Luke Steele is joking, I think, unless he’s pumping me for make-up money. Aussie electro-pop duo Empire of the Sun are about to hit the festival circuit, and their frontman – a guy who dresses like a sci-fi Liberace – is under pressure to out-flounce their last live show. It’s a tall order, given that what the band came up with to accompany their debut album was nuttier than a squirrel’s toothpick: if their stage dancers weren’t dressed as human disco balls, they’d be throwing shapes as sexy swordfish. Now, 18 months since their last live date and with a wildly uplifting new record to draw from, Steele is plotting ways to blast Wilderness festival into disco heaven.
‘The stage is bigger and there’s a lot more smoke,’ he gushes enthusiastically. ‘We’ve still got our massive visual wall at the back, but I want to make it 3D and interactive. Do you know that scene from “Back to the Future 2” where the shark jumps out of the screen?’ Before there’s time to discuss marine predators lurching out at the boutique festival crowd, Steele is off again with some descriptors: ‘Sexy and wild and explosive and bangin’. The absolute best I can achieve with a couple of hundred grand’.
Empire of the Sun get away with behaving like ‘fruitcakes’ (Steele’s description) because their tunes are so damn good. ‘Walking on a Dream’ (2008) went gold off the back of two hit singles – the album title track, and ‘We Are the People’ – but their follow-up is more consistently satisfying. ‘Ice on the Dune’ is a cosmic disco record that feels warm, joyous and slightly wistful: like the last weekend in August. ‘It’s a reflection of the audiences we attracted with the first album,’ Littlemore explains. ‘We wanted to make something worthy of the love we received. It’s been such a wild ride from making a record quite effortlessly in Sydney all those years ago to where we are now. You know, we used to talk about stuff like moving to New York and meeting Jay-Z. And then it happened! The power of positive thinking is remarkable.’
Littlemore met Steele through a mutual friend in 2000, and was instantly seduced by his strangeness. ‘At the time, Luke would always be carrying around this suitcase, and you never knew what might be inside: it could be full of keys or lightbulbs or wine corks.’ Thirteen years later, Littlemore admits Steele is ‘still a mystery’: he even has no idea why Steele named the album ‘Ice on the Dune’. ‘It’s just one of Luke’s amazing phrases,’ he reasons.
The odd couple’s bond is strong, though, even surviving a rocky patch in 2009 when Littlemore went awol for six months. ‘Nick’s just like that. He’ll head to an island or something and disappear,’ Steele shrugs. Nor does he mind that Littlemore won’t be touring with him: ‘We’re still married – we just sleep in different beds.’ Imagine Mick letting Keith off the hook like that!
But being the sole boss on tour comes at a cost. Steele admits he gets ‘pretty full-on with every aspect of the show: from wardrobe to visuals to front-of-house to sound’. He even adopts the old James Brown policy of fining band members who miss their wake-up calls. So, does Steele live like a monk on the tour bus so he can party like a rockstar onstage? Not exactly... ‘Before every tour, I vow I’m gonna be the healthy guy who heads straight back to the hotel and is tucked up in pyjamas watching “Dumb and Dumber” by 11.30pm. But it never happens! The comedown is too hard. When you’ve just finished playing to 50,000 people, who wants to celebrate with a blueberry juice?’