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Flume: a king and his castle

Caught between the demands of being an internationally-renowned performer and his desire for a quiet life, Australian producer Flume found balance upon returning to his homeland. Amongst nature, and with a restored sense of wellbeing, he completed his most ambitious album to date, 'Palaces'. Megan Venzin learns its story

Flume fills arenas, smashes stage props with sledgehammers, and builds booming soundscapes with the high-tech gear that fills his ever-expanding studio. Harley Edward Streten, on the other hand, prefers a little peace and quiet.

“What am I growing? Hmm, let’s see. I’ve got capsicums. I think you call them peppers? Then there’s some pumpkin, kale, spinach, all the herbs,” says Streten, casually rolling off the contents of his garden, during an early-morning call with DJ Mag. Tilling the eight-acre plot in New South Wales is a relatively new project for the Grammy-winning artist, though it is one he’s aspired to tackle for ages. With help from his mother, who is a horticulturist, he achieved his goal earlier than expected. Though other circumstances in the world kick-started the hobby as well.

“It was getting pretty dark in LA. It was just full on with the Covid and the Black Lives Matter protests. No one was vaccinated, there was panic, stores were empty, blah, blah, blah,” the accomplished producer trails off, communicating the exhaustion that comes with dwelling on those harrowing early pandemic days. “I was also worried about my parents getting sick or something. There was just so much uncertainty.” Unsure of how California’s lockdown would play out, Streten took the same steps as many people did back in the spring of 2020: he packed up his suitcase and headed back to his homeland.

“I moved up to a part of Australia that I’d never lived in, and I kind of started a new life,” he explains with a sense of calm in his voice. “And I stumbled across this farm. I mean, it’s not really a farm. It’s just a big piece of land. But, I started growing my own vegetables and just living a wholesome existence. It’s been very healing, especially after being away for so many years.” Some days it’s just Streten and his three-year-old Goldendoodle, Percy, tucked away in a quaint house on the East Coast, south of Queensland. On other occasions, Flume’s creative director, Jonathan Zawada, stops by to discuss the visuals and thematic elements that will accompany his forthcoming album, ‘Palaces,’ due out on May 20th via the independent record label, Future Classic.

Flume resting his chin on his hands, in orange trousers and an orange and black jacket against a neutral background

“It’s really stressful when you have a successful body of work because now you’ve got to do another one that’s as good, or better. There’s all these pressures and it’s a wild head fuck, especially when you’re a solo artist.”

When we catch up with Streten, he’s in Hobart getting his bearings. He’ll soon return to set to shoot a music video, but for the moment he’s still lounging in bed. He flips his camera on briefly and his mid-chin length, bleach blonde hair is tousled loosely about his head. We can’t help but notice how different the person peering back at us from our computer screen looks these days. The revamped hairdo is one striking attribute, but there’s something about his face that seems distinctly changed. Suddenly we realise it’s been a full 10 years since the future bass prodigy dropped his self-titled debut album, spurring the creation of a sub-genre that would alter the pop landscape as we knew it. 

As such, the unfamiliar appearance may be nothing more than the product of maturity. But we swear he looks happier, too.“My entire twenties were taken up with this work,” he explains of the breakneck schedule that came before this fortuitous period. “I got on a train and it just continued to speed up and up and up, and I guess I got used to a certain level of anxiety and stress, and didn’t even really realize where I was at.”

Streten recently turned 30 years old, but his career has seen more twists and triumphs than most will experience in a lifetime. In 2011, he was a member of what was formerly the duo, What So Not, which he helmed alongside fellow producer Chris Emerson, known to many as his alias Emoh Instead. The Australian imprint Sweat It Out! released their debut EP ‘Dollar Bill’ in November of that year, back when Flume was still a teenager. 

Right on the cusp of the North American EDM boom, their trap and moombahton-kissed flavours permeated festival fields, and their chill groove, ‘High You Are,’ which dropped via Skrillex’s Owsla label in 2013, became an instant hit. ‘Tell Me,’ another massive collaboration with American artist RL Grime, followed not long after in 2014, landing the longtime friends at the tip-top of bass music’s mighty hierarchy. 

“The thing is, at the start, it’s really exciting and really incredible. And these dreams are just coming true. It’s crazy,” Streten reflects on those formative years. But even as What So Not carved a niche for themselves with their immersive, globally-infused bangers, Streten had already begun to build a name as a solo artist, leaving Emerson to carry the team’s touring responsibilities alone. At the same time, Streten embarked on his own headlining tours and played festival dates at events like SXSW and Coachella. By then, Flume’s 2012 self-titled debut album, which saw him dish out dreamy hip-hop and R&B beats like a new age, down under J Dilla, was already a resounding success. It was only a matter of time before creative differences inevitably emerged. 

