Austra’s Habitat –“Exploring Sexuality Without Overly Sexualized Imagery”–Q&A with Director Matt Lambert

Typically exploring psychological oddities that have peaked his interest, the work of Berlin-based visual artist and filmmaker Matt Lambert demonstrates a rare fluency in the dynamics and currents of the human condition. His latest film, a music video for the song “Habitat” by the operatically inflected electro band Austra, starts with a series of odd couple pairings and places them in a place of seedy, sexually-charged impermanence: a roadside motel. From there Lambert’s eye end deft touch take over, thrusting the watcher into the rooms, into the lives, into the bodies of his subjects. When combined with Austra singer Katie Stelmanis’s piercing vocals, the experience is felt in the gut and sticks with you a while after.

Here, Matt Lambert shares some of his favorite stills from the video and answers a few questions for us. (And be sure to scroll to the end to watch the video.)

The narrative in this film is wonderfully oblique in relation to the song. How did you arrive at the story?

The band and I had been back and forth developing the video together for a few months off and on. It began as a more abstract idea of habitats, cocoons, and intimate nesting spots. The lyrics then motivated feelings of desire and ‘first touch’ within a safe place that I then built from. I’ve also recently been doing a lot of very sexually charged work and was personally into exploring sexuality without overly sexualized imagery—to create something endearing and honest.

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The casting of these couples feels very precise, and each elicits a specific emotional response. How did you arrive at the pairings, and how did you cast them?

In general I’ve been interested in the normalization and humanization of relationships and identities that are often presented as taboo. I’ve been doing an ongoing documentary project with male escorts in Berlin and most all of my subjects are introspective, intelligent, adjusted and empowered—very few are victims.

I’m also very into shooting characters in their late teens/early 20s or over 60. There’s a unique energy and truth that comes from someone coming of age and ones who are confident enough to ‘come again’. (There’s also a nod to Bruce LaBruce’s new film ‘Gerontophilia’ in the story between the John and Hustler.)

Most all my productions take place in Berlin where I have weeks to find and develop cast. However, this was the tightest casting process I’ve had in years and really had to go with my gut.

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Tell us about your use of color.

Most of the colors were baked into the scenes through re-gelling all the practical lights in our rooms as well as building up the decor of the spaces from scratch. My DP, Bobby Shore, and Production Designer, Zazu Myers, along with their amazing Toronto team played a huge role in the vibrancy and nuance of our spaces. Our colorist back in Berlin, Marcus Badow, did some wonderful work with direction was dictated with what we created in-camera.

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How did you first become aware of Austra’s music and why does it speak to you?
Austra are definitely a THING here in Berlin. I discovered them when I moved here 3 years ago and they’ve also been on this short list of bands I’ve wanted to work with. Their music brings the electronic world of Berlin and fuses it with Katie’s heart-melting and haunting operatic voice.

I managed to connect with them about 6 months ago when I was doing a reinterpretation of La Jetée for Arte. Katie offered up a slew of amazing unreleased tracks and I ended up using a few in the film. There was a love scene in particular in ‘La Jetée’ that was elevated so much by their track that I knew I had to collaborate with them further.

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Having Katie working in the motel as the maid emphasized the sensation we all have when we realize there are a million lives going on around us–that each of us is sort of small in a way, or less central to the world. Could you comment on that?

When we were scouting motel locations, we were given access to the rooms before housekeeping had touched them. The hotel is place where people go to party, have sex and hide; not really sleep. Each dirty room had a story and I thought about all the narratives housekeeping would uncover each morning. While these scenes were often tragic, there was a strange envy at the decadence and lust that was left over. What does it feel like to be alone whilst there’s so many human connections unfolding through the pieces of drywall around you? What must a lonely housekeeper feel whilst she washes those sheets and waits for the discoveries of the following morning…

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Watch the video for “Habitat” here:

