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Luke Steele Trades Empire For Cabin In The Woods





The surreal nature of an interview with Luke Steele doesn't quite become evident until his face pops up on Zoom and suddenly decades of adoring everything this man has done comes flooding back. His face has been looking back at us from the cover of the hundreds of physical vinyl copies of his debut solo album, Listen To The Water, and now he suddenly comes to life. The beard, the hair and the wide-brimmed hat (which appears to be his new "thing") is all intact much like that cover photograph and, there he is, smiling widely on the computer screen. The guy is a bloody bonafide rockstar, after all. As the singer, the songwriter and the creative front for The Sleepy Jackson (one of the greatest groups of the 2000s), as well as his world-conquering electronic duo with PNAU's Nick Littlemore, Empire Of The Sun. But you already knew all that.

He's surrounded by guitars and with a sneaky road case stamped with "EOTS" (you can work that one out) in the subtle periphery, one can assume he's calling from his home in Los Angeles, but alas, he's calling from a second home he keeps in Malibu - he has actually relocated his whole family for the Summer "to escape the fire season".

Care for his family and stepping up to be the father he believed he needed to be, Steele felt the push to trade an increasingly dangerous, Los Angeles city life for the country. Listen To The Water was then recorded, once he and his family relocated, in a secluded cabin in Northern California, aptly named Eccentric Farm, a quieter and more family-focused environment turned the page to a new chapter for Steele. He had just turned 40 and the isolation gave him the space needed to feel the more difficult emotions; it was time to refocus his energy as a musician and a father.

Entirely written, recorded, mixed and produced by Luke himself, the outing is uniquely different for those familiar with the man. It's an evocative listen, to say the least, but it encourages something closer, perhaps even with headphones and a warm glass of red on your favourite lazyboy by the fire, certainly not as a participant in a hectic crowd watching a headline spot at Glastonbury or Coachella. Considering how familiar we are with him, it's astounding to consider this Steele's debut album, an exercise he's had on his mind for a while, but explains that the timing has never quite been right, until now.

"I was making one, wanting to find it for a long time," he confesses. "In some press, people are like "how'd you find this sound", but I've always had it. I grew up in the blues in Perth and my guitar has always been my best friend, but it's funny how things work, how things move and where you find your life or the time in your life, where you meet your wife or where you find a song. I had to go through the whole process of life experiences to have it all - the subjects to write about - and for it to be that perfect timing. I actually think about that a bit. Like, the year my daughter was born, the Empire [Of The Sun] first came out and we jumped on the train and traveled the whole world and spent the next 10 years doing that. Then the pandemic started - my last show, actually, was in Madrid playing a huge festival with the Smashing Pumpkins and it stopped right then, so then it was time for this. I believe in that, it's all on God's timetable - I've talked about that a lot since I was 20.

"There were certain things in my life and turning 40 [that] I realised," he continues. "People say "Oh it hit me at 30" but there was a bit like the chapter turns and you see the page of the book .... For me, it was a big one - I was in Santa Monica, I was living the high life. I had my 40th at this amazing place where we were living, it was this huge party - Owen Wilson and all these people came along. But it was actually months before that, I felt like something was going to happen, the page was going to turn and we'd have to leave the city. It just so happened that the pandemic happened after that."

Turning 40 will do it to you - it creeps up and enforces reflection and insists you take stock of who you are at that time in your life. Reading between the lines while chatting to Steele, it's been no different for him and reflection was sorely needed.

"My mind is just so fragile," he confesses. "I struggled so much with that last president. I really think the rest of the world saw about one hundredth of what we saw every day on every station - there's this guy just abusing people and bringing in new bills and everything else, right through to the shootings. My five year son and 11 year old daughter were in a lockdown in Santa Monica school, the whole school is surrounded by police because there's this shooter directly across the street and parents aren't allowed to go in. There is my little five year old, hiding under a table."

Needless to say, the quiet of the country and the isolation of the musician seems to have impacted the record. Listen To The Water drifts between starry-eyed folk and warm, atmospheric pop, playing through beautifully as a holistic vision from a youthful soul. It's a marriage, not only of the wide-eyed innocence Steele still clearly possesses as an individual, but also wisdom gathered over a lifetime, wandering through moments filled with mistakes, devastating failures, rock bottom grief and glory. The ranch was a place to come down and grow up, so to speak.

