In the sprawling polo fields of the Coachella Music Festival, a patch of green within the southern California desert, producer/writer Harley Streten was playing his highest profile international show yet to an audience approaching 100,000.
The Sydney northern beaches producer/writer known as Flume, who has finally created a high tech live show he can revel in and yet disappear into, could see every word being sung by a familiar face at the sound desk. As in one of the most famous faces in the world, Taylor Swift.
He didn’t skip a beat behind his laptop. A word from Ms Swift, let alone an invitation to be part of her posse of famous friends, does your career no harm at all: just ask Ed Sheeran or another Australian, Vance Joy.
But it’s not like she’s the only musical celebrity who has been popping up at Flume shows or discreetly putting a call through to his “people”.
Even those already on board the Flume train, like occasional collaborator Daniel Johns - who began life as a hiding behind his fringe rock musician in Silverchair and these days is a liquid-limbed electronic star - confess to a level of fandom.
“I was like, dude,” says Johns. “I just want to paint on top of whatever you’ve got.”
So, yeah, Swift liking his songs, "that's cool” says Streten now, Coachella-tanned and perched on a lounge in an inner-city studio he uses occasionally to top up his main work on that trusty laptop. But the 24-year-old is looking beyond faces side-stage, beyond even the arena tour he will undertake in Australia late this year.
“What's exciting for me is recently some pop stars, A grade – the biggest pop stars in the world – have been asking me to write music for them,” he says, making it clear they’re not just talking remixing a song, something he’s done aplenty since he was 15 or 16 for the likes of Disclosure, Lorde, Arcade Fire and Sam Smith, but writing something for them exclusively.
“I’ve been having meetings with people, just everywhere in the world, and it’s like ‘hey, really love you to work with me, send me some ideas’. That’s the crazy part.”
Though there’s no shouting or boasting, rather a slight increase of energy in his relaxed manner, yes, Streten is genuinely excited. But tight-lipped.
“I don’t think I can name any names or anything but this is what I’ve wanted to do for a long time: to have Flume as my creative outlet and to work on the biggest songs in the world, like pop, and come up with the idea and send it off,” he says. “I’ve never worked with huge pop acts, I mightn’t like it, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to try. This is one of the first times I’m really in that door, and it’s exciting.”
That the door is opening for Streten is both sudden, given he is about to release his second album, and anything but.
This path looked pretty clear from the time he was a pretty good 13-year-old saxophone player, on the instrument his cinematographer/filmmaker father, Glen, had played before him, when a friend passed on a DVD that had come in a Nutri-Grain packet.
The disc had a simple music computer program that included samples, allowing amateurs and beginners to put together rudimentary tracks. As Glen Streten recalls, "from that day, that's all he's ever wanted to do”.
“He spent hours and hours and hours at it,” says Streten senior, who with wife Lyndall, a former librarian, landscape designer and teacher, would go on to not only buy a lot of software and hardware to but eventually build their son a studio.
"He couldn't spend half an hour doing his homework but he could spend six hours without moving working on a piece of music.”
Those hours and punishing routines remain – as does the well mannered boy whose parents remain inordinately proud because “he is still the kid that he is [and] hasn't become a sort of wanker star that some kids do become”. And along the way he’s developed a style of writing and creating that can still blow away a 22-year veteran such as Johns.
"I've got no laptop, I've got no iPad, I'm borrowing my best friend’s girlfriend’s phone to talk to you,” confesses Johns who became a star himself at 15. “It was kind of revelatory [working with Flume]. I write on a piano with a microphone, straight into a recorder That’s all I do. That’s how I write my songs, and I build on them from there. But the way he does it is ridiculously modern. I’m like a painter and he's like a sculptor.
“I would sing stuff over chord progressions that he had found or written – I don’t know how he did it – but then he’d send versions back to me with all the chords different, all the beats different. it was almost like you're contributing to someone's genius. It’s not like actually collaborating with someone normal.”
From the vantage point, a decade on from that cereal packet find, of multiple ARIA trophies and a self titled debut album which went to number one in 2012, the artist now known as Flume can look back with fondness at the focus and confidence of his teenage self.
"I was always adamant I was going to be able to do it. I never had a doubt that I was going to,” he says.
He was right to feel that confident according to Julian Hamilton of Australia’s most successful electronic band, The Presets. Hamilton believes Flume can be identified almost immediately in any of his productions, even on a record as diverse as his second album, Skin, which has dark, grimy sounds, grand expanses, dance music and outright pop moments.
“It's the way that he manages to put disparate ideas together and build whole new colours and textures out of unrelated materials,” says Hamilton who has become an unofficial mentor and sounding board. “He will show me some tracks that he's been working on, for instance with a disco diva vocal snippet and then a hip hop snare and a dub step-py kind of wobble bassline, all these elements. But when he puts them together, it doesn't sound like any of those things; it sounds like Flume. It sounds like the Flume universe."
That universe is widespread. Flume, along with sometime collaborator, Melbourne writer/producer/singer Nick Murphy (who works under the name Chet Faker and shared the top 20 song Drop The Game with Flume), has been the most public face of an Australian electronic scene which is in high demand on festival circuits in Europe and the USA and in remix studios worldwide.
A lot of it has come from the label Flume and Faker share, the Sydney-based Future Classic, but it’s also taping into a community that almost spontaneously emerged in the past decade via music-sharing sites such as Soundcloud, the first wave of blogs and the more free days of Facebook.
“It didn't seem that foreign [to me] what I was doing and it wasn’t until I started touring America and people kept asking me ‘what’s going on in Australia?’ that I could see this whole generation of producers that are breaking out of Australia,” Streten says.
“We rode this wave [that started at] a really great time for social media. I guess I'd call it the golden era of Soundcloud, when it wasn’t having major labels take down stuff and it had a big user base. I know I was definitely influenced by stuff I heard on Soundcloud, joining a community I didn't know existed.”
What Streten is finding hard, though also energising, is the pressure from “young people” – which, for the hardly greying 24-year-old, means those teenager producers and creators doing just as he once did – who are forcing him to work harder to be a step ahead.
"Everyone can write their melodies and chords and pianos and guitars but what hasn’t been discovered yet are tones and textures and that’s very exciting," he says. "It's probably the number one most important thing in my music is not to sound like anyone else. It is hard in this day and age.”
If he’s feeling the pressure, that’s his own fault, laughs Hamilton.
"He is partly responsible for that because a lot of people gave our band, The Presets, credit for switching people on to being able to enjoy electronic music who didn't enjoy it before, but what Flume has done, what Harley has done, is inspire the next-generation to think ‘holy shit, I can make this stuff. I can do this’,” says Hamilton, who also worked with Johns in his first forays out of pop and rock.
“He's incredible. I'm a fan of his music and he’s an incredibly talented producer who has been able to do that thing that a lot of musicians try and do, which is create a whole new musical universe.
“We all try to make music that is good and we all try to make music that’s original but it's very hard to break out of an existing framework and make something that is really unique. I think that's what he was able to do with his first album."