She is sleeping for the moment, but after a few more tries and a text exchange, I’m on the phone with a groggy Katie Stelmanis for a morning chat. Feeling a bit bad for waking her up, she reassures me that “it’s definitely wake-up time!”
Having just released their new album, Olympia, on June 15th via Canadian label Paper Bag Records, the band is under way with a tour spanning the Americas, Europe and even parts of Asia, as Stelmanis informs me excitedly.
“In December, we’re going to Asia, which is really cool because we’ve never been there before. We’re playing Japan, Thailand and a whole bunch of other countries which I’m really excited about.” She laughs as she admits that she doesn’t really know what to expect in terms of the band’s fan base in those parts. “We have these shows and I have absolutely no idea what’s going on otherwise.”
Austra rose to the forefront of the new wave indie scene with the immediate success of their previous record, Feel it Break. From couches to hotels and shitty vans to light shows, the fairly young band have seen and done some things all the while consciously maintaining a humble state of mind, preferring above all to have the music speak for itself.
“I think that we still have a lot of work to do. We never really had any major media support, particularly in the States, we were never really written about consistently by a magazine or blog, so it feels like the people who are into our music kind of discovered it on their own. In that sense, I find at all our shows the fans seem to be pretty hardcore.” Stelmanis giggles, “Like people totally like our band, which is cool because I think I’d rather play to 200 people that really like what were doing versus 1,000 people who are kinda just there because they heard it was cool.”
Olympia, the band’s follow-up to Feel it Break, oozes the group’s signature sound of electro pop dance, layered appropriately with techno and house influences all romantically blended with Stelmanis’ interesting and whimsically captivating vocals. It has garnered attention with positive amounts of buzz from industry moguls and new wave aficionados. The new album differs from the first in many ways, one of the most predominant being how lyrically charged it is. The much more personal direction translates affectionately into a sort of musical diary.
“I think, with the new record, there was definitely an intention to have lyrics be much more prominent. My lyrics generally don’t make much sense — they’re a little bit more vague and pretty non-linear — but with this album I was more influenced by classic song writing and I wanted to have kind of like linear narrative songs. I wanted the songs to make sense.”
Notoriety gained from being short-listed in 2011 for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize spawned the desire to create something different the second time around to expand musically, all the while maintaining the band’s classic and recognizable elements.
“The first album, I guess, I wrote over four years. With the new record, it was different because it was written in a really small concentrated amount of time.
“Early house music and techno from the ’80s was a big influence and how kind of messy it sounded, back when people were making dance music and playing it on real instruments: that’s kind of what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to move away from the plastic sound and make an electronic record acoustically.”
Performance is nothing new for Stelamanis, who is a classically trained opera singer, as her and most of the group have been playing together for about four years. Austra’s core consists of Maya Postepski, who has been playing with Stelmanis since their teen years and heads up the percussion and programming department, while Dorian Wolf performs on bass. Currently touring as a four-piece with Ryan Wonsiak on the keys, the band has played live with as many as six members, adding twins Sari and Romy Lightman on backup vocals. With live shows playing such an important role, it can be challenging to create something of an animated experience out of an electronic sound without it falling flat due to production details during the recording process.
“Often, when you’re making electronic music, you want to just add layers and layers of sound. It’s hard to make that happen in a live setting. We’ve spent a long time trying to figure out ways to actually play the music, so I think we’re in a good place right now with a balance of computer technology and playing real instruments,” Stelmanis continues. “We’re always afraid of sounding like a rock band and I don’t think we’re doing that at the moment.”
Along with wanting to keep things new and interesting, Stelmanis felt it necessary for the band to rearrange some of the old material in order to create a more cohesive live performance.
“We re-arranged a lot of the old songs, mostly just because, in my opinion, there is a big difference between the old songs and the new songs: we just wanted to make them fit together a little bit better. It’s nice to have new material to work with and it’s good I think that it still feels very fresh.”
If you’re catching the band live, apart from a high-energy show, one can also expect the added element of a beat-activated, DIY light show the band had a techie create especially for them. Stelmanis seems stoked but also laughs that it “has tripled the amount of work [they] have to do every night!” As far as new material from the band, a bit of a rest is scheduled before they head back into the studio after this tour wraps up in early 2014.
Catch Austra at the Garrick Centre (Winnipeg) on October 5, Avenue Theatre (Edmonton) on October 8 and at the SAIT Gateway (Calgary) on October 9.
By Chrystal MacLeod
Photos: Norman Wong