Photo: Courtesy of Josh Louge
Australian electropop duo Empire of the Sun first appeared in 2008 with a slick sound and penchant for sci-fi-inspired theatricality. Now, five years after the band's debut, Nick Littlemore and Luke Steele have returned with a new record and doubled down on the group's stadium-sized hooks and space-opera storyline. The result is Ice on the Dune, an even more fully realized SciFi epic than its predecessor, complete with a storyline involving the King of Shadows and a stolen crown jewel.
We caught up with Nick, the band's studio-bound half, before his partner Luke heads to Bonnaroo. Over the course of our talk, Nick tells us about Empire of the Sun's new record, the band's creative process, and the next chapter in the duo's interstellar saga.
Ice on the Dune is out June 18, and you can pre-order it now via iTunes.
Where are we calling you today?
"I'm in L.A. Just sitting in a hammock in the garden looking up at some avocado trees, laying the shade."
That sounds great.
"[Laughs] Yeah, it's good."
So, tell us about the new record. Five years is a long time between the albums.
"Well we thought it was time to get back together and do something. Luke had been on the road for about three years, and I had been doing other things. We never saw this as a band in the traditional sense. It was more like a dream factory. We could come with any ideas — musical ideas or not, just great ideas — and we would develop them, try things, and explore."
What ideas have inspired the album?
"We learned a lot in the process of being apart. There's a lot to write about even with that. Historically, people have written about this concept of 'tyranny of distance,' if you like. Even just with that, we had a lot to discuss."
Did you feel a lot of pressure, considering the success of Walking on a Dream?
"We knew it was going to be hard to tackle a sophomore excursion coming across a record that had no anticipation behind it. We had just made it in a little workshop in Sydney. For it to go out and really have its own life around the world and come back in such a wonderful way back to us…we'd never had such success or anything like that. We knew it was going to be difficult to follow it up. No matter what, the music is why we get together, and it's always going to be the reason we come back together."
Why are the visual elements so important to your music?
"Like I was saying before, we don't see this as just a normal entity. We've always been interested in film, telling stories, characterizations, just dreaming up magical worlds. We always felt that music was only 50% — that you needed to have that visual element. It helped bring the listener further into the dream. People can subscribe to the colors we see, or the images in our videos, or not. You can hear it at 3 a.m. on a country road on the radio and it can hit you in the same way that a Police song might hit you. It can live in so many worlds, but we felt that we wanted to represent it out the gate with so much vibrancy and color, because the music, to us, that's what it looks like."
Was SciFi a big part of your childhood?
"For me it was more escapism as a concept. The idea of other worlds, other possibilities, other realities that could exist. I remember as a 10 or 12 year old with a group of friends we'd go into imaginary realities like these things. We weren't like Dungeons and Dragons kids — you can't peg us as that group in the schoolyard. We weren't trekkies either. But there were certain films that really resonated with us like Blade Runner. That's a little dystopic, but I like imagining something that might one day be realized."
How do you divide your roles in the project?
"There are so many facets. Luke and I will get together, and we'll write the songs with a couple of our collaborators. And then other people will come into the mix. But conceptually, I do most of the writing and the text, and we develop the stories together. Often, we'll write a treatment and then write a song based on a treatment."
Your new video for "Alive" has some amazing costumes and set pieces. Can you tell us a little bit about the story behind it?
"There is a basic story which is that the King of Shadows steals the jewel from this crown and runs away to the cave of sorrows, which is on the other side of the planet. It turns the world into turmoil. Trees uproot themselves and bury their heads in the sand. The whole world goes topsy-turvy. The sky opens up. And we set out on a treacherous journey. Luke has lost a lot of his power; he's aging very quickly and getting sick. We meet some of our friends along the way like the swordfish and the hawk. There's a much bigger story, when you come in on the video it's just a little chunk of it."
The songs on Dune are even bigger pop songs than Walking on a Dream in some ways. Was that a conscious decision going into the studio?
"To us, it really felt like we were making this album for America. This time around we really did set our sights on something we could play here and could be celebrated in the States. The music that has led us most of our lives has come from America. And movies, the story telling, a lot of what we grew up with comes from the States. It's something we wanted to take really seriously, finding that sound that's been so elusive to us. I'm not saying we nailed that, but it's certainly part of what we wanted to achieve."
You have a lot of festivals coming up soon. What else is coming up next for you guys?
"We'll be in Peru shooting a new video that is going to be really exciting. And we're actually already writing our next record. We wanted to come hot off the heels of this one. We wanted to keep the momentum going. We're just going to keep going."
Will that continue the same storyline?
"At this point we've gone about midway with the story. We've collaborated with a few screenwriters. We're looking at a larger film or a context in which we can tell a bigger story. We've also talked bout doing it as a stage production. Not like Cirque [du Soleil], but not unlike it."