The Art of Flumestep
by Lis Steinberg
Imagine scaling a building 500 meters tall, reaching the top just to leap off — as you make the initial jump and feel your stomach drop, a cloud comes to caress you slowly to the ground. This is the imagery that comes to mind upon listening to a Flume track. Often criticized for being “overplayed” by SoundCloud artists, the “Flume-drop” is a term that has been coined by many, as they aim to replicate Flume’s creamy synths. Upon his arrival to the electronic music scene in 2011, Flume slowly carved out a space for himself in the genre that many were quick to mimic.
Harley Edward Streten, otherwise known by his stage name, Flume, is an electronic music producer most notable for cultivating the future bass genre. He grew up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. He began creating music at the age of thirteen after discovering a basic music production computer software disc in a box of cereal. After submitting a track called “Possum” to Triple J Unearthed in 2011 and enjoying his first radio play, Flume decided to partake in a competition run by Future Classics, his current record label. He ended up winning a record deal with the label from the three songs he used to submit himself into the competition, “Sleepless,” “Over You,” and “Paper Thin.”
Flume captivated Australia with his self-titled album, Flume (2012). The album introduced the world to a new kind of electronic music that was shockingly produced all in Streten’s bedroom. This “homemade” style of music began to brand millennial artists due to the accessibility of music production technology combined with streaming sites such as Soundcloud and Bandcamp. The album features “Sleepless,” reinstating Streten’s early beginnings as a producer, as well as setting the pace for his evolution as an artist. Most of the tracks feature vocalists repetitively singing a few lines as well as a hip-hop track, “On Top,” featuring rapper T-Shirt, exhibiting Streten’s versatility as a producer. Streten sites in multiple interviews that his inspiration stems from mainly two artists, J-Dilla and Gorillaz. This is evident through Streten’s R&B woozy production mixed with distant beats and ambient vocals. Dilla’s final album, Donuts (2016), shows clear influence on Streten’s music due to the fact that he added error into his music. For example, Dilla is famous for leaving bits of samples on the end of tracks that producers would typically polish, or technical glitches that sound accidental, yet seem to fit in perfectly. Even rapping over distorted beats, Dilla created a sound that Flume’s music explores further, carrying the same techniques by creating songs that sound raw and unfinished, yet are extremely thought out and calculated. Gorillaz, on the other hand, has affected Streten in a more electronic way, giving him the insight into pairing electronic synths and melodies with hip-hop, thus creating the blend of the two genres in Flume’s music.
In 2014, Streten’s remix of Disclosure’s “You & Me” took flight and gained him international fame as it went viral on Soundcloud. That same year, months later, Lorde’s track “Tennis Courts” caught Streten’s ear and inspired him to remix the famous single. His version brought even more publicity to Lorde and himself. Currently, the “Tennis Courts” and “You & Me” remixes are the two most recognizable Flume tracks to date. In an interview with 3voor12 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2015, Streten admits he’d like to “plug [his] brain into a computer,” and “like a scientist [he] likes to find new ways of doing things in the studio.” This is extremely apparent after listening to how Streten can transform an established song and really make it his own. He is known for using a device called the OP-1 from Teenage Engineering, an audio company. From this keypad, many of Flume’s synth drops are created, converting any song into an electronic banger. From these remixes, the term “Flume-drop” was coined by electronic music fanatics, claiming that Streten has created a recognizable drop that was distinguishable only to himself at the time. Flume-drop consists of a hip-hop influenced electronic beat drop that usually consists of synthesizer sounds and distorted melodies.
After a four year hiatus consisting of living in different countries to expose himself to potential musical inspiration, Streten released his sophomore album, Skin (2016). With its generally atmospheric aura as well as unusual synths and randomized melodies, he achieved growth from his first album, while making experimental music more melodic and accepted by mass audiences. He includes numerous features with a variety of artists from Vince Staples to Beck. The album does not feel like one solitary group of songs, rather completely separate songs that don’t exactly fall under the same genre, yet still compliment each other nicely.
