I must admit, when asked if I wanted to interview Nick Littlemore and Pete Mayes my immediate excitement turned to sheer terror. Between their work as PNAU and Empire of the Sun, these guys are bonafide Australian music royalty. PNAU burst onto the scene in 1999, with the ARIA winning record Sambanova.
Since then, they have gone from strength to strength, and established themselves as one of Australia’s greatest live exports. 2017 is a special year for PNAU. Apart from celebrating 10 years since their hugely successful self-titled album PNAU, they will be releasing their 6th studio LP Changa on November 10. Stoney Roads caught up with PNAU ahead of the release to talk all things Changa, Elton John and coming up in the Sydney scene.
Stoney Roads: Nick and Pete, thanks for talking to Stoney Roads today ahead of the release of CHANGA!
Nick Littlemore: No worries!
Pete Mayes: Our pleasure
SR: Alright so is the album named after the drug or what?
PM: This is what everyone wants to know! (laughs)
NL: It’s named after technology, I believe they call it! And it was invented in Australia and we’re Australians so we’re taking it back to our roots!
PM: We are flying the flag!
SR: So what can you tell us about the album?
NL: It’s something that we’ve put a lot of love into. It’s had a few different machinations but I think we’ve arrived at a place where we felt we’re at the right time to share it with the world it’s been a joy to make… We included Sam Lamore who’s my brother in the production team for this record and I think it’s taken us to a greater height than we would’ve done just as a duo.
SR: What are the influences on this latest album? It’s been a little bit between works for you.
NL: Well I think we started off being influenced by the UK sound like 3 or 4 years ago but as we got deeper into it we sort of shut out a lot of influences and just honed in on what we do and I think we’ve reached another level of confidence about what we do. Every time we make another PNAU record we kind of turn our back on everything we’ve done and try and do something that we’re impressed by which to us is usually something fresh.
PM: Yeah and if you’re just listening to the dance music, or the electronic music which is big in the last 6 months then you’re not really going to do something that different… If that’s all you’re hearing in your head… So we don’t really pay much attention to what other people are doing in the genres.
SR: That’s what I was going to ask because you guys have been doing this longer than most in the scene… 1999 was your first record, yes?
PM: Yeah we’re pretty old (laughs)
SR: That’s not what I was trying to say! (laughs)
NL: We’ve been doing it for 21 years…
PM: Well longer than that because it’s been since we were 14.
NL: Well put it this way we’ve been doing it longer than most of the people that are listening which is quite interesting!
PM: Definitely! I won’t say what year we started… But we were kids playing with synthesisers you know that’s how we learnt to do what we do…
NL: Yeah, just two kids from Sydney tripping out on synths… Still doing it, somehow!
SR: Has that hunger to keep innovating since that early age ever left?
NL: No I think the innovation is the thing that keeps us going… I think if we just settled on something and pumped that out we would’ve gotten bored and disbanded.
PM: Yeah we have changed it up quite a bit… Every album has been different.
SR: Because you take four years off and come back with arguably your biggest single Chameleon, how is that possible?!
PM: Yeah but we’re not just sitting on a beach to be fair (laughs). We’re making other records and doing stuff and being busy but yeah… I mean Chameleon just happened. Once we had the vocal it just worked.
SR: How did that collaboration with Kira Devine come about?
PM: Well we were working with her and with a couple of other girls on a different record and they were doing sort of choir backing vocally type stuff.
NL: Yeah kind of gospel harmonies.
PM: And then she just had a great energy and a great voice and she was just a really lovely person to work with. So when we did Chameleon we thought “why don’t we try her?”
NL: Yeah and she’s one of those people where if you’re in her presence it’s pretty obvious she’s a star… She has this unbelievable energy and spirit about her and I don’t think we possess that but there is this kind of kindred spirit in the sense that we both let loose… we don’t really hold back and so she’s not like a perfect vocalist but she’s one that gives more than anyone else and that’s what we love more than anything… In the same way where dance music is the place where you can really let loose. There is no boundaries.
SR: Critics of Soft Universe said it “lacked the endearing weirdness of PNAU”. Do you think you’re bringing the weirdness back with Changa?
PM: That’s true it was a bit bland (laughs)
NL: Everyone is allowed to make a bad record… But yeah we’re bringing it back to what we are rather than trying to put ourselves in a different box… and celebrating our weirdness really
PM: Yeah and it’s a bit more of a party record than Soft Universe.
SR: What do you guys do in the space between albums? You’ve released albums sort of every four year bar the Elton John remix album in 2012, in those sabbaticals are you still talking to each other and making music?
PM: Yeah yeah we’re still working together most of the time… I mean we spent a lot of time on Empire of the Sun in the last decade… you know, several years we would’ve put into that… But I mean at the moment we’re doing a movie but we’re not allowed to talk about it!
