In Costume: An Interview With Adam Ouston
Alien landscapes, soaring orchestral arrangements, androgynous vocals and an enigmatic, pink-clad creature at the centre of it all. We don't know much about Hobart's sonic and literary maven, Costume, but we're already hooked. The artist took some time out from preparing for this year's Dark Mofo (where he will premiere his debut album, Pan) to chat to us about the genesis of Costume, challenging 'masculinity', recording at the esteemed Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik and what we can expect from his live show.
Have you always lived in Tasmania? What were your teenage years like?
I grew up on a farm outside Ipswich in Queensland, about an hour from Brisbane. We moved around a fair bit prior to this, but managed to stay put through most of my adolescence. Living rurally suited me, in a funny way. I always had trouble fitting in with people my own age, so it was a great place to cultivate and inhabit an inner life.
I spent a lot of time in solitude. And I enjoyed that. I was not sporty, but tried to be. I was not 'manly', but tried to be. In the end I found a few like-minded friends and we distanced ourselves from the impetus to be manly that was very, very strong in that part of the world at that time (and probably still is). If you didn't measure up to what a boy/man was supposed to be, you were gay. I'm not gay, but found myself embracing some of gay culture as a way out of the narrow ideas of masculinity.
I came to Tasmania in my early twenties, when most people my age were fleeing it, heading to Melbourne, Sydney and beyond. Almost immediately, it felt like home - like nothing I'd felt before. It took coming here to realise I'd never felt at home before. I've been here ever since - almost twenty years.
Who were your favourite musicians growing up?
My parents tell me that as soon as I was able, I'd get in these 'weird moods', take whatever portable music device was available, run a bath (this was when I was about 5), and stay there listening to music for hours. At that time it was all Michael Jackson. I listened to Thriller 'til the tape broke and we had to get another one. I knew the dance moves to the Thriller video. And, even though it scared me when I woke at night, I had a poster of Michael-as-zombie surrounded by all his ghouls on my wall above my bed.
I grew up in the 80's, so there was a lot of Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, Madonna, Spandau Ballet, Kate Bush (a lot of Kate Bush), Alison Moyet, and big hair bands like Poison and Def Leppard too (oh god!). Then during my teens I lost my way (surprise, surprise) - grunge was completely lost on me, though I tried to own it, however badly.
I find that I hardly listen to anything from the 90s these days - The KLF is probably about it.
How did Costume come to be and what does the project represent for you as an artist?
I'd been in the band All Fires the Fire for almost ten years and felt I needed a change. It was a new wave/post-punk sort of band, but I had all these other things I wanted to do. Things died down as life took various band members in different directions. And I was tired of the band dynamic - not my band in particular, but the whole concept of a band. It felt tired to me. I see posters/pictures with three or four or five members of a band standing around looking grim and I just think, 'What's the point?'. I don't want to begrudge anyone who's into that, but it's just totally not where I am. And maybe not where the world is, too.
I mean, other than sporting teams (the final bastion of collectivity), most forms of unity - family, workplace, neighbourhoods and so on - have all splintered. Couples sit on separate couches at night watching individual laptops before dozing off and dreaming their own separate dreams. In this sort of culture, a four or five-piece band seems a little stale, even nostalgic. Maybe that's a sad thing.
Anyway, I wanted to explore this idea - or rather embrace it - and I had a whole sound in my head I wanted to get out. I tried doing Costume songs with a few other musicians, and although they were marvellous players, it just didn't feel right. So that was part of what I was thinking when I started out.
The other thing was this limited idea of how men can express themselves in terms of fashion, music and sex. It came quite naturally to want to address this idea. Before I articulated it to myself, I wanted to wear makeup. I wanted to wear heels. I wanted to embrace a high fashion aesthetic. I wanted to be emotional. But I didn't want to do drag. I wanted to wear a dress, not because I wanted to dress 'like a woman' or because I felt like a woman, but because I wanted to expand what we know as 'manliness', or just erase it altogether. It's so restricting for everyone, men and women, and as we know it causes all sorts of problems in just about every corner of society. I think we all know men who've practically destroyed themselves trying to fit the mould. How did you choose 'Pan' as the album title? Is Pan a theme that runs through the entire album?
It does run through the album. I had this notion of a faun to begin with, that mythic creature of wildness and desire. I want Costume to be as much a visual exploration of these themes as a lyrical and sonic one. So I had this image of a faun, or at least some strange figure, leading an innocent though curious character through a transformation.
I see the Faun that appears in the videos we've done as an expression of the main character's hidden desires, one that also leads this character through a door so that he can entertain a variety of selves. The transformation isn't simply from one state to another a la the butterfly, rather from one state to many. Pan, the Ancient Greek god of the wild, is a force that unlocks things in people. I wanted to explore this unlocking, and play with various ways of being in the world. Lyrically, most if not all the songs deal with becoming or transforming by following desire - losing innocence in a way that isn't regretful but redemptive.
How long did the album take to create, and can you tell me about your songwriting process?
