To mark the release of new album Invisible Lines, Michael Cathro of Dunedin band Ha The Unclear talks to Melody Thomas about psychology, religion, fatherhood... and music!
When I was seven I won my first ever CD from a school fair. I’m sure you’ve heard of it – the classic 90s compilation The Telecom Animals Collection: 18 original songs from your favourite ads. I spent countless hours transcribing every single word into my own little, hand-written lyric book. I’ve always been a lyrics person.
With Ha The Unclear's Invisible Lines, I was sold the moment I heard songwriter and guitarist Michael Cathro sing the word “flagellum”. It’s not a word that often makes it into song – I checked:
Invisible Lines contains a bunch of similarly obscure or academic references, though always made personal or embedded in a relatable anecdote.
I asked Michael to explain what was going on behind some of those lyrics.
Track #2: 'Wallace Line'
"It's going to feel like 50 million years/Because we change so much over space and time... I'll never make it across the Wallace Line."
Michael: “[The Wallace Line] is a deep, deep channel which divided [islands in Indonesia] for 50 million years. During the ice age it was covered over so animals could move back and forward, but then for 50 million years it was impassable.
The particular channel between Bali and Lombok is only about 35km wide and yet today the fauna on either side of it is so remarkably different.
I’d been thinking about that particular story for a couple of years.. it’s a really good metaphor for something - what is it? And then I developed it into that long distance relationship and how we change over time according to our environments and drift apart in a way.
You can still be so close to someone who is far away via technology, but if your environments are dissimilar then maybe you will change irreconcilably.
When you’re really close to someone and you share all these same experiences I think there’s this real marriage of perspectives that can’t be replicated over distance.”
Track #6: 'Big City'
”A throaty groan ensues and he collapses on the floor/Drug or alcohol induced, whatever it is, projectiles issue forth... But nobody cares/Nobody seems to care"
Michael: “I hadn’t long been in Auckland… [when] I was in the middle of the bus and right down the back someone had collapsed and was vomiting and some was shouting about it... and no-one was really helping him.
At the time I’d been doing a social psychology paper about Kitty Genovese in 1960s New York, where she was murdered in the night with all these apartments and witnesses, but nobody did anything.
It was construed as apathy but I think they’ve debunked a lot of that, like actually it as more just diffusion of responsibility or ambiguity of the situation, but recently I saw a newspaper headline where a pedestrian was hit in Auckland and no-one did anything and the headline was like “bystander apathy!”
Track #3: 'Bacterium'
"Bacterium, look at your motor go/Your flagellum is evolution to me.”
Michael: “I’d been reading about these court cases in the US [regarding the] teaching of creationism in school. They use the bacterial flagellum, which is the motor of the bacteria which drives it… as an argument for irreducible complexity which is something that’s so complex that it must have happened by design."
"For me, the song is about letting go of ingrained patterns… I think we can get trapped in ways of thinking and shut out everything that isn’t confirming our existing beliefs."
Track #4: 'Things Ritual Things'
"One day when everyone here is gone/Grass will cover these fields/And they'll find signs of life/in fossilised bones, and four inch screens"
Michael: “I think it’s kind of funny that it’s guaranteed some of our theories about what we’ve dug up will be way off the mark and I wonder what would be misconstrued about the time humans inhabited the Earth.
So this is like alien anthropology. I was imagining an alien archeological dig on Earth and how they might try to piece together what in the hell we were doing here. Why were these devices so important to these people? What were they worshipping?”
Track #10: 'Fake Flowers'
“Well, how can free will exist/If mind is made of matter and matter makes a mind?/Am I trapped in this cause and effect storyline?"
Michael: “The free will argument is interesting, though I don’t believe whether we have free will or not has many (if any) real world implications. We'd still have to uphold the illusion of choice in order to function in the world.
The way I kind of think of it is: if physical laws were created from a singularity at the instance of the Big Bang - a single cause must have a single effect (I’ve made a lot of assumptions there). I imagine it like striking a ball on a pool table, struck in exactly the same way, the outcome is never going to be different, it’s governed by physics.
If minds are purely physical phenomena, then they are governed by the same laws and by extension every choice we make. Every effect traceable back through its causes all the way back to its origin at the Big Bang. The only way out of the problem I’ve personally been able to find is random behaviour at the atomic level. I mean, I have no idea but it’s fascinating stuff.
So Fake Flowers refers to the false narratives we create in order to be able to navigate existence… It’s about when that set collapses and you can see all the crew standing around with boom mics and you realise reality isn’t quite as straightforward and objective as you thought it was.”
Listen to Ha The Unclear's Invisible Lines here.