Four years since the release of Olympia, January saw the return of Canadian outfit Austra’s brand of dark (and at times operatic) electronica with their third full-length Future Politics. A reaction to its times, the project’s brainchild Katie Stelmanis calls the record ‘a commitment to replace the approaching dystopia’, and deals with the modern experience in both personal and social terms.
Ahead of their show at Village Underground this week, John Bell spoke to Stelmanis about Utopia, Stark Trek and Future Politics.
Your new release Future Politics is your first in four years, despite still sounding very ‘Austra’. What have you been up to in this time and how do you think you’ve changed, if at all, as an artist?
I find it surprising that it’s been four years since the last album because it doesn’t feel like that. I think that between the first two records we never stopped touring and this one required a real break. I wanted to focus on things that had nothing to do with music to try and exercise other parts of my brain because I felt like I was starting to disintegrate by simply existing as a touring band. I took some dance lessons, I learned French and Spanish (though have since forgotten), and I got really into reading which basically informed this entire new record.
The record seems to be fuelled by this progressive, futurist push (“I’m never coming back here / There’s only one way”). Given the current socio-political context in the West it may be a little naive to ask, but perhaps you could elaborate on this impulse and how it may have kick started making a new record?
The concepts for this record were created long before the current political situation in the west. I was essentially writing about what it’s like to live in neoliberalism – that was what I was referring to for what needed to be left behind. It began I think with Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, where she ties climate change to capitalism, and from there I became obsessed with reading about capitalism and post-capitalism, and eventually just sci-fi, particularly feminist sci-fi and Afrofuturism.
The album cover, shot at Luis Barragan’s Cuadra San Cristobal, is visually enticing. Barragan was known for putting the emotional above the functional in his own brand of modernist architecture; might we link that to your own concerns highlighted in the record?
I would like to think so; I think any art is better understood through emotions rather than function. I suppose architects often have to work specifically under the constraints of functionality, I think if musicians did that we wouldn’t get very far. Although I suppose some really crap top 40 could be considered ‘functional’ music.
It seems apt to ask you your thoughts around the problematic concept of utopia given your interests behind the album, and indeed one of the leading tracks bears its name. Do you think utopia is a place, a process, or a dream?
I think Utopia is impossible and everyone’s idea of it will be different. I do however think it’s important to think about what your own utopia would look like, and use these ideas to conceptualize a greater goal we could work towards as a society in general. I would love for the masses to get behind some great, progressive ambitions that may not make sense monetarily but make perfect sense in terms of our hope for survival.
You mentioned your interest in sci-fi – what are some of your favourite alternate futures?
The ultimate alternative future for me is found in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Someone wrote a book about it called Trekonomics which I haven’t read yet but it basically tests the viability of such a society. Earth is seen as a holistic entity and its people live in a post-war, post-money society. There is no scarcity because of the ‘replicator’ and they get to travel everywhere in space because they figured out how to move at the speed of light; big ambitions there.
The video for ‘Utopia’ has a clean, modern aesthetic but there’s something unsettling about it. Can you explain the idea for the video and the process behind it?
I wrote the song utopia about living in my home town of Toronto which has been financialised and taken over by bland ugly condos. It’s supposed to take place in the future, but as we were making it we realised all of our futurist dystopian ideas already exist, so we decided to play on that even more and have our techno-overlord be an amazon echo which of course we are already using today. (We didn’t get $$ for it and that’s why its styled as ‘rainforest’)
Let’s talk also the video for your new single ‘I Love You More Than You Love Yourself’, based on the story of US Astronaut Lisa Nowak. It’s a particularly moving track. What drew you to Nowak’s story?
I believe that Lisa Nowak has been treated really unfairly by the internet and media alike. She was in space before the age of 30. She is a genius living an incredibly rigorous schedule at NASA and had a mental breakdown. So instead of focusing on the absurdity of the story we wanted to approach it from a place of compassion in order to help people better understand the complexities of mental health.
How easy did you find the process of mixing some of the more personal songs with those that dealt with larger, more societal issues? Or is the point rather that they are one and the same?
Even the songs that deal with larger social issues are to me very personal. I wasn’t writing with a need to put out a message, I was writing as an emotional response to things I was reading about or reacting to. I wrote ‘Utopia’ while feeling quite depressed about the place where I grew up, and I wrote Future Politics feeling very charged immediately after reading [Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek’s] ‘Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics‘.
You started your tour of the album not long a couple of weeks ago – how are the songs translating live? How do you approach a live Austra performance?
These songs are really fun to perform live especially in combination with our older songs. The set is very dynamic with a strong mix of very intimate moments and full on rave remixes. People have been really enjoying it and so have we.
Perhaps it would be fitting to end with an optimistic outlook towards the near future: what joys do you hope this year will bring, perhaps both personally and for Austra?
Touring and putting out music is a very emotionally exhausting yet also rewarding thing to do. I suppose this year I hope to experience more of the rewarding parts than the exhausting parts. That would be quite a feat for me.
Photos by Renata Raksha.