The House That Harley Built Inside Flume's biggest year yet

Inside’s Flume’s biggest year yet

By Adam Lewis, 22/8/2016

FLUME’S backstage compound at Splendour In The Grass is conspicuously calm, particularly after three days spent deep in the festival. The constant noise is reduced to a quiet hum, punctuated only by the crackling of a large pit fire and warm murmurs of conversation among his tight-knit, predominantly Sydney-based team.

Splendour is reaching its apex, and around the corner, the backstage bars are in full, boozy swing. But here, it’s an oasis among this makeshift city of revelry.

For all the calm, though, there’s an excited energy running through the camp, and nobody’s feeling it more than Harley Streten – aka Flume – himself. He’s warm and relaxed, whether around the compound – where he’s greeting guests and making small, final arrangements – or in his dressing room, where we talk over a beer.

“I feel like I almost have a responsibility, and I’m closing the whole thing,” he says.

There’s only a couple of hours until one of the biggest sets of his life. He’s unhurried, but there’s a curious mix of confidence and excitement in the way he speaks, as if he’s fully digested the context and is ready to take it on.

“It’s … I don’t know. It’s quite surreal.”

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(Photo: Mitch Lowe/SITG)

In some ways, a set like this isn’t abnormal for Flume anymore. His latest album Skin has been followed by an extensive international touring schedule, one that had, by this point, already taken him to major festivals like Coachella and Sonar, and would find him playing to a huge crowd at Lollapalooza a week later. But in a year full of milestones, headlining Splendour was a sentimental favourite.

“I play a lot of festivals, and some of them are bigger as well. But you know, it’ll be in France, and I won’t know anyone, and it just feels,” he pauses. “Like going and doing a festival, another festival. Whereas this one, I just know it so well, and it’s such an important one for me.”

It’s not hard to see why Splendour holds this kind of significance. It’s one of our biggest festivals and arguably our most influential, and Flume’s rise to headline status has been swift. He speaks warmly of growing up with the festival, both as a punter and performer, where he made his debut four years ago as a side-stage opener. A year later he closed that same stage, and now he’s closing the whole thing. If there’s a victory lap to be had, this is it.

It’s well earned. Skin had been released two months earlier, a follow-up to his breakthrough debut that was four years in the making. Among a rapidly changing electronic music culture, that amount of downtime was a worry.

“I was genuinely concerned writing this one, because I was taking a little while. Music just gets eaten up so fast in this day and age, and it moves so quick that I was honestly concerned that people wouldn’t even care that much,” he says. “It’s a huge relief for me now to be able to sit here and be like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got three buses for the American tour.’ It was such a big weight on my shoulders for so long and I was like, ‘Fuck, it has to be good but…. Is anybody even gonna care?’”

Never Be Like You – the record’s lead single – must’ve dispelled those concerns instantly. It was his first Australian #1 single, eventually reaching triple platinum, while Skin topped the charts at home. But perhaps the biggest shift was abroad. Skin reached #8 in the US and Canada and charted well across Europe, while Never Be Like You has just gone platinum in the US (a staggering one million units).

Harley has just begun a mostly sold-out, 40-date headline tour of the US, armed with a huge production and a crew of 22. Barely a year ago, he toured with a party of just four.

“There wasn’t one moment,” he says, when asked to pinpoint where things shifted overseas. “But it feels like the Flume brand, or whatever you wanna call it, carries almost equal weight in the States now, which is nuts, because the States is huge. It’s just been gaining momentum, and it hasn’t really stopped.”

The scale of the tour matches the sound and ambition of Skin. It’s a gorgeous record that marries big pop hooks with sounds that are anthemic, yet otherworldly, and it’s those textures that keep the record cohesive and provide a unique tone. “For me”, he explains, “The thread that ties it all together for me is the sound design. The sound palette, the sonic identity … I think that really came about gradually at first, and there are a couple of songs that actually didn’t make the record that I really like. Not because they were bad songs, but just because they didn’t have the same sonic identity.”

It’s a sonic identity that exists within opposing ideals, and it’s the way that Harley walks these musical tightropes that gives the record its character. He grew up listening to trance music, and that conspicuously mechanical, big-room euphoria comes through strongly. But at the same time, there’s an intimate, sexual charge to the record. It’s undeniably human, from its title Skin through to its collaborators – whether it’s Tove Lo’s bedroom anthem Say It, or Vince Staples’ defiant, world-weary vulnerability on Smoke & Retribution.

“I love contrasting the organic and synthetic, and the real world, and that’s what I try to do with music.”