Baltic Nation’s Brightest New Artists Take Over National Arts Club

What do you know about Latvia? Something about a mystical power called the kavorka that you learned about on Seinfeld? Then it’s time for a crash course, because the place is blowing up. Latvia is a country of 2 million people located on the Baltic Sea, sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania. It produces radios, rail cars, and timber, and consumes beer, cheese, and grey peas served with bacon. It’s lukewarm on organized religion, but people happily embrace their pagan roots, celebrating cosmic events like the summer solstice with bonfires and dancing. The capital, Riga, has a gorgeous old town and a stylish population, leading it to be named European Capital of Culture 2014. Latvians drink an ancient, dark liquor called Black Balsam that cured Catherine the Great after she fell ill during a visit. As an emerging democracy, Latvia’s bursting with creative energy, and a new generation of artists is creating work that reflects its place in the world. This is what led me to the National Arts Club on Monday night, as a well-dressed slice of Latvian and New York society gathered to celebrate the launch of Important Contemporary Artists of Latvia, an exhibit featuring 38 paintings from some of the recently-reborn country’s most innovative thinkers. Two cultures were never more suited to each other.

I can’t blame people for not being familiar with Latvia. Not a lot of Americans are, since it was part of the USSR until the fall of Communism in 1991. Were I not of Latvian ancestry myself, I may have missed the exhibition entirely. But it looks like the Latvians, Latvian-Americans, Latvian-Canadians, and other Latvian hyphenates are finally working their way into the global consciousness. There have been breakout Latvian players in the NHL, like goalie Artūrs Irbe. There’s mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who summited Everest seven times without supplemental oxygen. There’s conductor Mariss Jansons, writer David Bezmozgis, restaurateur Sarma Melngailis, Indie-pop singer Katie Stelmanis of Austra, fashion model Ginta Lapiņa, and even dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Fine, he’s Russian, but he was born and began his ballet training in Riga, so we’ll claim him.)

Some noted Latvians even share my name, which isn’t surprising, as Ozols is one of the most common surnames in Latvia (it means "oak tree," which happens to be the national symbol). There’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and occasional New Yorker writer Amy Ozols, to whom I am not related – but we’ve kicked around the idea of a drinking contest that pits her and Fallon against me and Wyatt Cenac (let’s do it, Amy!).  There’s the talented, New York-based wedding photographer Sarma Ozols, to whom I am related (she’s my cousin). There’s even a rapper called Ozols, kind of a Latvian Eminem. Ozols isn’t even his real name, it’s Ģirts Rozentāls. He adopted Ozols as a stage name because of what it stands for.

So Latvian culture is busting loose, and the show at the National Arts Club—which celebrates 21 years of Latvia’s re-independence—proved that Latvian artists have moved beyond soft-focus paintings of farmhouses, haystacks, and lazy streams. The spacious gallery features work by nine Latvian artists, and while the art ranges from brutal to joyful, there’s a unity of perspective. This is an outward-looking country now, yet with a deep internal life that peeks through in unexpected places. If you have any Latvian friends, you know that they can be austere, dry-witted, and prone to ironic understatement. There’s a certain expectation of suffering and bad luck inherent in the Latvian psyche that’s the source of endless sarcastic quips along the lines of "don’t worry, things will get worse." In other words, it’s a pretty good fit with brooding downtown Manhattan art circles. Let’s look at some pictures. order

The paintings of Kaspars Brambergs reflect this darkness. "Order" (above) begins as a deep look into the abyss, with brown and beige textures—comprised of sand from the Latvian seaside—intersected by dark, straight lines and a coffee-colored corner stained with Tahitian soil. After a few moments, what seems despairing becomes airy and hopeful, like a box-kite taking flight on a blustery day. This painting has lift.

flea

The haunting charcoal-on-paper portraits of Harijs Brants ("Flea," above) reflect a similar dichotomy. What at first seems moody and introspective softens over time, revealing in his subjects hints of curiosity and whimsy. What are they thinking, and why does it feel like they’re judging me? I shiver and sip my chardonnay.

