While at Austra’s core is still singer/songwriter Katie Stelmanis’ spectacular, opera-trained vocals, it doesn’t take an esoteric, fancily-worded sound dissection to notice some changes in the Toronto-based band. For one, there are more of them. What began as Stelmanis autonomously writing and recording electronic tracks has, over the course of several years, expanded into a travelling circus consisting of a drummer (Maya Postepski), a bassist (Dorian Wolf), a keyboardist (Ryan Wonsiak) and a pair of hippie twin backup vocalists (Sari and Romy Lightman). Secondly, they’re playing actual, honest to goodness instruments (gasp). They also acquired a tour manager, which may seem like an insignificant detail but was instrumental to the bands’ transformation. The product of all this change is Olympia; an album that juxtaposes electronic pop production with Stelmanis’ deeply personal, heartfelt vocals. We caught up with Stelmanis to chat about Austra’s transformation, Olympia, and what it’s like to tour with so many humans.
Tell me about how you grew from a solo project to a fully formed band.
I guess it’s a process that’s been happening for a few years. The last album was still kind of a solo record but Maya and Dorian played a role in the recording process. I don’t think we really became a full band until we started touring the record. We were actually playing music together, onstage every day for two and a half years. I think our band was really solidified and developed during that process and then going into making this new record I really wanted to take that energy and sound of the live show and bring it into the record.
In what ways does your background in opera affect your songwriting and the way that you look at electronic music?
I think coming from a classical opera background pushed me into electronic music. I personally think that electronic music has more in common with classical music than anything else. Basically, it’s based on the arrangement and the composition of the song, whereas punk or rock music or all these other genres are based on a storyline. Electronic music and classical music, I find, you’re selling music. I think that’s why I was thrown directly into electronic music after leaving the classical world.
That’s an interesting way to look at it. Rock or punk is more about selling a vibe.
And it’s based on simplicity, the formula is always the same. It’s always bass, guitar, drums, singer, and it’s modified with every band. With electronic music there’s never a formula.
Olympia has been described as an album of transformation for Austra. Can you elaborate on that?
I think it’s an album of transformation in terms of sound, but I think it’s more so on a personal level as well. I think that the entire album is the process of discovering realness, real sounds. It’s the first record where I’ve written real lyrics that are about something. I have no intention of being ironic about anything or being subtle or convoluted, it’s just very direct and in your face.
The lyrics deal with some heavy themes and I’ve read they’re all quite personal. As you’ve matured, have you felt more comfortable putting yourself out there in that way?
Yeah, I think so, and I think the way things happened touring the last album, I just reached a place where I was having to deal with a lot of these things. Being on tour for two years and essentially being self managed, I got so stressed out. I was getting sick all the time and I thought it was because I was drinking or partying too much, but I realized actually it was because I was too stressed out. As soon as we got a tour manager I was totally fine. Giving other people responsibility and learning to relax and take everything in stride has been a massive help for me and my entire creative process.
I’ve heard the songwriting process on this album was much more collaborative than on previous albums. Did it feel natural to relinquish some of that control or did you struggle at first?
It felt really natural. I think it’s been a struggle with previous albums or projects, but I feel like it’s exactly what I wanted to do for this project. I had a sound in mind and that sound required other musicians, so instead of writing the songs all by myself at home, which I had done previously, I would kind of start them. I’d get the bare bones together, the structure of the song, and then I’d take it to my band and we’d fill it together.
And it was never a situation of too many cooks in the kitchen?
For the most part it was me, Maya, and Dorian. We spent four or five weeks at a studio in Michigan and we flushed out the record and developed the sound. Instead of layering millions of shitty sounds on top of each other to try to make something sound full, we wanted to find the exact, perfect, right one sound so all the songs have ten tracks instead of fifteen thousand.
Everyone in Austra has a unique sense of style. Would you say that you come together in any sort of coherent aesthetic or is it just a hodge podge of personal taste?
I think there’s a real lack of anything cohesive in terms of our style. It’s all over the map. Sari and Romy are kind of psychedelic, new age, hippie weirdo twins and then Maya and Dorian prefer a more normal looking… I don’t know how to describe it.
They just dress like regular people.
Yeah. And Ryan likes to wear the least clothes he possibly can and I bounce somewhere in between. Sometimes I look like a boy and sometimes I wear long dresses – whatever I feel like.
There’s such a lack of cohesion that it works.
We call it a circus.
You mentioned you felt like a band after spending so much time touring. What’s it like to go from touring with two or three people to touring with six?
It’s really hard. We have these band meetings once a week where we dissect every problem that we’re having. I think it’s essential for our existence. Six people and often a tour manager and a sound person it’s actually eight people. We’re not on a tour bus so we’re eight people in a van and it gets pretty tight. It’s a real lack of space so it’s all about negotiating space all the time. Some people are like, “we should be hanging out all the time and doing fun things” and some are like, “actually, I don’t want to see you at all if I don’t have to.”
Has the boy/girl dynamic worked out well on tour?
