We chat with Pnau
It’s a story so remarkable it almost seems fabricated.
Elton John is stranded between a ute and two Linfox trucks in Sydney’s notorious peak-hour car park. Pnau’s ‘Wild Strawberries’ comes over the wireless and Elton’s ears prick up. He immediately orders a hundred odd copies of their self-titled album from the now-defunct Virgin Megastore in Darling Harbour.
John declares it’s the best thing he’s heard in a decade. It’s the highest level of praise directed at an Australian group since John Lennon told the world he’d “made love” to the tune of Little River Band’s ‘Reminiscing’ during a weekend away from Yoko.
A few months later, the British icon relocates Pnau members Peter Mayes and Nick Littlemore to London and takes over management. If that wasn’t enough, he lets the boys loose on his catalogue and gives them permission to do with it as they wish.
Who said romanticism in music was dead?
Given this experience, you’d think the last thing Peter Mayes wants to discuss is the new record of his other musical ventrue, Empire Of The Sun. Surely Good Morning To The Night, the dazzling end result of the Pnau vs. Elton John collaboration, would be at the forefront of discussions.
Not so, it seems.
“I’m in Miami working on the new Empire record with Pharrell [Williams] and Chad [Hugo] from The Neptunes,” Mayes says with barely a question posed. “We’ve written a lot of tracks and it’s going really well. It feels like a natural progression from the last record but in a more powerful way.”
“We’ve all come a long way since we did that record five years ago,” he adds. “We’ve developed our chops a bit since then.”
Mayes, the oft-forgotten producer behind Empire Of The Sun (along with the oft-remembered Luke Steele and Pnau partner Nick Littlemore), later notes a release in early 2013 is possible. Just like that, a key question regarding one of Australia’s most highly anticipated sophomore albums is answered. Mayes hadn’t even had the opportunity to answer what it was like to develop a kinship with one of the most successful artists of all time yet.
When Mayes does get around to chatting about Elton John, his enthusiasm is similar to a 10-year-old talking about a recent trip to Disneyland. “I can’t even describe his talent,” he exclaims, “it’s well beyond anything we (Pnau) could ever achieve.”
“To be honest, he was the easiest artist we’ve ever worked with. Musicality really just flows through him. He was so cool about everything and a negative word was never uttered, it was always encouragement,” Mayes says.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Elton John is not someone who gravitates toward nostalgic sentimentality. He is, as Mayes puts it, “obsessed with the future.” His work with the likes of Kanye West, LeAnn Rimes and the Scissor Sisters tends to suggest a man not preoccupied with recoiling into familiarity.
Good Morning To The Night is an off-shoot of his forward-thinking philosophy. All of the tracks are masterfully crafted with material from John’s hazy early-seventies period, including cuts from less-obvious LPs like The Thom Bell Sessions and Empty Sky.
For Mayes and Littlemore, it was a case of selecting tracks that weren’t going to cause a riot amongst Elton diehards. “We spent months absorbing the material and getting our heads into Elton’s career in a really in-depth way. We wanted to discover tracks that we didn’t know a lot about.”
“No one needs to hear a new version of ‘Rocket Man’, ‘Tiny Dancer’ or ‘Your Song’,” explains Mayes. “The original versions of those are perfect and so ingrained in peoples’ consciousness. What we wanted to do was make it more artful and combine as many songs as possible into one.”
The months of late night studio sessions appears to have paid dividends. The launch single and title track, ‘Good Morning To The Night’, was specially selected as one of five songs for the London 2012 Olympics. Another cut, ‘Sad,’ is an equally impressive electro track that kicks with a laid-back Sunday morning groove.
The LP also topped the UK albums chart upon release. There is a sense of irony within this achievement that is not lost on Mayes. “I always joke that we had to leave the UK to have success there,” he says with a chuckle. “We lived there for four or five years and as soon as we had to leave we have a number one record.”
Although intended as tongue-in-cheek, it seems the tonic for Pnau’s success is a shift in surroundings.
“There’s only so much you can do back home because of the size of the population and the geographical location,” Mayes says. “I lived in Australia for 27 years and loved it. It was a great lifestyle. At the end of the day, though, it’s been more beneficial for us to be located near places like New York, LA and London.”
“I firmly believe that the more you go to new places to make music the more your surroundings have a mass impact on what you do,” Mayes adds.
What location Mayes has in mind to trump working with Elton John is anyone’s guess. John represents the pinnacle of collaboration, an artist equally admired from the sternest of critics to every single drunk who has attempted to emulate that iconic bus scene from Almost Famous.
Indeed, Mayes has a near-impossible task in toppling it.
Oh, and as for that new Empire record?
“It’s interesting to see how other people perceive Empire. We genuinely get a lot of respect from people in the industry and that’s kind of nice,” says Mayes. “The first album really stretched its arms wide. It touched a lot of people which is cool and it’s definitely time for a follow up. I don’t know exactly when it’s coming out, probably early next year. That’s not up to me, that’s more the manager and record label world.”
“I’m just interested in making the best record we can.”
Good Morning To The Night is out now through Universal. You can read the Tone Deaf verdict here.