Over the course of their respective careers, Harley Streten (Flume) and Caroline Polachek have mastered the art of ascendance. Their newest summit is “Sirens,” the second single from Flume’s forthcoming album Palaces. It's a track destined to shake festival grounds this summer, entwining Streten's expertly-sculpted sonic cataclysm with a heavenly incantation from Polachek.
On a rare day off from Polachek's sold-out arena tour opening for Dua Lipa, the two artists connected in New York City to film a video that expands upon the song’s aerodynamic mythology: as Polachek suspends in mid-air, can she revive a petrified Streten, as Polachek suspends mid-air, can she revive a catatonic Streten, submerged in a lake at the bottom of a cave?
Speaking to The FADER’s Salvatore Maicki on the set of the Daniel Askill-directed clip, Flume and Polachek discussed how ambulances, Danny L Harle, and Magic: The Gathering each lent a formative hand in the creation of "Sirens.”
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week's show in full, and to access the podcast's archive, click here.
The FADER: Harley, the last time we spoke, it was right around when “The Difference” was about to drop. And you were just announcing Flume & Friends at Red Rocks.
Harley Streten: That was a shame that never happened.
But I suppose in the long run, it's good that you got to go back to Australia and make this record.
Harley: I've been on a speeding train for many years and COVID put it to a halt, and I was able to get off and focus and live life like a normal human for a bit, which… gave me space to work on these tracks. We started this one in Los Angeles. Danny [L Harle] gave me some parts, but then we finished it remote.
Caroline Polachek: I never got to be in a room with you working on this track, because I started it with Dan, and then you and Dan worked on it and… passed it to me, and the circle was completed.
Talk me through what today was like. What did you guys get into? I saw there were harnesses and a rain machine.
Caroline: There are two figures in the video. There's the motocross biker that Harley plays, and then there's this archangel siren creature that I play. And I love the interaction between our two characters because I'm so ethereal and air bound and soft and emotional, and Harley's this petrified, mechanical, potentially corpse… until he's excavated from the earth and revived by music. It's interesting because the figure of the motocross rider is gonna feature throughout the entire narrative of the campaign. In the lyric, I'm referencing the cries of ambulance sirens. But when Daniel Askill went to make the video, he was thinking in terms of the mythological creatures, so he wrote it around this winged creature that I'd play and sent it to me. It was this weird, accidental, inward spiral that we ended up in. And we didn't even know until a couple days ago that Harley was gonna play the part of the biker. Everything clicked in a beautiful way. There's a lot of tragedy, at least from what I'm bringing to the… vocal performance and the lyrics. It's really — for me, at least — a song about hopelessness. But then Harley brings to it this massive, tectonic wall of sound that is so environmental and so forceful. So it's almost an interplay between a spirit and environment.
Harley: That's a good way to describe it. Sometimes when you… do collaborations [with other artists], it ends up sounding like one or the other, but this track feels like a perfect combination.
I read that this album was inspired by Australian wildlife. What was the genesis of that?
Harley: Moving back home, doing simple stuff: growing vegetables, walking around barefoot, being in touch with nature, listening. There's a lot of field recordings from my house [on the record] — all the birds, the rain on the roof. Jonathan [Zawada], who’s done the bulk of the art for the project, lives 10 minutes down the road, so we got a lot of time to hang out and… flesh out ideas. We were both fascinated by wildlife, especially bird sounds, and we thought, “Wouldn't it be fun to make a bunch of hyper-real birds and incorporate that into the campaign?”
Were there any like memorable wildlife visitations during the creation of this album?
Harley: I have a snake. It's a giant Python and it lives in my roof. One time I came home and it was just shedding its skin on my doorstep. I walked up to it — it's probably 12 foot long — and it really wasn't bothered by me. They're like house cats. People in Australia love pythons, because they're not venomous and they're very placid and docile. Sometimes I come home and it's wrapped around the door handle.
Do you have any more context to how an ambulance inspired the song?
Caroline: The beginning of the track was just a chord sequence with a cyclical melody. This is actually a very signature Danny L Harle thing to do — to write a… sequence that doesn't resolve, that requires going back to the beginning. It leaves you feeling inconclusive at the end of the phrase, so you need to hear it start again. A lot of [his] songs hinge on that way of making it addictive… getting it stuck in your head. [It’s] something he and I talk about when we write… the end of a phrase, what pressure it sets up.
We’d just made that one snippet… very simple, chords and a lyricless vocal. The next time I heard it… Danny and Harley [had taken] it away and maxed it out. When I got [it] back… I was in deep, dark lockdown, and there were sirens going nonstop in London as people were being shuttled to the emergency room, dying of COVID. It was a really scary time, and all of us collectively felt [like] powerless… witnesses to tragedy… so against the way in which America and pop culture paint the individual as having so much power and control, the freedom to make your dreams real, all this stuff we're taught. In the face of that scale of tragedy, when you're hearing the tides and tides of sirens, it's a real reckoning [with] how dependent we are on each other, how small we are in the world, how interconnected we are. I wanted to bring that feeling of humility and smallness. The song is kind of a prayer.
You got sick quite early, correct?
Caroline: I got [COVID] before lockdown, early March .
Harley: It was so early that when you told me you had it, I thought it was funny, because people hadn't started dying yet.
Caroline: I wrote these lyrics maybe a week or two after recovering. At that point, I wasn't even worried about myself. It was just like, “What are we in store for? What's in store for us?” When I showed the lyrics to Danny, he was like, "The song has got to be called ‘Sirens.’" And I was like, "No, it's got to be called ‘And If,’" because each iteration begins with this idea: “if I had control,” “if I could change things,” “if this was in my hands, but it's not.” But he was like, "Nah, mate, it's got to be called Sirens." And so it was.
