Celebrity backings don't get much bigger than Sir Elton John, so when he asked PNAU to reinvent some of his extensive back catalogue they naturally jump to the chance. With Good Morning to the Night set to be released next month (July 16th) and a co-headlining slot alongside him in Ibiza at the start of July, Pnau are not only reinventing John, but presenting him to the world as the new don of electronic music with themselves as the ever-faithfully sidekicks.
We were able to catch up with one half of Pnau, in the shape of Peter Mayes, over the phone to discuss the album and the show in Ibiza, as well as the relationship they share with Reginald Dwight and opinions on D&B, Dubstep and the rest of electronica's underbelly.
The album was supposed to be down for an April release; what was the hold up?
What was the hold up on getting the album released or getting this album finished? [Laughs]
Whichever was the biggest hold up, I guess!
Actually the release has been really quick. Getting it done, I guess, was really hard because when we first got told that we were gonna get given all the pieces of Elton John's career, musically, to make a record, it was kind of daunting as you would understand. We'd just arrived in the UK, we'd just taken on management with Elton's company, and it was one of those things where you're like, 'Oh my God!' it was incredibly exciting and a huge honour but it was like, 'Wow! What if we fuck this up?' - One of those moments! I guess, for a while, we got iPods and we put every one of Elton's records on them, we just sat there absorbing Elton's career in a way that we'd never done before; we listened to every single one of his songs discovering a whole bunch of music that we didn't know about. Including all the listening of the music that Elton has done and just making notes and cataloguing things that really stuck out to us in terms of the record that we had to do and it was an incredible thing to do because we'd never done anything like this before and it's not really a common thing. especially when someone like Elton has so many records and so many different types of songs. So that's probably why it took so long. For a while, like 6 months, we didn't really do anything except listen and absorb the music; that was all I had on this iPod: Elton, so I just listened to all of his songs. I think there was about 600 songs or more, probably. 2000 probably. It's quite a daunting career to actually go well but obviously the seventies, 1970 to 1977, was this really golden moment for him in his career where, as he often says, 'You can do nothing wrong'; so that really made sense to focus on that area initially and we do plan to do more of his records but that was our initial focus.
Can you go through the recording process with me a little, just to get a better idea what you went through.
In '08, we had a studio in Elephant and Castle which actually used to be The Chemical Brothers' old room down there, and we were locked up in there for 6 or 8 months and we did 'Sad' there which is the single that's just been released and we did. 'Sixty Years On'. if I have the wrong names for the tracks it's just because I feel like [Laughs] they'll see them as a working title in my head when you do an album. It was a very long process and we had to take breaks during the course of it because we get to a point, and we had other records to do; we had to do our record and a few other things, it was actually really good though because you cannot underestimate the luxury of time when doing a record. You can definitely have too long; it wasn't like we had our music budget or anything, we were mainly in our own studio, apart from the Elephant and Castle one, we were mainly doing this in our own places so it wasn't like we were hiring out Abbey Road every day with a 90-piece orchestra, it was really just a matter of taking everything in so we did that [Laughs]. We had an initial spurt and then we had another spurt and then, towards the end last year, we did a lot more and we revisited many times through the studio but towards the end we just thought to ourselves, 'Let's actually get this done' and we kind of changed our attitude a bit instead of over respecting the music, which sounds a bit selfish in a way but it was actually what we had to do and I think it was what Elton wanted us to do was to actually just do it [Laughs]. Not that we were biding our time really that much it was just a matter of going, 'We could do anything with this'; it was never meant to be a recreation of 'Rocket Man' and 'Tiny Dancer', we weren't aiming to rewrite Elton. The people had already become part of the public consciousness and there's no point, those songs are pretty much perfect in their original form so we decided that there was no point to mess with that. Having said that, anything was fair game. Initially, there was never really a concept and the great thing with Elton was he was like, 'Carte blanche, do whatever you want' and we were like, 'Wow, that's amazing!' [Laughs]. I guess to be given direction when you're doing something like this is really hard because you just end up thinking about what you've been told the whole time and then once we've opened the door fully to