FEATURE: Why So Glum?

by Chris Familton

In both popular and fringe culture the dark has been rising steadily over the last decade and it is showing no signs of retreating into the shadows. Fascination with death, ghosts, the dark arts and melancholy have always been important signifiers of all art forms yet this current trend in Hollywood movies and in many musical genres is tantamount to a gothic renaissance.

At the mass consumption end of the scale much credit must go to films like the Harry Potter and Twilight series for kicking off the current trend. They set the scene for the current popularity of TV shows like True Blood, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story with networks embracing death, blood, evil spirits and serial killers. If the theory of art reflecting society is anything to go by then the financial turbulence of recent years is surely a factor in the current popularity of these shows.

Musically the heyday, if not the origins of goth can be traced to the early 80s and bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, The Sisters of Mercy and Joy Division. Many of the groups dismissed the goth tag, much preferring to be called post punk as most emerged from the late 70s UK punk scene yet their music shared tendencies of claustrophobia, rumination on the dark and morbid side of the human psyche and with visual images that embraced very little colour there was generally a look to go with it. The sound those bands created has filtered through to acts of today, some thirty years later, whether it be the darkwave electronica of Light Asylum, Zola Jesus and Austra or guitar bands like Ceremony, The Horrors and Interpol. Most interestingly the cross pollination with synth pop, shoegaze and and dream pop has allowed new versions of the goth/post punk to emerge.

Every music scene is based on action and reaction so in this age of pop music where everything is increasingly saturated in synthetic gloss it is only natural that those with a disdain for manufactured happiness and more inclined to embrace melancholy will find music like this to suit their tastes.  Of course how we label any type of music and how we group its fans is just a symptom of how we like to categorise things but the fascinating thing about the current taste for the dark side is the extent to which it has permeated the mainstream and doesn’t look like giving up the ghost anytime soon.

this piece was first published in Drum Media

FEATURE: Girls Aloud

In the last five years an increasing number of female artists have been making themselves heard above the generic indie clatter. Many of them have stepped away from the softer folk leanings of artists like Feist and Cat Power and established a stronger, more assertive aural template.

In the electronic realm the likes of Austra, Fever Ray and Zola Jesus are creating dark electronic pop music with great critical success. Their music takes influence from post punk, goth, industrial and synth pop but they meld and advance those forms with an added coat of modern digital sheen and futuristic glamour. Across the hallway in the indie room there is Anna Calvi conjuring up swooning guitar-led songs full of passion and drama while next door Florence Welch is taking the baroque sounds of Kate Bush and others and magnifying the music to maximum grandeur.

What links all of these artists is a bold and commanding vocal presence that is of a maximalist nature, projecting outwards. That strength of delivery isn’t something new – Bjork, Patti Smith, Nico, PJ Harvey and Siouxsie Sioux were all there first –  yet this new generation of songwriters are embracing both their natural voices and a desire to invest passion and drama in their music while creating new and interesting work from established musical forms. Simon Reynolds recently wrote of the current trend for overblown sonics and production styles in his Maximal Nation article for Pitchfork. There his focus was on the electronic world yet the themes and trends he discussed are also fertile developments in the pop and indie worlds.

As these artists continue to gather an audience the trickle down effect will increasingly become apparent in other like-minded singers. Locally, acts like Brous, Melodie Nelson and to some extent Washington are embracing big bold artful pop shapes with differing levels of intensity while internationally Feist was one artist who noticeably moved away from some of the sweetness of her earlier work on last year’s Metals LP. Musically it felt like both a retreat and an advance but most of all it was an example of her desire to expand and evolve her craft. It all makes for interesting times as both nostalgia and now increasingly futurism become permanently embedded in the evolution of popular music. The number of female artists among those creating forward thinking and ambitious sounding music is an encouraging and important sign of the times.

this was first published in The Drum Media

INTERVIEW: Austra

BREAKING FREE

IN AUSTRA, TORONTO NATIVE KATIE STELMANIS HAS FOUND THE PERFECT VEHICLE FOR HER BEGUILING VOICE. CHRIS FAMILTON DISCOVERS HER MUSICAL JOURNEY FROM OPERA CHILD TO CRAPPY SYNTHS.

Canada isn’t renowned for its electronica outside of recent tourists Crystal Castles and Holy Fuck yet their indie scene has experienced a boom time in recent years thanks to bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene and its various offshoots. Austra’s Katie Stelmanis sees herself as straddling both musical communities but with Austra she is firmly ensconced in creating electronic music to incite dancing and satiate headphone listeners.