In early 2015, Streten officially announced his departure from What So Not via a kindly worded Facebook post. He thanked the fans for their support and wished Emoh Instead well in his efforts to continue on with the project (which in all regards is still going strong today.) 

What audiences may have interpreted as an attempt by Streten to step back and take a breath, was actually anything but. The Flume project kicked into full gear and only became bigger, which meant the 12-time ARIA Award-winning artist never slowed down. He doesn’t necessarily regret that sequence of events. “I don’t think I would have done much too differently,” Streten says, taking a moment to find his words. “Ultimately, I really gave it my all and dedicated everything to these last 10 years, and it’s been incredibly fruitful. And I think if I hadn’t gone so hard, then I don’t think I’d necessarily be in the position where I am now.” 

While he’s quick to note that Covid has had a horrible impact on so many lives, he admits that the timing of its emergence was for him a blessing in disguise. When show dates were canceled and deadlines dissipated, Streten embraced a rare opportunity to operate on his own terms. “It gave me a chance to just be a normal person and cultivate friendships, live life, and have a sense of community, you know? I’m able to do all these things that you can’t when you’re being ping-pong balled around the world,” he says, using the table tennis analogy to exemplify the relentlessness of his former lifestyle.

Flume in a shirt and trousers on the bonnet of a crushed blue car

When in Australia, Streten spends time with family, immerses himself in nature, and hits the waves on his surfboard almost daily. When he’s stationed in LA, it’s back to the grind. And he’s cool with that trade-off. “It’s a lot of flying, but yeah, it’s like I’ve got two different lives now.”

The multi-platinum artist speaks candidly about his challenges with mental health, not to mention the peace he’s found in his current setup. “I love to make music and be creative, but there’s the side of the job that’s not really that,” he says, presumably in reference to the interview that’s in progress. “It becomes a lot of shows and touring and doing press, and all these things that don’t really come naturally to me.”

While anyone who’s witnessed Flume dominate the live stage with an inimitable presence may disagree with this opinion, it won’t change what the virtuoso knows about himself.“I’m not really a performer, I guess you could say,” he continues. “I like being alone in the studio. I think after doing everything else for so long, it started to get me down, and getting on the antidepressants was just the best thing I ever did. It was so life-changing for me. It made all the craziness of this job feel manageable.”

His meteoric rise may have taken its toll at times, too. “It’s really stressful when you have a successful body of work because now you’ve got to do another one that’s as good, or better,” he explains of the heavy expectations that he’s put upon himself in the past. “There’s all these pressures and it’s a wild head fuck, especially when you’re a solo artist.” He stops himself to reiterate the gratitude that wells up within him, even when other emotions run high. “I mean, I’ve had so many crazy experiences, and I’ve had an incredibly fortunate life and I just feel really grateful that I got to be able to do what I wanted to do,” he adds in a glass-half-full summation.  

Flume Back Then

Flume in a green shirt in a field

He then reveals that the aforementioned medications are no longer part of his regimen. “Once I went back to Australia, I was relieved of all these duties, and I thought, ‘wow, okay, it’s a pretty idyllic situation. I don’t think I’m going to get another opportunity like this for god knows how long, if ever, so I’m going to try and taper off.’ And I did, and I feel great,” he offers up with a smile. “Now that this cycle is starting again and being off them, it’s quite interesting to see what they did and how they affected me.” He takes a second to dish out another leisure-sport centered comparison. “It kind of feels like going bowling with the bumper bars on,” he says, letting out a low chuckle. “Now, bumpers are OFF. Shit’s crazy!” 

Streten credits the move with improving his state of wellbeing, and attests that it also had a marked impact on his productivity. “I like starting things. I don’t like finishing things,” he states in an analytical manner. “When I was in the States, I was definitely struggling to do music. Just mentally, I wasn’t feeling quite as creative. But when I went back to Australia, with the change of scenery, the space, the lack of pressure — all of that added up to a really conducive environment for finishing stuff.”

He established about 40% of ‘Palaces’ prior to his relocation, and believes that much of the magic happened far away from his busy city routine. “It really came together after lots of time at this beautiful studio on a friend’s property. It was at this little box-like cottage in a room with stained glass windows that looked out onto the hills over a crest,” he describes of his serene workspace. It was there that Flume’s third studio album found its unbridled and unusual shape.

