The irony, heavy it is with this one. Formerly of Mëstar and presently The Golden Awesome, Stef Animal has quite literally gone back-to-the-future in creating a concept solo album she has branded ‘Top Gear’. Each of the 15 tracks was made using a different piece of obsolete or unfashionable music equipment, the kind of stuff that in its own distant electronic time was considered to be ‘of the future’. The 30-minute album is intrinsically playful in its naming, in its approach (with each track conceived and recorded in one session), and in the hacking (for example) of an electronic duck caller to become an instrument of music. Admitting to her own competing creative flaws of indecision and perfectionism, Stef Animal tells Amanda Mills that this feels like an album made for a target audience of herself.
Casios and Rolands, Jaycar bits and Ataris; Commodores and a Ploytech, Yamahas and Letrons – these are (to paraphrase) a few of Stef Animal’s favourite synths… well t,hose she used on her new album ‘Top Gear’. But which are her favourite synths?
“They all have their charms… my favourite thing is figuring out what each synth does… I do really like the Yamaha DX7 from the ‘80s, and also the early Roland Junos, the Juno 6 and the Juno 60.”
Stef Animal has been a performing musician for 20 years, starting with Mëstar, the Dunedin fuzz-pop/rock band she formed with high school friends John White and Ian Wilson.
“It’s really John’s band,” she explains. “It was a fun way to spend the first half of my 20s.”
Mëstar were together for 10 years before going their separate ways. Stef’s solo career began a while living in Wellington.
“I played shows in Wellington by myself… with Bachelorette… I did some singing on one of her albums.”
Then came The Golden Awesome, the psychedelic shoegaze band she and friends formed, releasing debut album ‘Autumn’ in 2011.
“We’d known each other for a long time, and they wanted to start a band that drew on memories of My Bloody Valentine, and other bands of the era,” she explains. “We ended up putting out an album, and going to the States touring a couple of times.”
Stef’s current focus is on the release of her debut solo album, ‘Top Gear’, written and recorded in Dunedin and Wellington. It’s quite a change to her other collaborative projects.
“I wanted a really simple straightforward project, and hoped that at the end of it I might have an album,” she thoughtfully explains.
“I was only allowed one day to write and record each song… [I] was hoping to push myself to write material really quickly, instead of spending months and years trying to write pieces of music.”
Another self-set challenge was to utilise musical instruments already in her possession.
“Some of these things are made to create whole tracks… some of the things I used only made a beep. The gear inspired me a little bit, all these little unloved boxes of sound, and I wanted to give them a go… it was a new way of working really fast and having to lower my expectations of what a finished track sounded like.”
It surely goes without saying that there were challenges to this way of working.
“I’ve found it harder and harder to find time for things like this… I’d get home and really try to commit to working until I was too tired and would go to sleep, and that would be my day,” she explains. “There was the worry… I’d look back, and I would have done something crap!”
The lo-fi production is all Stef too, as she “… wasn’t allowed to go back and make it shiny… I wanted it to stay as it was!”
The album title was a “two- or three-way joke,” referencing the speed that she was making the album at, which is really not her norm.
“I usually work very slowly.”
Secondly, the name promotes the idea you can make music with anything, not only expensive equipment.
“Which of course is what Top Gear the TV show is about… it’s making fun of that a little bit.”
While Stef’s voice is present as an instrument she doesn’t sing lyrics. ‘Top Gear’ is an instrumental album, full of synthesiser soundscapes that often recall classic 1980s soundtracks.
“I’ve never been happy with lyrics that I’ve produced, so I just run with melodies and sounds,” she explains. “My intention actually was to make 12 or whatever, songs. I think the first couple I did had clear melodies with vocals, and then I think maybe I ran out of time on the third one… Where there is no vocal to kind of draw the attention I think I probably compensated by making the music a little more in your face!”
She has preferences on the album.
“My least favourite track is Owl… I do like it, but it sounds to me the most like music I was making 10 years ago. Probably my favourite would be the one I made with a duck caller [Ducks]. It’s the most ridiculous one, but I was happy with what I was able to make from it.”
A Spanish Dream is dreamy and evocative, another she’s particularly happy with.
“I’m interested in drama and emotion, especially… squeezed out of a synthesiser! That last track, that’s made from a piece of equipment that everybody hates… I’m pleased I was able to wring some musicality and emotion out of it!”
‘Top Gear’ is influenced by soundtracks from fantasy and science fiction cartoons and films, and a couple of albums Stef discovered, one by Dutch artist Legowelt (who made his album on a Commodore 64), and American musician Oneohtrix Point Never, who produced an album on an old Juno synth. Then, there’s Enya, who she liked as a kid.
“When it hit everyone could hear what this new thing was, this fantastically produced thing,” she smiles. “It was all sort of organic, but it was all synthetic.”
“I wasn’t sure if there was really an audience that would be interested except for me… I got in touch with Ian. He wrote back saying he really liked it… he recognised a lot of the cultural references.”
Stef Animal is aiming to play ‘Top Gear’ live, and put the album out as a series of video clips. Soundtrack work using guitars and cello for a short story set in the 1940s-1950s is also coming up. A new Golden Awesome album is on the horizon too, as is the release of a compilation of The Chills’ covers she is putting together.
“It’s currently fantastic,” Stef enthuses. “I’m just waiting on a couple more contributions, then it’s ready to go.”