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Band Notes: Empire of the Sun

Nick Littlemore of the glam-pop duo talks musical legacies, remixing Lady Gaga, and, of course, those costumes.

Empire of the Sun: Nick Littlemore (left) and Luke Steele. Photograph by Josh Louge.

You might be more familiar with Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore in the guise of their stage alter-egos, the Emperor and the Prophet. The Australian duo’s first album, 2008’s Walking on a Dream, went gold in the US, and the lead single from 2013’s Ice on the Dune, “Alive,” has been in constant rotation all summer, despite Rolling Stone’s description of the album as a “lobotomy on the dance floor.” Their happy-go-lucky, electronica-tinged dance tunes may not have the most complex of lyrics (sample: “Lost my eyesight/can’t you help me see”), but when combined with their utterly over-the-top performances—complete with headdresses, face paint, and backup dancers dressed like space aliens—they achieve a sort of ridiculous decadence that pushes their music beyond typical pop, harking back (intentionally) to larger-than-life icons like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury.

Also unusual about Empire: One half of the pair, Littlemore—also the frontman of the dance band Pnau—does not go on tour. Littlemore called us from California, where Empire is now based, before the band’s two shows at 9:30 Club this weekend to talk about his decision to skip the touring shows, the purpose of the costumes, and the musical legacy he hopes to leave behind.

What made you decide not to do any of the touring shows?

It was very convoluted. I guess [touring is] really Luke’s thing. When we first came on the scene in 2008 and started getting offered some shows, we kept saying no to them because we had 30 minutes of music and they wanted 90-minute shows. Then I got a job offer from Cirque du Soleil, so I worked at the circus for about a year, and Luke was on the road. I like writing and creating more than the touring; I guess everyone is different.

So what can you tell me about your songwriting process?

It’s different every time. I think most songwriters tend to approach things from different angles, to try to trick themselves into a new idea. Sometimes we try to start from text, some kind of musical element, a beat or a drumbeat or a bass; rarely do we start with a melody. Things come out of the minutiae of what’s being created around it. We both write melodies, and it’s very collaborative; writing sessions are very free, which can be quite frustrating, introducing new ideas without finishing or encapsulating one to completion. It does feel a bit like a hippie camp, with people throwing ideas around—it feels quite wayward.

How has your sound developed from your first record to your second?

I’d say the first record was much more heavily directed by Peter [Mayes, an Empire producer and fellow Pnau member] and me. With this record, Luke’s been on the road a lot more, and it’s more empirical, for want of a better term. The harder-edged sound you feel on this record is coming more from Luke’s wishes and aspirations, while the first is probably a bit closer to what we originally set up to do: like a cassette your older brother made for you and you found that has all your favorite tunes from your childhood. It lives right now in this moment in time. It has a place—now, or it could be the future.

And how did the idea for the costumes and visuals come about?

We’re both quite visually minded, and we were excited about doing something that was truly different. When we looked around the landscape, there weren’t many people who were dressing in an extraordinary fashion—everyone seemed cookie-cutter hip-hop or pop, and we didn’t feel so much creativity going on there. Bowie and Daft Punk, they’d really make that extra effort to have the image and personage, and we wanted to do something people could really believe in. It wasn’t just songs we were proud of—we wanted the full leap, a complete vision.

Do you have visuals in mind when you’re writing songs?

Definitely. I think it really helps us to visualize, but very rarely does the image line up with what we see in our heads. It’s a lot easier to dream than it is to make things that look like your dreams. We’re very led by story and by image, as I think most people are; you can get a lot of things from a still photograph or from a scene.

What do you hope people get from it?

I see it like Persephone taking people to the underworld, like a telegraph to the afterlife. We bring them into our music, and all the mysticism and crazy costumes begin the dream quicker. You see a giant emperor standing on the corner and think, “I’m not sure where I am.” That slightly off-balance feeling can give you a new approach to it.

Principally the music I’ve been involved in is to lift people up and make them feel good, even if in the process I don’t feel good, if I’m dealing with a subject matter that’s heavy or whatever else. It’s like a bolt of blue lightning. Music to me is always about communication and positivity and aspiration and moving things forward; it’s a life, not a death.

When you’re in that costume, is that you or a whole new character you’ve created?

I think it’s pretty much me. I’m pretty demure, I’m maybe not as crazy, and my outfit hasn’t changed since we started. The new video—you haven’t seen it because we just shot it . . . but when we first shot in Shanghai and in Mexico I did kind of feel like people were staring at me, like, “I don’t understand what is going on here.” But now everyone kind of knows what’s going on, so it feels quite normal to be in the costume.

Is there a major goal for your musical career as a whole?

I’d like to write classical music when I’m older, and be like Sibelius and live in the hills or the Black Forest. I don’t know about legacy—if it matters or if it doesn’t, or if in a thousand years we’ll be known of or whether that’s even something people think about anymore. You make a good life out of the music you make, and put your best foot forward—that’s what music’s all about. Most of my life is pretty messy, pretty out of control, but there are those rare moments where I can make it perfect. I used to make films when I was a kid—not like Spielberg did as a kid—but I’ve always been interested in doing more filmic things. It was never enough just to write songs; we wanted them to be bigger and have legs and run away from us.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m in another band called Pnau, and we did an album last year, Elton John vs. Pnau. For Empire, at the moment we’re doing a remix of Lady Gaga. We’ve never done a remix, but she asked us. They wouldn’t even give us a copy of it; it felt very like we were in a spy movie or something. We’ve already started the new record, and we’re talking to Farrelly brothers about scoring their new film Dumb and Dumber 2. [The original] is Luke’s favorite film of all time, so it could not be a bigger moment for Luke.

Next for us . . . I should have a great answer for that. Luke is touring all over the place; I don’t pay attention to where he’s touring exactly. I’m making a new album with Ladyhawke called Pnau vs. Ladyhawke; I haven’t told anyone about that, but it’s quite far along now. If you remember the Pnau song “Embrace,” it’s leading off from there but making a whole record about it.

I really want to finish new [Empire] album before the end of the year and have it all done. Luke and I got the idea for a record as a prequel, taking ourselves back to childhood and how we came to be the Emperor and Prophet that stand before you today. It’s a feeling like a Spielberg kind of movie, all about our own stories and our own lives, going into the bush behind our house, creating other worlds, imaginations and machinations of growing up in Australia and in the wild.

We’re excited to kick off in America. This summer is going to be an endless one, so we’re just looking for more opportunities and more ways to play for cool crowds. We’ve been working a notebook for Empire that we’re gonna be selling at the shows, with lots of bits of text and illustrations and lyrics. The journey is continuing. It’s a good day in the world.

Empire of the Sun play 9:30 Club Sunday, September 1, and Monday, September 2, at 7 PM. Tickets are sold out.