Shapeshifter are something of an enigma in the music world. During the mid to late nineties and early 2000’s, drum and bass music was enormous on the dance scene. With a huge amount of music within the confines of that genre being produced, Shapeshifter took a different route when they broke on to the scene in the early 2000’s by producing drum and bass music with actual instruments, rather than from behind a laptop screen or on a DJ set up. The group have implemented influences as widely spanning as funk, electronic and stadium rock into their sound, resulting in a unique melting pot of ideas and inspirations. The versatile nature of their music has resulted in the band having a dedicated following in their home of New Zealand, and all around the world. They’ve recently released their new record Stars which explores ideas they have delved into in the past, while adding new ideas and new layers to those. The record ebbs and flows in many directions, which makes it a hugely engaging listen.
The five piece band are currently on a tour of Australia in support of the new record, and we spoke with guitarist and synth player Sam Trevethick about the origins of Shapeshifter, and the nature of their 18 year career. When we spoke to him from a dreary, rainy Melbourne, he was soaking up the summer in Auckland. When the members of Shapeshifter first met, they were all studying jazz at music school together. Their training as live musicians ended up feeding into their style of making live drum and bass music. “We were all live musicians first and foremost. That was how we grew up. We were all playing in bands together studying jazz, but in our leisure time we were listening to all kinds of music that wasn’t jazz. One of the really exciting genres that was happening was drum and bass, and in Christchurch where we lived at the time, there was a really strong drum and bass culture. We wanted to emulate what we were hearing at clubs and raves with the skills that we had as musicians. We enjoyed expressing ourselves on our instruments, and we felt a lot of energy doing that, so we channeled it into making dance music.”
Though the skills they learned while studying were valuable to their development as musicians, that technical skill doesn’t necessarily drive the music that they make. “I think that when you learn music, you learn tools and shortcuts. When we approach making music, it’s not so much of an intellectual thing, it’s more of an emotional thing. All of the skills that we learned through studying music come out when we play, but it isn’t at the forefront of our minds – when we’re writing music, it’s coming from our hearts.” This certainly comes through, particularly on the new record Stars; there is a very clearly defined emotional energy to their music, and a certain passion which shines through.
The origins of the band came from their mutual discovery and appreciation of dance music, and their realised ability to emulate it in a live setting. Sam told us that “I still remember when we were at jazz school, and we were probably supposed to be doing jazz, but we would get out our Korg MS-20 synthesiser and make dance music. Back in the day when our drummer and bass player first connected and the rest of us were adding textures together, it felt really special. We played a battle of bands competition, which we didn’t win, but I remember coming home from that and reflecting on the audience reaction. People just about tore the place down. We got back from that gig and realised how special what we were doing was.”
Shapeshifter certainly do not define themselves as an exclusively drum and bass outfit, and particularly on the new album they are reaching out into new places. “Some of our new songs are quite different to what people expect from us, but the ideas often come from the same part of the musical world as drum and bass comes from. We’ve always had a varied amount of styles on our albums.” In 2002, a year after Shapeshifter had released their first record Realtime they decided to relocate to Melbourne. “We loved playing gigs in New Zealand, but were weren’t really getting recognition from the industry. So, we decided to move. We were pretty young at the time, and we’d had a tour over there before, so it was quite easy for us to get over there. It was a while before we ended up playing regular gigs- we all got jobs in cafes and did the Melbourne hospo kind of life for a bit. We ended up getting a decent Australian following in the end.”
Nowadays, that following stretches far beyond the confines of Australia and New Zealand. Shapeshifter have sold out shows all over the world, particularly in Europe, where they have a dedicated following. This kind of global audience hasn’t inflated the groups ego’s too much however, as Sam told us; “It’s pretty humbling. You don’t know if people will ever show up when you rock up in these countries, so its always nice to see faces there.” Even with all of the huge moments of their almost two decade spanning career, Sam says his favourite memory of his life in Shapeshifter is still a local one – “we sold out Victor Arena here in Auckland, which was massive for us because it’s the biggest arena in New Zealand.”
Shapeshifter kick off their tour here in Australia tonight, check out the dates below – there are still a few tickets left, but be quick!
Friday 31st March:
Metro City, Perth
with special guest Tiki Taane
Saturday 1st April:
Settlers Tavern, Margaret River
Wednesday 5th April:
Parkwood Tavern, Gold Coast
with special guest K-Lab
Thursday 6th April:
The Triffid, Brisbane
with special guest K-Lab
Friday 7th April:
170 Russell, Melbourne
with special guest K-Lab
Saturday 8th Sydney:
Manning Bar, Sydney
with special guest K-Lab + Metrik