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Design enthusiasts will appreciate the funky paintings of Ieva Iltnere. Her "Fragility of the Fireball" (main story image) sets a modern yet eerie scene in a hip urban apartment as a man relaxes on a sofa while two women consider a lightning bolt through panoramic windows. "Plasma," meanwhile, shows a bald-headed young man—at least I think he’s a man—in repose on a leather couch, gazing with empty eyes at a lighted screen. And the striking "Tenderness and Danger" (above) might tickle New Yorkers the most, with its impossibly thin, elegant woman in an evening gown holding a patterned orb, while an infant in a Baby Björn dangles, seemingly unnoticed, from her chest. Is this what happens when you want it all, and get it?

living conditions

And then there’s the verdant, naturalistic paintings of Andris Eglitis, whose "Living Conditions a 22.09.2010" series features works like the above, a deep, forbidding forest from which several figures emerge. It’s almost refreshingly dark after the upbeat themes from his contemporaries. That’s the Latvian art I know. Bring on the cold!

The exhibit at the National Arts Club is open to the public now through April 21 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 10 am to noon, and on Tuesdays from noon to 5pm. After that it moves on to the Latvian Embassy in Washington, D.C. April 26 – May 12, followed by a stint May 18-21 at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago to coincide with the NATO Summit. It ends, fittingly, with a two-week run at the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga in June. So check out the art and get familiar with Latvia, because you’ll be hearing more about it. Now would someone please open a Latvian pub in New York already?

Depeche Mode Remade, Remodeled

It’s hard to imagine how shocking four guys with nothing but synthesizers and experimental haircuts was back when Depeche Mode first emerged in the early 80’s. But Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher, and Vince Clarke veritably launched the synth-pop revolution by devising a middle ground between Kraftwerk’s gleaming, Teutonic minimalism and Giorgio Morodor’s oversexed futuro-disco. Now, as yet another generation of buzz-worthy acts – Austra, Cold Cave, CLAPS – clamor to worship at their sonic altar, Remixes 2: 81-11, being released June 6 by the electro godfathers, is another stunning reminder that while many will imitate, all are doomed to stumble in Depeche Mode’s footsteps.

As Gahan recently told BlackBook, “Coming out of punk, we knew we weren’t going to blag our way through guitar, bass and drums. But we could just plug in our synthesizers, and play all these little clubs in London. At the time, it was not considered ‘real’ music.”

Clarke would shortly leave the band, replaced by Alan Wilder, who also eventually departed, in 1995, in the wake of the depravity parade that was the Devotional Tour — marked by Gahan’s heroin addiction, Gore’s reputed alcoholic seizures, and Fletcher’s total nervous breakdown. The fact that both Clarke and Wilder are featured remixers on this ambitious new collection (available as one CD or three) says much about everyone’s desire to leave all the acrimonies where they belong: in the turbulent past.

Unlike most such projects, which tend to be exercises in self-indulgent naval gazing, R2: 81-11 finds the majority of collaborators not piling on the superfluities, but rather stripping the tracks down to the bone. Some of the highlights: Dan The Automator turns “Only When I Lose Myself” into an eerie bit of dub-noir; in the hands of Digitalism, “Never Let Me Down Again” becomes a raw, ferocious, robotic screecher; and Clarke’s unimaginably brilliant reconstruction of “Behind The Wheel” results in a new dancefloor classic that is part house, part trance, and yet almost militaristic in its icy electro-precision. The “guest list” is a veritable international who’s who, from Peter Bjorn & John to Royksopp to M83 to Tim Simenon, and massive chart toppers like “Personal Jesus” and “Strangelove” are countered by the inclusion of such fascinating curiosities as “Puppets” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!.”

It’s often said that if you asked several people to each write a paragraph about you, you might be shocked and surprised to find out what you have learned about yourself from the exercise. R2: 81-11, rather than some soulless, bank-account-padding roll call of hip, seems instead to be a genuine attempt by the estimable talents enlisted to plunge even deeper into a many-faceted Depeche Mode collective psyche and musical quintessence, which is often lazily pegged as overarchingly doomy, in order to find something new still lurking beneath the surface.

“I’ve never quite understood why people think our music is just so depressing,” Gahan also confided.