creativity and realised that we can do anything we wanted, it came a lot easier. I guess one of the things for us is we are not musical geniuses like Elton [Laughs]. If you listen to his music and you're a musical person you soon realise that he plays in every key which, pretty much, I don't think any artist does that; most people, their focus is guitar or whatever their instrument is, but, with him, he can just literally play in any key which is quite strange usually and from doing a project like this where you have to shift things around all over the place. We did have quite a purist approach to it; we didn't want to just bang it out [Laughs], which would be the technical term for just doing it shoddily, not that I have anything against that particular software. We basically took an approach where we were gonna take apart and change the key or change the tempo or whatever, we just slice it up into every single individual note or sometimes less than that and then we do it the old fashioned way, if there is such a thing, which is very time consuming so, in a song like, I think it's just called 'Sixty Years On' which is a recreation of many different versions of Elton's song 'Sixty Years On'; many different live versions and studio versions and in the case of that, it was just a matter of cutting up hundreds and hundreds of individual notes on the piano and harp and harpsichord. Basically, we didn't want to rush it.
You've just leaked 'Sad' as well as the first song 'Good Morning to the Night'; what's the feedback been for it so far? Has it all been positive?
Feedback has been pretty much all positive. I guess, when you take on something like this, Elton's fans are full on. With someone who's been so successful for so long, his fans are incredibly loyal and obsessed with him. So, we knew there were gonna be people who didn't like it; I think you just have to accept that because it's like, okay, there are gonna be people who are not gonna understand it and they're gonna be kind of angry at you in a way [Laughs] because you're messing with someone's career. But it was Elton who kept pushing us creatively to do whatever we wanted and to push it further.
Have you noticed any increased endorsement of your music by some of his older fans?
The reaction has been completely positive actually, even from a lot of his die-hard fans. The only way to really find that out, for us, now, until we play shows, is on the internet. Sometimes YouTube comments are just the most horrible things in the world [Laughs] so sometimes that can be daunting but it's actually pretty cool and there's a lot of people who are like, 'Wow, I really don't like dance music but this is actually really interesting to me' so you can tell that they're from a different generation to what we are or whatever and they're not on out musical stratosphere. But I think, actually, strangely enough, it's always been that way for Pnau as well; we've always had fans that weren't just 19-years-old. A couple of tours ago in Australia, we did our own shows rather than just doing festivals and it was quite expensive there, and there were all kinds of people who came to our gigs, it was really interesting.
What's the word from the man himself? What's his feedback?
Well, he's always incredibly positive. He's very honest; he'll tell you what he thinks which is great because it would never work otherwise. If he wasn't happy with it, it would never work. In late 2010, we first played him a batch of like six songs and the reaction was incredibly positive and he was really excited. I actually wasn't there, I was in Australia and Nick was here in London and he played them to him in the studio that they have in the basement of our management's office. He didn't really give us too much direction; he just said he was really happy, and songs like 'Telegraph to the Afterlife' he just said 'take it further; make it more druggy or more whatever. He just encouraged us to push it further, he didn't ever go, 'Oh, I don't like that sound' or 'Why are you using that vocal over that section'. He didn't get specific, he was just really supportive and encouraging which was great, which was the way he's always been, but, as I say, he is very honest and if he feels you've gone completely wrong he will definitely tell you but he didn't really do that in this case. It was incredibly daunting, as well, playing something to him, you know, 'This is what we've done with more music, your legacy' [Laughs]. I think he has been the most positive person ever. I think he's been incredibly positive and that has been a real help and, to be honest, I think he's the easiest person I've ever made a record for [Laughs] which is really saying something because I guess Elton has this reputation of not being that easy. But we never saw any of that it was just great, really, to have support because it was a full on thing to do and we had spent a lot of time managing this record [Laughs] so when you first play something to someone, especially someone like that who's just intensely creative and is still making music now, it's not like he's just gigging his hits for the sake of it, he's still making records he's still very active creatively, it's a full on thing to do.
