“The Fallout From ‘Soft Universe’ Wasn’t The Greatest Moment For Us”: Pnau Get Real
"If you make the wrong record, you’ll get backlash."
A little over a year ago, Nick Littlemore and I were sitting in the upper levels of Universal Music’s offices in Sydney, discussing Empire Of The Sun’s latest record Two Vines.
Towards the end of our chat I asked him straight up: is his other project, Pnau, going to make a comeback anytime soon?
I expected a media-trained deflection, maybe something along the lines of ‘hopefully sometime in the future’, but Littlemore surprised me.
“Yeah, it’s happening right now, it’s about to come out real soon,” he said. “There’s a song coming out called ‘Chameleon’, we’re editing the video right now.”
So here we are, a year later, and that song Nick so casually mentioned has now gone triple platinum, is in the running for a slew of ARIA Awards — including for Song Of The Year and Best Dance Release — and ended up reaching #11 in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2016.
It also signalled the definitive and triumphant return of one of Australia’s most beloved dance acts. After 2011’s underwhelming Soft Universe and their 2012 Elton John remix album, Good Morning To The Night — neither containing any of the madcap brilliance of their earlier records — it felt like Pnau’s best music might have been behind them.
But then ‘Chameleon’ happened, and ‘Into The Sky’ happened, and ‘Go Bang’ happened — and now it seems as if their new record Changa might actually be their best yet.
Music Junkee spoke to Nick Littlemore about the the fallout from Soft Universe, the drug-influenced making of Changa, and the ever-changing Australian dance music industry.
Good Morning To The Night was released back in 2012. Did you guys make a definitive decision to take a break from Pnau, or were you just busy with other projects?
Well, we actually made Changa twice. We made it once and it just didn’t feel right so we scrapped it and we made it again. That’s why it took so long.
There’s always been quite a long hiatus in between albums for us — four or five years each time. We were also so busy with Empire Of The Sun stuff, and then we actually weren’t sure if anyone really gave a shit about Pnau.
Why do you say that?
The fallout from Soft Universe wasn’t the greatest moment for us, and quite rightly. It was a good lesson to learn that you if you make the wrong record, you’ll get backlash. And I think we did make the wrong record. We lost our way in terms of what we were.
Empire [Of The Sun] songs are kind of dance-y but they’re more in the spirit of songwriting than they are in the club. We came back and went, well, let’s make the club record. Let’s actually, truly try and make the best dance album. We’ve done lots of things over the years but we really wanted to hone and drive it straight towards the dancefloors of Australia.
What was it about Soft Universe that you guys weren’t completely happy with?
I was in a really depressed state on that record, which is not the right state to write dance music. We ended up putting this thing together that was…I don’t know. It probably would have been cool if it was under a different name. But it was like we forgot our roots.
When did you and Peter and Sam and say ‘alright, we’re gonna get Pnau back together. Let’s make a club record’?
I think we started toying with stuff about three or four years ago, but it was about 18 months ago that we really got on the right track. We stopped listening to other influences and started making something.
You’re someone that goes into projects with a particular theme in mind. What did you want to explore on Changa?
Well, smoking changa [a DMT-infused smoking blend] took me to another planet; it took me away from this reality in a way that I’d never gone before. I dabbled with things in my youth and all this other stuff, but this was so much more profound, so much more powerful. This album is in so many ways a direct reflection of these experiences. It’s like I went on all these crazy adventures and journeys into the jungles of some far off distant planet.
“I think we did make the wrong record [with Soft Universe]. We forgot…we lost our way in terms of what we were.”
All these memories of youth came back and these feelings that I really had forgotten I had even had or was capable of having. They came back like a flood and my response to that — our collective response — was to make, to make, to make, to work more, to make, to hone it, what are you saying, how you’re going to say it. We wanted to say something that was very clear, that was very precise. Even if that precise and clear thing was effectively screaming into the abyss but in a melodic way.
We found Kira [Devine, singer] somewhere along this process. Kira and I have this great connection, she’s kind of my echo — I will sing this stuff and she will repeat it exactly and she matches my intensity. There’s a lot of intention in what I do vocally and melodically. The energy — just in terms of sheer volume or exuberance — is so integral to these songs. They’re not soft sweet songs, they’re like calls-to-arms. They’re riot songs of joy.
You want to stand on the edge of the stage and you want to corral the people right at the very back of the audience as well as all the people up front. You lift their spirits to the point where you’ve got a whole crowd of disenfranchised youth all suddenly singing out, “No more violence.” What could be better than kids singing out, “No more violence”?
‘Chameleon’ is such a huge track — one of the year’s biggest. Can you talk me through the making of ‘Chameleon’? Do you guys have a formula for creating bangers?
Of sorts. We had some basic chords that Peter had done, and then Kira came in and we tried this echo idea. I started singing this basic stuff, a phrase like [sings opening melody of ‘Chameleon’] or something, whatever it was. And we went for two hours, no stopping. It’s a pretty energetic track.
