Tone Glow 079: HTRK
An interview with Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang of the Melbourne-based band HTRK
HTRK is a Melbourne-based band that formed in 2003. Their debut release, Nostalgia, was released in 2005 and their follow-up, 2009’s Marry Me Tonight, was co-produced by the Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard. Their 2011 album Work (work, work) would be the last to feature direct contributions from founding member Sean Stewart, who passed away in 2010. Their sound, which began as cavernous industrial post-punk eventually transformed into a more forthrightly sensual ambient pop, as seen with Psychic 9-5 Club and Venus in Leo. Their latest LP, Rhinestones, is released on their new imprint called N&J Blueberries and takes influence from rhinestone transfers, gothic country, and more. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Nigel Yang and Jonnine Standish on September 7th, 2021 via Zoom to discuss Stewart and Howard, their latest LP, and the importance of not mastering your craft.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: My favorite line on the album is from “Fast Friend” when you sing, “With so many red flags, just makes you seem interesting.” So I have to ask, when you consider the history of your life and the people you’ve been attracted to, romantically or otherwise, what is a red flag you’ve found yourself drawn towards?
Jonnine Standish: I have to premise this conversation by saying that in my life, I’ve been quite drawn to people who are quite toxic. That’s where that line comes from. I’ve had a curiosity for people whose stories don’t add up, where other people around me will be like, “Jonn, that person is so full of shit, have nothing to do with that person.” And in my brain I think, I need to know more (laughter). I’m getting a lot better with making sure that the people in my life don’t have any red flags.
I think another red flag would be… it’s a bullying tactic, or an emotional manipulation tactic—you’ll get high compliments followed by a passive-aggressive quip, so you’re always wanting the high or the dopamine of the compliment, and you have to get through a lot of passive-aggressive knocks to your confidence to get that hit. And then the next thing you know you’re in a cycle of submissive and dominant personalities. I don’t know if that rings true but it’s a real bullying tactic to give someone a hit of dopamine and then take it away.
Yeah, I think that’s totally true. I think the reverse is also true, where someone says something negative to you and then follows it up with sweet compliments. Like, a guy will say terrible things and then say “I love you” to their partner, and that “I love you” is just a way to feel like they can erase everything that was just said.
Jonnine Standish: That’s a good point because I think it’s human nature to really hang onto the negative for survival rather than the positive. A good review will make you feel good for an hour, you’ll have coffee and then high-five yourself, but a bad review you’ll sit around and think about it for ten years. And that’s because we’ve had to survive… if there were these beautiful butterflies and one lion, you should focus on the lion. That’s where I think it comes from (laughs).
Nigel, do you have any red flags you’ve been drawn to?
Nigel Yang: Yeah, I like really dodgy people (laughter). I’ve lived with a few. When looking for housemates, I’ll be looking for someone to fill a room and I’ll choose a person—and I did choose the person—who, instead of a 10-minute normal house interview, stayed for six hours and brought a cask of wine, some joints, and went on a mini bender. That didn’t seem like a red flag to me, that just felt like someone fun to live with. And even when that person stole and hawked my 4-track recorder at the pawn shop to support a drug habit, I still had a great time with him. There are various people in my life I like because of that little sense of danger. My upbringing felt calm and secure, and my temperament is quite grounded, so I really like people who are a little tweaked.
Do you two ever feel like you’ve been a toxic person in other people’s lives?
Jonnine Standish: What a great question.
Nigel Yang: I would say no. What do you think Jonn?
Jonnine Standish: I’m just going deep into every relationship I’ve ever had, friendship or otherwise, like an acquaintance I’ve met on the dancefloor. I think I might’ve been toxic at times? I think it comes down to, if you’re not liking yourself, you’re gonna be toxic to others. I have had some periods in my life during my early-20s or even mid-20s when I was floundering with love for self and I think that I was quite toxic to others around me. But other than that, other than a couple little moments, I would say no as well.
Jonn, when we were DMing on Twitter, I was talking about my students’ parents, and you thought I was talking about my own parents.
Jonnine Standish: Yeah, you mentioned deleting a tweet because you didn’t want parents to see, and I thought you meant your own parents.
And there was something you said that struck me, and I think it’ll resonate with people. Are both of your parents—
Jonnine Standish: Yes, both of my parents have died.
You said, “No one tells you it’s liberating.”
