It’s almost midnight at the Oval Space in London’s trendy East End. Austra have just completed a mesmerising set to a crowd of devoted fans and the large, semi-industrial space is buzzing. In contrast to the band’s previous tour which saw them performing as a six-piece with duo Tasseomancy, this year the group are pared back to the original core of Katie Stelmanis, Maya Postepski and Dorian Wood with Ryan Wonsiak on keyboards. Where the 2013 tour introduced acclaimed second record Olympia, this feels like a more relaxed affair for those who have loved the band from the beginning. Later, Stelmanis will tell FFS that previously unreleased track ‘Habitat’, now on the eponymous new EP, was released in response to the wishes of fans.
Scroll back several hours and FFS is watching the band record a performance of ‘Habitat’ for a high profile magazine. Like many of their songs, it’s a beautiful, addictive exercise in synth-pop/art-goth and, unlike the other tracks on the new EP, the only one to feature Stelmanis’s haunting, operatic vocal. Barely have we been introduced to Stelmanis, however, when she’s called back to the stage – it seems someone forgot to press ‘record’. Take two, and we’re sat outside in the formidable, skeletal shadow of an enormous gas holder, dictaphone most definitely on and set to ‘record’…
On your most recent EP, Habitat, you recorded several purely instrumental tracks. Can you tell us why you decided to lose the vocals for a while?
Basically we had this song ‘Habitat’ that we had never released and people were asking us to release it, so we decided to put it out on its own – we kind of felt it was something for our fans. Maya and I both have tonnes of instrumental tracks lying around that we never know what to do with, so it was a good opportunity. I think that my voice is one of the main characteristics of this band – it’s how people identify this band most likely – and so we wanted to shed light on other stuff that we do.
Has anyone complained about missing the ‘big lady vocals’?
No! I was actually shocked at how well-received the tracks were to be honest, but people have actually really embraced it in such a way that they seem to be into the idea of us maybe not taking ourselves so seriously. They’re a bit more playful, you know?
I don’t think we’ll necessarily do instrumental on the next album, but I definitely want to take the same idea of just having a bit more fun, being a bit more relaxed about everything.
You’ve said that, on Olympia, you tried very hard to record electronic tracks acoustically. Have you done that with the new tracks?
Not at all! I’ve been making electronic music since I was 19 and, at least in Canada, there were not a lot of other people doing it so I always felt like the odd one out – and then suddenly everyone was doing it and we were like, ‘We don’t want to do it anymore!’ It was really fun to go into the studio and play everything live.
It must’ve been a lot of work…
I guess it was a lot of work. I find that the writing style is different on a computer because everything is just at your fingertips, whereas when you’re trying to record everything live you have to wait thirty minutes and set up this new instrument and it’s less conducive to the free flow of ideas.
Would you say, then, that writing on a computer feels more organic for you?
In some ways – computers are my most natural instrument. I definitely feel a lot more free, it’s a lot more liberating. Even when I’m writing songs on the piano I need to have some sort of recording device nearby otherwise I’ll just play and forget what I did.
With Olympia you negotiated that ‘tricky second album’ very well. Does that put more pressure on the third record?
I guess, yeah. For the second record I was pretty oblivious to any kind of pressure at all – I love the second record but I think that it wasn’t what a lot of people were expecting. It’s difficult to decide what to do next. Ultimately you just have to do what you want – but you do also have to think, ‘I’m not just going to release an instrumental record because that wouldn’t go down very well!’ Touring is our life and we want people to come to our shows.
Is touring absolutely central to what you’re about?
Yeah, definitely. Performance is a huge, huge part of it, for sure.
So do you write with the performance in mind?
I never used to but now I definitely do. Now I’ll write songs and actually think about how it will be live.
What inspires you to write?
It’s a lot of different things. When I was writing the second record, I would force myself to sit down for seven hours a day and just write, and with this one I’m not doing that at all. I’m just relaxing and if I have an idea I’ll go and work on it, which is a little bit of a less forced approach – ideas can come from anywhere.
I wanted to ask you about the video to ‘Habitat’ which features some really diverse representations of sexuality and relationships. Did you have any input on that?
It was mostly the director [Matt Lambert] to be honest, because I feel like we’ve dealt loosely with the idea of sexuality in a lot of our videos. I mean, his stuff is really sexual, and I love his work and I wanted to work with him, but I was very much like – ‘Don’t turn our video into a porno!’ And when I was watching it for the first time I was like, ‘Ooh I think it‘s going to be a porno!’ But then it flips at the end. It’s almost like he skips the actual sexy part and goes to the aftermath, which is very joyous and so nice.
The band’s been together a while now – how has the relationship between you all changed?
It’s ever-evolving. After we did the first record we were touring as a six-piece, and we wrote a record as a six-piece and we were like – ‘We can’t tour as a six piece anymore!’ So now we’re trying to focus on just myself and Maya and Dorian. Ryan is still playing with us obviously, he’s our live guy, so we just think of him as this beautiful unicorn that we take on tour with.
And what about Tasseomancy? Are you going to do any more touring with them?
You wrote some of the lyrics with Sari Lightman [Tasseomancy] on Olympia, is that right?
Yes, Sari and I collaborated on the lyrics for Olympia. That was a good experience. It was cool to write with somebody and see what ideas came out of that, but I feel with the next record I definitely want to write them myself. I didn’t go to university or anything so it kind of felt that linguistically, I was starting to sound kind of dumb! But after that record I was like, ‘Fuck, I need to start reading again’, and I’ve just been obsessed with reading and practising writing and constantly trying to maintain that.
What have you been reading?
Lots of stuff! I’m currently reading Kafka for the first time – I’m trying to make up for my lack of education with all these books you have to read in school and I never did.
So back to this tour – what are most looking forward to?
This tour, honestly, it’s more of a vacation than a tour. Even with this show tonight in London, it’s such a chilled east London club show. Last time we were here we played Koko and that felt like a really big concert, and this kind of feels like a night out with our friends.
Habitat is out now on Domino
Photos: Theresa Heath