How Golden Features Ignored Self-Loathing And Embraced BRONSON
"It takes me six months before I'm able to listen something after I've finished working on it. And even then, it's like nails on a chalkboard."
It’s the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when I talk to Thomas George Stell, AKA Golden Features. But save for the fact that the conversation is being held over Zoom, and the object of discussion is an album that will be accompanied by no tour, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
This is because Stell is shockingly — maybe even slightly unnervingly — calm. He is exactly the kind of person you’d want to accompany you during a disaster; one of those social animals blessed with the uncanny ability to make everyone in their vicinity feel a little more settled.
When asked when he thinks we might see the return of live shows, for instance, Stell shrugs, very gently. “Who knows?” he says. “What happens if there’s no end in sight? I try not to dwell. I’ve been booked for multiple shows that have since fallen through, after quarantine started. Everyone’s optimistic. It’s one of those things. Hope for the best, expect the worst.”
Set up in his studio, sitting in a circle of recording gear, Stell’s face rarely breaks from its beatific smile. And then there’s his voice, which is warm, but always polite, cracking at the edges only a little when he delivers another aphorism.
“It’s not a huge change for me, the pandemic,” Stell says. “I work from home. But it’s been nice to have a little break from touring. It’s all bittersweet. I feel guilty for enjoying it.”
Indeed, that warm, human attitude is suffused all through his latest album, a collaboration with American electronic duo Odesza released under the name BRONSON. A marked change from the music that he makes as Golden Features, Bronson’s world is glittering; expansive. On the first track of the supergroup’s self-titled debut, muffled drum beats give away to synths that sound like rivers of gold. Even a song like ‘Call Out’, the album’s most straight up-and-down pop hit, has a gentle, welcoming edge to it.
Making the album was a pleasant experience for Stell. Not easy, exactly, but pleasant — Stell found even the creative push and pull between himself and Odesza deeply liberating.
“I’ve lived quite a privileged life,” Stell says. “I haven’t had to compromise things artistically. I haven’t had to justify anything to anyone else. I have done what I wanted. Whereas with this, there are times where you need fight for your ideas; times where you need to fight other people’s ideas.
“It’s at first frustrating, and then at the end, it’s this really satisfying feeling, in that there’s some times where you catch yourself in your own bullshit. You go, ‘Oh man, they’re right. Just because I spent a day working on this part, doesn’t mean it’s better for the song.’ That’s something you want to take back into your solo work.”
Anyway, he found he only really disagreed with Odesza over the small stuff, tiny details. And most of the time, he would later realise such disagreements were simply a way of tying up the process in knots so he didn’t have to deal with the fear of releasing it.
“Towards the end, you just have to let go of the record,” he says. “To this day, I haven’t made something that I am happy with entirely. Usually, it takes me six months before I’m able to listen something after I’ve finished working on it. And even then, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. It’s self-loathing at its finest.”
The problem for Stell is that he simply can’t avoid seeing the trees when he wants to look at the forest, so to speak — he is always reminded of the work behind the record, and the hours poured into it. “The watchmaker always knows the gears behind the clock,” Stell says. “He knows which aren’t right. He knows it’s running a little late. It’s the same with music. You know every single part, so you know if something shouldn’t have been sitting there.”
“It takes me six months before I’m able to listen something after I’ve finished working on it. And even then, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.”
Even now, as Stell is talking about some of the hardest things about making music, he still seems so assured. So much so, in fact, that he begins to prompt in me the urge to blare something shocking; to swear, or to shout, just to see if I can get his calm to crack a little. It’s why, when conversation turns to social media and fan reactions to his work, my questions are specifically angled to try and work out what gets under his skin — to see if anyone has ever shocked him in the way that they have listened to his music; if he worries about the art being out of his control.
But Stell is unflappable. “I stay out of social media,” he says. “I’m at a point now where if you pay attention to the voices [of doubters], you’re going to fuck up. I feel that when you switch them off, you’re making better art.
“I’ve never had a personal Facebook. I had one for a month, and I was like, ‘This makes me unhappy.’ I’ve avoided it all since. I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think the world is happier for likes and follows. For me, all I care about is waking up and doing better than the day before at the craft that I’ve picked. All the likes and comments in the world don’t do that.”
Maybe that attitude towards social media is what makes him so calm. Or maybe it’s his work ethic. In any case, Thomas Stell seems like a man who has worked out what’s good for him, and is working hard to stay true to that.
“I grew up in graffiti, and a massive thing there is to step back, look at the whole thing, and then step back in and keep working.” He smiles. “So that’s what I do with everything.”
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.