HTRK turn 21: ‘Whenever I met fans I could tell they were a bit shocked I wasn’t the gothic lord’

Estimated read time 7 min read

Few Australian bands have been as influential as HTRK: the Melbourne duo of Nigel Yang and Jonnine Standish, who have been performing underground music with their idiosyncratic mix of atmospheric electronic and guitar-based squall for the past 21 years. In that time, the duo has grown from playing loud, dirty early-aughts Melbourne clubs to touring the world multiple times, and collaborating with renowned musicians and visual artists. Last year, they got the ultimate stamp of approval: Arca, the doyenne of electronic music, posted a video singing along to their music.

They have also weathered the deaths of founding member Sean Stewart in 2010, and their friend and mentor Rowland S Howard, a year before, as well as the constantly shifting sands of the music industry. At 21, though, Standish and Yang seem sage and strong, godparents of a new generation of hazy ambient pop musicians that includes artists like Acopia and a.s.o. This birthday, Standish says, is a far cry from the 21sts she used to witness growing up in Moorabbin.

The band HTRK pictured in Temperance Hall. Jonnine Standish and Nigel YangView image in fullscreen

“The cops were always called, you kissed someone horrible – it was the dangerous birthday,” she says, smiling over Zoom from her Dandenong Ranges home. “It really did feel like a coming of age into a more dangerous adulthood.”

HTRK are celebrating their 21st with a full venue birthday party at Max Watt’s in Melbourne, as part of the Rising festival. The bill features young artists clearly following in HTRK’s footsteps (Astrid Sonne), some friends and collaborators (CS + Kreme with James Rushford, Pandora’s Jukebox) and the band themselves, who are indulging in a rare moment of self-reflection. “It feels quite poignant, only because we’ve made it so – even if we were turning 18 or 19, or 25, the number’s quite irrelevant,” Standish says. “We want to continue, we want to keep putting our best records in front of us, like anyone. It’s quite a strange moment to reflect – sometimes it can feel even a little bit dangerous, but I quite like that.”

It’s surprising HTRK avoid looking back given how much they’ve changed over the course of their career. Their early-2000s output was defined by aggressive, guitar-driven noise, which was matched in spirit by Standish’s haunted, brazenly sexual lyrics. Their 2014 record Psychic 9-5 Club was a shift into sparse, gelatinous electronic music; they switched gears again with 2019’s Venus in Leo and 2021’s Rhinestones, which explored guitar-based balladry inspired by indie rock and country.

Their most recent reinvention, says Yang, was a direct response to touring Psychic. “It sounds kind of simple, but after touring with synths and focusing on the sampler, it’s just a lot of knob twiddling,” he says, Zooming from a bench in Carlton. “That experience is unfulfilling compared to an instrument that can resonate on your body – when you’re playing guitar, it’s vibrating against you, and that’s a really satisfying experience. There’s so much more randomness.”

Plus, both Yang and Standish like bucking expectations. “I definitely get a kick from surprising people with what we come up with next,” Yang says.

The band HTRK pictured in Temperance Hall. Jonnine Standish and Nigel YangView image in fullscreen
  • Sign up for the fun stuff with our rundown of must-reads, pop culture and tips for the weekend, every Saturday morning

You get the sense, too, that the varied nature of HTRK’s output over the past 21 years has been, at least in part, an attempt to show off all the facets of the pair’s personalities. “When we started out, our music was darker, tonally, and whenever I met fans I could tell they were a bit shocked that I wasn’t the gothic lord,” Standish says. “I’ve even had people question my musical expression, 15 years ago, thinking that I must be putting on a darker front. I don’t get comments like that any more – I think people know that your art can represent a certain side of yourself that’s really important to you, which holds things like loss and grief and pain and romance and drama, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have other sides.”

HTRK certainly faced far more critique in the early days. “‘Polarising’ was a word we heard a lot,” Standish says. “Within those negative comments, we’d have people obsessed with us, and an optimist as I am, I would hang on to that and ride with some of the deep love we would get.

The band HTRK pictured in Temperance Hall. Jonnine Standish and Nigel YangView image in fullscreen

“At the same time, we were called pretentious and obnoxious and miserable and gothic and too loud, all that kind of stuff. But some other people – probably people we’d slept with – thought we were really fantastic. And then some people we really admired, like Rowland S Howard, thought we were fantastic. His belief in us is one of the really strong reasons why me and Nigel might exist today.”

When they were young, HTRK were “quite raw”, and “had no idea of what it meant to really communicate our ideas”, Yang says. “Over the years, you realise how much better at communicating music you can become,” he says. “That’s one of the most gratifying things about being in a musical project for many, many years. When we’ve released something that I feel like we’ve tried to have the most honest and direct path of communication to an audience, it’s blatantly clear that it connects most deeply with people. Gone are the days of putting up a front through noise and attitude.”

HTRK’s songs to live by

Each month, we ask our headline act to share the songs that have accompanied them through love, life, lust and death.

What was the best year for music, and what five songs prove it?

Jonnine and Nigel: 1977 was great but we are going to go with 2024: Celestial Dogs by the Lewers, The Candy House by Kim Gordon, wicked dreams by Klein, Easy Rider Geneva Heat by Lolina and no sleep deep risk by Still House Plants.

What’s the song you wish you wrote, and why?

Jonnine: Wicked Game, the perfect crush song with the perfect voice break.

Nigel: There is something about “Der Glumph went the little green frog” that I envy.

skip past newsletter promotion

What is the last song you sang in the shower?

Nigel: It is not really something I do, I actually come up with drum beats in the shower.

Jonnine: I sing in the shower all the time – last song was something cheesy by Miley Cyrus.

What is the song you have listened to the most times this year?

Nigel: Deftones – Digital Bath.

Jonnine: Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand.

What is your go-to karaoke song, and why?

Nigel: Rihanna – Rehab. Fun to sing, doesn’t take much to coerce me into a duet.

Jonnine: The only karaoke song I’ve ever sung is REM – Losing My Religion – in London in the late 90s, drunk with my sharehouse. It’s dramatic and in my register.

What is a song you loved as a teenager? Tell us about it?

Jonnine: Malcolm McLaren’s Deep in Vogue: my entry into club culture before raves. Doc Martens, 501s, stripy French crop tops, sweet apple perfume and practising dance moves in my bedroom mirror.

Nigel: Weezer’s Say it Ain’t So. I learned the guitar part, impressed who I needed to impress!

What is the best song to have sex to, and why?

Jonnine: The Nutcracker Suite, because there is a dance element.

  • HTRK 21st birthday will be held at Max Watt’s in Melbourne on 8 June, as part of Rising festival’s Day Tripper event

  • See more from our Headline Act series


You May Also Like

More From Author