In July 1999, Sydney duo Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes pulled off the first trick of their decorated career as PNAU.
Coming some six years after the group’s early excursions into acid techno and trance, Sambanova was a remarkably self-assured journey through deep house, disco, future jazz and downtempo electronica. It sent the group out of the Sydney underground and into clubs and dance parties Australia-wide courtesy of triple j, Rage and short-lived SBS dance music program Alchemy.
In October 2000 it shocked just about everyone by snatching the ARIA for Best Dance Release from Madison Avenue’s all-conquering ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’. In the same week, it was pulled from stores for uncleared samples and not available again until the following August — albeit in a repackaged form, with some key tracks either re-worked or removed altogether.
Unless you own one of the three distinctly different CD releases, it’s now almost impossible to listen to Sambanova in full — makeshift YouTube playlists retconned from the multiple official versions notwithstanding. Even the band members themselves have had to go online to track down their masterpiece.
“I lost a lot of the tapes and the hard drives, or couldn’t load them up because I didn’t have the right computer,” Mayes reveals. “When we were making up the [live] show for the last album (2017’s Changa), I had to buy our album off eBay from somewhere in the world just to find out what was on there.”
“Forgotten” (says Littlemore) it may be — particularly by newcomers to PNAU’s floor-filling repertoire — but the mythology of what Mayes dubs its “strange lifespan” lingers. Twenty years after its initial release on Australian independent label Peking Duck, some of the major players* agreed to tell, for the first time, the full story of Sambanova’s troubled legacy — and how PNAU barely survived it.
The Beginning of PNAU
Childhood friends Littlemore and Mayes formed PNAU while attending Barker College in Hornsby, a North Shore suburb of Sydney, in the early 1990s.
Nick Littlemore: Peter and I had come from very different places musically. He was very much, from about 12 or 13, strictly into dance. He was really interested in the DJing thing and that whole world. I came from more of the industrial, Goth-y kind of weird, dark, sad, depressing music that was very lyrical, very colourful.
Peter Mayes: We somehow discovered that we were both into industrial, cyberpunk, rave crossover bands like Meat Beat Manifesto. It’s pretty unusual to meet someone else who’s 12 who’s into that music at the time.
Nick Littlemore: We merged somewhere when we first went to a rave together. House, we didn’t really know what that was. It was more of an ‘adult’ thing, and they didn’t play that in illegal warehouses. That was strictly techno.
Peter Mayes: It wasn’t long before Nick spent 200 bucks on a Roland SH-101 and we sat in a small shed in Nick’s parent’s backyard, not really knowing what we were doing but making all these crazy sounds and recording all of them to cassette.
Nick Littlemore: We were just teenagers, getting high together and making weird music.
“We were just teenagers, getting high together and making weird music.” – Nick Littlemore
Peter Mayes: It was more about finding drum machines and the cheapest synthesisers we could get that were any good cobbled together through a cheap guitar amp. It was just a time of experimentation, which gave us an opportunity to learn to make sounds.
A trip to the Blue Mountains to buy a synthesiser from business partners Anthony Allen and Adam McElnea proved the catalyst for an unlikely change in musical direction.
Peter Mayes: Every Thursday morning we would get the Trading Post. We had art first period, and our art teacher was really cool, so she’d let us leave class to read the Trading Post. And we’d just sit there to see if there was anything around that we could somehow afford, and we’d leave school to pick it up.
Nick Littlemore: There was a synth we were looking for, someone had it. I spoke to him on the phone, and he said, “If you have this, I have that, and we’ll swap it — but why don’t you bring up your music?” We drove up to the Blue Mountains to play these guys; I think we had two songs at that stage. I think one was called ‘Luna’ and the other was called ‘Fire Dancer’. We played it to these guys, they loved it, and we started a relationship working with them.
Peter Mayes: They played us a couple of their tracks and said, “We’re starting a label, we’re doing this compilation”, and I think we gave them two songs (‘Frisk’ and ‘Anthropophagi’) for their compilation and that’s how it all got started.
Peter Mayes: Anthony Allen, I think he split with Adam, and then he did a new label [Peking Duck – no affiliation with the band] with Pete Pasqual from Creative Vibes.
Nick Littlemore: We were already working, but we started working with them, they started overseeing it, I guess.