Classically trained as a child and with a future seemingly pre-determined in opera, it took Katie till her teens to discover contemporary music and see it as a viable alternative. Since then she released a solo record in 2009 and played in the band Galaxy before forming Austra as an outlet for her distinctive voice and her hypnotic, retro synth compositions.

“I’ve been playing classical music since I was 9 or 10 years old. I was pretty obsessed with classical music and pretty much militant about practicing the piano and I was in choirs and the state opera. I knew I wanted to pursue music. Up until the age of 18 or 19 I thought I basically thought I would pursue classical music and be a professional opera singer and as I got older I was drawn towards the dark side [laughs] to do my own thing and be in bands.”

Once she latched onto the dark electronica that is Austra she still felt like she was on her own path, not identifying or connecting with any simpatico local scene in her hometown of Toronto.

“I don’t know it is just me or the circles I’ve been involved in but I’ve always been a member of Toronto’s indie community and I felt like I was one of the only ones making electronic music. It has changed a lot now and there are more artists doing it without a doubt which is cool. There has been a DJ culture that I didn’t really know about but it is nothing on the scale of London and New York. There isn’t really a strong electronic scene but there are people doing it. It is kind of hard to find and navigate. I found as an artist doing this music it was hard to learn about it as there weren’t many people to talk to about it.”

Stelmanis’ voice is one of those ones that catches the ear and makes you lean into the speaker. She has the quirky phrasing of Bjork and Kate Bush while tonally she is comparable to Siouxsie Sioux, and more recently Zola Jesus and Anna Calvi.

“Bjork is definitely a big influence and Kate Bush more recently. I haven’t really spent much time with Siouxsie – I should and I’d like to. I’m happy to be compared to all those people. They aren’t just singer songwriters, they’re composers and artists and I just hope that people see my music like that. I don’t see myself as a singer/songwriter with a piano, there is a lot more depth to what I’m doing,” explains Stelmanis.

The debut album for Austra, Feel It Break, is a dark and richly textured collection of songs that conjures up images of late nights, lust and loss. They are coated in washes of and boldly pulsing synths that hark back to early 80s acts like Soft Cell and Depeche Mode who share a dark sexual undercurrent to their music. Stelmanis openly acknowledges her influences but doesn’t see Austra as simply a rehash of the 80s.

“I definitely take influence from that sound and aesthetically I’m really into that sound – I like crappy synthesizer sounds. There are a lot of bands that have the 80s sound but I think generally most people are doing it in a new way – very influenced by the original synthesizers but my stuff isn’t overly drenched in reverb anymore. There are a lot of aesthetic things that have been laid to rest and it is still nice to revisit a lot of those cool old synths and stuff.”

Though happy with the final outcome of Feel It Break, Stelmanis describes the recording process as being a difficult and prolonged one as she battled to settle on definitive recorded versions of her songs.

“The process of writing an album and recording an album in a studio is so difficult and you need a really different perspective. I think when we were mixing and finishing the record I was really unsure about it. I was flip flopping back and forth and listening to so many different versions of songs and it got to a point where I thought ‘I just need to put this out’”.

“With this album I had a bunch of songs that I wanted to put out into the world. I wouldn’t say it is the most cohesive album of all time for me personally but they were all songs I needed to put out. The next record will be more of a concise idea with songs written in a smaller period of time but in this instance it was a wide range. I had to actually go back and re-arrange a lot of the older songs just to fit them into the record a bit more because things were sounding so different. Having not listened to it for a long time and going back to it I think it’s really nice. Now I can listen to it – not with entirely fresh ears – but at least I’m in a completely different mind state and I feel good about it,” she says with a satisfied tone.

Feel It Break wasn’t Austra’s only release in 2011 – there was also the Sparkle EP made up of remixes of the singles Beat and the Pulse and Lose It that threw up some interesting variations to the originals. That willingness to embrace other artists’ interpretations of their music has been a fascinating process for Stelmanis.

“It was really fun, I’ve never really experienced something like that before. It is really interesting to just hand over your songs and have someone re-interpret it in a way that you would never ever think of and every single one was a total surprise. It is so interesting what people grab onto in the songs and use in their remix,” she enthuses.

Since the release of the album last May Austra have been on the road playing shows across Europe and the US and the experience and groundswell of support and interest in the band has been a revelation for Stelmanis.

“The most exciting thing has been out shows. It has been so nice to have people come out to our shows. We’ve all been playing music for a long time and we are used to playing to 20 or 30 people and to suddenly put out a record and have 300 or 500 people turn up has been amazing. To be able to tour all over the world and have people turn up to our shows has been pretty special for us.”

