There have been many “ok, this is insane” moments for Harley Streten, the 24-year-old who is steadily taking over the music world as Flume. But one of the most insane came late last year when he was in Los Angeles with Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow. The two of them were in a studio finishing up work on a song, when Wyatt casually mentioned he was going to dinner at his friend Sean’s house. He invited Streten along.
Sean turned out to be Sean Parker, the multi-billionaire co-founder of Napster and former president of Facebook. On arriving at the house, which used to be owned by Ellen DeGeneres and is next door to the Playboy mansion, Streten noticed a charcoal-coloured Tesla parked outside, exactly the same luxury electric car that he owns. He commented on it to Wyatt and a nearby security guard said, “That’s actually not Mr. Parker’s car. It belongs to Elon Musk. He’s in a meeting with Mr. Parker.” Musk is the CEO of Tesla.
“So Elon comes in, we get talking and he asks me if I have any ideas about improvements they could make to the Tesla,” says Streten. “It was unbelievable. And then Sean came out and we hung out and had drinks. He showed me these 12 gold statues in the back of his house representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac. They were lit up by all these hovering drones. I woke up the next day and thought, ‘OK, this is insane.'”
To be fair, Harley Streten has been waking up just about every morning for the past three-and-a-half years uttering those words. But along with the highs have been some pretty serious lows, including the weight of expectation, stress, writer’s block and the aftermath of what he refers to as his “dickhead period”. Now he’s ready to talk about it.
It’s an unseasonably warm May day in Streten’s neighbourhood on Sydney’s northern beaches. Judging by the number of bodies lazing on the sand on a Thursday afternoon, either nobody has a job in this postcode or everyone’s chucked a sickie. A cloudless blue sky hangs over glittering water and surfers hustle for waves.
Streten is already sitting in his local café when Rolling Stone arrives. He’s talking on his phone and finishing one of a series of piccolo lattes he’ll down today. He wears purple shorts, sneakers and a long-sleeved white top from Italian designer label Stone Island. And he’s sporting a caterpillar-like moustache.
“I played a festival called Ceremonia in Mexico in April,” he says, rubbing above his upper lip. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to grow a mo for Mexico?’ So I did and I really liked it. I’m keeping it for now.”
We walk to Streten’s car, which is parked nearby. In fact, it reverse parked itself. Tesla drivers press a button, take their hands off the wheel and it’s done for them. Streten shyly declines to answer when asked about the price, but the cost of the 2016 model in Australia is around $200,000 drive away.
He’s doing all right. His debut self-titled album, which was released in November 2012, four days after his 21st birthday, sold double platinum. Streten ended up with four songs in 2012’s Triple J Hottest 100 and won four ARIA awards, for Best Male Artist, Best Dance Release, Breakthrough Artist and Producer of the Year. He has toured the world since then on the back of the record and done remixes for everyone from Lorde and Sam Smith to Arcade Fire and Disclosure.
They’re all impressive statistics for an album that he made on a laptop in his bedroom at his parent’s home, but the one “OK, this is insane” moment that sticks with him from that time is when he knocked One Direction off the Number One spot on the charts, incurring a Twitter tornado from the boyband’s fans.
“It was basically teenage girls flipping out and being really over-the-top abusive,” he says, navigating the car along the beachfront lined with Norfolk pines. “They wrote things like, ‘How could you do this to my boys? Fuck you Harley, you’re fucking up One Direction.’ The dumbest ones, I’d just re-tweet them. It was so funny.”
He pauses to check for traffic as we make a right turn.
“The next week we knocked Bieber off,” he adds casually.
‘I love it here,” says Streten, after we leave the car, walk up a bush path and come out into a clearing on a cliff high above Fairy Bower, with a panoramic view north to Manly Beach and beyond. “I’ve been surfing since I was seven. I remember my dad taking me out down there when I was a little kid and throwing me out the back.”
His mother is a horticulturalist and university lecturer. His father co-owned an ad agency and production house before retiring and taking over Streten’s business affairs.
He took saxophone lessons from grade three at primary school until he left high school, so he’s bemused when he hears criticism that he’s just a guy pressing keys on a laptop to make music, as he knows how to read notation and can play an instrument.
One day when he was about 10, Streten was in the cereal aisle of the supermarket when he noticed that the boxes of Nutri-Grain had CDs attached to them. It was a promotional giveaway called Andrew G’s Music Maker. It’s bizarre to think that a pivotal moment in Streten’s musical development was branded with the face of an Australian Idol host, but when he got home and put the disc in his computer, it opened up a whole new world.
“I installed the program and saw music in different layers for the first time,” he recalls. “I was amazed. Looking back it was this really primitive kind of GarageBand, but I could see the bass line and isolate the vocals and I thought, ‘Damn, you can make whole songs on a computer and control every part of the process.’ I had ideas in my head I wanted to project and until then I didn’t know how I could do it.”
He was already a voracious music consumer – although consumer is probably the wrong word, as he ripped most of his collection from Napster. He was indiscriminate with what he got, amassing everything from trance to house to electro to “terrible happy hardcore”. He admits rather sheepishly that the first album he bought on CD was Aquarium by the Scandinavian Europop group Aqua.