Indeed, at points haunting, harrowing, sexy, romantic, hopeful, anguished, fragile and exhilarating, R2: 81-11 is an awesome testament to the monumental scope and influence of one of the greatest bands in history.

Reach out and touch faith…again.

Austra, Cold Cave, Shine 2009, & Planningtorock Promise a Summer of Synth

 

 

Was it really a decade ago? Just as the Strokes and the Libertines were making it sexy to wield a six-string again, four icy, black-clad futurists from Liverpool and Bulgaria arrived sounding like they’d just stepped out of Kling Klang Studios in Dusseldorf. Ladytron had made steely ennui chic again, at least until a pack of bands with the words “bear” or “foxes” in their name dragged the musical Zeitgeist off into the woods somewhere. Ladytron’s new album, Gravity the Seducer, won’t be hitting the shelves until sometime in September, but in the meantime, here are a few notable knob-twiddling brethren that promise 2011 will be a “Summer of Synth.”

Toronto’s Austra manage to seamlessly blend winsome, Renaissance Fest romanticism with cold, Teutonic underpinnings–something like Kraftwerk doing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Their debut, Feel It Break, is winsome, enrapturing, and full of longing, despite the sometimes militaristic beats (prediction: the spooky, ominous “Beat And The Pulse” is the summer’s definitive filler of hipster dancefloors). The ethereal Katie Stelmanis possesses the haunting tenor of a medieval English songstress, which makes for a startling contrast with the slightly sinister, muscular electronics of such empyrean gems as “Spellwork” and “The Villian.” It’s a black celebration.

Cold Cave’s Cherish The LIght Years came out in April, but they’ve just undertaken a US tour that will take them straight through the summer. And while the New York by way of Philadelphia band’s 2009 debut was moody and stark, the follow up is extravagant, if not utterly anthemic. There are no attempts whatsoever to mask rather blatant references, but of course, mediocrity borrows, genius steals. To wit, “Confetti”, with its mournful atmospherics and New York club beats, recalls mid-period New Order; “Pacing Around”, all symphonic synths and Wesley Eisold’s stentorian wail, matches Ultravox for sheer heroic bombast; and they make no small use of lugubrious, skull-cracking industrial histrionics. Not goth, but truly gothic.

Finnish duo Shine 2009 (take note: Helsinki is, um, the new Montreal) have taken the classic Pet Shop Boys blueprint and transported it lock and stock into the 21st Century. Their first single, “So Free”, in fact, is not only a dead on pastiche of various PSB staples, but Paula Abdul guests–mimicking Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s resurrecting of Dusty Springfield, also some twenty years after her pinnacle. Alas, Sami Suova and Mikko Pykari don’t share their forebears penchant for sneering condescension. Instead, gorgeous debut Realism is all slick, glamorous Euro-deesko, the sort of melancholy but sexy modern pop that Hurts so stylishly revived last summer.

Of course, no electro summer would be complete with a contribution from the disco-overlords at DFA. And the incongruously monikered Planningtorock, in fact, aren’t rocking at all. The nom de guerre of Berlin based Brit experimentalist Janine Rostron, it rings a few avant-garde bells by way of last year’s collaboration on The Knife’s postmodern opera Tomorrow, In A Year. Rather fitting, as new album, W, weaves astonishing electro-classical chamber compositions with bursts of complete psycho mayhem and a couple of letter-perfect synth-pop tracks. Mostly, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before. “Don’t be surprised if I’m ripping out my eyes,” Rostron howls on “The Breaks”. You can’t say we didn’t warn you.

May Music Reviews: Okkervil River, Fleet Foxes, Cults

Austra, Feel It Break (Domino) The debut album from this versatile Canadian three-piece has a singular sound, at once electronic and danceable, but with minor keys, austere chord progressions, and rainy-day vocals that sound goth at first, but are actually operatic—lead singer Katie Stelmanis (center) is classically trained.

