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:: Spotlight :: Shapeshifter - Adding colour to drum and bass

By: Carmine Pascuzzi

Shapeshifter formed in New Zealand in 1999 after the four founding members met at music school. The group soon realised a common vision of performing dance music live and in an organic fashion. What sets them apart from many other like groups is the use of live instruments - drums, saxophone, guitar, percussion and horns, as well as synthesisers and keyboards to create a genre of music that had previously been restricted to sequenced performances.

Each band member has influences in dub, jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music. It was brought together to create a drum & bass live sound. Their shows capture a sense of high-energy sets of tight, dancefloor drum & bass littered with occasional jazzy undertones. Their latest album is titled “Riddim Wise”.

Shapeshifter has obviously enjoyed a strong following throughout New Zealand, a country well in step with their brand of music. Australians are starting to gather this force and have grown to like the band’s shows. Now based in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to speak to Sam Trevethick, keyboardist and percussionist about the album and other interesting matters.

Q. Do you feel as though you’ve achieved a good deal in the five years together?

A.Ever since then, we believe that there is a lot to achieve sonically. It feels good what we’ve done so far but the next two years we’ll advance and keep evolving. We’re never quite satisfied where we are. We don’t rest on our laurels. There are lots of things to do, especially the way we play music live.

Q.How significant has the move from Christchurch to Melbourne been?

A.It means that we’re not quite as slack as we once were. It’s been very motivating and we’ve been exposed to the larger populace and many different cultures that you can’t get in New Zealand. Access to Australia, especially the eastern states, has generated much interest. Returning to New Zealand cheaply has been good too. The situation forced our hand, I suppose., if we were to take our careers seriously.

Q.The drum & bass scene in NZ is very good. What about the impact in Aust?

A.It isn’t really big in Australia, although it’s growing. There aren’t many drum & bass venues in Melbourne. In Christchurch, Auckland, and Wellington there are places for international artists to perform. Here in Melbourne, it is selective, yet pretty enthusiastic.

Q.There must be something good in the Kiwi water, with the success of MC Tali and Concord Dawn, to name some…

A.I can’t quite pinpoint why that is. There is something there that influences New Zealanders. The reggae and dub culture is very strong. Many people have been exposed to drum & bass over the years. It was just a matter of time when the quality would start to show.

Q.The networking amongst artists must not be underrated therefore…

A.Definitely. When it comes to playing in Australia, like we’re finding now, it’s good to work alongside similar artists like MC Tali and Concord Dawn.

Q.Have you noticed a change in crowd attitudes towards live drum & bass?

A.It’s definitely true that the crowds like to see the real instruments on stage. People who aren’t totally into drum & bass, or haven’t heard it before, will be drawn into it from the live scene factor. In today’s electronic age the human touch has been written off somewhat. At the end of the day, humans hear music and feel music.

Q.You recorded the album in Melbourne in 2003…

A.We didn’t want to make a total instrumental album because it would be boring. We didn’t want one full of vocals also, because that’s too much as well. Different styles and emotions influence us, and we wanted to represent that as best we could. The best thing about drum & bass is for people to get on the dance floor and dance, and making the tracks work to it. But you don’t have to listen to the tracks on the dancefloor. It could be a case of relaxing elsewhere and still moving to it.

Q.What are your musical influences? Roni Size perhaps…

A.Not so much Roni Size now, although we did when we started out. It’s just been our representation of our own drum & bass sound. As far as the studio goes, we’re influenced heavily by Calibre and New Tone, and various others.

Q.What about changes in technology and the effect on Shapeshifter?

A.I’m probably the person that notices it most. I use a sampler. I did have an AKAI S2000. Now I have an EMU E64, which is not the best or most modern in the world, but it’s a step up for us. As for software, there is lots of new plug-ins. You can make more high-end studio quality sounds without having to buy expensive equipment.

Q.Do you have a favourite venue in Australia?

A.The Prince of Wales in Melbourne is a favourite place of ours. We’ve played many great sets there. The Gaelic Club in Sydney has been fun too.

Q.Will you look at releasing other artists on your Truetone label?

A.We need to get our own things done first. It will be another album before we start releasing other artists on the label. We’ll see how the finances are before we can invest elsewhere. It’s a hard road. If we have the capital, by all means we’ll help develop others on the label.

Q.Can we see you touring again in the near future?

A.We’ll be back playing in October, and we hope to do Big Day Out next year.

“Riddim Wise” is out now through Truetone/Inertia.

Check out the fabulous website here

For more information, visit

www.shapeshifter.co.nz