Interview: Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele on “Ice on the Dune,” Working With Jay-Z, and His Thoughts on Daft Punk

By Caitlin White

When Empire of the Sun emerged in 2008 with a commanding visual presence and a dark, pulsing synth-based sound, their dominance felt inevitable. Their debut album Walking on a Dream, and the single of the same name became a viral sensation, sweeping beyond the boundaries of radio or television and immersing itself in the feeling of the initial decade of the 2000s. Australian musicians Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore both had previous musical projects, but something about their collaboration as the imaginative, fantastic electronic duo struck a nerve nationally.

After touring their debut album for nearly three years, the Steele and Littlemore are finally releasing new material. Ice on the Dune is the result of worldwide studio sessions in between grueling stints of touring—recorded in Los Angeles, New York, Australia and London, the record reflects the same disparate sounds and styles that made their debut a success. While passing through New York to perform at the Electric Daisy Carnival, Luke took some time out to talk about the new album, his past collaboration with Jay-Z and his thoughts on Daft Punk.

When you and Nick first decided to work together, you’ve described the connection as instantaneous. What do you think it is about your collaboration that works so well?
It was pretty instantaneous. We originally got introduced by a mutual friend, through EMI music and after meeting at a bar we got along and decided to do a session the next day, that’s how it all got started. He came from the dance world and I came from the songwriting world—that’s what was a real excitement for both of us. We’re both art students—he went to fine art school and I went to graphic design school—so we both have those artistic minds, they’re different but that connection is there. It’s like his is an oil painting and mine is a graphic image, or static.

Working with Nick there are no lines drawn. There are no barriers of where the emotion will be summed up, it’s pretty expansive. After ten years of working together it feels like we’re just touching the sides.

What is your favorite part about working together as a duo as opposed to your solo work?
I think it’s infinity of imagination, it really is. Working with Nick there are no lines drawn. There are no barriers of where the emotion will be summed up, it’s pretty expansive. After ten years of working together it feels like we’re just touching the sides.

When “Walking on a Dream” came out, I was in college. It felt like that song was everywhere. Everywhere we went we played that song, we heard that song. What do you think it was about that specific single that caught on so much?
I was just listening to it going, it’s a really profound song. I got married to my wife and the preacher said, “You’re two beings but God brings the glue that makes two people become one.” I was listening to the chorus and it’s just like that. It’s real now, two people become one. It’s only going to get bigger, the song, because the message is so good. It’s so simple, there’s nothing in the song. It’s a drum beat, CS80, bass and the vocal. There’s a little guitar, it’s like a Beatles song you know? It’s really just stripped back to nothing.

So it’s been a while since you guys have put an album out, five years is a decent stretch of time. Was there a reasoning behind the gap?
It’s just what it takes. By the time we got the last record on the road it was late 2008-2009, and we toured it for nearly three years, we toured right up to 2012. So it was about two and a half years touring. And it took like a year and a half to make the record really, we started it while still on the road.

How does that work, writing a record while touring?
I don’t know. It’s kind of hard. You think you can make it work. Almost every tour before I go on the road I think I’m going to go into more studios on the road. You hear about these big acts that book out studios, but you just get so exhausted. Yeah, it’s always like about six months after you get off the road you start thinking about all the places you’ve been, the memories start standing out.

You worked with Jay-Z on a song back in 2009, “What We Talkin’ About” the first song off his album The Blueprint 3. How did that collaboration come about?
His people called me. They just got in touch and said, “We need some vocals, we want you.” They just said, “It needs to be done really quickly. Can you fly out to New York?” I was in Perth and it takes forever to get to New York from Perth. Fly to Sydney, Sydney to L.A., L.A. to New York, and then the time difference. So they just sent me the track and I worked 24 hours straight on it because I knew they were going into mastering. I sent it back, then about four in the morning Jay-Z calls. He says, “I love it.” I was a fan before that, but after that, you become more of a fan because of the relationship.

Do you guys stay in touch? When you’re in New York do you call him?
Not really But, one time I was in Times Square with my wife and my mother-in-law and my daughter in the pram. And Jay-Z just pulled up at the light and (makes snapping into a pointing motion). [Laughs] He just pointed at me and I ran over to him and we had a little catch up. It was so strange.

You helped co-produce and co-write a song for Beyonce’s song “Rather Die Young.” Was that a separate thing?
That was a totally separate thing, I wanted to work with Jeff Bhasker. He’s Kanye West’s music director and a big pop writer and producer. We got together and, that was the first thing we did was write that song together. Yeah, Beyonce was cutting a record so we sent it over and it just happened to be right. I remember writing the lyrics from a clear point of view talking about Jay-Z… “You drive too fast / You smoke too much / You’re my James Dean.”

On the new album, the concept for the title and aesthetics that go along with it, how did you come up with that?
The recording really was around the world, we had a studio in Santa Monica for a while. We did most of the record in America really. We did some down the road at Downtown studios [in New York]. Some at Nick’s, some in London. Some at my place in New Zealand. Miami. Australia. We’d been to a place in L.A. and they were renovating so I was staying in a hotel and I had that backing. It was just like an invisible hummingbird with that lyric and melody came in. Ice on the dune. And no one really knew what it meant. It was like ice on the dune and while we were shooting the first video in that canyon, there were these ginormous dunes with slithers of ice. It was serendipitous like ice on the dune.

The vision of this band, it’s built on imagination, so it comes from studying the samurais in art school to digital graphics, to topography, to filming under the ocean, to oil paintings, anything really.

As far as your visual aesthetics, what are the cultural touchstones you feel that you’re drawing on?
I think it’s genreless. It really is. Anything is inspiration. The vision of this band, it’s built on imagination, so it comes from studying the samurais in art school to digital graphics, to topography, to filming under the ocean, to oil paintings, anything really.

Daft Punk’s album leaked this week. They’re another duo that’s been working in electronic music for a while. What are your thoughts on them?
I don’t know if it’s too much of a contrast. I guess it’s a similar aesthetic with visual being a really big thing and creating caricatures that are beyond what people see in modern entertainment and music. It lives in that other place, wherever people create. Like Kiss, where does Kiss live? I guess it’s up to the individual to build that imaginary world themselves. I don’t really know. They were a big influence, kind of strange this new record where it’s gone, I haven’t heard much of it.

What would be the one thing that you want people to know about this record?
I can’t really answer that. I think the beauty of it is what people get from it. You know, you take people to church and some people go to church and the holy spirit will really hit them and it will run through them. And this poison that’s been in their body is brought out, and pinned on the cross, and they’re forgiven and this weight’s taken off. Other people will come out and be exactly the same. People just need to have an open mind when they listen to music.

What is your favorite track on the album?
Probably “Concert Pitch” for me. That was in the first sessions when we started this new record. We were here, I’d been on the road, I left the studio and just didn’t come back for a couple days. It was like New York City was this ginormous wave that sort of grabbed me and held me under for a couple minutes. And I resurfaced gasping for air, I just had that feeling like your life was that close to being crumbled into sand, and you have this rebirth. Then we went into the studio and that was like those first lyrics, “I don’t want to be so complicated.” It was really special.