Make no mistake. Luke Steele is a rock star. The Empire of the Sun front man appears on the terrace of L.A.’s Club Nokia, cigarette in one hand and glass of wine in the other, instantly recognizable even without his distinctive costume and make-up. He’s fresh out of a meet and greet that went twenty minutes over and assuring everyone that he’s fine and everything is cool. He wants to sit at the edge of the terrace to “see L.A. at night.” It doesn’t matter that the view is mostly three huge banners for Puss in Boots 3D; Steele creates the environment as he goes along.
I tell him that we’ve spoken before, right when Walking On A Dream was coming out. He doesn’t remember of course, but he nods genially and acts like he does. I tell him that I remember how excited he was about the record, but that he couldn’t have possibly guessed, especially with the near miss of Sleepy Jackson, that his ticket to fame was pairing with the mercurial Nick Littlemore to form a dance duo. He agrees at first:
“I don’t know; I think you make the best of what you can. I mean, the record’s amazing, but I didn’t think I’d be headlining festivals. But at the same time I did, so I take that back, yeah, I did know it was going to be big. It’s like that thing, your best band in the world has to be your own band. I was shocked, but you want to fulfill your expectations.”
Regardless, the climb for Empire of the Sun was steep. The album’s first two singles, “Walking on a Dream” and “We Are the People,” received mainstream airplay and Steele’s distinctive visuals kept the band alive on the Internet. For an artist who apparently hasn’t found his ceiling, the amount of success can still be daunting.
“There are so many moments when you realize that this thing keeps getting bigger. It’s so big time, headlining one of the main stages at Coachella, and you come off stage and there’s Usher and there’s all these megastars and they want to meet you. Then you work with Jay-Z and get to play at Red Rocks. It just keeps rising. I guess the biggest thing is, now that I think about it, is how many people are actually getting married to the songs. You’re making music that hits people deep down, and they have it in their hearts. I guess it’s the whole human connection thing. That hasn’t happened with music I’ve done before.”
Steele also acknowledges that the band’s heightened profile has a few drawbacks. As nice as it is to replace the wedding march, being a working musician is often a grind.
“The last time I really felt overwhelmed was when we were in New York. We’ve been touring the record for so long, and you’re essentially playing the same set. You just get tired. But then it’s the best job in the world, so you can’t complain. At the same time it’s hard when you don’t have the time or space to create. You land in New York, and you really just want to be in the countryside with a bottle of wine and time to write.”
The band also faced some growing pains. It was initially slow to tour, and various outlets reported in 2010 that Steele said his bandmate had “gone missing.” Littlemore did not appear in any of Empire of the Sun’s initial live shows, and has yet to appear on stage with the band. Steele admits that the working relationship is less than typical, but has backed off his earlier comments.
“I think it was really more that he didn’t necessarily want to tour at all, and he got the job as the musical director for a Cirque de Soleil show. It started in Canada, and it’s just now come out in New York. That was two years of him writing for that. It was kind of hard at first; your brother doesn’t want to come on the road with you. After I did my best job being an alcoholic for a month or two, I realized that people wanted to hear these songs. I did this one interview with some guy, in Poland I think, who said, “When does this become a real band?” And that was because we hadn’t been on the road yet. That made up my mind. I’m like, this guy’s so right. We have to go and play this now.”
Steele has toured as Empire of the Sun with a variety of backing musicians, but Littlemore has not left the band. In an arrangement that falls into the “just so crazy it might work” category, Steele remains the public face of the band, while Littlemore and Donnie Sloan, who was once at odds with Empire of the Sun over songwriting credits, contribute artistically. Steele discusses the state of Empire of the Sun as if it’s no big deal.
“We reunited in New York and did five days. We’ve been writing this week in L.A. We had Donnie, who wrote a lot of the big songs and did a lot of keys on the record there, so it was like the whole Empire. We got about twenty-five sketches toward a new record.”
Steele goes on to say that rather than a band at loose ends, Empire of the Sun feels like his musical destiny:
“With a band like Empire, it can seem effortless. I was just watching the George Harrison documentary the other night, and these guys seemed like they were so relaxed playing. That’s what it’s been like recording this time around. Sometimes it’s like my fingers aren’t even touching the keys on the computer and the tape machine. It just sort of writes itself. I think it’s just going to go bigger.”
That also includes the visual aspects of the band, which drew a healthy amount of negative publicity, specifically with regards to “Ugliest Album Cover of the Year” awards.
