The dark side of the sun
Empire of the Sun’s Nick Littlemore tells Ed Power about the demons that caused him to run away from the band and join the circus
If you are spending time with Empire of the Sun's Nick Littlemore, buckle up because it's going to get dark. “I have quite a remarkable ability to disappear at the drop of a hat,” proclaims the musician in his jittery Sydney twang.
“I have done it to my parents. To my brothers. To my friends. To my loved ones. I feel it coming on right now. I like being alone. I crave it more than anything on the planet.”
In person, Littlemore (35) gives off a vibe that is precisely the opposite of the transcendent, sun-dappled electronic pop he makes as one half of Empire of the Sun, a sometimes troubled alliance with The Sleepy Jackson's Luke Steele.
No stranger to the therapist's couch, he speaks slightly too quickly, as is the fashion among those who are perpetually skating on their nerves , and in weirdly grandiose tones, as if all the words were meant to be read in capital letters.
His life has been pockmarked by periods of deep unhappiness, he will tell you.
An unhappiness he worries might return at any moment.
He plunges into a discussion of suicide but quickly rows back, fearing he's given too much away. He appears somewhat stressed — surely not unrelated to the fact that Empire of the Sun today release their second album, Ice On The Dune.
As with their 500,000-selling 2008 debut Walking On A Dream, it is gloriously bonkers, a manic coda to universal peace and love equal parts influenced by John Lennon's Double Fantasy and the early 1980s fantasy movies of Muppet creator Jim Henson.
The biggest surprise is that the LP exists at all. Shortly after Walking On A Dream was released, Littlemore cut off contact from Steele and dropped of the face of the planet.
The latter wanted to tour, having in mind a live show as deliriously OTT as the duo's record sleeves and videos. With his songwriting partner suddenly in absentia he wasn't sure how to proceed. When I spoke to Steele in 2010, shortly before he took a Littlemore-free Empire of the Sun to Oxegen, he confessed his ongoing bafflement. He hadn't see or heard from Littlemore in months. For all he knew, he could be dead.
“It is a delicate thing, working with me,” says Littlemore. “There was a hiatus period. Luke felt we should bring it on the road. I ran away with the circus [he had a stint as a composer with Cirque Du Soleil] .
“Sometimes you need to run away and be alone and find that mindfulness and that centre within yourself — and then come back to a place of resonance and joy.”
In moments of pressure, Littlemore tends to lapse into this sort of unexpurgated tree-hugger speak. In response to a question about the huge investment Empire of the Sun have put into their costumes and videos, he will later declare: “We're not here to make money, we are here to make love”.
He apparently means every word.
Looking at the world in cosmic hippy terms might appear a highly eccentric coping mechanism, but it seems to get Littlemore through the day. When, for instance, Empire of the Sun started catching flack for their alleged debt to MGMT (a superficial reading, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of their music) Steele was understood to be annoyed. Littlemore saw a bigger picture — a picture featuring ley lines, interstellar brotherhood and group hugs.
“As you probably know, records get made a year in advance,” he says.
“We probably made our record at the same time as MGMT. I would like to think that, in some ways, we were connected — through the ley lines, through the synchronicity.”
Though he appears to have enjoyed working with Cirque Du Soleil, there were dark moments too. Of all people, he thanks Elton John for pulling him away from the brink. Having struck up a friendship with the crooner through his Pnau electro project (they have remixed and col
laborated with Elton), Littlemore found that, when he really needed someone, the Rocketman singer was there for him. He speaks of Elton as you would of a kindly, beloved uncle.
“He has become a dear friend of mine and mentored me through all kinds of trials and tribulations in my life, both personally and professionally,” says Littlemore.
“It is such a privilege. You think . . . why did he choose me, why? I am not worthy. He has changed my life for the better. “
After walking out without warning, it would not have surprised Littlemore that Steele never wanted to work with him again.
Fortunately, his partner was ready to forgive and to reboot Empire of the Sun.
Eighteen months ago they had a tearful reconciliation in New York.
They went for dinner, cried a little, hugged and made up. The next day, the pair convened at Visionary Media, a recording studio run for and by blind people in Chelsea (both are fully sighted), and started writing.
“We are very close,” Littlemore. “Of course as, with all my close relationships, I am not the easiest guy to be around. I am very lucky to have some very wise and patient and generous people such as Luke in my life.” He sighs, and falls briefly silent.
“I can be quite overly sensitive and childish. Maybe I should man the fuck up.”
Rather than attempt to reinvent their singular aesthetic, with Ice On the Dune Littlemore and Steele have doubled down on first principles.
The new LP feels like an IMAX-scale revisiting of Walking On A Dream.
While the lush melodies and sci-fi imagery are still there, now the choruses are bigger, the sonic landscapes vaster.
“On the first one, we cut a pretty mean frame,” says Littlemore. “We were surprised at the response we received. We didn't want to shy away from that. There is something [unique] about the music we make together — the colour, the light, the childlike quality.
“There are a lot of fantastical backdrops.
“Ultimately, however, we are talking about something quite human — something everyone on the planet goes through.
“That idea you are not quite good enough or that life is too hard. We want to put a shot of blue lightning into every person on the planet.
“To say that nothing is beyond you. Whatever your age and persuasion, you can do remarkable things.”
Empire of the Sun's uplifting music is informed by a lifetime of angst. They aren't the only group to lurch between happy and sad.
Two days after speaking to Day & Night about his uplifting new LP, Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos tried to jump off a flyover in New York. With the help of friends and a careful touring regime he has since brought a measure of stability to his life.
The Beach Boys
Their music channelled the sun-glazed optimism of Southern California.
Off stage, songwriter Brian Wilson was a troubled genius who eventually buckled under the strain and went on hiatus from the group.
His songs were aggressively escapist. Beneath the elaborate costumes and exotic lyrics, however, Adam Ant (left) was beset by demons. In the 2000s, he was diagnosed as bipolar and spent time in an institution. “I made a very conscious decision to be upfront about bipolar disorder and dementia,” he said recently. “I'm glad I've done that. It has cleared the decks a bit.”
After the success of his Illinois album in 2005, Stevens seemed destined for a mainstream breakthrough. But he didn't enjoy life as a alt.pop pin-up. When he returned it was with the deeply strange Age of Adz, a record about mental illness and outsider art that drew on the animated movies of Walt Disney and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
Ice on the Dune is out now
Day & Night