Harley Streten is glad to be home. “It’s always great to come home. I’ve had a crazy year but it’s been really nice to get back out here,” the DJ and producer, better known as Flume, tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ over Zoom from Melbourne. He’s back in Australia to play a run of shows, culminating in an appearance at Spilt Milk Festival on December 4th.
It not only sees him return to his home country but also to the place he spent the first COVID-19 lockdowns, “living in the jungle,” as he puts it. “My life was so simple. I’d wake up, go surfing, see my dad, work on stuff, I had such a routine,” Streten says about those times. “I’d wake up and go to sleep at the same time, there were no time zone changes. I just had my local coffee shop and I knew the people there and I’d go everyday. I had all these comfortable life things, it was incredibly simple.”
The pandemic, then, provided the free time the producer desperately needed to “slow down.” “I felt like I really needed that period because I’d been going at 100 miles per hour,” he concedes.
It feels like the ideal time to be looking back with Streten. When we speak, it’s almost 10 years to the day since the release of his life-changing self-titled debut album, one of the best Australian electronic releases in recent memory; as if to remind even himself that he’s still capable of operating at this level a decade into his career, he’s toured at a relentless pace throughout the year up until this point. Streten saying that he’s had a “crazy year” is no exaggerated statement.
The producer said goodbye to his quiet lockdown quotidian and threw himself into 2022 with renewed career resolve, returning to the “100 miles per hour” lifestyle. “I forgot how large this Flume project is,” he says. “The first show we did in America was in Vegas, and just seeing the amount of people there was amazing.”
The experience proved daunting at first. “There were like 7,000 or 10,000 people at that first show, it was insane,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘all these people are here for this Flume thing?! What the fuck’s going?’ I forgot how nuts this thing that we do is and how many people we reach.”
Streten and his team made a completely new Flume live set “from scratch,” an endeavour that turned out to be equally overwhelming. “There were all these people involved, some things were working and some things weren’t working, and all of a sudden my life got crazily complicated again,” he says. “It’s just a different mindset that I’m very much in now, and I’m getting used to the chaos of it all again.”
Before returning to Australia, he performed extensively around North America and Europe, including prime sets at festivals like Coachella, but touring was a different proposition post-pandemic, even for an artist at the level of Flume. “No one was touring for two years and then everyone was touring again, so it’s harder to sell tickets now,” Streten says, a slight note of stress in his voice. “There’s definitely more competition, everything is booked out. So getting back into that lifestyle was hard, it’s high intensity.”
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Listening to Streten talk about touring the world, it’s difficult not to momentarily live vicariously through him; for most people, international travel is just becoming a genuine possibility again, and not many artists visit as many significant portions of the world while touring as Flume. I ask him to name his favourite crowds. “The Glasgow crowd is mad,” he says, “and the Montreal crowd is too. Montreal is always good!
It’s Scottish, Australian and New Zealand crowds, though, that receive the strongest praise. “It’s almost like there’s some kind of caveman primitive energy that they have in common,” he says eloquently. “It’s just chaotic energy! There’s less inhibition I think, and maybe people from these places just party harder (laughs). There’s a certain enthusiasm that is so fun to play. There’s no holding back.”
As a child growing up near Manly, it wasn’t Montreal or Glasgow or any number of fanciful far-flung places that Streten dreamed of playing. “I used to go to this club on the weekends with a fake ID called (Sydney CBD club) Chinese Laundry,” he says nonchalantly. “I mean, I would go to a bunch of places with my fake ID, but this was the one place I loved so much.
“It was insane because I looked 12 and my ID said I was 24, so I don’t know how that worked (laughs). According to Streten, Chinese Laundry had “the best sound,” and after going as a youthful fan for so long, he finally got to play it several years later.
Streten’s third album as Flume, Palaces, was released in May, giving the producer his third consecutive Top 3 album on the ARIA Charts. It was also a nice way to bookend his first full decade in music. When I ask about the last 10 years, he sounds genuinely appreciative for what it’s brought him. “I’m blessed to be able to have a career that’s lasted this long,” he says.
There follows a long pause. “It’s weird because when you come up at the start it’s the most incredible thing. For the first three years your mind is just being blown, everything is so surreal and crazy. And then for the next two years I was grinding it out, just saying yes to everything, trying to strike while the iron’s hot, but I was getting really depressed because I’d been away from home for nine months on a bus drinking all the time, feeling lonely. It wasn’t good.”
Streten uses the world “lonely” several more times in our conversation. He sounds anguished when recalling those former touring years, as if he’s a little frustrated that the rest of the world didn’t know what he was going through. To stand up on that DJ podium in front of thousands of adoring fans is the dream of so many up-and-coming producers, but it’s easy to ignore the hard work and perpetual sacrifices that someone like Streten has to undertake to make it there.
“I’m not trying to complain because I’m so grateful for it, but human brains aren’t designed to be doing social media every day, being seen and judged by millions of people every day,” he says. “There are so many perks and I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, but it’s fucking mentally challenging to be the centre of attention in the limelight like that. Especially for someone like me who’s not extroverted, there’s a lot of pressure on one person.”
Streten followed Palaces up by sharing the unreleased track “Slugger 1.4” last month, a token of appreciation for longtime fans and a way to commemorate his 10 years at the top. “It was just a good track that never got finished,” he explains.
“I don’t think it’s where I’m at these days, it feels outdated to me, but there’s still some good stuff in there. Will we hear more unreleased tracks making it into the world? “I have a bunch of unfinished shit, but most of it would take work to get to a point where I’d be ok putting it out!”
The next decade of his career, Streten says, should see him, finally, prioritising the music that he wants to make. After producing so consistently for 10 years, he’s seeking out a “new challenge.” It could take an unexpected form. “I’ve been playing a lot of saxophone, which is actually the instrument I grew up playing,” he says with a laugh. “So I’ve been doing that, writing songs, and just trying new stuff.”
Is he about to shock fans with a smooth jazz album then? “Hopefully! All jokes aside, I do think it’ll be more chill. I’ve always wanted to make an album that you can just put on at a dinner party. A lot of my albums can be quite abrasive, so I want something chill. Lounge music, smooth jazz, I’m getting old!”
It doesn’t feel like Streten is talking in jest at all. “I think this phase of my career is about having a nice balance between mental stability and trying new things and taking new risks,” he adds firmly.
In order to achieve this delicate balance, Streten insists he’s going to take some time away from touring next year. “I really enjoy the writing process and I haven’t had much time to make stuff this year,” is one of the reasons he gives.
And after dividing his time between Australia and Los Angeles for a while, it’s the dazzling lights of California that beckon. “I’ll probably spend more time in LA,” he says. “Australia’s beautiful and chill and simple, but I need the stimulation of other people doing things.” Perhaps these LA writing sessions will produce one of the great leftfield career turns of the last few decades, and we’ll all be listening to a Flume album at a relaxing dinner party in 2024.