The bands PNAU and Empire of the Sun are stalwarts of the Australian music scene. We find out why the musician and record producer to stars including Elton John has taken the change of direction from the beloved pop sounds of those bands to bring us the 2 Leaves Project.
You wrote recently: “Music is a way of putting a better foot forward, encapsulating all the mess and chaos into a few minutes of purity” - what do you feel when you are creating?
Creation for me has always been the most exhilarating part of the process, since a very early age I’ve felt a connection to something much larger and stronger than this reality. I was always making things with my brothers and my friends as a child. First it was photography, which then led me into making short films on super 8mm. I was fortunate to have had different mentors along the way both physical relationships such as my friend’s father who was a filmmaker and also my own grandfathers on both sides. One was an engineer who never completely got a chance to design and realize the wondrous things he had in his head and my other grandfather who was a major part of the design and construction of the Sydney Opera House as well as many other prominent buildings. So essentially I think I understood how lucky I was and always felt that anything was possible for me but more than that I wanted to create things that I could do cheaply but to great effect. Unlike film, which at that time was a very costly and lengthy process, (you’d shoot some rolls of Super 8mm and then send them off to Texas and wait for 6-8 weeks to get the developed lm back) music once I had a few very cheap analog synths was instant and for all intensive purposes free! So each afternoon after school I’d sit there making strange repetitive music and record onto old cassettes, this was the beginning of my career in many ways. So I guess I feel everything but I’ve tried to always paint stories through sound, I’ve seen colors and landscapes in my mind, to create emotional scenes, strange yet uplifting, foreign yet familiar.
You have achieved major success both with PNAU and Empire of the Sun - how is it working on different projects with different partners and stepping into different roles for your live performances?
I love having the chance to work in different modes. Both these projects have starkly different approaches and outcomes. Working with Peter Mayes from age 14 onwards we know each other very well, and many of our youthful experiences such as going out to warehouse parties and having crazy adventures still to this day inform the work we do, where as Empire of the Sun was something I started much later in life when I’d already had some success and a load of experience, having worked with a few different singers, creating with Luke Steele we instantly felt a crazy power when united, a much more visceral feeling that as my manager has said is like “lightning in a bottle”. Hard to control but powerfully present and confronting, full of childlike energy and passion. In many ways these two projects have become similar because of
the success that they have enjoyed, as now it is expected that we offer up radio friendly or sync friendly pieces. That is the major reason why I’ve started this new “ The 2 Leaves Project” to create something truly artful and free, away from the trappings of ownership and the weight of outside interest. What I mean is I’m now much more excited about once more painting with sound and doing so with people who don’t necessarily t into a pop mold. Nothing is forced here it’s all natural, like the universe itself I let all ideas in to these collaborations and make decisions solely on feeling without trying to force them into three minute packages.
PNAU is one of Australia’s most loved electronic acts with five critically acclaimed albums including a UK #1 album with Sir Elton John – how do you approach the challenge of starting from the beginning with a new type of project?
I love newness and I love to work with people who come from a different place to me. Each of my bands has its manifesto and that helps me to understand how to differentiate between them. But yeah as they go on there tends to be more opinions and expectations on them. I create this new Project as a revolving door of artists to work with. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to meet and record with an enormous amount of gifted individuals over the years, and this is a way of making something with each or as many of them as I can. It’s made only for people who share a deep love of creation, not the ones who’ve allowed music to turn into a business or livelihood. It can be both and that’s where I reside. Most of my time now is focused on working with fringe artists and applying all I know to bring out the best in them and hopefully shine a light on talent that might have otherwise been marginalized, but not exclusively because some of the artists are well established and then its just people I feel that great connection to and a shared love of musical conversations.
Tell us about the Two Leaves Project - You represent one leaf and the other is constantly shifting between different collaborators – why this innovative approach?
