Dance, Dance Evolution
"Sorry, this has nothing to do with what we're talking about, but apparently, Neil Young is inventing a new musical format," Katie Stelmanis interjects. "It's because he's so adamantly against the MP3, he thinks it has ruined the way people listen to music." An intrigued Maya Postepski's eyes widen, beneath her thick-rimmed glasses and dishevelled hair, as she responds. "Wow, really?"
"I don't know much, but some interviewer told me about it."
This isn't entirely off topic. As talk of the Toronto electro-dance outfit's new album, Olympia, shifted to its new and improved — and most notably, analog — sound, Stelmanis, drummer Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf unanimously agree that audible quality is of the utmost importance.
"You know, it sucks to put so much effort into the sound quality of your music and then put it on an MP3 and have people listen to it on shitty, little headphones," Stelmanis continues. "What's the point?"
Sound aesthetics have definitely metamorphosed for Austra since its days as Stelmanis's solo project — originally performed under her own name before switching to the moniker Private Life and finally, Austra — exploring away on her midi synthesizers and programs. Now a full-blown band with her two main collaborators and a varying cast of touring characters, Austra has a definitive image and sound. Adds Stelmanis, "This not a solo record at all; you just can't call it that anymore."
Katie Stelmanis's love of opera started it all. Growing up, she has described herself as an "obsessive classical music kid," who developed a taste for the high art of opera and trained professionally for a number of years. In high school, she detoured into her first band, Galaxy, with friends Emma McKenna and Postepski. Together, their post-riot grrrl punk rock grit was a far cry from Stelmanis's first passion, but got her foot in the door of the local indie music scene, which she'd eventually penetrate with her own brand of music.
In 2008, shortly after the dissolution of Galaxy, Stelmanis released her first solo record, Join Us, on Toronto's Blocks Recording Club. Heavy on the vocals, an undeniable force in all her work that often gets comparisons to Kate Bush, Stelmanis wanted to curate a sense of drama with whatever means she had.
"I got into electronic music because, when I first started writing music, I wanted to write music with orchestral instruments and the only way I knew how to do it was to figure it out through midi," she explains. Through her use of electronics, she was able to summon violins and cellos without enlisting actual instruments or personnel. She also points out, "I was really obsessed with Nine Inch Nails at the time, so I would put distortion on everything, to the point where I don't think I have a certain register anymore because everything was so high-pitched and distorted."
Though bearing the hallmarks of the now-recognizable Austra sound, such as Stelmanis's soaring, sombre voice and a thick fog of cold, dark midi-triggered instrumentals, Join Us was lacking something even more apparent in Austra's current arsenal — the element of dance.
New York disco/house band Hercules and Love Affair were Stelmanis's gateway band into the world of dance music. "I came upon dance music relatively late," she admits, citing the Knife as the only other dance or electronic act she was enthralled by. "I think Hercules and Love Affair were, like, one of the first club bands that crossed over into the indie world and I remember reading that they were influenced by early house and techno, so I started researching that and got really into it.
"I feel like I definitely appreciate and love dance music now," she laments. And it was this gradual build of encyclopaedic dance knowledge that began Stelmanis's slow process of transformation, from midi opera singer to electronic star.
Through touring Join Us with Postepski, the two solidified their partnership once again. As Stelmanis and Postepski prepared new material, which would form Austra's proper band debut, Feel It Break, they invited bassist Wolf to play with them. Wolf, who had previously played in Toronto art-rock band Spiral Beach, played his last show with his old band on a Saturday and promptly joined Austra by the end of that weekend. "There was one day where I was a free agent," Wolf jokes.
"We literally fell in love with him on the first day," Postepski says. She and Stelmanis both turn to smile at him, giving him a look of two proud sisters gushing over their little brother. Wolf remains reserved throughout our interview, having to politely chime in between the two with small comments, sporadically.
"Because Spiral Beach was so different, I remember thinking to myself, 'Oh my god, this band are totally Blonde Redhead,'" Wolf recalls. "So I tried to figure out how to play like Blonde Redhead and the girls were like, 'What are you doing? No!'"