I spent a year writing it. Most songs I write by chopping up samples and beats and layering in synthesisers. I pretty much wrote the whole thing from bed, actually. I played all the string and horn parts via synthesisers, knowing that when it came time to record I would use actual instruments. When it came to technology I was completely at sea. I had to learn how to do everything, from a recording perspective. I knew absolutely nothing! So I taught myself through the process of writing the record, which precipitated another sort of transformation, in terms of technological prowess.
In terms of process, I usually start with a beat. Drums are so important to me. It's where I start feeling out a song. It's all done by feel, and I've had to learn to trust my instincts. I'll work on a beat until it feels right, til something goes whoosh inside me and I get all dreamy. That's when I know I can move on. Then I do the same with bass, or synths or whatever. All totally by feel - I try my best not to intellectualise it at all. It's a self-preservation thing; if no one likes it, at least I can say I'm remaining true to myself!
Vocals I do in two phases. First I just sing melodies without words, just sounds. This, I think, is when the song is at its purest. When everything's in and it's all emotion. While I like writing and listening to lyrics, I often find the songs that move me the most have very abstract/indiscernible vocals (eg Elizabeth Fraser). Lastly, often much later unless I have some phrases I particularly want to use, I'll do the lyrics. They never fail to surprise me. I think I'll be thinking one particular thing, but my lyrics will tell me another story all together.
The 'Horns' and 'Running Boy' videos are so stunning and clearly laden with symbolism. Can you talk us through their making and meaning?
'Horns' was shot in Iceland by Blair Alexander. He's Canadian, but now bases himself in Reykjavik. I recorded the album at Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik and the people there put me in touch with Blair. This was well before I went over there to record. We kicked around ideas for about six months. Then, after the record was done, we took two days and drove around Iceland filming. I'd brought costumes with me, designed by Michelle Boyde, who did such an amazing job.
Michelle, Blair and I wanted a very abstract feel to the clip. In terms of costumes, we were heavily inspired by Serge Lutens, especially his Jun Rope campaigns in the late 70s, which featured these heavily stylised figures, quite stiff and unearthly. One of the reasons I went to Iceland was to be completely away from everything I knew and was. To create an entire world.
I wanted to be dressed in a baby pink to reflect this idea of innocence - innocence in terms of not being awake to the various selves this character contained. So we thought of baby pink as the starting point of this character's journey. The Faun, dressed head to toe in deep red, was the opposite end of the spectrum. You'll notice in Horns that it's a process of entwining, of the Pink Man (as we referred to him/it) being slowly overcome by the red of the Faun.
Also, it starts in an industrial, very controlled environment, and eventually opens out into a much wilder landscape. We took it further in 'Running Boy', directed by Briony Kidd in Hobart. We had the Faun lead the Pink Man, now slowly exploring his own desires, into a creepy old mansion. He follows the Faun inside, and every room is sort of a different room inside himself until, at the very end, up in an attic overgrown with foliage, he confronts a totally different, almost unrecognisable version of himself. We referred to this character, in heavy makeup, a black dress and uber high hair, as the Libertine - the transformed Pink Man becomes a sort of 'blank canvas' so he can be different people one hour to the next. He's liberated from the idea of just having one self, especially one idealised self.
If you could collaborate with any musician who would it be?
Tricky question. Today it's Karin Dreijer (of the Knife, Fever Ray). She manages to strike a perfect balance in her music and visuals. By balance, I mean between the synthetic and the organic. Somehow those synthesisers sound quite natural to me, in the sense of how they express something human or sentient, like the best sci-fi. She also combines anger, intellect, sexiness and theatre in a way that is totally engrossing and moving.
Who are you favourite visual artists?
Aleksandra Waliszewska, Inside Flesh, Goya, Stoya, Nick Knight, Jesse Draxler, Tim Walker, Edward Hopper, Tasmanian artist Alexander Okenyo and Carlo Mollino. What can the audience expect from your premiere show at Dark Mofo?
Well, lots of costumes! Some amazing lighting wizardry from Matt Adey. We've also got a few surprises up our proverbial sleeve (and hopefully me being graceful in 5-inch heels is one of them!). The album has a range of moods, so we're tailoring the show to take the audience with us through them. What is your favourite thing about the Dark Mofo experience overall?
I really love that the overriding attitude of everyone (from the organisers to the audience members) is one of openness and inclusivity. Despite the festival having a specific aesthetic, there's always the possibility of surprise, and people are willing to be surprised.
I was watching Alice Glass and Zola Jesus last year, and standing not five metres away, close to the stage, was a history professor who taught me a hundred years ago. He was there with, I presume, his wife. People attend all sorts of shows, and it doesn't have to be their favourite artist, or even anyone they've heard of. On the whole, people at the festival are open to difference, which in my experience is much different to what I see when I look out my window.
Costume's debut album Pan is out now. You can purchase the limited edition pink vinyl HERE. You can catch the artist's live show on Wednesday June 12th in Hobart, Tasmania, for Dark Mofo. Buy tickets HERE. www.costyoume.co