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Shapeshifter: Insight into New Zealand’s drum and bass scene

By Dan Cole
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There’s definitely a discrepancy between the way drum & bass is produced and represented between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Acts from Australia have been pushing a live and interactive sound, expressing a more raw quality and added soul with the highest profile act to emerge for a while being three boys from Perth, Australia called Pendulum.

Originally on DJ Fresh’s label ‘Breakbeat Kaos’ and now on Warner, these guys have been touring the world with their live band.

Before Pendulum there was Concord Dawn, a new Zealand duo whose passion for rock music and drum & bass saw them hurtled into the international limelight with big tracks such as ‘Raining Blood’, and ‘Don’t Tell Me’.

A breeding ground for new up-and-coming and exciting drum & bass, New Zealand has been the hopes to internationally acclaimed producers such as State of Mind, Trei and Chook.

However, on the opposite spectrum to this harder-edged sound, Shapeshifter was spawned.

This soul / drum & bass live collective have already gone gold in New Zealand and recorded a live album with the Christchruch Symphony Orchestra. Shapeshifter’s most recent offering was picked up by Hospital’s Nu:Tone, who in turn roped in DBridge to remix the track and put it out on his own imprint Brand Nu Recordings.

Currently working on their latest album, Nick Robinson from Shapeshifter took the time away from howling and pushing buttons to talk to Beatportal about touring, falling down elevator shafts and the New Zealand drum & bass community.

So Nick, Australia and New Zealand seem to love their live drum & bass acts! There are especially more emerging from the southern hemisphere than there are from England right now. Why do you think that is?

Perhaps it’s just a case of the rest of the world finally turning their heads to see what’s down here.

And to fuel what talent there might be, there seems to be an incredible amount of support per capita for drum & bass.

I come from Christchurch in New Zealand and it’s not unusual to get a crowd of over 1,000 people to a drum & bass gig, and that’s in a city of 300,000.

Last time we played in Dunedin (population 80,000) we had over 2,500 and it was sold out weeks in advance.

That’s an incredible amount of support to base an overseas invasion on!

The world is electronically a small place now, so being in England isn’t as necessarily as it probably once was.

And it reflects…there are a lot of drum & bass artists from every corner of the world now.

You can write a track in your bedroom, send it away, have it pressed, and release it all from your bedroom studio.

What is it do you think that’s making New Zealand a hot bed for d&b at the moment as well?

It’s a really exciting, musically inspirational place.

New Zealand became a huge reggae nation in the ‘80s.

It was massive and it kind of carried on into the nineties with a strong dub following.

There were some influential local DJs like Pylon and D’erb from Christchurch and Presha from Auckland, who pioneered the hardcore into jungle movement and New Zealand lapped it up completely, laying the foundations for a drum & bass future!

When we first started making drum & bass, we were surrounded by bands like Fat Freddys Drop, Trinity Roots, Salmonella Dub, Pitchblack, and it was so influential to producers like us, and others like Concord Dawn and Bulletproof, who were starting out as well. 

It would in fact be unfair to classify your sound as solely d&b; do you find this constant sub-categorisation sets you back from what you want to achieve?

I’m not sure what we are trying to achieve.

We’ve always had a kind of strong philosophy with our band, we try to write good songs, and try to get better at writing them, and just concentrate on having a good time, have a good jam on stage, not care about making mistakes (yes, we all fuck up constantly but that’s all in good fun) and to have a good show.

I do think the pigeon hole thing might make some people not want to check us out if they don’t like drum & bass.

But we don’t think about that, about number one or chart success, or breaking the UK or America or any of that.

We just like music and we’re lucky enough, I guess, to have enough beautiful people around the world to be able to travel and spread our music around.

Are you finding it difficult to transport your sound across the world in the form of a live act?

Not at all, flying is always a drag though, especially for 22 hours!

Our whole crew is tight, so we have a lot of fun, the time of our lives really!

I would say 9-5 in the office would be way more difficult – for me anyway.

With the logistics of it all, we have Dexta and he can do anything, and he knows everything.

You can ask him any question ever and he’ll have an answer, some call him the ‘Fact Maker’,

You’ve played with everyone from Calibre through to Tool. Which crowds do you think have responded best to your sets?

They were both great gigs.

The Tool crowd was about 20,000 tool fans waiting to see them.

So we were completely shitting our selves…it was big time, even Chopper Read was there.

But the Tool guys were real nice, we went out for dinner, their shout, and the gig went well.

Justin Chancellor, Danny Kerry and his girlfriend were jumping round the side of the stage – they loved it.

Freaky shit, and the crowd liked it.

Calibre was great – we are all massive Calibre fans – and one day he turned up to our practice room, we all got way too stoned and played some terrible jam then had an awkward silence.

But the gig was madness, in Sydney I think at the Gaelic Club.

Sydney gigs are always quite epic; the best crowd ever would be either Christchurch Town Hall with the Symphony Orchestra in 2006 or in Auckland on that same tour.

Do you have any ultra memorable or funny touring stories you’d like to share?

There’s been a lot of crazy shit gone down over the years – people falling down elevator shafts; people being accidentally left in outback fishing shops, burnings of various flags, numerous ‘acid at the wrong time’ incidents, several accidentally trashed hotel rooms (it was the hotel’s fault).

Our lighting man – he is a hard case. He bought a goat once, put it someone’s room, then took all the light bulbs out.

That person got home—mmm no lights. And what’s this? A bunting goat.

The next night was the same, but with chickens.

Then the next night, no animals but he rigged the door up with string that was connected to all the pots and pans and bottles and yes, the victim came back and gently opened the door expecting a giraffe or something and everything fell down and made a shitload of noise. Ha ha.

And finally, apparently you’ve had tattoos done to represent the band and its members – how has that all come about?

No we didn’t, or not quite. A very dear friend of ours, Inia designed us a moko which represents us as Shapeshifter. The design appears on the cover of our ‘Shapeshifter Live’ album.

None of us have had the moko done, yet.