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Empire of the Sun’s Rising Fortunes

With new album ‘Two Vines’, the electro-pop duo are finally making waves in America.

If you’re after an anecdote as to what Luke Steele’s life has become since co-founding Empire of the Sun in Sydney in 2007, consider this: six or seven months ago he received an e-mail from film director Peter Farrelly, with whom Empire of the Sun had worked on the 2014 movie Dumb and Dumber To. Farrelly was extending a dinner invitation to Steele, and “every time he invites you, you just go – he’s such a genius”. Upon arriving at the designated Greek restaurant in Malibu, Steele was met by Farrelly and his other guests, actors Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson. After the meal, Farrelly suggested they go to a karaoke bar, where the manager pushed the microphone into Steele’s chest as Empire of the Sun’s “Walking on a Dream” started to play. “I know the song back to front, but it was like, you’d better sing this good,” grins Steele. “I had [the others] on second mic, they were doing the back-up vocals. And that finished, and then ‘We Are the People’ [also by EOTS] started. Owen Wilson was like, ‘That was the most fun I’ve had in years!'”

Steele tells this anecdote not to boast about his A-list buddies, but to demonstrate a point he’s been making about how when opportunity strikes, you’ve got to be able to take it. “You’ve gotta be able to sing these songs and bring the house down,” he says. “I work hard. Six or seven days a week. Sometimes people go, ‘Oh, it’s who you know.’ Man, if you come to LA I could introduce you to the biggest writers in the world, the biggest film directors, but it really comes down to being good. Because once you get in front of these people it’s like, ‘What have you got?’ You’ve gotta be good.”

Steele is sitting in a booth at the Bull & Bear Prime Steakhouse in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel which, with its wood panelling and wait staff that could qualify for their pension, has the feel of old, moneyed New York. Dressed entirely in black, he arrived in town an hour ago from his Santa Monica home (he’s lived in LA for the past five years) in preparation for Empire of the Sun’s set at the Meadows Music & Arts Festival in Queens tomorrow evening.

Right now, it’s a good time to be Luke Steele. Within seconds of shaking hands he starts enthusing about the new Sleepy Jackson album he’s working on, the long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s Personality – One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird. Near the end of dinner, he reveals his even longer-gestating project with Daniel Johns is also nearing completion. “This is the third record we’ve done,” he smiles, though none have been released yet. “The first one was when we were really into acoustics, kind of a Beatles, Beach Boys vibe, then we went off that, we went [for] a bit more like a French, Daft Punk thing. And now this is sort of just what we really want to make, electronic punk music in the future. We’re legit a couple of weeks away from finishing.”

Top of his priorities for the foreseeable future, though, is Empire of the Sun. Last year they sold out LA’s 17,500-seat Hollywood Bowl, and the band’s 2008 single, “Walking On a Dream”, recently charted in the U.S. for the first time on the back of its use in a Honda commercial. “High and Low”, the first single from the band’s new album, Two Vines, has also been welcomed by radio across the country. You could barely imagine a better set-up for the record, one which, says Nick Littlemore – the other face of the duo – recaptures the “colour and shape and sound and warmth” of 2008’s Walking On a Dream debut album.

“I lost the spirit on the second record [2013’s Ice on the Dune],” he offers, sitting in the studio out the back of his home on the edge of West Hollywood. (The house used to belong to Apocalypse Now actor Sam Bottoms.) “We allowed the ‘second album syndrome’ to affect us. It was ridiculous. I think we went to the studio every day for 18 months, and it’s just not healthy. Coming in every day, trying to write ‘Walking On a Dream’ again, it’s not a good idea. I felt we were chasing the chart, or we were chasing what was happening in music.”

To avoid similar issues – not to mention the reach of their record company – the band decamped to Hawaii for two eight-day stretches. There Littlemore would go into the jungle at dawn and into caves at night and record percussionists – “we didn’t use a whole lot on the record,” he shrugs – and though little actual producing was done there, Steele considers half the record to have been penned during these getaways. (The majority of the album was recorded in downtown LA, and completed in Hollywood’s Henson Recording Studios.)

The overall concept for Two Vines and its artwork came to Littlemore while he and Steele were travelling around Europe promoting Ice on the Dune. “It was a dream I had,” he offers. “The city of the future would be covered in vines.”

Littlemore says he often has creative dreams – the title track was inspired by one where “all the light shines out of your head and your legs go all the way down to the roots of nature and join them nicely in a little network” – but he says he’s been having a series of bizarre nightmares of late. “About China and Korea, it was pretty full on,” he shudders. “It was like World War III. They were setting up, finding places to put their missiles. It was really full on.”

eots split
From left: Steele performing in London on October 13th; Littlemore doesn’t tour with EOTS, instead working on projects such as Cirque du Soleil in 2009.

Two Vines features a series of high profile guests, including former Prince collaborator Wendy Melvoin, whom they met at Henson Studios. (Steele also ran into Sir Paul McCartney there, and gave him a vinyl copy of Walking On a Dream. “He said, ‘All the best with your band, mate!'” beams Steele.) The band reached out to Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, who, it turns out, was a fan, and contributes guitar to the song “To Her Door”. “He just came in, sat on the couch next to me, and we both had a guitar, and we got a drum loop going, and we’d just jam for five or six hours,” explains Steele. “It was like, I’m playing with Lego and getting trained by Frank Gehry.”

In some ways it’s fitting that Littlemore and Steele are being interviewed on opposite sides of the country, for their experiences over the past few years have differed wildly. While Steele hit the road to tour Ice on the Dune, Littlemore opted to stay at home, working on various projects. He pitched to score an opera in China, and scored an indie film called Free the Nipple. He’s also been working on The 2 Leaves Project, for which he’s recorded around 16 albums’ worth of material with various singers (the first, with Vera Blue, is due shortly). His goal for the project is “to create a week of music, 24 hours a day, seven days a week”, on a “looping radio station”. Perhaps the biggest revelation in his life, however, came in July when he hallucinated while meditating “and Buddha came to [him]”. “I don’t want to call them angels just because I don’t know that’s what they were,” he offers, “but they were things hanging above, and there was an old man blowing a cloud, and Buddha was there, resplendent, with a glow. I don’t believe in organised religion, but it was Buddha.

“I felt like I had an awakening,” he adds. “My third eye was awake, and I started to see stuff I couldn’t see before. And I realised that nature is in trouble; it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing that we ignore.”

The hour is getting late, and Littlemore has work to do before jumping on a plane to New York in the morning. He doesn’t mention any plans to catch up with Steele, who’ll likely be on his way to Washington for Empire’s next show. “We’ve always had quite a turbulent relationship,” he reflects. “We’re very different people in so many ways. Luke is a very Christian person and a big believer in that and Evangelism. I was raised Church of England, but I never really took it on. And musically, he’s come from really alt-country, and I’ve been at the rave [with Pnau, the dance act Littlemore founded in 1999]. There’s a lot of love there, and a lot of complex feelings too.”

Do you keep in touch much?

“We e-mail a lot, they’re pretty abstract,” laughs Littlemore. “It’ll be like, ‘Oh, I had this crazy fucking dream!’ We really collide in colour, and we love talking big ideas, dreams, magic, that’s where we gel best. When we’re creating, it’s great. When we’re not, I don’t know if we have anything to say to each other. There’s no small talk going on. I’m not a fan of small talk, I don’t think Luke is either. I’d rather just sit there in my own weird mind.”

From issue #781 (December 2016), available now.