It was 2016 and I was sitting with 24-year-old Harley Streten on a promontory overlooking her local surf break at Manly Beach. The world knew Streten best as Australian electronic artist Flume. We had driven to the headland in his luxurious Tesla and he was telling me stories about Elon Musk asking his opinion on the car at a party in Los Angeles hosted by Sean Parker, the multi-billionaire co-founder of Napster and former chairman from Facebook. He told me about the day his first album, 2012’s nozzle, knocked One Direction off the top of the Australian charts and the band’s fans hurled abuse at them on Twitter.
The stories kept coming, and he ended each one with the words that popped into his head every time it happened – “OK, this is crazy.”
Six years later, we walk through the Sydney Botanic Garden. It has finally decided to stop raining in Sydney and it is a sunny, warm and blue Tuesday morning in early May. Streten now sports a faded blond pageboy haircut and he wears military sweatpants, Blundstone boots, a Nike t-shirt and a corduroy jacket with faux Greek figures embroidered on the shoulders.
He looks different from the guy I met in 2016. But I’ll soon find out that the biggest change has been on the inside.
When I ask him about the “OK, this is crazy” moments he’s had since we last met, he’s been thinking about it for so long that I have to ask him.
“You won a Grammy in 2017, you know,” I said.
He’s laughing. “Oh yeah, I did, didn’t I? Guess I’m jaded now.
He pauses again. “But seriously, the craziest thing for me was living in isolation on property here in Australia and having no deadlines or responsibilities, waking up and going surfing and hanging out with my friends. Those became “OK, this is crazy” moments for me, because I wasn’t doing them in my 20s.
Streten turned 30 last year. It was an important step for him.
“I’m a heritage player now,” he jokes. “Before, I was always the youngest person in the room, but now I do sessions with artists who are 10 years younger than me. It’s a little weird to invite 20-year-old singers to my house. I’m like the older guy now.
He moved to Los Angeles in 2017, living in a location in the Hollywood Hills that he turned into his personal recording studio and clubhouse. By his admission, “I went wild and went to all the stupid parties.”
He was also touring a lot behind his second album, The skin, which debuted at number one in Australia, peaked at number eight on the US Billboard Charts and won the Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album. Anyone who saw him on this tour would have thought he had the world in the palm of his hand as he whipped the crowds from Coachella to Lollapalooza into a frenzy with his euphoric brand of rave-borrowing dance music. and electropop while putting his stamp on proceedings. with deep basses, frenetic rhythms and dramatic crescendos. But inside, he was collapsing.
“I’ve always been anxious and never wanted to be the center of attention,” he says after we stop to admire a humpback whale sculpture in the middle of a manicured lawn. “I never felt like a performer. I’m afraid to speak in public, so I never know what to say to an audience.
He got away with drinking. Three or four glasses of champagne before going on stage. A few more while he was up there. And then he would break a bottle to celebrate afterwards. Six shows per week. Three-month tours. “And before I knew it, I realized ‘Oh fuck, I’m an alcoholic.'”
I always feel like I have this jug of water with a little hole in the bottom, and the more time I spend in LA, the more it drips and drips and drips.
Thus, at the end of the touring cycle for The skin, he made a decision. He would stop touring altogether and become a studio-bound artist.
He visited a therapist and she recommended antidepressants. And he was lucky – they worked quickly and they kept working. He only came out about 18 months ago and was relieved to find he still felt well. He also meditates and has given up smoking and the habit of drinking six cups of coffee a day.
His third album, Palace, will be promoted with an extended world tour that begins this month in the United States and arrives in Australia in November, but he does it in shorter blocks with more breaks, and he will no longer drink before the shows.
“Man, this view is really beautiful,” he says, as we step out of the canopy of trees and see the port, the bridge and the Opera House. “I haven’t been to the Botanical Garden for so long. We used to come here with my mum as she worked at the NSW Art Gallery for a while. It’s really beautiful here.
We then walk up to the Calyx in the garden to sit for a while and order from the cafe – coffee for me, chai latte for Streten, orange cakes all around. It’s time to talk about his tree change and the burning question, “Does Flume eat ass?”