Pete Pasqual (Creative Vibes Managing Director, 1994-2012): Anthony said “Look, there’s these two kids” — he always used to call them ‘the kids’ because they were so young when he met them — he said “They’re incredible, you’ve got to have a listen to what they’re doing.” I had a listen to this album, and it absolutely blew me away. Anthony said “Do you want to distribute it?” and I said, “Yes, for sure.”
Nick Littlemore: The first record was all trance, and it’s never been released. It’s called Fractal Geometric Spaces Made of Light — maybe because the title’s so catchy, that’s why it didn’t come out!
Pete Pasqual: At that stage, we were distributing labels like F Communications, Étienne de Crécy’s label, basically a lot of the underground house labels coming out of France. There was a new sound or new movement that was coming out of the French music scene. We invited the boys back to [Creative Vibes’ studio in Mosman], I played them Étienne de Crécy’s ‘The Boss Has Gone Mad!’ (aka ‘Le Patron Est Devenu Fou!’). I said, “I honestly think this is the direction PNAU should go down.”
Peter Mayes: [Étienne de Crécy’s] Super Discount was a huge influence on us. That downtempo French house thing.
Pete Pasqual: I said, “Look, I’ve got tons of records like this in my collection that you can sample, give me half an hour, and I’ll go through them.” I went through some of my records and brought them over to the studio and played the things I thought we should sample.
Peter Mayes: Pete and his wife at the time, Heidi, had a huge record collection because they’d been DJing forever and had their show on 2SER.
Nick Littlemore: Pete and Heidi Pasqual from Creative Vibes had probably the best funk and disco collection in the country. They’d give us 20 records and go, “Why don’t you try these ones?” They knew. But we had no idea. Then we went mad with it.
Pete Pasqual: These guys always had great ears for music. No matter what you gave them, they were always finding the best bits of the records to sample.
Nick Littlemore: When we were making techno and trance, there’s no feel. It’s very quantised, very straight, and suddenly we were experimenting with sexiness, swing and groove.
Peter Mayes: We were still able to use synthesisers and add in our own basslines and sounds over the top, but it was so much fun to have that really thick and groovy foundation to build upon from sampling from records.
Nick Littlemore: We didn’t know people had been doing this since the mid-80s. It was wild to us, what you could do with these sounds — just filter everything out then bring the beat in.
Peter Mayes: The instant gratification of that method is a lot of fun, particularly when we were getting started.
Nick Littlemore: I think the first thing we did was make a record called ‘Discone’. We’d sampled drum loops, but never from vinyl, it was always from sample CDs. But once you open that Pandora’s Box…
Peter Mayes: ‘Discone’, we must’ve been like 16, 17, and that contained a vocal which for us was really weird. It was off a record by a guy called Bama the Village Poet, who was like a crazy, alcoholic homeless guy who went into a record label one day and said he wasn’t going to leave until they gave him a record deal. So he had this really bizarre album, and he was talking about ‘social narcotics’ which was the catchphrase of it all. So we had that and a couple of other samples that we meshed together at 130 beats per minute, we had the kick and all that stuff that you have. That got the attention of radio stations like triple j and 2SER.
The First Single
The buzz around the group grew once ‘Discone’ dropped on the Evolutionary Vibes III compilation in 1998. Work on what was to become Sambanova gathered pace.
Huw Araniego-Ellis (Creative Vibes label manager, 2000-2007): I came to Creative Vibes doing work experience with them when I was in Year 11. ‘Discone’ was all over triple j. We didn’t have the internet at the time, so it was just a really hype tune.
Nick Littlemore: When we were signed to Creative Vibes, we’d work in their studio in Mosman. Peter and I would go in the middle of the night, and we wouldn’t see anyone.
Peter Mayes: One of the key things was Arthur’s Pizza in Paddington. At the time the guys who made that spot famous, we’d named a song after them which was inspired by the kind of music they’d play and the vibe that restaurant had as they were really big music fans.
