JONNINE STANDISH from HTRK on HOW IT ALL BEGAN and WHERE IT’S ALL GOING
stylist GIAN MANIK & RICARDA BIGOLIN
hair and makeup ROSE LETHO
assistant JORDAN HOURIGAN
As the singer of Australian post-punk band HTRK, Jonnine Standish has toured the globe multiple times, pocketing monumental experiences along the way. Inspired by dreams and the search for a higher self, Standish navigates her music projects with intense love and appreciation for what has been before and what is to come. “Every album is such a different snapshot into the strange chapters that we’ve lived,” she says.
In an interview with Annabel Blue, Standish talks us through her creative practises then and now, serendipitous encounters with life-changing individuals and HTRK’s plans to bring the band and the music scene in Melbourne back to a community-oriented state, rebirthing HTRK and revitalising their connection to music and audiences.
How did HTRK start, for those who don’t know?
Well, I guess the moral of the story is that if you spend every night for a year in one bar, you’re probably going to meet one person who can change your life. That’s what happened to me. I was living in a share house in Melbourne’s Prahran, and my flatmate ran the bar next door. I was there every day, and he’d slide me a glass of wine down the bar every time he saw me walk in. One night, Sean was in the bar; he was about 22 years old. He was wearing a pretty impressive dark grey linen suit. And he was on a really thick laptop, you know, drinking beer, but it looked like he was doing some coding or something in one of the booths of the bar. He was so striking to look at. Then my flatmate behind the bar, John, and I were like, “Who is that guy? He’s so beautiful.” And, a bit drunk at this point, I was like, “We have to meet him.” So I went over and said something like, “You’ve got a really beautiful side profile.” And he was like, What am I like from the front?” And I said, “Kind of mediocre.”
Yeah [both laugh]. And then we ended up chatting that night and asking each other a lot of questions and we really got along. And I asked him what he was doing on his computer and it turns out that he was a coder and also a musician. He told me that he was in a band called Hate Rock Trio. The band had been going for about a month. And I asked, “Who’s in the band?” And he said, “It’s me and one other guy Nigel.” And I found it so funny that there were only two people in this band called Hate Rock Trio. He really made me laugh with that. He said, “Well, actually, we’re looking for a third member right now, maybe that could be you.” And I was like, “Hey, I’ve never been in a band before. I can’t really do anything!” And he said that was perfect. “You’ll be like Alan Vega [from Suicide]."
So then you were in!
And so after that, things happened really quickly. He gave me a CD in the next couple of days that had a couple of really long-form jams. And I just had this feeling that there was some kind of divine intervention when I’d met Sean that night. And I agreed to be in the band. And I had to meet Nigel and go through a kind of application process. He had to give Sean the sign of approval. And then, we didn’t even know what I was going to do in the band. First, I was going to maybe be in control of the 808 drum machine and be a drummer, or maybe the percussionist. At the time, I was a designer and a visual artist. My experience with music was studying piano from the ages of eight to sixteen and being in the school recorder choir [laughs]. I never delved back into music again until meeting Sean.
So you ended up on bass and vocals in the beginning?
Yeah! I mean, I wasn’t really good at beats back then, so Sean or Nigel passed me the microphone. We were rehearsing three nights a week because we already had our first show coming up, which was on the eleventh of the eleventh in 2003. We had no idea what we were going to do, so we had this great deadline to prepare for. Once I picked up this mic that had loads of reverb on it, as you can imagine. I was making just tonal sounds with Sean and Nigel on bass and guitar and I felt like something took over me and there was no going back from that. At that point, I hadn’t even written any lyrics, but I just knew that this is what I was going to do. And I just had a feeling that I had found my calling. And we were so prolific and the chemistry between the three of us was supernatural.
I feel like you were on the back end of that golden era for being in a band. Now it’s almost a completely different landscape.
Yeah, it is. But what I love about playing music with Nigel now is that we still feel that way when we’re together. I think back then, with the three of us, and now with me and Nigel, we do really enjoy subverting the idea of a rock band. I really love the feeling of being with Nigel on stage. There’s something about our live shows and what we’re bringing that’s equally as important as our records.
Every time I’ve seen you play, you always maintain that electricity between the two of you. I remember before you played one night in the Ballroom to hundreds of people, the room went completely still. It was magic.
