Luke Steele tells Scott Kara how some of the magic of NZ has seeped into his duo's latest album
When Luke Steele sits down for dinner with his dear old dad, they talk about the most amazing things. Like where the Emperor, that's Steele's character in psychedelic dance pop duo Empire of the Sun, and his sidekick "prophet", Lord Littlemore (real name Nick Littlemore), are at in terms of their cosmic musical "journey".
The Auckland-born, Perth-raised musician who, when he's not touring, now calls Coromandel home, reckons that's just what the dinner conversation turned to when his father popped over to New Zealand from Perth for Christmas last year.
"He was so fascinated with where the Emperor and his prophet are going. It's now a real thing that has come to life," he says with a chuckle on the phone from Chicago where band are on tour in support of second album Ice on the Dune, released yesterday.
And it's this journey that the album delves into, expanding on 2008's debut Walking on a Dream, which spawned a string of singles including the title track and the soothing yet catchy We are the People.
"Yeah, we just go deeper into what the Empire is about," he says. And brace yourself, because this is where Steele takes off into his own, rather grand Empire of the Sun world. "It's developed to the point where through the power of my crown the Emperor can develop dreams, but the King of Shadows steals my crown, corrupts my dreams and brings chaos to the world. And we set out on a journey across the world to reclaim the headpiece and restore peace."
It sounds high concept, but listening to the album, it's not, and plays out like a fantasy action movie.
That was their intention. "It's like pop songs that have a great heartbeat," he says.
But as well as the fantastic side it also deals with personal issues to do with Steele, rather than the Emperor. The Cars-like Concert Pitch is about a "heavy time" Steele was going through with the pressures of touring, recording a follow-up album, and life in general.
"It was a big crossroads. The cliches of a small-town boy dealing with fame," he says in his casual, Aussie-cum-Kiwi-inflected drawl. "You know, it's that part in the movie where I had to bring it back down to earth a wee bit. It was right in between being on tour, starting the new record in New York, and about to go to Atlanta to work with Usher, and you know, you just wanna take a knife and cut your finger to make you realise where you've come from and where you're going.
"I think that song, after being completely consumed by such a mental city as New York, and nearly not making it through, was like therapy."
It wasn't the only tension that arose in between albums, including rumours the duo had a tiff that resulted in Steele performing solo for a time. He disputes there was any disagreement.
"I come from the songwriting, blues and country world, whereas Nick's from the dance world where it's about sonics, production and impulse. So it's these two worlds colliding. And we push each other pretty hard and the bar keeps rising."
Steele puts the gap between albums down to a number of things. "We finished the first album, we went on the road, I moved to New Zealand, bought a house, and we toured the record for a good two-and-a-half years. That took us up to the end of 2011. And then it took us a f***** year and a half to make the record."
They also have other musical commitments. Steele is a member of alt power-pop band The Sleepy Jackson, and he recently collaborated with former Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns. Meanwhile, Littlemore has been a composer for Cirque du Soleil and last year his electronic dance act Pnau released Good Morning to the Night, a collaboration with Elton John (a fan of Empire of the Sun).
Also adding to the length of time was the fact they recorded in Santa Monica, New York, Miami, London, Sydney and at Steele's studio in Coromandel. "It's so bloody beautiful," he says of his Kiwi base. "But it was a bit of travelling circus. And all the magic happened after dark."
Still, the "sense and smell" of New Zealand also managed to seep into the album. "There's always some kind of euphoric magical adventureland experience that you get when you're there."
Who: Empire of the Sun
New album: Ice on the Dune, out now
Debut album: Walking on a Dream (2008)