Empire of the Sun chose an unlikely place to kick off the tour for the duo’s highly anticipated sophomore album, “Ice On The Dune” (due June 18 on Astralwerks). Rather than an indie-rock festival like Coachella or Bonnaroo, the high-concept electronic pop band made its stage return at the Electric Daisy Carnival in New York Saturday night (May 18), where it was one of only three live acts on a bill headlined by many of the moment’s biggest DJs like Calvin Harris, Afrojack and Steve Angello.
Debuting a new production that includes elaborate headpieces, bright lights and a rotation of dancers who change costumes nearly every song, the band’s set was heavy on new tracks like “Old Flavours” and “Celebrate” with old favorites like “Tiger By My Side” and “Breakdown” woven in for good measure. And to cap off the nearly hour-long set, seemingly to reward the thousands of fans who chose the band’s set over Afrojack’s competing show on the main stage, frontman Luke Steele smashed his guitar at the end of “Walking On A Dream” — a pleasant reminder of the theatrics a live band can pull off, even at an EDM event.
The booking was selected in part because of Empire of the Sun’s grandiose stage show pairs well with the strobes-and-stilts staging that many DJs are favoring on the festival circuit. But the band is also making intentional strides toward the EDM community with its remixes, recruiting David Guetta and Zedd to remix lead single “Alive” with other A-list DJs in the works for future singles.
That’s why Saturday marked a major milestone in the evolution of Empire of the Sun, which began in 2008 as an experimental side project to Steele and producer Nick Littlemore’s day jobs in other bands like The Sleepy Jackson and Pnau, respectively. But 2008’s "Walking on a Dream" became a surprise sleeper hit in the States, catching the interest of A-listers like Jay-Z (who enlisted Steele for guest vocals on 2009’s "The Blueprint Vol. 3") and taking the band’s theatrical live show around the world several times from 2009 through the end of 2011. The album was re-released with a deluxe version by Astralwerks and eventually sold 84,000 copies (according to Nielsen SoundScan), peaking at No. 25 on the Heatseekers chart.
Given all the unexpected success, it’s no small feat that "Ice On The Dune" turned out to be a continuation of the cinematic sound and themes that helped Empire of the Sun break out in the first place. Produced again by Littlemore, his Pnau partner Peter Mayes and Donnie Sloan, Dune’s 12 tracks are even brisker in tempo and more uplifting in spirit than their predecessors, blending Eurodance, glam rock and Aboriginal flavors of their native country Australia. “Alive” has a shout-along chorus made for the festivals the band will play throughout the year, while songs like “DNA” and “Concert Pitch” are high-impact dance tracks that expand on the futuristic vibes of previous hits like “We Are The People” and “Standing On The Shore.”
“With the first album we were just playing around — we didn’t realize what we were playing with were atomic energy melodies that would resonate with people from Peru to Paraguay to Tokyo to London,” Littlemore says. “The second time around you have that feeling of, ‘Wow this is important.’ You kind of put these limitations on yourself these bars you have to get above. We had to create obstacles so we could have move through those to be natural again.”
Part of those challenges included recording in the States for the first time shortly after the last leg of Steele’s tour with Empire of the Sun had wrapped (Littlemore doesn’t tour with the group.) Recording in New York, Los Angeles and several other cities soon followed, at one point bringing in outside collaborators like Benny Blanco whose sessions were ultimately scrapped. “Every time we got together it unraveled another layer, like an onion skin, getting closer to that core that reminded us that Empire is about surrendering to something greater than the music,” Littlemore says. “It’s more important than the people involved making it.”
And where Empire of the Sun’s ambitious tour took more than a year to put together after "Walking On A Dream’s" release in 2008, it’s a central part of the launch for "Ice On The Dune." After Electric Daisy, the band has festival stops at Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, Hard, and the Jay-Z-curated Budweiser Made In America on the books. The band will also make its US TV debut on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” this summer, a key part of driving instant awareness for Astralwerks general manager Glenn Mendlinger. “The way the campaign rolled out last time, there was no real strategy behind it because things were so disjointed and there was no way to do TV at the time,” he says. “Now we have a much more surgical and strategic approach to doing an event and amplifying it to the fans. Having the band in-market his much with two, three waves of activity is so helpful.”
Expect another tour with lavish costumes, acrobatic choreography and heightened production — Steele is rumored to have poured over $400,000 of his own money into the tour. “I lost money for 15 years. It’s like everything now, you put the artist first and the money will come,” Steele says. “The volume’s turned up more this time, the stage is bigger, the girls’ busts are bigger, my guitars are more colorful, I look fitter. The restaurant’s gotten a Gordon Ramsay makeover, as it were.”