It's an awfully cool story. The one and only Sir Elton John pays Sydney a visit and promptly checks out a record store to get a listen to some local music. He picks up Sydney-sider electronic duo PNAU's self-titled record and falls head-over-heels in love with it. He calls his record company and states emphatically that he wants to work with these two blokes, Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes.
After taking them under his wing and mentoring them, he hands them the key to his car - granting them exclusive permission to use the master tapes of some of his classic albums (Madman Across The Water, Good Bye Yellow Brick Road, Honky Chateau and Tumbleweed Connection, amongst many others) in any way they wished. The result of this collaboration, Good Morning To The Night, is out later this month and is, in this scribe's opinion, a wholly fascinating and rewarding listen.
Peter Mayes, guitarist and producer of PNAU, was recently on the phone with us to discuss the general awesomeness of Elton John's music, the re-working of incredibly classic material, the nature of music and - yes - a new Empire Of The Sun record, amongst many other things.
Hey Peter, how you doing?
Pretty good, how you doing?
Actually pretty good, it’s a good day. What are you up to? Where you at?
Oh, I’m in LA right now, down in Santa Monica, which is where I live now – and we are right in the middle of the new Empire Of The Sun record.
Oh, no way.
Yeah, it’s really exciting, it’s going so well; we’re blown away by the progress. You know, we’ve been doing it on and off for the last eight or ten months in lots of different locations, but we’ve brought it to California to get it down and get it finished. It’s incredible – you’re going to be blown away, it’s a really cool record.
Wow, that’s really good news – Walking On A Dream was probably one of my favourite records from … 2009, I think it came out?
Yeah, we were just trying to work that out – we were just in a meeting, and we were trying to work out when [Walking On A Dream] came out! But yeah – this is going to be the perfect follow-up to Walking On A Dream.
Awesome. And I’m reckoning your work with the one and only Elton John might help influence the production?
Sure! I think that when you work with someone of that calibre and with so much experience in music, you can’t help but be educated, you know? Pulling apart the records and even just listening to his records, especially some of the lesser-known ones that you don’t hear on the radio every day – it’s such an education!
Yeah! You guys got a chance to listen to the master-tapes of some of the best records made in that era – Madman Across The Water, Good Bye Yellow Brick Road …
Incredible. We’re so lucky and so humbled to have been given this opportunity – I mean, he could have given them to anyone; and for some reason, he stayed with us! And we’re very glad that he did. I mean, the production on those records is incredible. It’s an iconic sound and it’s timeless as well. You know what I mean, it’s such a great period of music in general and it was a real golden era and he really came in in the ‘70s and he was doing two to three records a year and was constantly on the road – I mean, he worked his ass off. He’s still working his ass off today! So yeah, that was an amazing time! But [Good Morning To The Night] is just Volume One; we’re doing three more volumes of this series of Elton John’s material.
Well, you have so much material to work with – I mean, that’s like hundreds of songs, isn’t it?
I know, it’s incredible, right? He’s done so much in his career, and we’re really just scratching the surface on this record.
So the story goes that Elton John visits a record store in Sydney, and finds your self-titled record. He loves it so much he gets in contact with his record company. Of course, everything snowballs from there – but how did you guys find out about his interest in your music?
Well basically we found out when he called us. [Laughs] He called up Nick and Nick was in a dentist’s chair or something, or having a massage or something, I can’t remember. And [Elton John] was like, “I love your record, I think it’s incredible,” and Nick was like, “We have to meet up!” [Elton John] was in Sydney at the time, so we met up with him at his hotel and we had tea and just hung out and talked about music and art and everything, and he really just said to us, “Look, I want to do anything I can to help you guys,” and we were just like, wow. That’s amazing when someone with so much talent actually wants to help you. And he’s really cool like that! We’re not the only people he does this for; there’s so many people all over the planet that he is helping out – either personally or through his management company or through the AIDS Foundation; he’s that kind of guy. He’s not just sitting around, counting his money!
Being “Sir” John …
No, he’s not like that at all! He’s by far the hardest working person I know, he’s constantly doing something. Like, he’s always working. He still goes out and does 120 shows a year, and he’s in his mid-60s!
Well yeah, he’s got so much youthful effervescence – you can totally see it in his eyes!
Absolutely! The guy has so much energy! Like, he’s the same age as my parents and he is like … nonstop. You cannot pin him down for a second! His schedule is ridiculous. I can only hope I’m like that when I’m his age.