“That’s what I want it to have. I feel like I’m so close to the project that it’s hard to even have a clear idea of what it is anymore. But I think what I want it to be, is I want it to have those edges, and I want that cleanness and that power… but at the same time, I want it to feel personal, and kind of like it has a soul.” It’s a tension that makes me think of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, a genre-bending sci-fi noir that suggests an eventual ambiguity between humanity and machine, and I make the comparison to Harley.

“That’s my favourite movie!” he says, leaning in. “My favourite films are sci-fi films, actually. I love contrasting the organic and synthetic, and the real world, and that’s what I try to do with music. Make music that sounds like a computer, but feels human, or alive, or like it’s got a heartbeat. I think it’s important, and I think it’s something that often gets lost, especially in the EDM culture today.”

What’s striking, with this in mind, is just how effectively he conveys this on the record. Take Never Be Like You, for example. It’s a huge track, powered by electronic textures that sound both regal and deeply compromised. Canadian vocalist Kai sings anthemically as the synths break apart beneath her in an irregular arpeggio, like they’re decaying. They sound unmistakably digital, but somehow also organic and real.

“That’s why I like Jonathan Zawada’s artwork so much, he takes just straight-up images from the real world and adds that synthetic flavour to them.” The LA-based, Sydney-raised Zawada created all of the graphics around Skin. His work often explores the same amalgamation of human and digital, making him an ideal artist to represent Flume visually, and Harley discusses their collaborations with an infectious enthusiasm.

“All the album artwork is not even real at all, all of it’s computer generated, and it’s so meticulously designed. Y’know, the foxglove flower on the front cover, it looks like a real thing, but then it’s kinda contorted in a strange way, and it’s got, like, chrome little pods, and then it’s on a gradient background which then takes it even further away from the natural.”

It’s an audacious, tech-heavy set that throbs, flashes and dances in unison with his every move.

The show takes the album’s aesthetic (Harley describes it as “basically a big Jonathan Zawada exhibition”) and escalates it into a huge stage show, backed by massive visuals of digital demons, melting icebergs, and the album’s signature foxglove flowers. At the front of the stage, Harley performs in a fortress of transparent, illuminated cubes that are repeated several times above him. It’s an audacious, tech-heavy set that throbs, flashes and dances in unison with his every move, like some kind of abstract, glowing exoskeleton. Whether deliberate or not, it often feels like another way for Harley to explore the human/tech dynamic, physically augmenting his body with technology to enable an arena-sized performance.

Creating it took a lot of planning. Ahead of the tour’s debut at Coachella in April, Harley and Zawada based themselves in San Bernadino, California, with lighting designer Stu Dingley. They set up camp in a huge aeroplane hangar and got to work on the production, programming and refining the movements and colour palettes of his brand-new set.

“I wasn’t really planning on getting as involved as I did, but I got really, really deep. And I realised that to get what I want, to get something I’m happy with, I have to go balls deep and just like… be in it, and y’know, hang out, and really get to know the people I’m working with.”

It took long hours and a deep level of involvement, but it paid off.

“I’m actually super proud of this show. It’s taken so much work, so many hours and late nights – and, fuck, money as well, it’s so expensive. It’s just crazy, but it’s worth it, because we have something that’s really awesome now.”

(Photo: Bianca Holderness/SITG)

As stage time approaches backstage, the sense of serenity is never broken, but the excited energy running through the place builds. Flume’s guest performers arrive one by one with their touring parties, escalating the backstage area from a small, focused team to what feels like a warm, jovial get-together. For Splendour, he’s put together a one-off show that involves some of his favourite rising performers – later, during the set, he’ll call them “the next wave of Australian talent”.

He’s not wrong – his guests are almost all within formative stages of their careers, either having just broken or feeling like they’re about to. From rappers like Remi and Baro to pop vocalists like Vera Blue, Ngaiire, Kučka and Jess Kent, they’re all likely playing on the biggest stage of their careers to date, and it feels like something beyond a simple guest spot. In some ways it also feels like a ringing endorsement.

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(Photo by Jess Gleeson/SITG)

It’s not the first time Flume’s used his platform to champion other Australian artists, and it feels like something that he often does deliberately and generously. When he hit televisions across the country for his 2013 ARIA performance, he also had a rising wave of Australian talent in tow, including Elizabeth Rose, Oscar Key Sung, Moon Holiday, Marcus Whale and Isabella Manfredi of The Preatures. Across his records, he’s collaborated with Chet Faker, George Maple and now Kučka – all in the early stages of their careers. And while he continues to support local talent, the scale of his guests also grew as he worked on his latest record.

