Talking ‘Future Politics’ With Austra’s Katie Stelmanis
When we first met Katie Stelmanis and Austra at the start of the aughts, things seemed right in the world. The United States had elected its first black president; Occupy Wall Street was catching fire and forcing the fat cats to retreat; global warming was taken seriously, as were the rights of immigrants, the marginalized and the downtrodden. Thanks to the internet, listeners could tap into scenes all around the world with a click of a button — including Austra's Toronto-based, electronically-enabled gloom. Despite its initial associations with the broader uptick in synth-laden spookery known to most as "witch house," Stelmanis' project ultimately transcended these barriers — the trio signed to Domino for their 2011 debut Feel It Break, later expanding to a massive band two years later for the ornate Olympia.
Oh, how times have changed. Barack Obama is about to hand over the White House to a billionaire; xenophobia and climate change denial run hot; and witch house is dead (okay, maybe that last one isn't so bad). Stelmanis, meanwhile, has whittled Austra's ranks down to four following Olympia's often harrowing recording process, which entailed more head-butting than harmony. Future Politics, her impending follow-up to that 2013 record, marks not only these shifting creative tides, but the frenzied currents of the modern world writ large; shaped largely by Stelmanis' experiences living in Mexico City on-and-off over the past two years, it's her most personal, political and confident album to date — not to mention a stunning show of optimism in the face of certain doom.
Last month, CLRVYNT caught up with Stelmanis over the phone to discuss the new album (and the experiences that shaped it), the double standards faced by female electronic musicians, and how we can reverse the doomsday clock as the second hand draws closer and closer to midnight.
You’ve got a few weeks off before you’re set to hit the road behind Future Politics. What have you been doing to pass the time?
I’ve been doing really well. This is kind of the first real break from touring that I’ve taken since I started being a musician; I basically didn’t play one single show for all of 2016, which to me feels secretly insane. But it’s been really good — I’ve taken plenty of time to rejuvenate and feel and become healthy, and now I’m going to go and destroy all of that. [Laughs]
You wrote a lot of this album in Mexico City. Do you still live there?
No, I just lived there for six months. I lived there last winter and the winter before that, so basically two three-month stints. I’m currently in Toronto, although I have a habit of moving cities every six months. A week ago, I would have been in New York.
One of the things that interested me most about this record is how it draws upon your time spent in Mexico City; here in North America, society’s so intertwined with capitalism, and yet we often pay little mind to the countries who pick up the slack so we can reap the benefits of that lifestyle. Was there any culture shock for you? What was it like?
It’s exactly as you’ve described it. It was very interesting and enlightening for me to spend a lot of time in a place that exists outside North American imperialism. That perspective helped inform a lot of the ideas I put together for this record. I think it’s really important to understand that all of the gains we’ve made under capitalism come at a price, and you can see that very clearly in Mexico City. It wasn’t like the areas I was living in were “poor” — it was fully gentrified — but then you have these slums that don’t exist in the same level in North America at all.
Like most of your material, Future Politics has a strong dance component to it. Did you go to any clubs when you were living there?
I did. I actually had kind of an enlightening experience — one of the things I found really interesting about Mexico City is that people aren’t afraid to talk about class like they are in North America. My friend who I hung out with a lot was like, “Well, I tried dating someone in the lower class and it didn’t work,” and I was completely shocked that she said that; I thought it was so mean to say that. But there’s something to be said for acknowledging it, and I don’t think we really acknowledge it at all, whereas the struggle between the classes is a very real, tangible thing in Mexico City. I feel like people respect poor people there, whereas in America it’s very individualist; everybody understands the struggle of being a Mexican, and especially being a brown Mexican. It feels like a very big part of everyday life there.
In North America, our understanding of class is very competitive …
I don’t feel like an authority figure in any way — and maybe it’s more about the people I was with, who were very “woke,” as you would say — but there’s a ton of corruption in Mexico. The president is a corrupt guy; he’s been voted in by the majority for years and years now, so there’s some degree of complete oblivion in Mexico as well. But even among the most capitalistic rich people, there’s an acknowledgement of the history that made Mexico what it was, whereas in America, [they] completely distort it to make it what [they] want to be.
What about the queer and DIY communities? What were your experiences like navigating underground art spaces?
I was introduced to an entirely new genre of music which I didn’t know existed, called electrocumbia. Basically, electrocumbia is a mainstream movement, but there’s this movement of producers who are mixing old indigenous folk music — Caribbean folk music, Argentinian folk music — and making them into dance tracks. They still sound like cumbia [folk]; it’s very different than if you went to a dance club anywhere in North America. But that is a very politically charged movement, and it reminds me of what A Tribe Called Red is doing in Canada: mixing pow-wow music with EDM. It’s about indigenous pride, indigenous recognition; when you go to these dance clubs and dance to electrocumbia, it’s almost a political act, because electrocumbia is about rejecting the American institution of music and going back to the roots of Latin America, and celebrating that. That’s something that I experienced there that I really loved.
There’s totally a queer scene in Mexico City as well. Gender diversity isn’t quite as accepted, so that’s something that my friends who live there struggle with. There’s much more [macho] ideas as well — more misogynist than what we experience in larger cities. That’s difficult for queer women — at least, for the friends I have there.
You deliberately chose to surround yourself with women for this project: all female producers, engineers, et cetera. Was that an intentional decision?
