By Jake Ebdale
As I talk to Shapeshifter co-founder, keyboard and sax player Devin Abrams over the phone, he excuses himself for a minute. A painter knocks on his door with a new type of paint. He then pops back on the phone, apologises, and we start a very casual interview, covering new album Delta, Rhythm and Vines, and the connection between band and crowd.
It made me wonder, as humble as Kiwis are, how our successful musicians live. We only associate with them in energetic, uninhibited moments as punters. A lot of us pay for our tickets, drink, dance, then go home and move on. We don't think of their lives beyond the stage. So it's a strange feeling to talk to the guy that has been responsible for one of the biggest, most rabid fanbases in New Zealand, not to mention some of the wildest gigs I've ever attended, from his house in Wellington. It's also nice to have a yarn about music and geek out a bit. He likes Bill Withers and Jai Paul, and has a background in jazz. He knows more about this than most - music is his job.
"Yeah, we all get a wage and get bonuses, things like that. I mean, I get paid to turn up and play music. It's pretty fucking awesome" says Abrams. The band is one of our homegrown success stories, now with a massive following overseas. They're playing some European shows next April, with their first stops inCanada and the US to follow. "Next year is pretty chocka...I feel very lucky. I'm at a good place at the moment."
It's great to hear how humble Abrams is, especially with the amazing response to latest album Delta, album number five from the Christchurch group. I say to him that the album's sound definitely borrows from every ‘Shifter release since their debut, Realtime. "Yeah definitely. It's kind of a culmination or a cocktail of all the albums but presented in a new format." And whilst previous outing The System is a Vampire employed live drums, "the one goal we set before recording (Delta) was that we'd do the drums electronically".
The album also sees vocalist Paora "P Digsss" Apera at his most melodic since Riddim Wise and Soulstice, with ‘Gravity', ‘Monarch' and ‘Endless' being perfect representations of the Shapeshifter sound. There is a two song suite, Stadia and Arcadia, which pushes their aural envelope.
Eclectic as the Delta material is, it's also destined for a huge live show. Gisborne based New Years festivalRhythm and Vines is gearing up for a huge set from the boys. How does Devin feel about the history between the band and R&V? "Well I think the main difference in terms of (Rhythm and Vines now) and the last time we played, which was in 2005/2006, is that it was 90% Kiwi acts, so the promoters have built a good homegrownfoundation on the back of that. There has since been a lack of opportunities for international acts with the absence of Big Day Out, so R&V has taken the mantelpiece as New Zealand's big festival. It's where all the electronic, hip hop and soul acts come to play."
I mention to him that Rudimental, who are also playing R&V, have taken more than a few pages out of Shapeshifter's book. "Well back when we started in 1999, we were the first drum and bass act to use live instruments in the world. Roni Size was doing something similar, with computers and drums, (but) when we started there was literally nothing. You could say we were pioneers in that sense."
With Rudimental's success on the world stage, it could bother him - but it doesn't seem that way. He sounds content with where his band sits. "We chose to live in New Zealand and not migrate north. Maybe, had we taken a gamble and moved elsewhere, we could have had a different path of success. But we are who we are, living here. It's part of our story."
"I feel like it's the way it was meant to be. We get a good audience and a lot of respect overseas too, especially in drum and bass. People know who we are - it's not like we're in the middle of Antarctica. It's a good place to be."
So with everything on the band's horizon, I ask if there's anything coming up for him personally. Besides Shapeshifter, he also has a side project Pacific Heights. The stellar single ‘Peace', featuring Fat Freddy's' singer Joe Dukie, was one of the outstanding moments of 2008.
For fans of PH, Abrams has been tinkering away at a wealth of material that won't see the light of day. "I've actually just finished two albums worth of Pacific Heights music that I decided wasn't good enough, so I've gone on a different path." He was about to release one of the albums, then shelved it. There may be a smaller offering though. "I've nearly finished an EP which I'm trying to complete by February. I'm really feeling the stuff I'm writing at the moment, and pretty confident it'll be released by the end of next year, depending on how the sessions go."
With two projects on the go, and yeah, touring around the world, I then ask him about how difficult it is to live off of music - he is suffering from a near embarrassment of musical riches for at least the next two years." I think your question is getting harder to answer as the industry changes. I feel luckier knowing (Shapeshifter) had a profile ten years ago and had established a foundation and a fanbase before social media."
"The way I like to describe it, since the recession, is that there's a smaller pie and more people want pieces of it. Unfortunately, that's where (the music industry) is at the moment."
It is the solid connection between Shapeshifter and their fan base that gives them longevity in the marketplace. Abrams definitely feels this, especially with the new material. Speaking of Delta single ‘In Colour', he realises why he makes music for a living. "I've always felt that Shapeshifter has a perfect symmetry with the crowd, which is part of the joy of playing onstage. Playing (In Colour), the joy that it brings when I play those first chords, it's amazing." He also feels this connection coming from older material, especially ‘Tapestry', a Realtime song given an emotional overhaul on their Live album from 2006. The song also has a personal connection to him.
"I wrote that one for my grandfather, who got me into music at a very young age. When he passed away, I was in a bit of a slump. That was the very first song written for a Shapeshifter album. To me, ‘Tapestry' has a special significance because it totally captures an emotion - I feel that it represents everything about Shapeshifter."
I enquire about the version of the song on Live with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and singer Lisa Tomlins. "I literally cried - when I first heard that version, we were playing this free gig in the Auckland domain just before (third album) Soulstice came out. There must have been 25 to 30,000 people there. When we played it live and heard the whole arrangement, we hadn't even had a proper rehearsal. I just bawled my eyes out on stage. So amazed and stumped by it."
It's a gig that I attended, and I remember this moment well. Shapeshifter shows have that effect on you. They tap into a different part of your brain.
Looking back to that moment and seeing how far the band have come, it seems there's no stopping Shapeshifter's massive scale of the electronic music world. There is already talk of "work on a new album next year", and possibly a digital remix album to look forward to. But for now, it's summer time. The tour is nearly full speed ahead, Rhythm and Vines is just over a month away. Abrams is still a humble guy from Wellington.
"I don't feel like I need any more than this. I've got enough to pay off a house in New Zealand and support my wife. That's more than enough for a human being."