Words By: Laurent Shervington
Nick Littlemore, frontman of Pnau and one-half of mega electro-pop duo Empire of the Sun is in a good mood, on the phone direct from his garden shed in LA.
“There’s actually been a heat wave in my studio” he muses, seemingly almost pleased with the adverse effects of nature on his creative process. As it turns out, Littlemores’s experiences with the natural world had a huge impact on the latest Empire of the Sun album “Two Vines”, which he recorded with frontman Luke Steele in both Hawaii and LA.
“Luke really loves Hawaii, he loves the ocean and so do I” he begins, “it’s very inspiring to be in Hawaii, the nature is so great. The trees look ten times the size of normal so it makes sense why they shot Jurassic Park out there”. The band spent one week on the island working in the studio before heading back to LA, recording in a “semi-industrial area where everything shuts about six o’clock”, the location also doubling as a set for various scenes of Blade Runner back in the early 80s.
Compared to the rest of Empire’s catalogue, Littlemore feels the new album harks back to the late 2000s when their first album “Walking On a Dream” reigned supreme in the pop sphere. “I think our second record got hijacked by a tougher sound, so we definitely made a conscious decision to bring it back a bit, a bit more yacht rock, little less bang bang! I’m really happy with the record though, usually we finish a record and I don’t want to hear it for a year but I give this one three months”.
Littlemore’s love for recording music has always usurped his interest in playing live shows, simply due to the nature of live performance. If he had his way Empire would “make up new stuff every night [on stage]” but acknowledges “it would probably be a huge mess, but amongst the hour and a half of mess there would be moments of complete levity.” The concept of an improvised Empire of the Sun set seems ridiculous given how incredibly choreographed and spectacular their live show is, but given how vividly Nick described the hypothetical , I can only say keep an ear out in the future.
Visuals have always been a huge thing for Empire, which Littlemore attributes to his non-traditional music training: “it’s always been based more about colours then it has about symbols on a page. The colour of doing things and the visual link seems pretty integral to me, but it’s always been there, it seems simplistic in but it’s almost like really basic painting”.
In terms of collaborations on “Two Vines” Nick and Luke pulled out all stops, recruiting Henry Hey (piano) and Tim Lefebvre (bass) from Bowie’s Blackstar band as well as Wendy Melvoin from Prince’s band The Revolution, both bands of course sadly suffering the lost of their leader in 2016. Bowie’s passing, in particular occurred during the “Two Vines” sessions, forcing the band to stop their work immediately. “We were in Hawaii when Bowie died” Nick recalls, “we turned off the music pretty much straight away and drove back to the hotel listening to a few Bowie songs. It really did feel like the whole world was listening to Bowie, his presence was omnipotent and huge”.
The approach to music production and recording has changed a lot since Littlemore’s early days in music production, as he sees a shift in more digital-based music having both it’s ups and downs.
“I think a lot of it uses the same things, like the same sample libraries and Garageband stock sounds/chord progressions. But then there’s all this other stuff – we’re hearing music that could never have been made before and that’s exciting, these kind of harmony generators that can play chords that sound like nothing I’ve heard. They’re so full of emotion, so tightly wound and pure”.
The accessibility of music production is also something Littlemore finds interesting and feels the ubiquity of production software like Ableton and Garageband has created a more “democratic” way of creating music. At its core, he believes music is primarily about having a conversation, between humans or even beyond: “It’s cool to have [a conversation] with a computer but I think it’s even better to have one with another human – or even an animal? I’d love to play a lyrebird different melodies and try and get it to reproduce them.”
Littlemore’s enigmatic approach to creating music is something that comes through not only in the instrumentation of Empire of the Sun, but through his lyrics, as show in lead single on the new album, “High and Low”. “[The lyrics] have got to do with Alice Deacon, a girl I went to school with. I remember when we were about fourteen or fifteen walking down one of the backstreets of Sydney and I had a flashback to that while we were doing a vocal take for the song”.
As for an Australian tour, Littlemore assured us we’d be seeing quite a lot of him and Luke in the very near future, in particular around the New Year.