World according to Luke

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'YOU can be the one," says Luke Steele, leading light of The Sleepy Jackson, and he stabs at my chest with a finger to emphasise his point. "You can be the one to set the record straight. Go to your editor and say: 'No, I'm not going to write the same old crap about how Luke sacks all his musicians, even sacks his brother.' Can you do that? Can you?..."

Consider it done and, really, I don't know where Steele's reputation for being "difficult" came from. He's a bit bonkers, but then so are his heroes, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and Prince.

To be honest, I'd have been a mite disappointed if the Australian pop eccentric responsible for the lyrics "Fill me with apples" and "These roads they sing like bats" had turned up for our appointment on time, and wearing shorts. In the end he's a full 24 hours late and, on the hottest day on record, in a sweltering London, he's dressed entirely in black, save for his fluffy white hotel courtesy slippers.

But in all other respects, Steele presents himself as a polite young man, firmly focused on the job in hand, which is promoting The Sleepy Jackson's splendid second album, but he's also aware that it's only rock 'n' roll and there are far more important things in life.

Personality is the follow-up to Lovers, the 2003 debut which introduced Steele, now 26, as an intriguing neo-psychedelic. Around the same time, The Avalanches released their debut and Channel 4 imported The Secret Life Of Us. Suddenly, Australia was hipper than it had ever been. But while Lovers flitted between punk, poetry and the best John Lennon homages the Electric Light Orchestra never wrote, Personality is more complete. It's almost a concept album.

Most of the new songs are big, Disneyesque production numbers stuffed with celestial strings and heavenly harmonies. Painstakingly realised, with Steele overdubbing his own voice 80 times, you could say that the devil is in the detail, except that Steele has no truck with Auld Nick. "The devil was in my yard," he sings on the second number - note the past tense. "But the devil, he's in my yard no more." Subsequent songs are titled 'God Lead Your Soul', 'God Knows' and 'Higher Than Hell'. With due deference to Brian Wilson, who coined the phrase first, these are Steele's teenage symphonies to God. So has he just got religion? At first his answers are cryptic. "God finds you. You just have to accept Him. How did He find me? Have you got 10 years to listen to this? Have you got 25?"

It is clear, though, that before Steele let God have the run of his yard, he first consorted with the man downstairs.

"I got a record contract when I was like 18, 19 - that's young. At that age you really love beer, like it's food. So suddenly I'm in a rock band and there are all these Russian babes floating around and everyone else is telling me how wonderful I am. On top of that there was the drugs and the general unpredictability of the road. If you don't have a clean mind...

"I was pretty dumb up until two years ago. Then I realised it's not about me. I'm just writing the songs. When you're younger you feel like you're the only one who exists, who's ever done anything.

"Without over-dramatising, I count myself pretty lucky to be alive."

He mentions incidents in Philadelphia and Denver when he got into the wrong company or found himself on the wrong side of town. "I was as vulnerable as a backpacker. If somebody doesn't like you, they're going to hit you." All the more so if, like Steele, you're partial to aquamarine eyeliner.

WITH HIS HIGH bouffant and intense eyes, he's a striking-looking individual. "New Zealand on my father's side, Russian on my mother's." And he hails from Perth, the most isolated city in the world.

"I indulged myself in every way. I was seduced by lust and the never-ending temptations of the flesh. That stuff kills you. You know the Woody Allen film Match Point? Where the guy likes this girl but then falls for another girl and another and everything multiplies and he's got to hide stuff and lie all the time? That was me. In two days it was a labyrinth." But then Luke Steele met Snappy Dolphin.

This is his pet name for girlfriend Jodi. Just the other day, they got engaged.

"We met in the most retro bar in Perth, the Hippie Club. It's the place you go when everywhere else is closed. They play Beatles songs but it's a meat market. Snappy Dolphin is the editor of a woman's mag. We just said to each other: 'What are we doing here?' It was synergy."

Steele's father Rick is a respected bluesman in Perth. "Chairman of the local blues society for 15 years," says the proud son. The first music Steele loved was Gershwin and Mozart but his earliest ambition was to be an artist.

"I was shy at school and always too polite to ask the cool kids: 'Can I hang out at your party?' Without being conceited, I thought I was different. I'd look up into the sky and screw up my eyes and I could see musical notes, these little squiggles dancing in the air. Nobody else I knew in Perth could see them."

He got into music by accident - literally. Ten years ago, on a family holiday in New Zealand on the spectacular Coromandel coast, he broke an arm while trying to impress Maori girls on his skateboard. "It was New Year, and dad had just raised the first tinny to his lips. He had to drive me two hours to hospital. I was in plaster for six weeks. So he taught me how to play guitar. I reckon that was the first time he really felt for me."

For the record, The Sleepy Jackson have had a few different incarnations, and Steele's brother Jessie was once a member. With the line-up previous to the current one, Steele wrote and recorded a whole other album, now lost. He dismisses it as crap, but drummer Malcolm Clark - who's survived all the personnel changes, so Steele can't be a complete tyrant - says it contained some fine songs. It must have done because Personality is as good as anything by the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, the contemporaries with whom The Sleepy Jackson are most often compared.

Steele doesn't endlessly talk up his album or himself, and is just as happy to promote the work of his sister Katie's band Little Birdie, or tell you about his mum Liz who works with Professor Fiona Wood, Australia's 'Woman of the Year' for her pioneering work in the treatment of burns. "She's always telling us kids: 'You don't know how lucky you are.'"

Whether or not he has found God, Steele has certainly found Snappy Dolphin, and counts himself exceedingly lucky to have done so. "I tour the world for two years and I end up meeting my girl in my home town - amazing." How did he propose? "I wrote a song and wove a question into the last line. She liked that last line. Now I'm doing a whole record of our engagement and I'm going to call it Fiancee Moon."

John and Yoko, budge down the bed a bit.

• Personality (Virgin) is out tomorrow

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