What are Castratii? A musical collective. Who are they? We can’t be sure. The enigmatic group who hail from Australia’s Blue Mountains are somewhat hard to pin down.
However, if there’s little to say about the group themselves, their densely abstract and dreamy gloom-gaze sound provides us with plenty. An aural reimagining of the concomitant enormity and sparseness of Australia’s wilderness, there is a spatiality to their sound – the sprawling electronic drone, languid vocals (provided in lead single “Kingdom” by The Duke Spirit’s resident powerhouse Liela Moss), the pulse and shudder of electro pop – that conjures up and renders the unique extremities of Australia.
The Sue-Ling Braun directed video for “Kingdom” may do little to dispel the band’s mystery, but it’s clear that she gets what their music is all about; her imagery unfolding in metered tandem as Moss’s haunting vocals swell and shudder over a dystopic soundscape. We spoke to Sue-Ling about collaborating, imagining, and being shaped by where you come from.
Portable: Castratii define themselves as a collective rather than a band. Did this kind of freeform collaborative ideal impact on your creative process when coming up with the video?
Sue-Ling Braun: Yes, I’d say so. At the time I made this video, I was in LA and Castratii was in Sydney. We all travel and move around a lot but I was never in the same place with them while I was shooting this video nor the other one I did for them, which will be released next. I think Jonathan and I have a lot of aesthetic references that are similar so it was kind of a natural, intuitive process. He and I share more of fine arts background and sensibility than a pop culture one. For me, this made it pretty liberating because it’s rare to talk Joseph Beuys with a band and have them know what you are talking about. I think because of that, there was just a lot of trust. The way this video started was with me saying to Jonathan, “What about projected lines on a bodies… like the Joy Division cover for Unknown Pleasures.” So yeah, I never talk about pop culture!
P: The video definitely captures a mood rather than following any linear narrative. What drew you in that direction?
Sue-Ling Braun: My DP, Tobias Datum, a long time creative partner, decided this was a great opportunity to experiment. We shot this in the attic of his house with a bed sheet as a scrim. We only had a couple of hours but were inspired by the limits here because it was about keeping things minimal and simple. Tobi brought in a brilliant guy who made a motion control rig that was controlled by an iPhone. We used projected lines off a Macbook Pro. We were basically trying to see when one shape ended and others began and if there was really much difference between lines and people. Thus, the black and white and the contrasting Vanitas shots of rotting fruit and flowers, bugs, trees, etc. I was trying to draw comparisons between the couple and the other things. Everything is just a line. Or just an organism made of carbon and will die in the end. Basically typical goth shit like that… but abstracted and non-narrative, just visual. So obviously, it’s really slapstick.
P: Did you work with Castratii to ensure that the aesthetic captured where the song was coming from and what it meant for them, or was it more your own instinctive response to it as a listener?
Sue-Ling Braun: When I first begin work on any music video, it always comes from my instinctive response as a listener though I always try to suit the aesthetic of each artist. First and foremost, when I agree to do someone’s clip it’s my job to ensure that it suits their image. The artist is the client and it does neither of us any good if I am not sensitive to how they express themselves in the way sonically and publicly when I make visuals for them. A lot of my friends who are musicians will do videos with and then decide against releasing them because it’s wrong for their image. Even though this can be heartbreaking for the filmmaker who labored forever on it, I get it. Today, videos are such a labor of love because of the ultra low budgets so the filmmaker and the artist need to see to eye-to-eye and communicate very openly. It can be a bit of a challenge for people who aren’t used to this but rather do things intuitively which is how most creative personalities operate anyway so it’s important to pay attention to who the artist is. In this case, with the “Kingdom” video, Beau actually did the editing and we worked closely on that so there wasn’t really an issue.
P: Do you feel a greater freedom as a director interpreting these sorts of abstract dreamgaze songs when compared with something that is more lyrically driven or clear in it’s own definition?
Sue-Ling Braun: Sure. Videos are like poems, especially when a song is as good as “Kingdom” is. As a director, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to work so freely with spots or even with narrative jobs. So even though I am a story person at heart and do really like to have some narrative arc even if minimal in everything I do, literal and on-the-nose interpretations are always less inspiring when it comes to videos. This may be cynical but in a way, the ultimate purpose of a music video today is to get the viewer to listen to the whole song through so when I make it, I just try to remember to have as much fun as possible.
P: I feel like there is a beautiful starkness to your imagery that pairs really well with those barren, sort of droning Castratii soundscapes and the haunting quality of Liela’s voice. How did you guys end up working together on this?
Sue-Ling Braun: Well, to start, Jonathan is married to one of my dearest friends from L.A. We had already done another video which Jonathan and I worked on the concept for together. Then, Jonathan asked for some nonlinear imagery for “Kingdom” and gave me total freedom. I think because, as I said earlier, we basically like a lot of the same things.
P: The album is called Eora, which is the traditional aboriginal name of Sydney, and musically it has a sound that seem largely informed by particular ideas of space and desolation that are unique to the Australian landscape. How do you feel your own environment has impacted on your approach to film making?
Sue-Ling Braun: I grew up in Hollywood so it certainly did impact my approach, in every way. LA is a horizontal city not vertical like Hong Kong or New York, where I live now. Doing things in LA can be going from one mini-mall to another and spending loads of time in a car on really jammed up freeways. Though, in the same day, it can quickly change into being in total nature, sea and woods. I love that contrast and I think that influences me in some way.
P: And anything exciting coming up for you in the future that we should know about?
Sue-Ling Braun: I’ve mostly been doing music videos. In the oncoming weeks, I have a Heaven’s Gate inspired clip for a band called 1,2,3 off French Kiss Records but mostly, I am trying not to take too much more work because I’m writing a lot. I have started a new production company with a partner and am also gearing up to make my first feature film, entitled, “The Upwelling.” Look for it sometime next year or the following.
Eora is out in June via Time No Place. Head here for a free download of “Kingdom”.