WHEN Luke Steele of Aussie indie rockers the Sleepy Jackson joined forces with fellow Antipodean Nick Littlemore of electronica duo Pnau to create the widescreen Empire of the Sun, the plan wasn’t necessarily world domination.
But they made sure they had the sci-fi costumes and the pop personas – Steele as the Emperor and Littlemore as the Prophet – should the occasion demand it.
Then their debut album Walking On A Dream, a sublime fusion of heady pop melodies and 80s-influenced electro, yielded a couple of international hits and a bunch of awards. Suddenly, the freaky guy with the Adam Ant make-up and tribal headdress and his pal in the background were a big deal.
They booked a grand world tour but only the Emperor turned up for a show which was more theatrical extravaganza than regular rock’n’roll gig.
Next thing, Steele was claiming that he had been unable to contact Littlemore for six months, and the newly established Empire of the Sun looked in danger of crumbling.
“Don’t believe the hype,” cautions the personable Littlemore. “Luke and I have always had a very strong understanding. And Luke is a great showman, never forget that.”
Later, it emerged that Littlemore had run off to join the circus. Following a recommendation from celebrity Pnau fan and mentor Elton John, he had been recruited as composer and musical director of Cirque Du Soleil’s biggest production to date, Zarkana, an all-consuming undertaking for a musician used to working as a duo.
“It was far beyond my means,” says Littlemore, “but I do like challenges and I think it’s incredibly important to take on things that aren’t easy, because what are we here for if we’re not always trying our very hardest?”
Speaking of challenges, it is Littlemore who brings up the cliché of the “difficult second album” when discussing Empire of the Sun’s newly released Ice On The Dune.
“There was no-one watching us the first time around,” he says, “so the biggest weight we felt was the expected audience that was going to listen to it. We wrote so many songs for this record and we tried many things because we felt there was a duty to the audience that had come out and supported us so greatly on the first album. And we wanted to reach more people.”
Well, what kind of Empire doesn’t want to expand? Ice On The Dune is a boldly commercial bid for takeover ubiquity. Some of its streamlined synth pop thunder might have been stolen by Daft Punk, but it packs a consistent euphoric hit and retains a soupçon of Empire eccentricity, not least in its accompanying fantasy visuals. “I think there’s a lot of naivety in what we create, something quite childlike and innocent,” says Littlemore. “We’re always fascinated by the world and we try to find weird things that maybe were passed by or not noticed.”
He makes a cute analogy with the bowerbird, which decorates its nest with brightly colour co-ordinated foraged material in order to attract a mate.
“If you look at the nest you’d think there was just a big pile of blue things there but, no, they’re from all over the country and sometimes all over the planet. In the same way we always try and hit that same mark, although sonically it could change and vary.”
With the album delivered, the Emperor is preparing to address his subjects on another particularly colourful roadshow but, again, Littlemore has no plans to join Steele on tour.
“Luke is a troubadour in so many ways,” he says. “It’s really in his blood – his father is a travelling musician. But I’ve always preferred to stay at home and make things. I think it suits me more.”
Away from the spotlight, Littlemore will attend to his “busy dance card”, including a new Pnau album, with Ladyhawke on vocals, the second in a trilogy of Elton John remix albums, splicing together material from his back catalogue, and a hush-hush production gig for a legendary US band.
“I like working,” he says simply. “If I can’t create, it just doesn’t work for me so well, so I feel the need to, for want of a better term, vomit everything out of me. It’s something I’ve done since I was about eight or nine when I started taking photos and then making films and music.
“It must be something in my blood too. My grandfather was an architect and he did the interiors to the Opera House in Sydney and buildings around Australia. Obviously I’m not doing anything as profound as architecture but I want to put good things into the world and that’s really what I get off on.”
• Ice On The Dune is out now on Virgin Records