The world is full of bad news. The man on the TV says it’s us against them. The kids today all grow up too fast. The ice caps are melting, the Great Barrier Reef is dying, and the latest report says we’re past the point of no return. You step outside and expect disaster, but somehow, the sun still shines. If you wave to your neighbor, she may wave back, but you don’t know until you try.
It’s just like Empire of the Sun‘s Luke Steele sings on “Ride”: “Don’t go falling away … Don’t you turn into waste. We’ve got it made, you and me. Together, we can do it.”
That’s the vibe of Two Vines, Empire of the Sun’s lush and verdant album of relentless hope. It’s got all the colorful vibrance of the duo’s previous efforts, but something about it is even more perfected.
“We’re just going deeper into paradise,” Steele says. “Each record, you explore how much further you can go. We’re always talking about that unexplainable feeling of waking up on a long beach and the sun’s rising. You can hear the birds, and they’re talking to each other; talking about their plans of flying for the day and where they’ll go and have breakfast. The dolphins are swimming, and you hear the waves tickling each other as they land on the shore.”
That’s as picturesque as you might imagine from a band as visually delightful as Empire of the Sun, but it’s not as metaphorical as you’d think. Much of Two Vines was recorded in Hawaii, a place that infects one with a sense of joy and wonder.
“It’s inevitable,” Steele says. “It’s kind of like going to a Kraftwerk concert and not being inspired by the future.”
Whatever wasn’t written and recorded among those golden sands was conceived and created in the imaginative mecca of Jim Henson studios. The soul of those rooms forever glows with the magic of Michael Jackson, Carole King, George Harrison and the rest of the genius minds who’ve touched its mixing boards.
“Making records is still an art form no matter what people say,” Steele says. “Great records are still made the same way, and that’s in great studios with great instruments. Old guitars and old gear still sound great, you know. When we were working there, I got to the front door, and Paul McCartney’s there. He opened the door for me and said ‘after you, mate.’”
That, too, could easily be a metaphor for Empire of the Sun’s nostalgic sound. Steele and partner Nick Littlemore take their role in the ever-unfolding heritage of good music very seriously. Perhaps that’s what drew toward them Two Vines‘ impressive cast of collaborators.
The 11-track LP (15 if you count deluxe bonus material) is blessed with piano and bass from David Bowie band members Henry Hey and Tim Lefebvre, respectively. A chance encounter with Wendy Melvoin of Prince’s The Revolution begat brilliant progressions on “Ride,” and a beautiful blossom of friendship brought Fleetwood Mac‘s Lindsey Buckingham to lend his legacy to the sweet and soulful “To Her Door.”
“We reached out, and he was really into the band,” Steele says. “We asked if he would come down to our studios, and he’s just such a humble legend. We spent about eight hours just trading licks and jamming. ‘To Her Door’ was born out of that session, and he came back the next day and brought his son. He’s just become the godfather to us, the godfather of so many things; production, artistry. It’s kind of amazing.”
While the creative process flowed organically, and it wasn’t with any great intention that a storyline be created, a thematic feeling did eventually emerge. Throughout press tours and world travelings in support of sophomore LP Ice on the Dune, Littlemore kept conjuring a picture in his comments and in his mind. What if one day, he walked outside of his New York City apartment and found that the city had been taken over by vines?
What if they’d crept around the bellies of cars and hugged all the shining buildings? It was an image fed by Hawaii’s landscape, and it helped that a tree was practically growing into their hotels room. In Los Angeles, when Steele drove to Henson studios with his sun roof exposed, two vines fell into his lap at a red light. Yes, the album title literally fell into his lap.
From the stage to the studio, on film and on recordings, Empire of the Sun is surrounded by an atmosphere of fairy tales. Steele is quick to remind folks, this is no tall fable. This is still real life.
“There’s so many more facades, charades, and mirages; disguises and masks that you’ve got to be careful,” he says. “People need to be confident and have a strong vision to survive in this distorted world. How do people survive through the storm of distortion? A lot of the time with Empire it’s like ‘oh, it’s theatrical, imaginative’ — and it is, but we’re talking about real things. Kids need a dream, bigger dreams than what the world says. It’s not just about getting on the voice and being a YouTube sensation. It’s about fulfilling the will of God within yourself.”