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Cassian: standing tall

Known for his work with RÜFÜS DU SOL, Broods, Hayden James and others, Grammy-nominated producer, mixer, and DJ Cassian is proof that if you build a name behind the scenes, solo success will come. Here, he speaks with Megan Venzin about his career to date, 2020's 'LAPS' LP, and settling into a powerful period of self-actualization

In Australia, there’s a phrase commonly used to describe people who “cut down” the overachievers in their midst due to their own insecurities. Those who commit such an act are said to suffer from “tall poppy syndrome”. 

“There’s almost an anti-success mindset over there,” says Cassian Stewart-Kasimba, better known as just Cassian. “Especially with music, it’s like ambition is a little frowned upon. You’re told you shouldn’t shoot too high or try too hard. It’s funny, because usually there’s the perception of a person who is successful and a separate notion of a person who is full of themselves, but in Australia it’s just the same. And we don’t like it.” He flashes a smile that suggests this mentality has had a direct impact on his slow and steady rise where he is today.

Cassian is no short poppy. Aside from standing at a physical 6’2”, the guy’s got a shelf full of ARIA Awards. He’s an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, producer, and DJ, and a GRAMMY nominated artist, too. But full of himself, Cassian is not.

“The hardest part of making music, for me, is just finding the confidence in what I’m doing,” he tells DJ Mag candidly. “It took maybe 10 albums of working as the mixer or producer for other artists before I was like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’” 

Though some may not be familiar with Cassian at first mention, they’ve almost certainly been exposed to his atmospheric soundprint by association while listening to projects such as fellow Aussie pop outfits Lastlings, Set Mo, and perhaps most notably, RÜFÜS DU SOL. Cassian locked his first GRAMMY nomination in 2020 for his role mixing the trio’s pop-centric dancefloor melter ‘Underwater’, and is up for another award this year in the Best Dance/Electronic Recording Category for similar work on ‘Alive’, the lead single off their hit 2021 LP ‘Surrender’. 

The accolades he received while working with the chart-topping act came in addition to the success he’s reaped as an established solo performer. Last year, he released his debut concept album ‘LAPS’ to rave reviews. He accompanied Nora En Pure on her Purified Tour last summer and appeared on a number of 2021’s most anticipated festival come-back lineups, including that of HARD Summer in San Bernardino, CA, Deep Tropics in Nashville, TN, and CityFox’s annual Halloween Festival in New York City. 

When we sit down with Cassian, it’s over a video call with a WiFi connection that’s doing its best to hold itself together. He’s casually dressed in a loose T-shirt, sipping coffee, and collecting his bearings in a sparsely decorated hotel room in Guadalajara. It’s still a few hours before he’ll take the stage at one of Jalisco’s popular clubs later that night. “It’s like a real Mexican city,” he explains of his current stop, noting it’s not his first time in town. “It’s big, but the people here are really just working and living their lives. It’s not like Cancun where it feels like a place that was made for tourists to come and have a good time.” 

Cassian’s brand of dark and dreamy melodic house has come far, and shows like the one he will play tonight prove that. But even with these telltale signs that the Australian transport is an in-demand act, he still needs the occasional reassurance.  Thankfully, he’s found a place where flexing isn’t only expected… it’s downright celebrated. Nowadays, Cassian resides in Los Angeles, where he says “tall poppy syndrome” is flipped on its head. “That’s probably the best part of being in LA for me, because I have to constantly ask myself, ‘what do you need to be more confident in? What is it you need to do?’”

 

IN THE STUDIO

When Cassian’s parents enrolled him in piano lessons at five years-old and guitar lessons at 12, they did so without the inkling that he’d pursue a professional path in music. It sparked a trajectory nevertheless, and one they’d come to question, as anyone who wants the best for their child might. In his teens he participated in a patchwork series of live bands where he offered his talents for meager payouts of 50 bucks per gig on a good night. Between playing keys for a hip-hop group and guitar for another unnamed collective, he became acquainted with Sydney’s burgeoning dance music scene. 

The band in which he played guitar served as an initial bridge toward the DJ booth. “The lead singer’s big brother was a booker who helped run this club in Sydney called Candys Apartment,” Cassian recalls. “My mom or dad would have to come to the shows because I was like 15, so I needed a guardian. But I remember we’d be packing up the gear and then a DJ would go up, and that’s when I was kind of getting interested in it.” He also points to crossover acts like Van She that grabbed his attention with a style that meshed live instruments and dancefloor-ready beats in a way he hadn’t heard before.

“When I’m drawn to something, I just go all the way down the rabbit hole on it. And at that time, it was such a rich rabbit hole to dive down, because this was the Blog House era, so there was Hype Machine and all these other music blogs, and then Daft Punk were touring their show at that time,” he reminisces fondly. “There was so much excitement around electronic music, and so much of it was from a culture that was accessible to me in the scene where I was — Cut Copy, The Presets, Van She, Bag Raiders, you know, basically all the Modular Recordings artists.” The label was known for pumping out a fresh brand of alt-electro music in the mid-aughts. Today it’s owned by Universal Music Australia.