I feel like the boy/girl dynamic doesn’t really exist in my band because we don’t have normal boys. Ryan is basically a woman and Dorian is very agreeable. He’s like the perfect band member because he’s quiet, he does a really good job, he’s very polite… there’s not a lot of very aggressive man energy.
Are they clean?
They’re the cleanest, for sure. Ryan is by far the cleanest. He does all our laundry.
Toronto produces some excellent bands. Are there any other Torontonian bands we should look out for?
There’s a band called Diana. My friend Carmen is in the band, they’re really good.
What would you be doing professionally if you weren’t a musician?
I’d probably be somewhere in the business world. I have such a mathematical, logical brain, so I would probably be something that involves being crazy and thinking about patterns.
What are your summer plans?
Just touring. Starting in June the album comes out and we just travel forever.
Did you know that design encompasses beautiful jewelry and taxidermy encased in lucite and really handsome guys doing manual labour and models wearing seven inch heels and free champagne??? Well it does! Or it at least it did yesterday at the launch of the Collective Design Fair at Pier 57 (which is open to the public today through to the 11th). Here is some photographic evidence.
Rather than attempting to act “cool” about this interview, I’m just going to lay it all out there. I am shamelessly obsessed with Andrew Wyatt. Beyond the fact that he’s the lead singer of Miike Snow, a band that’s solidified itself as part of the zeitgeist, and the fact that he’s a ludicrously talented guy who just wrote and recorded a stunning solo record with an entire goddamn orchestra, he’s just got a lot of worthwhile shit to say.
A handful of artists have told me that at one point or another they have “gone crazy.” Donald Cumming said it a couple months ago. No offense Donald, but your crazy has got nothing on Andrew Wyatt’s. Wyatt’s crazy took him out of the music industry for seven years. In fact, it nearly took him off the face of the earth. Now, a mostly sane Wyatt (and I mean that in a purely positive way) regards this wildly dark period with a sense of humor and a great deal of wisdom. One can assume that the complexity present in his debut solo album, Descender, is somehow a product of Wyatt overcoming a whole lot of crap many of us could not begin to comprehend. If you’re going to be in New York this Friday and orchestras and insanely beautiful music are your thing, I recommend checking out the first live performance of the album at Capitol Theatre (tickets here). I caught up with Wyatt at Bread on Spring Street about Descender, Miike Snow, and what it was like going completely insane.
Miike Snow is always touted as a Swedish band but you aren’t Swedish at all.
I think people just assumed it was Swedish because most of the band is Swedish. It was probably a bit more of a press point to harp on the fact that it was the guys who did Toxic [by Britney Spears].
Descender is quite a departure. When you were initially conceptualizing this album what was the general idea?
I think Miike Snow is awesome, but it’s very different from the music I had made before. Those guys have such an idiosyncratic production thing going. They’ll basically feed me the track and I’ll write the song to that. My friends are mostly visual artists. For my record, I felt like I wanted to make music that they would put on at home. With Miike Snow, I felt culturally it had objective value just because it became… a thing. Certain songs everybody knows and that was cool, because it was a new sounding thing that became part of the popular discourse.
When I was at a restaurant the other night “Animal” came on and I felt very nostalgic.
That’s cool. And that’s what I mean. It sort of had this power. I also fuck with that song and someday may go back and listen to it… but I would never listen to it now. I wanted to put out something that just had a warmth to it. Also there is just a continuously frustrating thing about being in a band. Me and Pontus from Miike Snow were just in LA and we wrote a killer fucking song, but I didn’t have the lyrics finished. So when I came back to New York, in the process of finishing the lyrics I discovered new chords that work under the same melody. But they’re different from the music that Pontus gave me. So I got really excited and I write an email saying “hey I finished the lyrics, it’s great, and here it is with alternate chords” and I’m totally jazzed and I send it off to him and… no response. And he’s one of my best friends. He probably doesn’t like the new chords and we’re probably actually going to end up doing it with the old chords and there’s something which is always hard about that.
How would you describe your album?
I heard this song when I was in Centre Pompidou when I was living in Paris. It was like this ’50s film score and I was like, I want to do something like that. It took me back to why I first wanted to get into music. I love that kind of shit, and I never thought I would be able to do that, but slowly these things became obvious to me. My buddy Mark Ronson was doing this thing in Prague with the orchestra and I asked him how much it costs once and it donned on me that I could probably afford to do that.
It was semi-affordable and they’re all really good. At least the string players are really good.
You gave yourself a really tight deadline to get this done.
I thought I gave myself enough time but I probably didn’t. I was literally writing the music up until the last day before I got to Prague. I was working literally sixteen hours a day.
The record is pretty cinematic. Does it tell a story?
I decoded Hounds of Love by Kate Bush. That and Low by David Bowie are my two favorite albums of all time. Hounds of Love chronicles a breakup. That’s not what Descender is about but it’s about looking at that area of my life and sort of analyzing it and talking about what’s going wrong, because there was a lot going wrong when I did that record. It’s a song-cycle; it starts off in one place and ends in another place and the sequence is important.
When Miike Snow started, you guys tried to maintain a certain amount of anonymity. But with this solo thing, you’re putting yourself out there. What are your thoughts on being famous?