As such, ‘Palaces’ is the embodiment of Streten’s newfound contentment, and largely inspired by a return to natural surroundings. Original recordings of wildlife paint the album, and the primal call of the Australian whipbird rightly deserves its own feature on the record. “I wanted to bring where I was living into the music, and it felt like an appropriate way,” Streten explains. Since it’s not common practice to list unsuspecting animals in the credits, the native creature is instead recognized in the cover art, alongside a number of other colorful avian counterparts.

While ‘Palaces’ isn’t necessarily a concept album, the art direction (which Streten created in tandem with the aforementioned Jonathan Zawada), was one way to incorporate the vibrant qualities of his current subtropical landscape into his newest long player and the multi-media that accompanies it. “Around this time of year, actually, there’s thousands of birds migrating, and we were just fascinated by them,” he adds, explaining how their inspiration made its way onto the forward-facing visuals. In many ways their inclusion represents Streten’s love for both the organic world and the more mechanical aspects of his craft.

“I have a huge appreciation for nature, but I’ve also got a huge appreciation for, like, fucking computers and technology, right?” he says, cracking up at the polarity in his passions. “You know what I mean? I’m living in this little house surrounded by trees and forests, but I’m also pumping crazy, massive power into all my gear and sitting at a screen half the time.”

The strange contrast worked wonders. ‘Palaces’ is likely to be heralded as Flume’s most ambitious body of work to date. Only a handful of the tracks adopt a traditional song structure, unlike his sophomore LP ‘Skin’ which was widely known for its vocal forward cuts, among them the anthemic ‘Never Be Like You’ with Kai, which has clocked over 1 billion streams to date. Beck, Vic Mensa, Tove Lo, and AlunaGeorge were among the other high-profile acts who lent their superstar stylings to the critically acclaimed collection, which took home “Best Dance / Electronic Album” at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards in 2017.

‘Skin’ attained its chart-topping status six years ago (with its two companion EPs following soon after), and while ‘Palaces’ features its share of surefire bops, the meat in this release is Flume’s left-of-center approach to music making, which in this case tosses algorithmic proclivities to the sharks. The 2019 ‘Hi This Is Flume’ mixtape (the first ever continuous mixtape to score a Grammy nomination in the “Best Dance/Electronic Album” category), was in part an experimentation with granular synthesis, and fans of its salty aesthetic will be able to hear elements of that technique in ‘Palaces’ as well. It’s a clear totalization of Flume’s talent-yielding wheelhouse thus far.

“There are some really strong songs on ‘Palaces’ just in their own right, but then the production also feels like it does take center stage on a lot of them, too,” Streten shares proudly. “Sometimes with the ‘Skin’ stuff, I found myself thinking, ‘god, is this even my song anymore?’ I felt like my production ended up in the background, but with the mixtape and with the new record, I feel like there’s a really good balance of the two.”

Flume in a striped t shirt against an orange background

‘Say Nothing’ featuring Australian vocalist MAY-A is one of those “very strong songs,” and for that reason, among others, served as the LP’s lead single. Though the lyrics describe the aftermath of a relationship, Streten says ‘Say Nothing’ is not tied to a personal story, but rather came about as a result of bold songwriting sessions. Its chugging percussion, syncopated arrangement, and dualing high-pitched frequencies culminate in a gritty listen, with a catchy hook that’s pure gold. A manipulated, spiraling climax serves as the fresh Flume soundstamp, and rounds the cut out with a lingering bang. ‘Say Nothing’ is a quality earworm, as well as ‘Hollow,’ another soft and bouncy gem featuring Emma Louise. But those expecting more singalong worthy choruses and radio-ready refrains should approach ‘Palaces’ with an open mind. After all, that’s what Streten did. 

“I get bored quite easily. When artists make music that’s mostly the same for their entire career, I’m always mind boggled as to how they can do that,” he shares of the involuntary sensations behind his ever-evolving sound. “It would just drive me insane. I don’t necessarily feel like I want to make something different, I just have to. It’s not optional. I have to constantly change. Otherwise I won’t be able to do music, because I won’t be excited about it.”

‘Sirens,’ featuring American vocalist Caroline Polachek (former frontwoman of the synthpop band, Chairlift), is the second release, and it exemplifies Flume’s promise to push his own boundaries while simultaneously challenging the norms of popular electronic music. Her angelic soprano tones paired with its jarring and brashly distilled production are giving post-dystopian church choir vibes, and we’re here for it. It’s an entirely singular, deliciously discordant symphony, and yet it feels right at home on ‘Palaces’.

Streten recalls the process of puzzle-piecing his diverse record together. “I was like, shit, I gotta put this together. Just so many ideas,” he recalls. “I went through them and found the ones that I really, truly loved. And some of them made it on there, and some of them didn’t, because they didn’t fit with the overall flow. But then I realized I’ve been doing a lot of these baile funk drum patterns and that kind of became a bit of a theme.” Through a patchwork process and several months’ worth of studio sessions, completed in the States and in Australia, he came to this conclusion. “It’s like collecting fabric from around the world and then you realize you’ve got enough to make a quilt,” he explains. “That’s about how that works.”

