Guitarist/producer Nigel Yang and drummer/vocalist Jonnine Standish find it difficult to verbalize their music: during a meandering Skype call from Melbourne, they point to a bunch of external touchstones, the most poignant of which is a poem by Dorothea Lasky that shares a name with one of their new tracks, “Feels Like Love.” The simplicity of the poem sticks in the mind long after our conversation: it’s a whisper of infatuation that climaxes with the feeble moan of “It just feels like love/ It really does/ I don’t know/ I must have said it all wrong.” The lines share an intangible quality with the music the Australian duo makes as HTRK (short for Hate Rock Trio): dubby, not-quite-love songs with sparse electronics that sink into your bones, but keep their secrets close. It’s not the message that’s crucial; it’s the mood.
HTRK is a group that grew out of instincts. Started by Yang and bassist/producer Sean Stewart back in 2003 with the intent of being a noise duo, they quickly found themselves traveling down a different path. Standish joined after meeting Stewart in a bar one night and finding it “dead funny” that he was in a band called Hate Rock Trio with only two members; instincts were all she had to go on, as her past musical experience began and ended with some childhood piano lessons. She says that early rehearsals with the band, during which she tried out different percussion to see what felt right and they recorded only in their memories, were something of a “spiritual experience.”
Six years of wandering, a relocation to London and an extended rights dispute followed before the trio’s debut album, Marry Me Tonight, finally saw release in 2009. All surly basslines and slow-motion pop hooks, with production from Birthday Party legend Rowland S. Howard, the album got them a following in the UK and set the tone for the even sludgier follow-up they’d already started working on. But everything changed in 2010, when Stewart committed suicide. From that point on, HTRK was Standish, Yang and what Yang calls the “deep influence” that Stewart left behind. “When someone dies, all the awful, earth-bound tension and negativity dissipates, so we’re left with a more essential presence of Sean, which was really life-loving and kind of joyous,” says Yang. That presence was the pulse of 2011’s Work (work, work) LP, which floated where Stewart’s basslines would once have prowled, but wove his demos and ideas into tracks that were, for Standish, “the hard work of the grieving process.”
Setting out to work on this spring’s Psychic 9–5 Club, out via Ghostly International, the duo were faced with the challenge of building a new sound from the ground up. “Without him bringing ideas to us, it was odd,” says Yang. “But only for a moment, because the possibilities of exploring more zoned-out spaces increased.” Recorded partly with Nathan Corbin of Brooklyn experimentalists Excepter in his Santa Fe studio, the new LP simmers but never boils, forming some of their most tantalizing work yet. Standish calls it an album of a “sticky and lilac mood”; Yang clarifies that it’s “the mood of being humid and really aware of your body.” It’s all deep, resonant bass and slowly unfurling intimacy, allowing new feelings to gradually bloom inside the spaces left by old ones. When asked how they see themselves moving forward from here, Yang pauses, wanting to get the words just right. “By standing closer together,” he says.