too.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN