PNAU On Driving A Global Phenomenon: ‘How Could That Not Shift Things?’

21 March 2024 | 12:45 pm | Cyclone Wehner

The iconic Aussie dance trio are just hours away from launching their career-defining sixth album, ‘Hyperbolic’.


PNAU (Credit: Cybele Malinowski)


The Australian dance music trio PNAU enjoyed a global streaming smash with their remix of Elton John’s Cold Heart, which featured disco queen Dua Lipa coming along for the ride. Now, nearly three decades into their career, they’re returning with what might be their first bonafide pop album, Hyperbolic. But the restive Nick Littlemore is already heralding a euphoric new opus from his other stellar outfit, Empire Of The Sun. “The world is in an enormous need of a great amount of healing,” he declares.

Today Nick is Zooming from Los Angeles, PNAU’s boyish frontman based between Hollywood and Sydney. "I always come back to Sydney [to] see my parents – and I'm always working with people in Sydney," he drawls.

PNAU – for which Nick is joined by Peter Mayes and, latterly, older brother Sam Littlemore – last ventured forth with 2017’s cosmic rave record Changa. Tripped out, Nick and Peter chatted tangentially to interview reads like a trip down the rabbit hole in Alice's Adventures In Wonderland. "Ha!" Nick laughs. "Well, [it was] an enlightened time, I think, around the last album… We were really kind of living it at that time." Hyperbolic, he stresses, "is reflecting a very different time”.

Indeed, much has occurred since Changa. In 2021, PNAU savoured a megahit in Cold Heart, Elton's postmodern lockdown collab with Dua. The mash-up even entered the US Top Ten, and Elton performed Cold Heart at Glastonbury without Dua.

Cold Heart brought PNAU some bonkers opportunities. They credibly reimagined Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds as Don't Fly Away for Baz Luhrmann's ELVIS soundtrack, and remixed Diana Ross' improbable Minions song Turn Up The Sunshine with Tame Impala, plus Sophie Ellis-Bextor's enduring 2000s bop Murder On The Dancefloor. Ironically, behind the scenes, Nick battled health issues – revealing publicly that he has Ramsay Hunt syndrome.

Like The Avalanches, PNAU have achieved a mythic longevity. Popdom may be transitory, but dance music is cross-generational. Still, for the Aussies to cross over globally – decades on, nonetheless – is unusual.

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The eccentric Nick befriended Peter in school, the Sydneysiders subsequently partying and making music together. As bedroom producers in the mid-1990s, they established a grassroots following. In 1999, PNAU debuted independently with the cult filter disco album Sambanova – running into strife over its uncleared samples. Reissued after they cleared out the drama, Sambanova scooped up the 2000 ARIA Award for Best Dance Release.

PNAU broke through majorly in 2007 with their eponymous third album – the tune Embrace, with vocals performed by an uncredited Pip "Ladyhawke" Brown, was swiftly minted as a classic. Elton chanced on the LP and became the group’s champion, signing them to his management company Twenty-First Artists. The relationship eventually realigned both acts' trajectories – PNAU remixing Elton's vintage '70s songs for 2012's Good Morning To The Night release, and delivering his first UK #1 in over 20 years.

"When we moved to the UK, on the advice of Elton, we were with a manager at that time who was managing Elton and us – just the two of us," Nick recalls. "He would often talk [about how] an artist, fairly much at any time in their career, needs what's called a 'quantum leap' – needs something very large to shift – and they'll be rewarded for that shift."

In the meantime, the prodigious Nick initiated side-projects, forming the art-rock band Teenager alongside Pip. Next he introduced the outlandish electro-pop supergroup Empire Of The Sun with The Sleepy Jackson's Luke Steele – who'd sung With You Forever off the self-titled PNAU album. Empire’s 2008 debut Walking On A Dream – Album Of The Year at the 2009 ARIAs – afforded Nick international recognition, although Peter was onboard as a producer.

Nick pursued production, leaving Steele to gig. Notably, he teamed up with Groove Armada for 2010's New Wave-y Black Light, and Tom Findlay went on to describe him as a "third member."

In 2011, PNAU resurfaced with Soft Universe, a kooky foray into rock that Nick is now ambivalent about.

In 2016, Nick's sibling Sam – who'd long assisted in the studio – officially partnered with PNAU, changing the group’s kinetics. Originally a designer, Sam had switched to music full-time in the 2000s, branding himself as the electro house DJ and producer Sam La More (and half of Tonite Only). "We needed him post-Soft Universe," Nick maintains. "We'd lost what the thread was that we probably should have been going for – and he reminded us pretty clearly."

