Cover Story: HAAi's Good-Natured Passion For Music and Community Has Elevated Her to the Top

Between her divergent studio practices and her eruptive skills on stage, HAAi has become a staple on the international club and festival circuit. Ben Murphy learns how this former psychedelic rocker from a tiny Australian town became one of the world’s foremost DJs.

23 min
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Mar 18, 2020
Ben Murphy

Up a flight of stairs in a converted warehouse in Hackney, we think we’ve found the right apartment. Beneath an otherwise nondescript entrance, the doormat proclaims “Welcome To Acid House,” and a moment later we’re shown into HAAi’s flat. Light floods through tall windows, houseplants trail over a mezzanine wall, and solid, dark wooden shelves that reach the ceiling are stacked with vinyl and accoutrements, while assorted dance music memorabilia decorates the open-plan space. HAAi greets us with a smile, before examining a new album she’s just been brought by her management company — Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini’s collaborative record Illusion Of Time.

Playing at a discreet volume on a turntable in the corner, the classic Italian dream house compilation Welcome To Paradise Vol.1 is stopped so we can talk.

Australian Londoner HAAi (real name Teneil Throssell) has enjoyed an extraordinary ascent since her breakout Phonox residency began in 2016. She went from DJing in small bar rooms to playing the world’s biggest festival stages, winning the Radio 1 Essential Mix of the year in 2018, and signing to long-standing electronic music institution Mute Records.

Through a combination of deftness behind the decks, dedication to her craft, and the singular perspective of a musical outsider, she’s become known as a skilful resident DJ. Meanwhile, her productions have become increasingly vital dancefloor weapons. Her new six-track EP, Systems Up, Windows Down features tracks like the brooding breakbeat banger “Stop Looking At Me Swan,” wreathed in psychotropic textures and ominous bass; and the sample-laden drum trickery and techno thump of “6666.” Both are tunes that could tear down clubs and sweaty dance tents alike.

Glancing at her flat and listening to her sets, you’d be forgiven for thinking HAAi’s love of house and techno has been life long. But she started out in a very different world, playing in a psychedelic rock band. Sitting across the table, casually cool with her bleach-blond hair, mauve floral shirt, and shades tucked into her collar, HAAi describes how she underwent this metamorphosis.

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Originally from the small mining town of Karratha in northwest Australia, the place HAAi was born is remote to say the least.

“It’s about 22 hours north of Perth,” she says. “It’s really far! It’s on the coast, and really beautiful, but they mine for iron ore there. It’s super red.”

When she was five, she moved nearer to Perth, a city whose famous bands Tame Impala and Pond have given it the reputation of being a psychedelic rock hub. There, she became interested in playing music for the first time. “My older sister was given a guitar when she was about 15, and it sat in her room,” HAAi says. “I stole it one day and printed out some guitar tabs on the Internet, and taught myself how to play. Then I started some shitty high school bands.”

After moving to Sydney, HAAi formed her first proper group, influenced by The Velvet Underground and drone rock. Eventually, she became part of the more serious outfit Dark Bells as singer and guitarist, and after some interest from managers and labels, they decided to move to London.

“You can live in Melbourne and play in cool underground scenes for ages, but we wanted to see what it was like here,” she says of the momentous move. “And we were big fans of The Horrors. We just thought, ‘Why not take the plunge?’”

Once in London, the band had some success, even playing on Glastonbury Festival’s William’s Green stage in 2014. But they soon broke up, and HAAi was left deflated. Then a trip to Berlin changed her life forever.

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“I was kind of licking my wounds for a while, and I was DJing more, just playing records basically,” she says. “Even then it wasn’t house or anything close. I took a friend to Berghain, who had to move back to Australia. She was a really big techno head, but it was something we never really agreed on. I wanted to give her a great present. A few friends of ours chipped in, and took a punt that we might not get in as well. But we did, and it was one of those seminal moments.”

At Berghain, HAAi was able to join the dots between the mind-expanding rock sounds she’d loved and the lysergic qualities of techno. A new kind of psychedelia beckoned.

“I heard the music how it was supposed to be heard,” she says. “The records are made for that kind of sound system, and were played so perfectly. It was so much more psychedelic than I had given it credit for. All this music I’d been so obsessed with for so long, like krautrock, I drew so many more connections to it and techno, with the repetition and the transitions. That was the beginning.”

Becoming hooked on the trippy propensities of tracks by Pachanga Boys, Superpitcher and Cómeme artists like Rebolledo, HAAi immersed herself in DJing, and secured a regular party at Dalston’s Ridley Road Market Bar that she named Coconut Beats after the tropical and global disco sounds she’d often play there. “It has this super shitty PA system and cheap ginger Mojitos for a fiver. There was this tiny dancefloor that you could fit 80 people on. That’s where I properly taught myself to DJ.”

