By Brian Ives
Empire of the Sun returned this year with their third album, Two Vines. The album’s credits reveal some pretty interesting collaborators this time around, including Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, as well as former members of David Bowie’s and Prince’s bands.
Radio.com spoke to frontman Luke Steele about working with legends, why his partner Nick Littlemore doesn’t perform with Empire of the Sun, and also about Stevie Ray Vaughan – a huge influence on Steele.
Your visuals are very important to the band; talk about making the “High or Low” video.
Yeah. Our videos are a process to make. “High or Low” is kind of like kids discovering the world of Empire, and before they know it, they’re like Alice through the looking glass, stepping through that mirror. With a click of the fingers, imagination has literally gone wild like the jungle, and you’re in another world.
How do you come up with your concepts?
It’s just a lot of brainstorming and exploring. I think there’s always limitations on how far you can go when you talk to a CGI artist and go, “We want my hands to melt and my hair to turn into the jungle.” And then you learn that that one shot is gonna cost more than the whole video. So there’s always that balance with us, but either you have to be a realist and work out what can be ad hoc and look passable, and what we can explore with new technologies. But we’re getting closer to the vision, the moving visions.
People still seem to be coming to terms with David Bowie’s death, all these months later. Was he a big influence on you guys?
Yeah, Bowie’s always been such a strong influence on everything, and a lot of different mediums, from the way he’d act in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence or The Labyrinth, to his fashion, to press shots, to how he’d do record covers, and then obviously to the music, and how he would adopt so many different characters and inventions in the tones of his voice. He’s always a staple in the studio with us.
And some of the guys who have played on his records, are on Two Vines.
Tim Lefebvre [bass player on Bowie’s 2016 album Blackstar] and Henry Hey [who played keyboards on Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day] have been friends of ours for the last few years, and Timmy lives down at the beach, down near Venice, near me, so we’re becoming like neighbors now. Nick and Henry were mates for a while, while Nick was living in New York. Yeah, we’ve just been doing a lot of sessions together over the last few years, and it so happened that Henry worked on Bowie’s Broadway play, Lazarus, and Timmy ended up in the band.
I imagine Prince was a big influence on you, and I know Wendy Melovin worked on the album as well.
Yeah, obviously, Prince and Bowie are in the same category as two of the biggest influences on our music. But Wendy we met pretty much right in the final stages of making the album. We were in the last week of recording at Jim Henson’s studio, and she was there working. We had a song called “Ride” that we’d had for years, been working on for years, had about 8,000 versions of, and it just needed a lift.
And we were speaking to her, and she said, “The thing I love about Empire that it hits you in the heart, but then right when you think that it’s hit that point, there’s maybe a verse, chorus, melody, and it goes even deeper if you put that with the bass line and the chords.” She got on the Rhodes, and came up with some new changes, and that became the final icing on the cake for that song.
You also got Lindsey Buckingham on the record. Talk about that.
Well, it’s just like a moment in time we’ll never forget. Growing up with Fleetwood Mac… so it was just quite strange. We jammed for about six or seven hours all looking at each other like “What is happening here?” Lindsay Buckingham is in the room, and you’re working with a connoisseur of classic heritage, so every move is the right move.
I’ve always thought he’s underrated as a guitar player.
Yeah, as a guitar player, but also a producer. I’ve been in the studio doing the new Sleepy Jackson record — that’s my another band — and our biggest reference album for this record is Lindsay’s Out of the Cradle record from 1992. I asked him the other day, I said, “Do you mind if you come down to the studio, and can I talk to you about some production ideas?” And he came in, and he was like, “I’ll let you know what I can remember.” But it’s amazing, him talking about the production and what he did on that record. He’s an amazing producer.
So you’ve got Empire of the Sun and the Sleepy Jackson and you’re a father. What do you know about time management that the rest of us can learn from?
Good question. I don’t know. Balancing that and this and being married and two kids, I’m still trying to work that out. I got reprimanded the other day. My wife said, “The kids don’t even know you anymore.” Come on, don’t pull that one.
Talk about the effect of having “Walking in a Dream” in a Honda commercial.
Amazing. Sales were up 700 percent. The song went double platinum again, so it sold a couple million copies now, and we got added to American radio pretty much across the board. Yeah, it’s quite amazing, the power of a car commercial. And it’s the most Shazamed commercial in history.
Are new fans surprised when they don’t see Nick performing with the band when you tour?
Yeah, [but] that’s always been the arrangement. Nick, in the studio, is a wizard. I’ve had a few dreams where Nick has had really long, white hair like Moses, and he’s had different Tesla coils set up. I have this dream every now and then. He has different amps in different corners of a giant hall, and he’s directing each sound as it happens. And he’s like that in the studio. The studio is his habitat. [But] You wouldn’t put a polar bear out in Palm Desert.
You obviously take a lot of pride in your guitar playing.
Yeah, I grew up in a blues club, so the more guitar, the better. Now, our live band is Gomez, basically; it’s Ian Ball and Olly Peacock from Gomez. Having such great musicians like that, it’s an exciting time.
Who are your guitar heroes?
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Lindsey Buckingham.
How did you get into that kind of music?
My dad was the president of the Perth Blues Club for twenty years. So when I first started playing guitar I would pretty much hang out at this blues club since I was 13. Every second guy that comes through the door is trying to be Stevie Ray Vaughan. They’ve all got their version of “Pride and Joy” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” You can’t escape Stevie. Such a great player.
What does your dad’s friends think of you?
I always wonder what they think, ’cause the blues club’s filled with old blues rockers, so they probably look at me a bit strange. There’s a flamboyancy going on.
But that’s the thing; you can’t worry. You have to have unshakable confidence. That’s what I always say to my kids, you gotta have confidence. What if I worried about what people thought of me? I would’ve been finished 15 years ago.