What's your relationship like with him? Is it just a mentorship or have you developed something closer than that?
Yeah, it's a mentorship but I consider us friends and I'm sure he does as well. He's literally the busiest person in the world so you don't necessarily see him every week and he still does 120 shows a year. Even outside of that he's just always doing something. I would hate to see his actual schedule [Laughs] and what that actually involves because it's crazy but, yeah, we have a really good relationship with him and he's been really helpful to us as well, just as people in this weird music business that we're in and at times when you're a bit down or whatever he'll be there to give you advice because there's not really anything that he hasn't been through. He's always got something to relate it to and he's always got something to say that can help you whether it's musically or emotionally or whatever. He understands whatever it is.
Any invites to the Oscar party yet?
[Laughs] I've been to one of his parties, I think Nick went to the White Tie one; they call it White Tie and Tiara; but we're not really major socialites [Laughs] and he probably knows that by now. We really belong in the studio; I guess that's where we're most comfortable. We do play shows but, really, we're studio people. We're most comfortable creating every day for incredibly long hours. At the moment we're doing the new 'Empire of the Sun' record and it's 16 hour days every single day which kind of works for us. It doesn't work for everyone, I know Elton doesn't like to spend anything like that amount of hours in the studio and he can't really afford to because he's incredibly busy doing everything. So the way he makes a record is so different to us, which is a fascinating thing because we've seen it at least a couple of times - we've written songs with him and he writes a song in like 10/20 minutes and then by the time you've hit 30 minutes, the piano and the vocal are all recorded; the whole song's done. Then it can be produced in any way you see fit but the process for him is very much a thing of an initial spark of inspiration. But the process of what we do and especially with this record, you can't just sing it as vocal, you've got to use big, existing material that's there, you can't just create a backing track and go, 'Let's put a top line on this', it's not the usual process of making a record.
You have your festival appearance with him coming up in Ibiza, the 123 Festival; is this just a one-time thing?
Well, it's hard to say, again because of his schedule but it's certainly an incredible opportunity. Like this record, it's an amazing thing to be given by someone like him so we're really looking forward to it [Laughs]. Then it's back to square one where it's like, 'Oh my God, we're doing this gig without the John!' [Laughs] It's like, 'Can we pull this off?' it's that kind of thing. But I think we can. We're really looking forward to that.
Given the logistics of the whole album, I'd imagine it's going to be really difficult to take it on to the stage, on to the road; do you think you'll be doing a full tour with it? Maybe not with Elton, but just the two of you?
It's sort of too early to say. We haven't played a show with him before so this is kind of a trial run. But he is a father now; it's really hard to say if he would have time to actually do a full tour of this record. If it's an incredible success then maybe, but [Laughs] it's impossible for me to really speak for him.
It will just be the two of you going on tour then, no Elton?
I don't know how you would do that. This is more of a listening experience, I think. There's so many elements in every single song from so many different places and so many instruments; it's sort of different for every track, it's not just bass guitar, drums. So not the easiest thing to recreate live, that's for sure. It's definitely gonna be a challenge, we've got a lot of rehearsal over the next week or so and that's going really well! It's almost as difficult a task as doing the record itself.
About the record's making: did it take you back to your roots at all when you largely used sampling techniques? Did making the album take you back to that?
