Shayne, Sly, Jimi and the sexy groove
May 9, 1993
When I interviewed Shayne Carter in 1993 for Wellington independent community newspaper City Voice, Straitjacket Fits were only months away from breaking up. Yet at the time, international success still seemed within their grasp. Re-reading the interview now, though, I realise Carter was already looking ahead, discussing the funk and hip-hop that would inform his later work in projects like Dimmer.
If Dunedin was to produce one major international rock star I’d put my money on Shayne Carter. As singer, guitarist and songwriter for Straitjacket Fits he breaks the black-jersey-bad-haircut-singing-to-his-feet mould that has spawned generations of Flying Nun frontmen.
And he seems to know how to hold a group together. In their seven-year history the Strtaitjackets have only seen one line-up change, Mark Petersen replacing Andrew Brough in 1991.
Carter is also very funny, frequently mocking his own passionate belief in his band and his music. “A failed rock band” is how Carter cheerfully sums up his group. “We sort of rock but it never quite gets there as far as full-blown rock drama goes. It treads the line. Sometimes you can think ‘Oh this is such a pompous piece of shit’ but it doesn’t quite get to full-blown pomposity.”
But Blow, the Straitjackets’ third album, is no failure. Recorded in Los Angeles early this year with producer Paul Fox, it’s a big, raw, roomy sounding record, with Carter’s acid melodies set against churning orchestrations of overamped electric guitars. And they can reproduce it onstage. “There’s some pretty hefty tap-dancing going on sometimes to achieve the sound of the next bit, but we can play it live, that’s the big thing. It’s pretty true. Just using the amps we always use.”
One thing that sets the Straitjackets well apart from other Flying Nun outfits is that, in their own strange way, they groove.
“There was this guy who said one thing all the Flying Nun bands shared was a lack of R&B inflections in their music and it made it different from most pop music or guitar music around the world, and that’s probably really true. There’s a real Anglo-Saxon kinda feel to it.
“But I’ve just always liked black music. Maybe it’s because my dad’s a Maori, I don’t know. I’ve always liked blues and a lot of people I know don’t like it.
“A lot of white pop isn’t very sexy. I like a bit of sexiness to the beats, and I don’t mean that in a really obvious crotch-grabbing kinda way, but a bit of silk in there….”
While fellow Dunedin bandleaders Graeme Downes (Verlaines) and Martin Phillipps (Chills) idolise Gustav Mahler and Brian Wilson respectively, Carter’s heroes tend to be black legends like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
Of Hendrix: “The thing with that guy is that everyone ripped him off and got totally the wrong end of the stick. You know, Jimi was virtually responsible for inventing prog-rock and heavy metal, which nobody should be proud of, but he played with a heap of soul, man… He was also an underrated song-writer, I think. Some of his quiet songs were really beautiful. “Little Wing” – that’s a great song. There’s a live version of it on a record called In The West and it kills the album version of it. “Wind Cries Mary”, “Castles Made Of Sand”, all that kinda stuff….”
Listen to Blow and the influence of Mr Jimi is unmistakable in some of Carter’s guitar sounds and riffs. The Sly influence is, well, more sly.
“Sly would probably be my favourite artist of all time. His stuff’s real groove, but it’s still pop songs. We’re never gonna be anywhere near as good as Sly’s band as far as pumping out a groove, but I think you can pick up that kinda ethic.
“I wanted to get away from the anthemic school of glory chords. You know, the bit where you go “Oh Gahd! It’s so fuckin’ beautiful!” More trying to get a groove. If hip-hop or that kinda music that’s developed over the last few years has had any influence on us, it’s in that kinda way. But I still think it’s probably reasonably subliminal because we’re still dealing in melody and guitars and stuff.”
When the Straitjackets complete their current New Zealand tour they are back off to the States for another hard slog of one-nighters. If Carter achieves the stardom he deserves it won’t come overnight, but he’s in this for the long haul.
“This band has always had momentum and felt like it’s going somewhere and that’s definitely enough to keep me interested. I worked from about age 17 to 19 as a journalist because I thought that would be my vocation in the real world.
“I reached my low point when I had to go along to some brewery on the eve of a rugby match and stand around with all these rugby players and Keith Quinn. It was a revelatory moment, mate. I thought: ‘Shayne, you’ve got to rock’.”