Thursday, July 28, 2011

PNAU Re-Working Elton's Classic Tunes

Pnau's uplifting electro-pop comes approved by the piano man, writes Craig Mathieson.

It is, for Nick Littlemore at least, something of an average day. The Pnau frontman is in New York, where the previous night the new Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, Zarkana, for which he composed the music, premiered at Radio City Music Hall. In a few hours he will fly to Paris with his girlfriend, on the way to a brief holiday in Avignon, and then it's on to London to rehearse for Pnau's forthcoming Australian tour.

"I really like working. I enjoy it," says the former University of New South Wales student, who perpetually sounds slightly distracted, as if he can hear in his head the next song he will put together. "Everything feeds into everything for me."

Littlemore is best known as one half of Empire of the Sun - alongside Luke Steele - whose internationally successful 2008 album Walking on a Dream set a trend that's still being played out in electronic music. But it is to Pnau that he's dedicated much of his adult life. Formed as a club music duo with his school friend Pete Mayes in the late '90s, the group has evolved significantly across four albums, the most recent of which is Soft Universe.

The record toughens up and expands the pair's affinity for electronic grooves, making for strident, engorged, stadium-sized pop. Soft Universe is a kind of public journey, transforming the heartbreak Littlemore experienced at the beginning of the record's creation into a kind of sweeping, shared affirmation.

"It was a form of catharsis - making this record was therapy," he says. ''I tried to convince myself to be uplifting. To be down and to make down music has no point. We want to try and make positive music - we always have. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and my throat as well."
The album's key influence was ultimately Elton John, who Littlemore and Mayes met just after they relocated to London several years ago. The veteran superstar took the pair under his wing, signing them to his management company and, in essence, serving as the sounding board for Soft Universe.

Pnau would regularly fly out to wherever John was - whether Los Angeles, Orlando or New York - and play him their songs. In turn, he has trusted the pair with the master recordings of his extensive back catalogue, with Pnau to rework various classics for a new collection.
"We felt like part of the family then,'' Littlemore says. ''It was very special.We've never had that kind of close, trusting relationship with someone else before."

Littlemore himself has undergone change. His work ethic - stamina, Elton John told him, is crucial to building a career - has outlasted his former taste for hedonism and he no longer even drinks alcohol because it affects medication prescribed for an arthritic condition. Alongside the "patient" Mayes, he's thinking two or three albums ahead, having penned a batch of songs with Elton John and also having returned to Empire of the Sun.

"We've [Empire of the Sun] written eight, we'll probably write 80 songs," Littlemore says. "Luke's coming back to New York in late September and we'll keep rolling along. Hopefully we'll get a house in Cambodia or somewhere and set up a studio there to record. We've got to beat what we've done - I feel every record has to beat the last record."

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