Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Why Shapeshifter's founding member quit the band

Former Shapeshifter member Devin Abrams is striking out alone. He tells Lydia Jenkin why.
Devin Abrams was ready for a change when deciding to leave Shapeshifter.
Devin Abrams was ready for a change when deciding to leave Shapeshifter.

For some it might seem counter intuitive to leave a successful musical career with one of New Zealand's most loved acts, to pursue a solo career under a much less well-known moniker.

But for Devin Abrams, who was a founding member of Shapeshifter, and responsible for the synths, keys, and saxophone for 15 years, he found himself ready for a change about 18 months ago, and so he made the difficult decision to leave.

"There were a few factors. Redford Grennell and I started the band in 1999, with grand ambitions, and I felt like I'd achieved the things I personally wanted to achieve with the band, and I felt it was time to try some new things.

Devin Abrams left Shapeshifter 18 months ago.
Devin Abrams left Shapeshifter 18 months ago.

"I really felt like I wanted to study - I did my Masters last year, which is the first time I've finished something academic. And I wanted a bit more of a routine, I wanted to be home for my wife a bit more, not on the road so much.

"It was the hardest decision I've ever made, because it's something you put so much emotion and sweat equity into, and it's kind of like an archive of your life really, being in a band. So it was a tough decision.

"It took its toll emotionally, but it feels right, and I'm really happy for the guys in the band you know, because everyone is on their own journey with the band too."

Of course, leaving Shapeshifter left a hole in Abrams' life, so it was perfect to have another creative project to sink into.

He'd already released two albums as Pacific Heights, the solo project he'd begun in 2001, so it seemed like the perfect time to work on a third record, particularly because at that point he was going through a difficult time, and needed an outlet.

"There were definitely some heavy issues being dealt with as I was writing it, so it was good to get it out. It was a sort of catharsis. It was the only way to communicate these issues and deal with them."

Pacific Heights has always been Abrams' outlet for musical ideas which didn't fit in Shapeshifter's world, but with his third album, The Stillness, though he remains an electronic-based producer, he's pushed his experimentation even further.

"If we narrow it down, Shapeshifter was a drum n bass band. And everything we did within that genre, the more success it had, the more confined we were in a way. And even though we always told ourselves we could do whatever we wanted, and it usually felt like we did, we were still a drum n bass band, and that was the community we came through.

"But with Pacific Heights, I've been a little bit lucky, because Shapeshifter was the bread-earner, and so there was no particular pressure on Pacific Heights, and so I've been able to experiment."

It's also allowed him to be more personal than he's previously been as a musician.

"The album feels very close to me. It's the most personal music I've ever made by far, and I know that's a cliche, but for me it's true. It's got a certain sadness to it, which is something I haven't really done before, I guess because I didn't need to, or didn't know how.

"It's actually quite hard for me to listen to some tracks, just bringing back certain things that I don't necessarily want to dwell on, so it's going to be interesting when I go and play it live. Zoos is one song I'm going to struggle with.

"You can probably hear it's pretty close to rock bottom. If you have a graph of the album, with my emotional state as I wrote the songs, Zoos is right at the bottom. But it's still holding on to hope, it's asking for something very simple."

The Stillness also marks the first time anyone has heard Abrams sing publicly.

Though he's collaborated with a number of Wellington based singers across the album, including rising star Louie Baker, frontman from the Drax Project Shaan Singh, and up-and-coming female singers Jen Turner and Deanne Kreig, Abrams also decided to overrule his shyness about his own voice, and so we hear him sing on two tracks: Field of Shadows and Zoos.

Devin Abram got Louis Baker to collaborate with his album.
Devin Abram got Louis Baker to collaborate with his album.

"Originally I wanted to get someone else to sing them. So I approached Louie, and he said, 'Actually I think you should sing it'. And I was like 'Nah, nah, I can't'. And so then I approached Dallas [Tamaira, from Fat Freddy's Drop, a long time friend], and he said the same thing. So that was a bit of a kick in the butt.

"I still don't consider myself a vocalist, but I think Louie's point was that someone else wouldn't necessarily deliver it with as much emotion as I had invested in it. I could've got a much better singer to do it, with a much better technical delivery, but I think sometimes, emotion and intention and honesty in a song is worth more than perfection."

Of course you can still hear Abrams' background in Shapeshifter on the album, but overall it's a slower, more reflective piece of electronic soul, with a warm ambience that combines with some hazy rhythmic propulsion.

"I was definitely trying to get the album to sound really warm. Even though thematically some of it is quite sad and dark and even cold, I wanted the sound to be warm, and analogue, and I was using a lot of software to try to achieve that, which actually fed into my Masters thesis.

Devin Abrams aka Pacific Heights.
Devin Abrams aka Pacific Heights.

"When I was creating this album I was really on the hunt for any music that fitted in with what I had in my head, actually, and I really couldn't find much with that certain kind of sadness.

"I guess the closest musician I could find was Machinedrum, his Vapor City album, and The Cinematic Orchestra definitely had that sort of vibe on their Every Day album, but I wasn't finding anything quite right, so I had a sense of wanting to create an album that would fulfill this need I had.

"So I did."

Lowdown

Who: Devin Abrams, previously of Shapeshifter, and the man behind solo project Pacific Heights
What: New album The Stillness, out Friday May 27
Where and when: Live performances at Neck of the Woods in Auckland on Friday August 5, and San Fran in Wellington on Saturday August 6.

- TimeOut

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