THE SHIFTING SANDS: BEYOND THE SANDS OF TIME

 

cosmic radio station

 

Part local cool kids. Part retro nerds.

Turn on, tune into their ‘Cosmic Radio Station’, and you hear dense layered walls of miked acoustic guitars with submerged startles and provocations of distortion swirling like particles in a shaken snow-globe, like eddies and rippling currents within its depth. The Shifting Sands, a three-piece operating out of New Zealand’s south island, work on the principle of trancelike repetition that builds in lapping psychedelic waves, laced with dreamy wisps of vocals blowing on breezes of melody, again – simple structures of lines repeated with slight variations – ‘waiting for the sun to fall, waiting for the sun to call, call out your name.’ These are sky-filling sounds, where slivers of guitar slither all over the vocals like chemicals through a sugar cube. On the ‘Elsewhere’ website, reviewing the album, they declare ‘so here be gloriously under-fi drone-scuzz psyche-rock, widescreen-Clean, and ear-damaging rock which says ‘never mind the quality, come feel the noise ‘n’ feedback’.’

So yes, what are the Shifting Sands, local cool kids, or retro nerds? ‘Sheesh, maybe we are both?’ fences Mike McLeod evasively. ‘I’m glad you dig the album.’

But what exactly is it that makes this the sound of 2015…? To me, it all seems timeless. ‘Well – in terms of its timelessness, I’m not sure I’m best qualified to answer, but I’m flattered.’ Then he gets more expansive. ‘I guess my record collection spans many generations, and perhaps the fact that I appreciate music from all across the spectrum might reflect in our songwriting, and could partly explain the ‘timelessness’ that you feel. A lot of this album was recorded prior to 2015, beginning in 2012. We’ve been slowly working on it for a few years, in a very much part-time capacity. It could also be that when we recorded we tried to isolate ourselves from the pressures of the external world by recording in rural locations, where time didn’t seem to be a pressure on us, at least for those moments.’

That’s a good answer. From the opening Jesus & Mary Chain whirr of “Waiting For The Sun” into the hallucinogenic shoe-gazing “Making It Through” it’s a karmic, viscous concoction. When it lapses into decorous strings, as in “All The Stars”, it can be honeyed, when it shatters into the abrupt electrical storms of “Dreaming To Keep Awake” it can be stunning. Music journalists – as you know, as well as record shops (where they still exist), insist on putting music into ‘categories’. A futile endeavor I know. And I don’t see an obvious category that The Shifting Sands neatly slot into anyway. Do they have any theories…? ‘I guess, when asked to describe us these days, I usually say we are a psychedelic pop band’ suggests Mike.  ‘But yeah, we don’t intend to fit into any pigeon-holed genre, so there’s elements of pop, pysch, indie, rock, shoegaze, country, and folk in there…  Possibly more…’

The band started out as a Mike McLeod solo project after the collapse of a previous band, but instead it became ‘Feel’, the 2012 Sifting Sands debut album. Now, does the group all sit around for focus-group sessions, listening to old vinyl or CD reissues to fine-tune their collective sensibilities? Mike shrugs, ‘any listening sessions we might happen to have are usually fairly spontaneous and very unfocused.’ A certain element of sensory derangement was once considered essential for classic psychedelia. Do the Shifting Sands have a Syd Barrett or an Arthur Lee? ‘Hmm… I’m not sure any of the Sands push the boundaries as far as Arthur Lee or Syd Barrett did, but we have been known to enjoy ourselves from time to time…’

Yes, I can see how that works now. But I wonder how it evolved as a group thing? How did the three Sands – Mike, with Tom Bell, bass and Jake Langley, drums, gravitate together with the same mind-fix. Or is there one Sand who sets the control for the heart of psychedelic rock, while the other two get dragged along in the cosmic slipstream? ‘Tom and I started the band together and have a fairly similar mind-fix/taste palette. Jake was dragged into the cosmic slipstream when our first drummer left Dunedin.’

Was a drum-machine too expensive…? Or is the organic input essential? ‘A drum machine would be far cheaper, especially when you factor in touring! But, we don’t want to have to visit Oz to find the drum machine a heart and a brain.’

Ha, good answer. Is there a track on the album with a story that needs to be told…? ‘I think my personal favourite track on the album is “Whareakeake”, the instrumental that closes the first side of the record.  Whareakeake is the name of the beach below where we recorded large parts of this album,’ – yes, the woolshed and tumbledown house perched on the hills above Port Chalmers during a period of heightened solar flare and aurora activity in the deep south. This is the track that ‘Elsewhere’ calls ‘a coming-down-again instrumental, with mournful violin.’

Whareakeake is close to Mike’s home-town of Dunedin. So isn’t it weirdly wonderful we’re doing this at all…? At one time bands signed to a ‘major label’ and got that big clunky LP released around ‘various territories’. Now they just record that CD in their own home studio and people download it around the globe. It’s so much more easy and direct and accessible, but at the same time you gotta yell louder to draw attention to your music and tell people about it… ‘Yeah, I think home recording has changed the shape of the music industry hugely, and the digital era is a related, but slightly different feature of modern music making as well. Nowadays we can record at home, or somewhere we want to, and most people can access professional quality equipment. Through social media sites like ‘Facebook’ and ‘Bandcamp’, every man and his dog can put out an album, and hence this is maybe why you have to yell louder, because there are a gazillion bands out there all trying to do something. And yes, it’s a wonderful thing to be doing.’

There’s not a gazillion bands like Shifting Sands. But they’re out there now. In a place without clocks, without seasons, without hourglasses to trap the shifting pink sand…

The current CD:

‘COSMIC RADIO STATION’ by THE SHIFTING SANDS

(Occultation Recordings)  www.occultation.co.uk

by ANDREW DARLINGTON

 

 


By Andrew Darlington

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