INTERVIEW: Empire of the Sun (2009)
I first heard of Empire of the Sun a few months ago when a local bloghouse DJ started playing the heck out of their music – leading to many requests. The Australian duo contains members of indie/buzz-bands Pnau and Sleepy Jackson and could easily fit with other Australian bands signed to Modular (Presets/Cut Copy) yet they also have a sound similar to MGMT. In fewer words, dreamy and ethereal electronic pop rock. “Walking On A Dream,” their first single was a Billboard Club Chart, reached the top 10 of the UK pop chart, and sold Platinum in Australia. Cinematic videos for the three singles “Walking on a Dream,” “We Are the People,” and “Standing on the Shore,” are all defintiely worth tracking down online.
DJ Ron Slomowicz: How are you doing today?
Nick Littlemore (Empire of the Sun): I’m alright man, how are you doing?
RS: Doing great. So how exactly did you meet up with Luke to form this band?
Empire of the Sun: I met Luke about nine, ten years ago and we did kind of connect well, and he dug what I was doing and I dug what he was doing and we started writing, but then we kind of got torn apart, you know, by the business, as tends to happen.
Empire of the Sun: And we’ve just got back together like gee, I don’t know, eighteen months ago, I guess.
RS: And all this kind of exploded out of there.
Empire of the Sun: I guess it’s exploded, I mean everyone says it is. We’re number fourteen in the charts over here this week, it’s kind of cool. I’m not really paying any attention to it, to be honest.
RS: Are you all gigging a lot or performing the album live, or how are you touring with it?
Empire of the Sun: No, I mean we’re never going to do any shows, we’re meant to be, you know, wait a couple of years, make a few more records and then do like a proper hour and a half show, you know. We’ve only got thirty-five minutes of music, so it’s not what one would call a body of work as such.
RS: I could see that. It seems also you’re focusing more on like on a cinematic element with the music in the videos.
Empire of the Sun: Well, I think Luke and I connected pretty early on in the heart and music means a lot more to me than just notes on a stage, it’s an incredibly all-encompassing journey, you know, so the visual element is equally as important as the musical one.
RS: Because wasn’t one of the videos done in China and the other one done in Mexico?
Empire of the Sun: Yes.
RS: And I read also that it’s all based on a movie – are these videos going to be part of a bigger film?
Empire of the Sun: Well yes, I originally wrote a thirty-page treatment for the record- about halfway through making the record I wrote this treatment out of the hero’s journey, for want of a better term. And yes, it all kind of does fit into place, but we have dreams and aspirations; being lowly convict folk from Australia we don’t really have any true understanding of finances and how much money is required to make, you know, a cinematic event- something akin to Apocalypse Now or 2001. These things cost money, man, and contrary to popular opinion, we’re not that cashed-up. Although I did fly on my first Gulfstream just about a week ago…
Empire of the Sun: It wasn’t mine, you know.
RS: The band name, was it inspired by the movie or the book?
Empire of the Sun: Neither. I mean, I like both, I always have and I think they’re part of my consciousness, but actually the idea- and then coming back to the videos, it’s about traveling to all the places where the sun has been kind of a figure of worship since ancient times, to China or the emperors and then to Mexico to meet the Aztecs and then, you know, the journey continues onwards.
RS: Very cool. When the two of you collaborate on music, do one of you focus more on the music and the production and one on the vocals, or how do the two of you collaborate with your songwriting?
Empire of the Sun: Well, Luke’s the singer, but I write all the lyrics and we both produce with my business partner, Peter. And that’s as strict as it gets, but making music is like making any kind of art form, it is a collision at best, you know. So you want to brace yourself, it’s like when you’re teetering right up to the top of a rollercoaster, you just, you actually have to let go. It’s like when you’re making love to a girl, if you want to come you have to give into the event, you know, so you just let it happen, let that ride happen, man.
RS: So, when you’re working on the music are you working in Logic or Protools? What are you using on the computer?
Empire of the Sun: Well, I generally use Protools, but we did this in Innuendo. A lot of the songs, we composed quite a lot of things on tape and with various gear, I guess. We use a lot of old keyboards, I’m talking early 70s, very expensive, beautiful machines, the kind of things that Vangelis used.
RS: That really makes sense with the sound because there is that sort of new romantic feel with most of the stuff on the album.
Empire of the Sun: Yes, I mean we’re all about honesty and sounds, you know, we won’t go in for the computer-based shit. I’ll use it to enhance what I do, but I will never let it direct what I do. I’m very much about music existing in spaces and I’m actually pro-human, as depressed as I can be, so I like people to play the parts and I like to retain that kind of integrity, if you like, of true musicianship. And when things are just like dialed up on the computer and like ‘oh look, I’ve got a piano here on the screen’ – well, that’s bullshit. Like that’s great and everything and, you know, modern technology and all that stuff, but the great records that have inspired me have taken time, they’ve taken blood, sweat, and tears, and you’ve got to work hard to make great music. You put so much energy and so much of your f**king soul into writing those songs, why would you do such a half-assed job in making them realized for the public, for everyone forever to hear? It doesn’t make any f**king sense.
RS: I agree with you.
Empire of the Sun: But that’s what people do man, that’s what people do.
RS: And right now I notice the early champions of new music have been the whole bloghouse scene, are you familiar with that?
Empire of the Sun: I don’t know exactly what that means but yes, I know that people blog and stuff but I don’t really… I check my eMail every day but I’m not, you know, I’m not too well-versed in that universe.
