An Interview with Empire of the Sun: Luke Steele talks working alongside Lindsey Buckingham and Two Vines origins

Empire of the Sun

“You’re sort of going into the wilderness, you know, into the unknown. You have to weigh up is it really worth it sometimes to sell a few records. But I guess that’s just the nature of rock ‘n’ roll…you’re in the danger zone.”

As one of the last great visually theatrical bands of the 00’s, electronic duo Empire of the Sun have taken up the mantle in being the most stunning audiovisual experience at every festival or city they arrive to perform at. The extravagant brainchild of Australian friends and collaborators Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore, the band globalized its synthesizer-saturated glam-rock sound with the release of the single “Walking on a Dream” back in 2008, a song that has become a radio staple and gateway drug to the band’s fantasia of sounds ever since. But for anyone who’s had a chance to stand in the crowd and witness Empire of the Sun perform live, it’s glaringly obvious that their music is just one of the many ways Steele and Little more devise for you to absorb their odd and magnificent worlds. Armed with his guitar, wearing what’s been referred to as his “Ming the Merciless” robes and a large golden headpiece, from the moment Steele walks out on stage to the moment he’s carried off (after smashing his guitar to bits) you’re not just given a concert–you’re treated to an entirely sensory experience.

With the release of last year’s Two Vines however, Steele has made indications that the group would be changing up their live experience–pushing themselves to become even more experimental in the ways that they filter their music to fans at a concert.

“We’re definitely trying to change things a lot more than what we used to. We used to rehearse like a show, kind of like a theater–but we’re trying to get a bit more experimental with our visuals, adding 3D elements and things like that,” Steele explained. “The first time I designed a show I was trying to design it like a real-time movie, so it basically walks through a whole kind of adventure onstage. It’s probably sort of hard to see that when you’re watching. But that in a way often dictates certain scenes and different places you go.”

With a creatively lush act like Empire of the Sun that sees its central players enlisting any number of dancers and performers to join them on the stage, Steele asserts that its the submergence of himself into close collaboration with other artists that enriches and benefits the band the most. In designing the aesthetics for their shows he cites his girlfriend Jodi “Snappy Dolphin” as a central figure, while a friend–who’s called “Dragon,” because of course he is– who is a genius metalworker and samurai fighter according to Steele creates his headpieces. Then for Two Vines, the duo tapped the likes of Lindsey Buckingham, Wendy Melvoin, and members of David Bowie’s Blackstar recordings to join them in the studio; an experience Steele had trouble finding the words to describe because it was so surreal.

“It’s really hard to explain working with someone like Wendy and Lindsey–it’s like you’ve stepped into a different dimension, you know?” Steele said carefully, pausing to find the right words. “You know like when you’re in an airplane you go through the clouds and once you get past the clouds it’s like everything’s made of candy or gold. It’s a strange feeling sitting there playing with Lindsey Buckingham. We always love collaborating, it’s another way to learn and continue honing how to write songs.”

Steele himself is no stranger to the collaborative nature of the business. Empire of the Sun itself was founded on the duo’s similar interests and since then Steele has been proactive in creating new projects, while also polishing off old ones, as he’s moved forward.

“Yeah I have like so many other bands, you know like I’ve been a new record for Sleepy Jackson that’s about half-way through, I have a pretty good band with Daniel Johns and I’m always writing. There’s always stuff that’s bubbling but Empire is like this ginormous, oversized jumbo train that’s just going full steam ahead,” Steele says almost humorously, but he’s being anything but hyperbolic.

“But yeah, definitely have some big projects roll out in the next few years. I was sort of talking to Lindsey about that, you know you have the big machine and the little machine–and that’s sort of what it’s been the last few years, Empire and other projects.”

The focus has undoubtedly always been Empire of the Sun, it’s the mechanism that’s allowed both Steele and Littlemore the means to reach an audience that spans the globe and has become something of a phenomenon in the performance art niches of music. There’s very little that seems trite or exaggerated with their shows, the spectacle itself doesn’t overshadow their music in an evocative attempt to be heard through their outlandishness–instead, it compliments it and accentuates it.

With their new album Two Vines, the duo continues to hold steadfast in their synth-bathed sound, the most noticeable changes being the cultivated sceneries within which they exist. In contrast to the sci-fi imaginings of Walking on a Dream and the icy tundra of Ice on the Dune, their latest is a tropical ecosystem that their lush sound thrives on. Although recorded in Hawaii and Los Angeles, the inspirations for the album came much earlier and from a more unlikely geographical setting.

“It started originally in Manhattan when we were recording Ice on the Dune, Nick was I think the only guy in New York that had a backyard where he grew a kind of garden. I don’t know how he managed to get this place–maybe through the circus because he was working for them at the time–but he had this giant backyard and had these plants he was always manicuring and watering. But back then he just started talking about how what if these plants just started growing up the buildings and started overtaking the city–Empire State just wrapped in vines with the cars consumed,” Steele explained. “So that was the initial concept when we went to Europe for the Ice on the Dune press trip, for two weeks we just traveled through Europe just talking about songs and concepts and that idea of the vines overtaking the city just kept coming up. So that sort of began it and then once we got to Hawaii there was basically a giant banyan tree outside of our hotel and the branches were pretty much coming into the room.”

Emerging from that paradise this summer and taking Two Vines on a summer tour, Steele isn’t blind to the reservations he’s had about touring across the less-than-utopian landscape that is the world right now. In between their Coachella appearances, they’ll be in Los Angeles at the Shrine Expo Hall and the thought alone evokes fond memories by Steele of the insanity of their last show there in which girls were taking off their tops and people were just so candidly losing their minds. So with that in his mind, diving head first into the tension and gridlock–be it political or social–to Steele, that’s just part of the job.

“You’re sort of going into the wilderness, you know, into the unknown. You have to weigh up is it really worth it sometimes to sell a few records. But I guess that’s just the nature of rock ‘n’ roll…you’re in the danger zone.”

Words: Steven Ward

Empire of the Sun will be making a stop at the Shrine Auditorium on April 19! Grimy Goods is giving away tickets, and you can also purchase them here. Visit their website and Facebook for more details.

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