I don’t know if I would want to be an iconic person. I like flexibility and freedom. Julian Casablancas could form a noise band. Julian could probably walk down the street. I have an Argentine friend I met when I was down there shooting the video and she was like, [in Argentinian accent] “You are famous! …But not too much.” She meant, “you’re not really famous but there are a lot of fucking photos of you on Google.” I guess the real answer is I don’t really care. I really care about the opportunities that I have and I think a lot of time if you’re too famous it takes away as many opportunities as it gives you.
If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing professionally?
Probably getting fired continuously. The only other job I’ve had besides this was I worked at a hotel in Colorado for many years, after I went crazy.
You went crazy?
Yeah. It’s funny that I’m putting my first solo record twenty-two years after I got my first record deal. I got my first record deal when I was nineteen with Capitol Records. Then I was on drugs and then I went crazy and then I took seven years off from doing music.
What did you do for seven years?
I worked at the same resort in Colorado. I started off as a lift operator. All you basically needed to do that was have a pulse. If you saw someone coming off the chairlift who looked like they were going to fall, you press stop. That was the entire job.
Is being a lift operator a good remedy for insanity?
No, definitely not. I was so depressed. That was a really dark period. Between 21, which was the year before going into the hospital when I was actively on drugs and suicidal. to after 22 when I got off drugs and was suicidal for the next two years and then the next five years when I was thinking I was going to go crazy every day. So for seven years in my 20s I was effectively out of music. During that time I did do a number of weird jobs and they were so easy that I would find them extremely boring. I think I would probably be a teacher. Sometimes I’ll be reading articles and I’ll see someone is a professor at a university and I’ll get a warm, excited feeling.
So if you were meant to put out a solo record 22 years ago, does this feel like redemption in a way?
A little bit, I’ve got to say. If I just made this one record I could live with that. A lot of people have got it a lot worse.
You could have been some a crazy bum on the streets of New York but you got your shit together.
I totally could have been. When the guys came to get me to take me to the hospital, it was my dad’s friend who was living in New York and had been crazy once. He was sent sort of unwisely because he wasn’t really the best example of what life can be post going crazy, he was actually a really sad dude. So he came to get me and I thought he was actually Satan. I told him he was Satan and I thought he was coming to capture me to bring me to the “bad place.” The hospital. I was very close to not going with him because I thought that was the bad place, not the good place where you’re gonna start getting better. It’s really fucked up.
I imagine that’s a pretty common perception for crazy people. They probably aren’t all particularly excited to be going to the hospital.
No, no they aren’t. But it’s actually the best thing you can do. I’m also not a medicated person and I haven’t been for decades. I was on something for the first year and then it was clear that whatever that psychosis was was just brought on by drugs, which is quite common actually: cocaine-induced psychosis. I haven’t done drugs in twenty years. I didn’t respond well to that shit.
That’s nuts that you were crazy.
It’s crazy that I was nuts. It’s bonkers that I was crazy. It’s kablooey that I was bonkers!
Remember 2009 when you couldn’t check a music blog without seeing the name Victoria “Little Boots” Hesketh littered several thousand times throughout the page? Remember when her debut album, Hands, was met with critical acclaim and the hype surrounding the British electrobabe nearly reached Lady Gaga-esque proportions? We do… sort of. But then it seemed that just as quickly, she fell off the face of the planet (or at least off Pitchfork’s homepage).
Fear not, because there is a perfectly logical explanation for all this. Unfulfilled by the strictly business manner in which her first album came to fruition, this time around Little Boots wanted to make something a little more edgy, a little more coherent and, ultimately, really goddamn good. Enter Nocturnes (out today), the album The Guardian is already calling “one of the pop records of the year” (thanks in part to its producer, DFA mastermind Tim Goldsworthy). We caught up with the lovely Brit to chat about the album, DJing, and the changing landscape of electronic music.
Why such a long wait between Hands and Nocturnes?
I was really busy. I’ve been writing, recording and I’ve still been touring. It’s difficult because to everybody else I look like I’ve been doing nothing for three years but to me I’ve been really busy! A lot of it was finding production for the new album. Things were complicated with my old label and they weren’t going in the direction I wanted them to go in. I knew I wanted to do something different from last time. It wasn’t just a case of call up these people and book it, it was more like how do I keep this sound and this vision that I’ve got. It’s difficult to pick the person who’s going to get you straight away so I tried out different sessions with different people and eventually I found Tim [Goldsworthy], about a year ago. My record label at the time didn’t really agree with the direction I wanted to go with it, it wasn’t mainstream enough, so it ended up taking another year before I got a new label.
What did Tim’s production bring to the record?
Oh it brings so much. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of every record you can think of and his studio is amazing. It’s like a mad scientist laboratory. I’d go in with the melodies and the songs and lyrics and ideas for how the record would sound and together we’d build it.
I read that your goal was to make a more coherent album. Is there a common thread or narrative that runs through all of the tracks?
I think I meant that more on a sonic level. I wanted you to get that feel like when you listen to classic albums that I love; where you can tell they were recorded in the same place at the same time and with the same people. With modern pop albums now they just throw the songs together and it felt a bit like that with my first record. There were songs produced by Joe from Hot Chip next to songs produced by RedOne and you can tell there’s no artistic vision or cohesion there. It was really important to me that it all came from the same place.
