Interview: Pnau Speak Elton John Album
A man who’s always got his finger on the musical pulse, four years ago Elton John went CD shopping in Australia when he stumbled across local duo Pnau. Elton became increasingly fascinated by Peter Mayes and Nick Littlemore (one half of Empire of the Sun) and swiftly took them under his wing; signing them to his management company and even handing them his original back catalogue tapes to do anything they wanted with.
Now the fruits of Pnau’s studio wizardry have surfaced with the glorious eight-track opus ‘Good Morning To The Night’ – a “new music album” that reworks and reinterprets some of Elton's greatest and more obscure hits into almost unrecognisable dance-tinged gems.
Shortly before they hit the number one spot on Sunday – Elton’s first number one record since 1990 – we caught up with one half of Pnau, Peter Mayes, to discuss the album and more…
Hi Peter, first of all, congratulations on your chart success.
Peter: “Thank you it's really, really exciting, understandably. We're pretty blown away by it. I keep getting emails from people I haven't spoken to in years. So, it's nice. It's a nice feeling. It's not time to crack open the champagne just yet though.”
So, in terms of the album then, how did the record come about and what was it like being given the chance to re-work some of Elton John's classic songs?
Peter: “We basically, about 3 or 4 years ago he took over our management when we moved to the UK. He originally heard us in Australia and encouraged us to move over. He told us he thought our record was the greatest thing he'd heard in ten years, which is a huge complement coming from someone with such great taste. And he's obviously a musical legend… and then within a couple of days of the management being taken over, they had this great idea to give us all his multi-tracks and asked to us to make a record of new music with them. Not a re-mix album, but a new music album using as many elements as possible. It was just a great thing to be given and such a surprise. He could have asked anybody to do this record, you know? But he chose us and we're incredibly thankful for that. What an incredible gift.”
Why do you think it was specifically Pnau he targeted when he could have asked anybody to do the album?
Peter: “I don't know. There's something about our third album that really resonated with him (2007’s self-titled ‘Pnau’). But I don't know (laughs). But without sounding arrogant, we really were the right kind of people to do the job. Our first album that came out in 1998, which was called Sambanova and probably didn't come out in the UK, was very much based on samples and that was very much what we were into at the time. Since then we've developed. Doing a record like this is kind of like the ultimate version of doing something like that. Because you have tapes rather than just vinyl and you can really pull it apart. So I guess we already had the training.”
On the album there's a specifc era from 1970's to 1976 era. Why target that era in particular?
Peter: “Well I guess that's the start of his career. It's a prolific, creative time when he shot to superstardom after touring the states and it felt like a natural place to start. It was a golden period of music for many artists. But Elton's was really taking off.”
With regards to other tracks that could have been on the album like 'Rocket Man' or 'Your Song', what was the reason behing leaving them off the record?
Peter: “Those songs are massive hits and ground in peoples conciousness already. The original versions are kind of perfect so why mess with perfection? It was a process of discovery and digging into Elton's career and finding things like the Tom Bell sessions and so on. Things like that are really interesting and inspiring. So that really inspired the ryhtm section and allowed us to make a record from, you know? It's mostly Elton's stuff, obviously we added a few of our own sounds, but the idea was to really use everything from the tapes.”
Compared to other records you've done in the past, then, has this one been more of a challenge?
Peter: “Absolutely. Yes. I mean, normally when you're writing a song there's no limitations. I mean creatively from Elton he said we can do whatever we want. But his music is inherently a lot more complex than ours and he plays in every key. That actually made it quite difficult. So it was about finding elements that work with we do and you know, simplify it I guess. So that offered quite a challenge What we do in general is quite simple, and we like that . Our music is quite simple and we like that. You can't move a vocal far from it's original key and we wanted most songs to have Elton singing on them, so that offered us a challenge.”
As far as live shows go, I believe you've just done a gig in Ibiza. How did that go down?
Peter: “That went down really well. Everybody had a smile on heir face the whole time. It was a huge amount of fun and an experience that I'll never forget given the opportunity to share a stage with Elton John. At this stage there isn't any plans to do any future shows. He's an incredibly busy guy who's career is planned years in advance. But we really hope that we can do it again and live in hope we can do it again. I think he does as well. It was an incredible experience.”
So would you say making the move from Australia to England has enhanced Pnau's career and potential?
Peter: “Yeah. The last Pnau record we did wasn't very well received and I guess that was our fault. It wasn't really a good record looking back. It just didn't resonate with people. But, absolutely yes. I think as an Australian even with the world being the way it is with the internet and technology moving so fast, Australia's still an isolated country. We kind of had a feeling we needed to leave. It's a great place to live but it's still kind of a little island down there in the South Pacific. It's taken a while for us to make something that really touches people in the UK, but I think we've finally done that. With Elton's help, of course.”
So now you've done work with Elton, are there plans to collaborate with any other artists or are you just going to go back to your own musical ways?
Peter: “Well, the plan is, to do three more volumes, this being volume one. We're really excited about now kind of moving it forward chronologically. There was a number of things that meant we couldn't use a number of songs from Elton's seventies work, whether that being the wrong key or whatever. But the plan now is to touch on the later seventies work and early eighty's where he did some very different stuff with different producers. And you know, production was changing at that time.”
So that'll offer yet another challenge as a band to take it from volume 1 to the next stage?
Peter: “Yeah. Exactly. Especially now as its been received so well. At the moment we're doing the second Empire of The Sun album, which when we first did it, it was something we banged out in our studio in Sydney really quickly and there were no expectations. We knew it was great record, but you never know if it's going to be big. You really don't. You have the greatest expectations in the world but you never really know, you know? So yeah, it's going to be really fun actually because I think after doing the first album we'll have a better idea as where to start.”
I also heard that ‘Good Morning To The Night’ – the song - has been selected as one of the five official London Olympic tracks?
Peter: “That's right. I think the first one is the track from Muse - Survival, and then it's ours. They're releasing one every week. It's pretty insane for us.”
That goes to show the potential from the album has been amazing. Obviously the Olympics are a massive event and one of your tracks will be a part of that. That must be great?
Peter: “It's amazing. When we were rehearsing with Elton for Ibiza he came and told us the news and it was really inspiring for everyone. A real boost. We never expected anything like that to happen. It's not as if the track was written specifically for the Olympics, like the Muse track. It can really work with athletic performance. It has a lot of energy that song.”
Well, Peter, thank you very much for your time. I don't want to jump the gun but I'll offer my congratulations on the album reaching the number 1 spot on Sunday.
Peter: “No problem. Fingers crossed! Thank you.”
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