Music Interviews

Interview: Empire Of The Sun

Empire Of The Sun “We’re an ideas factory. A dream factory.”

These are the words of The Sleepy Jackson’s Luke Steele, who is resplendent in a shiny black top, with shiny black pointy shoes to match. His short hair is at its top bleached blond, with the roots, back and sides black. He is tanned, though he looks like he might be sporting a little make-up. Sat next to him is Nick Littlemore, of Pnau. He has shoulder-length hair, all of it the same shade of brown, coupled with piercing, perceptive eyes.

The Australian duo are in London to chat about Ice On The Dune, their second album together as Empire Of The Sun, following their 2008 sleeper hit debut Walking On A Dream. Having clocked up assorted award nominations around the world and 50 million or so YouTube plays since then, and with Littlemore enjoying an interlude at Number 1 on the UK album chart with a collection of reimagined Elton John songs, they’re ready to pick up where they left off.

Ice On The Dune continues their visually stimulating widescreen journey of psychedelic/post-apocalyptic myth-making, where The Emperor (Steele) and The Lord (Littlemore) are offered up as the principal characters in a story defined chiefly in their songs. They bill Ice On The Dune rather hesitantly as the second act of “the Biopic… in two Acts… so far”. The biopic is ostensibly about journeying to ancient civilisations whose denizens worshipped the Sun, rather than any kind of Ballardian homage. Cosmic sugarcane pop synth sounds again underpin hippieish lyrics – “hello to the future, freedom is within you” – and musings about “dreamtime” that suggest at least a passing interest in Australian aboriginal culture has seeped in somewhere.

Today, it is Littlemore who answers most questions; at least those that aren’t directly put to Steele, who is keen on a late lunch. (“Would you like anything?” the latter asks, unexpectedly; a little later, a bowl of chicken salad arrives for him.) Littlemore declines to order; his approach is businesslike, engaging and keen. Steele dips in and out of the conversation, his eyes otherwise gazing beyond his immediate hotel lobby surroundings, seeing and unseeing.

The duo give the impression that Empire Of The Sun was not planned, but rather arrived at as a means of inspiration at a time when other projects had, for both of them separately, lost some of their original lustre. As they talk about their music, it’s clear they share an optimistic, beyond-the-horizon vision of what might be, and of where the road leads.

In the same year in which they released their debut, Brooklyn-based outfit MGMT put out an album with which Walking On A Dream quickly became much compared, despite Empire Of The Sun’s origins leading to their sound well before anyone had heard of Andrew VanWyngarden and co. MGMT occupied a decidedly indie box with their imagery, but Empire Of The Sun were, from the off, happy to dress up as vividly as David Bowie, Adam Ant or any of the drag queens in Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. Yet it’s testament to the songwriting of both acts that, five years on, both are releasing anticipated new material.

The version of Empire Of The Sun manifested live is the preserve of Steele; Littlemore doesn’t tour, preferring instead the Will Gregory of Goldfrapp role of studio-bound boffin – “I’ve always felt that once you make a record it’s not yours anymore,” he says. Originally Empire Of The Sun was to be a studio band only, but horizons altered as the project gathered momentum. Steele recalls what turned out to be a pivotal encounter with a Polish journalist who, when chatting with them about their first album, had asked when they were going to become “a real band” and play gigs. Soon after, live shows were announced. “We had an audience,” reasons Littlemore, smiling knowingly. “We felt a duty to be good to them.”

Their audience – they call their fans Empyreans – is one which, says Littlemore, understood from the beginning that the duo were “creating something timeless”. “We’ve both loved music since we were kids,” he recalls. “I was, at 10 years old, obsessed with Iron Maiden.” And it quickly became clear that they spoke each other’s vocabulary; even before Empire Of The Sun came to pass, they were collaborators. It seemed to them that there was nothing around like Empire Of The Sun at the time they started to work on the project. “Everything seemed vapid,” Steele continues. “We came together to make a new thing, from scratch; something brave, powerful, colourful.”

Empire Of The Sun certainly are colourful. The band’s sci-fi visuals and shows, replete with elaborate headdresses and painted faces, originate from two artists whose backgrounds are decidedly visual, and who instinctively understand that an audience goes to see a gig. Steele studied graphic design and multimedia, while Littlemore was immersed in fine art. Asked to pinpoint particular visual inspirations for his costumes, used in videos and on stage, Steele offers up “ancient Japanese emperors” and “Frank Lloyd Wright buildings” alongside “contemporary design”. And, not content to stand still with what they created for the first album, this time there’s more of everything. “More smoke, more mirrors,” grins Steele. “More shiny.”

They started work on Ice On The Dune in late 2011, some three years after the first Empire Of The Sun single was released. The time lag is explained by interruptions, not least Pnau’s recreations of Elton John songs into a dance-orientated album. Littlemore worked with Elton on Pnau’s fourth album Soft Universe, released in 2011, and the reworkings album Good Morning To The Night – under the name Elton John vs Pnau – topped the UK album chart in July 2012, just a year after Soft Universe. Littlemore credits Elton as a mentor, and aspects of the pinball wizard’s showman attributes can readily be found in Empire Of The Sun’s vivid costumes.

Steele, meanwhile, contributed a co-write to Beyoncé’s album 4 – “One session happened kinda quick. I never met her” – and to the track What We Talkin’ About, on Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint 3 – “We met Jay-Z though”. As a songwriter-for-hire he also contributed to Tinie Tempah’s Disc-Overy album. And it transpires that he has not completely folded The Sleepy Jackson, intimating that there is a new album in a vault somewhere, biding its time.

He and Littlemore discuss how well the band always went down in the UK. “People in the UK understand music and musicality. There’s real love here,” says Steele, sounding like a long-lost member of the Scissor Sisters – another band whose early success was attributed to the UK’s love and understanding. Despite this “real love”, Steele and Littlemore both base themselves in California these days; their most recent video was filmed in Utah, and the bulk of their 2013 tour rattles around the States.

Judging from the Mad Max-meets-Priscilla trailer for the new album and the duo’s use of outlandish costumes in desert settings, their penchant for visual statement carries over to film. The mythical story behind the music points in a similar direction, and sync deals have already married Empire Of The Sun’s songs to many an ad and indent (a phone ad in Germany gave them a Number 1 single there). Now that they’re based a stone’s throw from Hollywood, are the stars aligning for them to make music for film? “We’d love to make a film,” Littlemore says, eagerly. “We met Peter Farrelly (director of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary) in New York; he’s become a friend, guide, mentor… he’s such a generous soul.” They have already made a treatment for a film of the adventures of The Emperor and The Lord.

That people as varied as Elton John and Peter Farrelly champion them suggests Steele and Littlemore’s spirit of collaborative creation has more to produce in the years ahead. But for the moment, the focus is on Empire Of The Sun’s second album and its “shiny” touring manifestation as the duo get on with manufacturing their own dreams.

Empire Of The Sun’s second album Ice On The Dune is out now through Virgin. They headline the Wilderness Festival at Cornbury, Oxfordshire, in August 2013.

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More on Empire Of The Sun
Empire Of The Sun – Two Vines
This Music Made Me: Empire Of The Sun
Interview: Empire Of The Sun
Empire Of The Sun – Ice On The Dune
Empire Of The Sun – Walking On A Dream