Golden Features: ‘I Just Want To Make Music That Stands The Test Of Time’

27 July 2023 | 11:40 am | David James Young

“It's so easy to make a song that will just make kids jump up and down. It's another entirely to be like the artists I love – Daft Punk, Justice, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy – and create something with a real depth to it.”

Golden Features

Golden Features (Credit: Billy Zammit)

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As one of the most prominent acts within the contemporary realm of Australian dance music, Golden Features – the enigmatic solo project of one Tom Stell – has filled out some of the country's biggest rooms and festival grounds with his booming deep-house beats and entrancing production.

In the five years since his debut studio album Sect, however, the man behind the mask has expanded his vision and recalibrated exactly what he wants out of making music as Golden Features.

It's resulted in Sisyphus, his second album released just earlier this very month – and if it sounds different to what you'd come to expect from Golden Features, Stell assures theMusic that this was “very much intentional”.

“I'd completely fallen out of love with everything I'd done,” he confesses – on the phone from the States, where he's just wrapped a North American tour.

“I think a lot of artists deal with that, especially when you go on tour for such a long period of time. The live show for Sect was my own music front-to-back; I played countless shows, and you can only hear those songs back so many times. I spent hundreds of hours on each song, and I was just drained. The idea of repeating that was just torturous. I couldn't put myself through it again.”

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Once Stell hit this point, he began to strategise how to approach exactly what to do next. Ultimately, he began to forge a “world” of sorts that the next album would exist within.

“I made like 200 demos, and put no limitations on any of them at first,” he explains. “COVID had struck by that point, so I had nothing but time to get in that zone and just make song after song after song. I didn't try and make any songs sound like Golden Features, either. It was completely different to how I made Sect – for that album I'd work on one song, finish it, start another and repeat until I had 12 songs. That was it.”

“I came back and selected the ones out of that 200 I thought could make it, which brought it down to about 25. I had very stringent parameters regarding what the album's world was – and if a song didn't fit into that, even if it was good, it just wasn't making it. Music's a weird thing – as you start to finish songs, they crystallise and you only really see them for what they truly are at the very end of the process.”

In addition to the burnout experienced by Sect's creation and exhaustive touring, Stell also attributes this change to a shift in his own listening habits.

He began appreciating “a more underground style of music”, he says, and was less drawn to “in-your-face EDM” as he exited his 20s. Though excited by the possibilities that the making of Sisyphus would ultimately spell for him, a reticence and hesitation loomed in the background throughout – something the producer would eventually have to face head-on in order to make a creative breakthrough.

“Think about it: if you're selling sugar for six years, and then all of a sudden you want to sell salt, you're gonna lose some people along the way. For me, the questions I was asking myself became, 'Am I willing to risk at all? Am I ready to do something authentic to what I believe in?' Although the answer was yes, it was still scary. You question yourself over and over: Is this the right thing to be doing, or should I just doing what got me to the dance? But man, life's too short. The other option is to become a parody of yourself. As artists, we're like sharks – you've got to keep swimming or you drown.”

Though Stell has largely forged the sound of Golden Features on his own, several vocalists and collaborators have entered the picture throughout his career. His debut single Tell Me from 2014 was headed by Nicole Millar, while artists such as Thelma Plum and Julia Stone lent their voices to pre-Sect singles through the mid-2010s. On Sisyphus, he's joined by returning vocalist Rromarin (who sang on Sect cut Woodcut) and French-American artist Louisahh on four of its nine tracks.

“Her name was just one I threw out there, because I really admire her work,” says Stell of the latter.

“I think she's one of the most underrated artists out there – and I always feel bad saying that, because it doesn't feel like giving them credit, but that's exactly the point. They're not getting it, and she is a monster.” As for Rromarin, he describes her as being “like a sister” to him.

“She just seems to run at the exact same frequency as me,” says Stell. “There were originally even more features of her on the album, something like seven tracks. Every time she sends me vocals, I'm so excited by how great they are. She makes it so easy.”

Even with all that said, however, Stell maintains he spent much of his early career being “staunchly anti-collaboration”.

“I just wanted to focus on my own little world,” he explains. “Nine times out of 10, the vocals I'd use were just emailed through to me, and that was the extent of the collaboration. Thelma was an exception – we were in the studio together, and she pretty much knocked it out of the park as soon as she got in the booth. I made an exception for The Presets, too, when we did that EP [Raka] together, because I grew up on their music – to this day, they're in my top five of all time. As for Odeza [the pair have a project called BRONSON], we were already so close anyway. It just made sense.

“I've learned to be open to conflict from collaborating – so long as it's respectful. If you hate what someone did to a song, you need to be able to say no. It's something I learned myself the hard way, after years of working alone and by my own rules all the time. You need to learn to take criticism on board, even if you're married to an idea. Most of the time, when you look back, you'll see they were right. Telling yourself something has to be a certain way because it took a bunch of time, or you liked it in a brief moment, is the easiest way to kill creativity.”

With Sisyphus, Golden Features has allowed for his creativity to take flight. He's already gotten some really nice compliments about it – including, perhaps the most shockingly, from himself. “Some people have messaged me to say that they think this album the best thing I've ever done,” he says.

“I notoriously hate everything I do, but I actually agree. I feel like I've kind of crossed into a space where I'm moderately happy with something I've made – which, by my standards, is like getting a 10 out of 10.”

A decade into making music as Golden Features, Stell knows that what he's doing is far more than a flash in the pan – even though it took him awhile to get to the point of realising it himself.

“I think more than anything, I just want to make music that stands the test of time,” he says. “I came onto the music scene with very little experience – maybe three or four years of messing around on software – and all of a sudden, I had a career.

“I feel like I've been publicly learning on the job, and I've really developed a chip on my shoulder about making sure my music is up to a certain standard. It's so easy to make a song that will just make kids jump up and down. It's another entirely to be like the artists I love – Daft Punk, Justice, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy – and create something with a real depth to it. They have these songs with real functionality, straddling the lines of what electronic music can be, with these moments that transcend any kind of formula. I feel like I'm really ready to move more into that kind of space myself as an artist.”

Stell's creative vision for Sisyphus will extend into next month's national tour in support of it. There, he will return to some massive venues across Australia (including Sydney's 5000-capacity Hordern Pavilion) to perform these songs for the first time on home soil.

“I love playing shows, I adore performing the music and I want to make the live show an experience that people won't forget,” he says.

“I want it to be something they take along with them. I want to reach beyond your average dance music fan. If someone who might not necessarily want to take pills and go to a festival, if they could can see this music live and appreciate it... to me, that would be the highest compliment.”

‘Sisyphus’ is out now