How Shapeshifter kept it live in a world of autotune

In the lead-up to the release of their sixth studio album Stars, JULES LEFEVRE hopped across the pond to meet Kiwi legends Shapeshifter on New Zealand soil. 

The Auckland War Museum is a spectacular building. Resting on a slope of bright green grass in the middle of the Auckland Domain, it looks more like something out of a Jane Austen novel than a modern museum.

On the chilly afternoon I’m there it’s particularly arresting, the sunset making the building glow a shade of golden orange. At the main entrance, a steady stream of people are filing in. A mix of music industry types and excitable fans, they’re probably not the usual museum crowd. But then, this probably isn’t a usual night at the museum: tonight Shapeshifter are launching their sixth studio album.

In the world of drum and bass, Shapeshifter’s name carries a lot of weight. Since their formation at a jazz school in Christchurch and the release of their debut album Realtime back in 2001, they have earned the reputation of one of the most hard working and innovative acts in the genre. They’ve criss-crossed the globe, played to hundreds of thousands of people, and released album after album to critical acclaim. Today marks the release of Stars, the follow-up to what is generally regarded as their mainstream breakthrough LP, 2013’s Delta, which went platinum at home in NZ.

It’s been a while in the making. After Delta, the band took six months off to breathe and regroup before coming back for Stars.

“We spent ages writing ideas,” Nick will tell me later that night in the crammed and sweaty green room. “Sam and I probably wrote about a hundred ideas. Then Digss [P Digss, vocalist] would write little melodies over the top of that. We weren’t really worried about actually writing the songs, or producing the songs. We were just trying to see what stuck.”

Eventually, some did: from those 100 ideas the band took about 20 songs, whittling the tracklist down to 11 songs from there.

The record they came out with is another leap forward in their ever-evolving discography. In typical Shapeshifter fashion, it’s stylistically slippery, taking inspiration from R&B, jazz, soul, dub, and anything else that crosses their mind. It contains some of their most radio friendly tracks, like in the title-track Stars, as well as arguably some of their hardest hitting, like the blistering Fake Charmer. 

“For all their solid studio output, Shapeshifter have always been, and always will be, an act best experienced live”

For all their solid studio output, Shapeshifter have always been, and always will be, an act best experienced live. Where the recording pops, the stage explodes. In the car on the way to the gig, their management informs me that their upcoming gig in Christchurch will be the biggest in the city’s history.

Which makes tonight even more unusual, and explains why the crowd is buzzing as much as they are – it’s not often that fans will get to experience the band in a venue like this. In a smallish circular room with a clear view of the glittering Auckland skyline, the band take centre stage in a 360 degree fabric cage, not unlike a boxing ring.

The moment the opening notes snake out, the purpose of the cage becomes clear. Moving images are projected on the sides, giving the amazing impression that the band is playing inside a swirling galaxy. The sound is immense: the drums punch and the synths shimmer, and within the circular room the volume seems to be doubling.

It’s a brisk set, and for the first time the band is only playing cuts from Stars. The title track and Eternal are muscular cuts, P Digss’ voice managing to stay above the fray of interlocking keys and guitars. It’s the closer though, that is most impressive. Fake Charmer is colossal: distorted guitar slams into the skittish drums, and Digss’ usually honeyed voice is made to crackle and snap through a vocoder. In a blast of strobes and a screaming crescendo, it’s done.

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Twenty minutes later, the band is are clutching water bottles and beers in the small and crowded green room. Despite the huge fans blasting air around the room, Nick Robinson’s hair is still plastered to his face with sweat.

I ask him if he feels relieved to have Stars out there. “When I woke up this morning I was exhausted,” he admits. “It’s been a year and a half since we started writing it. We spent so long just getting our ducks in a row. Now we’re back to it.”

Capturing the high energy of a performance like tonight, and translating it to a recording, remains the most consistently difficult task for the band. “It’s nearly impossible,” Nick sighs. “It’s so hard to do.”

“We could write a hit tune, [but] we’re not trying to do that. We try to think of music like art.”

Trying to bottle that lightning involves a lot of tricks. A lot of the final recordings were actually first takes, and the band tend to use 70s and 80s-era synths that make the same sound difficult to replicate. It’s all in pursuit of, a Nick puts it, a slightly more human sound – an approach at odds with the autotuned madness of modern dance music.

“We could write a hit tune, it would be easy to do that,” he explains. “We’re not trying to do that. We try to think of music like art.”

Nick agrees when I suggest that might go part of the way to explaining why Shapeshifter seem so obsessed with evolving, before pointing to The Beatles. “How different are each of their releases?” he argues. “How different was Love Me Do to Sgt. Peppers? We’ve done our Realtime, we’ve done System – we want to push it further and change it each time.”

He brings up Fake Charmer. “It was really different for us, to do an angry song. It was a bit of a ‘fuck you’ to everyone that has ripped us off. It felt good to do that.” He doesn’t name anyone in particular, but smiles nonetheless: “The music industry is full of fake charmers.”

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Shapeshifter’s constantly moving ground also extends to their line-up. Since their formation, the group has had numerous roster changes – the biggest and most recent being the departure of founding member Devin Abrams, who left prior to Stars.

“It was a gradual sort of process,” Nick says of Abrams’ leaving. “He was planning on leaving for a while. He was concentrating a lot on his solo work. He needed to do that – he needed to get that out.”

Abrams released his second solo album – under the name Pacific Heights – in June of this year. Nick has heard it, and agrees it’s great.  “Without disrespecting Devin, I don’t think it was too much of a struggle, the change. It was such a gradual process that it was fine.”

In the green room crammed full of friends and family – and on the dancefloor full of longtime adoring fans – you get the feeling that Shapeshifter is less a career ladder climbing enterprise, and more of a project that fits naturally within their lives rather than controlling it.

“For us now, it’s just about getting on with our normal lives and making an album now and then,” Nick says, “We’re just doing what we want to do.”

From here, Shapeshifter have a huge headlining tour of New Zealand to contend with, as well a trip to our shores for Subsonic in December and headline tour in March and April. For now though, there’s just some more beer, and a huge celebration to be had.

Shapeshifters’ new album Stars is out now via Caroline Music Australia.

Shapeshifter Australian tour dates

December 2 – Subsonic Music Festival, NSW
March 31 – Perth, Metro City
April 1 – Settlers Tavern, Margaret River
April 5 – Parkwood, Gold Coast
April 6 – Triffid, Brisbane
April 7 – 170 Russell, Melbourne
April 8 – Manning Bar, Sydney