I must tell you that when we started out, things really weren’t like that at all! The crowds were really rowdy. We were the pretentious, obnoxious band on the block! We didn’t always have the silent and still audiences that we have now. So we’ve really had to work for it. Also, the bands around when we first started out were predominantly white men and groups of four guys. HTRK was louder than most of the other bands – Nigel’s guitar was piercing! People would be leaving the room with fingers in their ears, and they would be like, “Who is this girl moaning!?” And no one really looked like us back then, but times have completely changed – which is magnificent! We had a lot of obstacles when we were starting out as well. It was really, really hard for us to get a headline show. We were all the band’s favourite band. They’d always put us on first because it was, you know, a girl and two Asian kids! [laughs]. This was in Australia. But once we moved over to Berlin and London, things started to really change for us.
Yeah, what was your time like in Berlin and London? Because I feel like after seeing the images and all the music that came out of those moments when you were there, there’s sort of a distinctive sound.
I think the sound just changed. We were really influenced by bands like Suicide and how their live shows would almost be like a techno assault on the senses. With a charismatic front person like Alan Vega, it was almost like a religious experience. However, on their records, they’d be quite pop and almost sweet or charming. We were really inspired by that. And we thought that, in a way, the records don’t have to necessarily be exactly what you are; they can exist independently of each other. So our records became a little more pop, had a lot more restraint and embraced the idea of the pop song, or the soul of the song. Then that actually started filtering into our live shows. I guess, as we matured a little bit, we weren’t so interested in being as obnoxious or intense but actually wanted to have some different shades to the live show – moments of intensity and then moments of stillness. And Sean always used to describe back then as the ‘still dance’, which I always remember.
So how long were you all in Berlin? Did you move to Berlin to pursue music solely, or were you doing design work too?
We all quit our day jobs and became full-time musicians in the mid-2000s. We moved to Berlin for about a year and a half. And then we were in London for about five years. Berlin was a really unthought out time. I presented Sean and Nigel in a rehearsal one day with surprise tickets to Berlin! I didn’t even ask them, I just bought one-way tickets to Berlin on a credit card! The tickets were valid for six months. And so we had six months to pack up our whole lives and move over. And then we all moved to Kreutzberg! We were all living together for a while, which was chaotic. But yeah, we moved over in the Berlin summer and we had a great time. Every day there were blue skies, and we were riding around on bikes, and we got a great rehearsal room next door to Einstürzende Neubauten. They were actually rehearsing next door to us, if you can believe that, in the room next to us permanently! And coming from Melbourne, we just couldn’t believe the people that you could meet over there.
What was the music scene like back then for you all?
Well, it was actually the beginning of a lot of people becoming solo artists. And it was almost like the end of electro. There were also a lot of anarchists and punks. Compared to what it is now, Berlin was still pretty alternative, and really cheap. So it attracted a lot of experimental artists that we’d love going out to see, it was way different. Now Berlin has developed this sort of start-up culture and graphic designer culture. But back then it was quite wild and unhinged. The only issue was, it was actually impossible for us to sustain a living. We all were taking these random jobs – Sean became a foot model! Nigel was doing some kind of data entry work and I was waking up at 2 p.m then we all moved to London so we could actually get some more employment! And also just play more shows and things like that. There really wasn’t any money in playing live in Berlin back then. You know, you might play a festival for, like, €60 or something, but you’d be totally happy to play it. But we started to be able to make it work in London, and we stayed there for five years.
And did you guys have a recording studio there in London?
We did! Right next to London Fields. It had grey walls and carpet. Fluro lighting and was kind of like a dentist office! That was where we made Work (work, work) (2011).
It must have been great going back for the Pop Crimes Rowland S. Howard tribute tour!
Yeah! That was in 2020. We ended up playing at a sold-out show at Royal Festival Hall in London, which was really huge. I wish my dad was still around; he’d be quite happy about that. It was a thrill meeting Bobby Gillespie. He’s got such empathy and he’s so political, funny and grounding for us all. Backstage, he was one of the gang, and then as soon as he got on the stage, you’re like, Wow, you really are a pop star.”
Yeah, there were some pretty big names on that tour! You even had Lydia Lunch, Harry Howard, and your husband Conrad, right?
