A day out with HTRK in the Dandenongs

In this series, Australian artists tour NME around the special spots where they’re based. Here, HTRK show us their studio in the Dandenongs, tell us about a local cult and take us on a bushwalk. Photography by Agnieszka Chabros

When they were kids in the 1980s, HTRK’s Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang were taken by their parents to the Dandenong Ranges – or the Dandenongs, as this part of Wurundjeri Country is known. Standish saw her first snow in the township of Olinda. Yang would get carsick going up the mountain road but remembers fondly how his dad “loved going for drives”.

Raised in “two pretty mundane suburbs”, Standish says, HTRK have been based in Berlin, East London and inner city Sydney (Yang) and Melbourne (Standish) since they formed. Over 18 years, HTRK have journeyed from sardonic noise rock to enervating post-club and onwards to their latter-day lustrous minimalism, their songs threaded through with the detached smoulder of Standish’s voice.

Live, HTRK’s dominion over the mood verges on absolute. Their following is international, spanning the UK, Europe and USA as well as “very passionate fans” in Mexico, Eastern Europe and Russia, says Standish. “In places like Kyiv and Vilnius, fans give us gifts like handmade silver rings, paintings, love letters, flowers when we get off stage. It’s heart-exploding stuff.”

HTRK tour of the Dandenongs studio Rhinestones album Australia
Jonnine Standish’s acre block in the Dandenongs. She moved here with her husband in 2016. Credit: Agnieszka Chabros for NME

For five years, HTRK have been doing the Dandenongs drive again, rear-viewing the outskirts of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to enter a bushland of towering mountain ash and the ashphalt’s end, beyond which is a hilly web of narrow roads speckled with dappled light.

Standish moved to the Dandenongs with her husband, Conrad Standish, in 2016. “As soon as I hit Monbulk Road, it goes all Jurassic Park and I take a breath and think ‘OK, I’m home now’,” she says. HTRK recorded ‘Venus in Leo’ here during a 2018-2019 heatwave, sirens sounding through the trees. “There was bushfire threat every day; it was just so hot,” says Yang. “The weather is always an influence on our music.”

Driving in, you see few houses, just some wheelie bins and the occasional eave poking from the foliage. Obscured houses are “almost uniform” here, journalist and author Chris Johnston tells NME. “I think that’s important in terms of what it might hide and also that you can go there to hide, still,” he says. Johnston co-wrote the 2016 book The Family, about the notorious doomsday cult whose guru, temple and key followers were based here between the ’60s and late ’80s. “There’s a street in Ferny Creek in Olinda which at one stage was almost entirely populated by cult families,” Johnston says.

When NME visits in March, Yang is driving from Melbourne most days to finish writing HTRK’s fifth record, ‘Rhinestones’. He texts, telling us to park at the bottom of the driveway, but there’s no phone reception. Unaware, our photographer for the day, Agnieszka Chabros, revs up the steep driveway and skids to a gravelly stop near a thicket of tree ferns. A wheelbarrow rests on its side, grass creeping up its sides. Silence.

HTRK tour of the Dandenongs studio Rhinestones album Australia
“Tea?” HTRK’s Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang in the Dandenongs. Credit: Agnieszka Chabros for NME

Standish emerges from a black chalet-shaped house to assess the car situation, obviously not too worried as she’s brought her mug of tea. We discover later she’d had a “crazy dream” that she was back in her childhood home. “I was on a raft in the middle of my bedroom filled with ocean, sinking with every book that I’ve ever read,” she says. “And then I woke up and I had to have a shower for this interview.”

Built by a Danish couple 20 years ago on an acre block, Standish’s house has the kind of utilitarian cabin-in-the-woods vibe you might find in a self-governing community in the non-conformist fringes of the San Francisco bay area. The resident cats, Mu (named after KLF/Justified Ancients of Mu Mu) and Chinatown, are draped on a woven rug near their scratching pole. Syrupy mid-morning sun spills across the scuffed hardwood floors of a house that instantly loosens your city screws.

“Tea?” asks Standish. On the window ledge above the kettle is a tape player with cassettes stacked alongside: Moopie, Dale Cornish, Ben UFO and an intriguing obscurity called ‘Music for Desert Reboot’. “I’ll go through 50 cups in one day,” says Standish. “Sometimes I feel all I’ve done is unpack and pack the dishwasher! I don’t think I could have done lockdown without a dishwasher.”