“‘The Last Track’, as far as I’m concerned that track is timeless, it’s flawless, it’s one of the most amazing tracks I’ve ever heard. If we’d ended up doing another album together, that was the line we’d be going down.” — Pete Pasqual
Nick Littlemore: In ‘Arthur’s Pizza’, we sampled a compilation Creative Vibes had done of Italian cinema. We co-wrote that with a kid we went to high school with who was a bit older than us. ‘Arthur’s Pizza’ and ‘The Last Track’, those two I think we wrote them both in one night with Paul Johannessen — he wasn’t a rapper he was a keyboard player, but he and his brother were involved in a lot of early Aussie hip-hop stuff.
Pete Pasqual: ‘The Last Track’, as far as I’m concerned that track is timeless, it’s flawless, it’s one of the most amazing tracks I’ve ever heard. If we’d ended up doing another album together, that was the line we’d be going down.
Nick Littlemore: At that time, Creative Vibes were running a lot of parties, so they would throw us on their gigs. We were playing with Mr Scruff and Coldcut, all these big fucking acts, so we had a readymade audience who were already into groovy stuff, and it just started to work.
Peter Mayes: There’s these moments when you ‘premiere’ a track. We’d have a new song, and we’d just play it. “Cool, we did this track this afternoon, let’s play it out tonight.”
Nick Littlemore: The first time we played ‘Sambanova’, we played it down at the Underground café, which is now Candy’s. We played like a nine-minute version of that song, and people just lost their shit. We even played synth solos; it was this moment when we were like jazz artists all of a sudden. Just the warmth and the feeling in the room; it was like “wow”. So few gigs I can remember anything, but playing ‘Sambanova’ for the first time, we knew we had something good. It was never a commercial record, but it just had the feeling.
And Then Sambanova Arrived
Sambanova arrived via Peking Duck/Creative Vibes in July 1999. Blanket triple j play for ‘Need Your Lovin’ Baby’ and a canny animated clip for ‘Journey Agent’ (directed by Littlemore’s brother James) sent PNAU national.
Joe Segreto (PNAU’s agent, 2001-present): I’d heard them on the radio, and I was just obsessed by what I heard. From that first version, I was desperate to work with them.
Pete Pasqual: It was definitely something special. When you heard the album, it was just like “wow, there is nothing like it in Australia”.
Nick Littlemore: It felt like it was a whole other generation before the Modular thing happened. Avalanches came out about a year after us, and they’d sampled some records that we sampled, but they sampled them better. ‘Mellotron’, for example, is a sample of ‘Blowfly’s Rapp’, and they sample it on their first record.
Huw Araniego-Ellis: The album was released pretty much the week I started [at Creative Vibes]. So it was kinda cool that there was this immensely funky record with big samples and really sexy artwork and watching it over the next year or two spiral into this thing.
Peter Mayes: There was a bunch of different colours of the CD — green, black — maybe it was the first batch of black ones, but it had a few glitches or a scratch or something.
Pete Pasqual: We mastered the album at 301 and for some reason…I think it had two glitches in it.
Huw Araniego-Ellis: In the first print there was a little digital ‘pop’ that sounded like it was part of the track in ‘Mellotron’. It sounded literally like part of the song, the equivalent of what you’d get on vinyl but on a CD, like a little chirp.
Nick Littlemore: They were going to throw them out. I said ‘no, I’ll have them’.
Peter Mayes: Every time we went to a café or a restaurant or a shop, we’d just give them a copy. We didn’t even have covers; it was literally just a stack of CDs in a plastic bag.
Nick Littlemore: This was before streaming, so if you were going to cafés they were playing CDs and they just got a free one. I have to think that it had a part to play [in Sambanova’s success].
Huw Araniego-Ellis: I feel like they sold some of those as well.
Pete Pasqual: The first press was pretty much gone. We hadn’t realised. I don’t know how we missed it.
Huw Araniego-Ellis: We couldn’t press it quick enough. I was just in the warehouse packing boxes, watching thousands of it go out.
Pete Pasqual: I think we pressed it three or four times before we sold it to Warner.
Huw Araniego-Ellis: We were these scrappy little indie guys having this hit, and virtually every day I was hearing this new point of interest. Everybody was trying to get a piece of it.
Peter Mayes: It grew really quickly, and a lot of people gave us a chance.
And Then Came Warner Music
Warner Music Australia took notice, acquiring Sambanova for re-release in June 2000. (Some versions came with a bonus disc of unreleased pre-Sambanova material.) The profile boost brought the group’s sample-happy approach some unwanted attention.