Jonnine Standish: No one says that. I mean, they don’t tell you that the day after your father dies, but maybe like a couple of years later (laughter). But it’s something that I haven’t seen much discussion about. It’s a disaster losing your parents. You go through a bunch of different feelings, like feeling like a child and feeling ungrounded. It’s terrifying, actually. However, when you get through that, and find yourself as a stable adult, you feel liberated, like oh my god, I could do anything and not shame my parents. I can say anything in any interview, I can sing any kind of lyrics, I can run through the neighborhood naked and take a shit in the middle of the road and I will not shame my parents. And it’s such an unbelievable feeling. I was really close to my parents and they were really supportive of me, and I still felt this liberation. I felt like a warrior.
Were there things you ended up doing because of this newfound freedom, or was it just the idea of knowing it that felt important?
Jonnine Standish: Well, I haven’t done anything other than what is authentically myself. It just so happens that I don’t feel the need to be that rebellious, but I am unmoderated and that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are all these crazy things I wanna do. It [takes on] a far more subtle form. I told Nigel this too recently, but I did this interview with Steph Kretowicz for AQNB and I mentioned that my mother was suicidal. I went into this deep shame after the interview, that my mother would hate that, and I had to see a medium to talk to my mother and make sure that was okay. And so I guess what I’m saying is that you’re never really off the hook from your parents (laughs). But for the most part, you are.
Hearing all this is interesting because Nigel, I know you mentioned how friendship was a “central muse” for Rhinestones. Something I think about a lot is the notion of entering into a relationship and how that leads to being tethered to someone else. Friendship is this complex and beautiful thing, you can feel sort of bound to them, and there’s an ostensible loss of freedom—which I guess is independence—because you can feel a responsibility to this other person.
Nigel Yang: Through writing an album, friendship becomes so strong that it’s telepathic. With regards to friendships outside of each other, speaking for myself, a lot of my friends and our connections were made really strong in my 20s. And now, I can go a year without speaking to a friend but then when speaking to them again, it’s like that year of absence never happened. The connections are amazing and are extremely low maintenance. I think that’s what I really like about the friends that I’ve made, and the friend that I hope to be—one that is really low maintenance.
Jonnine Standish: That really resonated with me Nigel.
Nigel Yang: I really feel for people who have high-maintenance friends because I would find that really distressing. Right now I’ve got about five friends who have all of a sudden emailed me from different cities and I’m feeling this responsibility to maintain the connection. I’ve been putting off writing some emails because it’s a big investment in energy to write a decent one, so today is my day to get back to people I’ve been neglecting for weeks. It really weighs on you. One friend wrote a tome about his past six months, his ups and downs, and I really need to respond (laughs). Friends have been amazing through this time, and that’s something that I was really feeling while writing this record.
Jonnine, did you want to add anything regarding your own experiences?
Jonnine Standish: I think we’ve all had a couple years reflecting on every friend we’ve ever made, every argument we’ve ever had, maybe every lustful experience, all the revenge we never got to take out on people. I’ve had enough time to think about high school friends I never even saw again. With this album and in writing with Nigel, and feeling the telepathy between the two of us—some of our similar experiences as well, like walking the streets in London with best friends, there are all sorts of double-ups on the album for me and Nigel. Lyrically, it’s really heavy that Nigel could’ve written a lot of these lyrics as well. I feel like it’s a combined experience, and I think that’s the difference of an experience of being in a band that’s a duo. It’s not that it’s so self-referential, it’s almost like we’re referencing the two of our lives combined sometimes. And we’ve had so much time together that it’s so easy to do. I feel that this album has all sorts of color—the color of friendships ranging from the toxic to the positive.
I wanted to ask a question that I always ask bands—do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourselves and then each other?
Jonnine Standish: Well we were prepared for this question, and we’ve both got a really long list (laughter). Nigel, do you want to go first?
Nigel Yang: About ourselves or about each other?
Jonnine Standish: About ourselves.
Nigel Yang: Then no, I don’t want to go first (laughter). I’ve dreaded this question.
Jonnine Standish: Every time I go first you better what I do. You always make me go first and then I look like an idiot (laughter). Alright, I’ll go first. I really love my ability to problem solve and never give up, which comes from playing tennis from 8 to 16—I was a competitive tennis player. My father taught me to consciously lose five-love, and come back and win. And from that, I really never give up most of the time, and I really love that about myself. And also my competitiveness.
Nigel Yang: Alright Joshua, you go next (laughter).
