A Very Strange Chat With Luke Steele Of Dreams
"Music's turned into a bitcoin cryptocurrency, living on this invisible, unseen transient plane."
Dreams — the electronic coalesce of Daniel Johns and Luke Steele — has been about fifteen years in the making.
That’s when the pair first met: in 2004, Steele’s band, The Sleepy Jackson, supported Silverchair on a national tour, and the two connected pretty much instantly.
Ever since, the friends have steadily worked on music together, jumping between sounds and often starting again from scratch — talking to The Feed earlier this year, they revealed they lost a whole album of material when, high as all hell, the two decided they had to bury the master recordings in the graveyard near Windsor Castle.
While some die-hard fans might be tempted to pick up a shovel, Steele — speaking to Music Junkee over the phone from LA, where he lives — wasn’t too concerned about what they might have lost.
Dreams, as a duo, has always moved in a ‘come what may’ matter: considering they’ve respectively been busy with Empire Of The Sun and John’s solo work, there’s been little pressure for the collab to be anything.
But earlier this year, Dreams materialised. They were announced to play at this year’s Coachella without a single song out, and the punters who took the gamble were met with a sweaty set, led by the duo’s tendency for theatrics and a clever, sharp mixture of the decade’s leading electronic sounds.
Their debut album, No One Defeats Us, has just as many twists and turns. It alternates between anthemic guitar-driven pop (‘No One Defeats Us’), glitch-driven bops where the duo’s voices are submerged under throbbing beats (‘California’), and echoes of the French house music that, thanks to Ed Banger, dominated the late ’00s (‘Numbers On The Board’, ‘Odd Party’). In short, it’s fun, moody, and eccentric: all words used to describe Steele and Johns.
Chatting to Steele, it felt like we were on the same page: written out, it’s easier to get a little lost. Much like a wild dream, it’s best to let go of the reins.
There’s clearly a lot of love between you and Daniel. What is it about Daniel that makes him such a great person to work with?
It’s obvious that he is in an elite category. He thinks differently, has a very unique mind. He sees beyond: he sees variances of colour, other angles and sounds [more] than anyone else I’ve ever worked with.
So when you get to a certain point in a song, it’s kind of like [being] a deep sea diver on a musical plane, you know? It’s quite adventurous.
The flip-side of a deep dive is that you can go too far: did you two ever have to reel it in?
Yeah, pretty much every session. [Laughs]
That’s maybe why the album took so long. We just keep going so far and then we go so deep into automation and melodies and palettes [that] essentially [we weren’t] making songs, we were making an artistic habitat — you know, where all the MIDIs are under one body, and they’re all breathing and thinking and talking together. But it does become a bit tense sometimes when you’ve got to stop and go, ‘We’re there’.
You have to keep it in mind — sometimes we get lost with different kinds of techniques with sidechaining or recording turntables through tens, twenties of guitar pedals. It’s great sound, but you have to be able to craft a song out of that.
Considering you’ve been working on Dreams for more than a decade, you’ve worked your way through a few sounds — including an entire psychedelic-inspired album that’s lost in the graveyard near Windsor Castle. How did that feel when you realised that you’d never get that back?
It’s a good question, but you know the songs are never really lost — they all have their perfect time when they’re meant to be released into the world. My wife would be ask, “When are you going to put this song out?” And it’s like, “Well it might be on the next record, it might be when we’re 60.”
What other sounds did you kind of experiment with?
We went through a big kind of The Avalanches phase where we were just sampling heaps of vinyl, just running [it] through guitar pedals. Given our love of guitar, we’re notorious of running anything through [pedals], just unknown combinations. That was a big phase — I guess we went through a little bit of The Venetians phase, and Burial, that sort of heavy glitch music.
We spent so long creating this — it’s like an audible, moving painting, filled with all kinds of things that we’ve collected over the last 15 years.
[But in terms of working out our sound], whenever we’d have these music parties with all our friends, we’d be listening to Röyksopp and Kraftwerk and SebastiAn and all the Ed Banger guys — we realised we wanted to make something a bit more in line with what we were living.
Dan would always say to me “be a rockstar while you can”: I think those [other] songs will come back. Maybe on the fifth record, or I don’t know, maybe the next record.
You’ve described ‘No One Defeats Us’ as kind of a warrior song. Why did you lean towards that anthemic sound?
I think we’d gone through these couple of albums and most of the time we felt slightly defeated: we needed something that had aggression, that was powerful but wasn’t angry.
It’s just a strong lyric, ‘No one defeats us, spirit, mind, and body, the new controversy’. When it’s in the spirit, it’s just on a different plane than anything in the world. I think as much its a punk-warrior call, it’s sort of beyond the world — ‘you can never fail’, really.
You’ve been making music for a hot minute. What changed in 2018?
I’ve been talking about this a lot with people.
Music’s lost its infrastructure. It’s turned into a bitcoin cryptocurrency, living on this invisible, unseen transient plane.
Basically, music’s lost its infrastructure and it’s turned into a bitcoin cryptocurrency, living on this invisible, unseen transient plane. And I realise that people don’t know its beginning and end. And everything is so fast, at times it’s become a race against time. I think heritage is being suffocated, I came up a line the other day: “Heritage is like an old man digging his grave”.
It feels like the war of words on social media has not only influenced culture, but influence some of the big heavy music players down to triple j — which has basically wiped out 80 percent of artists 23-years-old and older, basically just wiped out a complete range of music.
In a press release for the album, you’re quoted as talking about how music is now “continually based on social algorithms in a land where the computer is king”. I know a lot of people worry that pop music is produced with specific playlists in mind — is that what you’re referencing?
Yeah, exactly. It’s completely true. It’s like record companies now are signing in reverse. They’re signing artists on social media numbers and then teaching them how to play music. That’s how messed up the music culture has become, you know?
One final question: What do you want Dreams to be?
I want it to be just an amazing adventure for people. We spent so long creating this — it’s like an audible, moving painting, filled with all kinds of things that we’ve collected over the last 15 years.
We’d like to think that people are inspired and filled with determination and imagination to get some fire, to become a warrior.
Dream’s debut album No One Defeats Us is available Friday 14 September via EMI.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.