“The weather is always an influence on our music”

She did it without Yang, though. In 2020, after a productive start to writing, HTRK were separated for nearly six months. The irony is that even when Yang lived in Sydney, they’d kept playing together. “I used to love visiting Nigel in Sydney,” Standish says, who’d fly up most months. “He went to the beach every day. They were sun-tanned and super buff, the kind of people who were doing sit-ups with protein powder in the park. I felt like some kind of teenage goth visiting Nigel! We were opposite people there for a while.”

That changed in the lead-up to 2014 record ‘Psychic 9-5 Club’, when the duo began to explore the expanse eased open by natural highs and an inward gaze. HTRK had suffered three losses in two years: their bass player Sean Stewart, Standish’s dad and Rowland S. Howard, member of The Birthday Party and a friend who produced their album ‘Marry Me Tonight’.

“It was like my whole body was running on a different energy field,” says Standish. “I think if anyone loses a dad who’s really a brilliant dad, you really lose the ground from beneath you. I tried about 20 things to rid myself from anxiety. I stopped gluten, sugar, alcohol; I started meditating, we moved up here. And also getting cats, just lots of different things to bring in joy. And slowly it started working.”

Upstairs, French doors open from the bedroom onto a balcony. A Japanese maple is just beginning to turn. “Autumn up here is so wild,” says Standish. “The whole place goes technicolour for a couple of months, bright yellow, burgundy, orange. It’s one of my favorite months.” She re-thinks. “In fact, every season is my favorite month. In winter, all the trees look dead, it’s very witchy with the mist. And spring’s just so romantic and ridiculous, it’s too over the top, actually.”

Back downstairs, hanging on a wooden column in HTRK’s studio like an apparition is a fanciful yellow dress by designer H.B Peace. A blue one hangs opposite. Standish had toyed with wearing one today. “I thought it might look really epic in the forest,” she says. “But maybe too epic. Nigel might have to wear the blue one for me to wear the yellow.”

A painting by Gian Manik rests behind a table of music gear instantly recognisable from the cover art for Standish’s 2020 solo record (as Jonnine), ‘Blue Hills’. It depicts a visual biography of personal items – including the 90s velvet Gucci loafers she’s wearing today – and sylvan scenes of the Dandenongs landscape. Elsewhere is a white mask from the video for the Jonnine song ‘Scorpio Rises Again’, filmed in Venice, and a table scattered with press-on rhinestones and prototype sketches for album merch. Morsels of HTRK lore, in short, are everywhere.

HTRK tour of the Dandenongs studio Rhinestones album Australia
Mu and a 2002 copy of ‘The Face’. Credit: Agnieszka Chabros for NME

“I’ve got sentimental keepsakes around me but it’s kind of a new thing,” says Standish. “I haven’t had much attachment to things because… I didn’t really trust the process of living so much. I think I’ve started to trust that I might live longer than I thought, and with that it’s like I’m making up for lost time. I never used to wear jewelry and now I make jewelry and I love jewelry.”

Yang shows me a new part of the HTRK process: a vision board. On a yellow sheet of cardboard, magazine cut-outs of Dolly Parton and Kanye West are glued alongside two black cockatoos and a dolphin diving through a burning hula hoop. “It’s all come true in the space of a few months I think,” says Yang. There’s no inkling he’s joking. “I haven’t gone deep on Dolly, we’re just interested in country music in general. I got an acoustic guitar at the start of lockdown, I hadn’t had one since I was a teenager, I was never interested, but I started listening to music with acoustic guitars to see what was being done. Country, mystical folk stuff, just getting into this world of music.”

Books are everywhere. Stacked on tables, bulging from shelves and teetering in free-form towers. The Danish couple operated this room as a library. “It was for the public, but still quite secret,” says Standish. The contradiction seems to make sense to her. A bit of the Dandenongs way seeping in? “I noticed, Jonn, since moving up here, you’ve got more of a neighbourly thing, saying hello to people on the street,” says Yang. She nods. “You’re right. I stayed in Brunswick recently and said ‘morning’ when I was getting my coffee and got just complete dead face. Like young hip people, nothing back, and I realised I have become a village person.”