I hadn’t really spent much time with Kira before. She’d been in one session in a gospel choir thing with us many years ago. And it just came back. I would sing something and she would come back with the same intensity and energy that I was giving out, so we just went and went and went and just spilling all our emotions and guts and expelling all this energy.
“I was very much connected with the other, the kind of chaos of reality or the multiverse, whatever you want to call it. It was all speaking through me in a very clear way.”
So, as often happens with Pnau, I’ll create this big mess and then Peter will sit there and go through those two hours worth of recordings and start to arrange it over the chords and put it together. And then we get the singer back in and then we re-sing them and stack them.
The thing that I love about recording is capturing the moment. This record, this whole album, is just bottling that lightning, that spirit.
I don’t feel like I really wrote those vocals, I feel like they came through me. Like I said before, I had jumped off the planet only a few days before, so my mind was still very open. I was very much connected with the other, the kind of chaos of reality or the multiverse, whatever you want to call it. It was all speaking through me in a very clear way.
You guys have been in the dance music scene for a long time now. Do you think we’re in a good moment for dance music right now?
Totally. I’ve never really given up on dance music since I started listening to it at 13 or 14, but it’s gone through some funny stages.
It got commercial fairly early on. I remember the euro-trance thing happening. Trance before that, for me, was such a great thing, and then suddenly it wasn’t the trance that everyone called trance. In the same way, when electro happened for the second time, everyone started calling that electro. I’m like, hang on..electro is a thing from New York from the early 80’s that was like the coolest music ever!
So these names get thrown around and they get kind of cleaned it up and re-presented as a commercial venture. But trance in its essence is dancing to a drum at 120, the speed of a heart beat. It never changed in my heart and I still love that so much.
For me, the parties are few and far between now. I’m probably set in my ways a little bit. I would still love to hear Francois K and DJ Derek Carter play over one of these new EDM DJs. But I love dancing. I think it’s such a celebration of life, of being alive. It’s something that I’ll ever stop wanting to do or be a part of the creation of it.
How do you think the Australian dance music scene has changed in the last 15 years?
It’s changed dramatically. When we first came out, there were only about five bands doing it in Australia and now there’s maybe 100 really good acts in Australia. Their production is crazy. Their ideas are amazing — the fact that they have access to so many different styles of music and they’re utilising that and making amazing choices, it’s so exciting. I think it’s a very exciting time to be making music, to be listening to music, dancing to music.
You guys are veterans of that dance scene now. How do you see Pnau in that spectrum of Aussie dance music?
I guess we’re veterans now. I have grey hair now. We’re old — Peter jokingly refers to us a legacy act.
I think we’ve been really fortunate in that we’ve had many lives. We’ve had chances. After our second album, we had a lull and then we came back with Pnau and after that we had a lull. And we were fortunate enough to come back for a third time and then this time. We never thought we’d be playing to these sorts of audiences and have this sort of response. It’s such a blessing and a privilege.
You’ve been playing some major Australian festivals lately. I saw you guys at Listen Out a little while ago, and you have quite a few slots coming up over the summer. What do you think of the Australian festival scene?
For a while I was a little cynical when I was living out here in America and looking and hearing about Splendour being sold and all this other stuff. But then going back on the bill this year, and playing to kids who are listening to all kinds of different music and getting excited and meeting a few fans along the way, it’s been wonderful.
I can read all the terrible things that are happening in Sydney with the lockout laws — and it’s totally unfair, totally uncool — but it does give way to a thriving underground and so it keeps making parties outside the norm. A lot of the parties that I went to when I was young, especially pre-20s, were in illegal warehouses. The kids would break in to places and throw a rave.
Some of the greatest experiences and memories in my life have been at those parties. The club thing to me always felt a little restrained, and I always felt like there were eyes on me — security or I don’t know what. There was a freedom to going out to the bush and going to the bush parties, the doofs, the warehouse parties and calling the number late at night to know where it was. All sort of stuff like that. I loved that scene and the excitement of it.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about pill testing and sniffer dogs at festivals and the harsh response to recreational drug use in Australia. What are your thoughts on that?
I think pill testing is really a good idea. If people know what they’re taking they’re going to have a lot fewer complications. This stuff’s going to go on no matter what happens. People are gonna sing no matter what happens, people are gonna dance no matter what happens — but you can help them protect themselves.
Make these pill kits available, like they are in Amsterdam and many other countries, and protect our children. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of experimentation. You’ve got to be on the safe side of things. I never did too much that I was in danger. The kids have never been smarter, never been more informed about all this sort of stuff, but you gotta help them. You’ve got to meet them halfway.
What is your favourite Australian city to play in these days?
In the past we never had great shows in South Australia but in the last year we’ve had four great shows there. But I honestly don’t know, because I’ve lived overseas for so long, I just love going home and seeing all the beautiful, smiling faces, and the fantastic food that you get everywhere in Australia, and the wine, and the ocean. I don’t know, I love it all.
Pnau’s album Changa is out now; get it here.
Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer for Music Junkee and inthemix. She is on Twitter.