When Toronto's DIANA released their 2013 debut, Perpetual Surrender, the synth-pop trio never expected the album to be so well-received. Bolstered by lead single "Born Again" and the title track—the latter of which even received an official remix from none other than Four Tet—critics praised lead singer and guitarist's Carmen Elle's powerful vocals, which perfectly complemented drummer Kieran Adams' Balearic house-tinged production and Joseph Shabason's sultry saxophone grooves. It even earned them a 2014 long list nomination for Canada's Polaris Prize. They set out working on the follow-up shortly after, not anticipating that it would take them three years to complete for a variety of personal and political reasons.
"I would say one of the factors for me contributing to how long this new album took was actually my own mental health stuff," Elle tells THUMP, admitting that she struggled with anxiety while on tour. "It's one of those things where you have an estimate in your head of how long it can take you if you're being generous, but it always takes longer," adds Adams.
Their sophomore effort Familiar Touch—out Nov. 18 on Culvert—is well worth the wait, with the group focussing more on rhythmically driven tracks, and taking newfound inspiration from electronic music. In anticipation of the release, Adams (who also DJs under the moniker Vibrant Matter) made us an exclusive 60-minute mix of their dance-oriented influences, which includes songs by all-time house and techno greats (Larry Heard, Theo Parrish), plenty of THUMP favorites (D. Tiffany, Funkineven, Via App), and more.
Listen to the mix below and read an interview with Adams and Elle at Toronto's Blockbuster Recording Studio.
THUMP: What dance records really grabbed your attention when you were making Familiar Touch?
Kieran Adams: Theo Parrish's First Floor was really important to me. I didn't know much about dance music when I first heard that album. It's cool because it crosses between these beautiful ambient textures, but it's still deeply rooted in the dance floor.
Carmen Elle: Björk is huge for me. I don't listen to that much dance music, just what Kieran plays for me. My thing is more vocal melody-driven stuff. My favourite part of the process is when Kieran, Joseph, and I sketch out a melody, but when I go to track it, seeing what else can happen within that.
Kieran, you also DJ in your spare time, how did the music you play in your sets influence this album?
Adams: When I was digging for tunes to put on this mix, I thought to myself, "What dance music relates to how we worked on this new DIANA album?" A lot of the tools we used, certain drum machines and synths I was sequencing resembled certain types of dance music. There's a lot of that in there, but there's also a lot of organic sounds, Carmen played more guitar on this record. That danceability comes through in the music, but I think it's more about the headspace.
Something I realized as I got into DJing was that I have a strong connection to funk. I know the term "funk" has been twisted in so many ways, when people use it now it's like "oh my yoga class has this really funky instructor" or something. What really drew me to music when I was really young, even before I started playing the drums, was music that had elements of funk. When making the mix, I was trying to find things that have that feeling, whether it's a weird bass line or a vocal sample.
There's moments on Familiar Touch that feel spontaneous, similar to when somebody is DJing and they're in a zone where they're consistently playing the right tracks.
Adams: I think we have been really trying to identify with those spots in songs where you want to feel that drop, but it's not there, so you're figuring out how you hit that and get to that place. Reading the energy of what you've DJed over the last hour and what's it's leading to is all about trying to make that arch happen. We were mindful of that both within the songs and over the course of the album.
Elle: It happens to us live as well. Now that we're starting to play shows, we're having to re-interpret the album one more time again as a live band, which is a whole different thing. I don't personally DJ, but I'm way more in everyone's face when we're on stage. I'm always five feet closer than you are.
Adams: You're that conduit. I think that's much more your job.
Elle: There are moments where I'm like "this section isn't working," because people aren't feeling it and I'm not feeling it. We have jammier sections like with "Slipping Away."
[vice_embeds src='//embeds.vice.com/?embedCode=pia3V0NjE6CBDUZcTwtGWTxx7T2vHNah&playerId=YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5&aid=news.vice.com&autoplay=0&hide_embed=0&ad_rule=1&share_url=https://news.vice.com/' width='100' height='360']
How did it feel to have Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis reach out on Twitter after hearing "Confession"?
Elle: It was like taking a warm bath of accomplishment, we geeked so hard collectively.
Adams: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have been doing stuff so constantly for a long time. They're maybe not in the spotlight as much because production styles have changed, and the big artists they worked with aren't making music, but they're still doing amazing things with so much energy. I think that's an interesting lesson too because within both the DJ and production world, it's a lot less about age. There's always been this strange feeling that when you're in a band, you've got be young and get it while it's good, and I think it's really shitty that exists. There's obviously examples of people in popular forms of music where that doesn't apply, but there's an obsession with being a young, hot musician that you see within different genres.
Elle: I think about a lot of this age stuff as a woman. It resonates with me a lot. I'm going to be 30 in a few years, which is retiree age in pop star years.
Adams: We're going to replace you.
Elle: Ha! Yes. My replacement is being born.
How do you as a band shed that pressure surrounding ageism in the industry?
Elle: I feel like our entire generation is going to be eating humble pie when we're 40, 50, or 60, and changing careers every five years. I don't yet know how this generation is going to look, we have no security. It's a pretty volatile world we're living in. It's expensive and it's terrifying. I just think we're all going to be living like we're in our 20s for longer than we think, so fuck it!
Adam: "Fuck it" is right. I think it's a really capitalist notion that you get to this place where you've got the job, and the family, and a dwelling set-up. I think trying to combine that with being engaged in a creative practice should not be normalized as much as it has been. I'm 37 and lots of people my age are much more settled in certain ways. I have to accept that I'm doing something that might not necessarily allow for that so I have to find new ways to get excited about creating new things.
DIANA Mix Tracklist:
DJ Gilb'R - Concrete Guajiro (Version)
Theo Parrish - Heal Yourself And Move
Jump Chico Slamm - Feel Free
Boo Williams - The Firmament
International Smoke Signal - Oh Yes (Freedom)
Trackman Lafonte & Bonquiqui - Pacific House
The Maghreban - Wonder Woman
Funkineven - XXX
Via App - Exterminator
Armando & Steve Poindexter - Blackholes (The Sun of God Remix)
Dresvn - A1 (Acido 14)
Africans With Mainframes - Can U Hear Me Now
Larry Heard presents Mr. White - The Sun Can't Compare (Long Version)
Mr. G - Balance
Florian Kupfer - B2
Machine Woman - I Can Mend Your Broken Heart (Kassem Mosse Remix)
D.Tiffany - Orange Crush (Plush Managements Mix)
Familiar Touch comes out Nov. 18 on Culvert, pre-order the album here.
Max Mohenu is on Twitter.