When he was 18, his bandmate’s older brother offered up space in Candys Apartment for practice sessions. The space was all Cassian’s, but only after ticket holders went home. “And he said, ‘When you’re ready, you can do a set in the back room,’” he explains. “Maybe 10 people could fit in there. It was tiny and basically just a bar.”

He got to work, excited at the prospect of a new creative outlet. The finance degree he was pursuing at a university failed to capture his passion in the same way. “It doesn’t really make sense why I was doing that, I guess maybe because I was decent in maths in high school?” he says with a shrug.

He developed a knack for playing to the room, pumping out smooth sets that made headliners shine. It was through this practice he gained an appreciation for the ecosystem of a wild night out. 

“It's always so funny how a party or a club turns into a world within itself,” he shares. “You want to do this thing, and meet this person, and progress in this world that exists for as long as the party goes on, right? So when I was really young and the DJ would start to play and I’d see this world start to form, I’d be on the dancefloor thinking, ‘do I want to go up there in the booth?’ It’s just that natural progression — something very primal almost.” 

His enthusiasm for a good vibe did not go unnoticed during a quiet Wednesday night at Beach Road Hotel in Bondi, a chill haunt in Australia’s backpacker zone. “I’m playing and there’s like no one on the dancefloor. I look down and it’s the guys from RÜFÜS crowded around a table just nodding along, and I thought, ‘oh that’s so nice,’” he remembers. “After the show we met properly. And then the next week, they came to my little shit studio that I had in a building that got demolished a few years after that.” He chuckles about how far the relationship (not to mention his workspace) has come. That session set the foundation for a long-lasting partnership that’s still holding strong. “We worked on the song ‘Desert Night’ from their first album. And I mixed that. And from then on, I don’t know,” he pauses. “We were just friends.”

That fateful meeting at a mostly empty club turned Cassian into a crucial player in the band’s worldwide success — mixing their albums, and joining them on the road as direct support at iconic venues like Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver and The Shrine Expo Center in LA. When RÜFÜS DU SOL launched their Rose Avenue label in 2020, it only made sense that they’d kick off its legacy by spotlighting an artist and tourmate they trusted fiercely. 

“It’s definitely not a good business decision to release an album in the middle of a pandemic, sure. But I never look at any decisions that I make in music as business decisions, for better or worse.”

On June 26th, 2020, Cassian’s ‘LAPS’ became the first LP to arrive via Rose Avenue. His nine-track debut LP features a dynamic mix of instrumental and vocal-forward cuts, all coming together to represent the ebb and flow of falling in and out of love. 

“The album’s not about a specific relationship; rather it’s about the cycles of relationships,” he explains. “I’d been through a few by that point in my life and I was a little bit jaded.” He continues, taking a moment with his words to try and sum up the nuances of something that’s equal parts chemical and emotional. “It’s always this thing where you start off and you’re in a good place, and then you go through the whole cycle of getting to know someone and inevitably you have to resolve to get back to that baseline.” He pauses. “And then it goes on loop.” 

‘LAPS’ dropped at the tip-top of hot pandemic summer of 2020, perhaps lending a soundtrack to the oh-so-many relationships that evolved and dissolved over that unsettling and confusing time of isolation. Though many industry blogs gave it a hearty thumbs up, in other ways it flew under the radar. Blame it on the times. “It’s definitely not a good business decision to release an album in the middle of a pandemic, sure,” Cassian says. “But I never look at any decisions that I make in music as business decisions, for better or worse.”

Without any other major releases to compare it to, Cassian moved forward knowing that by unleashing his debut LP, he’d at least be putting a collective body of work into the world — and one he felt strongly about. “It’s a statement — it is what it is,” he elaborates. “I just wanted to get it out there and off my chest.” Though it entered the airwaves at a less than ideal moment, several elements of its vast sonic landscape live on in the energetic-bordering-on-moody DJ sets he’s honing in on these days.

ICYMI, the concept album kicks off with ‘BANZA’, a key-kissed melter that sounds a lot like how butterflies feel. It harbors an uplifting tension that borders on euphoric, and let’s just say, with a soundtrack like this in the background, we’d be willing to bet an innocent first kiss would erupt into full-blown fireworks. 

The next four tracks are lyrical gems. Among two of the standouts are ‘MAGICAL’ featuring Zolly aka Phil Slabber of Crooked Colours (another act with whom Cassian shares studio history), and ‘SAME THINGS’, touting the crystalline tones of Gabrielle Current. The second serves as an inflection point for the album’s central message — it’s about when “just for fun” goes “official”. It’s a percussive, feel-good groove that percolates with anticipation, and offers a compelling contrast to the more somber notes found on the latter half of the album. ‘LAPS’ closes out with its lingering title track — a seven-minute production with a warm, rushing intensity. It’s got a slick bassline and distinct loops. Just like love, it’s a bit of a grind, but it’s also extremely satisfying.

