Co-creator of Good Morning To The Night talks with eltonjohn.com
By John F. Higgins/eltonjohn.com
Pnau, the Australian electronica band comprised of Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes, released their first album in 1999 – the same year, by the way, that Elton John received his Grammy Legend Award.
Years later, while touring Australia in 2007, Elton included the duo's third album on his Sydney record store shopping list. Within months he had offered them, off the strength of that eponymous effort (which he called, "the greatest record I've heard in ten years") a chance to sign with his management company...and another unique opportunity: to go through the master tapes of his studio and live albums recorded between 1969 and1977 and rework the material as they sought fit.
So for the past few whirlwind years, Nick and Peter have found themselves sample-deep in Elton material. Material that was, in large part, released before they were born.
The result is Good Morning To The Night – an album that cannot be described as simply a "remixing" of Elton's material. It is more of a re-awakening. Using hundreds of elements from dozens of songs, the eight tracks are continual mash-ups that quickly create their own identity while still honoring the source material...most of it culled from deep within the more obscure corners of Elton's catalogue.
For example, the track Black Icy Stare begins with a backing vocal line from the 40-second mark of a 1974 b-side, Cold Highway, before hooking into the horn line from Caribou's You're So Static. As the beat pushes forward, a Lesley guitar line out of Static chases an organ taken from Highway's chorus...and the song slides square into the rhythm section and lead vocal from the second half of the chorus to Solar Prestige A Gammon. The fact that all of these songs happen to come from the same album sessions should not lead the listener to think that the same consideration was taken throughout the rest of the Good Morning To The Night – it is the only song to be so based.
In an exclusive interview, Pnau's Nick Littlemore spoke with eltonjohn.com in the days leading up to the release of Good Morning To The Night.
There seem to be two ways of listening to this CD. One is to treat the songs as songs and the album as its own cohesive unit. And the other is to try and figure out which bits of which Elton tracks are in each song.
It was definitely split like that for us in the making as well. Maybe even in a third way because of the gravity of working with Elton. There's no one else like Sir Elton, in terms of a composer and songwriter and musical entity. So, there's that and working with the intellectual pursuit of creating it and thinking about what we could bring to the legend of this material. And then there's the very practical sense of the work itself, beyond just the conceptual work. We started off doing a lot of things on paper and working out keys and time signatures and tempos and all the rest of it. And then began the actual work, which was about two years' worth of editing and chopping and slicing and reframing. We tried to make something that was very emotional and enjoyable to listen to, even though a lot of it was extremely complex to make. We never wanted to lose sight of the fact that we were making a summer-ey, beautiful, feel-good record that really does take people on a journey.
To what extent were you a fan of Elton's before he reached out to you?
We had records of his in the house. My mother was a big record collector. And I remember hearing songs of Elton's on the radio. He's always been quite well known in Australia. Like with any big star, you're aware of them but you don't think of them on a daily basis...like I have every day since meeting him. Of all the people who would come to Australia and give me a call and say. "I love your record." It has changed my life innumerably. In ways more positive than I thought could possibly exist. To be around the real successful elite of the music business and artists and theatre people and everything else that goes along with that. I was not literally under a rock, but pretty much, in Australia when he found us. We were touring and were doing well by Australian standards, but Elton's allowed everything beyond my wildest dreams to occur. It's been an apprenticeship for us. There's not a day that goes by that I'm not humbled by the patience and the time he has taken.
There must have been moments where you went, "Well, I never thought THAT was an option."
Well, NONE of it was an option. That's the whole point. I'm a very introspective person and throughout my whole career before meeting Elton I'd think about and dream about things I'd love to have done. But they're just not realistic, you know. Especially coming from Australia, you just don't have the option of so many things. For a start, the tyranny of distance disallows so many options that would be an option had you lived in London or New York. In Australia you are limited to who comes and sees you on the other side of the planet. I never could have imagined that this could happen to me. I certainly don't deserve it. But, I'll take it and I'll work my butt off to try and pay it back...or pay forward, rather, the compliment.
Do you feel this album is one way of doing that?
Yeah. We have three more planned as well, so we'll keep working on trying to give back.
Elton's beside himself over the project; he can't say enough about it.
He's so generous to us about all that, you know? If we look at it factually, this record was already made over a series of years in the 70s. We just re-sequenced it, but with such infinitesimal detail that we're sequencing every single note of every bass and every guitar and every voice. But essentially it was all there. It's just two more years cutting up and doing all the stuff. These records were made so quickly back then; we look incredibly slow in comparison. But the job we were doing is quite different than just going into a room and playing instruments.
Does everything we hear on your album somehow come off the old records, or has Pnau brought external things to it?
There are some sounds and things that we've added, but we made sure that all the instruments we added were of a similar vintage. We used a synthesizer that was from 1976, which features on quite a few of Elton's records. We picked one up and got it restored. We tried the same thing with all the sound effects and all the processes and things we used. Obviously computers were involved but we tried to make them as transparent as possible. We really wanted to imagine it as though we had walked into the sessions in the Chateau or wherever and said, "Okay guys, those songs are amazing and we love them. Let's just try looping up this bar...and Davey can you just play this over and over again...and then let's lay this in and lay that in?" We wanted to control the band, but we did it through computers and technology and traveling back in time. But, essentially, in our minds, we're in the room with the band. Producing the production.
Did you come away with an appreciation of people like producer Gus Dudgeon?
Oh my god. Gus Dudgeon was a genius. And I don't throw that word around a lot. There are only two that I know of – Sir Elton and Gus. Listening to Gus's production and the detail and the way he would glue things together. From my perspective of working on records these days - you work up a couple mics and you record a drumbeat...and it doesn't sound like Nigel Olsson playing in 1973. I mean, there are things they did back then they still floor me every time I hear them. You know, you're hearing history. It's still just drums, bass, guitar, keys, and vocals but somehow it's just so much more than that. Obviously, there's the melody and the harmony and all the rest of it, but there's something magical going on. I don't know how to describe it. It's such a trip.
Unfortunately, we're coming up on the tenth anniversary of Gus' death.
Oh, really? I didn't know that. Well, quite timely then; it is an homage to Gus. The record wouldn't have sounded anywhere near as good or anything even like what it does sound like without the dedication and work of such professionals as Gus Dudgeon.
There must have been a good many things you unearthed when you drilled down deeper into the track layers.
That's what I found astounding. You'd mute a few parts and you'd listen to just the rhythm section... Like on Madman Across The Water, you've got a punk record and on some other song you've got a hip-hop record – and these things are years before these genres existed. It's kind of astounding. Elton would so easily and so freely move across genres. Within a given verse or even a couple of bars he would be moving from Africa to classical music to jazz back to folk and bluegrass and country – and he does it so effortlessly, just with the touch of a hand and a slight inflection in the voice. No one can do that. I've never witnessed that before. It feels more natural than so many bits of music that become "styles." That become within the confines of something and I think the whole idea of music is that you can't confine it. And Elton is the perfect example of that because he moves so effortlessly in and out of everything...every historical movement as well as every future thing.
To read part two of our interview with Nick Littlemore from Pnau, go here.