Walking on a Dream – Empire of the Sun (L Steele/N Littlemore/ D Sloan) 2008
Luke Steele (Sleepy Jacksons) and Nick Littlemore (Pnau), became the duo Empire of the Sun in 2007 and immediately attracted international interest in their experimental fusion of electro-pop, synth-pop and alternative dance-rock music. Steele lives in Perth and Littlemore in Sydney, but they shared songwriting and production duties on their debut album, as well as sharing a taste for the glam lifestyle in both spirit and music, which shone through in their debut album and single, both entitled Walking on a Dream.
Steele and Littlemore have been reluctant to explain their music, believing that it is preferable to retain a sense of mystery about their songs – Steele’s comments in this regard are honest but not that much more revealing “it’s what it feels like when you are missing home or you’re missing someone… it’s also about when two people become one which is about me and Nick, when we were reunited (they temporarily split in 2006 because of the competing demands of their two existing bands) but at the same time it’s about so many other things. Sometimes trying to explain what a song is about spoils the beauty, and rips the heart out, painting it black and white. The mystery is part of the beauty and you kill a song when you tell too much.”
Walking on a Dream was released before the duo’s debut album in August 2008, and was recorded at Soundworks Music Studio and Linear Recording (Syd), Donnie Sloan (also a co-composer), Steele, Littlemore, and Peter Mayes (Pnau) produced the session and Sam Littlemore, Nick’s older brother, also known as Sam la More, remixed the track which was made available as a free download on the album’s official website, the record ultimately sold over 200,000 copies globally.
Critics have claimed that the song is overly derivative, citing the 2006 debut album Oracular Spectacular by MGMT as an obvious influence, MGMT are a Connecticut (US) group led by multi-instrumentalists Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser who also trade in a musical genre which fuses indie pop, synth pop and psychedelic pop.
EOTS’s lyrics are often androgynous and opaque, the album track Swordfish Hotkiss Night is a good example, but their music also incorporates surprising flourishes which add to the theatricality of their live performances. Walking on a Dream reflected the influences of Europop, techno pop, and arty synth pop in the programmed percussion, futuristic keyboards and Luke Steele’s child-like tenor/falsetto, doused in slapback reverb, which seemed to float above the mix as he sang/spoke the words. The influences of Bowie, Prince and Ultravox were perceptible but there was also a spacey fantasy movie soundtrack ambience to the song, so that it sounded more like Littlemore’s electro- rockers Pnau than Steele’s alt-rock Sleepy Jacksons, this was also reflected in the group’s stage outfits and the theatricality of their live performances.
Embroidered robes, elaborate headpieces, gold chains and breastplates, reflect the duo’s fixation with classic Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark iconography, their stage outfits are often a cross between a Shogun warrior, a Native American Indian and an Aztec God, style over substance perhaps. But their live shows are imaginative and beguiling and best described as one part Disney fantasy, one part Cirque de Soleil spectacle and one part 60’s trippy US cartoon shows like the Banana Splits and H R Pufnstuff, a curious whimsy clearly pervades their work, which may not be to everyone’s taste.
The album cover art was also futuristic and outlandish, Steele and Littlemore are dressed in bizarre Star Wars-style regalia, flanked by an ornate elephant, tiger and baroque images of what may be some Arcadian dreamworld. Despite the whimsy and eccentricity of the EOTS music and image, they undoubtedly caught the zeitgeist in 2008 with their intriguing fusion of psychedelic pop and flamboyant costumes and extravagant stage sets. Walking on a Dream hit top ten in Australia, Europe, and was a #1 on the US Dance Club Songs Charts and #3 on the US Billboard Alternative Songs Chart. The album was also a hit, selling over 350.000 copies and charting #6 in Aust; top 40 in seven European countries, and #1 on the UK Dance Album Charts.
The promo video was shot by Josh Logue on location in the Bund area of Shanghai in the northern summer of 2008, just prior to the 2008 Olympic Games, it features Steele wearing faux-eastern costumes and makeup inspired by the Peking opera, while Littlemore looks more like a 1960’s Jimi Hendrix, beads, bare-chested under a guardsman’s military jacket.
In 2009 Empire of the Sun won no less than seven ARIA awards, including Best Album, Best Single, Best Group, Best Pop Release, and Best album Cover, much was expected from them in the future.
A second single lifted off their debut album was We Are the People which rose to #24 locally but was a substantial #14 hit in the UK and climbed to #1 in Germany.
In 2013 their second album Ice on the Dune climbed to #3 on the national album chart and the singles Alive (#22 April) and Celebrate confirmed continued support for the duo, in 2016 Walking on a Dream was re-birthed when used in a Honda Civic commercial, the song re-entered the US charts and finally logged up over one million downloading/streaming plays.