Mark Pope (Warner Music Australia GM of A&R and Marketing, 1992-2001): David Shrimpton — who was the son of Stephen Shrimpton who was the head of Warner Music International — was the person responsible for bringing PNAU to my attention and Warner’s attention.
Pete Pasqual: At one stage we were doing so well selling the stock locally we thought, “well, let’s keep it this way”, then finally realised when we were trying to get another track played (on radio) that it was next to impossible.
Nick Littlemore: Peking Duck sold it on to Warner and EMI Publishing. Everybody signed it, and they were happy that we had a lot of fire on us and all that stuff.
Peter Mayes: The whole Warner deal went down without much involvement from us because we were already signed to Peking Duck and they kind of signed us on.
“Warner did not, and nor did EMI, do due diligence. So they put that record out…and then the calls started coming in.” – Nick Littlemore
Nick Littlemore: We’d signed this deal with [Peking Duck] which was more in their benefit, which is a cool way of saying it. Our guy was Anthony, and he taught us a lot of stuff. He was older, and he understood a lot of stuff that we didn’t understand. When you’re young, and you get screwed by people and all that shit, you can have a really negative outlook on it. But whatever, this was his moment to make money out of it, not our moment. I don’t hold any kind of weird grudges. Frankly, they championed us.
Pete Pasqual: Sambanova, if you look at it as a whole project, Anthony had a lot to do with it — “that can be a better album, that can be a better track, you should be doing this, or you should be doing that” — and the boys listening to him. My feeling is if it wasn’t for his input, if it wasn’t for my input, if it wasn’t for the talent of those two guys, I don’t think this album would have ever existed.
Mark Pope: It had come out through Creative Vibes, and I met Pete Pasqual — a typically independent style, having a go and a real passion for music. To a large degree, I listened to David [Shrimpton] in terms of his passion for the band. Just like Regurgitator, I didn’t sign what I liked; I signed what I thought had a chance.
Pete Pasqual: Because Warner have got such a powerful presence and great promo team, they got another track played on radio, and it really started to snowball after that.
Mark Pope: I asked on many occasions if all the samples had been cleared and he said ‘yeah, yeah, it’s all been cleared’ — I couldn’t go on a witness stand and say it was Peter [Pasqual], but I’m pretty sure I asked everybody. I took it at face value I think, I don’t know that it was ever written in the contract, but I was given assurances that it was all cleared and it wasn’t.
Pete Pasqual: We said the samples aren’t cleared. There was a clause in the contract that said we were responsible for the samples, and we said: “we can’t sign the contract as it sits because of this clause”. So they took out the clause, and we proceeded with the deal.
Nick Littlemore: Warner did not, and nor did EMI, do due diligence. So they put that record out…and then the calls started coming in.
Tim McGee (A&R at Central Station Records, 1999; CEO of Ministry of Sound Australia/TMRW Music, 2000 onwards): I totally dodged a bullet when this went down. I had tried to sign the album at Central Station Records at the time and hadn’t been able to convince the owners to meet the guys’ expectations on an advance, so we missed out, and it ended up at Warners eventually.
Nick Littlemore: Jimmy Castor’s agent — they have an office here in Sydney, what are the chances? Jimmy Castor — most people don’t even know who this guy is, but we’d sampled a lot of records from this guy. Suddenly, there was a lot of problems.
Mark Pope: Once you release a record and then someone comes after you about sampling, you’ve got no leverage.
Nick Littlemore: There are so many records, most of which we couldn’t remember and weren’t cleared and probably you wouldn’t be able to work out.
Peter Mayes: It was a number of people’s fault. There was no one person you could point to and go, “this was your fault”, because [Warner] just weren’t experienced with doing this kind of thing because they either didn’t know or make it a priority.
Mark Pope: It was very stressful, and it was a major headache to deal with, and because we were in uncharted waters I was perfectly out of my depth with how to fucking deal with it.
And Then Shit Well And Truly Hit The Fan
In October 2001, when PNAU unexpectedly stole Madison Avenue’s thunder at the ARIA Awards, disaster struck.
