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Austra is one of the most enigmatic under-the-radar bands to gather a loyal international following. Hailing from Toronto, they deliver the most spellbinding performances with beautiful vocal harmonies and a slick onstage synchronicity that would put many a commercial band to shame. Pushing the dark electro mood, their down-to-earth approach and distinctive style has made them incredibly popular with fans and has set Austra in a class all of their own. Hypnotizing crowds, they pick you up and entice you along, leaving you high and wanting more. An Austra gig is like taking a “good drug” – and once will never be enough.
Lead singer KATIE STELMANIS has long been working with drummer Maya Postepski of Princess Century and Trust fame, joined by bassist Dorian Wolf, backing singer sisters Sari and Romy Lightman of band Tasseomancy, and keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak, making up this impressive now 6-piece band.
The band’s stunning debut album Feel It Break (featuring Beat And The Pulse, Lose It, The Choke, Hate Crime) was shortlisted for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize, and a highly-anticipated second album is in the pipeline.
We had a brief chat with singer Katie backstage at The Deaf Institute in Manchester, where she talked about the band, Toronto and “trying” to be a freak…
So Katie, you had a bit of a rough ride getting to Manchester this time?
Oh, it’s just there’s only one ferry a day basically from Dublin to here so we had one option and we were just running late, but it’s okay!
Austra’s really on the up and up and this year’s been a very busy year for you guys. What’s been the highlight for you so far?
I think the most exciting moment for us was we’d just put out our record and we flew to Europe and the first show that we played was in Berlin. We’d never really had people come out to our shows and want to see us play, but I guess when you put a record out, people know about you. We played in Berlin and were supposed to play in a venue for like 200 people but we got bumped up and ended up playing for like 800 people – we were so nervous that we almost threw up before we played!
Germany really seems the place to go if you want a following, especially in electro music.
Totally! Germany’s fucking great – it’s awesome.
I read that you felt Austra had successfully avoided falling into the stereotypes of a “gay” or “female-fronted” band. How did you manage to dodge that bullet?
I think that there are a lot of reasons. I think that firstly, we’re just not coming from a place where the main focus is to focus on sexual identity or any of these things, because we’re not writing about it. I mean, we all personally have our own politics about it, our own beliefs about it – we talk about it openly. But, I just think we’re not originally from a place of wanting to make a statement through music, necessarily. And also, I think it’s significant that most of the women in the band aren’t very visibly gay as well, like someone like JD Samson for example – that’s her thing, you know? She’s got the look, she’s got the butch vibe – and we don’t, so a lot of people don’t know, I think.
I guess what you’re saying is that it’s not an issue, but nor are you hiding it – it’s just the way it is. You do seem to have a large gay following though?
Yeah! That’s the thing – all the people that know are the gays! It’s like, the other ones may not know, but most of the gays know about us…
Yeah, we first heard about Austra from a male gay friend who runs an electro night in London…
There you go!
The band does have a strong female presence and vibe. Is that something you planned from the get-go or did it just evolve that way?
I think it just happened naturally. Like my drummer Maya and I have been playing together for a really long time – she’s the only drummer I’ve ever worked with! And then I have two backing vocalists and they’re women because all my vocal parts are female parts, so it just makes sense to have girls sing them. Yeah, so it just kind of happened like that and most of my friends happen to be girls…
Do you think it’s a good time for female musicians at the moment?
I definitely think it’s a very good time for it. I mean, even now compared to 5 years ago – it’s like people are just really into female-fronted bands. I mean, everything from Bat For Lashes, La Roux, Florence and the Machine, Zola Jesus… All these acts are very prominent right now – it’s a good thing.
Talking about which, the band Kool Thing who supported you tonight were fantastic!
Yeah, they’re awesome!
They just told us that they basically asked to go on tour with you when they met you in Berlin…
Yeah! They opened for us in Berlin and we loved their set – they’ve just been touring with us ever since.
So, any exciting developments for Austra in the coming year?
We’re pretty much just on the road until at least 2012, and then after that I don’t know…
You’re from Toronto which has a great reputation these days for electro music. How was it to grow up in such a creative, cosmopolitan city?
Toronto’s a really open city. Until I was about 18 or 19, I pretty much just believed that homophobia didn’t even exist anymore. I was just like, “That’s a thing of the past – it’s great now!” I wasn’t out as gay at the time but that was just my belief on the subject. It was just very normal, very accepted in the community where I grew up.
And now you’re touring and seeing so many other cities, does it make you appreciate that openness all the more?
Oh yeah, big time!
Where has surprised you as being much less open, for example?
Kind of everywhere. To be honest, except for maybe a handful of cities, I’ve never been anywhere that has as much visibility as Toronto does, for sure. Toronto’s a very, very open city.
Have you had a chance to check out Manchester?
No – we’re always here only for 24 hours or something…
Oh that’s a shame…
Yeah, we always miss out…!
Finally, based on your own experience, do you have any advice for artists who want to do what you do, especially as the front person?
I would say: Never hold back!
Is that what you do?
I think so – I think you just have to not be afraid of being like the freak and just go with it…
Did you always feel like that?
For a long time…
And you don’t feel like that so much anymore?
Well, I feel like we TRY and be like a freak. I don’t think anyone wants to see something that’s easily digestible: you have to make it a little bit different.
Well, you’re definitely doing something different – and exciting!