It’s almost as if the band—named after the Latvian goddess of light—takes it as a personal challenge to imbue electronica with gravitas, a weight that can be heard on tracks like “Beat and the Pulse,” a sinister yet poppy song reminiscent of New Order at its best, and lead single “Lose It,” which showcases Stelmanis’ plaintive voice. The final track, “The Beast,” begins with an artful piano riff and builds to full classical orchestration. Feel It Break is a delicate balance of power and restraint. —Victor Ozols

Okkervil River, I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar) On I Am Very Far, lead singer Will Sheff shepherds his Okkervil River brigade into new terrain. Influenced by contemporaries like the National and the Decemberists, this Austin-based indie outfit has revamped their usual parabolic folk rock, delivering a surprising amalgamation of paradoxical forces—joy and sorrow, order and chaos. “Rider” is a rock anthem that zips along tight guitar lines and snapping snare, while “White Shadow Waltz” is a chamber pop explosion big on keys, horns, strings, and choral arrangements that never seem to unfold the same way twice. —William Kangas

Jessica 6, See the Light (Peacefrog) The outstanding debut album from this Brooklyn throwback act recalls a time when the city shone with glitter and cocaine. And it’s no wonder: Bassist Andrew Raposo, keyboardist Morgan Wiley, and singer Nomi Ruiz all met while touring in nu-disco figureheads Hercules and Love Affair’s live show. But Jessica 6 is first and foremost a house act, with Ruiz’s lush, androgynous vocals soaking up the beat on standouts “Fun Girl” and “White Horse,” in which Ruiz beckons, “Let me see you dance.” Not a problem. “Good To Go” slams on the brakes, a slow, candlelit jam that that would make Sade blush. —Caroline Seghers

Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts (Matador) Thirty seconds into Thurston Moore’s new album, you’re transported to the outskirts of Los Angeles back in the fall of ’94. With Beck as the record’s producer, this latest solo effort from the Sonic Youth iconoclast toggles between grace and weighty emotion. Experimental violinist Samara Lubelski elevates each track to soulful new heights. On “Benediction,” for example, Moore ponders the torments of human connection, while “Circulation” invokes in its listeners a blustery instrumental trance. With Demolished Thoughts, Moore proves just how fun wreckage can be. —Hillary Weston

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop) The second album from this Pitchfork-approved band of brothers proves their success will be anything but fleeting. Gentle, tickling guitars and baroque chimes are portals into a sun-drenched daydream. The title track emphasizes the band’s refusal to play by any set of rules, as lead singer Robin Pecknold cheekily croons, “Bow down and be grateful, and say, ‘Sure, take all that you see’/ To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls, and determine my future for me.” The Foxes don’t exactly break new sonic ground here, but fixing things that ain’t broke is a fool’s errand. —CS

Cults, Cults (In The Name Of/Columbia) Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion have established a cult-like following in mere months. Their full-length debut includes “Go Outside,” the hooky, insouciant lo-fi tune that focused the internet’s ever-roaming gaze on the Brooklyn duo. The NYU film students—Follin sings, Oblivion slings the guitar—are purveyors of that brand of mysterious, old school rock ’n’ roll swagger. On songs like “Abducted,” their swooning, ’60s-era girl group melodies are undercut by heartbreak. Others, like “Bad Things,” are interspersed with speeches from notorious cult leaders, adding a sinister undercurrent that teeters on the edge of depressing. —Nadeska Alexis

Cat’s Eyes, Cat’s Eyes (Cooperative Music USA/Downtown) The Horrors’ frontman Faris Badwan and instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira’s mutual passion for iconic ’60s girl groups like the Shangri- Las is easily reflected in their debut effort, Cat’s Eyes. With the aid of Zeffira’s classically trained soprano voice, the twosome chart a torrid love affair, beginning with the wide-eyed ode “Best Person I’ve Ever Met,” to the pre-marital sex woes expressed on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” An abundance of dreamy vocals, a hearty helping of strings, and twinkling piano keys contrast sharply with Badwan’s down-low baritone and menacing horns on “Sooner Or Later,” the album’s darkest moment. By the time the closing track, “I Knew It Was Over,” rolls around, the album has already transitioned back into mistyeyed nostalgia. Serenity now. —NA