I think I understand how to make people feel comfortable, or at least understand what I can do in a situation to help people feel more safe or secure. I’m pretty self-deprecating—I can easily talk about how many things I’m bad at—but I do think that’s something I’m good at.
Jonnine Standish: I quite like that. I like humble people very much. Okay Nigel, you’re up.
Nigel Yang: I find this question so difficult, practically impossible to answer. I have been known to walk out of job interviews when asked questions that make me feel uncomfortable. Like, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be.” I just had to walk straight out (laughter).
So is this you appreciating that you don’t have to kowtow to other people?
Nigel Yang: Yeah, you’ve turned my non-answer into an answer. I could run with that. More and more from having a family to look after, I’m appreciating my ability to look after things, after people. It’s a pretty hard job, and when you’ve got seven plates spinning and you’re managing to keep it all together, it can be really gratifying when you’ve averted disaster and have kept everyone emotionally sound. It’s a pretty nice thing. One thing I think I love about both of us is that we have a sense of dedication to the band and to the project that has carried on far beyond any future projection we might’ve had when we started out. There’s that unspoken dedication to what we’re doing, and that’s something I really love.
Do you mind sharing one thing you specifically love about Jonnine?
Nigel Yang: Yeah, there’s a lot that Jonn’s taught me. It’s this very particular approach to life and other people that’s hers and hers alone. It seems to be devoid of any tension or overthinking. It’s “going with the flow” as a central tenet. Being able to do that is a really powerful thing.
What do you mean that it’s hers and hers alone?
Nigel Yang: It’d be hard to really pull it apart. After so many years it’s… I don’t know if I could put it into words. She mentioned that she’s good at problem solving—it’s how these problems are solved, how conflicts are dealt with, how ideas are imagined. It’s how they come about that is inspiring to me. We’ll often say, when posed with a problem, that we’ll sleep on it. And that might sum up how we go about things. We won’t let out things verbally as much as just trust that a little bit of time will help solve whatever it might be, and that surrendering to the flow of time is a special thing when you’re in a band and have numerous problems both creatively and also more everyday stuff. Just letting things take their course, and not rushing things, is part of our approach in general.
Jonnine Standish: That was really interesting to hear Nigel. The way we problem solve together, it really is just, “We don’t have to solve this today.” What I love about Nigel is his integrity. He has actually taught me a lot about not making things live until we both feel we have a certain integrity. Left to my own devices, I would have a lot less integrity (laughs). Nigel is my teacher there. Also, I’m such a classic libra that I do have the ability to work with Nigel and wait for things to be balanced and ready, but back to Nigel and not myself.
There are two things that stand out. The first is how nurturing Nigel is. Even before Nigel had a large family, he is that person who would make you a nutritious meal, a cup of tea, and be an excellent sounding board for whatever was the problem in your life. I can’t even say uncle or auntie… it’s almost like a wise shaman. A man of very few words… you would turn to Nigel for advice, nutritious food, and some really soothing music. So very nurturing by nature. And also, he’s absolutely hilarious. One of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. I don’t even know if Nigel knows that about himself, but his quick wit and dry sense of timing is up with the best.
Nigel, do you have any comments?
Nigel Yang: If I have anything to say, it would not be about my sense of humor (laughter). These are such vague thoughts but integrity is an interesting quality to think about, because what a lot of people our age—and younger—are about is understanding how existence is so compromised ethically. You have to choose, consciously, where you want to have integrity. You can’t have it across the board because of corporations and societal structures pulling you in a way that is complicit in a lot of unethical things. Trying to maintain that is a challenge, and being fully aware of that—to be aware of your trappings and what’s making you lose your integrity—is an interesting influence on creativity.
How has that played out in your music over the years?
Nigel Yang: Even such basic stuff as consumerism or taking drugs or smoking or eating meat—all these sorts of things and the choices you make, and thinking about how that feeds into the music you make. I feel like we’re very aware of all the choices that we make in life. When I listen to other people’s music, I often think about their choices, even spiritually, or how much luxury they need in their life, or how much they spend. I feel all these things are really easy to hear in people’s music. That puts artists on this amorphous spectrum for me.
Jonnine Standish: I remember once you said, Nigel, that you don’t like hearing the ambition in someone’s music. Can you remember that?
Nigel Yang: Yeah.
