Make no mistake. Nick Littlemore and Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun are definite rockstars. While riding on the success of their confident debut Walking On A Dream and their FM friendly hits, “Walking On A Dream,” and “We Are the People,” the boys have ventured their way across the globe, headlining at numerous festivals and having fun along the way.
But deep down, the Australian outfit seems to be kids at heart. Dressed in crazy headresses and eccentric costumes that would likely come out of The Little Mermaid meets Atlantis movie, Luke and Nick have an unbridled sense of imagination that many artists nowadays tend to lack. We were able to talk to Nick Littlemore about Empire of the Sun’s newest album Ice On The Dune, and his other band PNAU.
So it’s been a while since your last record, Walking on a Dream. What has happened since then?
Nick Littlemore: So much happened. During the time of Walking On A Dream, I lived in Sydney and then I moved to London upon the request of Sir Elton John. In the process of recording an album with Elton John, I also made a PNAU record and produced a show with Cirque De Soleil. All the while, Luke was out on the road touring, performing, and playing for so many wonderful fans, which is something we could only hope for at the time. All of it has been quite a remarkable achievement. And around 18 months ago in New York City, we planned to makeIce On The Dune, which is where I find myself again today. When we got together, we hadn’t seen each other in three years, so we met together in a studio. We didn’t meet in a social setting because we have always communicated through music anyway; it seemed fitting that we would break the silence in a studio.
After listening to Ice on a Dune, I would definitely say it’s more of an uplifting record than Walking on a Dream. However, I find that sort of ironic since this is your sophomore album. Most would think that you guys would be more cynical.
NL: Yeah I think that is a fair call. But then again, we have been in the industry for about 15 years. So any of those devil advocates and distractions, we have overcome for the most part. Luke and I have managed to find the silver lining, and still find the reason to go on and create music. Having said that, creating a sophomore release for Empire of the Sun became a serious undertaking. We’re coming off the success of something that we really didn’t plan for or expect. And Walking On A Dream wasn’t very difficult to create in the first place. So I guess, in some ways, we foolishly decided to book some studio time and do something. Now in the process of doing that, we got to reacquaint ourselves all over again. As we started making Ice On The Dune, we sort of traced the lineage back to Walking On A Dream. In retrospect, we definitely see that we have made a progression of sound. I still think we tried to make a positive record with Walking On A Dream, but I think we’re just getting more astute in mastering our craft.
I think one reason for that unexpected success was because of Luke’s voice. It was good but for the most part relatively unknown. Do you guys shape your songs around his voice?
NL: Yeah, I mean if you look back to how we started this band, it kind of makes sense. In PNAU, Peter, who is my partner, and I sent a backing track to Luke because I didn’t know anyone who could sing that could really live up to the level of the record. Luke wrote this piece and played it to me down the phone, and I just got chills. At that moment, I knew that we had to make a whole album together because this one piece was so vital and so powerful. But we really do try our hardest to frame our music around his voice. If not, we frame his voice accordingly to the song. Sometimes it may not be done as successfully as we like, but sometimes we just go with the flow. Sometimes there is so much going on, that you just can’t help but let it be.
You guys often speak of your music having some grandiose quality. You guys have talking about how stories are really important to you guys.
NL: I often think of it as a liminal experience in writing music. While making songs, it’s like crossing over certain points in life and embellishing on them and creating stories that resonate with people. What we really try and do is capture the most basic emotions: love, joy and the expression of what it feels like to be alive. We like to do this by setting it with the most basic lyrics like something as simple as “I’ll be around.” It’s something that you can say so casually in a conversation, but it’s also something that once you hear it in a song and how it sounds; it means so much. Just like in the classic tune from the Spinners. That one lyric “I’ll be around,” is so resonant and applicable to so many people.
In your live shows, you guys look pretty comical in extravagant and crazy costumes. Does it ever frustrate you that people may not take you seriously because of that?
NL: No. I even think it’s comical that we dress in the most ridiculous outfits you’ve ever seen. It’s great. We just allow the audience to just be and enjoy the show. I always used to do it whenever I worked for singers. I would get off and sing a whole bunch of stuff and scream on the mic. I was so comfortable to do anything because it’s always been important for me to make that kind of allowed space for that to occur. And by dressing up, I think we are just opening up the imagination of people. But if people don’t like the visual aspect, then it’s ok. Everyone is entitled to their opinion as we are entitled to ours. But our music is very lively and colorful, so we feel like we’re sort of giving the music a pseudo- form by the means of costumes, and pretty big spectacles. Luke and I are both very visual people; we both went to art schools. The visual side of music has always been very important to us.
Luke has mentioned before that between the two of you, you’re the tortured artist, and while making Walking On A Dream, you had these notebooks and notebooks where you would write all the songs in. How did the process for Ice On The Dune differ?
NL: I mean it is true that I am probably the tortured one, and I definitely write a lot. Since, Walking On A Dream, I have written a lot more, written more short stories, and did this circus with Cirque De Soleil which required me to write and rewrite a lot of things. It was amazing to have done that as I disciplined myself. In retrospect, I can say that now having gone through the exhaustive process that it helped me out a lot. In making the sophomore album with Empire, I was stronger and a match-fit. I could even say the same thing about Luke’s voice, that it has been more match- fit. He has been on the road so long, singing every night. I have been writing everyday. So when we came it wasn’t so much a matter of going through my notebooks and trying to write them into songs. It was more being available and having the ideas to write something. It was more about thinking of something and pen it into something very quickly. In this album, I didn’t really need to rewrite it as much. There is an inherent discipline now, which I didn’t have before.
This record is definitely more dance-y and oriented more towards to a club.
NL: Yeah, it is a bit more dance oriented, but I think that was a response to the audience that we were playing to. We became regulars at huge festivals and the people there wanted to dance. There is an element in there that we wanted to put into ours. It was definitely something that was thought out and intentional. We wrote a lot of songs that aren’t on this album and that is specifically because we really wanted a record that was great for “going out.” It’s great for touring; it’s great for going out and listening to the music after going to some festival. You can put it on at home right before going out, and right after going out. When I’m making a record, I like to place it within a time and a real scenario. I know where it can exist and where it will live.
You have often referred to Empire of the Sun as being something more than a band. You have often compared it to an abstract idea: something timeless, like human emotion.
NL: Yeah. Like what I said before, it’s difficult talking about something that is nearly unexplainable. We don’t feel that we are a band in that sense. We never did. We feel like we’re two things coming together to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. And we are really just trying to communicate the human experience in the best possible way.
With your band PNAU, you made an album with Elton John. What I liked about your PNAU vs. Elton John record is that it took something incredibly nostalgic, but was forward-thinking.
NL: Well I think we try to do that with all our records. We try and approach it from a certain time and work on it from there. I always say 1975 but with the Elton record, what Peter and I set out to do was make a very technologically advanced sounding record. We had the tools that Elton had provided for us which were recordings from 1971 to 1977. So we didn’t use any artificial sounds. We only used the sounds that he had given us. And we just cut, copied, curated, and damaged, destroyed, and rebuilt. It was like any album could have existed in a different variety of ways. If you have the time and the technology to cut up every single note, every single snare hit and polish it into an entirely different record, then it can be done. It takes an incredibly long time and is an exhaustive process, but I’m really glad we did it.