For Throwback Thursday, we revisit our 2010 interview with Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele.
After releasing one of the best albums of 2009, Australia’s Empire of the Sun and their sprawling live show are finally making their way to North America. Luke Steele recounts a year filled with fine-tuning their ever-expanding theatrical live show, laying down vocals for Jay-Z’s latest album, and celebrating with Hova in London.
He spent years making guitar driven alt-rock in The Sleepy Jackson, but now singer-songwriter Luke Steele is walking on a dream in Empire of the Sun. Along with partner Nick Littlemore of Aussie dance twosome Pnau, the duo’s effortless concoction of heady pop-dance surfaced precisely when the genre was lacking the stuff that sets aside the men from the boys: songs. Not too pop, not too electronic, Empire of the Sun’s flawless debut was the singalong album of 2009. Consider their barrage of hit singles, ranging from the effervescent dance-pop of “Walking On A Dream” to the anthemic, electro-acoustic jangle of “We Are the People,” and it’s no wonder why this pair from Oz dominated the charts last year.
“Obviously we want to do a second record, but we can’t use the same approach. You can only meet your wife once and get married, you know?”
Where Fischerspooner’s fuck-dance-let’s-art ethos was bathed in irony, Steele and Littlemore’s concept is a virtual fantasyland, a place where women look like blue marlins, love rules, and chivalry isn’t dead. In an age where music videos aren’t the marketing tool they were at the end of the last Millennium, their elegantly appointed clips looked more like acid-washed daydreams, complete with cinematic scenery and colorful characters that inadvertently defined a new style while racking up millions of plays on YouTube.
Calling from his home in Perth in Western Australia, Luke Steele takes a slow, deep breath when asked what North Americans can expect from the band’s live show. “Oh, man. It’s become epic,” he says slowly, trying to find the right words to describe the ever-evolving audio-visual sensory onslaught that includes musicians, dancers, and all sorts of choreography. “It first started more as a theater piece, and now I think it’s gone over the hook. I think it’s original and inventive, and I think it’ll bend people’s minds.”
Steele directs EOTS’s visuals with his wife, and it’s impressive to see how he’s been able to realize his vision with Littlemoore since taking a breather from The Sleepy Jackson, a far more traditional rock endeavor.
“It started from a grain of salt and grew into a mountain, thanks to our imaginations,” Steele explains of Empire’s inception. “It’s like opening a door, brushing one stroke on a canvas, and watching it into a thousand.”
The seeds of Empire of the Sun were planted in 2000. “We got introduced through the record company, then met up at a bar and got to work the next day,” Steele says. “It was pretty obvious that we had an amazing chemistry during that first day. Nick was in his electronic cut-up phase, making samples, piecing them together like a puzzle and writing a chorus and melody.”
Six years later, they connected again in Sydney. Since they both live on different coasts and never see each other, they started talking about getting a studio in the States and writing with people in America because there was a lack of quality dance songs. “I think it instigated a healthy competition for us to write a masterpiece,” offers Steele.
Once they entered the studio, their creativity progressed at a rapid pace. Hourlong jam sessions birthed hooks and melodies that were later stitched together into the songs that became their debut album. The process was effortless and Steele reports the title track “was written in 20 minutes.”
While there’s been a load of remixes from the album [“I picked two or three,” Steele says, “and there’s another 40,000 that have filtered in. I love the Danger Mouse remix, which is killer, and we use it at the end of the live set. That guy is amazing. All of the remixes are unique in their own way.”], he says they won’t allow the group’s songs to be edited in order to garner more radioplay.
Steele walks himself through a conversation with his label out loud and plays the temperamental artiste.
“No, the song stays as it is. Edits for Japan or other countries – what are you talking about? Argh!”
With select North American shows in August, including an appearance on the Perry Farrell stage at Lollapaloza [“We never do a regular show? It’s going to be the biggest show we’ve ever played. I’m going to set myself on fire or blow myself out of a cannonball.”], Steele is looking forward to finally bringing the show to the U.S. The upcoming jaunt will also allow Steele and Littlemore the chance to travel and gain inspiration and more perspective.
“This record happened so naturally — it’s the easiest record I’ve ever done. I’ve thought about it: How else do I make another record so easy like this? It doesn’t happen—it’s a one-off.”
Steele says they have 20 EOTS tracks in the works, but this year has been set aside to tour America, Europe and Japan, so the earliest their second album will see the light of day is 2011. “We kind of want to play these songs around the world before we do another record,” he says, making a fair point. “Obviously we want to do a second record, but we can’t use the same approach. You can only meet your wife once and get married, you know? The first is always the best, then you have to experiment and become inventive and hope for the best. It’s hard.”
Before we hang up, I ask Steele about his appearance on “What We Talkin’ About” on Jay-Z’s latest album, The Blueprint 3. It’s undoubtedly a story he will be telling forever. “I got all of these e-mails from management and the [record] company in the States. He wants you, man. Now!” Facing a deadline that wouldn’t allow for a 25-hour flight to NYC, Steel tracked his vocals in Perth and sent his files via e-mail.
“I got a phone call around 3:30 in the morning [from Jay-Z]… [Impersonates an American accent, but sounds more like Marlon Brando in The Godfather] This is killer man… I love it!” And that was that. “I later got to meet him in London at a Chinese restaurant. We drank Cristal and Dom Perignon. He’s a pretty cool cat… Empire state of hip-hop. Everyone uses the word surreal to describe situations like that one, but that experience was pretty surreal.”
Life imitating art couldn’t happen to a better person.