Jonnine Standish: That’s really stayed with me. And I’ve been able to hear how much a person wants it in their music. How much that person wants fame, or wants the things around music that’s not necessarily the song.
Nigel Yang: Ambition needs to be defined now, because I just read that interview you did, Joshua, with Graham Lambkin. For him, it’s interesting how it’s been “ambition over ability.” For him, ambition was a positive thing, but when Jonn and I talk about it, we mean we can hear production choices or performance styles being ruined by overambition. Which would mean a commercial success, I suppose, as opposed to just wanting to succeed in ways that aren’t commercial.
Jonnine Standish: It might be inauthentic production choices.
Inauthentic as in, choices that the artist wouldn’t have made had they known they were trendy?
Jonnine Standish: Yeah.
So I’m wondering where you two see yourselves on this amorphous continuum, then. Do you often think about how your music is presenting yourselves as people?
Nigel Yang: Yeah, first and foremost I would say. The production is quite important because it’s always about where you decide to cater to the listener or not. For any record, you’re kind of aware of the production style of the music that’s out there at the moment, and it’s where you position yourself to that, and it can be closer or further away. Every record is a negotiation of what the production is going to say about us at that time. We have that intention, but then after the record’s out, we might see a disconnect between our intention and how it’s being received, or in hindsight I might think I’m making a hi-fi, banging mix but then a year later I’m like, “this is the most lo-fi, shitty mix.” (laughter). So there’s that to complicate things as well.
We’re limited in our technical prowess for production, and that’s something we’ve had to take on board because we find it hard to trust producers or mixing engineers. I think the mix engineer is more important than a producer for our music. So taking on the mix ourselves, there are limitations there but we’re thinking of how hi-fi or lo-fi to make certain sounds and the overall picture, and how much enjoyment can be taken from the choices that we’ve made.
Jonnine Standish: Sometimes it’s not even a spoken language between myself and Nigel regarding the mixing of our music. We both have a conscious idea of what is happening currently, and what sounds are really cool and of-the-moment, but myself and Nigel have always felt like outsiders. We’ve been so othered and have had such a feeling of being outsiders over the course of years making music that we feel comfortable not making music in a current space, and feeling authentic to our own space. And that’s something we’re navigating without overtalking about it. How that develops in reality, how it manifests itself, is how intimate or produced a song might feel. Is it closer to the demo? Is it feeling more polished? And that navigation is something we feel out by gut instinct.
This is a bit of a tangent but one thing I think propels myself and Nigel forward—and it only really came to me about a week ago—is the thing we haven’t mastered in HTRK. We still have so many versions for each song, and we’re still navigating the space of overproducing and overthinking, and a lot of the time we’ll go back to a demo that’s more intimate or conceptually more pure. Something that people might forget is that not mastering certain parts of your craft propels you forward. The wanting to master something is so important that maybe it’s something you should never do. Already I’m thinking, oh, I can’t wait to work with Nigel to improve on this idea. But I felt if we nailed that on Rhinestones, I might just sit back, roll a joint, and forget about music. The “not mastering” of something is actually a blessing.
Nigel Yang: Jonn’s right—that’s a really crucial thing for us. So much of the creative process for us is figuring out how developed or not a song needs to be, how much shape and polish and structure it needs.
Jonnine Standish: What version, what guitar take, what vocal take. For example, the song “Valentina” on our new album had as many versions as a Velvet Underground track (laughter).
Nigel Yang: There were some with a beat, some not, etc.
Jonnine Standish: The version we have on there is a very effortless version, but I call it “exhaustive effortlessness,” if there’s something like that.
Nigel Yang: It feels likes a waste of time with how much we go in and try to better it and better it, and then go back to a very early version. And that’s possibly very normal but we’ve never sat in the creative process for other artists. It might not be something special but for us it’s a really big element of what we’re doing. “How can we make that more efficient?” We thought we were, but this album had an incredible amount of versions and permutations of songs, and we know we’re going to come back to these particular versions, but it’s irrepressible… this addiction to making more and more versions (laughter).
Jonnine Standish: We’ve literally done, like “let’s try it one BPM faster” or “I’ll have a different persona for my voice.” Like, “I’ll do a posh vocal, or a dramatic vocal.” We actually talk like this (laughter). It is quite exhaustive, and you do find yourself a bit ungrounded at times, and it is definitely somewhere we can improve, but maybe this is just our way.
