Empire of the Sun: The 'Ice on the Dune' Studio Sessions

Nick Littlemore is looking to get disciplined.

NICK LITTLEMORE is looking to get disciplined. The stay-at-home half of Australian duo Empire of the Sun doesn’t have a lot of restrictions—at least not professionally. In the five years since the release of Empire of the Sun’s internally acclaimed debut, Walking On A Dream, Littlemore has sent his other half, Luke Steele, on the road. During this time he composed the music for Cirque Du Soleil’s Zarkana, released another album with his project Pnau, made a remix album with Elton John, worked with Groove Armada and Mika, and moved to New York City.

When it came time to create the next Empire of the Sun album, Ice On The Dune, Littlemore and Steele, as well as their studio counterparts Peter Mayes and Donnie Sloan, were not restricted by location. Wherever they were living—New York, Los Angeles, Australia, New Zealand—that’s where they worked. Littlemore’s and Steele’s multiple home studios offer leisure and comfort, but legendary spots such as Westlake Studios, Studio City Sound, and Avatar Studios, according to Steele, offer “Heritage. You feel the presence [of the musicians who recorded there].” Additionally, they were able to work with hit-making producers like John Hill (Santigold, Rihanna), Benny Blanco (Katy Perry, Britney Spears), and Roy Hendrickson (Paul McCartney, Mary J. Blige), who brought their discipline to Empire of the Sun. In addition, Serban Ghenea (Taylor Swift, Black Eyed Peas), Jason Cox (Gorillaz), and Mark “Spike” Stent (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga) each had a hand in mixing the album.

“John Hill was cutting up the chorus chords so quickly, it brushed past anything we had done,” says Steele. “Benny Blanco brought in 50 hi-hats, layered them up, and would go through and carve out the frequencies that weren’t needed, for one ultimate frequency. Hi-hats don’t have that sound. You bring in the frequency you need to get that sound. [Blanco] would bring 40 keyboards, sample the notes, build them up, and massage it down to make one sound. Then he would do it to the second note in the chord and third note in the chord. It was endless, completely fine-tuning. No frequency was left untouched. It’s like watching an amazing movie.”

“Anyone who is great at what they do, it’s in the way they think,” says Littlemore. “Roy Hendrickson put some of our songs onto tape on a 24-track machine. We pitched the tape machine and then tracked it back as a way of pitch shifting. We’ve been doing that for years, but we’re working with better engineers than ever before, so the result is a lot stronger.” 

Ice On The Dune is an upgraded Walking On A Dream. It retains its predecessor’s cinematic, sci-fi/fantasy personality, only wackier, with more sheen, more soundtrack readiness, and more elements of ’80s synth-pop. (“Don’t say ’80s,” Littlemore says. “It’s very timelessly 1975, the peak of human existence. We are ahead of our time for 1975. We’re behind the times for the ’80s. That’s a much better way of putting it.”) With or without expert producers and mixers, Ice On The Dune has songs with relentless hooks, danceable rhythms, chiseled melodies, plus the mysterious lyricism that production alone cannot create. Check the effervescent “DNA,” the bouncing “Concert Pitch,” the ’70s-police-action sound of “Old Flavours,” or the sugary disco of “Celebrate.”

“We went back and listened to the first record about a month before finishing this one,” says Steele. “There were a lot of things that we wanted to keep, particularly that ’70s analog feel, and make the songs better. [Littlemore] and I like the texture a bit grimy. Our technique is less shiny [without the producers].”

The Omnichord plays a large role in Steele’s writing process, as does Ableton Live 9 with the Novation LaunchPad controller, along with piano and guitar. The two also spent around 10 grand on vinyl, buying anything from African music to house to spoken word to sound effects records, from which they create a palette that dictates the sonic identity of the songs. Using only equipment from the ’70s and ’80s further dictates the character of Ice On The Dune. Pieces such as Publison DHM89, Yamaha CS-80 keyboard, E-mu SP-1200 are heavily used, but no soft synths or emulators, even though modern recording techniques are employed.

Steele’s vocals follow the same signal path no matter where they are being recorded: Telefunken ELA M 251E microphone into a Chandler Limited LTD-I EQ/preamp then a Distressor. Vocals then get filtered and pitch-shifted through various Eventide effects.

“We treat the vocals so seriously,” says Steele. “There are songs I have re-sung 20 or 30 times. When we record, we loop the chords. Sometimes the vocal take will go for 30 or 40 minutes just looping. [Mayes] has the fun job of going through and picking the takes. We’re really big on how words are phrased and pockets of the vocals.”

Vocals aren’t the only tracks that go through such painstaking processing. Tracks are put through various effects, out through speakers, amplifiers, and FM tuners, and returned to a radio in another room then recorded back.

The 30- to 40-year old gear that made the music the two grew up listening to is what gives Ice On The Dune its quality, what Steele calls “warm glow,” and what Littlemore calls “milky-ness.” At Studio City Sound they had access to a Moog modular that had been looked after by Bob Moog himself. Granted they had to turn it on two days before using it and tune it every day, but it worked. In this manner of thinking, they avoided artificial reverb and insisted on spring reverb, such as the Fostex rack spring that features prominently on Walking On A Dream.

“People discount the spring reverb in the studio setting,” says Littlemore. “You go into most large studios these days, they’ll have a modern reverb and a plate like an EMT 140. The spring reverb is such an incredible sound. It still has a physical reaction the way a plate does. You feel that every time. It is noticeably different and it is articulate in its noise.”

The two try to not rely on any gear so much that it completely dictates their sound, however, and this approach applies to the songwriting as well. For example, they don’t allow chords to lead the song, but try and keep the focus on the melody. The attempt is to keep things as open and simplistic as possible, although it may not sound like it on Ice On The Dune. “We tried desperately to remove most of the sounds, make it as minimal as we could. That’s easier said than done, but we tried,” says Littlemore.

This removal of sounds is one of the things Littlemore learned while working on Zarkana for Cirque du Soleil. “You’re dealing with people a lot older than you who are rejecting most of what you’re doing, which is an incredible discipline,” he says. “It toughened me up. It put me in a space where I could rewrite anything at any time. As precious as ideas were, and still are, I’m happily able to move on quickly to something else and not get hung up and not get teary. I got on with the job because there’s a circus waiting for me to nail it.”

No matter how much the sound might be pared back on Ice On The Dune, it is still a very produced record, one that is a challenge to reproduce live, especially when the equipment it is created on is old and fragile and not very portable. To get around this, samples and stems are made and effects are bounced, all ready to be fused with live musicians.

“I’ve been approaching front-of-house like we’re in the studio,” says Steele. “We carry our own desk. We’ve set up a stack of plug-ins. It will be Crystallizer on the hi-hats, flanger on the vocals. It’s great.”

Even with the produced nature of Empire of the Sun, there is an avid attempt at keeping some humanity within the technology. “When you’re doing 18 months in the studio, you keep coming back in and hearing the same song,” says Littlemore. “You keep building it up and doing more production, adding another layer, adding another section. You run so far away from instinct; you have to be re-inspired. It has to retain instincts, that initial fire. There has to be an emotional element to those machines, a kind of seasickness. Feelings should always be a little seasick, a little nauseous.”

Lily Moayeri is a freelance writer and teacher librarian living in Los Angeles; track her work at www.pictures-of-lily.com.