Austra: “Concerts By Lady Gaga And Radiohead Are The New Opera”

Before their gig at Sónar, Katie Stelmanis talks about classical music, pop and her band's unexpected success

2011 was a great year for Katie Stelmanis. Her solo project became a proper band, and “Feel It Break” , their debut album under the name Austra (released in May by Canadian label Paper Bag), was critically acclaimed and reissued by Domino, in a deluxe version with a bonus CD including their singles' B-sides and a remix of “Clown” (Slipknot). Austra is now a six-piece live band: Maya Postepski (who played with Stelmanis in punk rock band Galaxy, partly responsible for the electronic makeover of the album tracks and also 50% of TRUST) on drums, Dorian Wolf on bass, Ryan Wonsiak on keyboards, and twins Sari and Romy Lightman (who are also known as indie-folk duo Tasseomancy) on backing vocals.

Before the release of “Feel It Break”, Katie used to take care of the band bookings, without - she admits - having a clue what she was doing. This year she's happy to be playing at festivals and in venues she wrote to months ago asking for an opportunity, but that had never responded. After touring non-stop for over a year, and after a well-deserved holiday, Austra are coming back to Europe. On 15th June they'll be playing at Sónar, in order to show why their album became the soundtrack of dance floors the world over, and ending up on so many Best Of 2011 lists. Their energetic live show is a must for lovers of dark synth-pop. We had a chat with Katie about the past couple of months and what lies ahead.

How have things been since Domino released the album?

They have been great, we’ve done a ton of touring, we’ve got to play in some amazing places all over the world. It’s been amazing since the record came out I guess; our lives have changed and now we are musicians. Before we were waitresses, so it’s better now.

Do you think that being on two big indie labels in different countries is better than being on a major label across the world?

I think it depends on the band. For us, well, we are not really pop-stars. I don’t think we would necessarily go over very well on a major label. But I think that when you are on an indie label, especially one that works as well as Domino, it is nice because they have a little axis in every country - there is a different personal approach all over the world and that is really important, I think that has been really good for us.

"To be honest I don’t personally pay too much attention to record sales and things like that. I just kind of like to do what I do: I tour, I play shows, I write music"

Has it been hard to tour for such a long time?

We haven’t stopped, but it’s been great actually, I love touring. We just had two months off, but we will be coming back to Europe in May. I think it’s interesting because we have been sort of nonstop since January 2011 and now that we have taken a break, going back on the road is a little bit daunting. I’m sure it will be fine, but it’s nice to be nonstop all this time, then have a break and take a breath. It’s like wow! You realise that you have been on the move for a year and a half…

Releasing a deluxe version of an album is something not all bands can boast. It is not easy to achieve in times of recession and of digital sales over physical ones. Do you feel lucky?

I guess so, but to be honest I don’t personally pay too much attention to record sales and things like that. I just kind of like to do what I do: I tour, I play shows, I write music. I think that if you spend too much time thinking about the business, it kind of gets more difficult to keep on going - because it is a very difficult business. I just try not to focus on it and I’m happy that we are still able to play shows and people are coming to see us play and we have these opportunities. I just hope that we are able to do this for a long time.

I saw the Paper Bag sessions and loved the acoustic versions of “Lose It” and “The Beast”. Even though you like the synth sound of the band, have you ever thought about having stripped-back versions of the songs or doing any of them acoustic live?

Yeah, definitely. I probably wouldn’t do the acoustic version of “Lose It” live, because I think that the people that come to see us are expecting to hear the fancy version, but I do quite often play “The Beast”. However sometimes I am limited by the instruments, sometimes I don’t have the right keyboard on the road to play those kind of piano songs. But I just acquired a new keyboard in the past few months - that has a really good piano sound - so I hope we will be able to incorporate more of that into the live shows, because I really love doing it. I think it’s a nice contrast to the electronics that most of the songs have.

Everyone keeps bringing up Kate Bush when it comes to describing your sound, but to me it sounds closer to Siouxsie and the Banshees - is Siouxsie someone you looked up to while growing up. Do you like her?

To be honest I didn’t really knew her until I started making music. I didn’t listen to a lot of bands when I was young, I was kind of obsessed with classic music and that was all the kind of music I did. So when I started making music coming from this classical music place, people started to compare me to all these artists that I hadn’t known before. Now I love Siouxsie and the Banshees and I definitely listen to her, but obviously I didn’t have her in mind when the project started.

I read that you were thinking of becoming an opera singer when you started in the choir as a child. What made you change your mind?

I kind of reached the point where I was either going to have to commit to it 100%, or I wasn’t going to do it at all - and I just wasn’t really ready to commit to it. I had started writing my own music by then and started to discover the DIY music and art scene in Toronto and I was really inspired by that. And I like that when you are making your own music you can do what you want, whereas when you are an opera singer you are singing other people’s music under other people’s direction and you really lose a lot of creative control. I wanted to do everything by myself basically.

It would be nice if there were people writing operas nowadays, so that opera singers could do new stuff instead of the classics over and over…

I honestly think it is kind of over in a lot of ways, the whole concept. I love reliving the old classics, but I don’t think that people have the kind of budget you need for the scale of production to put on an opera anymore. It’s a different time I think.