Nigel Yang: Yeah, and it’s when you’re producing yourself—I mean, it’s a producer’s role to be like, “Hey, you can stop there, that’s it.”
Jonnine Standish: In fact, that’s what Rowland S. Howard [of The Birthday Party, who produced HTRK’s 2009 album Marry Me Tonight] was like. He would stop the hundred wasted versions that came after the song.
I did want to ask about him. Do you two mind sharing any stories that come to mind about him? And this can be when he was working as your producer or just in general.
Nigel Yang: I’ll go first because Jonn knew him much, much better than me as a friend. Rowland is another example of someone who’s aware of their trappings, perfectly symbolized by him walking up to the studio with a bright blue Powerade drink every day. It’s like a John Waters approach to life, like embracing trash as a culturally enriching thing. That was a really cool thing that Rowland brought to the world, just having fun. He would do things in his life that initially would seem like a mismatch with your idea of this romantic, gothic guitar hero. He would collect these cute figurines. There were these strange little things that broadened his aesthetic, which seemed so defined to me before ever meeting him. Understanding that he was bringing in this element of cuteness, and that he was fully aware of how substance abuse may play into someone’s life, I thought that was really complex and super inspiring.
Jonnine Standish: I love what you said about Rowland, Nigel. It’s how I try to live my own life as well—surprising people’s expectations of you. And without thinking about it, it’s such an intrinsic part of how Rowland has inspired me to leave people feeling that, on meeting you, the fact that you’re wearing what you’re wearing or what you’re into is really unexpected.
Nigel Yang: Going against type is a really great thing.
Jonnine Standish: That has inspired ourselves as a band too with the music we make, with each album, surprising people a little bit. Can you rephrase the question a little bit?
With his absence, what do you feel is now missing in your life?
Jonnine Standish: I’ve had a lot of people—very close family members and friends—die before their time. More and more it feels like every day, your Instagram and Twitter feed is swamped with artists you respected who’ve died. A lot of times, when people die you might say a 10-second prayer and might not think about them again, even people you really admired. But with Rowland, I think about him every day. There’s something about him and his presence—he’s almost a religious figure, or a real angel of sorts. Everything I do musically, I check in with him in a really pleasurable way where we have a bit of a laugh together; whether it’s the sentiment of the song or the lyrics, I’m always checking in with him.
In a roundabout way to answer your question, I really feel the absence of having someone to share my ideas with. As Nigel said, he was a hero, but he made everyday people like myself feel like equals, and that’s something I have so much gratitude for. He taught me a lot about, and I mentioned this before, this humble nature. He had a lot of pride—he knew how good he was—but he also had a very humble nature that allowed me to tell him my ideas and he would be as interested in my ideas as Nigel. And I now have that relationship with him in a more psychic way.
Here’s an anecdote: When he met his future girlfriend, Rowland was having a cigarette after a solo show outside and a young drunk fangirl interrupted his conversation gushing, “Excuse me, can I just tell you that you are the best person in the world!” Rowland charmingly replied, “Well I don’t know about that,” and the fangirl rephrased, “Well you are the best fucking guitarist in the world!” Rowland replied, “Thank you.”
You guys mentioned this idea of playing against type. Obviously there have been stylistic shifts over the years, and part of that came with Sean Stewart’s passing [in 2010]. If you’re comfortable sharing, I’m wondering how it’s been, being in a band together with it now more than a decade since his passing. Do you have any musings about his passing, what he meant to you, what he meant to the band? And how have you all grappled with that in the past decade?
Jonnine Standish: Sean is also very much still part of the band, and will be forever. Even when I picked up bass guitar a couple years ago, I asked Sean’s permission if it were okay that I picked up this instrument. I lit a candle and asked for him to come into my body and make me a sexy, badass bass player. And then I realized that I hadn’t let him go and I had a different attitude as I was interacting with people, and I had to be like, “Okay, get out!” (laughter). He was a bit naughty and a bit cheeky.
Sean was danger. He was the epitome of that line, “With so many red flags, just makes you seem interesting.” As in, he was drawn to danger one hundred times more than myself and Nigel. Even if we write the sweetest songs with the sweetest lyrics and the sweetest sound, there will still be subliminal danger in there, and that’s Sean.