Yeah, Harry Howard, a local legend and good friend! I spent some time with Lydia Lunch. We shared a booth with her from Paris to London on the Eurostar. She’s super intelligent and also still completely wild. And again, on stage you witness a real pop star. Just the way her charisma can hold and captivate an audience. It’s amazing seeing people who have been doing it for thirty years or something like that. And also just the fact that there was so much love for Rowland as well. You know, what we all had in common was our love for him, and it was gorgeous. My husband Conrad Standish used to play in Rowland’s band, and was a dear friend of his. Conrad was the bass player and singer on that tour too. It was the first time Conrad and I had toured together in far too long. HTRK actually supported his band The Devastations in Berlin all that time ago!
How did you meet Rowland S. Howard?
Rowland was a solo artist back then, in the early 2000s. And we were all quite besotted with Rowland, as everyone in Melbourne was, really. He was a respected and enigmatic character on the scene. We supported him a bunch of times with HTRK. He would turn up for his headline shows and have everybody swooning, but we would never get a chance to talk to him, or we’d be too shy. Things were quite different back then. Compared to how people operate these days on social media – this ‘if you want something, you just go and get it’ attitude – back then you really had to let things come to you. We wanted to work with Rowland desperately, or we wanted to meet him, but we really just had to let him come to us. One really beautiful evening, we supported him in a club in Melbourne called Ding Dong Lounge. Rowland caught the last two songs and thankfully for us, he loved us. When we finished playing, myself, Sean and Nigel were all in the venue separately from each other and Rowland approached each one of us individually, and said, very coolly, that he loved our show and he’d like to produce our debut album!
Such a huge moment.
We all had this information separately from each other, and when the three of us were backstage, we all had the same news! We were so over the moon. That’s a moment I’ll never forget – we really had worked so hard, playing once or twice a week back then. And everyone just thought we were a noise band. But Rowland could hear the pop in our songs, which he wanted to extract and bring to the surface. Having someone that we admired so much being so interested in us gave us such a huge high. He then produced 'Marry Me Tonight' our debut album. We had three weeks together in the studio. Then with that album in hand, we scooted off to Europe. Rowland and I really clicked and had a fantastic friendship. And then myself and Sean returned from Europe to play on his song ‘I Know a Girl Called Jonny’, with Sean playing bass. We continued our friendship until Rowland left us, far too soon.
Regarding your music process, I remember reading once that you used to use alternative methods for lyric and music writing, like fasting. Is that right?
Back when we started, we were high a lot. It wasn’t a part of our process per se, it was just something that we did a lot of drugs early on. There were so many shows where we can hardly remember even being on stage. And you know, that was back in those days – bands are not really like that anymore. But that was just youthful behaviour, in a sense. But you do grow out of that kind of nihilistic nature. When it came to not being high on stage, it was really interesting to actually try and be more present in other ways – the complete opposite of what we did in the past, actually working with a lot of restraint. So it was about practising restraint. We were meditating and going on fasts, and then feeling different shifts in energy and consciousness and alertness. This was around the Psychic 9-5 Club (2014) days. I guess we were trying to find art movements for our basic desire to get healthy. After seeing firsthand and living through the tragedy of Sean dying, we had to learn to protect our mental health. And so we began going deep on body hacking and brain hacking and shifting into this other consciousness, and that’s how the Psychic 9-5 Club concepts began.
What was the idea around Psychic 9-5 Club?
It started off as a feminist theory. Imagine flipping everything that we knew back then about club culture. It’s at night, it’s darkly lit, there’s danger, you’re intoxicated, you’re making bad choices (a lot of the time). Sometimes you wake up and you can’t remember the night at all. You might have made some bad decisions, and you might have gotten yourself into trouble or embarrassed yourself. And that was the only club culture that we really knew. So we were trying to flip this completely, where the psychic nine-to-five club exists between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the day. It’s brightly lit, there’s restraint, you’re making great decisions, you’ve got a higher awareness for the music that you’re listening to, it affects you in a completely different way. And maybe you’ll make connections that are forever lasting, rather than fleeting. You can connect with friends over the music and you’re only drinking water with, like, added vitamins! We really got into the idea of limiting food intake, which is also sometimes like a mindless intoxication. By restricting our calorie intake, we were thinking, “What kind of food would be served at the Psychic 9-5 Club?” We were looking into smart drugs and micro-dosing and ’80s nouveau cuisine. Pastel colours rather than the red and green and blue rock and roll colours! It came from the trauma of losing Sean and trying to find ways where we could have the best mental health possible.
