Entertainment | Music

‘We’re not going to stop’: Shapeshifter’s 25 years of live drum and bass

Shapeshifter band members L-R: Nick Robinson, Darren Mathiassen, P Digsss, Sam Trevethick, and Dan McGruer. Photo / Supplied

This article was first published by Stuff.

Over the past quarter-century Shapeshifter have become part of the cultural fabric of New Zealand’s electronic music scene and continue to draw crowds year in, year out. Sam Smith reports.

“We’re not going to stop, because that’s what’s keeping us alive,” Shapeshifter frontman Paora Apera - also known as P Digsss - tells Stuff.

Despite the challenges facing musicians in New Zealand, drum and bass (DnB) group Shapeshifter are celebrating 25 years, and they’re not about to call it quits any time soon.

“We love jamming and we love making music together. It’s a powerful, potent weapon. When you get it all aligning, it is an amazing feeling,” Apera says.

Formed in Christchurch in 1999, Shapeshifter are considered NZ pioneers of DnB, one of the country’s most popular genres that draws tens of thousands to gigs and festivals every year.

They have carved out a niche within this scene, releasing seven albums and four EPs, and because of their longevity are now ingrained within DnB culture; so much so that a world without Shapeshifter seems unthinkable.

Although their lineup has changed over the years, the current lineup of PDigsss (Paora Apera), Sam Trevethick, Dan McGruer, Nick Robinson and Darren Mathiassen has been together for 12 years.

Trevethick has been there for all 25 years and puts Shapeshifter’s longevity down to being forward-facing with their music.

“We don’t want to rest on our laurels, or just say the same thing that we’ve been saying,” he says. “We want to figure out what music and life mean to us right now, and how we relate to the world, and what we are trying to express, and what we would like people to get from our music and our expression.”

Photo / File

Shapeshifter’s evolution over the years has seen them develop a live, instrument-based style of DnB that captures elements of hip-hop, funk, rock and electronic music. It is something that is so unique to them, that you know it is Shapeshifter from the moment one of their songs comes on.

Apera says at the heart of it, they are just music fans.

“We just play the music we like. We make drum and bass, but it has all our influences. With DnB you can fuse so many styles, which is what we’ve done with our live show.”

Going to jazz school also helped give the group a grounding in different styles of music, Trevethick adds.

“It was a perfect breeding ground because there was a lot of music around us and we were taking in a lot of different influences that were very musical.”

Trevethick is quick to point out that he doesn’t think Shapeshifter are a DnB act per se.

“We are obviously heavily informed by DnB in terms of tempo and some stylistic things, and drum and bass sounds and stuff, but I don’t feel like we make DnB. It is very important for us to have lots of different influences, especially live.”

Playing live is where Shapeshifter cut their teeth and they have just finished a series of shows as part of their 25th anniversary tour, with more to come in the summer.

Their latest round of gigs culminated in what they are calling a triumphant show in Auckland.

“The Town Hall show was such a peak for us,” Trevethick says. “We performed as good as we could basically.”

Adds Apera: “With this tour, we went through all our catalogue and chose a whole bunch of songs. We had to whittle it down because it was quite a large set. We played some older tunes, some songs that we’ve never ever played, one we’ve brought up that’s like 22 years old, and it’s given this awesome, fresh excitement to our set.”

Despite a focus on the old during this tour, Trevethick says new music is on the way, highlighting its importance in helping them remain creatively engaged.

“If we weren’t writing new music, I don’t think we would continue the band. We need to feel that freshness and excitement and that we are responding to the world that we are in musically, that’s really important to us.”

Apera chimes in again: Our latest writing sessions have been the best. We spent three or four days in the same room, chilling out, working over ideas. It is cool, it is real ego-free.”

Ego-free is one of the key aspects as to why Shapeshifter are still together after 25 years; something not lost on Apera and Trevethick.

“For things to stay together for that long, I feel very lucky that’s happened because it is very relaxed now, we can discuss things very openly and respect each other’s opinions and it feels there’s not really much tension,” Trevethick says.

Apera agrees, and puts the great position the band is in after all these years down to their professional nature.

“The good thing is we treat Shapeshifter professionally and we put all our effort into it, then we allow ourselves to go and have time away in our normal lives and all that stuff,” he says.

“We still love each other massively. It’s good to have that time apart and when it’s time to jam, it is usually energised.”

As for the future? Trevethick says they have no plans to stop any time soon, adding they will know when the time comes to call it a day.

“When it doesn’t feel like we’re doing it because we are enjoying it, if it ever feels like we are just doing it because we need the money, or it’s just a thing to do, we could take it or leave it,” he says.

“It still feels really enjoyable for us, it gives us a lot. And what I really feel about Shapeshifter is that we offer something unique, we turn up with a full live band and live drums. What we do is very different and I enjoy bringing that to the table, it is still a thrill.”

Apera agrees; revealing there is no fallback to “playing music with the boys”.

“When we’re all in tune and humming, that’s a really powerful drug.”

Shapeshifter are playing Havelock North and Coromandel as part of their 25th anniversary tour in December. Tickets are on sale now at

- Stuff