Holiday Sidewinder, a pop singer and an atheist, once saw angels in an English Catholic church. Nick Littlemore, the wiry electro-shaman in PNAU and Empire of the Sun, has met Buddha in his own backyard. While Sidewinder’s vision came from a sober hallucination, Littlemore’s was a psychedelic flashback.
“You wanted me to actually see [the visions] as positive – not threatening – and explore that,” Sidewinder tells Littlemore in conversation with NME. “That was a transformative experience for me.”
The beauty of hallucination and transcendence sits at the thematic core of ‘Face Of God’, a 22-minute suite of psych rock, fusion, and trip-hop the pair created together over nearly half a decade and released last Friday. It’s Pink Floyd’s ‘Atom Heart Mother’ for the streaming generation, the title track’s chorus illustrating the Möbius strip their phantasmic experiences exist upon: “We’re sheltered from the face of god / We’re left with a reflection”.
The album’s tempo is unchanging, while the lyrics are existential poems ripped from Littlemore’s tour notebooks, interpreted by Sidewinder. The result is a declaration of transcendent, timeless love, though an undertow of impending global doom remains. “Who’s gonna hold the fort when there’s no one left?” Sidewinder caws on single ‘Into The Universe’, imagining escape from an uninhabitable earth.
“We need a soundtrack to the end of the planet,” Sidewinder says. Littlemore agrees: “I always tell my wife, when the world goes to shit, it’s gonna look really good. If you look at sunsets when there’s shit in the sky, it looks amazing.
“Whilst music isn’t gonna save the planet, it’s a good soundtrack for the one that’s disintegrating.”
On Zoom with NME, Sidewinder’s camera blinks to life as she sips an iced tropical drink, reclining in a deck chair in Koh Samui, Thailand. As she spins her webcam around, the cyan-blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand fill the pixelated screen. How did the Sydney songwriter get past the drawbridge of Fortress Australia?
“I can’t afford to live in Sydney, London or Los Angeles anymore,” Sidewinder explains. “My visa has run out everywhere and getting back to Australia is a total nightmare… I’m just living on rambutans and papaya.”
Littlemore calls in from a studio room in Marrickville, Sydney, often picking up a microphone or fidgeting with dials while not engaged in conversation. Holiday Sidewinder, as Littlemore matter-of-factly puts it in our chat, is the “progeny of hippies”: she was born to country singer Lo Carmen and set-builder Jeremy Sparks, her godfather is actor Noah Taylor, her step-mother is actress Claudia Karvan, and her maternal grandfather is pianist Peter Head.
Sidewinder looks like an Old Hollywood star – with seemingly poreless skin and platinum blonde hair – professing an old-school belief in the “purity of art”. This doesn’t contradict the sonic aesthetic of her solo music, which sounds like R-rated Carly Rae Jepsen. Her 2019 debut solo album ‘Forever Or Whatever’ made maximalist synth pop the backdrop to a manifesto of 21st century free love – funded in part by the sale of her worn underwear.
Sidewinder first met Littlemore when she was 15 years old, already the frontwoman of avant-teen group Bridezilla (“They sounded like smack rock, except none of them were junkies,” Littlemore says). She sang for Sydney band Mercy Arms on an EP Littlemore was producing.
“I met a bald, toothless Nick,” Sidewinder giggles. “I was around a bunch of young 20-year-old dudes that were kind of assholes. Nick was just this total angel who loved my voice and was really nice.”
PNAU had just penned ‘Embrace’, one of their biggest hits to date featuring Ladyhawke – who was too busy to tour with them. So, they took Sidewinder instead, with Littlemore as her (unofficial) legal guardian.
“One day, she told me she wanted to make an orchestral record,” Littlemore says. “I filed it away, thinking, ‘If I was ever in a position to make a grandiose record with her, that would be really cool’.”