The live band that Stelmanis is bringing to Australia has expanded during the year to now be a six piece that includes two additional vocalists (Sari and Romy Lightman) who have allowed her to focus more on specific elements of her own singing and performance.

“In the beginning it was really interesting to have them there as a performer because I wasn’t totally confident to be a front-woman by myself. Now I am a lot more confident but they add so much more dynamism to the performance. It is a nice other element. We are confident independently so together it is a bit of a spectacle which I really like. Technically it isn’t that different, we are still using keyboards, live bass/drums, backing tracks and back up singers but as performers we’ve come a long way this year. Playing as much as we have we’ve had a lot of practice on the stage and in general we feel a lot more comfortable there. We are nearing the end of our touring run but I feel like we are just starting to get the hang of it.”

Austra’s appearances at Laneway Festival and various sideshows will be their first time in Australia and as such the band are looking to make the most of the visit before they start looking toward the next album.

“I’m just excited to be a part of a touring festival. In my mind it’ll be like a touring circus. I’m excited to hang out with a bunch of the bands on the bill and tour with them. We’re flying in a couple of days early before the festival and we’ll have some time off during the festival and after it. After Australia is the time we’ve allotted to the next record. It’s hard to say what it will sound like until we get to the studio as the songs are so long at the moment. Getting into the studio with fresh ears and ideas is going to yield something different for us but I can’t really say what that will be yet. It will definitely be more of a collaborative experience.”

this interview was first published in The Drum Media

Favourite Songs of 2011

So many people are starting to base their listening on songs these days, such is the reduction in attention spans, the proliferation of YouTube browsing and the ease of compiling ones own playlists featuring the best stuff you want to hear. Separate to my Top 50 LPs of 2011 I’ve also put together a list of songs that caught my ears and became hard to shake. There were of course dozens of others that could be included here but this is a lucky dip of sorts into some of my favourite tunes of 2011 that might lead you further into the artist’s work if you havent checked them out yet…

In no particular order as they are all great…

Dick Diver – On The Bank

Those Darlins – Screw Get Loose

J. Mascis – Not Enough

Total Control – One More Tonight

Light Asylum – Dark Allies

The Strokes – Under Cover of Darkness

Iron & Wine – Tree By a River

Timber Timbre – Bad Ritual

Little Dragon – Ritual Union

Wilco – I Might

Two Tears – Eat People

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Belong

Iowa – Complete Control

The Laurels – Black Cathedral

The Adults – Nothing To Lose

Austra – Lose It

Atlas Sound – Te Amo

Twerps – Dreamin

Royal Headache – Really In Love

Melodie Nelson – Waiting

Black Lips – Spidey’s Curse

Crystal Stilts – Shake The Shackles

Jamie XX – Far Nearer

The Felice Brothers – Ponzi

The Paper Scissors – Lung Sum

Robag Wruhme – Thora Vukk

Wavves – I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl

Wild Flag – Romance

Leader Cheetah – Crawling Up A Landslide

NEWS: Laneway Festival sideshows announced…

They’ve been coming thick and fast all morning so here is a summary of the Laneway sideshows. As per usual there are the horrible clashes like The Horrors and Girls playing the same night as well as Yuck/EMA, M83 and Austra all on the same night in Sydney…

GIRLS

  • Thursday, 2nd February 2012 – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
  • Wednesday, 8th February 2012 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne

THE HORRORS

  • Thursday, 2nd February 2012 – Metro Theatre, Sydney

YUCK + EMA

  • Friday February 3rd – East Brunswick Club, Melbourne
  • Thursday February 9th – Oxford Arts Factory, Sydney

ANNA CALVI

  • Friday 3rd February 2012 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne (18+)
  • Wednesday 8th February 2012 – Metro Theatre (18+), Sydney

THE DRUMS + CULTS (CO-HEADLINE SHOWS)

  • Friday 3rd February 2012 – Palace Theatre, Melbourne (18+)
  • Wednesday 8th February 2012 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney (All Ages)

FEIST

  • Wednesday 1st February 2012 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne (All Ages)
  • Tuesday 7th February 2012 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney (All Ages)
  • Thursday 9th February – Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide (All Ages)

GLASSER

  • Wednesday 1st February 2012 – The Toff in Town, Melbourne (18+)
  • Wednesday 8th February 2012 – The Standard, Sydney (18+)
GIVERS/PORTUGAL.THE MAN/GUINEAFOWL
  • Tuesday 7th February 2012 – Metro Theatre, Sydney

SBTRKT (LIVE)

