The song “Seed” fascinates me. Partly because it’s one of those songs that sounds best about the third or fourth time it loops around on repeat, and partly because it’s gone through so much: it’s been a low-fi jam, a mainly electronic ProTools-produced single, a guitar-soaked quarter-hour long live rock jam, and an acoustic solo act.
Every one of these incarnations has been fronted by Shayne Carter, reinventing his own work every time. Here’s a quick trip through 20 years of “Seed”. Twenty years!
We start in Dunedin. Carter, recently ex-Straitjacket Fits and pretty much a genuine rock star, is jamming with a few local musos. The hope is that he’ll end up with an album to release under the new name of Dimmer.
Spoiler alert: He doesn’t. Instead he gets only three tracks that have ever seen the light of day. Two of them made the “Don’t Make Me Buy Out Your Silence” single (b-side: “Pacer”), released in 1996. The other, which apparently wasn’t even worthy enough to be a b-side to a non-album single, was “Seed”.
This first version of “Seed” is a genuine rarity, even now. If you missed it, that’ll be because you never picked up issue 4 of Spunkzine (the zine of Spunk Records in Australia), which included a New Zealand music feature and a bonus cassette, Star Trackers. On side two Star Trackers, track two was credited to Shayne Carter (not Dimmer). “Seed” appeared between Blonde Redhead’s “Not Too Late” and “I Will Get You” by Guv’ner.
Spunkzine isn’t exactly easy to track down. The National Library of Australia has heard of it, which is nice, but that doesn’t help a guy sitting on the other side of the Tasman who’s trying to get his hands on Star Trackers (which is listed on Discogs, because music nerds are fckn thorough people). It’s not on Spotify. It’s not on Bandcamp. If it’s on YouTube or Soundcloud, it’s well-disguised. It’s almost nowhere other than the storage closets of a few tragic Aussie collectors. Almost.
Luckily, New Zealand has our own tragic collectors, like Chris Walker of the Counting The Beat podcast. In March 2009, Chris rediscovered his 14-year-old Star Trackers tape, converted the kiwi contributions to MP3, and blogged & podcasted about it. What a hero! About 3:55 into that podcast you can hear his hissy conversion of 1995’s “Seed”.
The basics of the song are all in place: The lyrics, about something planted in your head that you can’t get rid of. That driving, looping riff, which fittingly enough is really hard to get out of your head. The synthesizer-like effect on the lead guitar. Did I mention the riff?
A lot happens in the next six years. Carter quickly ditches his Dimmer bandmates, moves to Auckland, gets into dark electronic music, starts using terms like “noir asthetic”, leaves Flying Nun, learns the basics of ProTools, hooks up with JPSE drummer Gary Sullivan, and spends a few years making and recording music at home.
One of the few constants is “Seed”, which survives all of this and resurfaces anew as track 3 on 2001’s brilliant I Believe You Are A Star.
The evolution is clear. The rhythm is tapped out in programmatic snips and clicks, with Sullivan’s kit only coming in under the radar after the groove has set in. Unlike a lot of the rest of the album, though, there’s obvious guitar. More than one of them, even. That earworm of a riff has probably been circling Carter’s brain for half a decade – it’s no surprise he’s still playing it.
I Believe You Are a Star was hailed as a complete reinvention of a former rock-god and as a big nod to the instrument-free future of music. If only the critics knew that one of the best songs on the album was a mid-90s jam session, cleverly reworked. The guitar solo that fuzzes through the second half of the track, sounding like a keyboard effect or a broken theremin, belies the story of the man throwing away everything he’s been before. It was there, in glorious giveaway cassette tape, in 1995!
“Seed” was the only music to survive from Carter’s rock-driven, post-SJF retreat to Dunedin and into his Auckland days behind the mouse of an iMac. Even at this part of our story, it’s had a good run in the hands of a man not known for holding tightly onto his past.
He even released it as a single, which could have been to wring every last drop out of this number before he finally moved on. Could have been, but wasn’t.
Had 2001’s “Seed” just been recycled album filler, our story wouldn’t stretch into the next decade. But to get to 2012 we have to go via 2005. 11 years after their implosion, Straitjacket Fits reunite for a quick tour. (It was bloody great, by the way. I still have my ticket stub.)
Carter had never carried material as he migrated from Bored Games to the DoubleHappys to SJF to Dimmer. He’d never slotted an oldie but a goodie into a setlist. But looking back has its advantages, and in this case there’s a massive upside for fans, in that the SJF reunion reminds Carter how much he loves fronting rock bands. Fuck composing on computer.
The next year, there’s a new Dimmer in town and it’s an honest four-piece. Almost the only thing that survives into this new phase of Dimmer is the name. Oh, and a couple of songs, like a little ditty called “Seed”.
This new thing called Dimmer toured. The old Dimmer didn’t really do that. After There My Dear came out in 2006 and 2007 (depending on where you lived), Dimmer played up and down NZ, as well as tripping overseas for the first time. “Seed” was a near-guaranteed part of every show.
And the “Seed”, it kept growing.
Bless smartphones. If we didn’t all carry such convenient surveillance devices around we wouldn’t have so many “Seed” bootlegs. Not this quarter hour from May 2011 nor these 10 minutes from August 2016, which cut out well before the performance is done. That poor 2016 audience member: Did they not know that “Seed” was the designated long jam? Was it arm tiredness that got to them? Were they out of battery? Never mind, the pain and the power drain were worth it just to help demonstrate that “Seed” stayed as a constant in Carter’s repertoire longer than any other song. It’s his bliss-out moment, his party piece. He finds space for five or six guitar solos each time, and never seems to pick the same ones. It’s a setlist within a setlist.
Really, I could have chosen any number of years to headline this section. But 2012 was the year that Dimmer officially ended. The last album was released in 2009, and there was a quiet year or two in there, but believe me. We draw the line at 2012. That’s when Carter got the band back together and announced their final tour. A sidenote: in classic Dimmer style, the line-up for this final send-off included a new member.
Those shows of 2012 are also when Radio NZ made a proper live recording of procedings – something more dignified than the stageside bootlegs above. Our national broadcaster has preserved near enough to 26 minutes of wonderfully-produced audio, featuring two guitars (the other one belongs to James Duncan) bouncing off each other with friendly aggression. Those 26 minutes are only time enough for three songs. “Seed” starts at 4:34 and ends at 18:30. “Degrees of Existence” and “Crystalator” are both wonderful, but they’re not the reason we’re here.
“Seed” began as a throwaway rarity from a 1995 band so short-lived that they were never even credited. It crossed over six years later when its creator left every other note behind and took to near-electronica. After another half-decade, when he plugged his guitars back in with a completely different band, it tagged along and became the live centrepiece of tours that were meant to be about new albums released in 2006 and 2009.
One last reinvention, then, to bring the timespan to a round 20 years.
Acoustic guitar, unaccompanied, 2015. “Seed”, again.