Words: Liam Friary
Images: Ray Tiddy & Mark Russel

I first bumped into Paora Apera (aka P. Digsss) at Crankworx 2018. He was on the sidelines with a big grin, a beer in one hand and a phone filming the action in the other. He was stoking on the action, and to say he’s into riding is a bloody understatement. The front man of one of NZ’s biggest bands has the same energy for riding as he does for music. I approached him and asked if we could do a story on him, his riding and of course his time with Shapeshifter. We yarned, sipped beer, hung for a while and swapped numbers. I was struck by what a humble guy he was.

We kept in contact after this, and to be honest I had to pinch myself whenever a text message came through from him. I’m a massive fan of both him and Shapeshifter, as is my wife, and she was super excited I was developing a ‘bromance’ with P. Digsss. We talked about a few different ride options that could best articulate his love for riding and music. He asked me to join a trip riding the Old Ghost Road. This was Rockstar status as it would involve a helicopter ride. This seemed like the ideal opportunity to ride one of NZ’s most iconic trails with the front man of one of NZ’s most popular bands.

As you can imagine, his life is busy with recordings, rehearsals, radio interviews and playing some big gigs around the country and world. Shapeshifter has an energetic electronic sound, and they are known for their live shows and blend of heavy soul with drum and bass. To date Shapeshifter have dropped six full albums, a couple of EPs and many singles, with a scattering of awards and charting successes along the way. The band formed in 1999 and P Digsss joined the group in the 2003. Since then they have worked hard to become a staple of the kiwi summer, a household name in Aotearoa and recognised globally.

Main Tracks: 2 – 4

Whilst riding the Old Ghost Road we had an opportunity to talk in the huts that are scattered across the trail. I noticed instantly, P. Digsss always had music playing or was singing whilst he was riding along – his enthusiasm was infectious. You can clearly see his musical creativity flowing all the time. At one point we stopped on the side of the track to have a bite to eat whilst overlooking the stunning Mokihinui river. The reggae tunes continued to play as P. Digsss busted some rhymes over them whilst dancing along. Man, this guy has a ton of energy and style.

At Mokihinui Forks Hut we settled in and unpacked our gear (including beers and a bottle of wine). The sand flies were super intense, so we couldn’t sit outside and ventured inside instead. Hut talk; P. Digsss yarns about the association with playing live music and the endorphins you get after a concert. He says he gets the same feeling after riding his mountain bike and this is why he’s so attracted to it. After a beer he opens up about his early days growing up in the skate parks and beaches of Hawkes Bay. As a teen it was there he would grow and develop his enthusiasm for music. He used to love the ol’ school skate VCR tapes with all the different ranges of music. This was where he learned how to combine sport with music. He used to imagine he was in a skate video and select in his mind the best track to skate to. Nowadays he thinks about what would be the best track to ride to. When he was a youth he was the lead singer for a heavy metal band, but it didn’t really go anywhere and he decided to soar to the South Island and give Queenstown a nudge. Shredding the slopes on his snowboard during the day, he also discovered a thriving nightlife scene. He would start hanging with DJ Downtown Brown from Sunshine Sound System. He was doing a ton of gigs with Downtown Brown in the late ‘90s, then Downtown Brown said he was too good for small local acts and he should MC for a band called Shapeshifter. He auditioned and got the opportunity to go tour with them to see if he’d be the right fit. Knowing that this would be his one and only opportunity with them, he told himself he’d need to go above and beyond with every concert. He killed it on the tour and Shapeshifter asked him to join the band. The rest is history, as they say, and almost 20 years of it.

As the night goes on, we cook dinner, light the candles and pour more wine to lubricate the hut talk. P. Digsss yarns about staying independent and building the live shows to create the following. He says the music industry is quick to bring you in, make its money and just as quickly spit you out. Shapeshifter are now self-managed and do what they feel is right, regardless of whether its good or bad from a commercial sense. In the modern age of music streaming and algorithms, P. Digsss says we’ve lost the art of searching for music and artists being paid properly for their work. He’s stoked that all the Shapeshifter band members have managed to live off their art. We then listen to some exclusive, as yet unheard cuts on an upcoming album they are working on. I obliviously can’t talk it about it much, but it was really good and P. Digsss sang his part to us sitting in the hut, which was a real a privilege.

The next day we awake to the clouds lingering in the hills that surround Mokihinui Forks Hut, and while we wait for the helicopter, we cook up some brekkie. Over a cuppa coffee the hut talk starts again; I ask P. Digsss about the ‘System is a Vampire’ album (which he named) and you can see his mind go back to that time and place. He then unleashes all the back-end stories from their travels, gigs and time in the recording studio. It’s like being inside the Shapeshifter encyclopedia! The song ‘Twin Galaxies’, which is one of my favorites, is an emotional song for P. Digsss as it’s about his dad passing away and another band member’s relative passing away. This was the last track on the album and the recording had all the band members in tears afterwards. P. Digsss said writing and singing the song helped him release the pain he was going through. Music, like riding, has a way of expressing feelings that often can’t be talked about.

Track 5: Outro

Most of the yarns with P. Digsss have a tough element to them; the lifestyle of a professional musician doesn’t come easy. Which is true for aspiring professional riders too. P. Digsss stays it’s about being true to who you are and what you believe in. Shapeshifter have all worked hard to get this dream a reality and they continue to work hard to this day. Most things in life take time, energy and sacrifice, and P. Digsss relates it to riding: you get out what you put into it. His passion and connection with music is evident throughout the whole trip, from the music he was singing to beats on the bike and the constant need to groove. His energy for riding and life is unstoppable.

The front man of Shapeshifter has goals for more riding adventures. He looks forward to his time on the bike in between gigs and often takes it on the road with him. It’s the perfect antidote to all the hype and mayhem that surrounds his hectic lifestyle. I’m just stoked to have spent this time with him, learning about his life behind the music while spinning our pedals and helicopter blades through some of this country’s most spectacular scenery and riding.