I do it for my own sanity, which at times is extremely elusive! It all came out of a few extremely deep experiences with DMT, my take away from meeting the universe and tapping into the cosmic consciousness was to share more and make more, so I started a record label to facilitate this. These records are about healing, and none more so than this current release with “Brooke Shelley” an extraordinary artist, singer, choirmaster and composer. Brooke and I met and have worked together for many years in the background on numerous things but this was a chance to make a body of work just her and I wanted zero limitations and we approached it differently to all the others. To start with I wrote text, lots and lots of text, which I sent to Brooke. She has the immense talent and I wanted to allow her the space to create freely without borders, so it was her hand that added the music initially to it, to sing out my words, so it started like that and once she had added the initial strokes it was clear this was going to be very special.
You have described Two Leaves Project as: “About exploration, to make experimental works that delve deeper into the subconscious and the meditative”. Quite a shift from Electro-Pop hits, why did you take this new direction in your music?
For me, for you and for us. I grew up seeking out the weirdest music, as a kind of badge of honor. I felt with the advent of streaming that suddenly there was a chance to make longer form works that were more like companions for our daily lives. Music you could both listen intensely to and also have in the background while you did something else. 34 minutes is the chosen length, which to me seems just perfect. Whether you are driving someplace or exercising or making love or whatever, these records are your friends and offer something memorable in a different way to the hedonism of PNAU or the soft pop of Empire of the Sun.
Because there are so many different ones and we are all essentially leaves, or mushrooms or energy or whatever. Under these powerful trips I’ve taken, the plants have spoken to me, very directly. Nature is us, and I want to remind people of that. No two are the same; each contains all the stories of creation of this world and beyond.
Tell us about some of the collaborators you work with on this project?
The first album was a three-way collaboration between Tim Lefevbre and Vera Blue / Celia Pavey and myself. The second was with Henry Hey and myself. This third one is with Brooke Shelley. All of these artists are very different and the work we’ve done together is different again. Most of these records have been recorded quickly and full of instinct and then my time spent has been shaping and sculpting them into the records you now have. I’m doing mainly what I love and trying to capture these incredible artists in an unguarded moment then building the support network around them through sonic manipulation and instrumentation. Always swimming upwards but not in a stream you’re familiar with.
You have produced for a range of Artists including Robbie Williams, Mika, Groove Armada and an entire Elton John collaboration album remixing his old hits. How do you approach producing for other Artists?
Producing for other artists, known or successful ones is a real test and one needs to have the ability to be as large or as small as need be. It’s not about the producer it’s about bringing the best out of the artist and should be done as transparently as possible. A huge part of it is psychological, finding out what they want and what the record label want and what the fans need. Ultimately I try to serve the fans, and in order to do that I must become a fan of the chosen artist. It can be and should be an all-consuming process, something these days I somewhat shy away from and instead seek out unsung creatives or ones without the stigma of stadium level success, for it often alters the artist. I’ve loved working on all these projects and have tried my best to put as much love into them. It’s often the outside influence of the business side that’s detrimental and ultimately has little place in the studio.
The changes in the music business in recent years are well documented – how has that affected your process?
It would be easy to allow these changes to in influence the work and only focus on singles and follow the trends but the listener still wants to hear and that’s not a three-minute piece. They want to be transformed, taken to a higher ground, out of the storm of their own mind, to reach out a branch, to find a space where the music can enrich the witness.
If not music, what other careers could you see yourself in and why?
I still long to make films. I hope one day to find the space to do that. I write a lot of stories and prose, film has always been my first love. I really hope I can find the patience, persistence and strength to get there. I have extraordinary amounts of respect for anyone making films and long form pieces. Making films was my main focus up until about 16 years of age and I became obsessed with a few films in particular namely Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Katsurhiro Otomo’s Akira. I must have watched both those films over a thousand times each! I did fairly early understand that the weight of making these kind of masterpieces was such a huge undertaking and that many many artists never get the opportunity to create on such a high level. It was when I made a short film called Stigmata about a young teen who takes an LSD trip that goes wrong that music first truly became a part of my creative process, and I felt such freedom within it. I know just how much effort it takes; unlike music it’s a very very long process. I need to focus more. I love making these albums and would like to make feature films to accompany them, but I’m funding it all myself at present and adding film into that will surely leave me homeless. I hope you take the time to listen to this very special artist “Brooke Shelley” on the new 2 leaves project entitled “Evening Of The Sky”.