Dec 04, 2011 12:00AM

Interview: Katie Stelmanis from Austra

We talk to the lead singer about her dream rider, almost drowning at a festival and sounding like Florence Welch.

Austra's debut LP, Feel it Break, captured audiences with its dark and danceable sound, harking back to the sleazier side of New Wave but still deeply rooted in lead singer Katie Stelmanis' classical background. This summer Austra will be touring Australia with the Laneway festival and a few side shows. Oyster caught up with Katie, co-founder and lead singer of the Toronto trio, to chat about how she got together with drummer Maya Postepski and bassist Dorian Wolf as well as her thoughts on festivals, panic attacks and Justin Bieber. Plus check out some of Austra's synth-driven tracks below featuring Katie's haunting vocals.

Sophie Bosch: So you're on tour at the moment, right?
Katie Stelmanis: Yes, in Canada.

How did you guys meet and get together as a band?
We got together as a band within the last few years. I started performing as a solo artist in 2008, and called upon my drummer Maya, who had previously played with me in another band, to come on tour with me. About two years ago we added Dorian to the touring band. Eventually the project and the songwriting and the live shows became much more of a collaborative effort and we decided to come up with a band name for what we were doing instead of performing as me.

How did you come up with the name Austra?
Austra (pronounced Owstra) is my middle name. We were trying to think of a band name for a really long time and 90% of the ones we wanted were taken already. Austra wasn't my first choice but the reason why it appealed to me was because it was kind of like a blank slate. It didn't really mean anything and it wasn't really a word that anybody was familiar with so we could do whatever we wanted with it. I liked that we could just make it into whatever we wanted.

I read that you have a bit of a DIY attitude when you started out, especially in terms of organising all your own tours and shows. Are you still organising everything pretty independently or do you have help handling it now that the band has gotten bigger?
We work with a lot of different people and get support from a lot of different people but I still think that we kind of have the same DIY mentality, so we have total control of our projects. We're self-managed at the moment, so we deal with all the agents and the labels ourselves. In that sense – if we give away control very slowly – it's good to do that because everybody that we work with, we want it to be the right fit, we really want to trust the people that we're working with.

Is there a healthy electronic music scene in Canada or do you feel like you have more of an audience overseas?
In Canada, people like electronic music, and I know a lot of people listen to it, but just the way our music scene is and the way our country is so big and so sparsely populated, there just isn't really an infrastructure to support electronic music. There's no major blogs or radio stations that support it, so it's kind of hard for electronic bands to get anywhere in Canada so that's why most electronic musicians have to take their music overseas, quite often to Europe, sometimes to the States, but pretty much all of the electronic acts from Canada got big in Europe before Canada.

You've started to play some larger shows. Do you enjoy performing live, or does it kind of make you want to pee your pants?
I love performing live. I think for all of us, performing is probably the best part of making music. I think as a singer, being able to sing for people and sing on the stage is probably one of my favourite things.

I overheard a friend of mine compare you to Florence + the Machine, does that piss you off or are you okay with that comparison?
It doesn't really piss me off. To be honest, the first time I heard Florence + the Machine's voice, I was like, "Wow she sounds exactly like me!" Our voices are really similar but our music is really different. Maybe people think we have an 80's vibe going on but her music is really over-produced super dramatic pop, mine is a little bit more indie and lo-fi. I think her music is kind of boring even though I think she's a good singer.

You're playing the Laneway festival in Australia this summer, have you ever been to Australia before?
This is our first time in Australia, all of us are really excited about it.

What bands do you think you're going to watch at the Australian festivals?
I'm definitely going to watch Anna Calvi, who I'm a big fan of, I really like EMA, I've never actually seen Feist play so I would like to see her, I really like the Twin Shadow record... yeah, there's a lot of really good stuff on the bill that I'm really excited to see.

What would your ultimate rider be?
That's a fun question because we talk about that a lot. We're big health freaks; we love to have every healthy kind of macro-biotic thing that you can have on your rider. If we were able to take it to the next level, we would request a personal chef to make us our own local cuisine, a yoga instructor to force us to exercise, and our own whole dressing room where we could iron our clothes. We talk about this all the time and when we opened up for Arcade Fire in Amsterdam they actually had all of these things exactly. So it is possible.

