Naarm/Melbourne collective Polito are an intriguing act that has already begun to make some significant waves within the electronic music scene. Comprising two producers (Robert Downie and Finnian Langham) and two dancers (Arabella Frahn-Starkie and Hillary Goldsmith), Polito merges contemporary dance with live and improvised techno to create an all-encompassing form of artistic expression.
This September, they returned to Sleep D’s Butter Sessions with their second full EP: ‘Anticipate’. The EP features four techno tracks with a stealthy intensity, seemingly about to ignite at any moment.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with the group ahead of the release, where we discussed how the group came to be, their unique method for getting noticed by Butter Sessions’ label heads Sleep D & the ongoing evolution of their sound…
Firstly, the makeup of your group is refreshingly different to the usual solo artist or even duo! Two musicians (Robert Downie & Finnian Langham) combined with two dance performers (Arabella Frahn-Starkie & Hillary Goldsmith) has created ‘Polito’, which merges contemporary dance with live and improvised techno. What can you tell us about the formation of the group? Did it initiate with the four of you or did it build progressively?
Finn: The project began when Rob started getting into modular synthesis. I was into techno and had a drum machine so we figured it’d be fun to have some long jam sessions, which went really well and eventually led to us playing live as Polito.
Belle: Hill and I really wanted to perform in unconventional spaces and showcase dance in new ways. We also really wanted a free ticket to Strawberry Fields at the time.
Rob: Yeah, we had the opportunity to play at Strawberry fields as ‘performers’, so we suggested to Belle and Hill that they perform with us as Polito x Visual Display. It went so well that we’ve all performed together ever since, and eventually it felt silly to draw a line between the music and dance aspects of the project, so all four of us became Polito.
Hill: We were also going to lots of music gigs and noticed a big difference in how music can be performed so frequently and casually in comparison to dance. Performing as Polito was a way we could keep honing our performance practice outside the normal framework of a 3-4 night season (if you’re lucky) often seen in contemporary dance.
You describe yourselves as “a meeting of improvised contemporary dance and live improvised techno music, working together to create entrancing performance experiences”. What made the dual combination of these forms of dance and techno jump out to you as something that you wanted to make your name through?
Belle: Dancing to music is really fun and wholesome, and we all like to dance and not take ourselves too seriously. We all work with improvisation, which keeps the live performances really fresh, and provides a healthy challenge. I remember seeing a lot of gigs at the time and there would always be some kind of visualiser being projected – we set out to become a live, ever transforming windows media display. The music and the dance each provide fertile ground of inspiration for the other. It’s quite a miraculous experience to be moving and realise the movement you just made triggered or influenced the sound.
Hill: Techno music is meant to be danced to! I love how Belle and I take the most mundane and dorky moves and repeat them so many times that they eventually become something worth watching (I hope). When I dance I am in a constant battle of balancing my attention between my body, Belle’s body and the music. The space and audience also filter in but demand a little less attention depending on the context. Every attempt of Polito requires a bending of your expectations to meet the demands of the group, which I think is a really exciting mode to perform in. I think the combining of the two artforms has pushed us creatively and physically into territories that would otherwise be harder to crack into. Together we are stronger 😉 <3
Finn: I love that description of each performance as an ‘attempt’, often it really does feel that way. The improvised aspect keeps it exciting and fresh for us every time we perform, which I think can be challenging as an electronic act. I’ve done previous electronic live sets which never felt that engaging as a performer because it was pretty much just playing with effects in Ableton over a set that was more or less the same every time.
Rob: We hope it’s also fun for the audience knowing that what they’re hearing is being created/played live for the first time, and will never be heard the same way again. It’s like we’re all on a journey of discovering together.
Having previously had your debut release on Sleep D’s Butter Sessions back in 2020, you are about to release your second full EP on the label – ‘Anticipate’. Looking back to your first release, how has Polito progressed since then? Have you, for example, fine-tuned your sound or changed your production techniques?
Finn: I’ve become more at peace with embracing the chaos, especially in the studio. Initially, I definitely felt that everything had to be tidy and clean in the way we recorded and arranged our studio material, but that isn’t really true to our live performance, which I consider to be the core of the project. Beautiful things are often born out of the mess, and it’s exciting following a really silly idea to its conclusion and finding something wonderful at the end.
