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If you’re stepped out on the town – or perhaps even out of town – over this New Year’s weekend, you may have just found yourself grooving to the sweet tunes of Pnau.
Speaking with one half of the local electro duo some weeks before Christmas, Pnau member Peter Mayes momentarily emerged from the studio to bask in a Sydney summer’s day and shed some light on the band’s current goings-on.
A man of many bands, Mayes happily gave an update on upcoming albums from Pnau and Empire of the Sun, while also fondly recollecting on the experiences that informed one of this year’s most in-depth releases, Elton John v Pnau.
What are you doing in the studio at the moment?
Peter Mayes: Right now I am really busy finishing [the] Empire of the Sun record that we have been working on for the last year or so, [or] a bit longer. And we’re in the early stages of starting a new Pnau record.
In a previous interview you said with Empire of the Sun it’s important not to make album one, version two. How have you gone about making the new record different from its predecessor?
PM: I don’t know, I mean there’s been so many songs written. I think because of all the people involved – there’s three or four of us involved making this record – and as it’s been four or five years since the last one, inevitability you can’t help but move on.
Everybody’s developed their skills more. We’ve all done a lot of work outside of Empire in the last however many years. I don’t know if it’s really a conscious thing. I don’t think we’re sitting around going, ‘Oh, that guitar sound sounds too much like the [first] record.’ It’s not really like that; it’s more just like, you just end up moving on.
It’s just what artists do. It’s what excites people, creatively.
On Empire of the Sun’s Facebook page there’s a post that reads: “Each day is a new discovery in melody and Mysticism”. What exactly is going on inside the studio?
PM: It’s very hard to describe, because we’ve been in there a lot. But basically, I mean, you would probably describe it better, but we’re just in there making a record (laughs).
To me it’s just the same as every other day in my life, except different people. I mean, having a guy like Luke (Steele) to work with is…incredible… And one thing that Nick (Littlemore) and I try to do as much as we can in life is to work with incredibly talented singers and artists.
And when you’ve got a voice that is special and communicates to people in a certain way, then you’ve got a true gift. And Luke has that. And he’s an amazing guy to work with, I mean he’s so creative.
When he gets on the microphone you’re like, ‘Oh, my god!’ He is an amazing talent. So that’s what we try and do. That’s what’s been going on in the studio. He’s been singing and we’ve been like, ‘Wow!’
I mean, we do work very hard, you know, this is an important record because the last one was really quite a success all over the world. And obviously a lot of ARIA Awards and all that kind of crap. But really, it was not just a success here, it was a success pretty much everywhere.
So there’s a lot of pressure now, that wasn’t there on the first record, to make something really special. And that’s cool, we’re used to that. But it’s something that [you have] to forget about when you’re in the studio.
When you’re in the studio you have to forget about all your problems and whatever argument you had that morning, or whatever, and you just have to make a record. That’s when you do your best work, when you abandon all rational thought (chuckles) and just let the creativity flow.
So in some ways, for you making music is a form of meditation and mediation?
PM: Absolutely. Absolutely. Without a doubt…
As you said, you’ve just started the new Pnau record. Has studying Elton John’s music so closely taught you anything about songwriting that you might hope to implement on Pnau’s next record?
PM: Yeah, I mean there’s no way you can’t learn from that experience. I mean, being given all the track recordings for one of the greatest artists of our time and in the history of pop music, or recorded music even, it is an incredible gift…it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Gus Dudgeon is an amazing producer and Bernie Taupin, his songwriting partner, is a genius. So being surrounded by such talent and being such a talent himself, and having the recordings, being able to really delve into that, is an education that you could never receive from any school. It’s like a free mentorship in how to make a classic record, it’s incredible.
I mean, I think we learn from every record that we do… When we made the last Empire record it was a really interesting experience for us because it happened really quickly and it just flowed and there was not a lot of pressure. It just happened really fast, which is always great…
But doing an Elton record and having so much great content, you know, he’s done over six hundred songs in his career. So having such a breadth of incredible material to work with and what is essentially his life’s work…you can’t help but learn from that. How could anyone not learn from that?
Did you discover any instruments that you are now eager to try out on your own music?
PM: That’s an interesting question (laughs). To be honest, [being] the kind of guys that we are, electronic music guys, I think we’re actually pretty [much] into most of the weird instruments out there (chuckles).
But that’s interesting. I have to think now because there’s so much stuff. I think in a way, not really (chuckles), but I think we kind of learnt, if anything, obviously how to construct good songs, but also how often a song can be made up of very few elements and be really powerful.
