However, the ever-expanding musical vision of the group’s multi-instrumentalist songwriter, Nick Harte, was ill-suited to the pigeon-holing required to become a crossover hit act. Instead of success, five years of silence followed as DFA dragged their heels on his new material and Harte was forced to find a new way forward. In the meantime, his world began to come apart – both figuratively and then literally – as his hometown of Christchurch was shattered by a devastating earthquake in 2011.
There has hardly been a time in his life when Nick Harte was not a musician. Born Nick Hodgson, he began playing piano at six years and within a couple of years he was teaching himself guitar, bass, and drums. He could soon hold a tune on other instruments too, as he picked up saxophone, clarinet, viola, violin, and cello. By 10 years old he was making his first recordings in the form of a solo hip hop cassette; his first live performances came a couple of years later at the age of 12.
During high school and in the years afterward, Harte had a long line of bands and recording projects, mainly solo and under various names: Urinator, Asteroth, Montessori, Crone, and The Dwindling, among others. In the late 90s he formed the noisy, experimental rhythm & blues infused guitar group, The Incisions (originally “Tony Valens and the Incisions”). The crew of musicians going through the group included bassist/co-vocalist Ben Johnstone from Hi-tone Destroyers, another group Harte played drums with. The Incisions’ take on rock’n’roll was so smothered in distortion and tape hiss that it sounded like it had been made by cavemen who had somehow come across electric instruments. They had a handful of releases, including two CDs and a 7" through Andrew Tolley’s Kato Records.
Around the same time, Harte formed the improvisational group CM Ensemble. Sometimes it would be a fully electric group and include collaborators such as noise artist Richard Neave, who banged all sorts of extreme sounds out of his guitar. At other times, the group would morph into the CM Acoustic Ensemble with Harte playing piano, saxophone, and percussion, alongside musicians such as cellist Charles Horn, bassist/cellist Brett Croft, and alto saxophonist Soon Kim (who had studied under Ornette Coleman during the late 80s). Peter Wright also played in this group (on bass, piano, or violin) as did members of The Aesthetics, including Matthew Middleton and Lynton Denovan.
for many years Harte kept a reed signed by Ornette Coleman in his wallet.
This experimental side to Harte’s music isn’t surprising, given that for many years he kept a reed signed by Ornette Coleman in his wallet. However, he also explored the more groove-based side of jazz as drummer and co-founding member of funk fusion group Solaa, whose early improvisations led them towards a fusion of funk, soul, hip hop and drum & bass. Around this time Harte studied classical composition and digital music at the University of Canterbury for just over a year and then drums, Latin percussion and ear training for another year at Christchurch Jazz School in the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT, now Ara Institute of Canterbury).
Harte’s musical direction took another 180 degree turn in 2003 when he signed up as drummer for indie group The Brunettes. They toured the country and then headed to the UK, where they spent a few penniless months trying to break the scene. There were a few big shows – supporting the likes of the Postal Service and The Datsuns – but it was mostly hard graft with little to show.
The Brunettes returned to New Zealand and began preparing immediately for a tour of Australia, but Harte decided he didn’t want to be another songwriter’s hired hand, so he quit the band and returned to Christchurch. Harte’s drumming subsequently appeared on most of the tracks on the Brunettes’ album Mars Loves Venus (2005), but ‘Serenade in A Major’, a song he wrote for the group, was permanently shelved once he departed.
In late 2003, Harte played his first shows fronting a new group, Shocking Pinks, with Jonno Smith on bass, Danny Bare on guitar, and Tim McDonald – a long-time friend who had also played in The Incisions – on drums, percussion, and synths. Harte had already begun amassing songs for an album.
“I performed a large percentage of the instruments on the album,” says Harte, “but I did ask some friends to add to the instrumental duties to round out the sound, who then also ended up playing in the initial live line-up. That album was recorded entirely on my Tascam 4-track with many rhythm section parts being recorded live to give the album more of a raw feel. However, there was a vocal overdub by Heather Mansfield from The Brunettes and an acoustic guitar overdub on the last song ‘Nostalgia’ which were both recorded at Nightshift studios.”