Frequently expressing self-doubt in the media, Nick lauds his bandmates' studio acumen. "I'm not really the technical guy," he admits. "So I can't take too much credit for that stuff." Nor is Nick a perfectionist: "I think that's how I get through so many things."

PNAU experienced a revival at home with multi-Platinum Changa hit Chameleon, showcasing New York diva, dancer and choreographer Kira Divine. They'd go on to collect more ARIAs and other huge accolades, but regardless, the worldwide response to Cold Heart caught PNAU by surprise.

PNAU's sixth album, Hyperbolic, diverges from Changa. It’s pop, rather than festival-orientated, but it’s still about communal celebration. PNAU are the Australian answer to Daft Punk.

In fact, Hyperbolic is virtually a miniature 'greatest hits’. Its disco-fied lead single, Solid Gold – featuring the resident Kira and Floridian violinist Marques Toliver – was previewed at 2018's Splendour In The Grass and released the next year. For the buzz Euro-funk opener AEIOU, Nick merges the two worlds of PNAU and Empire Of The Sun. Hyperbolic's accompanying videos were inspired by AI, with digital art a preoccupation of Nick’s. PNAU are hailing Hyperbolic as a "new era.”

"I think every record does reflect a time period of one's life,” Nick says, “and, this one, coming out of Changa and then the first single being Solid Gold, was an extension of Changa, but [us] wanting to go a bit more disco; a bit more legit. We actually ended up making six other disco records at that time, thinking that was gonna be the direction, including a fabulous song called Archaeology – which has got Marques and Kira on it, and a choir and all kinds of amazing disco things happening.

“But then we pivoted. Everything changed halfway through the campaign, really, when Cold Heart happened… That shifted the band massively – not just creatively, but also internally. We'd never had, well, success, maybe [laughs]… But, I mean, it was really a global phenomenon that we were a part of – and how could that not shift things?"

Above all, Nick allowed Peter space. "I think, given that I'd had some kinda success before with Empire, I just sort of sat back a bit – because it wasn't really my record. It was Peter's work. So I have let him lead the second half of this album… It just felt right – like he was right now cooking such greatness in the studio, it would be wrong to deny that."

Conspicuously, PNAU have solicited big name guests: Troye Sivan (on the disco-pop You Know What I Need), Khalid (on the ‘80s-inspired The Hard Way) and Bebe Rexha (on the hybrid Stars with Puerto Rican reggaeton rapper Ozuna). "We just put the call out: 'Anyone we can get, we'll probably try something with you.'" Their main prerequisite? Connecting in person.

However, Hyperbolic's most symbolic cameo is First Nations singer-songwriter Emily Wurramara, who appears on the dreamy finale So High. "Emily was someone I worked with a few times – and I just love her art and just her spirit in general," Nick enthuses, adding that the song originated in a session with rising Irish rapper-singer Biig Piig in LA. "I'm always trying to advocate for Aussies and just bring them over – 'If we've got any success, like, let's bring as many people through as we can.'"

PNAU's current single is Nostalgia, a Sambanova throwback that Nick considers "Zeitgeisty" – nostalgia trending in pop culture amid the pandemic. By industry standards, PNAU should be a legacy act. They DJed at Ministry Of Sound Australia's retro-themed Testament festival in 2021, albeit repping "The Now". But PNAU defy temporality.

"I'm always pushing forward, but with a heavy dose of memory," Nick contemplates. "I want to create memories – or I want to remember other moments that I've already experienced. I find that memory and music are so inherently related that, in order for me to really create a synaptic memory or something really memorable, often a song will be attached to that moment."

Has PNAU's mentor, Elton, listened to Hyperbolic? Not yet, Nick states. "He has liked all the singles up until now, but he hasn't heard it as a body of work. He hears all of our albums. He still loves the album format." They'll be "catching up for a chat really soon”.

Does Nick ever seek the Brit's counsel these days? "I still do, but I try and keep it limited. There were years, I'm sure, where I really called him quite a lot. I was really depressed and all that. He helped me massively. But I have tried to give him a bit more space."

The sprightly septuagenarian continues to influence PNAU – they want to similarly use their own platform to help others, "paying it forward”. "Ultimately, I'm just incredibly grateful that he's been a part of our lives – and he's shifted our lives and changed them for the better," Nick says. "I would like to play that role for other people. I think that the lesson that I'm taking away from Elton's tutelage and kindness is that I, too, should do that… I think it's maybe that he's worked out what the meaning of life is and that it's essentially to help people – however you do that.”

