Luke Steele's Solo Adventures
"It just feels like the perfect time now to sort of go it alone, it’s like I’m leaving home or something"
For over two decades, across 4 bands and countless collaborations from songwriting for Beyonce to guest vocals for Steve Aoki, Luke Steele has been one of the most versatile and consistent musicians ever to hail from the fine shores of Western Australia.
Breaking through with The Sleepy Jackson and their 2003 landmark debut studio album Lovers, Steele would go on to form the iconic Empire of the Sun alongside Nick Littlemore of Pnau in 2007, team up with Daniel Johns in 2018 as DREAMS, and most recently teaming up with Jarrad Rogers (written/produced for Lana Del Ray, Rita Ora, Charli XCX and more) as H3000 just last year.
Amidst all of this incredible music, we've yet to have a solo album from Steele - until now, with the arrival of Listen to the Water, a 14 track LP that sees him returning to his roots somewhat, leaving the synths behind in favour of a wide range of different guitar and pedal steel sounds, as well as keeping his storytelling vocals front and centre.
With Listen to the Water now released, we jumped on the line with Steele to find out all about his first time stepping out solo.
After consuming your music for over 20 years, I’m sure it’s something you’ve been asked a lot and I need to ask too - why a solo record now?
It's funny, man, it's kind of - everyone says that, like, “when are you gonna do that, you sound so good, just on a guitar”, but I don't know. Everything has its time, and I think now finally, growing up to be able to write these deep songs, you know, it just seems like the right time for me to. My youth’s gone and now I'm into the next, the second, the big chapter, you know? Yeah, it just feels like the perfect time now to sort of go it alone, it’s like I’m leaving home or something *laughs*
Time to fly the coop! So when were the tracks for the album written, cos it’s a proper LP, 14 tracks?
Yeah, a couple of years ago, right before the pandemic in ‘19 I did a bulk of the tracks. You know, like, Armageddon Slice and stuff was written right when it started hitting and all that. And then in 2020, I finished the record, and then it was sort of, ‘21 getting everything sorted and trying to work out what the hell's happening *laughs*
And did you figure it out?! *laughs*
Most of the world’s still trying to figure it out hey, it’s just such a mind bender, you know, so yeah, it takes time.
So what was the process like, as someone who I guess we’ve mainly heard working with other people amongst your various projects, what was it like this time as opposed to the past?
Yeah it was pretty cool because, you know, in collaborations it’s sort of like a gang, I’ve always loved that, you know, you sort of go to the studio and you bust out tracks and you party and it's like your own party. But you also, I don't know, there's always a compromise of emotion and what you want to talk about it's not always like, what's right on my heart, you know, and I think at that time living in Los Angeles and you know, so many shootings and mass murders and kidnapping and there's so many things that affected me personally. Yeah, you talk about it but people go “Yeah, yeah, I agree” *laughs* and then you talk about it to someone else. A song is like a concrete recording of a conversation with the invisible magnet in the sky, I guess.
How long have you been in LA now?
Well, now I live in Northern California but it was 10 years… over 10 years and you know, especially when Trump was in it got really, really heavy you know, the know the temperature and all the shootings and everything so it got really quite heated towards the end.
I’ve never been, but I’ve always heard comparisons between LA and Perth in terms of like the weather, the urban sprawl and stuff, while everything else is completely different - was that your experience at all?
It is really similar to Perth. When I first got there, you know, it's got the big long west coast beaches, and then the Perth hills that kind of like where the Hollywood Hills are, and probably more Botox in LA *laughs* I just love LA, you know, they call LA, the storytelling capital of the world. It's filled with such incredible artists and writers and musicians and actors, and it's a really big city of opportunity, you know, you can end up at a restaurant and be talking to some of the greatest artists of that time. So I've always loved it there.
And this might be too much of an esoteric question, but I guess, would a Luke Steeele solo record have happened if you didn't move to LA?
