Born in Dunedin in 1964, Carter was still a callow schoolboy when, inspired by Knox and his punked-up band The Enemy, he formed Bored Games with guitarists Wayne Elsey and Fraser Batts, bassist Jonathan Moore and drummer Jeff Harford.
When Elsey left to form The Stones, Terry Moore (later of The Chills) was drafted in, but the group’s naïve punk – check out ‘Joe 90’ – was already verging on passé. Time for a change: His next band, The Double Happys, revealed dramatic improvements. Reuniting with the charismatic Elsey and employing the services of a drum machine tagged "Herbie Fuckface", the group got really good when Herbie was dumped in favour of a real drummer, John Collie.
Then, tragedy struck. In 1985, having put the finishing touches to their EP in Auckland, and on their way to perform in Christchurch, Elsey was killed while skylarking in a train. Apparently he leaned out the carriage doorway at just the wrong time. It’s glib to claim that out of adversity good things come, but after the premature demise of The Double Happys, Carter recorded his haunting tribute to Elsey, ‘Randolph’s Going Home’, a classic one-off with Peter Jefferies, and then formed a new band from the core of his old band: Straitjacket Fits.
Carter and Collie recruited bassist David Wood from Working With Walt, and singer/songwriter Andrew Brough from The Orange, and "the Fits" was born. No one could have predicted the success and acclaim and sheer excitement that followed the release of the group’s Life In One Chord EP in 1987, with the unforgettable rush of ‘She Speeds’. Suddenly, Flying Nun had a power pop hit on its hands, and a band with genuine sex appeal.
Having dragged himself back to Dunedin after the unceremonious breakdown of Straitjacket Fits in America, and spending a few years willing his next project, Dimmer, into existence, Shayne Carter was back in Auckland. He’d upped roots from his birthplace to search out a record company for the new project.
It was 1997, and this prickly but inquisitive customer with rugged good looks, Elvis-style curled lip and an attitude as big as Texas turned up.
It was 1997, and this prickly but inquisitive customer with rugged good looks, Elvis-style curled lip and an attitude as big as Texas turned up at my tiny, experimental Ponsonby Rd record shop, Beautiful Music, to check out some “tunes”.
I had made it my life’s work to avoid friendships with musicians, with the rather curious idea that I could maintain a critical distance from which to observe their art, but Carter was impossible not to like. Great musicians commonly articulate well on their chosen instruments, less so verbally. Shayne, despite a punkish tendency to pinprick perceived pretensions, could wax eloquently about the far corners and deep crevices of popular music history, and it turned out he was a voracious reader of histories and biographies, and wasn’t short of an opinion on any subject he was acquainted with. He was a scholar of pop mythology, which is incredibly rare for someone who is indisputably woven into the very fabric of that mythology. We became buddies.
For the next few years, Shayne Carter would regularly seek the sanctity of my venue for late-night listening sessions of new music. I would set him up with piles of avant-electronica and whatever else was fresh and non-mainstream, and he would invariably go nuts over the most extreme choices: The fidgety hi-res experimental techno of Monolake, the distorted power electronics of Pansonic. Shayne particularly loved the bizarre four-CD set of shortwave "numbers stations" broadcasting coded messages, The Conet Project. In short, he was up for almost anything, clearly looking for an escape from the expectations of the fans of the incredible alt-rock he made with Straitjacket Fits.
This was the last phase of the necessary rewiring of Shayne Carter after the unexpected failure of a group that everybody expected to conquer the world. From the moment ‘She Speeds’ burst onto the scene in 1987 – just one of four great songs on Straitjacket Fits’ debut EP, Life In One Chord – there was an unstated belief that this band really could go far, and that unlike other bands on their label, Flying Nun, here was a raging rock group with real tunes that had the potential to, as they say in the biz, "cross over".
In reality, it’s just a lottery, and just like Hello Sailor and Split Enz and The Chills, Straitjacket Fits found that despite all the promise of a glittering career, America could be a harsh mistress, and that she would not countenance a second go at the top.
By 1990, Straitjacket Fits was touring the world, and getting incredible press coverage in England and throughout Europe. When they scored what looked like a fabulous record deal with Arista, the world seemed like their oyster. What could go wrong?
Well, all it takes is for the guy that signed you to leave the company, the "melodic" counterpoint to your hard-edge in the band to leave (Andrew Brough) and a new music genre rising up overnight to make your thing seem old-hat (grunge), and it’s over, you’re back in Dunedin, on the dole. It’s hard. Ask Martin Phillipps. It can’t have been easy for Shayne, too, who knew he had everything it took, but had it whisked away almost overnight, in 1993.