Tim Baird from fledgling local record label Pinacolada had seen the group’s live shows. He was keen to work with them, even though his previous releases were more in the dance music genre.
When it came out in 2004, Dance The Dance Electric managed the feat of being both perfect for the zeitgeist of the time while also reaching far beyond it. Indie guitars played over busy, funky drums, which matched the post-punk sound of the moment with the cymbals hissing and toms distorting from the levels peaking on the tape 4-track. Soft vocals and chiming guitars reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine are also present, along with the upfront groove of ‘Us Against The City’ which included congas from Harte’s former Solaa bandmate Kurt Dyer and vocals from Mel Smith.
‘Dance The Dance Electric’ was perfect for the zeitgeist of the time while also reaching far beyond it.
However, the other members of Shocking Pinks parted ways before the album was released, so Harte brought together a string of different musicians to fill in for live shows over the following years, even playing a karaoke set with just a computer at one point. In the latter half of 2004, Harte returned to the drums and was joined by guitarist Herbert Palmer, synth player/percussionist Gareth Faull, and bassist Tom Philpott. Around this time, he reconnected with Tim McDonald to form the short-lived outfit Black Albino.
Pinacolada sent the Shocking Pinks debut album to the usual local outlets for review. Expectations were that it would have limited reach, as the album was mostly recorded on a cassette 4-track (apart from the digitally recorded ‘Us Against the City’). However, the influential music website Pitchfork got hold of the album and gave it an 8.2 (out of 10), writing:
“The complexity of their ambitions rivals vastly more established groups, and the youthful intensity with which they attack each objective is a constant boon … a sophisticated collection of casual genre-hoppers and tender love songs that far outshines most of the bilge spawned from James Murphy’s Chernobyl-like fallout.”
It wasn’t long before the full significance of the review came home to Harte.
“At that point I wasn’t much of a Pitchfork reader to be honest,” he says, “but when some of my friends informed me of how influential they were I was of course really excited about the review, as anyone would be. Then when James Murphy [LCD Soundsystem] phoned me out of the blue and offered to sign me, I again felt like I was in some surreal kind of twilight zone.”
By the time the review appeared, work was already underway on two new albums that were set for release through legendary local label Flying Nun.
In February 2005, the band released a follow-up album, Mathematical Warfare, though calling it a “band” was somewhat of a misnomer. Harte played and recorded all the parts himself.
“I’d been recording music as a solo project since I was 10 years old.” says Harte, “After the experiment in recording with a live band that I considered Dance The Dance Electric to be, it didn’t make too much of a difference overdubbing the instruments myself with the following albums.”
Around half of the tracks were recorded on his Tascam 4-track, though he allowed himself the freedom of doing vocal parts digitally. The 17 tracks further expanded the sonic landscape of Shocking Pinks, running from the remarkably poppy ‘Emily’ to the punky assault of ‘Knife-fight’, the rhythmic complexity of ‘Broken Lens’ and the shoegaze of ‘Secrets’. It was a sprawling listen but intriguing enough to survive the various mood shifts.
In March, Shocking Pinks undertook an eight-date national tour as part of the A Low Hum series of tours, along with The Inkling. After the tour their live shows dwindled and Harte put his energy into producing another album.
Infinity Land arrived in September 2005 and drew the various threads of the Shocking Pinks sound into a more coherent whole. Harte’s vocals sounded more fragile than ever, but it gave the melodies more tenderness and provided a contrast with the ever-busy drums particularly on stand-out tracks like ‘This Aching Deal’, ‘How Am I Not Myself’, and ‘End of the World’.
The lyrics on the ‘Infinity Land’ album and its predecessor were drawn directly from Harte’s own life, often without much filter.