The ‘LAPS’ LP didn’t come together overnight. And compared to Cassian’s earlier works, many of which skew minimal and deep, it’s a testament to his constant evolution. Flowing and progressive, most of its tunes are crafted to play out in a live format — something fans may have to wait a bit longer for, but he insists will come eventually. 

“I feel like 2018 was when I was starting to work on the songs that would end up on the album,” Cassian shares of his artistic process. “They were bubbling away and that was when I started to develop the agency and power to pursue the sound I wanted to. I felt powerful enough to actually execute what I had in my head, instead of doing things, not exactly mindlessly, but without clear intention behind them.”

Since its release, many of the bops on ‘LAPS’ have been reworked by Cassian, acting as cornerstone edits in his darker club and festival sets. Those, along with the momentous ‘Rogue’ EP he produced alongside fellow melodic house producer Yotto, offer a clear glimpse at where Cassian’s eclectic sound is headed.

In 2022, Cassian will return with his aptly named ‘REACTIVATE’ EP. The two-track pairing is loud, pulsing, and devoid of the central vocal performances that define much of ‘LAPS’. And there’s a good reason for that. “I was missing those club moments and that big club feeling,” Cassian shares of the project’s genesis. “It’s about reactivating those spaces and that energy. It’s basically a reflection of the moments that I want to create right now.” The ideas for those cuts began to form very far away from such places — in a shower, actually (where his best ones often do.)

‘REACTIVATE’ EP’s release date is still to be determined, but it too will arrive on the Rose Avenue imprint. Brimming with intrepid synths, meticulous drumlines, and heavy bass, ‘REACT’ and ‘ACTIVATE’ are likely to do just as their titles promise when blasted at full volume in big rooms. “I think it’s pretty ambitious,” he adds when speaking about it. There’s a clear shift in how Cassian speaks of the forthcoming release — there’s a poised and self-reliant air, one that only forms as a result of learning how to trust oneself (an introspective pandemic-era work flow probably didn’t hurt either.)

“‘REACT’ is pretty bold. It always works when I play it, but it goes for shots. It’s taking the buzzer beater a little bit,” he says, pinging a reference to his high school basketball days, a pastime he enjoyed until an injury left him with a damaged Achilles tendon. “Like, if you played that and it didn’t work, you’d be the biggest flop ever,” he adds. “It’s just one big idea. That’s it. And if you’re on the dancefloor and you don’t like it, then the song will just suck. But if you do like it, then it’s going to be great. Unashamedly, that’s just what it is.”

RÜFÜS DU SOL on Cassian

‘ACTIVATE’ has a different feel, still diligently layered and pegged with calculated builds, it possesses a decidedly global quality to boot. They should do the trick at upcoming tour-stops like his four-city romp through Brazil this month, and at RÜFÜS DU SOL’s highly anticipated Sundream Tulum destination festival, which will take place across two weekends in March. Cassian will play multiple DJ sets at both.

In the meantime, Cassian is settling into a powerful period of self-actualization. After years of working alongside his musical mentors, helping them achieve a sound that only he could help deliver, he’s off to tend his own garden. 

“I only recently started to understand what it meant to be an artist, even though I guess I was one for so long,” he shares without hesitation. “I just really like to figure things out. I always want time to delve into a thing and feel like I understand it, even if I don’t.” He describes himself like this often, indicating an acute awareness of his need to have everything in its right place before making any major moves. “Before I run out on the court with a new team and just start bombing threes, I feel like I have to know the system,” he throws in, once again waxing back to his time as a shooting guard.

These personality traits explain why Cassian thrived over the past two years. What many saw as limitations he embraced as opportunities, and in the process found a sense of focus that was largely unattainable before the world stopped. Though Cassian relocated to America in 2015, he spent months at a time traveling back and forth between the States and Australia to complete studio sessions, run the occasional tour circuit, and reconnect with friends and family.

“I always think of my life like a flow chart where it looks like this: If I answer ‘yes’ to this thing, I continue, if I say ‘no,’ then I move in another direction,” he explains, moving his fingers across the screen to exemplify a deliberate path. “Going back to Australia so much, I found that memories of growing up there and the places around me would always infiltrate my mindset. Now I have this new place to explore and build and figure out what I really want to do.” 

After more than a year of closed borders, Cassian did finally have the opportunity to return to Australia last June, and he describes the experience in a place he loves, with a palpable heaviness. 

“The Australian lockdown is very different from the American one. It’s pretty intense and a little oppressive. You feel very monitored,” he explains. “I was like, ‘wow, this is absolutely not it’. I have a whole new relationship with the word freedom — I used to never really get it. But now I realize, ‘oh, there are different levels of freedom.’” He’s even noticed a growing trend among close colleagues who still reside there — many are weighing the option of setting up shop in Los Angeles themselves.

Lucky for Cassian, those formalities are well out of the way. In a geographic and artistic sense, he’s free, and there’s nothing left for him to do but blossom into the tallest poppy he can be.

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America's Contributing Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @Meggerzv

Photography: Bellamy Brewster