Empire of the Sun's Luke Steele: "Progress Is the Law of Heaven"
Hey, you party people. Yeah, you.
It's almost time for Ultra Music Festival again. And guess who's back to blow our minds? Why, it's our favorite Aussies, Empire of the Sun's Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore.
They dazzled the Ultra crowd in 2011, playing tracks off their debut album, Walking on a Dream. And now they're returning for UMF 2014 with their exciting sophomore album, Ice on the Dune.
We here at Crossfade recently caught up with Luke to talk pop stars, writing, film, and what to expect from this year's Empire of the Sun show.
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Crossfade: How are you today?
Luke Steele: Yeah, good. Second coffee.
I've been on a coffee kick lately. But it's bad, because then I can't sleep at night.
Girls are like that. I need about 20 to get by. [Laughs]
So this will be your first time back in Miami since Ultra in 2011, right?
Yeah! Well, I did some writing down there with the band for the last record. It was fun.
A lot of people like to write and record here, but not actually play here.
I don't know why not. Why wouldn't they? It's so nice down there, so warm and balmy. Yeah, it's beautiful.
True. What was your experience like performing at Ultra?
I loved it. It's kind of, like, the loudest festival I've ever performed at. It seemed like the PA was tuned about 20 decibels louder than any other PA, which was cool. I'm surprised they had the license to have it that loud, but I'm cool with it. [Laughs] Yeah, I loved that. The production at Ultra is kind of ridiculous. Pretty over the top. I definitely like it.
How do you think your live show has changed since the last time you were here?
You know, we kind of began with a pretty elaborate project. We wanted everything to hit all the senses. There was gonna be animals, different things and different dimensions happening, but you start to realize that it'll cost about a million dollars each show, so you have to kind of figure out how to make it work. But this next round, we've added bigger stairs and bigger dance moves. Started to make it more like a movie.
There's a strong narrative with the debut that continues into this latest album. Could you tell us about that?
A lot of it is really just escapism, sort of like an exploration of the imagination. Or a dream. Or it's love.
We started writing screenplays, like, as a kind of mental right of way. We sort of set out across the world, we'd go through all these different towns. But yeah, there's always that running alongside the actual songs.
Do you plan on doing anything further with those screenplays, as far as actual production?
Yeah, the idea is to do the feature film. It just sort of needs to be done in its own time with the proper director. Kind of a big deal, making a movie. [Laughs]
That's a big project.
Yeah, but that was always the way we approached it. You know, screenplay, three acts, it sort of always seemed to work well for us.
Doesn't seem like you guys ever take much downtime.
Yeah, I think me and Nick try to outdo each other. [Laughs]
In the spirit of competition, you've done some cool stuff, though! And you've been working with some big names, co-writing for Beyonce, Jay Z, Tinie Tempah.
It's just like that old quote, "Always work with people that are better than you." You know, to understand what vortex these artists run in. It's all a lot quicker and on a different sort of scale, a universal scale. You pick up all these lessons that you can't be taught anywhere. When I did vocals for the Jay Z project, it was like, "We need vocals in 24 hours. Can you get to New York?" You know, you've got to work quick, you've got to understand that it has to be fast.
What makes you decide what you write for other people? And what you keep for yourself?
Lately, I'll write a theme for a song and it might be completely obvious, like something that Rihanna would sing. So that's the kind of liberating part is that you can step into their shoes, and kind of, like, become Rihanna for the time that it takes to write the song. I guess that's why I'm slightly envious of actors, because they get to live all these different characters throughout their lives. They're not just one person. I've discovered that I can do that with songwriting. I can speak what they feel.
That's interesting. Actors must learn a lot about themselves through living other lives. Do you think you can say the same thing about yourself? Have you learned about yourself as a songwriter or just as a person through writing for other people?
Yeah, I think so! You start bringing out the best in things and you've got to dig deep and feel someone else's voice. You can't hide behind abstraction or distortion.
With this new album, you seem to be moving toward a more radio-friendly sound. Was that always the goal?
Yeah, you've got to progress. It says it in the Bible, progress is the law of heaven. It's like, as much as we're just artists, we're also teachers and leaders. We have experience. We're gonna take all that along for the ride.
You've previously said that you can have a great song, but if it doesn't have the right "flavor or impulse or texture to it," it doesn't fit into the Empire world. How do you judge if a new composition works?
It really is like an unspoken thing. We just kind of know. It's like standing in twilight or the first beam of light through a door. It's just that time when you look at each other and know, "That's it." It's like joy or happiness. You don't have to explain it. It's love. It's that moment when all worlds collide. It's perfect.
Sounds very transcendental.
You've also mentioned how you wish you could just "be Kanye," speaking to his "nakedness" and ability to put it all out there. What is stopping you?
Umm ... I don't know! I think I do do that, but there's just certain parts of you, certain things that people aren't meant to hear yet. [Laughs]
I guess there's a time for everything. I grew up in a blues club, so I feel like maybe to become a blues man, I need to be able to see more. I think as the years go on, you start to dig deeper, you know? It's like a process to bring more out, be more honest.
Well, I've always felt that there seemed to be an inherent fearlessness in what you've done since the beginning.
Yeah, true! That's good to know, yeah! Now that I think of it more, we kind of just about end up in the mental hospital every record.
Empire of the Sun. As part of Ultra Music Festival 2014. Saturday, March 29, 2014. Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $399.95 plus fees via ultratix.ticketfreak.com. Visit ultramusicfestival.com.
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