Yeah, yeah. Would it happen? Yeah. Yeah, it would have, yeah. I don't know, it's funny, because it took so long to find the right palette, you know, and it was literally the simplest thing in the world. It was like, you know, the chef, searching the whole world for the black truffles. And then he realizes he has some in his backyard, you know, it literally came down to where I began. And it was like, the record company must just be looking at me scratching their head going "It took you 20 years to find guitar, vocal pedal steel, and percussion sounds good together?" you know? It's all just on the timing of the of the magnet, you know, you've gotta just wait til it's right.
I'd say the percussion sounds would be pretty different than 20 years ago *laughs* All jokes aside, and having no clue what it's like for you on the collaborative side of your more electronic things, but what was it like to get back to basics?
Oh, man, I think that's what I was going on about before I was about to say, but when, you know, again, there's that compromise. But I think that's what - it started kinda irking me a bit, it's like, there's certain patterns and habits like anything in a relationship or at work or where it's like, "you can do that, but we don't really do that", you know, so it was great to go "if I want my vocal to be so loud it's too loud, it's like Elvis, then I'm goring to do it" or "if I want six tracks of pedal steel" and I could do it, you know, it felt great to be like, I left home and I could actually live by myself *laughs*
Don't need permission *laughs*
Yeah, yeah it's really quite liberating and to actually pull it off. And, you know, I shot all the videos with my wife who has been like, my main collaborator with all of my projects for 15 years, but for her to do all the photos, the videos - there's just a really cool process.
Some really great music videos and lots of water themes, I guess maybe tying in the album title, so let's go there now - "Listen to the Water", is there anything you want to share about why that's the title of the record?
You know, it's weird, the very first song I did was that song, I just sat down and it was like "listen to the water, listen to my daughter" and it was like, listen to God, listen to the child. You know, listen to the Divine, listen to the, the secret voice, and then it started like that, and then now I keep seeing all these things. Like I just was reading before that the Chinese say water is the most powerful element because it's, you know, it's non resistant it'll flow over any rock and, and then, my love for surfing and it's like, I'm just, I'm addicted and attracted to the ocean and all I talk about now is Hawaii and stuff. And it just became this thing like, follow the water.
Has how you approave giving records titles changed over the years?
It hasn't changed. It's like when you get it, you know, it's kind of like that thing, yeah, it's a strange thing, like, you just know. I remember when I labeled like Ice on the Dune [Empire of the Sun's second album]. I was in this little hotel in Santa Monica And it was like "...it's just like ice on the June" *laughs*. So it's weird, but it's cool. It's a funny, funny thing. You know those instincts.
Yeah I was just curious if this is something that you'd developed over time or did you like agonize more over it when you were younger, or has it always been gut instinct?
You know, I like to think that I've got better over time, but I haven't, you know I'm still just such a - I got the record mastered 12 times because there was a frequency between 100 and 200 hertz that was missing. And it was like, I think it was the hidden frequency of the Holy Spirit cross with Nag Champa and red wine or something. I kind of get into these patterns where I'm like, if that frequency of that feeling isn't there, it's ruined, and it's ruined everything and it's just so dramatic. It's like, "just calm down, go surfing", but I don't know, I think that's kind of healthy in a way. Like, I heard Spielberg the other day say on his doco, he talks about how he has to have that feeling of nervousness and anticipation before a shot. If not, he's lost that edge, and he still has it now on every film before he goes to shoot, he has that feeling.
So the going surfing thing - how important is it to have a bit of seperation, like, you know, a break for your ears from listening to that same stuff over and over again?
It's so important, you know, and the mind is just, like, the central workstation of the whole body, how they say "where the mind goes, the man follows". And that's kind of my whole thing that I need to, you know, take care of it, with these things that I just, I just get into these mental cycles that are just stupid, you know, and you believe the Phantom. So yeah, more surfing.
With 14 tracks on the album, as you told us written and refined over a couple of year period, how did you get to that 14? Were there more that you culled or did you write exactly these tracks as this record?
Yeah, there's always more tracks, but it just sort of felt so obvious, you know, with these tunes. And it's, it's kind of like the main things that you've been dealing with, they always rise to the top, you know, no matter how much production you can put on something else. It's always like, the cream rises to the top kind of thing. So yeah, it was quite easy to, to decipher what's good.