Well for me there are a few albums that are kind of what opera would have been nowadays, had it evolved into electronic music. It might sound crazy, but Björk, and maybe even what Fever Ray did…

I would even take it as far as bands like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, and even Lady Gaga. I think the production that goes into these huge live shows is very similar to what people were trying to accomplish with opera. Their shows have become these massive spectacles. I think those have more in common with the original intention of opera, than what the people who are doing new operas are doing.

Nico Muhly and Owen Pallet performed a cello and violin concert alongside the Britten Sinfonia in March at the Barbican. Have you ever considered doing something more classical as a side project?

Yeah, I think it would be cool, but to be honest I don’t feel in good shape to do so. Probably in the future if I can really devote enough time, because I am so out of practice with classical music. I haven’t really done it since I was nineteen - so that’s seven or eight years - I think I wouldn’t be able to do it justice at the moment. Owen and Nico have devoted their lives to classical music and still practice it all the time and they do amazing things.

"I never really cared about the lyrics; as a younger musician all the bands I liked I never really listened to their lyrics"

Do you see the voice as an instrument? It feels like that on “Lose It”, “Hate Crime”, and “Shoot The Water”. However I think that nowadays most people focus on the content and forget about the melody and the way the voice fits into a song. How important are the lyrics for you?

I never really cared about the lyrics; as a younger musician all the bands I liked I never really listened to their lyrics. And when I started writing music, I would literally perform shows speaking gibberish - without having any lyrics at all because I didn’t think it was important. But overtime I really started to appreciate the importance of lyrics in a song. I think that for the next album I would really like to focus on writing lyrics and working with some of the band members to do that. I think it’s interesting because I have generally used my voice more as an instrument and I am actually curious to try to experiment with a more rock approach and see what happens there.

I know it’s been a hectic year for you, but I wanted to know if you are currently recording or writing any new songs?

Well I’ve had the past two months off and I’ve been writing. It’s difficult to get back into it. I used to write all the time as a hobby, but with so much touring, I literally didn’t write a song for over a year. But I’ve been working on it and we hope to start recording by the summertime.

The songs on your debut album were mainly yours, will Maya and Dorian collaborate more in the writing and creating process?

Yeah, they definitely will. I really want them to because I wrote the last record over a few years, and we only have a few months for this one. I am really curious and excited to collaborate with them this time. I think it’s going to change the sound a little bit, but I think it’s going to be good - and it’s exciting to have another couple of brains in the mix, a couple more opinions happening.

Will Damian Taylor produce your next album? Was it nice to work with him?

We haven’t decided on that yet. And yeah! It was great to work with him. He is such a nice, laidback guy. We were kind of intimidated at first because of his impressive resume, but he just made us feel so comfortable. He was very supportive of what we wanted to do and he really encouraged us to speak up about our opinions - he made us communicate exactly what we wanted. He was just really flexible with us, he tried to encourage our ideas instead of making it all about him, and that is really hard to find.

I suppose you learnt a lot about producing and software. Are you interested in learning about and researching ways to produce? Keeping up with the latest software to record with now?

Yeah, I never really approached what I was doing as a producer; I was using the computer as a means to write songs. But overtime I realized that what I was doing was production. I definitely think I’ve gotten better at it, but I am still not as good as I’d like to be. That is why I am looking forward to working with Maya, because she is a lifetime techno lover and she has a much more sophisticated approach to making beats and making electronic music - I am really excited to collaborate with her on that level. I still feel like there is so much more I need to learn, but when I think about how much I knew five years ago compared to what I know now it is a lot; even what I knew about a year ago to what I know now. It makes me feel so much more comfortable with all the recording programs I am using. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that there are so many more people in my community that are making electronic music and we kind of bounce ideas. Five years ago I was the only person I knew that was making music with a computer; I didn’t have anyone to learn from when I was in Toronto. But now there are so many people around me that I can talk to about how to make a specific sound happen, what kind of programs they are using etc. That has been a real help.

Is there a musical scene in Canada that you identify with? I can only think of Grimes, and Azari & III - but also Owen Pallet and Diamond Rings. They all have a few things in common with you, but not the same sound; probably the closest would be Grimes. Do you like them and find some kind of connection with them?

Maya my drummer is in another band called TRUST, they just put out a new record with Arts & Crafts and they are also playing Sónar this year. We have played a lot of shows with them, so they are definitely close to us. We toured with Grimes. I used to play some shows with Diamond Rings… and I collaborated a lot with Fucked Up and played a lot with them - which is funny because our music doesn’t actually go together, but we are very good friends and we work a lot together.

Who are your favourite Canadian artists at the moment?

TRUST, Doldrums and Purity Ring from Edmonton are who I’ve been listening to recently.

Has being openly gay played against you or has it helped the band?

In general being out has been positive for us, either people don’t care about it or they celebrate it. We’ve never had any kind of negative feedback. We are perfectly fine and comfortable talking about it. I think that part of the reason why I’ve always been very comfortable talking about it is because I am Canadian; I grew up in a very positive environment and I became quite naive and never thought that talking about it was a big deal. Then I started doing interviews and I realised that it was important to talk about it, because there is still people who feel uncomfortable about it and I think they need to get over it.

Are you looking forward to play at Sónar festival?

Oh definitely; very, very much. I’ve read about it for a long time.

It is quite a nice environment for an elaborate live-set; I remember that Fever Ray had an amazing show a few years ago. Are you planning to have something special for the occasion or is it just going to be about the music?

I wish we could do something like her but we are not quite at that level yet. We travel as a six piece band, we like to dress up and put on a high energy show.


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