PNAU, Standing on Solid Ground
Written for Future Entertainment [on line]
Originally published on July 26, 2011
Unlike its predecessor, 2007’s self-titled release, PNAU’s latest effort, ‘Soft Universe’, was written during a tumultuous period of heartbreak and depression for vocalist and composer, Nick Littlemore.
“It’s a bitter sweet record for me,” he explains, “because, thematically, I was going through a lot of shit with my ex and this was a way of dealing with that, but now I look at some of the lyrics and [think] ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I wrote that.’”
The new record, the fourth studio album from the Australian, and now UK and US based outfit, was influenced by Littlemore’s bout of depression; something, which he says, has been a creative presence throughout his life.
“Yeah, I think depression has been my main influence in my whole life… until recently; I fell in love again recently, which is wonderful,” commented Nick, who, escaping London by moving to New York, only a few days past landed in Sydney to a current climate and an atmosphere reminiscent to that of England.
“I just set up house in New York, we just finished in the studio in London – Peter lives there, in London – I just can’t live in London anymore, I just can’t handle it.”
“I need the sky,” he continued, “I need some perspective and I like the American way of life, or maybe the New York way of life, maybe that’s more accurate.”
“It’s really peaceful in that city, I love the galleries… It just feels more grown up for me to be there,” his love for the Big Apple growing more palpable with each word of the explanation, holding great tones of nostalgia.
“I’ve always wanted to live there, I went there first when I was twenty-one, and I loved it so much but it wasn’t time for me to be there, and I always said when I was thirty-five – well I got there a bit earlier than that – it’s a special place. There’s a great energy, and songs write themselves there. There’s such a history of creation and ideas and modernism. It’s great.”
A man that is admittedly driven by his sentiment, Nick stated that his is not good at hiding his emotion, something that overtly comes through in his writing.
“I think that I’m so driven by my emotions that it’s hard to get away from that,” he said. “Whenever you shoot something out of your mouth it tends to be about what’s really going on.”
His feeling toward the release of Soft Universe came forth as nonchalant and his humble character was under no solid expectations. “I have no aspirations of grandeur,” he affirmed, before explaining the differences behind the new album as compared to their earlier efforts.
“Yeah, it felt like a natural progression from our point of view, to step up to the plate I guess, and after the Empire [Empire Of The Sun] thing to kind of do something more vocal for PNAU.”
Only recently completing their studio rehearsals for the forthcoming Australian tour, Nick is optimistic about their live performance, a positivity coming through his voice as he spoke about the impending shows.
“It will be interesting to perform it,” he asserted, “we were rehearsing in the day time, as I popped over for a week… and it feels really good, it’s quite legitimate, we sing and play it acoustically – which is kind of amazing for us, because we’ve always been so electronic and backing-track based.”
He continued, “like Daft Punk, or any of those people, you can’t create that sound live without thirty keyboard players, it would be impossible. So we’ve been doing it with two acoustics and as four singers and it’s so cool, it’s like a hippie sort of thing.”
Nick expressed the new balance within the outfit, and in its live setting, also amusingly commenting on their latest use of in-ear monitors.
“We have these “in-ear” things so you can actually hear yourself,” he exclaimed, “I’ve never heard myself in fifteen years of doing shows – it’s always been this maddening, liminal state of losing my fucking mind and screaming at everyone, which has been great and fun, but now it feels like music for the first time.”
Their brand new record, ‘Soft Universe’, holds a definite transition from dance to pop and rock, something that Nick stated was somewhat of a conscious decision, enthused by their former manager.
“We had a manager for a time who originally signed U2 and he was talking to us about reframing what we do in a more anthemic, stadium-esque – for want of a better term – kind of way.”
“I toiled with, or dabbled rather, with the rockier sound with Teenager”, Nick’s art-rock side project with Phillipa Brown a.k.a. Ladyhawke, “but it was all kind of experimental and never really formed into anything as a song.”
For PNAU, their song-writing came in an opposite way to what, as Nick has described, people normally do, which is “starting with just guitars and pianos and singing, and then [going] into production after ten years of doing that.” But for PNAU, however, production came as the forerunner, beginning when the duo were kids. “Electronic [music] is kind of production, the way you write,” Nick explained, “so I feel like now we’ve almost come full circle, we understand the whole process, the production side as well as the song writing side and the live aspect.”
Peter Mayes [guitars, production], has previously expressed that PNAU have developed into better songwriters, and in Nick’s opinion, “well, we couldn’t get any worse. So I’m glad that we’ve gotten better,” he laughs.
With the release of their new album, it has been made clear that the duo is changing their live scenery, in particular, beginning to distance themselves from the club scene, an environment that, as Nick expressed, has not been in his favor for some time.
“I don’t want to be in sweaty night clubs anymore,” he said, “I mean, I haven’t wanted to be for a long time actually.”He continued, “My brother makes club music and I know a lot of people that make club music, but I just don’t, I don’t really respond to it. It’s a bit like renaissance art to me, it doesn’t influence my culture, [and] I don’t understand where it comes from anymore.”
“I’ve never really loved club music, that’s what I was talking about with Cirque”, Nick explained in reference to the band’s work for Cirque Du Soleil, for which PNAU is currently scoring with production scheduled for this September. “It’s more like German acid music, which was way more melodic and it’s more like a journey, it’s not just hitting you in the head for five hours.”
“I find that music not that musical,” he affirmed, “and if I’m going to listen to something that’s atonal, then I’ll listen to something that’s truly atonal like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Steve Reich or modern classical music.”
Nick’s want for change and challenge was made clear further as he spoke of the natural growth that PNAU has taken from, as he described, their “dancy-dance stuff”, to the release of ‘Soft Universe’ and their work with Cirque Du Soleil
“I think it’s good to challenge yourself… I think it’s just natural to change what you do because you’re just going to get bored. I don’t understand how one person can do the same thing throughout their whole career; it doesn’t make any sense to me,” he concluded.
PNAU’s current work with Elton John has made him not only the band’s mentor, but for Nick personally, a touchstone, and someone that has been able to give Nick a new perspective.
“He’s been through a lot of dark times,” said Nick, “so he was really good with me personally, putting things in perspective. We kind of took all his multi tracks that he ever had,” Nick began to explain the collaborative effort between PNAU and Elton, “about five-hundred-odd songs, and every show he’s ever recorded, which is pretty much from the 70’s till now, and we’re just pretty much doing whatever we want with it.”
Nick likened these musical compositions to that of the Avalanches with samples of Elton John, an effort that for him is “really cool, but [something that] takes forever.”
“I’m not classically trained”, stated Nick, “I’m the most ill refined person you’re ever going to meet,” he expressed jokingly with regard to any formal training that he may have in music. “All I wanted to do was make movies,” he reminisced over his film and art school past, “but I just got caught in this thing.”
Nick’s modest character held a sense of self-judgment as he concluded by comically – or perhaps in light-hearted cynicism – stating that his problems were only first world problems. “They’re not real problems,” he said, “I’m just a little bourgeois bitch. I can eat and I can walk, pretty much.” But he still wants to make movies, and to this day, he continues to write stories, something that came forth as his strong infatuation, “that’s really what I just want to do, is write stories.”