In early 2020, Flume had had enough of Los Angeles.
He’d broken up with his girlfriend, and the spectre of the pandemic was just starting to bear down on the city — ripples of panic spreading throughout the city. He was struggling to write new music, and so Flume — real name Harley Streten — decided it was time to get the hell out of there. “I was like, ‘what the fuck am I doing here?” Streten says, sitting in a booth at the Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale on a cool and sunny Monday.
“I was like ‘I wanna see my dad’, what if my dad got COVID and died? Like, I don’t know. My parents are getting old. I’d been over there for a bunch of years and like barely seen them. I wanted to like come back and hang out with my parents and live a simpler existence, all the things I was over there for weren’t happening. So I was like, what the fuck am I doing here? I could be like, living in paradise in Australia.”
For 10 years, since the release of his self-titled debut album — which went double-platinum in Australia and picked up a number of pointy trophies at the ARIAs — Flume had never stopped, scaling the charts in the US and becoming a fixture at the top of festival posters worldwide. He picked up a Grammy for second album Skin, found himself splashed across tabloid pages after he stuck his face in his girlfriend’s ass at Burning Man, collaborated with some of the biggest artists on the planet, and became a bona fide sex symbol.
But in coming home, Flume realised there was something crucial he hadn’t done for a long, long time: lived like a normal human being.
The Simple Life
Streten bought a property on the Northern Rivers, just down the road from his friend and longtime artistic collaborator Jonathan Zawada. For the first time in his adult life, his days were taken up with simple things: growing vegetables, surfing, going to get coffee with his dad, walking, being in nature. Life, really.
“I didn’t realise that I’d missed out on my twenties,” he says somewhat wistfully. “I never really thought about that idea of missing out on university, like people having their twenties.”
Even something as simple as having a circle of friends was difficult to manage when he’d be on tour for six months at a time. He’d get back and try to reconnect with old friends, finding they’d moved on. He was always playing catch-up, he says. On the Northern Rivers, without the constant deadlines and pressure and tour dates endlessly stretched out before him, he could breathe the clean air.
“I felt like I was finally living my twenties for the first time and had a feeling of a sense of community,” Streten says. “I would start to get to know the people that worked at the general store, say hi to people on the street. It was just nice, just really, really sweet.
“I had a year-and-a-half of my twenties,” he laughs. “Then I turned 30.”
View this post on Instagram
Dance artists live in a strange, liminal world — it’s always the dance floor, always the come up, always a party. It’s a strange place to inhabit, he admits. While he says he had it easier than some of his peers who’d have to DJ into the early morning, the constant rotation of stages and hotels and buses and air-con — and the easy availability of alcohol — took its toll.
Streten’s been open about his struggles with anxiety and alcohol before — in 2020, on a podcast with then-girlfriend Paige Elkington, he revealed he’d come to rely on alcohol to get through stage fright and the rigmarole of press and touring. In recent interviews, he’s described how he would drink almost constantly to get through shows. “I got to a point where I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said on the podcast. “I don’t want to use alcohol [like this], I think I want to quit.”
“I went to a therapist and I was like ‘I hate my job, and it’s fucked that I can even say that because I have an incredible job that people dream of having. I feel like a bad person for saying that, but I love making music but I hate touring.’ It’s true: I’m not cut out for this.”
A combination of therapy, antidepressants, and meditation — along with quitting smoking and his six daily coffees — helped him reach a more stable place. Being away from LA helped as well. “People are just living their life [in Australia],” he says. “Whereas I think in LA I often feel like my value is my work. Everyone’s got an angle, everyone’s there to work, hustle, grind — it’s the literal opposite.”
A Paean To Nature
It’s fitting then that Flume’s third album Palaces is a paean to the natural world — from the stunning visuals created with Zawada to the field recordings that Flume took from his property and peppered throughout the album.
Its central concept is lofty and slippery: a race between motocross riders, representing nature (that’s Flume) and something else entirely. “It’s like, what if nature was a Fortune 500 company?” he tells me excitedly when describing the patches of fake branding (‘Green Peas’, ‘Dulix’) that emblazon his motorbike jacket which features throughout the album promotion.
