The result of this do-over is .wav, his second studio album that dropped last week via the producer's own Circus Records label. It's 16 tracks of pretty, smart and often sumptuous music, which leans as far into indie pop as anything Flux has ever done. The album closes with the triumphant "Love" -- which serves as a creative turning point for the 32 year old artist, who's been a presence in bass realms of the festival and clubs scene for more than a decade.
"I wrote that whole song in one sitting and came home and was like, 'This is it. This is my new album. I want it to feel exactly like this,'" Steele says of "Love." "The rest of the process was just feeling things. If it felt right, then that was another track for the album."
Feeling in fact informed a lot of .wav. Having delved deeper into playing guitar and keyboards and singing live, Steele was ready to quit Flux Pavilion and launch a new project. He then had an epiphany: while his new music sounds very different than his era-defining hits like "I Can't Stop," the feeling this new music gave him was the same as he got from his heavier, earlier stuff. That feeling, he says, is a sort of childlike boundlessness, laced with a melancholy that's long been familiar to him.
It was while making .wav that Steele -- whose anxiety often led to pre-show panic attacks in festival bathrooms -- realized he'd actually been struggling with depression for much of his life. Therapy and antidepressants helped him make music that he feels like is an accurate representation of the person he's evolved into after a decade in the scene. He still spends time reading fantasy books and playing Dungeons & Dragons, but the guy who loved getting drunk and raging around the stage in 2010 has transformed into a wise, whip-smart father-to-be (Steele and his wife are expecting their first child) who's removed the constraints from his creative process.
"Ten years on, if you say 'Flux Pavilion' to a regular person, they’re like “Oh, a dubstep guy,” says Steele. "That has never been so untrue as this album now."
Here, Steele talks with Billboard about his new music, his evolution and how acknowledging his depression helped him to transcend it.
In November you tweeted, "This new album is the most honest to myself thing I’ve ever written. I think it will only be a shocking change for people who don’t know what Flux Pavilion is all about." What did you mean by that?
Flux Pavilion has been, for all intents and purposes, a dubstep act without really any dubstep. Back in the early days, people were quick to say that my music wasn’t dubstep, because it didn’t really fit into what dubstep was.
I kind of carried on playing in a dubstep world, but all of my tracks never really felt like anyone else’s. The dubstep label with Flux Pavilion became this thing that was synonymous with my DJ sets and not actually with my music. I just rode along with it -- because I felt that it was too much energy to fight how people classified my music. As long as people listen to it, it’s not for me to say what it should be defined as.
How have you evolved from that former version of yourself?
I’ve grown up quite a lot. I started Flux when I was 19 and loved jumping around getting really drunk and playing parties. That was exactly what I wanted to do at that age. I’ve grown into a different person, and Flux Pavilion didn’t really grow with me for quite some time. A few years ago I was ready to quit. I didn’t have any ideas. I didn’t know what I wanted it to be. I started writing this music to try and start a new project -- basically. I wanted it to be everything Flux Pavilion couldn’t be.
As I was writing, I realized Flux Pavilion isn’t actually defined by the sound of the music, it’s defined by the feeling. And all of the new music I was working on had the same feeling as “I Can’t Stop” and “Gold Dust” and all my early tracks. It still felt the same, it just sounded completely different. I was like, “This is a Flux Pavilion album.”
Basically, I always wanted to write music -- and at some point down the line, I got a job in the live music industry as a touring artist. That became all of my actual job, and the writing of the music became a side thing. I would try to get some songs together for my next show. The switch with this album was needing to go back to what I’m good at, which is writing music. So I need time to just sit and write and understand what I’m doing. Luckily coronavirus came along at just the right time, to give me all of that time.
It sounds like quarantine has been good for you in that way.
It slowed everything down. There’s a sense of pace in the world that I think is super unhealthy, especially for me. I think the sense of pace we've built up to as a human race is really damaging for our sense of self, and our self-awareness. You need time to know who you are and what you want to do and how you feel. If you keep moving and running and your environment keeps changing, you don’t actually know how you feel in any of those moments, and you can’t move and grow. It feels like we’ve been doing that on a societal level...I think slowing the world down has been really good to give people a bit of a break and reflect on who they are and what direction they want to move in.
So on a psychological level, for you it’s been a mostly positive thing?
Until winter. It’s now winter in England. I have been realizing now that I’ve been suffering from anxiety and depression for my entire life. I only just clocked onto it about a year ago, that that’s what’s going on.
What has gaining that awareness been like?
I’ve always been anxious, especially with touring and live shows. I’ve had panic attacks minutes before going on stage. Having to do that for four or five nights a week -- dealing with that and these really low moods, and not being in a great space, and not having the time to look at that and figure out what it is -- now just having a space to step back from it, and see that it is depression. It’s a chemical thing that happens in my body, and I can do something about it.
I feel better than ever, and having the space to be able to do that has been really, really great. It would have made this quarantine a lot harder if I hadn’t been able to step back and notice that.
How are you taking care of yourself?
Therapy and medication. I’ve been going to therapy for about three years. Then finally someone mentioned medication. I always thought that that should be the last possible thing that I go for. I [thought] I could do it all naturally, with therapy and maybe some mushroom tea and maybe some ayahuasca – all these things, journeys to go on.
But at the end of the day, there is something wrong in my body that effects my serotonin levels, and medication is the help my body needs. My body needs something to help it run. Since I made that distinction and I started on the medication – I just feel like a normal person now.
What does "normal" feel like to you?