And that’s a lesson that’s really hard to teach yourself today because there’s no limit. The computers that we use are so powerful that you can just go on and on and add and add more and more stuff ’til it really becomes a bit of a blur …
Is it true that Pnau have written a couple of originals with Elton John that might find their way onto the next album?
PM: Yeah, actually no, we’re [not sure] what exactly is happening with those songs right now. But we have worked with him (Elton John) in the studio before.
Obviously he wasn’t there when we made the Elton John v Pnau record. He is a guy who … he’s the opposite of us. He’ll come into the studio, write a song, you know, a real musician and genius, he’ll write a song in ten or twenty minutes and record it. And he’ll make a whole record in, like, two weeks. So we’re very different to that. We take a long time and we really labour over the sonics, and we really flesh it out in a different way to him.
But writing with him was such … again an incredible education, and also very humbling because we can’t work like that… You put some lyrics in front of him and he will literally sit down and might quietly sing to himself. So quiet that you can’t even hear…but then he’ll just play out the song, it’s crazy.
All his hits were done in exactly the same way. So Rocket Man, Tiny Dancer, whatever you can think of, Bennie and the Jets, these incredible pieces of music history were all done that way…
Pick a bunch of lyrics and then, ‘bang’, you have a hit song; you have an incredible piece of art in front of you. And the way he does it, that’s what makes him a true genius, apart from his incredible performances and all that, and the great personality that he is.
His genius, when you see that, it’s really crazy. And in a way you probably wouldn’t believe it until you saw it because it just seems … at least as a songwriter you’re like, ‘Wow! How is that possible?’…
I mean songs generally do emerge within a day. The basic framework of a song can emerge very quickly, but to sit down and play a song from beginning to end purely from your head, I mean lyrics aside, but the music and the melody and the harmonic structure of the music is just flowing out of him. It’s an amazing thing.
Pnau and Elton John recently performed together in Sydney. It’s not the first time you two have played live together, but was it a special experience sharing the stage in front of an Australian audience?
PM: Absolutely. I mean, playing in Australia is something we always like to do. And as Pnau, it’s the place where we still have the most success. Yeah, especially in Sydney, people are very receptive to us, it’s our hometown and all that. It’s always an amazing thing to be given the opportunity to play with Elton on that stage; it was definitely a moment that we’ll never forget.
It’s definitely the gig you’d invite your parent to, you know what I mean. My family [are] very musical people, but you don’t want them to come to some crappy show that you’re doing that’s only half attended or whatever. You want them to see the good ones.
But that was probably only the second time, I think, that they’d seen me play in Pnau. So that was a good one. It was a real moment.
Pnau reworked some of Elton John’s classics but not necessarily his commercial hits. Do you think Elton has been rejuvenated in a way now that Pnau has revived some of his forgotten gems?
PM: I hope so. It’s more for you to say than for me to say, but I hope so. I mean, that was the idea: to present him [Elton John] in a different way, a way that he hadn’t been presented before.
The options were endless; we could’ve done anything. Obviously, there are musical [and] technical limitations to what you can do, but really, if we wanted to do a new version of Rocket Man or Tiny Dancer or whatever, we could have.
But there didn’t seem a point. Those version that exist are, for want of a better word, perfect. And they’re ingrained in the public’s consciousness, and it doesn’t seem to make any sense to try and improve or to change that in any way …
How could it really be better than the original? And if anything, all you’re going to get is slander for doing something like that. And, you know, obviously this is a sensitive thing, [working] with somebody’s masterpieces.
Whether they’re hits or not from the past, it doesn’t matter. There are people who are like, ‘What the hell are doing?’ (laughs) … So it’s a love/hate thing this record. You either understand it and you get it and you see that it is the greatness that it is, or you turn your back on it.
And it’s interesting if you look on iTunes, most of the reviews are either five stars or one star (chuckles). Luckily most of them are five stars, which does help. We’ve had a really positive reaction for this record.
But we always knew there were going to be people … because Elton is so … I mean it never stopped. He’s a guy who’s had success in every decade. And I don’t really think there are any other artists that have done that.
He’s like the fifth highest-selling artist of all time or something crazy like that. But he has really, really loyal diehard fans that will always love him. And we always knew there was going to be a backlash. I mean, it’s just inevitable.
As I said, we did make a fairly conscious decision to stay away from the hits because there’s so many of them. But also there are so many incredible grooves and ideas and melodies in everything that we had full access to …
Any New Year resolutions for Pnau in 2013?
PM: I guess the New Year resolution for Pnau would be to make an incredible record. I mean, what more do you need than that (chuckles). We’re in the very early stages of making the record, we haven’t really done that much stuff, but that’s the best thing we can do: keep giving something to people and hopefully they will react to it and connect with it.