Austin, Texas is approximately 8,463 miles from Sydney, Australia, but Harley Streten, known to the world as Aussie electronic producer/DJ Flume, will know it well over the next four days. It's the first day of South by Southwest and Streten is still fighting jetlag from the night before, preparing for what seems like 438 different shows and showcases.
He's already huge in his native country, with a 2011 EP and last year's self-titled album both getting wide acclaim (and the latter beating out One Direction on the charts, but more on that later). Now it's time to "conquer," to borrow a phrase so liberally used, America, as the DJ is in the midst of a cross-country tour before touring his home country.
We caught up with the 21-year-old to discuss clueless record label execs, living with your parents and the horrors of working at Hard Rock Cafe.
Your album came out in Australia on the same day as One Direction last year and you beat them out of the No. 1 spot. This had to be a career highlight, right?
We knew it was coming out on the same day and we were just like, “Straight up, it’s not going to happen. There’s no way we’ll beat them. F-ck that. It’s impossible.” And then it hit No. 1 and it was nuts. I just sat there with a Maker’s Mark on the rocks to celebrate. I was shocked. It was funny because I’d get messages from all these tweens and 1D little girl fans like, “What the f-ck? Who the f-ck’s Flume and why is he No. 1?” That was the best part of it all. I posted one girl’s tweet. It got a bit heated.
Your bio says you found your first music production program in a cereal box. Is that true or are you already creating some mythic backstory?
[Laughs] It’s totally true. I was shopping with my dad when I was quite young and there was a promotion going on with a CD inside a Nutri-Grain cereal box. It was a simple loop-based program and there was some competition like, “Make a song with this and you can win something.” I thought that sounded cool. The whole concept of how music was laid out in layers and can be broken down, but came out as one piece of music was really intriguing for me.
“"If we’re going to work together, I need 100% creative control and your label bosses can suck a d-ck."”
You’re only 21. Do you have your own studio already?
My studio is my bedroom in my parents’ place still. I’m planning on buying a place and just renting it out whilst living at home. A lot of the ideas came about while I was traveling overseas with a friend backpacking around Europe for three months. I had just gotten my first-ever laptop, so I’d sit in a café for a few hours and write some tunes. I’d bring them home and make them into proper songs.
The album alternates between more electronic free-form tracks and more traditional verse/chorus pop structure. Was that the plan going on?
It really was a natural thing. I didn’t have a big concept like, “I want it to sound like this.” It was just me spewing out ideas. The Flume thing was always a side project. I was doing big-room house-y stuff under the name Heads. It never really went anywhere. A label picked up [the Flume tracks] and I realized there is some potential in this. The album came out of it. When I’m going for a chill track, it’ll come out chill, but you can still dance to it because my roots are in dance music.
Yet there’s still that pop structure in a lot of your work.
Yeah, when it comes to that, I like the idea of a pop structure. But I also like more progressive things. I always loved the “build a beat up and then drop it” concept. My first ever musical love was trance before I moved on to Moby and M83 and then the whole French electronic thing of Justice and Daft Punk. I bought my best friend Homework when I was 9 years old. It moved on to more house and techno-y stuff and finally it came to all the “weird” shit like Flying Lotus and Shlomo. Electronic has always been my main thing, but Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm is in my Top 5 of all time.
Flume - "Sintra"
Are your parents supportive or do they scream at you to “Turn that sh-t off”?
[Laughs] We got the house renovated and they just put f-ckloads of insulation in my room. You could kill someone in my room and my parents wouldn’t know. They’re just glad I’m making money off this. When I went out of school, I had a phase where I’d just play computer games and smoke bongs.
I’ve never had a studio, but I really do want to get one just outside of my house. Then I can go to work. I can’t chill out at my home because now it’s, “F-ck, I have to do this and this.” If I could get up at 9 and be like, “I have to go to work” and go to the studio and get in my headspace, get my stuff done and leave, I can relax.
Do you see yourself producing for others in the future or just doing stuff for yourself?
I’ve gotten requests to work with some bigger, high-profile acts, but I don’t want to do that until I’ve established a really strong brand and name for myself. I’m thinking maybe after the second or third album is when I really want to start branching out and doing things like ghostwriting. That’s really interesting to me because it gives you boundaries and I find that boundaries inspire creativity. I also want to score a film; it’d be another challenge production-wise. It’s not just, “Time to write the best song you can.” It’s try and write to this image, which is a completely different headspace to write with.
Do you have any dream artists you’d want to work with?
People often ask, “Will you go down the pop road and want to work with the Christina Aguileras?” and I tell them, “Absolutely. But it’s not like I’d be writing what you normally hear them singing to. It would be music that I’m 100% happy with. It’d be like a killer tune like OutKast’s “Hey Ya”; it’s pop music, but ‘good’ pop music.
So If Christina gave you a suitcase full of money and said, “I want a beat like this,” what would you say?
I’d say, “Look, if we’re going to work together, I need 100% creative control and your label bosses can suck a d-ck because this is the way we’re going to do it. And if you’re not cool with that, that’s cool. We don’t need to work together ‘cause it’s just going to be a pain in the ass for me and I’m not going to enjoy it.” You have A&R dudes coming down like, “Hey man, can we get some more sparkle on the hi-hats?” I’ve heard that with remixes for major labels and from now on, if I’m ever doing a remix for a major label, they have to agree that I have 100% creative control.
Flume - "What You Need"
What’s the worst suggestion you’ve gotten back from a label?
It’s called a sh-t sandwich. It’s like, “Hey! Really nice! Love the track!” Then in the middle, it’s, “I think it would be cool if you could change this, this and this.” Then at the bottom, it’s, “But great work! We can do this and this with the track!”
What was your last full-time, non-music job?
I was a waiter at a Hard Rock Café in Sydney. I hated it; such sh-tty customers. The worst thing about it was whenever someone had a birthday, they’d tell you and you had to bring out a free dessert with a candle on it , get the whole restaurant to quiet down and yell, “Listen up everybody. It’s blah blah’s birthday and she’s turning f-ckin’ 18 so on the count of three, I need you all to say Happy Birthday.” This would happen four times a night. I just got so sick of it.
Last year was your first visit to the U.S. What was the most surprising thing?
Hollywood was a bit of a letdown. I expected it to be super-busy with glamorous shops and sh-t happening, but it’s actually a big, quiet place with not so much going on. It was way less glamorous than I had the perception of from the media and the movies. I live in Australia so that sh-t is a long way away, but it’s not that great [laughs]. But I had chili dogs and chili chips with cheese which was nice because no one does that in Australia. Oh, and washed down with a Cherry Cola which is super American.
You’re playing the Ultra Music Festival, which has long been an epicenter for dance music. Do you feel lumped in with the whole EDM scene?
There’s a lot of copycats out there, especially with this whole EDM thing. I just did an interview and apparently I’m now an “EDM artist”. It’s weird, but I don’t mind it. The “EDM scene” isn’t even a thing in Australia or Europe. It’s only in the U.S. America discovered dance music and now it’s EDM.