I’ve found that anxiety, for me, doesn’t actually exist -- it’s just kind of this feeling that I get that [alerts me that] something is wrong. As soon as I realized that what was wrong is that I was depressed, the anxiety went away completely. The anxiety was my body saying, “Something's up." What was up was depression. I didn’t want to give it that title. I didn’t want to use that word, because it’s a really scary thing.
Just by accepting that it exists, it’s made my whole life make a lot more sense. I can now see all of the struggles I’ve had with touring and all of the anxieties and panic attacks and stuff – I see where it’s coming from. It’s actually a disorder. It’s actually something wrong with me. I don’t need to meditate every day. It helps, but that’s not going to be the cure. The cure is actually that something's up biologically. That was a really big turning point for me.
Just acknowledging that you have a chemical imbalance.
That is the root of the cause. There is loads of emotional work to do. I wouldn’t recommend someone take antidepressants without having done a year or two of therapy first to really work out who you are and where you are with it all. But I found this to be a thing I was scared of -- like, “Oh if you take antidepressants you can’t write music anymore.” There was so much stuff like that online.
Well, this album was written on antidepressants. The [musical] stuff I didn’t like was before I stated taking the medication. In the first few months of taking medication, this album came to life. I could see more clearly. I could hear more clearly. I could feel more clearly exactly what I was trying to do. I've written better music this year than I have in my entire life, and that’s thanks to clearing this mud that’s been in my system.
In July, you tweeted in regards to the sexual misconduct allegations against Bassnectar, that you received messages saying that you should "step into his shoes as the bass music ringleader. To that I say f--k no, it’s that type of idolization that gives these artists delusions of grandeur and end up doing whatever they like.” What do you mean by delusions of grandeur?
I mean, we have a tendency as a society to get really excited about people in art... We have these fantasies of people in media and we attach all of these fantasies to the actual person and kind of flood that onto them... To a much lesser extent than [really famous people], I’ve had a certain amount put onto me, in an imagining of who I am and this sense of idolization -- people crying if I shake their hands and stuff like that.
It can be quite difficult to experience that kind of social idolization and not turn it around on yourself and think, “ You know what? I am pretty special. I do fly to all these places, and I do make a lot of people happy, and I am pretty special person, actually.” It’s really hard to take all of that power that people freely give you and not do something with it.
I don’t look at these artists who have abused their power and go – obviously, I think “shame on you," but a part of me is like, “I get it.” You have so many people around you telling you that "You can do this, you can do that, you can do whatever you want, you’re amazing." The teams, the management. It’s not just on the artist. It’s on all of the people surrounding these artists and actors and musicians who prop them up and tell them how good they are all the time. Even down to the fans who just shovel this praise onto these people. There’s only so much an ego can take.
How does your own ego withstand that shoveling on of praise?
I feel fortunate enough that if I act like an a--hole, my manager will call me an a--hole. Sometimes he can be a bit too harsh, but since we started working together he’s always made the point that we’re just a couple of guys. He’s my manager; I’m the artist; we’re just doing our thing. We love music, and we’re going out there and at the end of the day we come home to our wives, our girlfriends and our families and that’s who we really are. This whole other thing is just a world we step into.
I feel really fortunate to have been surrounded by that kind of energy so I don’t get lost. It doesn’t surprise me that some people do get lost. I think especially in the DJ scene, there’s such a whirlwind. I’m not surprised when I hear these stories -- and I think the point of that tweet for me was just to shine a light on [the importance of] not just blaming this obviously flawed person who's done some horrible stuff. We need to look at ourselves, and our teams and our environments, and ask how this keeps happening in music.
Obviously music does attract a certain type of person, but it’s a social environment that we’ve all set up, and I don’t want to play a part in that. I get annoyed at everyone then shoveling their anger towards this one individual, being like “he’s the bad guy.” And it’s like -- we let him do this with all of our actions, so let’s just stop f--king piling on so much adoration to people. Let’s enjoy their music and give them a handshake and say “Well done, I like what you do.” But no more making someone feel like they’re a god.
Tony Cook, the bass music producer Cookie Monsta who was a longstanding artist on your label, passed away in October. How do you and the other Circus artists grieve in a moment when you can’t be together with your community?
A lot of that friendship wasn’t together. When we were starting out, we would tour together quite a lot, and then a thing happens when you reach a certain size: We were so spread out, and we very rarely saw each other. We’d all just communicate over text. I didn’t feel like I was far away from the other guys [from the label], because our relationship was still in the same place. We’re very used to having a digital relationship. So it didn’t feel hard in that [socially distanced] respect.
The hardest thing is not getting a message back from Tony. That’s been the thing I can’t get used to. He’s still there in all of my group chats with the other artists. It’s a thing that I see nearly every day, and so I think about it nearly every day.
It’s why I’m hesitant to say coronavirus has been a good time for me. There have been positives to it, but it’s a horrible time. I can feel nice and comfortable in my house, but that doesn’t mean looking out the window isn’t really hard.
There's certainly been a lot to be sad about.
People always say that music comes from pain, or pain and depression help fuel creativity and fuel music. Just because I’ve taken antidepressants doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what that feels like. I’ve had a whole life’s worth of pain and lowness that I can draw from. Because of the depression, my life has been a continuous stream of melancholy, and I find it really comforting. This sense of comfortable sadness, I think that’s a really important part of my music.
I think it’s in a lot of this album, and that it's because I suffer from depression and I really relate to that feeling. It’s important to me to get that feeling into my music, because it feels like me.