The lyrics on the album and its predecessor were drawn directly from Harte’s own life, often without much filter: “Take some medicine, get a bandage, shoot some heroin, see a therapist” (‘How Am I Not Myself?’). He could be equally frank in interviews, discussing his drug use, failed relationships, and mental health issues with candour. Harte admits it wasn’t always the best approach, at least as far as songwriting goes.
“To be honest I didn’t spend long at all writing the lyrics, which is something I regret if I ever think about it these days. I think I liked the idea of honesty and immediacy back then and I preferred focusing on the musical composition, which I still show a natural preference for when writing songs. Since then, I’ve studied art history, aesthetics, and cinema studies at university, and write poetry and art criticism for a Christchurch art zine called Artbeat. I’d give far more importance to crafting lyrics if I was to engage in it now. I don’t think I cared much about privacy in those days, which was probably largely due to the rather heavy medication I was on at the time.”
Mark McNeill came on board to help produce some of the tracks and they wrote ‘Yes! No!’ together. “Mark acted as my co-producer and engineer on some of the tracks which were recorded digitally, giving the albums quite a different sound,” says Harte. “I still recorded about half of the album on 4-track, though vocals were now overdubbed digitally. The music for ‘The Narrator’ was written and produced by Gareth Faull. I also went in a slightly less ‘disco punk’ (to use a term very much of that era) direction on the second and third albums, and focused more on songwriting rather than improvising around grooves or riffs I’d written.”
This crystallisation of the Shocking Pinks sound came at a good time, as the phone call with James Murphy led to Shocking Pinks signing with the label that he co-owned, DFA.
Shocking Pinks played what was planned as a farewell Christchurch show in August 2006, intending to head directly over to the US afterwards. However, DFA pushed back their first release by over a year, so the band was left in a holding pattern.
In early 2007, Shocking Pinks appeared at the first Camp A Low Hum festival. Harte was joined onstage by Mark Holland (Tiger Tones), Marie Celeste (aka Marie Paynter) on synths and Kit Lawrence on samples, vocals, and percussion. The latter pair had their own dance-based outfit, Pig Out, which Harte played drums in for a while, and he wrote and performed bass on their first album.
DFA decided that the best way to push Shocking Pinks to the world would be by releasing a self-titled compilation of the best tracks from their second and third albums, alongside a box set of vinyl singles and various 12" records. Harte flew to New York in August 2007 to film a new music video for ‘Emily’ and for press interviews.
The Shocking Pinks self-titled 2007 compilation garnered an even higher score from Pitchfork (8.3) while Drowned In Sound in the UK gave it 8/10 and Stereogum later said of the album: “It’s heartbreaking because it’s so simple; Harte virtually whispers his lyrics, well past the point of defeat but not actually broken. It’s the dominant mood of the album, which is about loneliness and the ineffectual ways that we try to escape it.”
In the end, the connection with DFA had laid a good platform for Shocking Pinks but when it came to doing a second album with them, Harte found communication had lapsed into a “grey area”.
While making a second album for the DFA label, Harte found communication had lapsed into a “grey area”.
“Initially it was great to be signed to such a seemingly well-suited label who genuinely seemed to care about my freedom to create whatever I wanted. Though in retrospect perhaps it was rather naive of me to think that any mid-sized record label (which was a subsidiary of Astralwerks, a much larger label co-founded by Steven Spielberg) would ultimately be able to operate in such a reciprocal capacity. At one point I was going to record a new album with Guy Fixsen who’d engineered one of my favourite records, Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, and who I met in London to discuss the prospect.
“I was now solely in contact with Jonathan Galkan, rather than his more creative label co-founder James Murphy, who was busy touring and recording with his own project LCD Soundsystem. Jonathan’s more business-based approach meant that there was little room to manoeuvre if he didn’t think the music I was sending him was commercial enough, something I thought was outrageous at the time, considering DFA were supposedly an ‘alternative’ dance label. Whatever I sent was usually met with initial (albeit lukewarm) praise and then silence.”
