Austra Dance, Dance Evolution
Published Jun 24, 2013"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!'"
"Dorian, don't play so much! Play less! Play quarter notes!" Postepski laughs. But through his ability to adapt and cooperate, while still contributing seminal bass parts, Stelmanis gives Wolf an MVP title of "the ultimate band member." Again, both women let out some of the biggest smiles in our entire interview.
Feel It Break was released in the spring of 2011; it was a significant stepping stone for Stelmanis. The music was more focused, the line-up had gelled and, most importantly, the album struck a formula that finally combined all of Stelmanis's passions into a cohesive piece of work where dance music went morose and dramatic.
Its immediate rush of buzz and attention was at a level that Stelmanis had never experienced before, garnering high praise from the highest online music preachers. But one commonality across the board was the use of a new genre identifier, "witch house," an amalgamation of hard-hitting synthetic beats and gothic stylings. "It was definitely pretty gothed-out," Stelmanis admits.
"I find that hilarious," Postepski comments. "Because I find that all our backgrounds are so dynamic, so to be labelled as a goth band just seemed so one-dimensional to me."
The album, which Stelmanis described as the transitional record, prompted the changes that would come to create Olympia, which she now deems as "the transformative album."
"On Feel It Break, we didn't know how to make a record in the studio or how to promote it once it was out," Stelmanis says. "With Olympia, I felt fully confident during the whole recording process and I feel like we've been able to define ourselves as a band."
Austra recorded Olympia in a remote studio, filled with analog gear, in Detroit, MI, a place that Postepski describes as being "in the middle of nowhere," away from the city's distractions. Stelmanis, Postepski and Wolf were prepared for an overhaul of their previous sound, which Stelmanis dubs as really icy and sonically distant.
"The one objective we had with this record was that we wanted it to sound really warm and really real," Stelmanis explains. "We wanted the complete opposite of Feel It Break, so we knew we wanted to record everything live."
The idea of warmth is evident throughout the album. No longer relying on midi sounds, Austra was prepared to usher in the real deal. "Fire" fades in with tone-setting sombre note of a cello, while single "Home" featuring flute and percussion flourishes so tangible, it feels like you're playing along at home. Combating dance music's reputation for cold, emotionless melodies is a driving factor behind Stelmanis's need to create something both meaningful and fun to move along to.
"A lot of EDM is icy and like that," Stelmanis says. "Like David Guetta and that Top 40 machine-made sound is like nails on a chalkboard."
Postepski adds that the switch to analog has since "added a human quality to an electronic aesthetic." Wolf raises his hand to clarify his feelings on the matter. "I don't think the icy quality is necessarily bad, that's just an aesthetic that we really didn't want to do anymore."
"Once you familiarize yourself with the analog world, I don't think you can ever go back to the digital world," Stelmanis muses. She begins to form an analogy using McDonald's as an example, before retracting it for a better example. "It's like eating frozen dinners your entire life and then having Jamie Oliver come and cook for you."
Though not permanent members of the band, twin sister duo Sari and Romy Lightman (of Tasseomancy) play a significant role on Olympia, specifically Sari. Aware of her weakness as a lyricist, Stelmanis went to Sari for help, leading to a collaborative effort that saw the two co-writing many of the songs.
"I don't consider myself much of a lyricist, it's just not something that I take pride in," Stelmanis confesses. "I'm more of an instinctual lyricist in that I'll say something and that will shape the meaning for the rest of the song."
Wanting to craft more pop-oriented hooks and melodies, Sari helped flush out Stelmanis's ideas, rather than leaving phrases vague and bare, as heard on Feel It Break. "People could sing along to the words on that album, but it didn't make sense. They'd tell me what a song meant and it wasn't what I was talking about!" laughs Stelmanis. "I wanted to make pop lyrics, I wanted lyrics that were easy to understand, easy to remember and very powerful."
On "Home," Stelmanis started with the phrase, "You know that it hurts me when you don't come home at night," which would've been the crux of the song. But Sari, Stelmanis explains, "did the rest, and shaped it into a song that made sense. I'd write the lyrical hooks of the song, then she would help flesh them out in a more poetic way than I can do myself."
"Painful Like" is another example. Written by Sari, the song talks about being gay in a small town, an important subject Stelmanis wanted to discuss. "I didn't experience the hardships described in 'Painful Like,' but a lot of people very close to me did," Stelmanis explains. "Which is why I felt compelled to sing a song about it."
Austra don't need to necessarily be labelled a queer band; they're not overtly political people. As she says, "it's not crucial to know I'm gay to understand the music. [But] I think visibility is really important in terms of queer acceptance, so I chose to talk about it in interviews and beyond," she says. "I want it to be something people can be comfortable with and I want to create a space where queers know they can be safe and celebrated."
Stelmanis is the type ofaactivist who just wants to promote change and equality through art and music; the celebration of queer identity is just one of the myriad aspects of Austra's music, which now encompasses a full spectrum of sounds, lyrics and visuals.
Politics aside, Austra just want to make people dance, now more than ever. Trying to convey on record a reflection of their "celebratory dance party" live shows, Olympia is the band's best work yet.
Stelmanis, Postepski and Wolf have admittedly not showered and pressed for time, as we wrap things up. "We were literally rehearsing, like, five minutes before this," Postepski offers. "We spent an entire month trying to figure out how to play this record and I think we're done, maybe." No maybe about it, Austra are ready.