This might be another one of those esoteric questions, but in a time where emerging artists in their late teens or early 20s are saying things like they'd never release an album, you know, Spotify this, playlist that, EP the other, so what does the album as a medium mean to you in 2022?
Yeah, that's a good question, because I just struggle every day with what's happening out there. You know, it's a mess, and the numbers don't reflect the quality. You know, it's, it's all a paradox, like someone's singing and swearing their face off, you know, might have 50 million plays. But it's quite an X rated generation and they don't really know what they want. It's just sort of, they're getting fed it and it's the easiest way to feed it beacuse it just soaks into that culture. And it's like, the low ball kind of, yeah, the low hanging fruit kind of thing, and I just try real hard to sort of live in another world that's not "this" musical world and just make great records. And yeah, I just do what I've always done like all the guys that I love, from Walt Disney to the guy that started Lego, they were talking about quality is the best business model. And that's all you can do.
You brought up the force feeding and this X rated generation and it reminded me - I was joking recently with a friend about remembering buying your first CD that had an explicit language or like 18+ sticker on it when you were a kid and like, really feeling like you were getting away with something, you know?
Yeah, it's dangerous, man. It's a dangerous world. And you see what's happening with the crime and everything. It's just all reflected in society and it's kind of scary, Yeah, I just struggle with social media, because it's like, the vanity these days translates to commerce, you know, so it's like, if I can talk more about my generation, and I, about Me, me, me, it could translate into... Yeah, it's just a strange thing, and I can't look at it.
Do you think, from an artist's point of view, that social media is basically a necessary evil?
Yeah. Yeah, it is. And it's hard, because you gotta go with the way the world's gone. Right? You got to, it's like, it's like my business to live in the culture. So it's like, how do you be, you know all the preachers say "be in the world, but not of the world" *laughs*
It's like it's like a real fine line. Yeah, you have to use that. But yeah, man, I gotta filter myself of looking at that because I see someone playing to a stadium or, you know, this guy's just sold this art for this amount and I just go into this spiral like, immediately like, you know, you've lost and you're just living in the 1840s or something. And yeah, you're 3000 years old *laughs*
I'd probably rather be in the 1840s sometimes *laughs* You said people playing stardiums which makes me wonder about how the tracks on Listen to the Water are translating live? Is that something you think about when putting a record together, like "how can I play this live"?
Totally, I've been rehearsing and I'm just working out how to, yeah, put it together, you know, get it going. When that'll be, when the tour I'm not really too sure, but it'll be fun, you know, because the songs are so chill and it's the complete opposite of Empire. Empire I'd have to like warm up for eight hours and wear super tight pants just to hit the falsetto, you know, where this is the opposite where it's in my low voice and all of that, like Don Williams or Willie Nelson. It's really, really chill so it should be fun.
My first thoughts now were getting your old man [Rick Steele] on tour for some of the gigs or something?
Yeah, we talked about it the other day. When we toured US, we did Vegas and Reno and all that I brought him on the road to support Empire, but this would be a great tour for him to come on and play some harmonica.
So the album's out Friday, Friday the 13th - does that mean anything to you at all?
I was born on the 13 so, I don't know, maybe that's why I'm all over the shop. Yeah a few people have said that so yeah, who knows? I kind of got pretty immune now to just not really expecting much you know, that sounds like a bit of a pessimistic maybe attitude, but I think the way the industry is now, you just have to put records out and you know I've always said songs will find the people that need to hear em, you know, and it is quite amazing who ends up hearing them sometimes.
Do you have an example of a very random person who's ended up hearing them?
Yeah, places all around the world from like Mongolia to this and that, but it was when we played a show in Lithuania on the border of Belarus, in a castle. And it was 15,000 people who knew every single Empire of the Sun song and was singing every lyric and that was like, "Wow, no one ever told me the songs made it to Lithuania".
Is that like a Spielberg kind of feeling then?
Unreal. Awesome, Luke, thanks so much for chatting, hopefully some Australian shows for the record sometime?
Definitely. Yeah, yeah. Thanks for the chat dude.