Rob: Following on from that, I think we did less editing and overdubbing on this EP. Three of the four tracks were recorded in one long continuous jam session, and we tried to keep alterations to a minimum. There’s still some overdubs, vocals and other bits added in, but for the most part it’s quite raw and close to that original jam. Usually just a single track of synths, and a single track of drums, which until very recently was how we always played live. Surprisingly, I think it somehow ended up sounding crisper and more refined than what we’ve released previously as well.
Forthcoming also on Butter Sessions is your debut album, which in my experience of speaking to artists tends to be a solid representation of an artist’s core musical stylings. This is of course a landmark achievement for the group: how does it feel to be able to showcase your sound on such a high-quality, Naarm(Melbourne)-based label? Can you also please tell us a little bit about how your strong collaboration with the label came about?
Rob: I think working on the album has been a nice opportunity to tap into aspects of the live show that we haven’t explored in our recorded material so far. Mainly the slower, more meditative and leftfield sounds are what we often begin our performances with. At the same time, there is more chaos – even more than this EP – so we’ve definitely been pushing both ends of the spectrum. Moments of unadulterated, unfiltered noise, and mistakes which we’ve decided to leave in.
Finn: Yeah, I think a lot of the coolest moments on the album come from those weird ‘mistakes’, where something we were trying to do in the moment didn’t work out, but sounded interesting. And then figuring out what we could build as the context around that moment to make it work.
Rob: Totally. In the live show, as it’s so improvised, there are always messy moments where we’re trying to find our way, and in the album you can hear a lot of that, the sound of us stumbling around until we find something cool that emerges from the mess.
Finn: It’s almost like peeking behind the scenes.
Belle: I think that’s also an influence from our physical practice, because it’s more difficult to make our dance as seamless as the music usually, because we are so exposed. You can’t hide in the moment, so it’s nice to flip the script and actually showcase some of that awkwardness.
Finn: As for how we initially connected with Butter Sessions… After having recorded and released a couple of long jams, Rob and I made our first batch of actual discrete tracks we were really happy with, and felt sounded pretty unique. Brainstorming labels to pitch at, Butter Sessions was top of the list, but obviously it felt like a pipe dream. Anyway, we had tickets to see Sleep D perform at a Play On event, and decided to put the tracks on a USB which we taped inside a card and left on their mixing console after the gig, along with a readme.txt file saying a bit about who we were and how to contact us.
Rob: We liked the mysterious presentation of it all, it felt more interesting than an email out of the blue. A few weeks later we received the most exciting email ever saying they liked the tracks and were keen to do a release. And here we are!
Finn: We’re still pinching ourselves to have the opportunity to work with such a great label, and such lovely, supportive people as Corey and Maryos.
In an attempt to drum up a bit of positivity and forward-thinking amongst Melbourne’s almost eternal lockdown, I’ve seen that Polito has been booked in to play a few events over the coming months. With the unfortunate reality that some of those may not happen, how do you as a group stay positive whilst being separated from the energy source that is the club? Have you managed to make the best of the pandemic from a creative standpoint?
Belle: Watching Formula 1 on Netflix.
Hill: I think my main focus is just surviving day by day at the moment. Getting through a pandemic is enough for me! I am extremely grateful to have a practice that involves being attuned with my body. I feel like a hacker. Noticing all the sensations in my body brings me back into the moment and makes me feel calm, moving makes me feel even better. The best dance moments I’ve had in lockdown have been the spontaneous dance parties that erupt out of a few drinks with my housemates – I’m lucky to live in such a great house during these Unprecedented Times.
Finn: Rob and I being housemates has been very fortunate over the last 18 months for Polito’s ability to record and release music, as I don’t think the project would really work without us being able to record together. Every now and then we’re both struck by the spontaneous desire to jam some Polito, and almost always something comes out of those sessions which ends up becoming a track. Recently, these jams feel to me like a form of time-travel – while we’re recording in one of our bedrooms and a track starts to take shape, I’ll be imagining the finished track one day being played at a club, and that keeps me really excited. Regardless of what happens and has happened, it’s nice to know that as soon as parties are legally allowed to resume, they will – and it’s going to be mayhem. I can’t wait.
‘Anticipate’ is now available on Bandcamp via digital format. Take a listen to the release below!
Written by Jeremy McCarthy