Empire Of The Sun: ‘You’re Nothing If You Don’t Challenge Yourself’

David Zammitt talks to Nick Littlemore about Elton John and druggy, fucked up things.”“

Five years ago, Sydneysiders Nick Littlemore and Luke Steele dropped their debut album as Empire Of The Sun. Since then, ‘Walking On A Dream’ has shifted over a million copies globally, racked up a pair of BRIT nominations and seen them garnered with a host of accolades in their native Australia. The LP’s eponymous lead single and its follow-up, ‘We Are The People’, dominated the world’s airwaves as the summer of 2008 wound down. Since then, things have gone eerily quiet on Empire Of The Sun’s surrealistic planet. Steele toured as a solo act, while Littlemore ran off to join Cirque du Soleil. Now they’re back with new album, ‘Ice On The Dune’, that looks set to soundtrack the summer once again. But why has it taken so long?

“A lot of things happened,” says Littlemore. “Around the time that we were finishing ‘Walking On A Dream’, I met Sir Elton John and he basically changed my life, as he tends to do. He said, ‘You have to move to London. I’m going to manage you.’ And then Empire just kind of blew up.” He isn’t just name-dropping, however. The artist formerly known as Reginald Dwight imbued him with a confidence that he hadn’t experienced before. “Elton championed me and introduced me to Cirque du Soleil and I went on and joined the circus rather than going on tour with Luke. I lived with them for about two years and followed them around the world. I also made an album of Elton’s material which went number 1 in the UK”. He laughs. “Never done that before.”

Nick has been a notable absentee from the live Empire Of The Sun show, the direction of which has been piloted solely by Steele. Fans hoping to see the duo united on stage, however, will be disappointed. “I know it’s going to be incredible but I’m not on the road this time because I’ve just signed on to do another circus in China and I’m doing an album with Ladyhawke.” That’s not to say it will be a pared down affair; Luke Steele isn’t quite a shrinking violet. “I understand from the snippets and few bits of video that I’ve been sent that it’s going to be quite remarkable, but I wouldn’t expect anything else from Luke anyway.”

While it remains to be seen whether Empire Of The Sun will ever become a fully-functioning live act, the reasons for Littlemore’s truancy are more than valid. He’s been far from resting on his artistic laurels, and he’s effusive when speaking about his time with the circus. “What attracted me to it was that I was so out of my depth it wasn’t even worth laughing about. But I met the director and the producer. François Girard, the academy award-winning director – and I’d always been interested in film and theatre and other things like that. They wanted me to try.” He pauses and reflects on a piece of advice that was handed down from his father. “You’re nothing if you don’t challenge yourself.”

While he’s at pains to point out just how out of his depth he found himself at the beginning, Nick is coming round to the idea that he may have at least a flicker of talent. “My girlfriend always says, ‘You should stop telling people you have no talent, because they might start believing it,’ but it’s just my self-deprecating nature. I always imagine that really I’m s**t and I can’t imagine why anyone would see anything in me. You can actually do anything all the time; you just have to stop yourself from stopping yourself, if you know what I mean. The negativity that inhabits us is s**t, and you want to take it away from you because it’s useless. We thrive on positivity and I think any type of creation thrives on that. It thrives on magnetism.”

It’s that uninhibited positivity that drives the group and when we enquire as to the Cirque’s influence on Empire Of The Sun, we’re greeted with an infectious gusto for creativity in general, strung together deluge of ampersands as he describes the tenets that underpin his musical manifesto. “It would be so easy for me to sit here and write depressing music. I could do it until the cows come home and it’s very natural and very simple for any musician to write sad songs. It’s much harder to write happier songs because they can come off sounding twee and fake and like they’re a band for hire or something. But when you create something positive in the world, that truly comes from a real place, people can’t fault that and you go along with it and it makes you feel good. I think that we were put here to do positive things and what we want from the audience is for them to feel good and to feel that anything is possible, especially in these times – they’re messed up times. We really feel like we need to make aspirational records. We want to empower them to make great things and have wonderful lives, you know?”

Describing Empire Of The Sun’s music as positive, however, comes up distinctly short in attempting to capture an ethos that is, to say the least, highly idiosyncratic. Adorned with ornate headdresses and new romantic eye make-up, they seem to have taken a leaf out of George Lucas’s sartorial book. Allied with their sound, they are a compellingly otherworldly proposition. “Sci-fi is an influence. When we made the first record, Alejandro Jodorowsky was in Sydney and he was playing a new print of Holy Mountain and that just freaked me out. I thought that I had seen most of the druggy, fucked-up things that had been made in the world and that just kind of exposed me to a whole other level of what you could do.” Littlemore also sees antecedents in surrealist art. “It’s something akin to Hieronymus Bosch and Dali; there are so many artists through history who have created these other worlds. We’re very interested in that. It’s the same with the music. We want to make songs that sound phenomenal. We want to make music that doesn’t sound like anything else.”

Empire Of The Sun’s eccentric art is also born out of an obsession with the equipment that powers their sound. They’re an anachronism in that they sound retro and yet remarkably ultramodern all at once, standing somewhere between a Proustian rush and a fevered vision of the future. “When everyone’s making music with the same tools, we want to go out and revive an instrument from a hundred years ago and use that. We have one keyboard in particular which is our flagship.” Littlemore sounds as though he’s salivating at the thought. “It’s a Yamaha CS-80 which was made in ’73 and was the synthesiser used, quite famously, by Vangelis on Blade Runner but it’s also used in countless soft rock, yacht rock records – anything from Fleetwood Mac to Stevie Wonder.”

“We like to inhabit the years ’75 to ’83; it seems to me the crossing over point between the peak of musicianship and the advent of technology and those two things colliding, before it became all technology and all the soul got ripped out of it. We’re the halfway point.” As dry as his humour is, I get the feeling that himself and Steele almost have a fetish for the era. “I often look at ’75 as being the peak year of civilisation. The Concorde was flying, 10cc were making ‘I’m Not In Love’. Everything seemed to be in this futuristic world and you could still smoke on planes. We need more of that.”

Finally, given their track record, how long will we have to wait for the next Empire Of The Sun record? “We’re gonna do the next one quite quickly.” Does that mean we can expect more music in the next year or two? “I would like very much to do that.”

Empire Of The Sun’s new album ‘Ice On The Dune’ is out now via Virgin.

Read the full interview in the new edition of DIY Weekly, available from iTunes now.