NL: You just did!!
PM: But I didn’t say what it was (laughs)
NL: We tell cab drivers but we can’t tell the press.
P: (laughs) But yeah we’re always collaborating with people we did a song with the Crystal Fighters guys and the good thing about LA is that people are always coming through… On tour or just writing with people so you do get an opportunity to work with a lot of people.
SR: So when you collaborate with artists do they come to you or do you seek them out?
NL: No we always seek them out… we very rarely get people reaching out to us… Sometimes they do but they end up asking for a remix which is not really what we do
PM: Yeah we’re not super excited about doing remixes.
NL: We’d much rather create something that’s original with someone that’s inspiring us.
PM: It’s much better. If you can be involved in the the writing… the whole process from start to finish then it’s your baby.
NL: So much of the good production is in the writing.
PM: Exactly.. you’ve got to be there from the start… you want to help build the foundations of the song for sure.
SR: Now one person who did seek you out was Elton John… How on earth did that come about?
PM: Well that happened here in Sydney. And that happened through Toni Collette who is in a band and we share an agent… And Elton called up Nick and he said “I fucking love your music… we have to meet up”… I’m sure there were a few curse words (laughs).
NL: Yeah and we went and got tea with him down at the Rocks… and that moment when he embraced us, both physically and emotionally, changed our lives forever.
PM: Yeah, he was an important vehicle for us to kind of get out there in the world… Go to London and what not.
NL: The older I get the more I realise that so much of what holds an artist, or anyone back for that matter, is their own lack of confidence… and more than anything Elton gave us the boost of confidence to say “yeah you can do this… You should be in England you should be in America… You should be doing these things worldwide”
SR: I guess that’s that vote of confidence you’d been getting in Australia for so many years.
NL: Yeah definitely… And I think maybe a little bit less these days, but it still feels so far away and so hard going overseas with your music… I mean we’re working with this young guy at the moment and he’s talking about moving from Sydney to Melbourne and we’re saying well “why don’t you move to Berlin, why don’t you move to London”… Try a really different place… And I know it’s really really daunting but you know what doesn’t kill us make us stronger and as an artist you want to continually challenge yourself… And that’s why our records of ours take so long because we don’t want to make another Sambanova or another Again or another PNAU.
SR: Do you ever think about how those 14 year olds in their bedrooms playing with synths would react if someone told them Elton John would one day tap them on the shoulder?
PM: Yeah we would not have believed it… We would have laughed and told you to go away!
SR: The latest single on the album ‘Go Bang’ – it’s like PNAU of old but it still feels so fresh… What can you tell us about that?
PM: Well ‘Go Bang’ is probably the “pop-iest” song on the record… I mean it’s more maybe traditionally structured than Chameleon which is an abnormal kind of structure for a pop song but it’s interesting because that one took many twists and turns and changes from beginning to end… We’ve just heard it so many times that at some stage you just need to put it out to the world. But everyone seems to be reacting really positively to that one which is good!
SR: I feel like there is a lot of local electronic artists who were big in the mid 2000s like Sneaky Sound System, Bag Raiders, Muscles who have really struggled to take their initial impact and make it bigger a decade on but you guys have been able to build and grow bigger. What do you attribute that too?
PM: I tell you what we’ve just worked really hard!
SR: Is that what it is?
NL: I actually just think we’re extraordinarily lucky.
PM: Yeah we’ve definitely had some good luck… Well Elton, that’s extraordinary!
NL: Yes, we’re in the studio every day but we’re still lucky… incredibly lucky… There’s a lot of other people that are much better piano players and much better singers.
PM: Definitely, there’s a lot of talented people making music at the moment.
NL: But we’re just really, really fortunate.
PM: There’s also a lot of talented people who don’t necessarily put in the hours… So it’s a combination of a couple of different factors but I think one reason I can think of is that we are definitely not afraid of hard work… And that helps.
NL: Well we actually really like going to the studio and just making stuff
SR: But then on top of that you have all of the Empire of the Sun records surely that can’t just be luck?
NL: Again, very lucky there as well.. Luke is a remarkable singer!
PM: I mean when you’ve got a voice like that… It’s hard to go wrong
NL: He is unparalleled in the voice that he has… His melodic understanding and his approach to the world.
PM: Yeah, no one else sounds like him which is rare. How often do you find a voice that is truly unique.
NL: Well Kira…
SR: So you guys have gotten lucky on at least two vocalists!
NL: (Laughs) See we get very lucky! Maybe we got all the four leaf clovers when we were kids or something i don’t know! (laughs)
PM: (laughs) But we’re on the lookout for that all the time.
NL: We’re just so fascinated by music and creativity.