RS: Basically bloghouse is describing this kind of DJ who gets their music from blogs pretty much, and they play in the clubs, and it’s a lot of French stuff, the new disco, and the new electropop, like you all, Ladyhawke, all the Modular stuff is what they’ve been championing. And here in Nashville, Tennessee, where I’m based, the local bloghouse DJ has been banging your stuff since you released it. And I was wondering whether you knew anything about that or why do you think the bloghouse scene is supporting your music so much?
Empire of the Sun: I think it’s great that they are supporting it, I’m sorry that it’s not full quality because, you know, the real recording just sounds better. There’s so much depth and work in these recordings, they’re really handmade. So, I don’t care about people not paying for music, there’s nothing I can do about that. But in terms of the quality, I think when kids are going to clubs now and there listening to music it’s just not going to sound as it did ten years ago. So are we going backwards? I know the Concorde was cancelled a couple of years ago and yes, I did shed a tear, because it seems like the world is actually falling in on itself. We are now, ladies and gentlemen, going backwards.
RS: Well I guess the point I was going for is that these kids can download anything and they can buy anything, but they’re choosing to play your music, that they feel something connected to you through your music. That’s more the point I was going for.
Empire of the Sun: Well I dig that, you know, I really dig it and maybe it’s the first time and maybe it’s the last time that I’ll have kind of an audience, you know, that’s connecting with what we’re trying to do, what I’m trying to do. But, you know, I want to give them all full quality amazing copies of my music, I don’t want them to settle for less.
RS: Very cool, very cool. Have you been involved with the remixes of your music?
Empire of the Sun: No, not really. I got my bro to do a few but…
RS: Say again, your bro?
Empire of the Sun: To be honest, my brother, yes, Sam Ramon. But I’m not really in that DJ world so much anymore. I used to work with a guy called Darren Emerson who was in a band called Underworld for a couple of years, and Harry B and a few dance luminaries, if you like. But these days I’m more focusing on songwriting and composition so I don’t really go to clubs and take ten pills and fucking run around like crazy. I’m not actually that well-versed in that universe anymore. I do like Danger though, I like Danger’s mix, and there’s another guy called Break Pot out of Paris I really like.
RS: Cool. There’s this Australian music renaissance over the past year with these great sounds, the Modular artists, The Presets, Cut/Copy, and I think Ladyhawke is out of Australia too. Why do you think Australia is spawning this whole electronic music scene right now?
Empire of the Sun: It’s weird, you know, when I first started there was no one else around and over the sort of course of seven years, we’ve seen all these bands pop up. I can see the similar sound but I really honestly don’t think any of those people are getting even halfway close to the sound we’re nailing because they’re not using the real shit and you know what, they don’t understand why it’s not coming from the right place. I don’t like to slag off people, I just like to tell it as it is, you know.
RS: Going back to the CD and the music, not that I’m from that era, but I kind of get the vibe that it’s almost like one of those prog-rock concept albums. Was that where you were headed out when you put this together?
Empire of the Sun: Well, I went to art school and I learned a lot about conceptual art when I was at art school, and I said learned but it took like five years of post-art school for that to actually make sense to me. So I am very much about high concept these days, if something works on paper, then it’s going to work even better when you realize it, you know, or you actualize it. So I don’t want to say this is like Tubular Bells, or I mean what is a concept record? Tommy by The Who? I don’t know. It has a concept, I think it has strong content.
RS: And what inspires the look, like with the over-the-top costuming and the makeup in the videos, where’s that coming from?
Empire of the Sun: That’s what I wear every day anyway, so I mean I just like to be flamboyant. I think if you’re going to be an artist or you’re going to be a performer, I think you should make an effort, you know, and I think people are really sick of the sort of tight black jeans and staring at your shoes, singing about sorry. I mean performing is about engaging with people, you know, and not turning a blind eye to it.
RS: Very cool. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we’ve missed on?
Empire of the Sun: We’re just working on the new Pnau album at the moment and it’s very exciting, so that will be the kind of the next installment from the sound that you’ve come to know of Pnau and Empire, Pnau will be next and the next Empire after that. And Luke and I have just begun to dabble around with a few ideas, but he is on the other side of the planet, so it makes it somewhat difficult.
RS: You just mentioned that Empire of the Sun was top fifteen in the UK, correct?
Empire of the Sun: Yes, the single, we’re the people at number fourteen which is the highest thing I’ve ever had played about a million times.
RS: Your single’s doing well on the Billboard Club Chart, Brad LeBeau’s working over here with the different remixes.
Empire of the Sun: What are the mixes that are giving it over there?
RS: I think the Kaskade mix is the one that’s doing the best.
Empire of the Sun: It’s a good one, isn’t it? It’s a pretty good one.
RS: So do you think having that kind of success is going to cause you to be more present in the pop scene?
Empire of the Sun: In what sense?
RS: Well you mentioned that you’re not touring with this album and that you’re already working on the Pinelle CD, if this thing becomes the hit that people are expecting it to, won’t you have to tour or make appearances with it?
Empire of the Sun: The thing about life is you always have choices and those choices are based on information and depending on who you get your information from, the better the choices you might make, you know. I mean, I am very willing to learn, I try and be as open as possible to new things and to new adventures. I still am unable to eat olives but that’s something I’m working towards.
RS: That definitely sounds good, that makes a lot of sense. Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans out there?
Empire of the Sun: I love each and every one of you and I’m single.
Interview conducted September 1, 2009
Illustrator Credit: Debaser