Other pieces of this sonic blanket are composed from choppy, layered keys, as heard in the lilting ‘Jasper’s Song.’ “That was a really cool little piece,” Streten chimes in fondly. “It’s kind of like a little lullaby.” There’s ‘Go,’ which invites eardrums on a playful adventure onto an island built by breakbeats, while ‘Get U’ takes darker, dissonant turns. ‘Only Fans’ featuring Virgen Maria, a Spanish DJ and producer, is a sexy and sinister thumper that harks back to Flume’s early hip-hop sensibilities. Then some bits play back like ambient sound design trials, making for an unexpected journey that should keep loyal listeners on their toes.

‘Palaces’ culminates in the title track, a piano-forward slow-burner with Damon Albarn’s instantly recognizable voice featured in a myriad of ways — processed through loops, glazed in filters, and presented in poetic melody as the song’s central anchor, where it’s left raw like a vulnerable love letter to new beginnings. It’s a fitting finale for Flume’s brave and objective take on what constitutes dance music nowadays. 

“That clearly felt like the final track to me,” Streten elaborates on its ultimate placement. “It just clicked. It couldn’t have gone anywhere else. And then sitting with that tracklisting, I was thinking about what we could call it. I thought back on all this time I spent in Australia. I put a lot of time and energy into the space, and it felt like my palace — it really felt like I had this beautiful garden of sanctuary. And, yes, that’s why I called the record ‘Palaces.’” 

The atmospheric composition sprang forth from a labor of love — one that followed a long stretch of back and forth exchanges with an artist Streten admires deeply.  “I was stressing. He’s like an idol of mine. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I was younger,” Streten explains of working with the legendary Blur and Gorillaz frontman. “I mean, I was playing through tracks and I was playing through MORE tracks, and he wasn’t loving any of them. So I was just sitting there, sweating, and thankfully, he finally liked one of them.”

Flume in a multi-coloured jumper against a neutral background

“I don’t necessarily feel like I want to make something different, I just have to. It’s not optional. I have to constantly change. Otherwise I won’t be able to do music, because I won’t be excited about it.”

While a career in music means there will always be moments of glory and others defined by self-doubt, Streten believes he’s hit a stride that makes him feel complete.  “I’ve always tried to make this project as big as possible, but I’m at a point now where I’m just so happy with where it’s at,” he says with a palpable satisfaction. “And, you know, if it does get bigger, cool. And if it doesn’t, that’s cool too.”

But let’s be real, the world tour that’s on his horizon is one of the most anticipated of 2022, and based on previous productions which held nothing back in terms of custom set pieces, awe-inspiring stage designs, immersive visuals, and guest appearances, it’s highly unlikely that Streten’s influence will diminish anytime soon. “Being in the spotlight — it’s a lot of people’s dreams. But, for me, I quite like just being creative,” Streten reiterates. “And some people handle it really well, but I definitely think after a while, it starts to get overwhelming.” 

As such, he’s taking a lesson from his twenties — the decade he spent “grinding it out” and doing “enough partying for multiple lives.” Instead, he’s setting a schedule that reserves ample time to recharge back in Australia where he can focus on necessary self-care. “I’ve actually got the luxury where I can say no, leave some money on the table, and prioritize mental health, because that’s something I haven’t done for many years,” he shares of his decision to tour for smaller spurts this time around. “This time off now is really helpful. I did need this train to slow down, because it was definitely not good for my brain. You live and you learn.”

Anyone who wishes to catch ‘Palaces’ live will still have plenty of opportunities. Flume just debuted his new creation at Coachella in April, and he’ll play more than 60 other dates across the world with New York City’s Governors Ball Festival, two weekends at Austin City Limits, and a three-night run at Red Rocks Amphitheatre making up just a handful of the North American stops currently on the docket. He’ll wrap up at the top of December on Australia’s Gold Coast, leaving plenty of time to reminisce on the transformative year, among his friends and his fauna.

“I just love the peace and quiet, the simplicity,” he spouts in admiration of the slower tempo that awaits him in his self-proclaimed “palace.” When we chide that he speaks not like a globetrotting icon but rather like someone well-settled into their golden years, he chuckles, but doesn’t disagree. “My life has been so fucking hectic for the last 10 years. Maybe if I hadn’t had such a fast-paced existence, it’d be different, but I’m glad I arrived here a bit early.”