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Interview: Mercedes Cambridge (Nick Harte) Talks About New Album 'Adversary'

Interview: Mercedes Cambridge (Nick Harte) Talks About New Album 'Adversary'

Chris Cudby / Interview by Michael McClelland / Photo credit: Hannah McGowan / Thursday 24th June, 2021 12:18PM

The driving force behind Aotearoa's hugely influential and DFA-affiliated Shocking Pinks, Ōtautahi multi-instrumentalist Nick Harte has launched today the debut album from his new solo project Mercedes Cambridge, via UK imprint Opal Tapes. An ominous and deeply immersive beat-driven nine track collection, sonic signposts for Adversary could include (but are surely not limited to) Macintosh Plus, Delroy Edwards, Chuck Person and Hype Williams — reflecting on over a decade's worth of studio innovation, then drilling down to uncover something unsettlingly new lurking below. As the artist himself states about the record's head-spinning array of elements, "You’ll hear references to countless genres, such as quiet storm, doom metal and Memphis horrorcore, among many others".

Michael McClelland of Centre Negative fame had an illuminating conversation with Harte, encompassing cinematic inspirations, the influence of horror, recent health issues, his new Patreon music & film project, painting and more. Hit play on Adversary and read onwards [content warning: interview contains discussion of eating disorders]...

Michael McClelland: Before we begin, I’ll disclose to readers that this is your first album since you entered your ‘eyepatch era’. It’s a cool look — what’s the story?

Nick Harte: Thanks! Wish I hadn't acquired it the way I did though: spent a week in hospital due to acidosis caused by starvation. I started a diet a few months ago and got really carried away, to the point where I was virtually eating nothing, maybe a mouthful or two a day of vegetables. Anyway, my vision became so blurred and my balance so off that I had to go to hospital. And because of this reaction to really rapid weight loss, I got double vision (which is why I had to wear the eye patch). I also couldn't even talk or eat / swallow liquids. It was really scary shit actually. I'm out now and my eyesight has really improved so I'm very lucky, though I still need to wear an eyepatch (like late period Nicholas Ray!).

Or like John Ford. Well, it’s fitting to be discussing 1950s directors with you as it leads me to that which excited me about doing this interview: I’ve always found talking about music most interesting when we puncture the bubble of merely describing things in terms of ‘musical influences’. So, Nicholas Ray directed Johnny Guitar (1954), which features none other than a female lead played by Mercedes McCambridge.

I mainly like that film because of its autumnal palette, in a similar way to how I respond sensorily to something like the neon paroxysm of Argento's Suspiria. Johnny Guitar's often overwhelmingly bright palette was very uncommon for westerns. One of the more Freudian westerns, visually at least. I watched a film recently called Miami Blues and while the film itself is pretty average, its visual tone is fucking incredible. It gives De Palma’s Scarface a run for its money in terms of portraying Miami via a heightened pastel drenched palette. It was lensed by Jonathan Demme’s regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto.

Before I drew the connection to Mercedes McCambridge, I thought your project name was a reference to some Mercedes outlet in the Waikato township of Cambridge.

That's a very literalist assumption!

Should my potato-gobbling ancestors be offended that you de-Irished McCambridge?

I’m Irish too, actually. Harte is an Irish name, my relatives descend from County Cork. I doctored her name a bit and dropped the "Mc" of the surname, to alter it for legal reasons but also to make it a little more smooth phonetically.

The Mercedes McCambridge role perhaps most familiar to modern readers might in fact be one of her famous offscreen performances — she supplied her then-57-year-old voice for The Exorcist (1973).

I remember being at my friend Cory's house one afternoon when we were both six and being drawn to the cover of a VHS copy his Mum owned of The Exorcist. She said we couldn't watch it and she went to have a lie down in the sun room. Of course we watched it while she was asleep and it totally blew our young minds. Cory went to wake his Mum up after about three hours though she didn't budge. He went to get a baseball bat and whacked her incredibly hard on her thighs, though still no response. He then got some ice cubes from the freezer and put them down her pants, to which she was unresponsive. At this point he called an ambulance and it turned out she'd had a morphine overdose, though she survived luckily. Cory's grandmother came around to look after Cory and made it apparent that this was a usual occurrence, which is why Cory had been trained by his mum to try these things before calling an ambulance. So from this point on, horror films and drugs were seared into my brain in an unholy marriage and I'd never be the same again. Starting so young, I've kind of exhausted my way through the horror genre, including all the great and not so great trashy films. Horror is a big influence on the overall sound and atmosphere of the project.

Wow. Not to break our rhythm, but if I were to give impatient readers what they want and just compare the damn thing, I’d say you must’ve put a dollop of Negativland, or maybe even Muslimgauze in your blender. What do you say to that?

The Negativland comparison is interesting as I've never actually listened to them (other than a song or two).

That’s interesting because I know you mainly stitched the album together from samples.

I decided early on with this record to follow the obstruction of only using YouTube samples and using only Audacity to manipulate them. I quite like working with limitations as you're almost forced to discover new trajectories. Audacity has pretty good 'pitch' and 'tempo' devices that you can make work for you, often via primitive alchemical methods. I often intentionally tried to lose the sample rate by slowing it over and over again just to try and acquire little accidental microtonal effects.

That slow and deliberate kind of method makes sense in the context of the fact that you’re a painter, too.

Going back to the visual aesthetic of De Palma’s Scarface, my painting lecturer Robin Neate told me he used the palette of the film as a basis for a series he called, ironically, the Ray paintings (after Nicholas Ray). He certainly encouraged me to merge cinema with painting.

And here you are merging cinema and music. What are you up to with your painting at the moment, anyway?

I recently had a show in Dunedin with Michael Morley which went really well, but my next show of paintings is in Christchurch (quite a big space and a solo show too) and was going to be based around the idea of the end of policing so I'm trying to immerse myself in the literature of true crime. We’ll see how that goes as this recent experience with double vision and disordered eating has me questioning whether I might do something else, something more personal. I’ve also just started a Patreon page (HERE), which will feature lots of film and music content.

I understand you’ve been watching a fair amount of crime films too.

I'm not sure why I have this interest in crime films but as far as genre goes, the crime thriller and all its variations are probably what I'm most attracted to, apart from really solid horrors.

Like horror, crime transgresses the social order.

I used to have an interest in serial killers when I was a young teenager, especially Jeffrey Dahmer (who I see has a forthcoming TV series based on him). I even painted a series of seven or eight serial killers who were relaxing at home when I was about 14 and my teacher actually called my mum as he was really concerned. But even at that age I wasn't interested so much in their crimes as I was in the whole cultural phenomenon surrounding them (this is also why O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding, the L.A. Riots, etc all intrigued me as well). I guess my teacher couldn't really see that in the paintings though…

And there you’ve touched upon one of the main themes of the album —’crime and the city solution’, to use a band name to describe it. Or more specifically, crime and L.A. 90s tabloid culture. I’ve driven a car in L.A. on a few occasions, and ‘adversarial’ pretty much sums it up.

I think ‘Brute Monde’ has the perfect intro for an album titled Adversary. To paraphrase my friend Nick Yeck-Stauffer: “drop the needle, welcome a rabid snarl, nod your head…”

'Adversary' is out now on major streaming platforms and limited edition cassette via Opal Tapes.

Michael McClelland's Centre Negative project are playing Dunedin, Christchurch and Oamaru with Blue Cheese and Human Susan in late June, tickets available HERE via UTR.


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Centre Negative, Blue Cheese, Human Susan
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