New Zealand’s Shapeshifter is a band whose name doubles as a mission statement. The increasingly archaic notion of ‘genre boundaries’ certainly hasn’t troubled the five-piece DnB/funk/soul/hip hop outfit since it emerged in the early 2000s. Shapeshifter have unified these elements with increasing accessibility as their career has progressed, and on last year’s Delta LP, their fifth,they also welcomed in electropop and stadium rock elements, which helped it become their second consecutive NZ number one.
“We’re not really the kind of band that worries too much about what trends are going down. We just write stuff that we like,” says vocalist P Digsss (AKA Paora Apera). “Firstly we make music for us, and for the people that we know love us. We’re like, ‘OK, what would blow them away this time?’ We’ve got to bring something new to this game while still staying us.”
Delta’s predecessor The System Is A Vampire was a major step up for the band, featuring a more confident sound and offering bigger, more memorable choruses. The album took them all over the world and was followed by a remix LP, but then there was a three-year wait before Delta came along. If outsiders were sceptical the band could match the mass appeal of System, it wasn’t an internal concern.
“We weren’t even worried about it,” Digsss says. “We were more worried about getting it out and keeping it fresh for us.”
They might be chiefly interested in exciting themselves, but Shapeshifter’s growing profile hasn’t been met with nonchalance by the band members. They’re determined to prove themselves as a stadium-worthy band, and Digsss explains the rigorous brainstorming procedure that led to the construction of Delta.
“[There were] about 50 different tunes and ideas that came out from that first writing camp. We have these writing camps; every three to four months of the year we’ll get together, hire a nice place out, sit down and collabo – make heaps of great beats and stuff. And then we’ll go away and all have our little think about it and then you have to whittle it down.”
Coordinating the variety of influences regularly heard in Shapeshifter songs seems like an exhausting task. Delta is largely a feel-good album but making the record wasn’t all fun and games.
“When you make an album, so many different emotions become involved,” says Digsss. “Sometimes it’s really awesome and sometimes you’re a little bit glum or you’re a little bit lacking in energy. But that’s the good thing about being in a band with someone that will bring a nice bit of energy in, or the right kind of mood.
“The last three months of the production of the album we went down to Wellington, had the studio there, but it was actually during winter. All those songs weren’t made in the sun, weren’t made in some tropical bloody island, they were actually made in a cold-arse city. It forced you to pull up your boots and get ready to bring some sunshine.”
Maintaining their characteristic diversity without it becoming contrived or sounding schizophrenic could be difficult to achieve, but the input of five strong opinions helps to give the songs a vital edge.
“Sometimes we’re like cats and dogs in a box, then sometimes it’s amazingly harmonious. Sam [Trevethick, keyboards/guitar] and Devin [Abrams, synth/sax], they’re like chalk and cheese sometimes. Every now and then you’ve got to have those kind of relationships. It makes you bring your A-game. Instead of if it was just one producer or one dude doing everything, it truly is a great little democracy in Shapeshifter.”
It’s become more and more apparent with each Shapeshifter release that what you’re listening to is the product of manual labour. Much like The System Is A Vampire, Delta sounds like the work of a band that’s experienced performing in front of big audiences. For example, songs such as the ‘99 Luftballons’-channelling ‘In Colour’ and lead single ‘Gravity’ are equipped with widescreen choruses and pounding instrumental sections.
“That’s where we kind of cut our teeth really, playing live,” Digsss says. “The live dates we’ve been playing lately have inspired a lot of our recordings. Through the years it’s gone from being straight studio-produced albums to now a lot more live instrumentation. We’re just getting better at making albums. They’re a bit more of a representation of what we sound like live.”
Delta’spre-album singles helped the group sell out a run of shows in Australia when the record came out last August. They’re back for a few select shows this week before taking the new songs overseas. Digsss says they’re continually trying to push the parameters of the gigs.
“We always take pride in our live show, we always like to be as tight as we possibly can. When you go into battle, which is kind of what it’s like, you always want to have your A-game and then a whole bunch of X-factor tricks, your secret weapons. We’ve played a long time and our sound guy Tiki Taane is one of our X-factors. If you come to see us at a big venue, you’re going to feel alive.”
Delta out now through Ministry of Sound/Universal.