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.”

Above Ha The Un­clear is, from left, Ben Sargeant, Michael Cathro, Theo Fran­cis and Paul Cathro.

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