  • Friday 3rd February 2012 – Metro Theatre, Sydney

M83

  • Friday 3rd February 2012 – The Prince Bandroom, Melbourne (18+)
  • Thursday 9th February 2012 – Metro Theatre, Sydney (18+)

TWIN SHADOW

  • Wednesday 1st February 2012 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne (18+)
  • Monday 6th February 2012 – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney (18+)

WU LYF

  • Thursday 2nd February 2012 – Prince Bandroom, Melbourne (18+)
  • Monday 6th February 2012 – Metro Theatre, Sydney (18+)

ACTIVE CHILD

  • Sunday 29 January – Oxford Art Factory – Sydney
  • Wednesday 8 February – East Brunswick Club – Melbourne

AUSTRA

  • Thursday 2 February – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
  • Thursday 9 February – The Basement, Sydney

NEWS: Laneway Festival 2012 line-up announced…

Laneway today announced its line-up for the 2012 event and it’s a damn impressive one. Sure there are the buzz bands of the moment like Washed Out and Active Child who don’t don’t really measure up to the hype tossed their way but the list of bands promises to be one of the best that Laneway has hosted to date. Note to organisers – make sure Girls are playing at sunset, The Horrors are playing after dark and M83 finish the night on the main stage.

In order of Doubtful Sounds excellence here is the line-up for Australia:

  • Girls
  • The Horrors
  • M83
  • Austra
  • Anna Calvi
  • EMA
  • Feist (except Adelaide^)
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  • Pajama Club
  • Yuck
  • Total Control
  • Twin Shadow
  • SBTRKT (live)
  • Cults
  • DZ Deathrays
  • Active Child
  • Bullion
  • Chairlift (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne only)
  • The Drums
  • Geoffry O’Connor
  • Givers (Sydney, Melbourne only)
  • Glasser
  • Husky (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne only)
  • John Talabot
  • Jonti
  • Laura Marling
  • Oneman
  • The Panics
  • Portugal The Man
  • Toro Y Moi
  • Washed Out
  • Wu Lyf

^Feist will be playing a one-off show in Adelaide at the Thebarton Theatre

New Zealand line-up:

  • Feist
  • The Horrors
  • Gotye
  • Laura Marling
  • Pajama Club
  • SBTRKT(Live)
  • Shayne P Carter
  • Washed Out
  • Twin Shadow
  • Anna Calvi
  • M83
  • Cults
  • Girls
  • EMA
  • Yuck
  • Toro Y Moi
  • Wu Lyf
  • Glasser
  • Opossom
  • The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  • Austra
  • Transistors

Tickets are on sale October 19th.

Brisbane – Saturday 28th January , Alexandria Street, Fortitude Valley
Auckland – Monday 30th January , Silo Park, Beaumont Street
Melbourne – Saturday 4th February, Footscray Community Arts Centre
Sydney – Sunday 5th February, Sydney College Of The Arts
Adelaide – Friday 10th February, Fowler’s Live
Perth – Saturday 11th February, Perth Cultural Centre
Singapore – Sunday 12th February, Fort Canning

ALBUM REVIEW: Austra | Feel It Break

written by Chris Familton

We’ve seen a steady influx of strong, theatrical voiced female singers emerging in electronic pop music over the last few years with the likes of Florence & The Machine, The Knife and Zola Jesus rising to prominence. Now you can add the rather plainly named Austra to that list.

Austra is primarily the vehicle for the songs of Katie Stelmanis, a classically trained Canadian singer who has previously released solo material and played with local bands in Toronto. Now her talents have ben realised in Austra, a band that harnesses the dark drama of goth synth pop from the 80s without an ounce of pastiche or nostalgia. You can hear touchstones like early Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Soft Cell in their sound but they have been updated with a modern production sheen. It retains the analog feel of the instruments and at the same time makes the songs feel utterly contemporary.

Stelmanis’ voice is at the core of Feel It Break. She has that same tone and waver that Siouxsie Sioux, Kate Bush and even Bjork all share in varying degrees. She brings the drama and weight of emotion to music that might otherwise sound good but uninspired. On Lose it she fills the song with yearning while on the robotic disco pulse of single Beat & The Pulse she sounds coy and sensual. The Choke lets some light into the room with a sweeter melodic touch and on Hate Crime she allows herself unrestrained Kate Bush impersonations.

Feel It Break is a fantastic sounding album where an exceptional voice is given free rein over a wonderfully complementary musical landscape. You get the sense more and possibly better is still to come from Austra but for now mark this down as one of the years best debut releases.

this review first appeared in Drum Media