HTRK tour of the Dandenongs studio Rhinestones album Australia
“I haven’t gone deep on Dolly,” says Nigel Yang. “We’re just interested in country music in general.” Credit: Agnieszka Chabros for NME

Johnston’s book, The Family, is on top of a pile. When police raided the cult’s property at Lake Eildon (not in the Dandenongs) in 1987 “it emerged that over the years [cult leader Anne] Hamilton-Byrne had collected 28 children through bogus adoptions and ‘gifts’ from followers, dressing them in identical clothes and bleaching their hair platinum”, reported The Guardian in 2016. A local bookshop sold Standish a book signed as a gift to Hamilton-Byrne from cult co-founder Raynor Johnson. It’s “a sensitive subject up here”, she says. “Everyone’s very tight lipped. The Family was something to be proud of once because… the whole idea was ‘We’re going to be the most technologically advanced, intelligent race so when the aliens land, they’ll only be able to communicate with us’.”

We walk the Lyrebird Track in Sherbrooke Forest. After the five-kilometre rule was enforced during the extended 2020 lockdown in Victoria, out-of-towners were cut off and it was eerily quiet up here. Most days, Standish wouldn’t see anyone else in the forest. Dreams would linger for hours. “I’m held in dreams for much longer being around nature,” she says. “It disintegrates far quicker when I’m in the city. A lot end up in HTRK lyrics.”

Standish and Yang recently did a Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung cultural tour and, though the stories aren’t theirs to repeat, Standish learnt that First Nations people who were unwell would come from nearby regions to see a healer based in this part of the Dandenongs. Few people lived here prior to invasion, she understands. “It was too cold in winter and a fire danger the rest of the year. They would come here to meet the healer and also to get different healing properties from the plants.”

“I stayed in Brunswick recently and said ‘morning’ when I was getting my coffee and got just complete dead face… I realised I have become a village person”

The Dandenongs remain stubbornly rugged. Locals “kick up a fuss” when paved roads are proposed, and there are no street lights either. “The blackness made me feel like I was in a box within a box within another box,” she says. “I felt really claustrophobic and panicky for, like, three days.” Standish rolled her car into a ditch the day they moved in. Yang says: “I didn’t know how long they were gonna last here. Jonn and Conrad aren’t campers or anything.” And yet. Standish finds me some wild strawberries in a trackside patch and tells me that despite the belief that redwoods are the world’s tallest tree, it’s actually the local mountain ash.

We rest at the bridge near Sherbrooke Falls. It’s like the cool steamy air itself is tinted green. Light filters through the lacework of fern fronds among moss, stag horn and the smell of decaying logs. “I don’t feel a weight of darkness here … like I do if I go to Tasmania or other places in Australia,” says Standish. “I don’t know enough of the history so I’m trying to find out as much as I can. But there’s a different kind of darkness up here. It’s more a kind of white witch kind of settler-darkness. I can feel the cult energy up here.”

HTRK tour of the Dandenongs studio Rhinestones album Australia
The Lyrebird Track in Sherbrooke Forest. “I’m held in dreams for much longer being around nature,” says Jonnine Standish. Credit: Agnieszka Chabros for NME

She comes to this bridge on New Year’s Day to do a manifestation ritual. The previous year’s achievements are written down with some desires for the year ahead, then all of them are set alight and thrown in the creek. As long as Standish can remember, New Year’s Day has been an “important day to start the year with close friends and nature”. HTRK has a great energy in peak summer, they say. “The heat makes you aware of your body,” says Yang. “When we’re playing a show, we make sure the air conditioners are turned off. We like the intensity of that feeling.”

Returning, tracts of bush ooze into short-cuts to shadowy roads. We stop, momentarily lost. “I have geographical dyslexia,” says Standish.

“Me too,” says Yang.

“You’ve kind of got it,” she counters. “Mildly.”

“I’m useless at navigating!” he says.

HTRK tour of the Dandenongs studio Rhinestones album Australia
The Lyrebird Track in Sherbrooke Forest. Credit: Agnieszka Chabros for NME

Back at the ranch, we snack on blue corn chips, macadamias and grapes. Five years on, there’s been no stampede to join HTRK in the hills. “We haven’t started any kind of trend with anyone we know,” says Standish. “It’s amazing how ungentrified it is up here, which is thrilling for us because we didn’t want to be the start of that. It’s still bush people and young families and bogans and witches.”

Last year, she and Conrad planted a sea of wildflowers in homage to filmmaker Derek Jarman’s cottage garden in Dungeness, Kent. “They’re all dead now, though,” she says. “You can’t keep a flower alive and make an album. Has anyone ever said that before? It’s true. This spring, I’ll try it again.”

See HTRK in print in the September 2021 issue of NME Australia, available for order now