After a five-year hiatus, the Australian band Empire of the Sun have released their second album, which is brimming with catchy and cosmic tunes that reaffirm their vision to be just a little bit strange, writes Nick Levine
Australian duo Empire of the Sun releases second album
Ice on the Dune
Empire of the Sun
Daft Punk aren't the only trendy electro duo making a comeback this summer. Australian two-piece Empire of the Sun are less elusive than the helmet-wearing Frenchmen, but their behaviour can be just as confusing, and their new album Ice on the Dune deserves a place on your summer playlist alongside Daft Punk's blockbuster Random Access Memories.
It's been nearly five years since Sydney's Nick Littlemore and Perth-born Luke Steele joined forces for the first Empire of the Sun album. Released in 2008, Walking on a Dream became a hit with hipsters and then music licensing teams, who placed the catchy title track on everything from a Toyota TV advert to a Farrelly Brothers film soundtrack.
Empire of the Sun also became known for their flamboyant live performances, which featured fog-blasting bazookas, dancers dressed as swordfish and Steele patrolling the stage in a headdress. The one thing the group's stage show lacked was Littlemore, who seemingly disappeared right before Empire of the Sun's first tour was due to start.
"I don't know about missing, he just sort of, um …" Steele told me during a phone chat last month.
"I don't really know, he just kind of stopped saying … for maybe like half a year or something?"
Today, Steele seems to have forgiven Littlemore for his unannounced leave of absence and accepts his bandmate won't be joining him on the road this summer. "On the first tour, I was like 'man, it's our band, let's go play this album'. I found it strange that Nick didn't want to get on stage," he recalls. "But these days, it's cool. It's got to the point where it kind of just works for us."
Steele takes sole control of the live show, but writing and recording the music is very much a collaboration. The duo reconvened about 18 months ago to start work on the second Empire of the Sun album, but both members have been keeping busy since their debut came out. Steele continued touring well into 2011 and collaborated with Beyoncé on her 4 album. Meanwhile, Steele spent a period as Cirque du Soleil's musical director and released a record with his other band, Pnau.
Was there ever a danger of the pair drifting apart? Littlemore, whom I spoke to separately from Steele, several hours later, says this was never a possibility. "Luke and I have such a strong bond, we just have this great connection," he insists. "When you work with someone who has such an incredible take on the world as Luke does, and such a wonderful melodic sensibility too, you can always make good material."
However, that's not to say the duo can simply click their fingers and make magic happen. The first Empire of the Sun album was recorded "very quickly", Littlemore says, but this one took "quite a bit longer" and involved letting some of the songs "hang out for a while".
"It's a very liminal experience making Empire," he explains. "There's a threshold between a good song and a great song. It's about that crossing over point: where you find that one line or idea that makes it great."
Steele, Empire of the Sun's zanier half, describes the creative process in rather more abstract terms. "It was like on one side there was danger and heartache, [but] on the other there was so much beauty and romance and magic and colour and inspiration. It was kind of like the band was this big coin and God was just flipping us, like, back and forth: what's it gonna be today, head or tails?"
Listening to the finished album, it's clear which side won. Ice on the Dune is a collection of sun-kissed cosmic disco tunes that often glimmers with positivity. Lead single Alive features a chorus so shamelessly feel-good, it could almost sound banal. "Loving every minute because you make me feel so alive, alive, alive," Steele sings.
Did the duo intend to make such a positive album? "Oh definitely," Littlemore says. "It's all about positivity. We're trying to capture pure emotion and we want everyone to understand that emotion as they listen."
A recurring theme on the album is the idea of togetherness and mutual dependency. "Let's resonate together," Steele sings on Surround Sound, while Concert Pitch pivots on this wistful line: "I don't wanna go, I just wanna ride with you." The Pet Shop Boys-influenced I'll Be Around contains an even clearer statement of support. "You can bet on your life, I'll be around for a while," Steele promises.
It's tempting to link Steele's preoccupation with companionship to his bandmate's tendency to disappear on him - apparently, Littlemore flew off again "for a few weeks" while they were making Ice on the Dune. But at least on the surface, the album's lyrics are actually telling a story.
"The story is one of overcoming negativity, told through this King of Shadows who comes and steals Luke's powers and causes the world to fall into turmoil. So we end up taking a long journey to reclaim his crown and restore peace and harmony to the universe," Littlemore explains, before adding wryly: "It's just a little thing like that."
Don't let the album's sci-fi storyline put you off. Littlemore admits the narrative is "probably more for us than the audience", and says it served a practical purpose when it came to putting the tracks in order. Certainly, there's no need to follow the story to enjoy this catchy and accessible electro-pop record, though the odd strange line may snag your ear. "Let's push through this dimension till our brains turn to jelly," Steele sings on Surround Sound, which isn't something you'd hear on a Kylie Minogue album.
Of course, embracing a little strangeness is part of the Empire of the Sun experience. The album's cover art shows the duo rising like deities above an ice-capped planet: Steele is clad in a cape and his trademark headdress, while Littlemore is wearing some kind of open-necked fur jumpsuit. Their music can feel otherworldly too, because Steele's vocals are often digitally altered to sound androgynous and alien-like.
Empire of the Sun, Littlemore says, was never meant to be remotely ordinary. "We wanted to create the sort of band that we would have loved when we were 12 years old. We looked to our heroes, people like Bowie, who would dress up in these fantastical costumes and really take you to another place. We wanted to make something that people could believe in, that wasn't just a couple of guys with guitars singing songs."
And the band's overall goal? "Really, we just feel like we're a conduit for other people to have a good time. If we're jumping around and wearing these quite outlandish costumes, it allows other people to indulge their own creative fantasies and do things they might ordinarily filter themselves from doing. Within Empire of the Sun, people are really allowed to express themselves."
Before my time with Littlemore comes to an end, I realise I haven't asked why the album has such a cryptic title: Ice on the Dune. "Oh, it came from Luke and I'm still trying to understand it!" he says, clearly quite clueless. "These things just shoot out of him like an arrow out of his chest. It's one of the reasons I enjoy working with him so much."
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.