Gear Talks: SAFIA

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Gear Talks: SAFIA

Words by Mixdown staff

SAFIA return today with a brand new LP - A Lover's Guide to a Lucid Dream.

SAFIA have cemented themselves as stalwarts of the Australian music landscape with their unique blend of indie, electronica, and dance pop elements. Formed in Canberra in 2012, the trio consists of Ben Woolner (vocals/keys), Michael Bell (drums), and Harry Sayers (guitar/synths); who quickly gained recognition for their innovative sound, characterised by lush synthscapes, emotive lyrics, and Woolner’s distinct falsetto.

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The band’s breakthrough came with their debut single “Listen to Soul, Listen to Blues” in 2013, which garnered widespread acclaim and signalled the arrival of a promising new force in Australian music. They followed up with the EP “You Are the One” in 2014, solidifying their status as rising stars in the electronic music scene.

Now, following on from two excellent albums Story’s Start or End (2019) and Internal (2016), SAFIA return today with a brand new LP – A Lover’s Guide to a Lucid Dream. Ahead of this extremely exciting release, the band sat down with us to chat gear, inspiration and the ideal workflow that supports their eclectic sound.

Hi guys! To start things off, I’d love to ask whether you made a conscious effort to expand your sound when approaching the writing and production of this new material – I’d love to know what kind of sonic/thematic palette you were working from when you began this body of work?

I think the main conscious decision we made in approaching this album was that we wanted to make it the best version of what the three of us were/are currently capable of. As far as the palette was concerned, I think the key goal was to let the creative process lead the way. We wanted the themes & concept to unfold in a very natural way, then once they began to reveal themselves we could explore them in a more deliberate & conscious kind of way.

What inspired you? What was the vision?

For this record we wanted to build on what we’d done on the previous two records but moreso. We felt we still had more story to tell with just the three of us before reinventing the wheel & trying a completely different approach. Like all of our music, we wanted to create a universe you could get lost in whilst still maintaining a very human heartbeat at the core. As far as I can remember, initial sources of inspiration that got the project moving in this direction were things like Japanese literature, in particular Murakami, as well as  various film & game scores including the likes of Blade Runner 49 & Stray.

Tell me about your songwriting process – is it a collaborative affair, do you tend to tinker alone and build from those skeletons, or is it a combination of both? 

Our process differs from song to song, more often than not though, one of us will bring in a seed of an idea & then if there’s something special in there we build it together from there, often ending up in a very different place to where we started. But a place we couldn’t have got to without all three perspectives of the band

Talk me through your recording workflow from demo to track completion. Do you begin in the bedroom or head straight to the studio? Any preference of DAW/special or demo setup that goes the extra mile?

When an idea begins to form we aim to follow that thread as quickly as possible. We don’t focus too much on recording or how it sounds until the bones are in there. We then start refining  it from there. We move between DAW’s for different uses though, we tend to build demo’s & produce in Ableton (especially for more sequenced & sample based ideas) & then any audio recording & mixing, we use Pro Tools.

Which pieces of equipment are the most integral to you when it comes to translating your project’s essence from a recorded to a live context? Are you trying to replicate your studio sound when you perform, or do you prefer to let the songs breathe and find their own live groove? How do you work with your (amazing) band to bring it all to life?

There’s always a tricky balance when trying to recreate a song live. When we’re creating we do whatever best serves the song with little thought as to how to play it live. The challenge, like you said, is finding that balance in where you can let it breathe. Fortunately for us, this record is built around a few of our favorite synthesizers (Moog37, Prophet 12, Matrix Brute). The benefit being that their expression is always different each time you play them, leaving plenty of room for expression within the live show.

Are there any pieces of gear you’ve acquired, be it something cheap that punches massively above its weight, or a less-wallet friendly splurge, that have tangibly influenced the way you write and record music to this day?

I can safely say we have not regretted investing in a bunch of analogue synthesizers. Notable features of our music are the Moog Sub37, Prophet 12 & Matrix Brute. Despite plug-in’s getting better & better these days I still think there’s something magical in physically moving energy through a piece of gear that is extremely hard to replicate with one’s & zero’s. On the surface it might be hard to distinguish between the two, but there is a subconscious feeling in the body that is present everytime we use analog gear, in particular analog synthesizers.

What are the visual mediums that you find best allow you to express yourself as an artist outside of music – is it important for you to be able to display your creativity in every aspect of this project’s output? 

We experience music visually, so naturally we place a big emphasis on the visual language & symbolism. When we have an idea of a song that excites us it’s often because it puts us in a particular place, a world of sorts. As the idea forms the world becomes clearer, & each creative choice we make is intended to build on the world. If we feel like a sound, word or tone doesn’t belong, we remove it. Because of this we have a very specific vision of how we want the art & visual language to feel.

How do you recharge your creative batteries? What in your life inspires your music that isn’t music? It could be as logical as watching a film or listening to records, or as obscure as gardening or taking a long walk.

Everything in life is a source of inspiration, I think you just need to be present to see it as such. Which, admittedly,  is a lot easier said than done. The feeling of morning sun on your skin after days of overcast cold is a feeling that can spark a song, or the feeling of freedom that comes from riding a bike downhill. It’s these subtle feelings that lately seem to be a big source of inspiration. 

What’s on the horizon? What exciting things can we expect from you for the remainder of the year?

I think the rest of this year will be spent bringing this album to life in a live setting. But, as we’ve been quite busy, we’re also looking forward to finding more time to work on some of the stuff we’ve been writing lately, which has felt particularly fluid & freeing.

SAFIA’s new album is available on all good streaming platforms now.