Talk me through collaborating from separate continents. What did you give and take?
Harley: I just had the iPhone voice note and these chords and… built it out from there [and] sent it to Caroline almost done.
Caroline: It was interesting to write lyrics on top of that… to have that dynamic template there. It was very modular. It started [with] me and Dan as a duo, then Harley and then me finished it off.
Harley: I know it sounds cold and a bit clinical, but I quite like the separation of writing like that sometimes because it gives me the opportunity to delve into the production. So COVID forced the hand, but I'm so happy with how the track turned out.
Caroline: I felt so far away from both of you at that time. It was ironic feeling far away from Danny, because we were on opposite sides of town but couldn't see each other. And you and I were on the opposite sides of the world. I honestly just enjoyed it as a way of getting to hang out remotely. I have more fun making things with friends than just hanging out with friends.
Harley: The best friends are the ones you can make stuff with.
When did you two initially meet?
Caroline: [Harley] reached out to me in 2014. We did a track together for another Flume record that ended up on the cutting room floor, as it was destined to. But I think we were keen to do something again after that.
Harley: It's funny— [that song] had the same energy as [“Sirens”].
How did your mutual fascination with Magic cards come about?
Caroline: Our friend Alaska Reid grew up playing Magic and got A.G. Cook into it. Then, whilst living with the two of them in LA, I got forcefully pulled into [a game] at like 4am. That was around the time Harley and I reconnected in L.A.
Harley:I was like, "Oh my God. Magic?" I hadn't thought about it in 10, 15 years. I used to play as a kid. When she mentioned that, I got real excited.
Caroline: Harley ended up becoming L.A.'s premier Magic: The Gathering host.
Harley: I've got this great carpeted area with cushions, and that became The Gathering. Every week we'd all meet up and play cards. It's a nice way to socialize, not at all like a bar. It's quite niche too, and to have so many friends that play it all of a sudden… I'd known A.G. for years, but I didn't know he was into Magic like that.
Harley: It totally tracks. It's a bunch of fucking nerds sitting on a carpet.
Caroline, I wanted to talk about the headspace you've been in recently. “Billions” specifically is an insane video with all this Dionysian imagery: the grapes, the wine, the cornucopia, the ants crawling about.
Caroline: [It was] a really difficult one to put together. Even just getting the treatment locked down took so much talking and thinking because it came right out of the music. I wanted it to look the way the music felt. The song has seven verses, not dissimilar from sirens. It's this cyclical melody you keep getting pulled into over and over and over again, that eventually drops off the edge into a children's choir that.. takes you off into the sunset. There's this feeling of drippy decadence and opening and affirmation; I was thinking about abundance. Grapes on the vine are the most eternal symbol of abundance — sugar made by the sun coming out in the form of these jewel objects that you can make into this red liquid that gets you drunk. It's the most beautiful visual metaphor for energy and intoxication and vitality. So [the video is] centered around those shapes and colors and that idea of opening.
Me and my co-director Matt Copson came up with a series of five scenes that would never get chopped up. It's not the traditional music video [where you] take a bunch of scenes, chop them all together, call it a day. It's very linear… the harvesting of the grapes, I stomp them to wine, I wash it off my body. I reappear beautifully dressed, [pouring] the wine into these alien wine glasses, and then I serve it to little kids as I read them this parable of humanity's newfound disconnection from nature, which actually is echoed in this project as well. I wrote a little book that I read to them at the end, which is admittedly me aping Carl Jung — talking about how all these symbols that have been so embedded in mythology throughout time have been based on nature. Knowledge is the shape of a snake; power takes the shape of lightning; disease is a moralizing force. The new symbols shaping our subconscious and our mythologies are no longer natural. They take the shape of the phone icon or certain emojis or a battery. And we're at a turning point right now where as artists, we get to decide what the new symbolic landscape will be. So as I'm getting the kids drunk on the wine I've made them, I'm teaching them that “the newness is the youness.” They are the gardeners of the new landscape, essentially.
Caroline, I'd be remiss to not mention that you're playing Madison Square Garden tomorrow night. That’s a tremendous moment for a New Yorker. Is it your first time?
Caroline: Yes. I'm on tour with Dua Lipa for two months, and it's definitely the show I'm looking forward to the most.
Do you have any New York-specific pre- or post-show rituals?
Caroline: Normally I would put together an after party because I have so many dear friends here, but I have to be very careful this time around. My mom is coming out, which is always special. And Danny is coming out, so the “Sirens” crew is gonna be watching the Dua show at MSG. But we're keeping a pretty low profile. Also we have a show the next day in D.C., so I’ve gotta save my voice and be a good girl that night. But I'm extremely stoked for the show.
How do you guys imagine “Sirens” will play out live? Can you see it? Can you feel it?
Harley: We're gonna play it at Coachella. I feel like it was made for a large place [with] a large sound system. Just watching Caroline get hoisted in the air… I was thinking about how amazing this is going to be.
Caroline: Are you gonna hoist me on stage?
Harley: Yeah, let’s hoist you! You wanna get hoisted? We’ll figure that out [laughs].
Caroline: We're actually getting a team of 10 foot long cobras to do the hoisting. They have crew passes.
Harley: I'll rally some. Should be easy. This Australia.
Caroline: He's got connections.
Harley: Actually, just before I left to come on tour, there was a huge python on the road and I stopped because I didn't want it running over. It stretched the entire length of the road and I pulled over, and some guy pulls up behind me. He's like this old farmer dude. And he's like, "Oh there's a Python on the road… No worries, mate." And he goes up to it and grabs it by the tail and flings it into the bush. So [I’ll] hit him up and he'll help us get [our] hands on some snakes.