Shayne Carter says it's time to switch off Dimmer

By Scott Kara

Veteran New Zealand muso Shayne Carter is winding up his current band to go it alone. He talks about the past and the future to Scott Kara.

Final fling: Dimmer, as drawn by drummer Gary Sullivan. Photo / Supplied
Final fling: Dimmer, as drawn by drummer Gary Sullivan. Photo / Supplied

Shayne Carter is calling it quits on his long-running band Dimmer and writing a new piano-driven album instead. There is one small problem, however. He can't really play piano.

"After so many years battling at the rock 'n' roll coalface, I had this sad little moment the other day where I was trying, and failing, to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano," he laughs.

He may know the guitar backwards but he's relying on his melodic sensibilities to get him through as he attempts to tinkle the keys and come up with some songs.

"I really like the idea of naivety. And I'd actually much rather play really bad now and come up with really interesting shit than spending five years to be like the guy from Coldplay."

But more on his piano playing and next album - to be released under his own name before the end of the year - soon, because first it's lights out for Dimmer.

Next week Carter and the latest incarnation of the band, made up of long-time cohorts James Duncan on guitar and Gary Sullivan on drums, and more recent recruit Vaughan Williams on bass, play their final shows in Auckland and Wellington.

Carter's been in a number of bands over the years. He remembers his high school band Bored Games finished up because "half my band left to join the Chills and there was nothing I could do about that so I learned to play guitar myself".

Next up, the Double Happys were cut short following the death of bandmate and high school friend Wayne Elsey, and then came his most famous band, Straitjacket Fits, which ended following some dark times in America, personal differences, and record company wrangles in 1994.

But with Dimmer, Carter is ending it after 17 years and four albums on his own terms. He wants to move on musically and and play whatever songs he wants to from his vast back catalogue. He also wants to write music under his own name.

"I used the name Dimmer because I thought using your own name was really uncool. But hey, I got older and while Shayne Carter is not that cool, there are worse names out there," he says with his trademark flippancy.

The impetus to call it quits came a few years ago when he played a benefit show for his old mate Chris Knox who suffered a stroke in 2009.

He played many of his old songs - something he avoided doing for a long time out of "pride, or something, because you feel like you want to be moving somewhere". "But Chris was such a big influence on me when I was a kid that I thought it would be nice to do some old songs. It gave me the bigger picture, and I just thought Dimmer was related to one aspect of my career."

He has done similar shows since, and in the future they will include new material.

"I don't want to be a dude trading on what I did 25 years ago so there's a balance there somewhere," he says.

Next week though it will be all Dimmer material. The band has been through many phases, from the mangled noise of 1995 single Crystalator and the moody beauty of debut album I Believe You Are a Star from 2001, to the lilting, slightly poppier sound of You've Got to Hear the Music in 2004 and back to the more menacing latest release, Degrees of Existence.

He rates I Believe You Are a Star, with tracks such as the simmering and smooth lounge rock of Evolution and the one-chord mantra of Seed, as his best work.

"It was the most consistent - and it was the only record where I set out to make a record," he says.

But before Star came Crystalator. Released as a seven-inch single it was a song that ratcheted up and let rip with a barbed guitar riff that still packs a punch today.

"That song was a forebearer because a lot of the Dimmer stuff is always a groove thing. In some ways I completely minimalised all my songwriting, took it right back to trying to write tunes with one chord."

After Straitjacket Fits he also became interested in instrumental music ("there was something sort of contrived and Bono-ised about singing") and space.

"I was completely over rock. The Dimmer thing was totally anti-rock and I became interested in not only the groove thing but doing quiet music as well."

The first album took a long time to create, and Carter not only drove himself a little round the bend doing it, but had Sullivan along for much of the obsessive five-year ride too.

"At one point he just had to walk away or else he was going to go nuts," says Carter.

"And I just continued to dig away in my backyard shed, driving myself into the ground, and suffering for my art really quietly in Norfolk St, Ponsonby," he smiles.

These days, he's holed up on the Te Atatu Peninsula, and when he's not going for bike rides on the cycleway beside Auckland's northwestern motorway and playing soccer, he is listening to classical music and writing.

"I really wanted to suss out what people had done on piano and of course the people who have done the best stuff on piano are the classical people."

He enthuses about Chopin's Preludes, and his "beautiful, scary" Nocturnes, and then the piano works of Beethoven, Schubert, and Debussy.

"I'd just let them simmer away in the background and then I realised that these are some of the best songs I have ever heard," he says.

And it's this music - along with all-girl Bronx disco funk punk out-fit ESG - that is inspiring him at the moment, a contrast to the often sprawling sonic nature of Dimmer.

"I'm actually quite keen to write really structured songs again."

Who: Shayne Carter and Dimmer
Where and when: Kings Arms, Auckland, May 23 and May 24 (sold out); Bar Bodega, Wellington, May 26
Listen to: Crystalator, single (1995) I Believe You Are a Star (2001); You've Got To Hear the Music (2004); There My Dear (2006); Degrees of Existence (2009)

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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