Shayne Carter

by Gordon Campbell / 04 September, 2004
He has been a member of Bored Games, the Doublehappys and Dunedin Sound stalwarts Straitjacket Fits, but since the mid-90s Shayne Carter has been leader of Dimmer, which sometimes includes singer/songwriter Anika Moa. This month, Dimmer will be touring the main centres and places beyond.

You turned 40 in July. Tell me about the kid you were 25 years ago. Why'd he get into this crazy business? I was totally a punk kid. And both my parents were musicians as well. So I've always had this feeling of predestination, that this is what I was born to do.

Especially after seeing John Lydon? On Radio with Pictures. Of course. It was like an avalanche, or the Apocalypse. A huge waking moment. I was 13 or 14 when I saw that shit. Totally ripe for the plucking. But even before that ... I remember we had the cover of Are You Experienced covering a hole in the kitchen wall. I'd look at it every day, at that exotic guy who seemed to have a power, even before I heard his music ...

With Lydon, did you feel - "Hey, I can do that"? Kind of. The main thing that really struck me was how exotic it was, and powerful. To the point where next day, I began writing a cappella punk rock songs about the Queen and society and workshops for the mentally disabled.

All of which survive? I think there a couple of pretty sad, tatty tapes from rehearsals at our parents' place. Tell you what, bro, we were pretty committed, even though we had no instruments at all. We made do with various workshop sounds. One of the songs is called "Here in the Workshops", with lots of banging. I dug some of those tapes out when I was last in Dunedin, and I couldn't believe what a rotten little shit I was.

But you always saw yourself as the guy out front, right - leading the charge? In my first band, Bored Games, Wayne the bass player already had a bass guitar, and the drummer had some drums. I was from Brockville and I had nothing. I just had an innate need for revenge ...

Oh, c'mon. Your folks were musicians, this was the family legacy. What did you have to be angry about? Heaps, bro. My Mum was 17 when I was born. My Dad was a Maori guy and had to put up with all the shit of being a Maori guy in the South Island in the 60s ... His real name was Peter, but he called himself Jimmi, for all the obvious reasons ... Dunedin was a pretty white town. My whole upbringing was Presbyterian. Dad was actually adopted, and brought up by Pakeha people. So my exposure [to Maori culture] was limited, to say the least.

It's easy to divide your career into the Straitjacket Fits period, and the many incarnations since, of Dimmer ... I can't do it that cleanly. When you're in the middle of it, it's more the case that you look back 15 years and suddenly go, what the f--- was I thinking?

Okay. Straitjacket Fits and its demise - what the f--- were you thinking? Well, frequently, "f--- you". Which was one of my mantras whenever I made rock'n'roll music. That motivation is behind a lot of great work, isn't it?

Yeah, "f--- you", but with a sense of beauty. Because we're all romantics, right? Even before we became New Romantics. Yes. The "f--- you" probably came, initially, from being a rejected romantic.

Though it never turned you into one of those pensive guys, singing to yourself? No, I've always hated the whole idea of the folkie mode.

So, being part of the band - a collective - has always been part of the deal? Totally. Even though, essentially, Dimmer has been a solo project. Maybe it's a self-deprecating thing but, bro, it doesn't seem cool if it just has your name there. It seems cooler to have some sort of umbrella, something that makes it a bit more enigmatic. I'd be a liar if I didn't say that recognition didn't feel good. But fame and all that stuff ... It's quite an empty thing to aspire to. Give me the cash, definitely, but I don't want people looking at me when I go to the supermarket to buy the toilet paper. No matter how f---ing noble it sounds, I just want to do good work. I'm still a pretty broke guy. I've never made a lot of money out of rock'n'roll. But like I say to other musician friends, you're not going to be reading your royalty statements on your deathbed.

What Straitjacket Fits song would you want on your tombstone? They're definitely not allowed to put Shayne "She Speeds" Carter.

In Zoolander, was Ben Stiller right - is it a burden in life to be really, really good looking? Shit yeah. (Laughs.) Girls have always quite liked me. I can't see how that can be a burden. But it's that whole thing of why people desire people who are rock musicians. I still haven't got my head around that. Why be so impressed with people on a stage? There's a whole psychology behind that.

In Spinal Tap, when David St Hubbins is asked what he'd do if he wasn't a rock musician, he replies: "Oh, I'd be a full time dreamer." How about you? I was a journalist when I left school, at a private radio station for two and a half years. I thought it was my vocation. I'd edited my school newspaper. But the environment at private radio is equally as sordid as rock'n roll, with even less excuse ... When I was 12, I'd been really obsessed with trotting. I'd go through every race meeting every weekend and put on fake bets. I've never been a gambling man, I just loved the spectacle, the way that you can see the race unfold. I even learnt to drive [a trotter] for one of the Dimmer videos. It was one of the highlights of my life, man.

Great clothes, too. The silks. Superb colours, bro. Dark blue, with silver stars. Looked great.

Who was the best - Johnny Globe or Cardigan Bay? I've actually got a jigsaw puzzle of Cardigan Bay framed on my bedroom wall that Heather [Mansfield, of the Brunettes] put together for me. It's a fantastic piece of work, because there's all this blue sky, and how the hell she had the methodical nature to figure it out ... it has to be Cardigan Bay, as done by Heather. But the best horse I ever saw was Lord Module. I've got a framed portrait of him in my studio. It's the ultimate trotter porn. He's very handsome.

If the teen years are about upbeat nihilism, the thirties tend to be downbeat optimism, the whole smiling bravely "I'm a survivor" shtick ... Yeah, and in your forties it's [plaintively] "I'm still here" ... It isn't easy. The money is shit. It's such a self-motivating thing, to keep coming up with the gas to keep doing it. Most people give up. But ... I've tried to stay true to what I do. People seem to recognise that. And I suppose that's why I've managed to make music for this length of time ..."


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