When she played a warmup set for Jacques Greene in Brixton in 2016, she so impressed the Canadian artist and the party organisers that she was asked to support him several more times. It would prove instrumental in her career. “He did two weekends in a row at Phonox, and I remember the week of the first time I was playing there, I learned to use CDJs,” HAAi says. “I was like, ‘I need to be a bit more equipped rather than bringing a bag of records that might not work.’ A lot of the guys from the booking team came down early, and there was something magic that happened in the room. A few months later, they offered me a residency. It blew me away, and changed my life obviously.”

As the Saturday night resident at Phonox, HAAi was able to develop her DJ style, weaving psychedelic influences through the techno and house that had become staples of her sound. At the same time, she began to produce, using software program Logic to fashion a hybrid of electronic and organic sounds that referenced her past inspirations and incorporated dance elements.

“I was still using a lot of guitar and real instruments,” HAAi says. “It took me probably a couple of years of playing around to build a track that was partly electronic as well.”

The first fruit of this experimentation was her 2017 single “Be Good.” Surfacing via HAAi’s Coconut Beats label, it was a slow pulse of drowsy synth chords, kick drums, horn samples and dreamy vocals, reflecting back on the Dark Bells days while looking towards a more electronic future. “My tunes were always slow-starting and ambient then. I made them how we would make a track as a band.”

After two years at Phonox, and an increasingly busy gig diary elsewhere, HAAi’s production became streamlined; laser guided towards the clubs and festivals she was so often playing. “The more I started DJing and understanding how tunes work in a club environment or on a dancefloor, it naturally influenced it. I started making tunes that had drops in them.”

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Signing to Mute — the UK label founded by Daniel Miller in 1978 that has become a blueprint for creative independent imprints — at the start of 2020 was a thrill for HAAi. After the dissolution of Dark Bells, joining the storied electronic label felt like an affirmation of her talent — the real start of something new.

“It was an absolute dream come true,” she says. “I had battle wounds from being in bands. Every time that something doesn’t work out, I think everyone feels it’s quite a big failure. It was nice to finally get the confidence to work by myself and know that I can finish things. Knowing that Mute are genuinely behind what I’m doing still blows me away, actually.”

HAAi’s debut EP for Mute, Systems Up, Windows Down, references her youth in northeast Australia in its title. It’s where she and her friends would get in clapped-out cars to burn up the roads doing laps of the town, the volume cranked up high. The grunge stuff she was listening to then has no connection to what she does now, but the free spirit of the time is threaded through every track on the record. A recurring motif on Systems Up, Windows Down is the presence of breakbeats, which make their way into almost every track. Hardcore, and especially the new mutations of it, characterised by the work of artists like Special Request, Violet, and Octo Octa, has also become a big influence.

“Because I was listening to guitar music for so much of my life, I’m late to the party on jungle and breakbeat and that sort of stuff,” HAAi says. “The more I’ve been listening to it, it comes into your own music a lot more. I’m playing a lot more of it now too.” She’s especially excited by what some of the new generation of DJs and producers have done with the breakbeat format, meshing sampled rhythms with other styles in a way that feels fresh and unencumbered with rules. “Sometimes you get more hybrid ideas, which I think is really cool, rather than something being rehashed.”

Another facet of HAAi’s new productions are their reliance on sampling, sometimes from surprising sources. Along with the vocal chants of “CHONKIBOI,” which she says came from a library record, various found sounds pepper the tracks — field recordings that HAAi has accumulated over time.

“I did a field recording project in Yokohama, Japan a year and a half ago,” she says. “The end goal was for me to make a techno tune out of samples I’d recorded myself. It was at an extreme ice-skating event, which was wicked because I got loads of metallic sounds, and this cool Japanese commentary. So I created a big library of stuff from there, which I use. A lot of the texture in the beat of ‘6666’ was taken from the tiniest little piece of a skate hitting the ice, or someone clipping off a cable tie. A lot of it was for texture, and you wouldn’t know unless we talked about it.”

Elsewhere on the EP, there are the sounds of HAAi’s dad revving his car, and musical snippets from a trip to Morocco. Using these bits of audio has been a thrilling learning experience. Initially, she wanted to make the artefacts pristine in sound quality, but soon came to realise their crustiness was their charm.

“These samples had the natural ambience of the world,” she says. “I like the roughness, to cut things up quite roughly as well. When I first started using field recordings, I would spend so much time trying to EQ them, so they sounded like they were recorded in a studio — losing what it’s about, I guess.”

Titles like “CHONKIBOI” (named after the portly animal meme), “Stop Looking At Me Swan” and “Don’t Flatter Yourself Love” suggest a humorous side to HAAi’s personality. She’s keen to point out that these names were intended to deflate the self-importance that is sometimes a feature of the techno scene.

