PNAU Talk The Benefits Of Skype, Elton John’s Tutelage And Moving On From Strawberry Suits

The PNAU fraternity comprised of Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes has had an extended absence from their home town, Sydney, over the past twelve months. In the studio writing tunes, structuring songs over email and workshopping collaborations to produce their fourth studio album Soft Universe has been the duo’s focus – whenever Nick could take a break from his role as Musical Director of the new Cirque du Soleil show. Now they’ve come home to play the headline spot on Big Day Out’s Converse Essential Stage. Pedestrian had a chat to Peter when he touched down in Sydney to discuss their welcome homecoming, hanging with mentor Elton John and the band’s new musical direction…

Hi Peter. Hi Ashley how you doing man?

I’m very well. Where are you? What have you been up to today? I’m in Sydney actually. At my apartment and I am talking to you. Where are you?

I’m sitting in a hallway with a laptop on my knees and I’m talking to you. I could tell it was a hallway. It sounds a bit reverberant, a bit corridor-y.

Glad to be home obviously…It’s been amazing. I’ve come out from a long dark winter and six hours of daylight into the tropics. It’s just beautiful. I love being here. And we just love Big Day Out it’s such a great festival to play and it’s always fun. They take care of you and they’re really great people to work for. The crowds are always amazing so it’s great to be back for this.

I guess we should talk about this new album. What for you, is the most exciting thing about putting out this new record? I guess for any artist it’s the feeling of moving forward. We tend to take a long time making records, sometime to our detriment, but it’s very exciting because it’s an evolution of where we’re at musically. We did the last record which was quite electronic and punchy and upfront and then we did the Empire Of The Sun record and you can see how we changed the way we wrote songs on that. Again on this record you can hear what sounds like a natural progression to me.

You use terms like evolution, moving forward and natural progression – what for you is the biggest songwriting evolution this time round? I just think we’re a lot more…not traditional…but this is a much more vocal record. It’s all about Nick’s voice and his experiences in his life lyrically. Some of that is quite dark and we juxtapose that with brighter sounding, more positive music. So it’s an interesting combination, obviously we’re not the first people to do it but it’s something that we like. Our aim is to put light and positivity into the world. And with these songs, they obviously have a deep personal meaning for Nick, but for everyone else they’ll take their own thing from it.

Just on evolving with Empire Of The Sun which both of you were heavily involved with. Do you see that as a kind of roadmap between the last PNAU record and this one? I think it is in the sense that you do one thing, then you do the next, then you do the next and you can’t help but mix everything up. That’s just the way we are. I don’t think you’re necessarily going to hear this new record and think “this sounds like Empire Of The Sun” because it doesn’t. It’s a very different band, it’s a very different voice to Luke. But you can hear the natural evolution. Have you heard any of the new record?

No I haven’t actually. I’ve only heard thirty seconds of “The Truth”. I’m sitting in the dark. I’ll send you a copy (laughs) I don’t think a lot of people have heard it yet. But it’s a record we should have made – we didn’t have any intentions at all stylistically – but I think if anything, we made this record to tour. To me these songs feel like they would be great to play in a live venue and they’re reaching out to the back. They’re not small closed off songs they’re quite large and expansive. They’re quite positive too. Reach for the sky kind of music.

And at what intervals did you work on this album. I know Nick was busy with Cirque du Soleil stuff and whatnot… A lot of the time we were in different countries and I mean, Skype, amazing. When you’re not together it can really help the process. And every song is different sometimes it’ll start with a keyboard part or a lyric or a melody or just a beat and sometimes Nick will just send me a vocal that he’s recorded with no music and I’ll write something for that. It’s different every time but we’ve managed to do it. Nick’s been living in Canada for the last few months but he’s been in England most of the time and we did some work in LA and New York and collaborated with a lot with other people which is what we always do. The difference this time is that we’re not collaborating with other vocalists because on this record Nick is the voice.

In that sense do you think it’s the truest representation of the band? Absolutely. Absolutely. And the lyrics are very honest. He doesn’t hide away from what he’s feeling. Nick is a very emotional person and he’s great at writing lyrics you know? He’s telling his story to the world of what’s happened in his life in the last couple of years. I do feel like it’s an honest representation, definitely. And live it feels that way too. It feels more coherent like a record that has a particular sound even though we never sat down and said “let’s make it sound like this”. Like I said, things evolve and it’s the body of work that we have right now. And the next record will probably be quite different.

Is this the first time you’ve written songs via correspondence? Yeah, mainly. Like we’ve done little things before. But in the sense that our lifestyles have lead us to different parts of the world, this is the first time we’ve worked in this way. I mean, most of it we wrote in a room together but I guess the point is we can also do that when we’re on opposite sides of the world. Creatively it really opens things up. You can work with anyone from anywhere. You meet people and they’re scattered all over the world you can stay in contact with them and make music with them. Which is amazing when I’m just sitting in my little studio in London.

So you mentioned guests on the album. Could you shed some light on who you enlisted this time? We collaborated with a lot of people but we wrote with a writing team in LA called Scott Cutler and Anne Preven we collaborated with a guy in New York whose done The Cure records and Cyndi Lauper and David Byrne. Big sort of 80s and 90s records. But these were people that we knew or that our manager knew it wasn’t like “Let’s go and write with Max Martin and have a big Swedish pop hit”. It wasn’t so calculated. The guys in LA were people that Nick had worked with before and we went over there and it worked really well. It’s just like anything, a musical relationship is just like any other relationship, it either works or it doesn’t. But we’ve always collaborated and we just want to make the best record we can. If that means working with other people then that’s what we’re going to do. But as I said this record is about Nick’s Voice. It’s a record of songs. Much more so than we’ve ever done before, even more than the Empire record.

I know you must get asked this a lot but right up to this second what has Elton John’s tutelage added to Pnau? We just owe him so much, I mean, he kind of saved us. He found us a couple of years ago in Australia and he basically helped us move to the UK and we’re managed by his management company. He’s been a real mentor to us and a good friend too, musically and otherwise. If we’re down he’ll help us. He’s just someone who’s there to help. If we write a great track he’ll tell us. If we write a bad track he’ll tell us. He’s very honest and very generous with his time.

Just finally, new album, in your own words more expansive, more coherent, intended more for the live environment. Does this mean no more strawberries for this new album tour? Yeah we’re kind of moving away from that acid cartoon thing we did on the last record. Nick always says “we feel like every record is a debut record” so for every record you want to do something new and it’s almost like a new band. I mean, it still sounds like Pnau but it’s very different to the last record. In a couple of years your writing should develop quite a lot, and we generally spend a while making records. But yeah, this record is about putting light and positivity into the world.

Thanks for your time Peter. Cheers mate.