With his first band, the Sleepy Jackson, Luke Steele was dubbed the pop sensation from Australia. When the band’s complicated mix of rock riffs, electric flourishes, and theatricality failed to produce a single, many artists would have sought out a more marketable sound. Steele took another direction and emerged late last year as one half of Empire of the Sun, a full-blown dance-glam duo. Steel and partner Nick Littlemore of Pnau released Walking on a Dream, a collection that is both musically and visually arresting. The duo is currently finishing work on the third video from the album and putting together what promises to be one of the more distinct tours in recent memory.
First off, is the band really named after the J.G. Ballard novel?
No, other than they obviously share a name. We just wanted something really big for the band, and that fit better than anything else. We did read the book, at some point, but when we were putting together the press materials, it was honestly just the easiest paragraph to write. I don’t really care about making some huge statement with this band. It’s not about unlocking a bunch of hidden meanings or finding some deep secret. We’re about conquering hearts rather than conquering minds.
Give a brief overview of Empire of the Sun for those unfamiliar with the band.
It’s me and Littlemore. We met in 2000 and have been doing different music ever since. It’s been on and off every four months. Most of the time we’d be working on a track for another band, but then the time just seemed right to do something original. Once we decided to do it, the whole thing happened really quickly. We went in the studio with Peter Mayes and produced it ourselves. Nick and I live so far away from each other that time had to count. But it’s like seeing an old friend; you’re able to immediately reconnect and pick up where you left off.
How did you and Nick Littlemore hook up?
We were both on EMI, and one of the guys at the label said he thought we should collaborate. We met a bar, because that’s where musicians go for meetings, and there was instant chemistry. After many drinks, we decided that we were soul mates coming from opposite directions. I was coming from the blues and Hendrix and Nick came from that Phoenix, Air funky kind of sound. From the moment I met him, though, I knew that we would eventually collaborate.
How did you approach writing material for the album?
It was quite quick, really, because we recorded in Sydney and I had to commute in from Perth. It was really similar to meeting up with a friend and deciding to make dinner. You go to the shop and buy the food and each person takes charge of making one part of the meal or another and at the end there’s a big meal that everybody had a hand in making. That was the recording process for the record. We’d start with that big meal, and then get as much work done as quickly as possible. I would only be there for three hours before I had to go home, so there wasn’t a lot of time to make everything perfect and spend endless time tweaking every little thing.
Is there a theme that runs through the album?
There’s more like a common thought that governed the writing of the album. It’s thinking about those profound moments we all have in our lives. You know, that summer romance in ’85 and all the other unexpected things that happen. Nick would just have notebooks and notebooks of stuff about these moments. You wouldn’t expect it when you first meet him, but he’s really the tortured artist. He has lots of deep feelings. We tried to get those feelings into every song on Walking on a Dream, so that every song is a complete image. We wanted every piece of the album to be as large in scope as possible, so that each one has maximum impact.
How does the visual aspect of the band fit in with the music?
I don’t know. When we were making the record, we felt that the vision needed to be greater than just the music. We wanted to make it flamboyant and colorful and make it real entertainment. We sort of took a page from Kanye’s book on that one. His music is great, but he also adds another layer that makes it so much more. It’s impossible to think of him merely as a rapper. He’s an entertainer. We wanted some of that for Walking on a Dream. That’s where the album art, the videos, and the movie we’re shooting come in.
Is the makeup an every day thing?
It’s funny, but since doing the album the look has become a lot more natural for me. I’m walking around now with lots of really large pieces now, kind of like Flavor Flav. Working on this record has cracked something in me and I’m feeling comfortable evolving. After a while you almost become trapped in the image other people have of you. I had been doing things in the studio, going to work every day, and it almost became like a nine to five job for me. My wife saw this and really helped me. She said that when we met, I was some kind of animal, the future Hendrix and that I’d lost that somewhere. I’d gotten too comfortable. I was a bit like a Ming vase on a shelf. Something needed to break me into pieces so I could reconnect with the reason I wanted to start making music in the first place. Empire of the Sun helped with that, and the new image goes right along with it.
How do you translate the experience to the stage?
I think that’s yet to be done. The band hasn’t really done a show, and when we do it’s going to have to bring in all of the visual imagery. The footage from the videos is obviously going to be a large part of that, and we’re in the process of shooting another video as well as a film to go along with the first two. The new video, for “Standing on the Shore, will be shot outside Perth at a place called The Pinnacles. It’s sort of a collection of spiky rocks that really looks like the surface of another planet. And during the whole video process, we’ve been shooting the vignettes for concerts. When everything comes together, it will be pretty fantastic and something that does justice to the scope of the music.
How does living in Perth influence your writing?
Perth has always been the place that I’ve gone to power down after writing. Life moves so much slower there, that you can stop and take stock. When I’m writing, I want to be in a place like Sydney. It’s like the New York of Australia. There’s so much going on every second of every day. That energy is transferred directly to the music. Your mind is working on a different pace. I love that. I’ve often thought about moving to New York, but I wonder if it would be total sensory overload. There would be so much happening all the time that there would never be time to get anything done.
Is there a part of American culture that would be difficult to accept?
The food is one thing, I guess. It’s very different than the sort of things that we eat here. No, wait a minute. That’s not right. The food is actually really good, and there wouldn’t be much of an adjustment there. I don’t want to come up with one of those wonky answers that you read in magazines. I know the cultures are different, but it’s hard to come up with one specific aspect that sticks out. I guess the most obvious thing is some of the hip-hop music. It’s just so much about money and butts. There are so many other things to be writing about and all of these songs seem to be exactly the same.
What does the Australian music scene have to say to the scene in the United States?
Just that we want to continue the marriage. There’s not a band in Australia that doesn’t want to be successful in the United States. And there’s so much inventiveness happening in Australia that it’s an infusion of new energy to the scene. Sometimes it seems like we forget that and just stick to our own continents.
If you could attend any concert anywhere what would it be?
It would have to be in New York City. George Harrison would be there, and one of the guys from Kraftwerk. Levon Helm would be out front and Carole King could play the piano. Let’s see, Moondog would be on drums. Michael Jackson could be on stage to dance and show off his moves. Neil Young would be singing backup. But you could really go even further. Daniel Lanois could be on the boards mixing, and maybe get Scorcese to shoot video. Penelope Cruz could be walking around, maybe with a tray of drinks. There would be a rule, though, that she had to smile at everybody. That would be a concert.