Shocking Pinks stayed active in Auckland with a new line-up that included Vaughan Williams (The D4, The Fanatics) on bass, Tim McDonald (ex-Incisions) on drums, and Emma Rosenberg on keyboards. The band toured the country and performed an early evening slot at the 2008 Big Day Out. As the years went by, Harte was hearing less and less from James Murphy, even if his occasional responses were generally positive about the new demos. It was clear that the relationship with DFA was now going nowhere fast. Harte realised that he would have to find a new way forward.
Throughout his career, Harte kept writing and recording songs almost daily, so he continued to accumulate new tracks. These tracks only sporadically saw the light of day in the years that followed the DFA deal going sour. In 2011, ‘Ten Years’ appeared as a single and another track, ‘Black Envelope’, featured on the Rose Quartz Christchurch Quake Relief Compilation.
The earthquakes had been traumatic for Harte, who was living in the central city at the time. His way of dealing with the stress of the situation was to bury himself in an unhealthy recording routine, which included blacking out the windows and not adhering to a day or night schedule while he worked on new songs. Eventually he recognised that staying in the city was no longer good for him; in very poor health he relocated to Wellington.
His next single, ‘Double Vision Version’ (2012) was purported to be off a forthcoming Flying Nun released EP, Guilt Mirrors, though it initially failed to materialise, and the single was taken offline for a few years. The trouble was that Harte had written and recorded many hours of music over the preceding years, and the best way to release it was unclear.
“The reticence from Jonathan at DFA resulted in me acquiring a ‘fuck it’ attitude that meant I kept accumulating new material, which was almost exclusively digitally self-produced on my laptop, giving it a pretty different, perhaps colder sheen to the previous three albums.”
Harte had a friend, Mark Roberts, who ran the New York based label Stars and Letters. They discussed how to release the surfeit of material and eventually decided to embrace the vastness of it all by putting out a triple album under the name Guilt Mirrors (2014), which ran to almost three hours long.
‘Guilt Mirrors’ (2014) might have been a tad ambitious: “I probably didn’t need to release three records worth.”
Harte admits this might have been a tad ambitious. “I probably didn’t need to release three records worth, but I wasn’t thinking very clearly, what with the amount of drug consumption going on at the time.”
After years of quiet, there was a run of strong singles including the noisy dream pop of ‘Not Gambling’ and the electro-driven ‘What’s Up With That Girl’ featuring Ashlin Frances Raymond, ex-Tiger Tones. Then the release of the album was accompanied by the sweet drifting melodies of ‘St Louis,’ with vocals by visual artist and musician Gemma Syme, formerly of Holidays with Friends and Tri-masterbate. Another standout track was ‘Love Projection (For Jerry Fuchs)’, dedicated to the LCD Soundsystem/!!!/Turing Machine drummer who died tragically at a young age. Shocking Pinks played with Fuchs in Australia when they toured together with a band he was in (The Juan MacLean). Harte was quite taken with his approach to drumming and wrote the song at the news of his passing.
The unwieldy length of Guilt Mirrors would be the undoing of the album for some listeners, with Pitchfork giving it only a 5.5. Other sites like Line of Best Fit gave it a glowing 8/10 review, saying, “it’s a great big mess of ideas all thrown against a wall until they’re smashed into tiny pieces ... lucky wall.”
The era of the influential music blog was gradually coming to an end, and Harte needed to return to the live stage to carry the music of Shocking Pinks back into the world. Ian Jorgensen from A Low Hum, a long-term supporter of Harte’s music, arranged for Shocking Pinks to play the final Camp A Low Hum festival in 2014 and during the final weeks of Jorgensen’s Wellington venue Puppies, as well as shows in Palmerston North and Auckland (in 2015) to support the release of Jorgensen’s A Movement books.
