As rain kept falling across January, February and into March, all band members cold do was sit at home cancelling festivals and posting sad Facebook messages to fans.
The first post landed on January 3. As wild weather began hitting the country, campers around Northland packed up their tents and Civil Defence issued emergency warnings about a “subtropical storm”. It hit just as Shapeshifter should have been kicking off a lengthy summer tour with Summer Haze Matakana, the band’s own festival with a hand-picked line-up that thousands of fans were set to attend.
Instead, the group’s five members sat down in front of their computers and began writing the kind of note no band wants to pen. “We regret to inform you that the Summer Haze Matakana concert … has been cancelled due to the current and incoming weather forecast,” the band told fans. In response, one wrote back: “Super guttered (sic) but absolutely understandable. It is WILD out here right now and only gonna get worse.”
A few weeks later, the exact same thing happened. Shapeshifter should have been headlining the debut of Whangamatā Beach Break with Aussie psych-rockers Ocean Alley on January 28, with thousands more set to attend what should have been a sun-drenched celebration for Shapeshifter’s very own festival. Instead, forecasts of huge wind gusts and heavy rain forced organisers to postpone the festival.
The next Facebook message expressed more emotion than the first. “Gutted, frustrated, and in disbelief are just some of the emotions we are feeling at today’s announcement,” the message on behalf of Shapeshifter’s five members wrote. “We ask our fans for their support in this difficult time by holding on to their tickets for the rescheduled date.” In response, some urged them to perform in the South Island, where the weather was fine and sunny. “Nothing worse than losing the chance for a good boogie,” one fan wrote, summing up the sentiment.
Unbelievably, a week later, it happened again – this time, in the South Island. “OK this one hurts,” the band wrote to fans after Nelson Beach Break suffered a now-familiar fate. “Another huge loss for Aotearoa summer, but we just can’t take any risks with the safety of fans, the crew, and all involved in putting on the event. We urge our fans around the motu to stay informed and keep clear of any severe weather.” A despondent fan wrote: “Another kick in the guts.”
All told, Shapeshifter, the Aotearoa drum’n’bass veterans who have soundtracked so many summers it’s hard to remember one going by without them, didn’t get to play a single 2023 show until late March. They couldn’t do anything but sit at home and watch as one wild weather event after another – from Northland’s storms to Auckland’s floods to Cyclone Gabrielle – wreaked havoc around the country, causing mass flooding events, displacing thousands of people, red-stickering hundreds of homes, wiping out crops and completely and utterly washing out everyone’s summer.
Bad luck? Possibly. “We’ve barely bloody played,” says Paora Apera, the band’s frontman, also known as P Digsss. They were crossing the fingers and toes, hoping none of this would happen. “People were going, ‘Bad things come in threes. We were like, ‘Don’t you fucking say that.’ And that’s what happened.” The weather forced Shapeshifter to cancel three of their own festivals, waylaying almost all of their touring plans. How bad does it hurt? “We’ve had a couple of chats over the past couple of weeks and almost wanted to fucking cry because of the weather,” says Apera. “We’ve been holding back the tears.”
Shapeshifter don’t make money from music streaming services. The group’s five members – Sam Trevethick, Nick Robinson, Dan McGruer, Darren Mathiassen and Apera – aren’t the type of band that receives big cheques from Spotify or Apple Music. They’re just not built to survive on income from the streaming era. “You have to have 400 plays to make one cent,” says Apera. “How’s that for shit stats? It’s never enough.”
Simply put, the local electronic veterans make their money by playing live. A full year of planning goes into each performance, ensuring the lighting’s up to scratch, digital displays are on point, smoke machines are timed right, the setlist evolves and their “million dollar PA” system is tuned to perfection. That’s thanks to Tiki Taane, still twiddling the knobs as Shapeshifter’s unofficial sixth band member.
“We’re old school. You play, and play, and play,” says Apera. “You get people to come and see you because of how good you are live.”
It’s a huge machine with many components that can go wrong. But when things click into place at Shapeshifter shows, Apera admits the feeling is like nothing else. “It’s the best drug. It’s a massively powerful sensation when you’re on stage … when the harmonics all form into one. It’s like the giant laser beam in Ghostbusters. ‘Don’t cross the streams!’ Nah, fuck that. Cross the streams. Let’s pee together … That’s the power of a band, when multiple elements become one.”
Over the past decade tens if not hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed that exact experience. Most of Shapeshifter’s touring is done between the months of December and March, when people head to holiday hotspots in coastal regions. Across all those summers, Shapeshifter’s persistence has paid off. “People now consider us the sound of summer, the band of summer,” says Apera. “We go in, we go hard, we give it all our juice so people don’t forget. They go, ‘Shit, that made my summer’.”
Precious little of that has happened lately. Aside from writing sad, sodden Facebook posts, what have they been doing instead? Trevethick is expecting his first baby with his partner, Martine. They’ve been recording new music, and have just released the first single, Runaway, with at least three more new songs on the way. They’ve also been tentatively organising next summer, announcing Whangamatā Beach Break will return on January 4, 2024. Nelson’s leg has been cancelled.
Finally, on March 18, a miracle happened. Shapeshifter managed to make it onto a stage, headlining Wellington’s all-local Homegrown festival. “It was a bloody smasher,” says Apera. They had plenty of emotion to release over the band’s lost summer. They’re also scheduled to close the Synthony festival in Auckland Domain, but Shapeshifter’s soggy summer wasn’t quite done: the Saturday show was pushed to Sunday because of a wild weather prediction. More than 20,000 people are expected to be there.
Despite the weather, Shapeshifter are staying philosophical, trying to make the most of their bad run. “It’s heartbreaking [but] you’ve got to push on and be strong. You know it’s going to be sunny one day.” So what happens if next summer’s a washout too? Shapeshifter has a Plan B, just in case: “We play in the rain,” says Apera. “We got out and smash. And we love it.”
* Shapeshifter perform with Kimbra and Dave Dobbyn as part of the Synthony music festival in Auckland Domain today (Saturday April 1).