Eight years, one thrilling EP, and three albums of quality and distinction – Hail (1988), Melt (1990) and Blow (1993) – and the dream was over.
When I met Shayne Carter, I could still occasionally feel the pain of that rejection. The male ego is a fragile thing, and unlike so many wannabe stars, Carter really believed in this rock and roll life: Not the star-making machinations or the superficial bull, but some kind of staunch inner validity, integrity. You can see it in the singers Carter loves: Elvis, Marvin Gaye. It’s more than just X-Factor.
he got a crane to install a metal container in his Norfolk St backyard, and that’s where he meticulously put together his best album, I Believe You Are A Star (2001).
So it was important for Shayne to remap, rewire, and find a new way to work, and when he scored his deal with Sony, that’s what he set about doing. When I moved my shop to bigger premises, Shayne moved into the old Ponsonby Rd shop, where he rehearsed and recorded until the rotten fish sauce smell from the Malaysian restaurant downstairs drove him out. With the Sony advance, he got a crane to install a metal container in his Norfolk St backyard, and that’s where he meticulously put together his best album, I Believe You Are A Star (2001).
And what a shock that was to his fans, and undoubtedly, to the record company. Pulsing along on hypnotic krautrock grooves, the album rid itself of rock cliché by subtracting just about everything that was expected. You want melody? Go away! Guitar spanking? Oh puh-lease! He showed masterful control, and the very absence of many of the usual building blocks of songs drew the attentive listener to mere fragments of melody, one-note hints of guitar solo. He even got the Runga sisters to dub back-up cooing on the tracks, and then dumped all but a trace of their efforts.
Despite a blaze of publicity, the record sold only moderately, but the ball was rolling. There were to be three more Dimmer albums as Carter continued to explore different shades of his music passions, including the pronounced soul and groove influences of You’ve Got To Hear The Music (2004). An all-too-brief Straitjacket Fits reunion tour (sans Andrew Brough) in 2005 seems to have reignited the rock instinct, and by Degrees Of Existence (2009), Carter was back to an extrapolation of almost Straitjacket Fits proportions: Monstrous, mean guitar riffs competed with low-down, bass-heavy grooves on the final Dimmer release.
Shayne knocked Dimmer on the head in 2012, but has remained active, charging ahead as Shayne P. Carter on the 2011 Last Train To Brockville tour, which reached all the way back to his Chris Knox-inspired high school band The Bored Games, and co-writing/guesting with Shihad’s Jon Toogood on The Adults project.
Perhaps Carter will never entirely escape the looming shadows of what could have been, had Straitjacket Fits made it in America, and in truth, it doesn’t seem quite right that one of our giant talents is still just scraping by after all these years and all that great music. But what’s great for us, the fans, is that he keeps moving forward, finding new music to interrogate, get inspired by, and then finding ways to curl those influences into his own strong musical vision. I have it on good authority that Shayne’s inspiration lately has been classical piano sonatas. I wouldn’t expect a delicate Shayne Carter sonata any time soon, but I suspect that whatever comes out of his obsessions will be well worth the asking price.
In May 2019 Carter's memoir Dead People I Have Known was published by Victoria University Press. The reviews were uniformly enthusiastic. Writing in New Zealand Books, Nick Bollinger said a “sense of high-stakes snakes and ladders helps give the book its exciting giddiness. Mostly, though, the dynamics come from the writing itself. Being able to write great songs is no guarantee of great prose, as turgid tomes by Morrissey and Neil Young attest, but Carter assembles sentences with the same mix of precision and wild energy with which he makes music.”
A year later, Dead People I Have Known won best non fiction book and best first non-fiction book at the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Awards.
He hates mosquitos and hippies.
He loves: Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Sly Stone, Muddy Waters, football.
Carter briefly worked as a journalist/reporter in Dunedin before devoting himself full-time to music.
Carter’s dark humour is all over this extract from now-defunct label FMR, who signed Dimmer after Sony dumped the project: "The contract may well be signed in his blood but it was already drenched in the sweat of FMR staff as we battled to create an incomprehensible document that will shaft him from the moment we start selling his album".
His Māori Dad featured in the video for Evolution, the first single from Dimmer’s I Believe You Are A Star, but sadly, he died before the album was released.
Shayne was employed as Chris Knox’s caregiver after his stroke in 2009, and worked with Knox on some co-compositions, but nothing came of it.