When you released Hands, electropop was at its height and there was a huge wave of female electropop artists like Lady Gaga. How do you think the dance music landscape has changed and how have you responded?
I think it’s changed a lot. Now, electronic dance music is pop music and all the songs on the radio, especially in America, sound like that. I think with the way it’s gone there’s a few really great pop songs that I think are brilliant, like David Guetta’s Titanium, but for every good one there’s ten really unimaginative, derivative copies. At some point this bubble is going to burst. For a while I was scared because I make pop music and dance music and electronic music, and I don’t really feel comfortable doing that, so what am I going to do? It took me a while to realize that just because I want to make dance pop it doesn’t have to sound like everything else that’s on the radio. I can do it in my own way.
James Ford (of Simian Mobile Disco) and Andy Butler (of Hercules and Love Affair) are on the album as well. How did these collaborations come about?
Pretty naturally. I always think the best things just happen by happy accident. Andy happened to be at one of my shows in San Francisco and we got chatting. James I’ve known for years. We have the same manager and he actually recorded my first band’s first demo. All the collaborations on this album happened through something very… normal. The first album was very much a record label ringing up a publishing company and saying, “who have we got? Let’s put you in the studio with this person.” It was very manufactured. It’s kind of difficult to write in that situation. If it’s a friend or you’ve got some kind of connection it’s going to be that much easier; you’re going to be on the same page and share the same ideas.
You’ve been DJing a lot. What have you been playing lately?
It’s a lot of disco… or disco edits at least, a lot of old house music, like late ’80s early ’90s house is really fun and my own remixes. There’s a DJ called Maya Jane Coles who I love, I play lots of her stuff, there’s some disco edits by Dimitri from Paris and Todd Terje.
What sorts of gigs are you drawn to as a DJ?
I quite prefer parties and fashion events because they’re fun and people aren’t taking it so seriously. If you play some of the clubs at three in the morning it can be very intense.
What are your summer plans?
I’m going to be doing some festivals: Glastonbury and a bunch of stuff around Europe. We’re touring the states in May and hopefully we’ll be back after the summer. I’ll be in Ibiza, that will be really fun. I’m hoping to get back in the studio as well because I think that was one of the biggest mistakes I made last time. I just couldn’t get myself in the studio because I didn’t have time or I was tired or I wasn’t in a creative headspace and I wish I would have kept writing and recording while I was touring. Maybe I would have had this album done a lot sooner.
It seems as though !!! has cracked the code to band longevity. First, invent a musical genre (even if it does wind up being called disco punk). Don’t ever take yourselves too seriously. Start with lots of band members—more than you need—so you can weed out the ones you don’t like hanging out with on tour. Finally, continue to evolve your sound and put out worthwhile music without placing too much emphasis on commercial success. Simple. Out this week on Warp, Thr!!!er, !!!’s latest record in their sixteen-year saga, goes a poppier route as the name might suggest. But don’t fret, they haven’t shed the devil may care attitude and their name is spectacularly un-Googleable, meaning the guys are far from selling out. They’ve just made a catchy record that’s a real fun listen and that’s fine by us. We caught up with singer Nic Offer who, while enjoying lunch in his hometown of Sacramento, chatted with us about the new album, pop music and being in a band that’s been around for sixteen years.
How are you?
I’m good. I’m just trying to wolf down a chicken sandwich.
How is it?
You know, it’s not bad. I’m back in Sacramento right now and I always eat at the supermarket. I think they have one of the better delis in down but everyone else thinks I’m crazy.
You’re famous for being a pioneer of disco punk. Do you still identify with that genre?
The way I look at it is we’re never asked about any other genre. At first it was disturbing to the guys because for the first few years it was kind of like people didn’t know what to call us, and then all of a sudden it was a stamp: it’s disco punk. It was kind of frustrating to think we were creating this completely new music and then it was just this fad that can be shrugged off. But I think every band ends up being tied to some genre, and it’s your job to push the limits of that genre. I always use the example of glam. T. Rex is different from Roxy Music is different from Sparks is different from Bowie. They all push to different extremes but it all came under the blanket of glam, so I like to think we pushed it out too.
That said, THR!!!ER is a bit of a departure. What compelled you to take a poppier route this time around?
The pop thing just happened, I think it’s just been a natural progression, I think it’s just what bands do. Look at the example of Sonic Youth. In a way they probably kind of chased some sort of commercial success, but it’s just a matter of honing what you do. The hook is right there for you and you just kind of focus in on that part that people get excited about. For us, pop has always been something that’s intrigued us but we just couldn’t do it right. I think each album has moved closer to that. Especially the last album, there’s really poppy stuff on it. I just think we got better at nailing it with this one. I don’t like it when a band obviously shoots for the money but I don’t think there’s any danger of that with us.
So you can relax, there’s no chance you’re making money.
Oh yeah, we’re not getting any sort of commercial success at this point in the game [laughs]. But it feels like a comfortable suit for me, it feels like it works.