“Whilst music isn’t gonna save the planet, it’s a good soundtrack for the one that’s disintegrating” – Nick Littlemore
Calendars would be turned over many times before that “orchestral” record became a reality. After the dissolution of Bridezilla, Sidewinder spent a decade in London fashioning a new pop persona, ricocheting from one A&R dinner to another. Littlemore’s intergalactic success vis-à-vis Empire Of The Sun fomented a decampment to Los Angeles, where one day the thought struck him to make good on his promise to Sidewinder.
“Nick wrote to me and was like, ‘Do you want to record? I’ve got a bunch of poems, and I want to do a record in a whole new way: just a continuous stream of music, completely free’,” she recalls.
Turning up to Littlemore’s LA home, Sidewinder was given a stack of his personal journals to turn into lyrics. “I’d just lift little bits, and then add my own,” she says. “I always write all my own lyrics, so this was my first time working with someone else’s work.”
Littlemore downplays the journals’ contents: “Most of [the poems] are pathetic attempts at writing suicide notes. And then there are some bits that rhyme.”
He laughs, but Sidewinder picks up the serious thread. “I think we can both safely say we’re massive depressives,” she says. “Nick was maybe the first person I felt like I could speak about it to in a light-hearted way.”
Aside from nods to imminent apocalypse, however, it’s difficult to see depression in the record’s Garden of Eden. On ‘The Gift’, Sidewinder is giddy with love: “I’d sunken under your skin / I’d never seen so far ahead before”.
“We want to leave a beautiful wake,” Littlemore explains. “Everyone gets dark, but you’re better off listening to something that brings you up, rather than takes you down.”
“How we keep existing is by creating narratives” – Holiday Sidewinder
Writing and initial recording took place over just five days, with Sidewinder pushed to play unfamiliar instruments. After that, she lost sight of the album altogether.
“Nick went away for years. I’m like, ‘How’s that record going?’,” Sidewinder says. “One day, he’d just send me an amazing piece of music I’d never heard with complete structural changes underneath, making it a whole new thing.”
Littlemore had jetted off to New York and met Billy Jay Stein, a Grammy Award-winning composer best known for the Carole King musical Beautiful. Stein reworked the material, and then it sat – for years.
“Holiday kept hassling me in the nicest possible way,” Littlemore says. “Then I was like, ‘Well, fuck it’. I went back to New York, pulled together a really good band, and re-tracked the whole record again live in one day at Avatar Studios.”
Sidewinder interjects: “I had no idea he was doing this!”
That “really good band” weren’t merely muso mates – they were veterans of NYC’s fusion and disco scenes of the late 1980s, including Nicky Moroch and Doug Yowell. “Oh, and it was mixed by [Gavin McKillop], the guy that did all the Public Image Limited Records,” Littlemore adds.
“You never told me that,” Sidewinder yelps, though Littlemore doesn’t notice. “A friend called me the other day and said, ‘This record sounds really expensive’,” she adds.
“It was, let me tell you.”
‘Face Of God’ was initially conceived as part of Littlemore’s Two Leaves project, a collaborative enterprise where he co-composes and produces with shifting guests. But after its lengthy gestation, they agreed to bill it as a Sidewinder record.
With touring highly unlikely in the medium term, what happens next for the pair is unclear. Sidewinder is an international nomad, currently finishing off another solo record more in line with her first called ‘The Last Resort’. In the last 15 minutes of our 68-minute chat, she forgets any pretense of forward-looking album promotion and opts to expound on artistic practice itself. In the process, Sidewinder muses on religion, conspiracy theorists in Cyprus who only trust in numbers, and the origins of the Christmas story – all to conclude “how we keep existing is by creating narratives”.
“[Personally] I’m trying to create meaning out of nothing. But we should all be trying to create meaning out of nothing, I believe,” she says.
Littlemore has one last rejoinder: “Or maybe, we should be creating nothing out of meaning.”
Holiday Sidewinder’s ‘Face Of God’ is out now via Lab78