For example, the album starts with “Helix”, a song embodying the essence of the album, as it completely changes about mid-way through. The track’s production began in Venice Beach, California and eventually finished in Mexico. You hear the environmental change reflected in the song around one minute in. It begins with a distant yet repetitive tribal vocal and crescendos for about a minute and then slowly sizzles out to silence. The song then seems to begin again this time much stronger with no vocals and fierce sounding synths. The second track, “Never Be Like You” ft. Kai is a completely different style. It is the first single off the album that made its way on the radio as well as snagged a Grammy Nomination. The song reached a massive audience appealing to pop fans as Flume combines a catchy chorus with his signature trap drops and magical atmospheric vibe. He proves that he can create a massive hit no matter how big the featured artist is.
He then does the same thing with “Lose It” featuring Vic Mensa, “You Know” featuring Allan Kingdom & Raekwon, and “Smoke and Retribution” featuring Vince Staples & Kučka, proving how well his music pairs with rap verses. “Numb and Getting Colder” again featuring Kučka is my favorite song off the album for a variety of reasons. It has a darker atmosphere and feels as if every time the chorus ends the song is about to explode. He creates a visual image of the song expanding and condensing with a build up and then an immediate drop. He then returns to the pop style he visited in “Never Be Like You” with his second single, “Say It” featuring Tove Lo. This single may be regarded as the less impressive Flume hit, while still reaching larger audiences after making its way to the radio as well. This song feels more like a Tove Lo-vocals-showcase rather than a Flume song, yet it still has his recognizable drops.
“Wall Fuck” is a prime example of how Flume creates a huge variety within this album jumping from a pop hit like “Say It” to an abundantly synth-filled electro house-song that I’m sure I would appreciate more if I myself created electronic music. This song feels especially wonky and almost incomplete and for that reason, it is integral to who Flume is as an artist. It shows his versatility, one of his defining qualities as an artist and almost contradicting that aspect, how he is constantly changing and always keeping his sound new and different. “When Everything Was New” is another track in which Flume goes solo on and exhibits what he does best— instrumental, ambient production. He creates a sense of innocence with child vocals in the background of the beginning of the track which eventually develops into a high pitched vocal.
The album ends with about four more songs featuring various artists from AlunaGeorge and Little Dragon to Beck that aren’t extremely memorable, but good nonetheless. This album, in my opinion, deserves five stars for versatility as well as innovation and originality. Although his sound is constantly evolving, it is still extremely recognizable when any piece of Flume related content is released. He couldn’t do it alone though, being that a huge contributing factor to Flume’s identifiable brand is his visual aesthetic. Jonathan Zawada is the Australian artist responsible for the unique visuals of Skin. Much of Zawada’s work is digital and has to do with album covers, however, Streten’s music fits so incomparably with his visuals, that he ended up creating moving graphics for Streten to dub ambient music over.
Zawada’s Flume-related visuals usually contain an extraterrestrial-looking plant or flower as well as strange textures, replicating Flume’s sound visually. These visuals can be seen at any live Flume performance as well. Typically the live production design consists of three or four LED lit cubes that change color throughout each song, flashing to the rhythm of the beats. Behind Flume and his music synths are visuals designed by Zawada that are unique to the live performances; you won’t see these graphics anywhere else except for the live shows. These futuristic images match Flume’s futuristic sound, paving new roads in both the visual and audio world.
Many artists, such as Louis the Child, Whethan and even Zedd have been accused of hopping on the bandwagon by replicating Streten’s recipe for beat-drop success. Although artists may come close to the Flume sound, they’ll never be able to keep up with Streten’s development and expansion as he ventures into uncharted territory, creating sounds that are unique and unheard. During an interview in 2012 with Radar Music, Streten was asked if he would call himself a hip-hop producer to which he responded, “I wouldn’t say I’m a hip-hop producer, I came from a dance music background. Pretty much all of my music that I listen to has been dance music, like electro-kind of stuff and I’ve been making that before the Flume project, and then the Flume project came along and I got inspired by dudes like Flying Lotus, J-Dilla, tokimonsta. Just more of the weird beats kind of stuff, the strange experimental hip-hop stuff, so that kind of fused with the strong dance music influence to make I guess what it is today.” This response was not good enough for the interviewer, who, like most of us, aim to label everything, so he asked, “But is there any sort of name, what would you describe it as a genre?” Streten answered by saying that he gets asked this question a lot and always struggles with his response so he just tells people it is experimental electronica with a strong hip-hop influence. Still not good enough, the interviewer blurts out, “But you need a cool name,” to which Streten pauses, mischievously smiles into the camera, and says, “Flumestep.”