The name is a Michael Jackson reference, but can you elaborate on that a bit?
It was just a joke we had where we’d try to think of the different Thrillers for different genres. Each genre has it, you know? Like The Flaming Lips Soft Bulletin was kind of like the indie ’90s Thriller. George Michael’s Safe was the white man’s Thriller. Rumors by Fleetwood Mac was the original Thriller. It’s just a joke we had. It’s kind of what we always try to do with the titles is involving you in the jokes that goes on in the band. And it fit the album, which is what we hope is an album full of hits.
You guys have been a band for a long, long time. What is your secret?
There’s going to be tough breaks for any band and we’ve been able to weather it. We started with seven members and there’s only four original members, but that’s as much as your average band. Maybe if every band started with seven? The initial idea of the band was that we wanted to tour and we’d been in other bands with people that weren’t that fun to tour with. So everyone was someone that you wanted to sit next to in the van, and that was back when we had to sit in very close quarters. At the end of the day we’re just really still friends and just glad to be together, backstage, hanging out.
What’s the best mispronunciation of your name that you’ve ever gotten?
At about our fifth show, we were playing with some straight-edge band to probably fifteen people and the straight-edge band referred to us onstage as “PFT-PFT-PFT” and made the jack-off motion.
You guys aren’t easy to Google.
We are one of the few bands that are literally pre-Google. It’s never been a regret because I’ve never heard a better band name. As far as I’m concerned, the only other one is Born Against, and that one was taken.
If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing professionally?
The only thing I have any training for is babysitting.
You guys are headed on tour soon, correct?
We work hard on making the record and once it’s done the tour is like the afterparty. We’ve got a bunch of new songs and we’re psyched to get out and play them and hang out backstage.
For Koen van den Broek, it all begins on the streets. I don’t mean that in the figurative sense—the Belgian artist is not fascinated by prototypical gangsters peddling crack. I mean quite literally, the streets, as in pavement—the sturdy grey mass below our feet we rarely tilt our head downwards to notice. Gathered from his travels across the globe, Van den Broek’s images of the streets serve as the reference point for his paintings, which take the mundane – cracks in the pavement, shadows cast by road signs, a simple painted curb – and transforms them into something abstract.
For his upcoming exhibition, Apex, which opens at Friedman Benda today, the artist turned his attention to something more personal. Fascinated by artists and filmmakers who reference the history of their medium, Van den Broek referenced his personal history to produce his latest works. Once again, the artist turns to something real, this time his own paintings, and renders it abstract. We sat down with Van den Broek over double espressos (he had just arrived from Belgium but had already managed to spend the morning at The Met, fantasizing about having a drink with his favorite deceased contemporary artists) to discuss the exhibit, his travels, and self-reference.
Your work references things people generally overlook, like cracks in the sidewalk or the shadow of a building. What is it about these things that you find fascinating?
I started as an architect, and the first architectural element is the streets, you build something out of that. I also like travelling and the movement of travelling. You have time when you’re travelling to think and to focus on subjects—the non-places, the empty spots. If you’ve seen the movie The Cotton Club, when the first scene starts, the camera goes down and you just see sidewalk and the gutter and the pebbles and the reflection. It’s almost like a black and white image—totally abstract—and that says a lot about the movie and the atmosphere.
Tell me about finding inspiration through your travels.
When I was traveling to Japan I didn’t really find very inspiring images. I found really nice places, like Naoshima, the island where there is a lot of art, but Japan was a bit of a disappointment. I felt like I was in France but with Japanese people. I was probably also disappointed because of the bright sun. My first time in America, after growing up on the media and on film and television, I was in San Francisco and everything felt very familiar. I’m playing with it. Is it important to travel or not? I can’t really make a painting of a picture I take at home in Belgium because I need the exotic thing of distance; taking the pictures and coming back home. When I’m home, they look like pictures that are disconnected from reality. I did one painting, it’s called Eighth Avenue, and it’s just like a black triangle, a shadow. It’s totally abstract but calling it Eighth Avenue is something realistic in New York. I’m pulling it back to the reality.
You just moved into a new studio space. Is your home base as important to you as your travels?
Yes, but my private house looks a lot like a house in Los Angeles. It’s like I want to be in California but I’m still in grey old cloudy Belgium. The architecture of my studio is very important. It’s more like a factory. It feels very comfortable to be able to rely on people and also to have a good atmosphere, to have the possibilities to make bigger paintings, to have good light. It’s a good environment.
Speaking of LA, your work is very cinematic. What filmmakers are you drawn to?
I’m a product of the ’90s because I’m almost 40 years old. I’m a big fan of David Lynch: Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet. Also Quentin Tarantino, mainly his earlier works, but I’m also very interested in how Tarantino is developing. He’s very much into film history. I like art for art. John Baldessari is from Los Angeles, he’s a good friend. He’s always playing with art history and Quentin Tarantino is always playing with film history. I like this kind of reference.
In this exhibit you play with that idea of reference by referencing your own work.
