FEATURE: PNAU

"Music is a form of therapy and what kind of therapist would I be if I told my patients to jump in the lake…"

They say things come in threes and this certainly applies to Nick Littlemore’s life right now.

He has just moved to New York City, has a new girlfriend, and this week his long-term dance-pop project, Pnau, drop their fourth album, Soft Universe.

“It’s all coming up trumps, ” he says on the phone from London.

“I do miss Australia though. I miss the nature and I miss my parents … I miss my brother and the ocean. Oh my God, how much do Australians talk about the ocean when they’re overseas,” he laughs.

“We must need to be near a body of water. It’s like we need to know how isolated we are — to look into that everlasting horizon.”

Apart from obvious bouts of homesickness for hometown Sydney, Littlemore and his musical partner-in-crime, Peter Mayes, moved to London many years ago, built a studio and began working on a record that would hopefully propel them to the next level — in a not too dissimilar fashion to Littlemore’s last successful record, Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun, which he created with Perth’s own Luke Steele.

“When we first arrived in England we had a manager who used to run a label called Island Records in the UK in the 70s and 80s and he worked with a lot of big bands like U2, The Bangles and all kinds of stuff.

Initially the plan was to reframe us as a stadium band,” he reveals. “We’re not denying our roots — that we come from the dance world, but over the course of this record it became more about being truer to the songs.

"It went through many incarnations. I don’t think we set out to make a big pop record, but we did set out to make something that was more global than anything we had done before and that could reach a wider audience.”

An expansive pop record is what Soft Universe certainly is. It’s emotional and anthemic as Pnau records tend to be, but this time it’s more song-based, as opposed to being tailored for the dance-floor and it sends out positive life-affirming messages.

While it tackles some bleak subject matters — Littlemore wrote this album while dealing with the grief of a relationship break-up — the vibe is most definitely euphoric.

“I think it was a message to my future self that life is full of hope and wonder,” he says openly.

“There are so many magical things about our lives; to find the extraordinary within the ordinary and to punch a hole in the sky … There’s always light to be found.

"This doesn’t have to be taken in any religious context, but when you’re beaten down you can always get back up and come back stronger than you’ve ever been before.

“This record had to be uplifting because ultimately, music is a form of therapy and what kind of therapist would I be if I told my patients to jump in the lake,” he says.

They wrote numerous songs with their mentor, Elton John, but none of those actually made it on to this record. Littlemore says Pnau produced over 50 songs in their own London studio, in Sir Elton John’s studio in Atlanta, plus in studios in Los Angeles and New York. Elton John has had a huge influence on the duo.

“He has brought a new perspective to any kind of artistic endeavour or creative venture,” he says.

“He’s allowed us to dream as big as we can dream and let nothing stand in the way of that. It’s a beautiful thing to be given a sense of belief and trust that what we’re doing is good and vital and that we should continue to reach further within our own world to come up with more challenging things.

“He’s also a very funny man — bright, sharp and generous. He cracks me up a lot when we hang out and talk, I find myself laughing.”

While the record itself took about two and a half years to make, for 12 months Littlemore was based in Montreal, Canada to work on the music for the new Cirque du Soleil production called Zarkana, which debuted in New York last month.

“I’m just making the album for the show now,” he says. “It’s very psychedelic, it reminds me of Clockwork Orange come Nina Hagen in an acid bath — it’s pretty out there. There’s some crooning and the ghost of Elvis past. I think it’s going to be a cool album, really weird.

“It’s been a big experience. I got very emotional. I started crying every day towards the end because I was so exhausted; it was intense.”

Littlemore reveals he’d love to do more of that type of work in the future, liking the fact it’s more like a day job, but his other recording project, Empire of the Sun, is already under way writing album number two.

“We just started writing two or three weeks ago in New York, ” he says. “Luke and I got into a studio, which was run by blind people — it was great. It’s good to be in weird places with Luke, we enjoy that. He has an extraordinary mind — it’s sounding so good.”
RACHEL DAVISON

THE PLUG: Soft Universe is out now.

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