Peter Mayes: It was the same year that Andy Van and Madison Avenue had a No.1 in a lot of countries with ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’. We were very surprised to win that.
Tim McGee: Not a huge shock — they are two very different acts, and the ARIA voting team understand things with an indie edge a lot easier.
Peter Mayes: It cemented something, that at least the people in the industry were recognising what we were doing. And of course, the next day it was pulled off the shelf because the samples hadn’t been cleared.
Nick Littlemore: The day after we won the ARIA award, it was pulled from the stores for 18 months.
Huw Araniego-Ellis: That’s the world that I’m from — records get pulled for samples — so it didn’t surprise me at all. That’s just the way it goes.
Pete Pasqual: Mark Pope was an absolute champion through this whole process. He did his utmost best to make sure that album was visible until it got too painful for him and he ended up pulling it.
Mark Pope: I don’t recall any animosity towards Peter or the band or whatever. It was just a headache that needed to be dealt with.
Joe Segreto: The entire situation was so ridiculous that it became a bit of a running joke towards the end there.
Peter Mayes: It took I think 15, 16 months to clear the samples. By that time, any groundswell we might’ve had from the ARIA was over.
Pete Pasqual: Which was a shame, because they could’ve sold 30, 40, 50,000 units.
Peter Mayes: It was unfortunate, because it was all growing in a beautiful, organic way.
Joe Segreto: It caused them a lot of grief because they couldn’t move forward.
And The Cracks Started To Appear
In the background, Littlemore and Mayes were struggling to keep their friendship and working relationship intact.
Nick Littlemore: Watch the ARIA speech — or don’t! It’s upsetting. You can see that we don’t like each other. We turned up. We got the award. I never saw the award again. That was right in the thick of us being completely disintegrated in terms of friendship.
Peter Mayes: We definitely had a moment there where we didn’t really speak for a while, and there was a moment there where he was doing shows without me.
Joe Segreto: When I first started working with them, the first couple of shows we did were at the smaller room of the Opera House. Kim and Julian from The Presets were in the band — long before The Presets. Sam, Nick’s brother, was also playing, and another chap called Luke.
“We turned up. We got the award. I never saw the award again. That was right in the thick of us being completely disintegrated in terms of friendship.” – Nick Littlemore
Nick Littlemore: I think it was a bit all too much and Peter and I fell out, and I toured the band, did all the press and all the rest of it. We were so young, and it was so much to come all at once. Precocious little shits that we were.
Peter Mayes: I’m sure it was something really petty, and I’m sure there were other personalities involved, but I don’t really remember what it was about.
Nick Littlemore: There was a third person that came into it and poisoned the well. I guess because I had older brothers, I was maybe more aware of people who weren’t a good influence.
Peter Mayes: A lot of people, musical or otherwise, have this happen in their career. I think it was good that it happened then. It enabled us to go through that, get over it and move on.
Nick Littlemore: I remember seeing Peter on the street about a year before we did make up, and it was awful. It’s the most uncomfortable feeling in the world – basically my other brother, and we hated each other. Because we’d made something so fucking beautiful, it was like, “what the hell are we doing?”
Peter Mayes: We had enough time to look back and go ‘we were great together’, not only as friends but as musical partners – there was something magical about it.
Sambanova Reappeared, But Not As We Knew It
Sambanova resurfaced in August 2001 with a new cover and key tracks ‘Discone’ and ‘Arthur’s Pizza’ missing, while the trumpet sample on ‘Mellotron’ was replaced. (The differences are broken down in more detail here.) Three additional tracks sported a slick new sound at odds with the original LP.
Pete Pasqual: We went through the process of clearing all the samples off the album, which was a process! It was really painful, actually.
Nick Littlemore: The original trumpet solo on ‘Mellotron’ was by Miles Davis, who we thought was just a local trumpet player. Little did we know, Miles Davis was quite a famous musician!
Peter Mayes: There were a few tracks that didn’t make that version for whatever reason — they couldn’t clear the samples, or they wanted something different.
“Robbie Buck actually tried to replace [Bama the Village Poet’s] voice — which now, culturally, you just think about how fucking wrong that was.” – Nick Littlemore
Nick Littlemore: On ‘Discone’, (then triple j and Alchemy host) Robbie Buck actually tried to replace [Bama the Village Poet’s] voice — which now, culturally, you just think about how fucking wrong that was.