I took a step back from photography. I did this really nice trip in September, we had an exhibition in Chicago and first we flew to Denver where there’s a new Clyfford Still museum. In the art centre in Denver I discovered a big [Robert] Motherwell series called Open, and those paintings are all based on one painting that I’ve been based on, Porte-Fenetre a Collioure by Matisse. This game of playing with art history inspired me to look at my own paintings. I scanned them into the computer—a lot quicker than fifty years ago of course—and did a lot of new compositions.
How does it feel to examine your past work in this way?
It gave me the opportunity to make new work. You have a lot of artists who do a lot of different things all the time, like Mike Kelley, but then you also have Robert Ryman who does the white square over and over again for like 50 years. That would drive me crazy. I believe to move forward you need a frame. If you have a frame you can go deeper and deeper and deeper. Otherwise it will all be superficial.
Ages ago I read an article in Frieze called Echo Chamber that argued if art becomes too self-referential it alienates a large audience of people who don’t get the reference. What are your thoughts on that?
We do have photography, we do have realistic art, but art shouldn’t be used just to represent reality. We don’t have to do portraits of popes or rich men; it’s more about the medium of painting itself. Even a Jackson Pollock is self-referential and it’s world famous. Talking about Piet Mondrian, that’s really art about art. I think at the moment there’s too much art that tries to be political or sociological. That’s not the job of the artist, there are other people that do those things better. But if you have a nice Josef Albers everyone would like it, my grandma would like it. I don’t see a real problem. There’s a beauty, there’s a visual experience.
“Get excited teens, you’re about to see a 35-year-old body!” Sean Tillmann, aka Har Mar Superstar, shouted to a sold-out Bowery Ballroom before stripping down to his performance attire of choice: a pair of briefs that leave very, very, very little (i.e. nothing) to the imagination. Attending a Har Mar Superstar show is a memorable experience. Like it or not, the image of Tillmann’s “robust,” perspiring, nearly-nude figure gyrating across the stage will be seared in your mind for the rest of eternity. However, the urge to write him off merely as camp dissipates as soon as he opens his mouth. In fact, it is likely that you will be just as impressed by Tillmann’s voice as you are entertained (or aroused?) by his slutty, sweaty performance.
With the upcoming release of his album Bye Bye 17 on Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records later this month, the focus has shifted from Har Mar Superstar the spectacle to Har Mar Superstar the artist. Tillmann has abandoned his sometimes-kitsch 80s R&B sound to produce an album that’s throwback mo-town with plenty of soul. In addition to being impossibly groovy and infectious, it serves as the perfect vehicle to showcase Tillmann’s pipes, which remind us of a time when auto-tune was just a distant nightmare. We caught up with the scantily clad star midway through The Cult Records Tour to talk about the album, partial nudity and his obsession with the show Nashville.
How has the Cult Records tour been so far? Are you getting along well with The Virgins?
I’m just excited to be playing shows. It’s super fun touring with The Virgins. Love those dudes. Very chill vibes.
Any tour highlights so far?
Last night was really good in Minneapolis. Kind of a crazy turn out and I’m from there so it’s kind of like a homecoming show, playing the new album for everybody. It was really fun.
How did signing with Cult Records come about?
I’ve known Julian [Casablancas] for a long time so when I finished this record or finished the demos of this record I sent them to him and he just offered to put it out right away. It was a really thing. It’s great to work with him and try to go deep on songs together. It’s really fun.
So let’s talk about the new album. What does Bye Bye 17 mean?
It’s really innocent and creepy at the same time. I had just turned 35 so 17 times 2 is 34…
I’m loving the Motown vibe of this album. It’s quite a departure for you, can you tell me what inspired it?
I wanted to make a soul album or something that’s based on the voice of that time. I grew up with Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and Shuggie Otis, that kind of stuff. I just decided to do it. It’s the first Har Mar album I wrote on the guitar so I think that a lot of it came from that.
Is there a thread or theme that runs through the album or is it just a good time record?
It’s not a good time record, it’s kind of a bad time record. I think that’s why people are connecting with it. It’s really pop but the lyrics are dark. It’s kind of just the mood I was in when I wrote it.
Let’s talk about your live performance. What was the original idea or inspiration behind it and are you aiming for a desired reaction from your audience?
I just like to have fun. To tell you the truth, I’m entertaining myself. It’s not like I’m trying to shock people and up the ante or whatever during shows, so that’s kind of it.
Have you always been comfortable in the nude?
I’m comfortable in my underwear. I’d rather just be in my underwear most of the time. It’s not shock factor onstage. It’s so I don’t get my clothes all sweaty. It feels good and it’s more fun to dance, you know what I mean? You can do some things in workout pants that you can’t do in jeans. Just imagine that at the next level.
I’ve been following you on Vine. You’ve mastered that medium.
It sucks because the microphone on my cell sucks, I think I blew it out so now my Vines sound like shit. I’m too lazy to get a new phone.
I’ve noticed you have an obsession with the show Nashville. Maybe there’s a cameo in your future.
I hope so, I love Nashville. That show rules. In a perfect world, soon I will be appearing on Nashville on ABC, once they realize I could play an awesome scumbag on that show… or maybe I could play a handicapped country star or a secret brother. I mean a lot to Nashville, I know so. I’m very involved in the story. You know that blonde girl that looks like Howard the Duck?