It was December 2019 and COVID was in the air. Streten decided it was time to leave Los Angeles and return to Australia. He did two weeks in isolation in Sydney, then moved to a property he bought in Brooklet, in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, just down the road from his good friend and collaborator Jonathan Zawada, who created all the visuals for The skin and Palace and for live Flume shows.
Streten says her life throughout her 20s was like a bullet train that kept getting bigger. The arrival of COVID-19 gave him the excuse to come down.
He still owns his place in Los Angeles and he returned several times for a month or two after international travel reopened. His idea of a good time in Tinseltown these days is weekly sessions of the 90s card game Magic with a group of friends. Mind you, those friends include Michael Tucker (who produced Britney Spears, Madonna, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga under his BloodPop moniker) and former Chairlift singer Caroline Polachek and French musician/DJ/singer Oklou, both guests on the Flume’s new album. Grimes first came to play not too long ago.
“I love the house and have a great group of friends there,” he says. “But I still feel like I have this jug of water with a little hole in the bottom, and the more time I spend in LA, the more it drips and drips and drips. After a few months, the jug is almost empty and I have to go home to replenish my soul.
“I have a very strong connection to nature and when I’m back in Australia I’m surfing every day, walking around without shoes and growing my own vegetables and everyone living their lives. Life is just more simple.
Things definitely didn’t get that simple in 2019 at Burning Man, the annual arts, performance and music festival held in the Nevada desert. During his DJ set, before which Streten had taken two acid tablets, someone near the front of the crowd held up a whiteboard on a pole. On it were written the words: DOES FLUME EAT ASS?
Streten replied in the affirmative and the sign bearer erased it and wrote a new message: PROVE IT.
Streten’s girlfriend, American actress Paige Elkington, took the opportunity to step into the DJ booth and present her ass to her boyfriend. And then?
“And then I smashed my face into his butt,” says Streten.
The video of those few seconds went viral. Streten reckons he’s garnered ten times more attention than anything he’s ever done in his career. The more sinister tabloids went with headlines like: “FLUME PERFORMS X-RATED SEX ACT AT WILD ORGY FESTIVAL”.
Streten thought it was pretty funny until a campaign he had negotiated with Qantas was suddenly taken off the table. He then began to worry about the consequences but ultimately saw it all as a blessing.
“Until then, I was considered the Michael Cera of EDM,” he smiles. “I had this impeccable image. Because of what happened, I can now say or do whatever I want. I don’t have to be this perfect person all the time. It was liberating. »
As we speak, a group of three ibises roams on stilts in the pond in front of us. Australia’s native birds are featured in the illustration for each of the trails. Palace. Streten pulls out his phone and shows me some of the images Zawada created, including a dreamlike rendering of an ibis – the bird that earned the unflattering nickname “bin chicken” – with colored glass marbles in and under its beak. “Me and Zawada felt that trash chickens don’t have a good reputation,” he says, “and it was time to show their good side.”
Besides Polachek and Oklou, the guest list on the new record includes Spanish DJ/producer Virgen Maria, Australian singers MAY-A, Emma Louise and regular collaborator Kucka. The album’s title track is fronted by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, and features the bird, insect and nature sounds that Streten recorded around where he now lives. He wanted to incorporate his new life into his new music.
And he’s already planning to push things even further on the next record. Streten played saxophone for a decade when he was younger and he recently picked it up again.
“I want to incorporate it into my music, but do it in a non-traditional way. I mean, everyone knows what a fucking saxophone sounds like, but I want to treat it in a way that makes it feel new and fresh.
We head back to the steps of the Art Gallery of NSW, where we met two hours earlier, and just before we part ways he reveals one more thing about where he might go next.
“I thought about singing,” he says. “I’m not an extraordinary singer, but I can make myself heard well thanks to technology. It’s a little scary for me because it’s a new frontier that I haven’t explored yet. But I’m doing this long enough now that I’ve been ready for new frontiers.
Maybe it’s another “OK, this is crazy” moment. But those are exactly the kind of moments that Harley Streten has learned to grab with both hands and then run with.
Palace releases May 20. Flume will tour Australia in November and December.
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