In the middle of the night, the sound of familiar piano chords filled the atmosphere of a very cold (for February in Austin) night at Mohawk. Austra were back in town for the first time in two and a half years, their first show since headlining the Stargayzer Festival at the now relocated Pine Street Station. The song begins with Katie Stelmanis letting her voice soar over the piano, much as she does in the above clip. With the commodified celebration of love looming in the air, Stelmanis sings, “What is it that keeps you there? Keeping you occupied… from my heart.” As she stretches “heart” out into “he-art,” the drums and percussion explode with a dance-y (what some would call a “world”) beat, followed by the bass and synthesizers. At their show at the Mohawk, this is the point in the show where the band looks the most exuberant. As all the instrumentation bursts into the song, drummer/percussionist Maya Postepski points at bassist/synth player Dorian Wolf and smiles. They look so joyous—and the band ultimately carry that joy into a jam extension at the song’s end that I’ve never heard before. While “Home” is far from one of my favorite Austra songs, it gets new life in the heat of the moment. That sentence could just as easily describe me at the moment, in the thick of my February/Valentine’s Day sads/mads, feeling all the feelings that I have ever felt for this band over the course of the past six years.
Austra are a deeply personal band for me. When their first LP Feel It Break was released in May 2011, I jumped in head first, using the album to break away from a very long (3+ years) relationship turned sour and move towards applying to graduate school. The band’s music became the soundtrack for me learning to define myself outside of the context of whoever I was dating. Although I had started to listen to Metric and The Knife in college, listening to Austra was my first forray into adopting synthpop as an identity. Two months after the break up, I would journey to the gay afterhours club Voyeur to see/hear Austra with my queer friends in Philly, reconnecting with a (now) dear friend that I knew from feminist organizing at the open bar before the show. We would quite literally dance the night away, with the help of many free rum cocktails. I would experience the band multiple times with this dear friend and my little sister, both in Philly and then NYC. Most intensely, I would share Austra with a girlfriend that I thought I was going to date for the indefinite future at MHOW in Brooklyn in September 2012. By June 2013, when Austra were next back in town, I returned to MHOW alone. Still in love with her at that point, I would feel the ghost of this woman who was all but gone from my life, away in another city, for a postdoc, at the opposite end of the journey that I was just beginning. From early on, the band would always be many things for me, a source for—and reminder of—self, sisterly, friend, collective, and romantic love. In addition to the pushing on the boundaries of gender and sexuality for which the band is renowned, they would help me realize and work through this ever-present tension in my life between learning to love myself and wanting to share that with someone else/with other people.
At Mohawk, I was once again alone at an Austra show, missing my Middle Eastern Studies grad student friends with whom I had stood in front of the stage for Austra’s set at Stargayzer in 2015 and wondering if I would ever date anyone for more than a minute again. But when I heard the flowy synth beginning and staggered drum programming of “We Were Alive,” I started to get out of my funk. The band would continue onward to the next three songs from their new LP Future Politics (as I had a feeling they would), showcasing the most politicized lyrics that Katie Stelmanis has ever written—and some of my favorite that I have ever the band perform live. “Rest assured, when I find it, I will take it,” Stelmanis powerfully emotes at the bridge of the title track. The band will say close to nothing in between songs, letting we in the audience interpret and do with the songs what we will. Given the explicitly political nature of many of the songs on the new album (plus all of the press that Stelmanis has done on the album as a political project), perhaps the band don’t want to overdo it with the political rhetoric. But more likely than that, Austra are playing up their strength of creating beautifully atmospheric and affectively compelling music. Their power comes from how the music fills up and makes a space—and, in this current political climate, sends out a strong reminder that we can still build another world. As with the seven other Austra concerts I’ve attended, the space is by default mostly white. But when Stelmanis declares, “Keep on fighting the good fight!” at the end of the show, she is encouraging people to get out of their comfort zones and do something for other people who are not exactly like them.
What many people don’t know about me is that I applied to master’s programs at NYU with writing samples about Austra. Since I was using synthpop to reinvent myself, I wanted to pour myself into writing about the music providing the soundtrack for starting to actually like myself. On my first day at NYU, the advisor whose work I already admired asked me how I planned to not reify the incredible whiteness of indie rock (and the ongoing whitewashing of black culture) in my research project. That woke me the fuck up like nothing else in my life had before. A performance studies scholar with a historian’s training, he challenged me to look behind the music, to look as far back as synthesizers had been used to make pop music. I didn’t need to look very far. For my first paper of grad school, I wrote about Light Asylum, the band I had discovered when they opened for Austra at their October 2011 show at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan. Fronted by Shannon Funchess, a black and butch woman with a penchant from pulling from an impressive range of musical genres, (grunge, house, techno, synthpop, new wave, Krautrock…), Light Asylum were years ahead of bands making politicized synth albums in the 2010s. In the most memorable song of Light Asylum’s set that night, “IPC,” Funchess screams, “Fight girls/ Get tough/ Fight cops/ Who want to rape us,” over and over again during the song’s bridge. Musing over “IPC” would quickly send me down a rabbithole of writing about Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Sylvester, The Knife, Blood Orange, FKA twigs, Frankie Knuckles, and (currently) Grace Jones.
After the Austra show a few weeks ago, I stuck around Mohawk to see if I could talk with anyone from the band. I was yearning to talk about music with musicians, something I don’t always get to enough of when I’m spending so much time at school. After about 20 minutes, I saw Maya Postepski walk out. Once the crowd around her cleared up, I went up and said hi. I started telling her about my dissertation project on mid-80s black pop stars using digital synthesizers and drum machines, which led to us talking about how black artists are often the trailblazers in many kinds of popular music. The conversation reignited my desire to interview people in contemporary synth-centric bands that I like and ask them questions about race, gender, sexuality, and technology. I think that the affects, emotions, and feelings that these bands produce are so important and powerful (which is why I thought I wanted to write about contemporary (and still largely white) synthpop at the very beginning of grad school). At the same time, I think it’s equally important that we’re having ongoing conversations about the influences driving the music that said artists create. The erasure of people of color is relentless, not only obscuring their contributions in the present but also writing them out of history. This is not a critique of Austra, as Katie Stelmanis has always done a better job than the majority of her peers of talking about her whiteness (and queerness) and inspirational people of color artists in her interviews. Rather, this is a critique of the ways that house and techno are overshadowed by new wave and Krautrock in many people’s perceptions of contemporary synthpop. Although my research (mostly) focuses on the 1980s, I am also extremely invested in how we chart this genealogy.
Back to the show. After “Home,” the band transition into “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself.” The most heartfelt song on Future Politics, it originally felt very out of place to me during my first listens of the album (and perhaps also out of place in my heart that hasn’t loved anyone deeply in a romantic way since 2013). But with repeated listens, the song has grown on me. The choice to follow “Home” with “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” in the set is an interesting one. In the moment, I try to search for different interpretations of both songs. I pick out the words “home” and “love,” words that keep getting repeated in each of the songs, and rework them in my head. What if we hear these two songs together as a call to build homes (plural, not singular) out of love? What if we channelled the love from all the different kinds of relationships that we have into building new movements or collectivities? What if we used desire as an organizing force, as a conduit for imagining the new worlds in which we want to live? As all of my queer theory teachers have taught me and my friends constantly remind me, we can make so much if we just start from a point of shared desire and connection. And as moving around so often for school has taught me, we can make—and stay connected to—many different sites of “home,” regardless of where we are currently living. Both of these realizations give me hope for a different future.
As I thought and felt my way through this, I suddenly didn’t feel as alone anymore.