Cityscape caught up with legendary local band Shapeshifter’s bassist and producer Nick Robinson ahead of their epic Live in the Park-headlining gig this month.
How did four local lads become the one of the country’s biggest bands?
Whoa it sounds crazy, there’s a lot of amazing artists on the scene, and it seems a bit hard to believe we’d be called that. I don’t think we thought we’d still be going this much time later, but I think the first key to making a living in this game is staying together, not quitting. When we started (and still) the Christchurch music scene was rich in talent, there were a lot of good local bands. We came out of the Christchurch Jazz conservatory. It was competitive but it was also a mean social scene and basically just a fun thing to be doing. We wanted to push the boundaries of live music like the old jazz musicians did. We spent time getting into synthesisers and we took every chance to make our band’s live experience better. From our very first show at the Dux de Lux we had Tiki Taane doing our sound; we would lose money so we could have the biggest and best sound and lights. I’m not sure what got us where we are, but I do know we’ve failed a million times along the way and succeeded a few times, so I think a mixture of being totally unhealthily obsessed with the band and not really caring is good (as is having thick skin). We were taken under the wing of Salmonella Dub guitarist Andy Penman. He took us on tour and kind of taught us the basics of touring. He was a huge factor in our early success around the country. Without Andy we would have never had the platform to get up from.
What happened when P Digsss joined the band?
When we first jammed with Digsss it was at The Gathering 2000 – 2001. We had previous MCs come and go up till then, but most were probably hip-hop based and found it hard to get flow over the noise on stage. I remember being told we were the loudest on stage band sound technicians had ever dealt with, and it made everyone’s jobs a lot harder – especially whoever was on the mic! Then along came Digsss, making it look easy. And he just sang the perfect things every time, silky smooth charisma just floating over the rumbling drum and bass. It was like a dream come true for the four of us in the band – our sound was complete. It just made sense as our next step. We always wanted to reinvent our sound as time went on and as we grew as a group and as musicians and people. Shapeshifting.
What’s the story behind your killer track ‘Stars’?
‘Stars’ was one of over 100 ideas we took to the recording of the album and was originally in half-time. It had a hip-hop beat to it and kinda rolled with a sort of Dr Dre feel. So it was quickly chucked in the no pile, until – I can’t remember why or when – we tried it with a rolling drum and bass feel. I think I might have played the chords in for the main bit and then after adding a bass line I was certain it was going to go nowhere. I got back to the studio the next morning and Sam had written some verse chords – and Digsss had recorded some ideas too, specifically the line – “We were like shooting stars… blah blah”. I thought OK, what’s this? We had the first real idea of how it was going to unfold.
Tell us about your first gig.
Our first gig was the heat of the RDU Not So Young Entertainers competition. We played at least four songs, ‘Chain Reaction’, ‘Uplifted’, ‘Starlifter’ and ‘Double Bass’. We’d all played many other gigs with many other bands, but we never had a reaction like this – the crowd went mental (there was only a few there) and then the next day on RDU Graeme, the morning DJ, just started hyping us – he was our champion really, he created this sort of Christchurch student radio Beatlemania-style Shapeshiftermania – it was madness. It was a surreal time.
You’re headlining Live in the Park – what can we expect?
We have New Ideas for our set this summer, so I think we will do the old formula of batting out some new riffs and ideas, and then there’s a few songs that we feel we want to play for most sets – for it to be a true Shapeshifter experience. Some songs just never get old to play even after 100s of times. There’s something about playing in Hagley Park; it’s a bit like playing in your own backyard, and every time we get the chance I think it could be our last chance – you never know! So I feel I just want to enjoy every moment and just appreciate what and where we are allowed to play.
Who are you looking forward to catching up with most backstage?
We know the Shihad boys quite well; we spent time living in Melbourne at the same time they were, and also shared many bills with them over the years. The first one being ‘bFM Private Function’, I think it was called, where we met for the first time. Those boys were full-blown rock stars, we were just gob-smacked – their performance is second to none. So always looking forward to acting up with those lads for sure.
What’s on the top of your to-do list when you’re back in Christchurch?
Well, it’s like being in a new city now, there’s so many new restaurants and bars. I’d have to say I would head out to my favourite beach, New Brighton, get a coffee from Switch and then walk down towards the spit. Not many places in the world you can have the whole beach to yourself!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been writing a lot of music recently, just ideas for playing live or for future releases. I’m co-writing a track with fellow Hospital Records artist Danny Byrd – for what release we don’t know, we’re just having a bit of fun there. Sam is also writing a bit, and did some things with the Nextmen when we were in UK earlier this year – so we’re sending ideas around the group trying to figure out where the beast is going next.