As they demonstrated last week at London’s Roundhouse – where they previewed new material from upcoming third album ‘Two Vines’ – Empire of the Sun just don’t do boring shows. Frontman Luke Steele (aka Emperor Steele) switches the headpieces and robes of his imperial regalia several times. He cavorts in front of mad psychedelic visuals alongside four lycra-clad dancers. He’s liable to smash up a guitar or two by the show’s end, at which point classical music plays, a list of credits rolls up the screen, and the audience returns to the dimension they call home.
Given their showmanship, it’s not surprising that the Aussie duo are huge fans of Bowie, Prince and Fleetwood Mac, and they’ve been lucky enough to work with musicians affiliated with all of those acts on new album ‘Two Vines’. Fleetwood Mac’ Lindsey Buckingham himself plays on album closer ‘To Her Door’. “It’s such a beautiful time as a band with such powerful messages to be working with someone who’s such a huge part of your imagination,” says Nick Littlemore, Steele’s partner in crime.
“An artist needs to have a concept of confidence, and the other way round: clear concept of confidence, clear confidence of concept.”
As well as Buckingham, there’s also Prince’s guitarist, Wendy Melvoin, who “had the final piece of the puzzle” for their album track ‘Ride’, says Luke. Members of David Bowie’s Blackstar band – Tim Lefebvre and Henry Hey – were already part of the mix when news of Bowie’s death spread across the world in January 2016.
“We were in Hawaii when we found out about Bowie’s ascension to the next dimension,” explains Nick, “and we left the studio with an overwhelming feeling of electricity – and really beauty – as though everyone in the world was listening to Bowie at that time. He had a really strong influence on us all the way through. When we first created the band it was looking to artists like Bowie – these icons who didn’t just get up and play, but they dressed up and helped the audience imagine to an extraordinary extent.”
Hawaii was where ‘Two Vines’ was recorded. The album has an environmental message based on a fantastical hypothesis: what if nature, or the kingdom of plants, reclaimed cities from mankind? “Nick started talking about this image of vines growing up from the ground and overtaking the city at the end of the last record,” explains Luke. “You’d wake up in the morning and your car, street poles and things would be wrapped in vines.”
Their month among the Pacific archipelago’s “gargantuan flora” was spent in an idyllic routine: walking and surfing during the day, and recording at night. “It might actually be the definition of paradise,” says Nick. Even the banyan tree outside their Hawaii hotel felt in line with their album’s concept. “It drops vines that go down, grow into the ground, and back up again. It seemed like a microcosm of the whole earth right there in one tree.”
“With Luke it’s like the sound of the universe, in the sense that it really is infinite and it’s constantly surprising.”
Nick and Luke are well versed in their environmental message, explaining how the current Anthropocene geological period is seeing, for example, mining companies tearing up Australian farmland – but they see hope in a restorative image of plant life. Milan is somewhere Nick cites positively: “A lot of new buildings are going up, and there seems to be a movement towards green buildings that have plants hanging all the way up to the top. I love it.”
The new music itself has a less obviously green message, but it is otherworldy, and like their album covers, it’s fairly psychedelic too. “Let’s get together and forget all the troubles and just float,” chants Steele on first single ‘High and Low’, which nods knowingly to “Alice D“. On the title track, he pictures “Two vines slowly growing right into your ears” – an imaginary and epiphanic experience that’s rather like The Matrix, but courtesy of Mother Nature rather than evil machines.
One track on the new album, ‘There’s No Need’, stands out from the others because Luke’s airy vocals sound like they could be someone else’s entirely. “Every record we come up with new characters,” Luke explains. “For ‘There’s No Need’, it was one I found in Hawaii.” He doesn’t elaborate further, but Nick jumps in: “The thing about starting this band and getting Luke – it’s like finding the rarest instrument in the world. There’s only one of them but the thing about this instrument, it doesn’t just do one sound: it’s infinite. It’s such a privilege to be able to write for and work with it and conjure this magic together because really with Luke it’s like the sound of the universe, in the sense that it really is infinite and it’s constantly surprising.”
“We do go out there in the world with the intent of putting back a positive message, putting a beacon of light back into the world.
The pair are similarly cosmic when discussing their biggest headline show to date, last year at the 17,500-capacity Hollywood Bowl. “With the people that have graced the stage,” says Nick, “such a tremendous amount of resonance runs through you. I was in Israel for Christmas a few years ago, and I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where they say Jesus’ manger is. There’s a star there on the ground and when you reach down and touch it, you feel almost like all life and love run through you. I’m sure Luke had a similar feeling when he was on stage that night, when you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.” Luke adds: “It’s like an eternal feeling.”
Even at smaller shows, though, Empire of the Sun do nothing by half-measures live. There’s a degree of confidence to their performances that’s captivating, and when we discuss Kanye West’s ever-evolving 2016 album ‘The Life Of Pablo’, their own comments about the rapper’s artistic boldness could apply just as aptly to their own live show, which they hope to make into a film one day: “I like his confidence, ” says Nick. “It’s what an artist needs to have. There needs to be a concept of confidence, and the other way round: clear concept of confidence, clear confidence of concept.”
Bored by the prevalence of virtual-reality chat in 2016, Luke asks, “What happened to reality? Is it that boring that everyone’s gotta wear goggles? There’s always limitations with the live show but we’re trying to make it as magical and exciting to the eye and ear as possible. We’re just part ambassadors of modern imagination I guess.”
Their fans are loyal, and their response is always fervent. They dress up as Nick and Luke, calling themselves Empirians. They send emails thanking the band for getting them through tough times. “What could be more purposeful as an artist than to help people through difficult times?” asks Nick. “I know that as a teen music was so important and it defined me and it helped me – it helped me understand things that I couldn’t communicate.
“These people that we’ve held up on high – our heroes,” he continues, “they’re musical, as well as painters, writers, directors. At best they are helping humanity through, it’s a very humanist export. We do go out there in the world with the intent of putting back a positive message, putting a beacon of light back into the world.”
So what do they think their new album will give fans? “A kind of mindfulness,” says Nick. “It’s a kind of natural medicine. That’s really what we’re trying to do. There’s a line that we had on the first album – “healing scars with my guitar” and it’s really what it’s about. We’re witch doctors, or shamans of a new belief.”
‘Two Vines’ is released October 28 on Virgin EMI