“I was pretty stoked with how people took to the videos. It’s not like they cost a million dollars. We set out to make these Seventies-style movies that were purposely over the top. It’s not a band; it’s more of a caricature. It’s like Star Wars or Flight of the Navigator. Once you’re able to become something like that, who wants to be a mere mortal? I’ve been in bands for so long, and with every band my look has become a little bit more outlandish. We decided to give this a good crack. We don’t want this to be just a band. I’m done with that. I’m more interested in being a part of an art movement. As for the negative aspect, people will always talk. What do they really want at that point, anyway? Nothing’s going to make them happy.”
Steele says all of this utterly without irony; the image, however garish, that he projects is as much a part of Empire of the Sun as his music. He says that though he sometimes feels like a slave to his creation, he remains committed to the visual aspect of his work.
“I think about it a lot when I have to dye my hair. I meant to do it for tonight, but there wasn’t time. Sometimes I feel like coming out without it to play, but that would be ruining the character.”
When presented with the case of KISS, Steele seems genuinely taken aback:
“Did they not do make-up?”
“Yeah, that was a big deal in the Eighties. They took off the make-up and came out and played straight.”
“No, I don’t like that. It’s like ruining the whole mystique. Take someone like Prince. I mean, who knows what Prince eats for breakfast or what he does when a girl goes back to his room. That’s what you have to keep alive. You can pull back the veil. Metallica did it, but I don’t think anyone’s looked at them the same since they’ve seen James Hetfield having a cry and going back forth about what rhymes with ‘back’ and ‘black.’ It’s too much. It’s a trap for a lot of artists these days. They have their records, but then they have backstage YouTube videos. They give away their stems to everyone to mix, and then everybody can hear exactly what they did. There’s no mystique.”
Steele knows that lots of bands have one good record, and that Modern English has made a career out of licensing “I’ll Melt With You.” There’s nothing wrong with a comfortable life fading into anonymity, but having rolled sevens up to this point, it’s clear Steele wants to see how far he can travel on this road, even if that necessitates a move from the south Pacific.
“At this point in my career, I’ve gotten everything I could have wanted. Now I want to be in touch with the biggest artists and studios in the world. It’s time for me to work and not get complacent. Only the future knows what can happen with Empire of the Sun. Technology evolves and the artist evolves. The world evolves. I used to think it was all New York. Now I’m kind of over New York. It’s such a fast city and there’s a lot of venom. L.A.’s got the beach and a lot of the artists have moved out here. Things change.”
People are milling around on the floor, there early because information was scant about what time Steele and company would take the stage. The lights go down, and Mayer Hawthorne and the County appear. The crowd was a little confused, mostly pumped. Hawthorne was unannounced, and his white-boy soul plays to a different kind of dance crowd than Empire of the Sun’s space age pop. Hawthorne was savvy, though. He name checked the Empire early in the set, and the crowd was his. People continued to filter in, and by the time Hawthorne was finishing, there were several hundred people joining him in making “Diana Ross-style rain fingers.”
Empire of the Sun takes the stage about half an hour after Mayer Hawthorne. The immediate impression in the room is the sheer size of the crowd, which seems to have somehow doubled. The floor is packed shoulder to shoulder and undulating with energy; the fogeys and scaredy-cats have filled the balcony to capacity, and the V.I.P. club is deserted. Nobody wants to watch this on television.
Steele is unmoving as the curtain draws back, building tension. His face is painted with the trademark white stripe, and his cerulean headdress, frock coat and pajama bottom ensemble toes the line between artistic and utterly ridiculous. Planetscapes merge and split on the screen behind him. Steele is flanked by a guitarist and a drummer wearing Day-Glo gladiator gear and masked dancers in gold body suits and furry boots. The side men stick with their look throughout both sets, while the dancers transform themselves by turns into sexy swordfish, guitar playing robots and various other sci-fi fetish objects. At one point a figure crosses the back of the stage that resembles the Macy’s parade pilgrim shorn of muscle and skin.
The total effect is, conservatively, visually arresting. The backdrop, the dancers, and the other musicians are window dressing for the real show, though. From the minute Steele opens his mouth, he has the crowd in the palm of his hand. He doesn’t really need all the accoutrements; he might not even need the flashy costume. He pouts, careens around the stage, smashes a guitar at one point, goes down into the crowd- and everyone in the room is transfixed by all of it. Even as he ups the quotient throughout the show and transforms from a skinny space Buddha to Vegas Elvis crossed with samurai bridegroom, the costumes that Steele puts so much effort into are ultimately just the icing on the cake. This crowd would watch him regardless. He is, after all, kind of a rock star.