The shift in tone from your earlier albums like Work (Work, Work) to Psychic 9-5 Club was so substantial, you can really hear how much you were trying to move out of that dark place.
In hindsight, I don’t think we knew exactly what we were doing at the time. The album Work (work, work) was such a heavy album that I found myself concreted in grief, and I found myself quite sick mentally. With Psychic 9-5 Club it was like, Let’s flip everything we’ve ever known and see if we can kind of open a portal to life where we can become our higher selves. I feel like those two extreme albums kind of flipped each other, in a 180-degree turn. It took years for Nigel and myself to just sit still and work out who we actually were now. Our desire was really to make great songs. That’s where we started going with the writing of Venus in Leo (2019). We wanted to make meaningful songs that make you feel a whole spectrum of emotions, not just one thing. I feel like we’ve had some momentum with Venus and Leo, I feel like we’re finally getting to that place.
What are your intentions with making music, if any? Do you have milestones that you try to reach?
I think the beautiful thing about being a musician is that you always feel that your best work is just ahead of you. Nigel and I feel that, as much as we love our older songs and recognise who those people were, every album is such a different snapshot into the strange chapters that we’ve lived. We just feel that where we are at, or where we’re just about to go, is ‘it’, like this hand pushing you forward.
That’s an interesting analogy. Do you feel that way with your solo project?
It’s a completely different process and experience to HTRK. You can’t just smash out a song in HTRK. You can smash out a three-hour demo, but then there’s so much work behind each song and there’s so much thought and arrangement and editing. Something might sound really simple because it’s taken us months or a year to extract all the things that we feel are unnecessary. Each song needs to be set over a period of time, which is not to say that we might not completely change this process for the next album, but that’s where we are at the moment. But with my solo work, it’s the opposite. It’s super loose. I really am not as attached to any of the parts as I am in HTRK, and I pick up any instrument I can find, so it’s way more playful.
I heard that you’re really inspired by dreams when you’re making music, is that correct?
Yes, my lyric writing process has really changed over the years. I used to write a lot of bad poetry – I had to write things down. I never made notes in my phone. I had a pen and post-it notes with me at all times, even backs of receipts. Someone would say something and I’d be like … that was amazing. I just had lyrics stuck everywhere, in all these notebooks! However, I found that for the album Psychic 9-5 Club, I was more interested in melody and working with melody. So the melody would come first. And then I would back those melodies with lyrics. Because I wasn’t writing anything down, I was keeping a dream journal. Nigel got me a Dictaphone for my birthday. And even though I wouldn’t really revisit those recordings, just by waking up and reciting them verbally, I would have a better recollection of them.
How often do you dream?
I dream every night, and my dreams are highly symbolic. I can remember dreaming since I was three years old. When you’re in that flow zone, when you’re jamming, I’m just letting things come through me. A lot of concepts will be from what I have dreamt the night before or from dreams that I’ve had recently. And I think that actually came about strongly in Venus in Leo. There’s a song called ‘Dream Symbol’ about my family home, which we phootgraphed for the cover of that album. Most of the dreams I’ve had for about 20 years or something like that have had my family home as a location, in some form, and I’m kind of stuck there. Reading up on dreams, your childhood home is as symbolic as your body. When you think about how we set up our home spaces, it really is like the inside of your body, as well as a quiet tomb. I’ve always thought that we’re bringing all of our favourite things into this tomb, and the body and the tomb and the house are one. These kinds of ideas are definitely coming through in that particular song.
What’s on the horizon for you and Nigel and HTRK moving forward?
I found it really inspiring to think that we could all really focus on being local. We want it to be like, Hey, should we go get some Chinese food and watch that rock band that’s on tonight?! [Laughs] Back to street posters and things – like yeah, we just need to spend every waking moment running around the streets gaffer taping posters up! You know, rather than just one Instagram story, we’re going to go back to painting on the concrete!
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