It just sort of happened naturally, for the most part, [with] the recording process. I mean, I was writing the record — I always produce it myself with Maya [Postepski], who’s in my band and is a producer as well. She added the percussion on some of the songs. I was mixing it on-and-off with our live engineer, Alice [Wilder], who was also my girlfriend at the time; we were traveling and mixing this record. There were a couple of opportunities where I almost mixed it with someone else, but they fell through because of scheduling.
It had been a year of working on these tracks, and then I had the chance to mix the singles with this other dude. I was just like, "I don’t want to bother." We’ve come this far, and to be able to say that it was mixed, mastered, produced and engineered by only women ... it didn’t seem to make sense to bring some guy to mix, like, three tracks in the last couple of weeks. And I knew he’d steal the credit if we didn’t end up working with him.
As a female producer, do you ever encounter sexism? Men jumping in to offer their “expertise” unprompted?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s really interesting, actually, because I feel like the climate has changed so much that this is the first time I’ve put out a record and I’m regularly being identified as a producer. That’s never really happened before. With the first two albums, the press kept calling me the “lead singer,” but now that there’s more visibility for female producers, people are very careful to point out that I produce the projects, and I’m like, “Yeah, wow.” [Laughs] I’m shocked that people are seeing this.
It’s really refreshing that the narrative’s changed. There was the launch of Discwoman, that Tumblr devoted to women producers, and people being political about it. One of my favorite producers in Berlin, Objekt, won’t play or DJ unless there are women on the bill. Black Madonna was DJ of the year for DJ Magazine, which three years ago would have had, maybe, one woman in it. So, there have been major strides in that world, which is great and has changed the narrative for this project a lot.
Speaking of shifts — the last record, Olympia, saw you working with a large band, whereas Future Politics is a lot more stripped down. Coupling that downgrade in personnel with the changes in your personal life (traveling, breakups, mounting political unrest, et cetera), how has your broader creative process changed, if at all?
I definitely feel like I had a very strong need to go back to becoming more independent. The experience of writing a record with six people was good, but I gave up a lot of power doing that. I shared the platform quite evenly between these people, and that is something that I didn’t want to go [through] again, whether it be simply because of where I was emotionally, or whatever. It’s not like I needed to regain that control of the project. In retrospect, I’m really glad I did [downsize], because the way the project went down, it was such a DIY project — even being mixed by Alice, who’d never mixed a record, but was our live engineer. We learned how to produce and mix the album as we went along, and I’ve learned so much about producing and making a record. I think that will make future collaborations more rewarding, because I’ll have more confidence in my ideas and capabilities, and it’ll be less about [handing] it off to someone else and hoping for the best.
Do you ever see Austra expanding in a similar fashion again, or was that just for Olympia?
Definitely not with that many people, for sure. I definitely see myself collaborating with people in the future, including with people [in] the band. I’m definitely interested in collaborating with outside producers and other writers.
Since you do so much stuff in-house, would you ever want to branch out and start a label?
We just started a label in Canada called Pink Fizz Recordings. We are self-releasing in Canada, which is something that I’m pretty excited about. Depending on how the record does, I’d love to potentially put out something else.
Going back to the topic of capitalism and making a change: How do you reconcile your work with Domino — which, while indie, is still part of a capitalism mainframe — with your desire to dismantle such a system?
It’s totally contradictory — everything about it — but it’s impossible to avoid. If you don’t play the game, you’re not doing anything. You have to participate — people will be critical, but it’s the same type of criticism people make about, say, pipeline protesters: “So, how did you get here? Did you drive your car?” Yeah, I drove my car, because the infrastructure doesn’t allow for any other way. [Laughs] If there was an electric charging “gas” station on every corner, if electric cars were affordable, then no problem, but the infrastructure doesn’t exist to facilitate that. Unfortunately, it’s the same with music. You have to participate in this system.
I don’t really have a problem with people downloading my music for free. I don’t care if people steal my record or whatnot. It’s more about the major labels taking all the money; it’s more about the fact that in order to “survive” as an artist these days, it’s all about getting in commercials. That will probably influence the type of music an artist makes; my friends in Fucked Up have never had an ad in their lives, and you can see why. How punk can you be if you need to be sponsored by Coca-Cola to be successful? That’s a very different reality to be in.
I have full control over [whether or not Austra music appears in a commercial]; other bands don’t. I’m really lucky with a label like Domino, who are super understanding. If I got offered a million dollars for a Walmart commercial or something, it would be an incredibly difficult decision to be in, and they would be very sympathetic to that. I feel really lucky to have that.
What would your advice be to all the cynics reading to this piece, who say that things aren’t likely to change? Looking at the headlines, it’s easy to feel dejected.
I think it’s so important to not lose a vision for the future. What an oppressive regime does is abolish your ability to imagine anything else. That’s something that we’re being faced with right now: Nobody wants us to think critically, and nobody wants us to think beyond the borders that are set up for us. As a community — an international community — it’s important to connect on a unified idea of what we want the world to look like. Everyone’s idea is completely valid — [if someone’s like] "I want to have some crazy technology, a super-springboard from Mexico to Canada," why not? Anything is possible. I just think we need to stop focusing so much on resistance, and focusing more on building the future. In order to build the future, we have to know what we want it to look like.