Nigel Yang: As each album goes, his thoughts on what we’re doing become less. Making Work (work, work) obviously still felt like making an album with him, like him as a ghost. Psychic 9-5 Club felt like a massive departure sound-wise, and the idea was [that there’d be] no basslines, although some basslines still crept in with the synth parts. We weren’t gonna try and fill his presence, we wanted to leave a gap there, and that gap has stayed, in a way, in memoriam. And when I hear a bass, like when Conrad [Standish, of CS + Kreme] played [on “Real Headfuck”], there is something that goes off in me like, hold on, there should be a gap there—there shouldn’t be a bass part there. It’s a great bassline, but in general there is a freedom of not being tethered to a bass guitar part and creatively challenging ourselves to see where we can go.
When Sean was in the band, the basslines were so central in that they were the song. He would have to bring it to the band, mostly; there was a lot on his shoulders. Without that, it really shook up our creative process. As each album goes, we’re getting more and more settled in that dynamic between just the two of us. The other thing that made him quite different from Jonn and I was that he was staunch, almost rigid about not trying to incorporate too many styles or genres. He was very much like, this is it, we know what we’re doing, this is our essence. Jonn and I are a bit more fluid and we’ll take on different genre tropes, or play around with genre in a way that he might not have agreed to or want to be a part of. I wonder sometimes if he’d been alright with playing around with country music or whatever. There’s no doubt that our style would’ve been much different had he stayed with us. His influence now is more of this spectral, ghostly thing that’s part conceptual, part emotional. I feel like we’re really on our own path with that presence always there.
Your new album is on a new label, N&J Blueberries. What was the reason for this new label starting up? And where does the name come from?
Jonnine Standish: I was reminded of a memory today because I didn’t even realize Work (work, work) was released 10 years ago yesterday, except a lot of fans got in contact with us on Instagram and we got a lot of love. It reminded me that with Work (work, work), we were considering making that a self-release for a moment. It felt like such a private record. Nigel, do you remember how we thought we might release it on CD to 100 VIP fans from our website, yourcomicbookfantasy? We’ve always had a bit of a DIY aesthetic but instead, we went in kind of the opposite direction—we signed to a big American label, Ghostly, and did everything in a bigger way and got a lot of love and support. However, we’ve always been interested in the idea of being more independent.
Nigel Yang: It was a strange one because Ghostly did give us a lot of free reign; it’s not like they constricted us in any way creatively. “Do what you want, make a video for whatever song you want.” There was no pressure there, so our relationship with them is still great. The reason that this album came out on a label that we started up was because of timing. This album was commissioned by a local arts council here and their timeline meant that there was no way that a label like Ghostly, who needs like a 6-month lead time, could put it out. It was just a good opportunity for us to try our hand at releasing it, and the name’s just a bit of a laugh.
Jonnine Standish: Nigel texted me with an image from a fruit company, which was a logo on a punnet of strawberries. The logo was “N&J Strawberries” and Nigel said “our new label lol” and I texted back “lol I love it.” And we were gonna be called N&J Strawberries and then for legal reasons we had to change it to N&J Blueberries (laughter).
Nigel Yang: Really original thinking and story there. That kind of shows how seriously we’re taking this label business (laughter). No one should sign to this label.
Jonnine Standish: And we leaked the album too.
I did want to ask about the Rhinestones cover. I know on Twitter, Jonn, you mentioned that you were inspired by “religious and soccer mum rhinestone transfers.”
Jonnine Standish: Yeah, I think that the gothic part of the country music we were interested in was almost the religious nature of a lot of country music, thinking about spirituality, “I am a bad person,” the devil and angels, and the love of Jesus. A lot of rhinestone transfers [fall into] two genres: soccer mum, and highly religious, with phrases like “Not today, Satan,” or “Recharge” with a Bible that has a USB port (laughter). Myself and Nigel collected hundreds of these transfers and were trying out all different things. It took us a while to come up with the simplistic title of Rhinestones. At one point we were considering calling it Sunlight Feels Like Bee Stings, but that got a thumbs down from everyone we know (laughter). We were pushing into that teenage, gothic country lyricism. We fell in love with these graphics and what we’ve done with the artwork is taken this highly bling imagery and made it super dusty, and almost ghost-like with the baby blue. There’s no sparkle at all. It literally is like a haunted country interpretation.
How’d you initially find these rhinestone transfers? Were you looking them up for any reason?
Jonnine Standish: No, I didn’t look them up. It might’ve been when I was doing an Insta lurk on Josh T. Pearson. He has a couple albums that have some devastating, religious, gothic country songs. So I think it was a jump-off from a lurk that led me to these images, and then I did the soccer mum thing and got a Pinterest account together (laughter).