Yeah, it's an incredible education and I think our roots are really in the seventies, that kind of period. The whole of the seventies, I think. We did a record in like '97 and it was released in '98 mainly in Australia but it was called 'Sambanova' and it's our first real record as Pnau. It was a similar thing where we were doing a lot of sampling at that time and we were inspired by other people who were doing sampling but obviously not everyone has the same record collection so we were taking all these little bits, but the beauty of this Elton record is you had the multitrack so if we wanted an individual element, we could take it most of the time, even though most of his records were done live so if you were getting a bass part then there was probably still some of the drums in there; basically, in one microphone you can hear other instruments, to put it simply. But, yeah, in a way, it was the perfect album for us to do because we'd done it before, we just hadn't done it in so much detail and we'd never done it focused on one artist obviously. But, yeah, we are very experienced in the notion of sampling and piecing things together. He probably didn't even know that because the album that he fell in love with, with us, was our third record which had no samples on it; it was pretty much us doing our thing. Fortunately, we knew where to head at least in terms of the technical side of things. But in terms of hearing his records, his records were made in a golden age of recording, in a golden age of performing and song writing and a time when record labels were very open-minded in terms of the music that they would release and in terms of letting the artist do their thing, and that's an incredible thing that may never come again. So, apart from him, there were so many other artists who did records that were so different from the records that come out today because they were just allowed to do whatever they wanted. It's always an education to actually be able to delve so deeply inside someone's career and hear how they made these records, especially those incredible BVs and all those things that Gus Dudgeon did. He's the main producer that we're working with.
Tell me about your opinions on the ever increasing popularity of stuff like drum 'n' bass and dubstep. Is this your kind of scene or do you want to stay well away from it?
I guess the more angular side of electronic music is not necessarily my thing; I'm really into the simplest and, in all styles of music, I would say that I'm into simplicity. That can often mean repetition, but working people into a state of something, if that is to move their body or to expand their mind or whatever it might be. I guess that's personally what I'm into. Drum 'n' bass and dubstep: we grew up, when we were teenagers, to the drum 'n' bass thing in the mid-nineties, that was the thing in Australia as well as in England and everywhere, and it was interesting but it wasn't necessarily our focus. There were really interesting aspects of that because a style is born and then it splinters off into all these subgenres so you have the jazzier side and you have the more heavy side and all those things in between. That was fascinating because there'd be people in there who'd create something unique and interesting that you'd never expect to come out of drum 'n' bass, but dubstep. we like as well but, again, I find it difficult to absorb, musically, a lot of it, because it's like a trailer; there's so much stuff going on, and one of the aims of the style is to not have repetition, not work people into a groove through repetition and through building textures. It's more like an every-bar-has-to-be-different kind of style and that's interesting but I can't make it. If someone asked me to make a dubstep track I'd be like, 'I can't really do that' - it's not really my thing. I find that there's always something you can learn from everything; there's something you can learn from country music, there's something you can learn from every style of music and we do try and listen to everything but it's not really my main focus within the electronic realm. Strangely enough, you know what? We don't really listen to electronic music anymore, not unless it's some of the origins, you know, early stuff when 'anything goes' was the rule because now everything is so compartmentalised and strictly regimented within all these so many subgenres and the split-offs from the general headliners of electronics. We generally find ourselves getting inspiration from everywhere else, literally, with no real limitation whatever that might be, and then bringing that back into what we do. So, yeah, again, it's fascinating to do an Elton record because it's not really a style that he's really been involved in.
One of the few he hasn't really.
Yeah, he's done little things and remixes and all that and samples over the years, but as he will tell you very openly, he doesn't know how to do it. It's not his thing and it kind of involves too much fiddling in the studio for the kind of artist that he is, so the perfect thing for him is to get other people to do it. And as he said in a bunch of press we did in Vegas a while ago, a few weeks ago, this is fascinating for him because it's a revitalising of his career in a more modern way even though we're not doing a cutting edge dubstep version of his songs. I think the aim was to try and make something more timeless and I guess that's our aim in all the music we make, even though it may seem a bit more of-the-moment. We're not trying to make something that's only here for six months because, if you do that, you can't really make an album; it moves so quickly these days, you can't really just focus on something that's hip now and by the time you've finished it's not gonna be around anymore.
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