“A bluebird flew down from the heavens, and landed in the Cal Mar Suites in Santa Monica,” Luke Steele tells me, explaining the inspiration behind ‘Ice On The Dune’, the title track of the new Empire of the Sun record.
“Much later, we were shooting the video for ‘Alive’ in Bryce Canyon, Utah, and as we stood there, thousands of feet up, I looked around and saw ice melting on the top of these canyons. Littlemore turned around and said to me, ‘There you go Steele, Ice On The Dune.’”
This kind of thing happens quite a lot with Empire of the Sun, Steele tells me. “We write things, and then they happen – ask and you shall receive. Sometimes I feel like our songs are sent from another place, and we’re just puppets.”
You can forgive Steele for feeling a little dazed. The first Empire of the Sun record became a surprise smash hit around the world off the back of glistening electro pop tracks like ‘Walking On A Dream’. It was hard work crafting a follow-up, and pressure from outside forces weighed heavily on the band.
“I told the label I wanted a year and a half to make the record, and after about two months, everyone started calling to ask when it was going to be finished,” he says. “People were very impatient, and it created a lot of stress, and it’s funny, because in the end, Ice On The Dune took a year and a half to make – the exact time frame that I predicted all along.”
Before the pieces of Ice On The Dune could come together, Steele needed to reconnect with his enigmatic Empire… band mate Nick Littlemore. Littlemore himself is famously difficult to pin down – he’s touring with his band PNAU one minute, and composing soundtracks for Cirque Du Soleil the next. Steele and Littlemore famously fell out of contact for a long time following Empire’s debut. The band toured the country with an elaborate stage show, but Littlemore wasn’t a part of it – for a time, Empire of the Sun seemed as if it might continue as a Luke Steele solo project. The universe, however, wasn’t done with Empire of the Sun, and it would soon bring the two together again.
“I think it got to the point where, after I’d toured for the record for a couple of years, it became pretty obvious that all the fans needed new songs to sing, new rhythms to dance to,” Steele says, when I ask about the delicate process of reconnecting with his old friend. “Nick and I started tinkering with things, sending images and recordings back and forth. We slowly started communicating again, and then after a while, we got back together.”
Once the two were in the same room together, during a trip to New York, it all crystallised. “We’ve always had a pretty powerful musical chemistry,” Steele says. “It’s like the yin and the yang. Nick has books and books of lyrics, all divided into colours, and when I sing a melody for him, he’ll decide what colour it is, bring out the book and say ‘here you go.’ It works well for us.”
The new album opens with a stirring orchestral track called ‘Lux’ – it comes across like the opening strains of a sci-fi soundtrack, and I ask Steele what exactly inspired it. “Nick had a strange keyboard contraption where none of the black keys worked, just the white keys,” he explains. “That kind of thing is really confusing for a keyboard player, but we thrive on weird things like that. I find that’s the trick to song writing, tricking your brain to make it do things in a different pattern. My father was always saying, after the first record, that he was fascinated to see where The Emperor and his Prophet would go,” he continues. “I like this track because it sounds like an army coming over the mountain, ready to go into battle. It seemed like the perfect opener.”
In the world of Empire of the Sun, Steele is The Emperor and Littlemore is The Prophet. These are the roles that the pair play in their colourful videos and, if they get their way, will one day play in a movie. I ask Steele if he can tell me more about these characters, and how Ice On The Dune develops them further.
“The Emperor, through his crown and his priestesses, conjures up visions and dreams for people,” he explains. “He designs animals, and makes the seas and waterfalls flow. The Prophet is basically his disciple, who goes out and surveys the land and then reports back to The Emperor. In this next segment, his crown is stolen by The King Of Shadows. Waterfalls start flowing backwards, trees bury their heads in the sand, animals are born strange…we set out to regain The Emperor’s crown and restore peace to the world.”
Once Ice On The Dune is out, Steele promises a killer live show to go along with it. “If the first show was like someone pouring water on your head, this one is like the whole ocean raging through you,” he explains. After that, the duo’s plans are grander still. “We’re planning to produce a lot more music, and we’re going to make our film,” Steele says. “We want to develop hotels and amusement parks and oceans. I’ll tour the show and we’ll continue in the studio, in that world. The band is growing so much.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Ice On The Dune out Friday June 14 through EMI/Capitol.