Everything about Empire of the Sun is larger than life: The band name, the futuristic stage personas, the Dune-inspired album art and – most importantly – the music. The Australian duo’s debut album, 2008’s Walking on a Dream, was a campy collage of new-wave synth-pop and ambient textures, tied together by frontman Luke Steele’s nasally glam-rock croon. But in spite of its craftsmanship, the album brought only modest regional success – not the global pop domination they craved.
So for Ice on the Dune, the band’s second record, Steele and co-writer Nick Littlemore tackled that problem directly – working with a host of top hit-makers (Mark “Spike” Stent, Jason Cox, Serban Ghenea), recording in studios across the globe (from Sydney to New York to Los Angeles), and honing a more immediate, Americanized sound.
“That process led us down deeper waters than before,” Steele tells Rolling Stone. “With the first record, we didn’t have time to think. It was quite immediate. But this time, we set the bar pretty high: We wanted every chorus to have a zing. The songs would go through many sets of clothes. We kind of became a bit like Steely Dan: Ship out a chorus, bring in a new chorus, we’d all love the chorus, then swap out the verse. We’d approach it like George Martin, talking to Lennon/McCartney. It was a new process for us, being that strict on how much the song could cut through.”
Looking back, Walking on a Dream was released at an unfortunate time, arriving just as indie’s glam-rock obsession (see: MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular) was taking flight. But by pushing toward a more pop-friendly sound, Empire of the Sun aren’t trying to distance themselves from indie culture – instead, they’re simply hoping to improve artistically upon the blueprint they established with Dream.
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“We just really wanted to make a good record and not alienate this sound that people love so much,” Steele says. “I read something (written by) one of these finer chefs, and he said, ‘People have to remember that restaurants can lose customers by forgetting what they love about it in the first place.’ We didn’t want to do that – not to indulge or re-invent the wheel of sound, or lose the synergy of everything on the first record. We kind of wanted to repeat that, but just make things a little more shiny and inventive. We’re trying to find that invisible audible area between the Seventies and the 2020s.”
And Steele has had plenty of preparation for his imminent pop break-out. Since Walking on a Dream, he’s written and collaborated with artists like Jay-Z and Beyoncé. “You pick up so much,” he says. “These people are the best of the best. They’re so professional – they’ve been turning up the volume and the heat for so long, it’s really in another place when you work with them. That’s why they’re mega-stars.”
One important collaborator is R&B all-star Usher, who recruited Steele for the title-track on his latest studio album, Looking 4 Myself. “He’s such an amazing singer; it blew me away,” Steele says. “The stamina in this guy – he’s like this machine. It’s like Michael Jackson coming in the room. I felt like I may have learned from that: You can do it again, you can always re-sing it better. He’s lightning fast at what he does, with lightning quality. Everything about him just oozes professionalism.”
Ice on the Dune oozes that same professionalism – and working in a number of legendary studios helped the duo channel their inner pop stars. The pulsing “DNA” (co-written with producer John Hill) was recorded at L.A.’s Westlake studios, “where MJ had the room built for (his pet chimpanzee) Bubbles.”
Throughout their new album, Steele and Littlemore have stripped back Dream‘s textural interludes and hazy abstractions in favor of a bolder, slicker approach. “Alive,” the album’s ecstatic lead single, is a perfect introduction, blending sampled voices with gang shouts and propulsive synths. Dune is still laced with artful, grandiose sonic touches, but every track is catchy enough to be a single.
One highlight is “Surround Sound,” a psychedelic electro-pop jam that dates back to Empire’s earliest recording sessions. “We all reunited after three years in Downtown Studios in New York,” Steele says. “We loved that track from the start – it was like an old friend.” Built on modulated talkboxes and a shuffling drum groove, Steele loves the track’s hallucinatory vibes: “We just kind of fell into the energy,” he says, “sort of like being on LSD.”
The album’s true centerpiece is closer “Keep a Watch,” a moody, R&B-styled slow-jam the group envisioned as a “public service announcement” to their fans.
“We got through all these trials and tribulations, but you just have to remember that we’ll be there, keeping watch,” Steele says. “Just go put on the record, and we’ll sing to you.”