Amazing! What would your dream festival look like, location, line up (dead or alive), era...
I guess it would just be all of our favourite bands that we've ever liked to hear live. This year I've just been listening to a lot of the same stuff. I really like the new Bjork record, I've been listening to so much Portishead, a lot of UK DJ stuff, I really like Planningtorock, Anna Calvi, a lot of indie music. I think a festival with all of those things on it would be pretty amazing.

If you were driving to this dream festival, what 5 songs would you have to have on your road trip playlist?
Right now we rotate a lot of different songs. I like that 'Natalia' song by Zombie, I play that one all the time. I really like the song 'Good Day Today' by David Lynch on his most recent album, we listen to that one a lot. We listen to a lot of Burial, we also listen to a lot of Coco Rosie in the car from the latest record. I forget what all the song titles are. We listen to a lot of PJ Harvey, even though half my band actually kind of hates it, we've been listening to 'Let England Shake' a lot.

What's your craziest festival story?
Well it's kind of hard, because we haven't done many festivals. We did our first part at festivals ever this summer. I went to a festival called Hillside in Ontario like 5 years ago, it's a Canadian folk festival and I guess it's the standard kind of festival. You're just outside and it's really hot, and there's no shelter and everybody's drinking so everybody gets dehydrated, and I decided it would be a good idea to go for a swim. So I swam into the middle of the lake and it was on a really hot day and I'd been drinking all weekend, and then when I got to the middle of the lake I totally lost all my energy and I lost my breath and I had a full on panic attack in the middle of the lake. I just floated on my back for a little while, but it was really scary, I was so close to calling for help. I thought I was going to drown, and since then I've actually been scared of going in deep water, so I'm pretty careful at festivals now.

That sounds really scary! Okay, so now I've got a quick test and you just have to say who you think is better out of the following, just off the top of your head.
Okay, go.

PJ Harvey or Bjork?
Oh that's so hard! That's impossible! I guess my lifelong favourite has always been Bjork, but I don't think that I could really choose between them, I guess my personal favourite is Bjork.

Kurt Cobain or Jeff Buckley?
Ah, Kurt Cobain.

Soft Cell or Japan?
I'd say Japan.

Kate Bush or Bat for Lashes
Definitely Kate Bush.

Justin Bieber or The Jonas Brothers
I guess Justin Bieber.

He's Canadian right, so you have to say that?
Exactly, represent hometown!

Where's Wally or Carmen SanDiego?
Carmen SanDiego.

Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter?
Lord of the Rings.

Would you rather be blind or deaf?

Would you rather eat food in a capsule form for the rest of your life or never have sex again?
Probably eat food in a capsule form.

What non-musical sound or noise do you love?
I love the silence that happens when it snows in Canada. We were just driving through the mountains in BC (British Columbia) and when you walk to get out to your car, it's the deadest silence you've ever heard in your entire life, because there's just five feet of snow covering everything.

What sound or noise do you hate?
A sound that annoys me a lot is people chewing, it really grosses me out.

What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a musician?
Hopefully I would be something that would make a lot of money, maybe like a business person.

Check out some of our favourite Austra tracks here:

Austra will be playing the Laneway festival in January and February:

Brisbane – Saturday 28 January 2012
Alexandria Street, Fortitude Valley QLD 4006

Auckland – Monday 30 January 2012
Silo Park, Beaumont Street. Auckland

Melbourne – Saturday 4 February 2012
Footscray Community Arts Centre: 45 Moreland Street, Footscray VIC 3011

Sydney – Sunday 5 February 2012
Sydney College of the Arts (SCA): Balmain Road, Rozelle NSW 2039

Adelaide – Friday 10 February 2012
Fowler's Live ? 68-70 North Terrace, Adelaide SA 5000

Perth – Saturday 11 February 2012
Perth Cultural Centre: Beaufort Street, Perth WA 6000

Singapore – Sunday 12 February 2012
Fort Canning, Canning Rise, Singapore

And some additional sideshows in February:

February 2nd- The Corner, Melbourne
February 9th- The Basement, Sydney

Words: Sophie Bosch