Weird. In a good way.
Bringing their modern Dunedin sound to Auckland, four-piece band Ha The Unclear is about to open for The Shins and have a new album on the way. Are they finally headed for the big time?
I first met the four members of Ha the Unclear – Ben Sargeant, Theo Francis and brothers Michael and Paul Cathro – after their ‘Big City’ single release performance at The Golden Dawn one Thursday. We met up again the following evening for a more ‘formal’ chat but ended up spending both of these sessions massively off-topic, talking about – among other things – bassist Paul’s “recent stint in rehab” (he’s never been) and a show called Man vs Beast which, in one episode, depicts a man challenging a brown bear to a hotdog eating contest (you will not regret searching it on Youtube).
The Cathros and drummer Sargeant started their music careers as the Biff Merchants in 2009, a six-piece progressivepsych band who practised in their respective home garages in Dunedin. They played Smokefree Rockquest and many other shows before two members left and guitarist Theo came on-board. The quartet then began recording under the name Brown, writing dreamlike bedroom pop. They changed the band’s name to Ha The Unclear in 2014 – although their sound remained relatively unchanged.
Ask about their name, however, and they’ll tell you you aren’t supposed to get it – it’s meant to mirror the meaninglessness of an inspirational quote that Michael used to have on his desk at work that read: “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Confusion about this previously led them to make up a back story: that Ha The Unclear was an anagram for Nuclear Heath, who was an ex-flatmate of theirs who could only cook microwaved meals. It was meant to be a joke, I think.
The band have a tightness that’s been forged after a decade together on the road. The past couple of years has seen them tour with popular Australian grunge artist Courtney Barnett, perform at New Year’s Eve festival Rhythm and Vines and be nominated for a Tui Award.
Surprisingly, this will only be their second album together. “We’ve been together so long that it’d be uncomfortable to play with anyone else,” says lead singer-songwriter Michael. When he packed his bags to move to Auckland, it was only a matter of months before everyone had followed him north. Inviting a newbie in at this stage would be a tall order. Besides, over the years the group’s commitment to each other has helped them develop their niche style, and small but loyal
fan base. Paul, Theo and Ben even spent six months living and working together on a hydroponic lettuce farm in Katikati between gigs.
The band’s lyrics tell surreal stories in a literal way. ‘Secret Lives of Furniture’ is about a man’s relationship with his coffee table (“I’m mute, I’m Rimu, I’m loyal”); ‘Big City’ unpacks the band’s move to Auckland and their reactions to the sometimes apathetic attitudes of city dwellers (“cause they cut queues, they don’t recycle, everyone’s anonymous”). There’s also that uniquely indie-pop ‘Dunedin sound’ here, all low-fi recordings, jingle-jangles and clean bass lines. There’s a certain Beatles-esque charm and the band admits to being inspired by the likes of Don Mcglashan and The Phoenix Foundation – “fuck, they keep just getting better,” Paul says. Between them they like The Beths, Aldous Harding and Lorde’s ‘Green Light’ – the New Zealand influence runs deep.
Music videos reinforce Ha The Unclear’s surrealist lyrics, with the band often playing out the strange scenarios described in each song. This is best seen in the ‘Secret Lives of Furniture’ video where the aforementioned coffee table becomes personified, even stealing $20 from a passed-out party guest’s pocket, and in ‘Growing Mould’, where we take a musically catchy (and slightly creepy) tour of an ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Here, the audience is invited to imagine the lyrics as sung by an unseen ex-boyfriend who’s locked outside, speaking through the intercom.
Sometimes – as in ‘Growing Mould’ – difficult-to-understand lyrics are cleverly placed on screen for viewers to read. That’s because Michael’s thick New Zealand accent often means the words are borderline indecipherable, especially to non-new Zealand fans. “In a lot of our songs we reference Dunedin landmarks and it just felt wrong to sing those names in another accent,” he says. This proud ownership of heritage and tone isn’t uncommon in New Zealand music – we see a good example of it with another Dunedin band, The Chills.
Ha The Unclear’s new, yet-to-be-titled album is set to be released in early 2018 with more singles from it to be drip-fed in the coming months. Already released single ‘Big City’ – a hyper-local story of a bus journey gone wrong – was recorded in Mount Eden’s Lab Studios with Tom Healy of Auckland band Tiny Ruins. Next will probably be ‘Wallace Line’, a song which references the Wallace Line divide in Indonesia and two people growing apart.
Now in their thirties, the four friends are navigating family lives, full-time work and their music, but would still love to see Ha The Unclear become a full-time gig. They haven’t stopped growing, and are likely to do so again on the new album. ●
“In a lot of our songs we reference Dunedin landmarks and it just felt wrong to sing those names in another accent.”