Yeah, Howard the Duck girl. She annoys me so much. They have to kill her off.
But they just killed her boyfriend’s brother.
That’s fine. They can kill more people.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing professionally?
What would your wrestling alias be?
Straight up Sean Tillmann, All-American Wrestler. What else would I be doing?
What are your summer plans?
I’m going to a lot of weddings.
A Brooklyn-based duo that pairs a flawless aesthetic—not only in terms of the imagery surrounding their music, they both appear to have won the genetic lottery—with sexy R&B-influenced electronic tunes, Beacon has just about everything going for them (the bastards). For obvious reasons, very-cool label Ghostly International wasted no time adding them to their already stacked roster of talented, aesthetically pleasing electronic artists. In the wake of two well-executed EPs, their debut album, The Ways We Separate, is as dark as its name suggests. The record is best enjoyed with its pulsating basslines and heartbreaking lyrics oozing through massive subs or, conversely, while sobbing alone in total darkness in the wake of getting dumped. We sat down with Thomas Mullarney and Jacob Gossett of Beacon to chat about the album, art, and the extremely complicated manner in which they determine how to dress for shows.
How did you guys meet and come to be making music together?
JACOB GOSSETT: We met at Pratt. We met the first week of classes but we didn’t start making music together until our last year. Once we got out of school we had some more free time so we started writing together and performing.
THOMAS MULLARNEY: We finished school and then started playing shows like every weekend. That was three years ago and now we have two EPs and the full-length album coming out.
I’ve heard you guys say you’re not big on genre classification, but it’s hard to ignore the R&B influence. Where does that derived from?
JACOB: I grew up listening to mostly mainstream R&B like Ginuwine. It was the first music I really listened to. I think we’re both interested in hip-hop production, which is intertwined with R&B.
THOMAS: I come from electronic music, that’s what I’d say I grew up on. When you slow music down and parts of it are digitally produced and you have vocals, it’s hard for it to not be sort of like R&B. I think the way we talk about it is less like, “this one is going to be the R&B track, this one is going to be the sort of R&B track…”
Ghostly as a label has done such an excellent job of curating its artists. How did you come to be releasing this album on Ghostly and what has the experience of working with them been like?
JACOB: Our first EP came out on a label called Moodgadget, which is kind of a sub-label of Ghostly so that kind of happened from that. We had meetings with them and I feel like they’re very open to us exploring our aesthetic and packaging. They’re super easy to work with and they have a nice roster of designers they work with.
Let’s talk about The Ways We Separate. I read it deals with separation both in terms of the conventional break-up sense and in terms of separating from yourself. Can you elaborate on that?
THOMAS: The title comes from a lyric. It wasn’t like we were doing a concept album on separation. It’s just something that we thought tied things together a little. It’s about the way a person changes in the process of being with another person – letting the whole concept of who you are change. And then the literal sense of how separating from a person also shows us how we separate from ourselves.
Were you drawing from personal experience when exploring these themes?
THOMAS: I think we do that but it’s definitely not a thing where everything in the record is specific to personal baggage.
Can you speak a bit about your songwriting and recording process? What is your typical sequence of events?
JACOB: Since we’ve started it’s been ideas building up over time, and then getting to a point where we can make it happen. We went away, out of the city, for a month and a half or so and pretty much worked exclusively on this album, spending a lot of time just listening and writing lyrics. We had nothing else really distracting us.
THOMAS: It was just four months maybe, five six days a week, getting it done but the prep for it was years in the making. There are certain things that existed back when we first started, like vocal melodies and things like that. In that way the process has been as long as we’ve been working together.
You mentioned before that you started off playing tons of live shows. Was it more of a challenge figuring out the live aspect or how to record it?
JACOB: We learned a lot about what we wanted to do by playing live.
THOMAS: It was having all of this raw energy coming out of the live performance and feeling confident about that and then going and figuring out how to record it. I think by now with these 10 songs we have a lot more confidence in that.
What are some of your favorite local venues?
JACOB: I really like the sound at Music Hall. We have pretty bass heavy songs so it provides for that. We’ve played Glasslands a ton and that’s always really fun.
THOMAS: We always have positive experiences when the bass is like “booooom booooom.”
I was watching the video of the art edition of the record earlier today. Can you speak a bit about the artist that created that and how that came about?
JACOB: His name is Fernando Mastrangelo, I’ve known him for quite a while and he’s one of our closest friends. We wanted to do something special for this release in terms of the artwork that surrounds it and we were talking about doing some sort of sculptural thing. He wanted to do it and we were lucky enough to grab him.
THOMAS: He engineered it using his experience with these materials. I don’t think there’s many other people who know how to cast sugar into something archival, it is so specific to what he does. It all came together.
You are a couple of well-dressed fellows. Does Beacon have a defined aesthetic?
JACOB: If we do I guess it’s not super conscious.
THOMAS: The conversations we have about clothing before a show are usually limited to….
JACOB: Don’t wear the same shirt. Which has happened accidentally a few times.