By his early teens, he had his own Myspace page where he posted his songs and was eventually contacted by a guy named Shawn, an Iranian-born Australian producer who makes electronic music under the name Naderi. He loved what Streten was doing and even though he was a decade older than him, took him under his wing, taught him how to use the Ableton program (which he still uses today) and got him remix work. “For my first remix I was paid a thousand bucks. I was only 14. I thought, ‘Holy crap, this is crazy.'”
Streten has never forgotten the way Naderi mentored him. Now he’s successful and doing well financially, he has set up matching studios for the two of them in Sydney’s lower north shore.
Meanwhile, Streten’s father began asking his teenage son to make music for the commercials he was producing. “There was one for head lice, one for a retirement village, one for MYOB accounting and one for a carwash gel. I remember the music I made for the carwash ad was sexy and smooth, but the worst kind of sexy and smooth, like bad porn with G-funk bass.”
“My dreams were coming true. There was a while there when I thought I was king shit. I definitely remember having a huge ego.”
By his late teens, he came up with the idea of Flume, named after a Bon Iver song. It was meant to be a side project, not the main game.
“I didn’t even think many people would hear it or like it,” he says, without a hint of false modesty. “Seriously. I thought that it would be a bit weird for most people.”
With that said, he didn’t approach the songs casually. He had definite ideas about what he wanted the music to sound like.
“Firstly, I wanted it to be really melodic, but not necessarily for the club, so it could be listened to on headphones. Secondly, I wanted to project the feeling that hip-hop has rhythmically. I love dance music and electronic music but sometimes I felt that it was lacking warmth and soul and it felt quite robotic. So I wanted to inject a human, organic feeling into it. The way I go about it is by taking that hip-hop feel, which is a swung, behind-the-beat, not-on-the-grid sound and taking that a step further and making it even more swung, but still using all the sounds that dance music has to offer.”
His next bit of fortune came when independent label Future Classic, home to Chet Faker, Seekae and Flight Facilities, picked him up. He counts himself lucky, “because they’re really good people who care about music and care about what I’m doing. I think if I’d teamed up with a major at that point it would be a different story and I would be nowhere near the place that I am now. I would have had some A&R telling me how I should make music and it would have fucked me up completely.”
Still, some fuck-ups were to come. Before talking about them, Streten feels like another coffee, so we walk over the other side of the headland and descend to idyllic Shelly Beach, grab more piccolos and sit on a park bench in the late afternoon sun.
In 2013, Flume blew up and so did the head of the guy who made it. “My dreams were coming true,” he says. “There was a while there when I thought I was king shit. I definitely remember having a huge ego. I was on a cool label, I had lots of fans and I had people telling me how amazing I was all the time.”
There must have been a lot of stuff on offer. Did he take advantage of that?
He laughs a little nervously. “There was a lot that was on offer and there was a lot that was taken advantage of. But I don’t really want to tell you about it. I was 20, 21 years old. It was fun times. I feel like I lived four people’s lives in that time. Fortunately I had my manager and good friends to slap me and get me to pull my head in.”
Once his head was well and truly pulled in, he came to a realisation – he hadn’t written any music in a long time. Many artists casually dismiss the idea of the pressure behind the “difficult second album”. Streten isn’t one of them.
“Fuck yeah, I had pressure,” he says, as we walk back to his car and get in. “I had massive writer’s block. There were months and months where I couldn’t write because I was too stressed out.”
Was that because of expectations?
“It was, but not so much expectations of other people as much as expectations for myself. I hold myself to a really high standard. Now that I’ve put out the first record I can’t put out anything else that’s less than that. It has to be as good or better now. It was a massive struggle and that’s why I took a while.”
Streten now considers his debut record “nice and digestible”. This time he didn’t want to make an album that could be played comfortably at a dinner table. He wanted to do something more challenging.
The new Flume album, Skin, was not made in a bedroom at his parents’ house. It was made everywhere. He loves his studio, but craves other places for inspiration. “Never Be Like You” was written in New York. He got down the basics for “Numb & Getting Colder” while nursing his laptop on his knees in the back of a taxi in Los Angeles. “Free” came out of his frustration at not being able to write – he bought a ticket to Tasmania, stayed there for 10 days by himself and that was the first thing to come out. The other obvious leap on Skin is the guest list, which includes Beck, Vince Staples, Little Dragon, Vic Mensa, Tove Lo, Raekwon, Aluna George and MNDR. Success means that black books are opened and bigger names want to work with you.
Another “OK, this is insane” moment? The first time Streten met Staples, the California rapper behind last year’s critically acclaimed Summertime ’06 asked him a question: “Harley, would you trust a whale?”
Streten had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but answered, “Yeah, I think I would.” Staples laughed and said, “You’re fucking crazy, man!”
The thing is, for a while there, Streten was fucking crazy, man. He says that the album comes directly from where he was in his personal life at the time. As it’s called Skin and there’s a track called “Wall Fuck”…
“That means I was having tons of aggressive sex?” he interrupts, laughing. “No, I just felt like I was not in my skin the whole time, I was constantly battling myself, saying ‘Is this good? Is this bad? Am I going crazy? Am I not going to be able to write forever?’
“It’s been a turbulent time. I was dropped in the deep end, dealing with having money for the first time, having independence for the first time, going through the dickhead phase. There were all these firsts and it was a mental time. I’m through it now. I feel like I’ve grown up a lot.”
And with that, Streten drops off Rolling Stone and speeds away, headed somewhere in the direction of his next “OK, this is insane” moment.
From issue #776, available now.