“I had a lot of doors open up to me that I didn’t have open prior,” he says. “I was able to work with people that I look up to, who I was inspired by writing the first record.” The collaborations reveal a broad taste, ranging from rising international peers like AlunaGeorge, Vince Staples and Little Dragon (a collaboration he describes as “me getting excited and just being like… fuck yeah! Let’s do some music!”), all the way to veterans like Beck and Raekwon.

“To get what I want, to get something I’m happy with, I have to go balls deep.”

It’s a deep, diverse bench of collaborators, and it’s emblematic of just how much genre lines have blurred. Just take Flume’s origins – the project is named after a Bon Iver song, and it started after he discovered hip-hop influenced producers like Flying Lotus and J Dilla, following a teenage love of trance music. He’s part of a generation of musicians who aren’t polarised by genre, and perhaps that’s why such a broad range of collaborators all seem to fit comfortably on his records.

It also speaks to an adventurousness around Flume’s work, one that seems to be increasing as his confidence and opportunities snowball. “I kinda feel like I’ve done a lot of vocal collaborations,” he says, “and right now I’m excited about collaborating with other producers.”

Those kind of partnerships are something that, to date, he’s shied away from, preferring to produce and complete his own records. But with both of them done and dusted, he’s looking towards other producers for his next collaborations.

“I wanna do stuff with Clams Casino. I love Arca’s productions, I think they’re fascinating. I want to work with other guys that sit in dark rooms and do music on the computer. I feel like I could really learn a lot as well. I feel like often I get inspired when I sit down with other producers and hear the way they do different things, and what they’re using. Because to me, probably the most inspiring thing … about what I do is technology.”

(Photo: Mitch Lowe/SITG)

Writing technology-first is a unique way to approach music, especially for a record with hooks as big as Skin, but it gives a telling insight into how Flume’s songs are birthed. He delights in finding both unusual sounds and unusual technology, and combining the two, often running samples through obscure filters and audio gear designed for completely different purposes. It’s all in pursuit of creating, as he calls it, “sounds that literally have never been heard in the history of mankind”.

“I mean, a fucking Skrillex bassline – 30 years ago, that shit wasn’t around, it didn’t exist. Like, what the hell! We have these tools, and if I can mess around, create crazy sounds and get excited about that, that’s the inspiration for a song.”

“It feels like the Flume brand … carries almost equal weight in the States now.”

From there, he wrangles these sounds into shape, writing chords and distilling them into pop songs. It’s that combination of both disciplines that excites him. “I feel like for me that’s the best music,” he says, “music that embraces both and wins at both.”

Harley’s quick to point out, though, that it’s a current approach – but not a definitive one. His latest record has only been out for a few months, but he’s already planning a new aesthetic for his next project.

“Now that I’ve put Skin out, I’m like… awesome! I’ve done my big, grandiose, clean record, with lots of big sawtooth sounds. Now I’m kind of bored of it, and I want to do lots of more sample-based stuff, like actual world sounds. So, like, maybe a vocal that’s been recorded and make it into a chord.

“I kinda want to go a little more lo-fi, I guess. But that’s how it works – you get excited about one thing, then you go to the opposite for a bit.”

If Skin was an album about taking the digital and breathing life into it, this approach really is an opposite – and so is the environment in which he plans to create it. “I feel like my life’s full of a lot of complex luxuries and things, and I love just camping, and being in nature… and that’s something I don’t get to do when I’m on the road.”

The answer? He bought a van. There’s already a bed in the back, and he’s planning to add a portable studio.

“And then I’m gonna go to national parks, take my surfboard, by myself, and just go surfing and … write another album in that. That’s the plan.”

***

“It’s been a magical night!”

It’s approaching midnight, and Harley is now holding court with a sprawling, packed-in Amphitheatre. He’s taken a brief moment to speak between songs, shouting with a giddy, enthused delight. He’s puffed out, but clearly revelling in the sheer scale and energy of the moment.

And it’s definitely a moment. In front of the festival’s biggest crowd, he’s just re-affirmed his place atop not only Australia’s dance music culture, but our vibrant festival culture too. His set, packed with hits and those aforementioned guests, feels like the culmination of a body of work that’s been ubiquitous on our stereos for months now, brought to immersive new heights by a forceful, mesmerizing lighting show and the sheer scale of the festival’s speaker stacks. It’s that rare show where context, enthusiasm and scale align, bringing out the best in both the performer and their audience.

It’s the kind of show that people go to festivals for.

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(Photo by Jess Gleeson/SITG)

Lead image: Bianca Holderness/SITG