So, Elton John gave you his master tapes – how does one go through such a wealth of material like that? Was it pretty daunting?
We spent months just cataloguing everything, and that’s just taking every tape (which have five songs on them) on a huge reel, and we had to split them up. And that takes hours. Initially we spent months just listening, we put all of his songs on our iPods, and just listened. And that was all we put on these iPods; we just became completely absorbed for months! Because really, it was such a fruitful career, it was such a massive catalogue that there was a lot to absorb, such a huge amount of music that we hadn’t heard before and there are so many different things he’s done, like Madman Across The Water and records like that and not the kind of records your average Elton fan would know, because they’re not necessarily the ones they play on Greatest Hits Radio. So we spent so much time just absorbing, until we felt prepared to take something on of this magnitude. It was a huge task, but it was such a great education and a great opportunity.
So you spent months listening to nothing but vintage Elton! When you actually sat down to write music to mix with this formidable back-catalogue, was there a methodology you used?
Well, there were obviously songs that segued into songs and riffs and melodies that we initially gravitated towards and that we thought would work in our world and what we do musically. And one of the things we learned is that his music is very complicated compared to what we do. What we do is very simple and there can be a lot of intricacy in the layers and the sonics of it, but generally musically and harmonically our music is quite basic. And we’re like that, with a lot of strength and simplicity. But with him being a classically-trained musical genius – he went to Rhodes College and all that – he’s never imposed any limitations on himself. Especially in the ‘70s, when popular music was a lot broader – you could have a seven-minute song on the radio, and you could be more experimental. He really just opened himself up to creativity and did whatever he wanted to do, which is amazing.
But when we sat down, there were bits we initially knew we wanted to work on. There were songs that we couldn’t use – some tapes were missing, or they were burned in a fire or whatever; so that was hard, because there were some things that we fell in love with that couldn’t be found, but I guess it was just a matter of [doing] one thing at a time, and trying anything we could, just trying out ideas. Like one of the first things we did was a song called "Sixty", which was a combination of many different versions of "Sixty Years On", which Elton has done many different recordings of – live, studio and otherwise – so we thought what a beautiful pastiche of piano break-down. We didn’t use any of the vocals or the main part of the song, we just used the beautiful piano melody he wrote. We didn’t really think about it that much, but one of the things you might notice about the record is that there’s not a lot of piano. Pretty much every Elton John record in history has been really loud piano and vocals, obviously. One of the ways that we made [the music] different was to not have so much piano, but that song "Sixty" is kind of the piano moment and we really wanted to make something like that.
That’s such a cool idea …
Yeah, that was just one of the first songs we gravitated towards, and "Sad" actually was one of the really groovy ones we did, and then "Good Morning To The Night" was one of the last ones. We were doing this record on and off for three years or so; there were things to do in between [recording sessions].
You can’t underestimate having the luxury of time when generally you have a set period, and deadlines, and you’ve got mixing starting, and you’ve got your mastering of this song, and blah blah blah, and then you’ve got to go on the road. With this it was different, because it was like, “OK, we’ve got to take these old recordings and make something new.” [Elton John] didn’t try to limit us in any way, or push us in any direction; he was like, “Do whatever you want; just do what you guys do,” and I guess we did our best to do something he would like and that the world would enjoy. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make something great. I mean, it’s Elton John. Because it’s not everyday that someone like that gives you access to his earlier work!
No shit! But in my opinion, PNAU dovetails nicely with the ‘70s sound. I mean, it’s modern, but it has that feel to it. Particularly with your production work with Empire Of The Sun; there’s a definite ELO feel to it.
I take that as a big complement; I mean, one of the things that we do subconsciously is … we’re not really interested in what’s “hot” in the last six months. Even though we do electronic music, and that’s a genre that is constantly changing and evolving so quickly that you can’t really – especially if you’re making an album! – you can’t really pretend to be keeping up with the music you’re doing. You have to always move forward and evolve, but really, at the end of the day, our aim is to touch people emotionally and make them have a physical reaction; but also to create something that’s timeless and somewhat iconic!
Well, thank you very much, Peter.
Thanks, man – it was really great talking with you!
The album Good Morning To The Night - Elton John Vs. PNAU will be released on July 27 through Ministry Of Sound and Universal Music.