I need to see this!
Jonnine Standish: Okay, I’m gonna make it live. At the moment it’s private and has only been shared with Nigel, but I’ll make it live publicly.
Amazing. I did want to ask about the song “Gilbert and George”—is that a reference to the performance artists?
Jonnine Standish: When we lived in East London, there was this Turkish restaurant just up the road on Kingsland Road, and we would see them in the window literally every night. Me and Nigel both lived in different apartments on Kingsland Road, and so it is literally referencing the artists, Gilbert and George, and one time I ran in with a book—a big coffee table art book—called Gilbert & George and got them to sign it for our tour manager who was also named George (laughter). That book is looking at me when me and Nigel jam—I bought one for myself. A lot of lyrics are actually coming off the bookshelf, and Gilbert and George, looking at their book jumped me into East London and the memories of that.
Is there something that you wanted to talk about in this interview that we didn’t get to?
Jonnine Standish: I feel like the interview got started with the question you usually end with.
Yeah, sometimes I have it near the beginning if I feel like it’s a good time to insert it.
Nigel Yang: In the past, I did want to get asked about the technical side of everything, but that would be for an audio technology magazine and not so much a cultural publication like yourself. So nothing that I want to add particularly.
Jonnine Standish: Hmm, no. I really enjoyed your questions, and I really appreciated that you didn’t ask how a city defines the band’s sound. We actually have a walk-out policy for that particular question.
Is that something you two have been asked constantly?
Jonnine Standish: Yeah, for about 20 years (laughter). I think you have a fantastic style [of interviewing] because you’re in the moment.
I try not to prepare much for interviews to force that.
Nigel Yang: I really do enjoy reading a lot of the interviews on your site. The Terre Thaemlitz one was a great one, and the Annea Lockwood one. Have you read Kristine McKenna’s book of interviews [Book of Changes]?
I actually purchased it because you mentioned it in your interview with Corrigan. I like his interviews a lot too.
Nigel Yang: That book just makes me think of how good interviews can be; they’re a favorite format of mine to read. I love BOMB Magazine interviews; if it’s an interview, I’ll read it. I think Tone Glow’s got a very particular style which is really great. It’s all the stuff in the periphery, all the banal stuff that’s mentioned throughout, at the beginning particularly. It draws you in, in the same way that intros for songs draw you in and then it’ll change into something more developed, and a lot of times for songs it’ll turn into something unlistenable. But that feeling of things finding their shape—you’ve somehow managed to keep that element throughout the interview, which is nice.
Thanks for saying that, that means a lot. I think a lot about how I want my interviews to feel and be presented. It’s always the most satisfying thing for me to see a throughline form even when we’re not talking about an album. I mean, we didn’t talk about Rhinestones much, but understanding you both a little more as people will provide a deeper experience of the album when I go and revisit it. To me, people ask too many specifics, which can ruin the magic of music, and I find a lot of that antithetical to why I think music is so wonderful in the first place—the openness to interpretation, the process of it revealing itself to you over time and repeated listens, the notion that all art is infinite in what it can provide you. There’s so much outside of music that informs it, be it intentional or not, and I’m happy when my interviews allow a window into an artist’s life, which can then help you better appreciate the music. It’s a sideways approach that provides some needed distance—it doesn’t make you feel like you’ve completely figured something out.
Nigel Yang: Yeah, it’s a much better approach. The Vladislav Delay one was a highlight. I remember when I first discovered his music, his website was just a grey and white, really low-res abstract image, and when you clicked it, it would just take you back to the same image (laughter). There was nothing about him anywhere. And as the years have gone by, he’s opened up on social media and stuff like that so you can find a bit more about him, and in that way, the mystery is lost a bit. But from reading your interview and his enjoyment of the harsh outdoors, it broadened a bit more of the magic for me when listening to his music again.
[extended conversation about interviews, negative album reviews, the music industry, and more]
Jonnine Standish: One thing you reminded me of, Joshua, that’s a late addition to what I love about myself, is my ability to sleep. My auntie said that the secret to relationship success is humor and sleeping patterns. The older I get, the more I realize how true that is. It doesn’t matter what’s happened in my life; good times and bad times, I’ve always got a good eight hours (laughs). That could be my number one.
Thank you for reading the seventy-ninth issue of Tone Glow. Get some sleep.
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