Luke Steele and Jarrad Rogers met in a Los Angeles studio while Steele was working on the DREAMS album, No One Defeats Us, with Daniel Johns. Although the LA-based Rogers had just popped in to say g’day, he made such an impression on the pair that he went on to co-produce half of the album’s tracks.
Steele and Rogers continued their collaboration after the September 2018 release of No One Defeats Us, bouncing ideas around via email before agreeing to unite under the name H3000. The impetus for doing so came once Steele—who’d been an LA resident for close to a decade—sniffed out Rogers’ penchant for futuristic sounds.
“I’ve always been attracted to high fidelity and sonic wizardry,” says Steele, who joins me on Zoom from his current location of San Luis Obispo, California.
“Producers, I don’t know what they do, I don’t know what Jarrad does, but he manipulates sound and compresses things. When we began, it was obvious he was a genius and it just led the project.”
Steele rose to fame in the early-aughts leading the sometimes rootsy, sometimes eccentric vintage pop outfit, The Sleepy Jackson. He’s been involved in a handful of collaborative projects over the years, starting with the alt-folk band Nations by the River featuring members of Gelbison and Old Man River.
Steele and Johns have a long history, with Steele adding bits of slide guitar and vocals to Silverchair’s Young Modern in 2007, but for all its ostentation, No One Defeats Us gave the distinct impression of a one-off. Though, the same might once have been said about Empire of the Sun, the chart-topping electropop duo Steele formed with Pnau’s Nick Littlemore in 2008.
With its extravagant visuals and crisp pop aesthetics, Empire of the Sun had all the trappings of an indulgent side project, but now, three albums in, the partnership with Littlemore has come to define Steele’s legacy.
So where does H3000 fit in? You’ll have a hard time spotting acoustic guitar on the project’s self-titled debut album. But what’s more surprising is how separate H3000 sounds from both Empire of the Sun and DREAMS.
“In all honesty, I probably tried to get it to be as close to Empire of the Sun as I could, because it’s so successful,” says Rogers, whose career production credits include Linkin Park, Charli XCX and Jimmy Barnes.
However, the futility of this effort soon dawned on Rogers, who’s now back in Melbourne after several years in Los Angeles. “I think you have a little fingerprint as a producer, whether you like it or not,” he says. “There’s so many times I’ve tried to do stuff that is outside my fingerprint and it always feels disingenuous.”
One of the primary things that distinguishes H3000 from Steele’s existing body of work is the liberal deployment of vocal effects. The majority of its choruses consist of chopped up and pitch-shifted vocal mosaics, with Steele sounding not just unrecognisable but entirely non-human.
Even in the album’s more moderate moments, Steele’s vocals carry the floaty affect of a sci-fi transmission. “I think we’re both excited about the latest and greatest, like the new thing,” says Steele. “[We wanted] to step beyond, as far into the future as we could with the vocals.”
Steele’s desire to step beyond predates his work with Rogers. “We were trying to make the Empire record in Japan and I was right into all these gadgets and toys and things I’d bought there, but then no one really was interested in it,” he says, in reference to the band’s to-be-released fourth album.
But while the H3000 aesthetic was informed by the pair’s quest to find answers from the great beyond, the record sounds eminently contemporary. The saturated synths, aggressive compression and rapid dynamic shifts that define songs such as “July Heat”, “Running” and “Quicksand” bring to mind hyper-pop exemplars SOPHIE and 100 gecs.
Rogers says he was just trying to “go with what [felt] right” when producing the record. As for Steele, he was guided by a few core influences.
“Jónsi from Sigur Rós, I think that was probably one of my biggest references,” he says. “Jónsi and Bon Iver—their attitude towards music’s just so good, how, if the vocal’s distorted but it sounds good, well it’s going to be on there.”
The record’s sonic futurism comprises just one part of the broader H3000 story. Once the seven-track record was complete, Steele had a vision of himself and Rogers as avatars, named Luke 18 and Mstr Rogers, living in the year 3000.
In order to actualise this vision, the pair engaged the services of Sydney film crew, Collider, who created 3D renderings of Luke 18 and Mstr Rogers for the music video to “Running”, which makes use of the photoreal video game software, Unreal Engine. Meanwhile, Steele has been explicit in his desire to tune listeners’ hearts “to a year 3000 frequency.”
“It felt like it was more of a response to what we’d made,” says Rogers. “Stepping back and going, ‘OK, we’ve made the record—what does it feel like? What does it look like?’”
Indeed, for all the sonic wizardry and conceptual exposition, H3000 isn’t a pure, escapist fantasia. Steele and Rogers were also acutely impacted by what was going around them while making the record.
The album was written in 2018, not long after Avicii and Anthony Bourdain—two individuals Steele admired—took their own lives. Trump was in power and raging wildfires were making a mockery of southern California’s urbanised coastline. And that’s not even the half of it.
“There was a bunch of mass shootings, there was kidnappings, all the stuff that we’d both gone through with our own families, school lockdowns because there’s armed robberies going on,” says Steele.
In this sense, the H3000 LP is inextricably tied to the time of its creation, never mind the futurific soundscapes contained within. And so what now? Well, as wildfires again wreak havoc in the vicinity of Steele’s Californian home, he and Rogers are focusing on that which they can control.
“I’m just excited to see the journey this record takes as people discover it, because it’s made with heart and it’s made with soul and it’s made with absolute passion,” says Rogers. “This record is going to sound great in ten years’ time.”
H3000’s self-titled debut is out now.