Whilst the idea of the great American frontier is a common trope of film, art, literature and music, Australia’s unique topography is one rarely explored and even more rarely captured. Whilst not without their share of musical pioneers (with The Saints, The Birthday Party, AC/DC and more recently bands like Silverchair and Tame Impala cementing the Land Down Under’s reputation as a credible artistic breeding ground), few have attempted to create music that both thematically and aesthetically mirrors the Australian landscape, its histories or its mythologies.
Enter Castratii, an enigmatic pair who hail from New South Wales’ Blue Mountain region; a place that served as the unlikely muse for their debut record Eora. Somewhat intrigued following our interview with filmmaker Sue-Ling Braun (who has thus far collaborated with the band on their videos for “Kingdom” and “Eora”), we decided to see what lies behind the masks of these ambient musical masterminds.
Portable sat down with Beau, one half of Castratii’s core duo, to talk about figuring out how to make a record, spectral muses, and why sometimes girls are just better than boys.
Portable: A lot of your album press has focused on geography – it almost feels as though Eora is sonically mapping out the terrain of the Blue Mountains and Australia more generally. How much do you think the Australian landscape and the degree of isolation informs the soundscapes of Eora?
Castratii: When we started writing and recording the songs for Eora we had just moved our studio from a space in the middle of the city out to an old A-frame house in the bush. The first two Castratii EPs (which were recorded in this first space) had no real connection with our country, they were more us learning how to record and produce our own music by ourselves. But suddenly when we moved everything out to Mountains there just seemed to be a natural calling to take influence from our surroundings.
I think it was osmosis at first but it soon became pretty obvious that the music was reflecting what was around us. It’s eerily quiet out there, especially at night, which is when we’d mostly work. No traffic. No light pollution. Just the sound of weird animals and God knows what else out there. The land really became our main influence.
The strangest thing about it was when we started playing rough mixes of the tracks to friends and they would immediately comment on how it sounded like the end of the world, which is pretty much Australia.
P: In terms of having an aesthetic so intimately connected to your environment, not only thematically but also with the form and shape your music takes, was that just a very natural outcome from growing up in that region, or something that Castratii actively pursued as a conceptual framework for the album?
Castratii: It was definitely something we strived to attain with these songs; it just wasn’t so obvious to us at first. The land became as big an influence on us as anything musically. As soon as we realised that, we started taking some more obvious cues from it in a production sense. Not like field recordings or anything like that but more from a visual perspective, trying to capture that barren expanse.
P: We love Liela’s voice coming in through your music. It really breaks up this very gloomy, saturated space and gives the listener a focal point to pull them out of that density. How has the process and experience of making music changed for you guys since she’s been added to the fold?
Castratii: We’ve always felt that female voices are so much more expressive than male voices. On our first couple of EPs we tried to modulate and effect male voices to sound female, but there’s something so much more emotive about the female voice. Working with Liela was amazing. Tonally her voice is just so special. It was the first time we’d brought someone else in to work with us on anything in such a big way.
We already knew her personally and knew that she had an incredible voice but we didn’t know if she’d get the aesthetic, especially as we were trying so hard to capture something uniquely Australian and she’s from England. But as soon as she started singing it just made sense. It was incredibly inspiring. We ended up recording 7 or 8 songs with her over a total of 5 or 6 days. We’re hoping to collaborate with some other voices on our next record.
P: We know we keep coming back to the spatiality of your music but we think it’s something that really defines and sets the group apart – it’s very transportive and forges this totally new place for the listener to inhabit rather than just playing out in the actual physical space that they’re in when listening. You and Jonathan are also visual artists – do you feel like this comes into play when you’re making music and gives that architectonic quality?
Castratii: We definitely think in terms of space, colour and image when we’re writing and recording and it’s always about creating an atmosphere that transports. We’ll sit for hours making a drum machine sound like a rock or shaping a guitar line into some kind of abstract sound. At the same time, we love the immediacy of some pop music.
So we’re always about creating something that has depth but also has elements that present themselves in an obvious melodic way. We’ve always loved music that takes you to another place but you have to get back somehow. Those melody lines are like the guide rope on an air balloon.
P: You make this very Lynchian Doomgaze-y music, but I remember meeting Liela when she was playing with The Duke Spirit and she’s this lovely, sunny figure in real life. Are you all just preternaturally dark, gloomy people or do you just have an amazing ability to tap into that part of yourselves and draw it out?
Castratii: We’re not dark people, really. We don’t sit around in black rooms listening to Dark Throne. Not that much anyway. Again, a lot of that comes from the land. There are a lot of Australian bands or artists who have tried to take influence from the country. Some are great but I honestly don’t think a lot of them get it. Australia is an incredibly fucked up place historically. There are ghosts everywhere. Even without it’s dark, murderous past it’s just a spooky, ancient and unforgiving country and that’s the side of Australia we try to capture in our music.
P: Sue-Ling Braun directed the video for “Kingdom” and now for “Eora”. How was it working with her again? Is it interesting for you to see how she reinterprets what you’ve done musically through her own medium?
Castratii: We actually shot the video for “Eora” before “Kingdom”. Eora was the first track we finished for the record when the opportunity to work with Sue-Ling came up. At that point we were talking about doing a video to accompany every song on the record. Maybe we still will. It’s not about videos for singles or anything; we just like the idea of presenting the songs in a visual format. Working with Sue-Ling has been great. She’s a great director but she also really gets the music, which is the most important thing to us.
P: Sue-Ling’s videos seem to play around with the interface between life and death, and this video almost feels like a counterpoint to “Kingdom”, which also had these really beautiful, slow-moving shots that kind of studied and drew close to the human form. But that time there was those really stark, black lines projected over everything, and this really alive couple, and in “Eora” it’s this very pallid light and one guy with this beautiful death-like figure over him. Do you think those juxtapositions she creates between light and dark, life and death, are also something that you play with when making music?
Castratii: Definitely. Light and shade is incredibly important and we’re always very conscious of things becoming too dark and vice versa, especially over the course of a whole record. It’s why there are only 7 tracks on Eora. It was originally 11 or 12 but it just felt too heavy, too draining. There wasn’t enough balance between the light and dark to take you through the whole record and our aim was to create an album that was a whole piece, to be listened to in it’s entirety. So we had to drop a few tracks and a couple of ambient bridge pieces to get that balance right.
P: You’re all scattered around the world right now but I’m sure a lot of people are very excited to see how this record translates to a live music setting. Any plans for Castratii to go on the road?
Castratii: Yes, we’re talking about how to do that now. Hopefully we’ll be able to that next year.
Eora is out now on Time No Place.