"It's a constant battle for me. They say "Fear needs one piece of information to legitimise itself." So it might be "Oh, your record didn't get high rotation in the US and, it's like, you're finished.” I'm on this train of thought a lot and I struggle a lot with that. The biggest thing I struggle with is confusion. One scripture I always hold onto is "comparison and envy are the thieves of joy." On one hand, it [the album] is doing great - it's being received really well, but if I compare that to some piece of garbage that's sold 10 million copies or what I did 10 years ago even, I get frustrated. You have to navigate your own sanity and, for me, that's staying off social media, that's staying out of the world and making sure I focus on good art. Like Pharrell Williams said to me once, "You just got to focus and look ahead and just every now then, stop and have a look behind you to see how far you've come." There is such a saturation of distractions these days that can take your precious time.

"To put out records these days is so different," he continues. "It's showing my age, I now know how our elders feel. I think that's why I have so much compassion for the older generation. I'm just focussed on the music industry, but they're dealing with the whole world. I mean, what the hell has happened since the '50s?!"

Once you realise what Steele has been through to get to the album, you’ll hear it all clearly, almost like a string of confessions and self-advice. Songs like 'Get Out Now', 'Armageddon Slice' and 'Dark World' emanate the increasing terror of big city life, while 'Common Man', 'Pool Of Love' and 'Gladiator' appear to address his spiritual rebirth. Regardless of any lyrical sentiment, however, visions of water often emerged.

"It definitely did. I mean, I grew up in Perth, on the west coast, surfing from there down to Walpole. I started the record when I got that first line - "Listen to the water / listen to my daughter" - and it was, like, the water is God's swimming pool and there's my daughter, me listening to the innocence of a child. It's more than a convenient rhyme. It says in the scriptures, "come to me as a child, come to me with humility and with a young heart." That started it, but then it was like I dived in and got caught in the current. I love it when that happens and I'm starting to find that a lot more with writing. Like Brian Eno says "Never analyze when you're creating," just keep swimming. That's what happened with that song and it was like little bread crumbs - I would come up and grab a little riff, lyrics, cut the vocal and then finish the track off - every track was done in two days.

"Songs like 'Get Out Now', you can feel it in your heart, you know, I had to make a decision for the family, they're probably not going to like it," Steele recalls. "All those things, but I think I was worrying too much about my hair. <laughs> Deep down I think every man should live in the country for a point in their life just to work how the hell to deal with a 500 pound bear out the front or scorpions or whatever. It was the time for me to go there and deal with all that."

After a career of collaborations, Steele admits he was humbled by the process of suddenly working alone, but ultimately, despite "a few moments of insanity with mixing", he loved the process and learned a LOT.

"I like to think that I'm always learning something. Like Spielberg says, "Each year, you're a different person." I feel that - there have been a lot of lessons and having to trust the process a bit more. Over the past so-many years, you want to construct it in a way you think, but it's good to just be quite loose with how the process is going to go. That's what was so great on this record - we shot all the videos ourselves, I produced it all myself and I think I was spending that many years before trying to build up the confidence. It's funny how you can be someone like me and work with all these people, but still trying to build ultimate confidence.

"There are patterns and habits in collaborations," he continues. "With Empire [Of The Sun], we had a certain flow of how to do things, and the same thing with DREAMS [another electronic project with Daniel Johns]. It's just a natural thing with collaborating, there are things that I do that other people don't do - I'll push the preamp, I'll cut my vocals a different way, I'll have the gain higher and sing lower or have the guitars louder. I love that because I was like, "hang on a sec, there's no one here telling me I can't do that." I always knew I could do it."

While he remains Mum about another album from Empire Of The Sun or an unfinished record from The Sleepy Jackson, he does say just how incredibly inspired he is for writing music at the moment.

"Just recently, I read this - "Music has the fourth dimensional quality which has the power to release the soul from imprisonment. It makes wonderful things seem possible, and easy of accomplishment." That was written by this writer Florence Scovel Shinn in 1935. I found this book and after I read that, it kind of made it obvious to me why it's so addictive and why it's a place you just want to keep living in. To me, talking of the insanity I struggle with, the remedy is living in that place. It makes the impossible seem possible. For me, I just have to keep writing to get something closer to The White Album. <laughs> I'm so inspired now. It's like I've been given these hyper-boots, these power boots where I just have so much music, so many words and so many paintings. It's like the harvest has been given to me. The door is open to the fields - there it is - and I walk into the candy store, have some of that and just keep working. I have such big visions."




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