With Daft Punk riding high in the charts it’s a good time to be a mysterious dance duo that looks as if it’s from another planet. Empire of the Sun’s first album in five years is all the more exciting because for a while it looked as if they weren’t going to come back to Earth at all.
Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore are Australian, from Perth and Sydney respectively, though you wouldn’t guess it to look at the elaborately airbrushed pictures of the pair in cloaks, facepaint and huge feathered headdresses. More inspired by the original Star Wars posters than JG Ballard’s book or Steven Spielberg’s film, Empire of the Sun began life as a side project for men who were both already in popular bands (Steele leading indie rock group The Sleepy Jackson, Littlemore in another electronic duo, Pnau) but has become far and away their biggest success. Their fabulous 2008 debut album, Walking on a Dream, went gold over here and double platinum in their homeland, picking up Australia’s BRIT-equivalent ARIA awards for Album of the Year and Best Pop Release.
But it looked as though that was that. Steele took the Empire music on a world tour on his own, surrounded by dancers dressed as everything from rubber-suited aliens to sexy swordfish. Littlemore went off to be musical director for the Cirque du Soleil show Zarkana, now resident at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, and most recently released a Pnau album with Elton John singing, Good Morning to the Night, which went to number one last summer.
“There seemed to be some trepidation that we weren’t coming back but we always knew we were,” says Littlemore, 35, sharing a sofa with Steele, 33, in a boutique hotel in Marble Arch. Though he does most of the talking, it’s not because the pair are at loggerheads but because Steele really does seem to be a bit of a spaceman — sentences trailing off, staring wide-eyed into the middle distance and yawning with vigour. When he does speak he says “Hey?” at the end of everything with that characteristic Australian upwards inflection.
Steele’s attention span is not helped by the fact that he’s only just off the plane from Australia (Littlemore has arrived from his home in relatively handier LA) but at least he looks like a proper pop star with his shiny leather frock coat, thick guyliner and Emeli Sandé’s hair. Littlemore, in a jumper and jeans, curly hair greying at the edges, looks like the one who makes sure they get their tax return in on time.
“The press are funny. I wasn’t touring so they ran with this whole story for ages,” he says. In late 2009, he was quoted giving the following explanation as to why he hadn’t spoken to Steele in five months: “I was recording in Atlanta and went swimming with my phone in my pocket. I’ve never managed to replace it.” If that sounds a bit dog-ate-my-homework at least they’re here today, with a new album that sounds bigger and even more brightly melodic, although the division of labour still sounds strange.
Today Littlemore claims that he only saw his own band in concert for the first time less than a month ago, at New York’s Electric Daisy Carnival. “I welled up, it was beautiful.” Surely he’d have liked to be up there too, even if just to prod a keyboard in the shadows? Especially when Empire of the Sun made their Australian comeback at the Sydney Opera House on May 31.
A London show is still to be announced for later in the year. “I might do a couple of cameos live in the future. I don’t get jealous, I love it, I celebrate it. In the future who knows what will happen — but he’s doing such a remarkable job.”
They’re on the same page when it comes to the music, however. The new album, Ice on the Dune, is packed with fantastic, futuristic electropop, piling all the synthesisers in the world onto the chorus of DNA and achieving an irresistably summery bounce on Concert Pitch. Though it’s not light years away from the frothy hands-aloft dance pop that currently riddles the charts, there’s something about Steele’s weary, distinctive singing voice that adds a surprising sadness to the sound, even when he’s simply repeating “We celebrate, we celebrate our love” on the euphoric Celebrate.
“After such a hiatus we couldn’t come back and make something at the same level,” says Littlemore. “We didn’t want to repeat ourselves.
We wanted to be bigger, more expressive.”
Even though Littlemore doesn’t tour, he was aware of the need for the new songs to sound spectacular now that the band are such a major live draw. When Steele arrives on stage at a festival after a procession of guitar/bass/drums bands, looking like a Flash Gordon villain, he understandably makes an impact. “The fans design their own headpieces and spend all day doing their make-up,” says the singer. “They call themselves Empirians, they have competitions.”
“We needed to impress them,” adds Littlemore. “People walk down the aisle to Walking on a Dream. We wanted to respond to the touring aspect too. So we made it harder edged at some points because you want those high energy levels when you have people there in front of you.”
Like Daft Punk, they’re aware of the power of creating what seems to be an alternate universe when presenting their music. “They’ve done a great marketing job on it,” says Littlemore of the French duo’s hit new album. “When we came up with Empire it was about creating something kids could believe in. We didn’t want to be too cool for school, staring at our shoes. You want superstars and flamboyance as a kid.”
That comes across best in their videos, where the headdresses are taller than ever and there’s an ongoing plotline about the jewel from the Emperor’s crown being stolen by the King of Shadows.
“The world descends into turmoil and all kinds of crazy stuff starts happening.” The new album was announced with a blockbuster-style trailer that looked like Indiana Jones and featured almost no music, produced by the people at Bad Robot, the Star Trek director JJ Abrams’s company.
“We met JJ and spent a couple of days in his studio,” says Littlemore. “He’s really into electronics. He’s got the most amazing synthesiser collection and everything works, which is rare.”
There are tentative plans to make a full-length film but for now the pop clips are spectacular enough. There’s no shortage of ambition from the pair, which comes over in the way they look and sound. “We wanted it to be limitless in the way that dreams are. We don’t stop ourselves and say, ‘We can’t do that,’” says Littlemore.
And this time there seems to be no stopping their unusual working relationship either. “We’re already working on another album, so I’ll be coming on and off the tour to collect ideas from Luke, work on them and bring them back,” he continues.
“It’s a dysfunctional thing but we’re just trying to be smarter about it and make it functional within its odd shape. It feels like this can just keep growing. As long as we have Luke’s voice it can go on forever.”
Ice on the Dune is released on Virgin on June 24.