“The reason for choosing those names was a reminder to keep light hearted,” she says. “It’s easy to get caught up in the seriousness of making techno, and you can stress yourself out and get anxious about wanting to achieve something — and at the end of the day, we’re making songs.” Nevertheless, production has become something of a preoccupation for HAAi. “I love it so much, I can get a little too obsessed with it.”

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Amid an increasingly relentless touring schedule, in 2018 HAAi recorded her debut Essential Mix, which featured a broad range of genres, from murky electro and breakbeat to raw techno and EBM. It’s quite possibly the only mix containing Josh Wink’s “Don’t Laugh” next to the thumping trance of Da Hool’s “Meet Her At The Love Parade” and the industrial Neue Deutsche Welle of Grauzone’s frozen favourite “Eisbær.”

“When I first heard about the mix, I knew I wanted to put in ‘Eisbær’ — I used to listen to that song religiously. It’s obviously a super hyperactive mix, but I think the nature of how I play anyway is pretty genre bending — that was just a more extreme version. I wanted to touch on the music I was into when I was playing in bands as well. You have such a small amount of time to do it, that everything got crammed in there.”

In a public vote, HAAi won Essential Mix of the Year in 2018, something she’s still bowled over by. “It was another one of those moments I never thought was going to happen. Even getting asked to do an Essential Mix, especially when I was coming up as a DJ, I thought I was a good couple of years off being asked.”

The Essential Mix led to a year-long Radio 1 residency, which gave HAAi the chance to reflect the variety of her taste, while promoting up-and-coming acts.

“I was getting so much music by unreleased artists, so I wanted to use it as an opportunity to showcase new talent. I guess ‘cause it was a specialist show you could play more leftfield stuff that otherwise might not get played on Radio 1.”

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The Essential Mix, and subsequent radio shows, are fairly reflective of how HAAi plays regularly, albeit in a more truncated form. Retaining the psychedelic edge that has been a feature of her sound since her rock days, she aims for a cosmic atmosphere and rhythmic energy — especially in her longer, all-night sets.

“Sonically, I always want it to feel psychedelic and druggy, which I feel is how it’s coming out at the minute,” she says. “Because I’m lucky enough to play all-night-long sets often, you have more room to do that. If I play a super short set, you don’t have enough time to take people there.”

Festivals, where HAAi is increasingly a staple, offer a chance to do something different with her DJ sets, allowing her to distil her favourite elements into short, punchy barrages. She likes playing these events, as she enjoys the intensity of the big crowds, and also the challenge of keeping transient fans from wandering off to the bigger stages. “It’s a great way to make new fans. I love both ends of it: one, the energy of festivals, how excited people are, and the fact it’s summer; and two, how transient stages can be. If you’re clashing with a big artist, you have to really fight to keep people there.”

Lately, festivals have been increasingly criticised for their lineups — too frequently overpopulated by white male artists, displaying scant regard for gender or ethnicity balance. HAAi sees this as a problem too.

“There’s always going to be negative backlash from it,” she says. “I know the Reading and Leeds festivals copped a lot of shit about their lineups. It was a real shame to see most of the commentary [on social media] — a female artist was saying it’s crazy [that] there’s hardly any women on the lineup, and so many people were angry that had been pointed out.”

Still, she thinks some positive change is starting to happen as more events become aware of the need for a new approach.

“I think there’s some festivals that are making a big impact. Things are slowly evolving, but we’re still a long way off. There’s awareness, and I feel like it’s a good time for that.”

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HAAi has lived in the UK for over nine years now. Being so far from Australia, she misses her family, but says she has built up her own support network and strong group of friends, and is used to moving around.

“I miss my mum a lot, but you form your own family,” she says. “This place is filled with people who aren’t from here anyway; there’s so many like-minded people, when I’m ‘round here at Christmas or the holidays or whatever, everyone looks out for each other. We moved around so much when I was a kid, and I changed schools a lot, so I’ve never really found that hard, as some people do.”

As to how she feels about her somewhat sudden move into the limelight, HAAi says she’s mostly just grateful she’s able to do what she does for a living.

“I’m a bit blinded by the fact that I’m so glad I get to do it,” she says. “That overshadows any negativity. I’m probably a little too busy to overthink it too much, you’re getting on with the next thing.”

In reality, she finds the dance music world far more welcoming than she did being part of a rock band. “I feel like the environment I’m in now is so much more supportive. When you’re touring as a group, it’s easy to be in your tribe and to be more competitive with other people. Because a lot of us are cruising around by ourselves, when you’re on the same lineup as someone you’ve met before, you’re instantly pals.”

As to the future, it’s looking bright enough to need those shades, with more singles and an album for Mute on the way. What she’s sure of is that a HAAi long-player will take a new form, perhaps developing those hallucinogenic qualities that have long been a feature of her work.

“I’d like it more to be listened to rather than to bang out,” she concludes. “The sound is evolving a bit more. The next stuff that will come out will be a little further in that direction.”

Ben Murphy is a freelance writer living in the UK. Find him on Twitter.