View this post on Instagram
The first scratchings of the album appeared a while back while working in a studio with Damon Albarn in Las Vegas. Streten played him a heap of tracks he’d been working on, but to his dismay, the veteran collaborator didn’t like any of them.
Recounting the story now, Streten still looks slightly mortified. “I just kept playing ideas and he kept sitting there being like ‘whatever’,” he says. “I was stressing out. I was so nervous ‘cos I was a huge fan. I was just like, ‘oh my God, this is the worst’.”
Finally, he hit upon something that Albarn liked, and it took shape from there, eventually becoming the title track. The rest of the album sculpted itself gradually, greatly influenced by the lush environment Streten found himself in every day. Longtime collaborators like Kučka appear on the record, alongside big-hitters like Albarn and alt-pop idol Caroline Polachek. The big single ‘Say Nothing’, however, was crafted with a complete newcomer — Sydney’s MAY-A.
Is there more possibility when working with pros or emerging acts? I ask. He pauses for a long moment.
“It’s nice to work with pros when someone’s just…they’ve got a really strong sense of what they wanna bring,” he says. “They bring this confidence — but it also makes for a rigid experience. Like with Damon…he didn’t like lots of stuff, but you know, it’s cause he knows what he likes. Whereas with like a younger artist, they’re much more open to trying new things and experimenting.”
Palaces isn’t a wild departure from the production of Streten’s previous records — it feels like a very natural polishing of the spikiness of his 2019 mixtape Hi This Is Flume. Some influences are prominent: the late, great SOPHIE, a friend and collaborator of Streten, makes her presence known throughout the record.
Streten speaks of her warmly and sadly, smiling softly as he talks about their time working together. “One of the smartest people,” he effuses. “We just had the most fascinating talks about music and sound design and really specific stuff. A lot of [the sounds] on the songs were like tips and tricks that she showed me how to do. She unlocked a whole world of production for me.”
I mention the jittering track ‘Only Fans‘, which feels most like it was created with SOPHIE in mind. “That kick track at the start, she taught me how to do that!” Streten exclaims, suddenly animated. “We were in Melbourne and she was like sitting there on synth, this little box, and just making those sounds. I just started recording her, just doing all this insane stuff.”
SOPHIE showed Streten how to replicate the sound, introducing him to synth software he didn’t even know existed. “It just blew my mind,” he says, shaking his head. “She had this insane knowledge of synthesis. Like no one else. Just so inspiring.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since Flume entered the public consciousness, since the jittering glimmer of ‘Sleepless’ and the whiplash of ‘Holdin On’ changed Australian dance music forever. Flume faithfully plays some early tracks at every show — but when we chat about his recent set at Coachella, he confesses he no longer feels a connection with them.
“I didn’t play anything [at Coachella] from the early, early years. It feels so difficult playing that era — I feel weird playing it, I’m not sure,” he says. “I’ve certainly moved on creatively — that’s not to say I don’t like it, it just feels weird.”
During a recent chat with The Sydney Morning Herald, he remarked how he’s suddenly found himself ‘the old guy in the room’, instead of the wunderkind. But Streten isn’t wholly uncomfortable with the shift.
“Back then it was more just about, ‘let’s make some music and put it out, make some money, quit my day job’,” he reflects. “But I now have some really strong opinions on a lot of things that I never did in the past. When it comes to music videos and working with Jonathan and building this world out — putting a lot more meat on the bone. Not necessarily because it’s going to increase ticket sales or get me on the radio, but to create more meaning. That’s interesting to me and that’s something that didn’t exist 10 years ago. I want to build a whole world.”
He pauses before laughing. “Maybe no one really gives that much of a fuck and we’ll just waste money. We’ll find out.”
Palaces is out now via Future Classic. Flume will be touring Australia in November — all dates and details here.
Photo Credit: Zac Bayly
Jules LeFevre is the editor of Junkee. Follow her on Twitter.