PM: I mean we found Kira through a friend of ours in L.A, a trumpet player.
NL: who we found through a bass player, who we found through a keyboard player who we found through Elton John. So there you go! (laughs)
SR: What was it like coming up in the early electronic scene in Sydney. What do you think are the differences to now?
PM: It was really fun because there was a real underground here in the (whispers) 90’s (laughs).
NL: But i feel like that’s back again.
PM: Yeah it’s come back again.
NL: I always thought there was a lot of underground parties being thrown and stuff.
SR: Warehouse parties and the like?
NL: Yeah! We loved going to warehouse parties!
PM: That’s what we grew up on.
NL: I mean we were really underage but they didn’t check ID at raves.
PM: No and also there was no alcohol being sold which was definitely a part of the vibe as well I mean there were no fights and there was no anger it was all very safe… You never felt scared.
NL: It was super romantic going to those parties… I love that kids are going to experience that again. I think that’s really important.
PM: Yeah. I think the difference for us was the music was obviously influenced by Kraftwerk and others but the music was actually new… The underground, sort of more instrumental music that we were listening to was new to us at least. And that was exciting. As a 14 year old sneaking out and going to a warehouse party on a Saturday night… It felt like a real adventure… Growing up in the burbs but somehow catching the train to Alexandria or wherever it was that we had to go… Some dusty old warehouse you know it was part of our teenage years.
SR: And how do you guys look at the Sydney culture now? I’m sure you’ve heard about the lockouts while you’ve been living overseas.
PM: Yeah well I mean… That’s fucked!
NL: I think it’s really upsetting but if that’s giving way to a rising underground then that is a great thing!
PM: Yeah there will always be that response.
NL: Music finds a way just like love finds a way and that’s cool… I mean we saw that starting to happen with the pokies revolution which happened around the time we started playing live and that shut down most of the venues and now there’s like none…
PM: Yeah there’s not a lot of small venues anymore, is there.
NL: But, fuck it! Throw underground parties, throw bush-doofs, any kid can do this now!
SR: Especially with the internet everything’s accessible!
NL: Yeah exactly! They can mobilise and they can go out and lose their minds in a field somewhere it sounds like a dream to me.
PM: Yeah and I mean when we were doing that, the internet existed but this information was not being spread through the internet, it was just flyers in records stores and people going around and in the street press which doesn’t really exist anymore but it did and was big then.
NL: It was cool you kind of had to know… I mean you still do though… You still need to know what website to go to or where to look to find the information it’s just online now.
SR: Where do you guys see the future for electronic music in Australia?
PM: I think it’s really bright. I think there’s more people making it than ever before… The production level has gone way up…
NL: I definitely agree with that.
PM: In the last decade the records I hear coming out make me think “wow… who did that”. And it’s just kids doing it themselves on their laptops which is great… I think there’s definitely more than ever and as a result there is a lot more great records than ever before.
NL: I think Australian music has always had a cool slant on the rest of the world… In the same way I guess as Canada is to the States… Like you kind of view things differently.
PM: Yeah from the outside.
NL: And it’s the same that New Zealand is to Australia but you know Australia to the world. We’ve always had this sort of elliptical vision with things and ways of creating things… we kind of cherry pick ideas from different parts of the world to come up with a new thing.
PM: I think that’s what it is you’re absorbing… You’re not stuck in one big music culture you’re absorbing America and Europe and Asia and everything like a sponge and taking little pieces of each… I mean there’s the whole Melbourne thing, that’s just a style of music now in the whole world people say “oh yeah that sounds like a Melbourne thing” you know what I mean it’s just become a scene… So yeah there’s definitely a huge impact that is coming out of Australia… I find in America people talk about Australia in a very positive light in music and fashion and there is a lot of things happening… It seems like Australia is super cool right now… But yeah when we won that ARIA (in 1999) there wasn’t that… There was like what five acts? It Paul Mac and us and a couple of others but there wasn’t much going on… It is a whole different landscape right now…
SR: I know this is a PNAU interview but is there any news on new Empire of the Sun news?
NL: Yeah I was just in Tokyo for a week recording with Luke and a couple of crazy modular genius type people… So we’re going quite a different way this record but it’s early days and much like PNAU we don’t really know where it’s going to go right now but it’s exciting!
PNAU’s new album CHANGA dropped on Friday, November 10. You can catch the guys on their upcoming ‘Changa’ national tour from any of the dates below.
Sat July 14th – The Metropolis, Freemantle WA
Wed July 18th – The Bar on the Hill (Newcastle University), Newcastle NSW
Thurs July 19th – Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW
Fri July 20th – 170 Russell, Melbourne VIC
Sun July 22nd – Splendour In The Grass @ North Byron Parkland – Byron Bay NSW