Jorgensen also worked with Harte in a managerial capacity on a re-release of Dance The Dance Electric in 2015, which saw it being released on vinyl for the first time by E/D/I/L/S Records in the UK, Spiral Jetta Recordings in France, Geertruida in The Netherlands, and via A Low Hum throughout the rest of the world. Gemma Syme created a music video for ‘Nostalgia’ (featuring Heather Mansfield) and Ash Smith (Secret Knives, Over The Atlantic) made one for ‘It’s Hard To Breathe.’ The re-release was accompanied by a cassette/digital compilation, Wake Up Children, and a limited-addition lathe-cut vinyl album, each of which was filled with remixes and covers of tracks off the album by local acts such as She’s So Rad, Leonard Charles, P.H.F., Totems, and Death & The Maiden.
Jorgensen helped Harte put together a new live line-up of Shocking Pinks, with jazz drummer Cory Champion and bassist Ash Smith. The trio undertook an eight-date tour of New Zealand and then went on to 37 gigs across Asia, Europe, the UK, and US. They also appeared at the Others Way festival in Auckland in 2016. For Harte, this run of releases and touring seemed to close the chapter on Shocking Pinks.
“To be honest, I don’t ever really think about Shocking Pinks these days. I have other projects I’m focusing on which give me a far greater amount of musical freedom, and I tend not to like looking back at something once I’ve put it out into the world. When I was living in Wellington I had a live three-piece operating that was easily the tightest and most fun Shocking Pinks band I’d played with (and which I executed a very memorable world tour with), but when I moved to Christchurch to study painting (and the other subjects mentioned above) I pretty much moved on as there wasn’t really any way for us to get together to practice very often. After such a great experience with that band I wasn’t really interested in forming a new line-up in Christchurch.”
While Shocking Pinks may be on hiatus, Harte has a raft of new projects.
While Shocking Pinks may be on hiatus, Harte hasn’t lost his creative drive and he has a raft of new projects.
“Recently I formed the free jazz unit Aotearoa Snuff Jazz Ensemble with Bruce Russell (The Dead C) and Jeff Henderson, which I play drums in. I’ve also been focusing on a solo electronic, sample-based project called Mercedes Cambridge for which I’ve recorded one album and which I’d consider the closest thing to Shocking Pinks (at least the Shocking Pinks of the Guilt Mirrors era). And finally, I formed a band with my partner Hannah McGowan earlier this year called Moider Mother – named after the line uttered by Melanie Lynskey’s character in Heavenly Creatures, making us a truly Cantabrian band! I play bass and write the music; Hannah sings and writes the lyrics. Her youngest son Noah plays drums, and her eldest son Ethan also sings. We’ve just worked up an eight-song set list and are about to record a four-song demo and start looking for gigs to play. Musically, Moider Mother does have a bit in common with the first Shocking Pinks album, especially in the angular, disco-based basslines, though Moider Mother is lyrically darker (focusing on subjects such as cults, killers, and cannibals) and musically more No Wave.”
Harte’s desire for experimentation is clear in this work. The Mercedes Cambridge album, Adversary (2021) released through UK label Opal Tapes, was entirely constructed from YouTube samples that he manipulated using pitch controls and editing features in Audacity music software. By this stage, his creative work was unhindered by drug use, as he undertook a stay in rehab a year earlier and freed himself of his addictions, even quitting cigarettes. The relentless passion for music that saw Harte teach himself countless instruments as a child and start countless bands as a young adult clearly remains as vibrant as ever and shows no sign of dimming.
Stars & Letters Records
In 2015, Nick Harte provided vocals and guitars for the track ‘Hotel Room’ by rapper/poet Dominic ‘Tourettes’ Hoey, which also included singing by Gemma Syme.
The name of Shocking Pinks’ first album is taken from the Prince lyric, “Good morning children, dance the dance electric.”