Peter Mayes: He was just a friend of ours so we asked as a favour if he’d do it, and he tried really hard, bless him! It was a big ask — it was such a different kind of character to emulate. So I guess that one didn’t make it.
Nick Littlemore: We got Designers Republic to re-do the cover because the original was ripped off. This was another cover of an album called Holiday For Percussion, which we should’ve been sued for but never did.
Peter Mayes: That record is all about sampling, so why not sample the cover as well? It went along with the spirit of its creation.
Nick Littlemore: By that time, I’d taken on management which was introduced through Warner, and was I guess ‘coerced’ into trying to write singles. ‘Follow Me’ actually landed us on radio. There was the Spiller record (‘Groovejet’), there was ‘Lady’ by Modjo. If you got those records right at that time, they actually landed on radio.
Peter Mayes: That was at a time when we weren’t really speaking to each other that much, so he’d do a track with whoever he was working with and I’d do a track with whoever I was working with. We came together to mix them, and it was all cool.
Nick Littlemore: This was the first time I was writing songs, with real songwriters — not with Peter sampling loops and all that shit, I was [in London] working with a guy who wrote toplines for S Club 7. Which made no fucking sense, why PNAU was working with these people, but whatever, this is just what happened.
Peter Mayes: Obviously we couldn’t really be sampling things after the situation we’d just been in.
“The original album for me was the one because it was the statement that we made at that time. It was designed to be listened to as one piece.” – Peter Mayes
Nick Littlemore: I would never write the songs that I added to that record now, but age affords you all sorts of things that youth does not.
Peter Mayes: There were good songs we added to the re-release, it just felt like that was a new moment in time for the band and a different kind of sound.
Pete Pasqual: I think what it showed is how they wanted to see their future.
Tim McGee: I didn’t listen to it, to be honest. I had a copy of the original which I was in love with.
Huw Araniego-Ellis: The feelings I had were more, “Why do you have to keep changing it, keep watering it down, keep cutting songs out of it?” Because the original, the very first version of it, it’s a perfect album.
Peter Mayes: The original album for me was the one because it was the statement that we made at that time. It was designed to be listened to as one piece. There were songs that merged into each other, and it was all mellow down the back end. And it had the secret track that a lot of people were into on CDs at the time.
PNAU’s career stalled as they tried to find a new identity across the recording of Again (2003). 2007’s self-titled third album and 2017’s Changa introduced them to a second and third generation of fans — fans who would need to trawl the depths of the internet to hear a debut LP voted No.26 in Double J’s Best Australian Albums of the ’90s poll.
Nick Littlemore: I’m so unhappy that you can’t even get the record now.
Peter Mayes: It’s weird to think we have this record that started it all for us and it’s now lost, in a way.
Tim McGee: I think it’s part of their narrative and mystique, and probably propelled them forward long term.
Joe Segreto: I wanted to do a one-off show [for Sambanova’s 20th anniversary], but it just couldn’t happen. PNAU now is such a different beast, and it’s extraordinary that they’re still going. But where they’re at now is a quite different PNAU than then.
Pete Pasqual: I’ve tried a few times to license it and release it again, especially on vinyl. There’s two vinyl pressings of the album that were mastered at Abbey Road Studios at considerable cost. Test pressings were done, and because of the sample issue, they were never released.
Mark Pope: I’m not quite sure why it isn’t re-released, I’m not sure whether there’s any desire to get it released, but one thing I do know is I signed a band who went on to do really good things, so I’m proud of that fact.
Pete Pasqual: I think it should be reissued. It deserves it.
Peter Mayes: I don’t know what the terms were of the clearances that they did through Warner, but all of those people are gone now. At some stage, it was just deleted from the catalogue, and that’s about all we know about it. It’s tricky. I think the best we could hope for is a bootleg version.
*Warner Music Australia didn’t respond to interview requests.
‘Solid Gold’, the first single of PNAU’s forthcoming sixth album, is out now through etcetc. They’re about to head out on their debut US tour — check out all the dates here.
Kris Swales is a Queensland-born, Sydney-based writer and editor. Follow them on Twitter.
All photos courtesy of etcetc