I saw Sarah from Phantogram performed with you guys at Glasslands. Do you have any other dream collaborations?
THOMAS: The nice thing about working with Sarah is that came together in three days. I feel like collaborations going forward will be like that.
What are your summer plans?
JACOB: Touring. We have some dates set up after the release and some other things pending.
THOMAS: Our first headlining things. That’s gonna be fun.
While the term lyricist is, by now, wildly overused, in the case of indie rap phenomenon Dessa there is no distinction more appropriate. The only female member of famed hip-hop collective Doomtree, Dessa is, at her core, a beautiful writer. And like all good writers, Dessa’s words are purely instinctual. A student of philosophy with a language obsession, Dessa’s lyrics are moving and provocative. These characteristics are often associated with Lauryn Hill, India Arie and Erykah Badu, but are rarely found in today’s artists. Dessa’s upcoming release, Parts of Speech, features her most personal, introspective work to date. While rap about Margiela, balling out at the club, and bitches and hoes is all well and good, it is a great pleasure to find a female artist blurring the lines between poetry, spoken word, hip-hop and indie. We caught up with Dessa to chat about her upcoming album, the farce of inspiration and her infatuation with conversation.
Your biography is quite unorthodox for someone in the realm of hip-hop. How did you transition from being a medical writer to being a hip-hop artist?
I’ve always loved language. My mom says that my first aspiration was to have a conversation—although I didn’t know the word yet. I wanted “to do the thing where you talk, then I talk, then you talk.” I feel most comfortable and most capable when I’m trafficking in words whether that means writing a rap song, an essay, or the instructions to implant a pacemaker.
How does your educational background inform your music?
I graduated with a degree in philosophy and that field of study informs most of my mental life. I don’t write explicitly about philosophy very often—that would get to be a tired gimmick pretty fast. But the names and the ideas of the theorists that I studied are available to me when I’m trying to craft a metaphor to relay some part of my daily experience. Detailed knowledge, about anything really, is grist for the imagination.
Where do you seek inspiration for your lyrics?
The more I think about it, the less I buy into the whole inspiration thing. I’ve had very few moments where I feel drawn toward some shimmering, promise of a song. My experience seems better described as an appetite—more elemental. Maybe a little darker too. You sleep when you’re tired, not because you were struck by a sudden bolt of inspiration to go lie down. I write songs when that feeling of I-gotta-go-write-this-down.
How did you come to be a part of Doomtree?
I was a fan of Doomtree before I met any of the members. And I was a friend before they asked me to join. When I was invited to become part of the collective, they all sat me down in the living room to make the offer. And I said yes. One of the most pivotal moments of my life.
What is it like to be the only female in this collective?
I’ve been working with the men in Doomtree for almost a decade. If there were some novelty in being the only woman, it would have worn off by now. They’re my brothers and I’ve spent my whole career with them; I’m not sure what it would have been like to come up in another family.
Where does the name Parts of Speech come from?
I’m always been attracted to language, both in theory and in practice. I tried writing from a few new perspectives on this disc, telling the story from a part other than the one that I played in real life.
What are some of the themes that run through this album?
I’ve always been attracted to big themes: love, loss, death, and communion. This album is the most dynamic one I’ve made to investigate them. It’s got some of my toughest and some my tenderest songs.
You’ve also published works of poetry and fiction. What are you reading lately?
I’m reading a book on the history of poisons. I figure that sort of information might come in handy for some future lyric.
What is your favorite and least favorite thing about touring?
Touring is incredible because you get to travel around the country (and sometimes the world) with your friends, performing music that you made up together. Touring is a drag because you have to do it sleep-deprived and stiff, sitting upright in a van that is full of gear and merch, but has no room for your legs.
What do you have coming up following the release of the album?
I’ll be touring this record very, very hard. In May, we’ll be on the East Coast. In July, we’ll be on the West. I’m not sure how many nights I’ll be spending in by bed between Labor Day and Christmas, but I know we’ll be putting a lot of miles on Mountain, our tour van. We’ll post all of our dates on Doomtree.
Parts of Speech will be released on Doomtree Records June 25th. Pre-order here.
Pardon the cliché, but good things really do come in small packages. This is particularly true of The Peanut Gallery; a bite-sized art gallery developed to bring a heightened focus to the art it exhibits. Housed within the walls of brilliantly cheeky ad agency Mother New York, the 8 ft by 5 ft gallery, which has previously housed works by Todd Selby and Damien Hirst, is ideal for art enthusiasts who have become disillusioned by the cafes, gift shops and wasted, cavernous spaces typical of so many New York galleries.
For its latest exhibition, The Peanut Gallery presents Meat Form by Brion Nuda Rosch; a San Francisco based artist whose collages and sculptures humorously challenge our perception of commonplace objects and icons. In this instance, Brion turns his attention to meat, showcasing jarring images of cooked animal flesh not only within the miniscule gallery but also on an expansive billboard at 44th and 11th Avenue in New York. Open to the public until May 23, the carnivorous exhibit can be viewed with three audio guides provided by the artist, two of which are phony—sort of like auditory veggie burgers. See for yourself if you can spot the tofu by paying a visit .