In 2019 PNAU launched the label, Lab78, with the flagship act being yet another Nick vehicle, the future-pop act Vlossom, fronted by former Cloud Control vocalist Alister Wright. It's significant at a time when two key domestic indies – Courtney Barnett's Milk! Records and Elefant Traks – have wound up. "I took it on that, if we're gonna start a label, I didn't wanna just sign the best producers – which is probably what I should have done from a financial point of view, but that wasn't really the point."

So far Nick has discovered artists on triple j Unearthed "or randomly”, messaging artists via Instagram and asking whether they want to write something with him. "You can do something special with anyone – if they're interested. They have to be fascinated and have to be willing to participate, not just dial it in."

He's especially "proud" of Djanaba, among the ten winners of his 2021 Unearthed Collab Comp songwriting programme – with the Wiradjuri and Bundjalung woman specialising in queer, body-positive anthems.

"I found a record of hers that was very much a ballad with a piano and not a lot else and you could hear just a beautiful tone. But, when I met her, she's a pistol and she's hilarious and she's very quick." The pair bunkered down in Sydney and came up with Big Titties. "She's really found this quite cheeky, very funny club voice."

Nick admires Djanaba's aptitude. "She's the artist I'm quite excited about, 'cause she just gets on with it. I think the huge part of this thing is, if you wanna make it, it's all about drive."

Curiously, on completing Hyperbolic, Sam has resumed his solo career – albeit temporarily. "Sam left us just recently," Nick says. "We sort of felt that we could stand on our own two feet. He wants to do some other things and all the rest of it. But, having said that, I'm sure we will still be making records and that won't shift that much."

An unperturbed Nick alludes to creative tussles – "brothers can cut you down," he dramatises – but emphasises that it's "very valuable to not be surrounded by people who are just gonna try and appease you all the time."

Importantly, Sam has co-produced another song merging PNAU with Empire Of The Sun, rivalling AEIOU, for a long-anticipated Empire comeback due later this year – Nick extolling it as potentially a "big single".

Empire have been dormant since 2016's Two Vines, and synchronising the roll-out of two blockbusters seems hectic. But Nick, an idealist, sees his music as having some universal purpose, fostering altruism, unity and recovery.

"It feels like the world is properly back after the COVID nightmare – and the world is in an enormous need of a great amount of healing," he philosophises. "So it's just timely that we're ready and ripe right as I think the world needs to listen to a lot of uplifting music and hopefully change their minds about things and stop the madness that goes on daily everywhere.

"Music is a force for good. I think these [songs] are spells; these are good spells that can only do good and they don't do harm. And music is a machine that kills fascists. I believe that pretty strongly."

Nick concedes that such sentiments "can easily sound very New Age-y. don’t know if [we're] going to have a moment where all the peoples of the world look up to the sky and wake up to the fact that we're all the same and we should love one another and it could be the end of all evil. I would sure hope that it could happen.

"Maybe we just haven't found the frequency – because I do believe in some of the string theory ideas that everything is resonating at a certain frequency. And, if we could shift that frequency, maybe we can shift everything – like reality or this dimension. I like to believe some of that stuff. But I don't exactly know what I'm believe in."

In an age of embargoes, Nick blithely spills details about Empire’s upcoming, as-yet-untitled fourth album. "We've written with a myriad of people – we've never really co-written with a lot of people before," he shares. "But, this time around, we've written with quite a few people, quite a few of the Swedish fraternity – including Max Martin [the Grammy-winning Swedish producer associated with Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and The Weeknd], but not limited to Max. I think people are gonna be excited by what they hear – there's some real classic Empire sounds in there."

Nick also recorded with Housse de Racket's Pierre Leroux in Paris – an "amazing guitarist" and sometime sessionist for the likes of Air. "So there's kind of that French touch thing in there as well."

Lately, Empire shot a "very ambitious" short film in Thailand to complement the LP, Nick flexes. "I don't wanna give too much away – but I guess I'll probably just give everything away."

Nevertheless, Nick is non-committal about PNAU's touring plan,– the live band last hitting the summer festival circuit and appearing at Lost Paradise on New Year's Eve. "We have been playing a lot in Australia, so I'm not sure [what’s coming next],” he says. Mysteriously, he's "about to do a film score for a young director”.

If anything, Nick has learnt to pace himself – and detox. He's developed an interest in wellness, even DJing a yoga session at Wanderlust True North. "After I got sick, I actually went to the Himalayas and did a 40-day Ayurvedic cleanse. It's something I'd like to do all the time."

He sighs, "To be honest, I'm not great at routines. I fall in and out of them." Travelling, or working constantly, is distracting. "I would love to be more balanced with things. I did go vegan about two years ago, because of my heart and lung sort of scenario. That's been amazing. It's something I always avoided on menus, but then actually living life as largely plant-based, my body feels so much better." It truly is a new era.