Pnau’s Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes got a brief sense of déjà vu this year when Australian dance act Yolanda Be Cool had all their publishing royalties stripped because they didn’t get the sample cleared used that was the basis of their hit song We Don’t Speak No Americano . You see, in 2000 just after Pnau’s debut album Sambanova won the ARIA for Best Dance Release, the album was removed from shelves in record stores here and around the world because Pnau had failed to get clearance on some of the samples used on the album. Mayes, who as one half of Pnau, has now gone on to become one the world’s most highly regarded producers – with he and Littlemore chosen to be mentored by Sir Elton John – discusses the publishing nightmare suffered just after they released Sambanova . “Basically, Sambanova won the Best Dance ARIA and then was pulled off the shelves because a lot of the samples hadn’t been cleared.
“Our first record which was some time ago was largely influenced by samples of the records that we were listening to at the time,” states Mayes plainly. He explains that particularly for dance producers who rely on samples it’s a bit of a catch 22 with getting samples cleared because that can be expensive. “It was really difficult and is not something that I would recommend [not getting samples cleared] but people don’t really have much money to make a record nowadays; they have less money than when we started, and I think to clear a sample for some people is too expensive, so they just put it out, see what happens and if it goes big, they just clear it then.
“It is a gamble because it could go big and once it goes big they could just go ‘sorry, and it’s gone big and you’ve lost everything’. As a result we don’t do that anymore [use samples] we’ve gone to the opposite end of the musical spectrum.”
He concludes, “We were just kids… we were 18 years old and it was still the nineties and sample stealing was not that over publicized. It [ Sambanova] didn’t really make us any money but it was a great experience making that record; it definitely gave us a leg up, and it is something people are still talking about when I see them. They are always asking for those songs.”
However, it has been a long time since Pnau even used samples, with their very successful self-titled release of 2007 boasting an innovative crossover sound including the rock tinged number Embrace that featured the vocals of Pip Brown (Ladyhawke) and also the hectic WildStrawberries that featured Littlemore on vocals. Mayes openly and excitedly discusses Pnau’s upcoming fourth album, the follow-up to Pnau.
“It’s like, I guess, still distinctly Pnau,” he muses. “I don’t really know how to describe it any other way. It’s very much a song-based record that’s more about melody and texture rather than just pure rhythm.” He pauses thoughtfully, so much so you can almost feel his mind processing its synapses for a more profound description of the new album. Finally he adds, “I guess you could say that it is much more about vocals and telling a story.”
It is not the longest bow to draw to conclude that Pnau’s new appreciation fro traditional song structure may well have been developed after their intense mentorship with Sir Elton John. It’s a relationship that now sees the act managed by John’s artist management company and often doing songwriting sessions with the pop legend. Mayes discusses their relationship with Sir Elton, noting “He’s been more of a mentor and a guiding light for this record. He’s been there giving us feedback for a while. He’s really helped us, if we didn’t quite hit it with a batch of songs he’ll tell us, which is great.
“At a point when we didn’t have a record deal, he was an amazing person to have there when we were making the record and we have written with him in the studio; it was an amazing experience.” The amazement in Mayes’ voice heightens immensely as he delves further into working with Sir Elton. “Just to see someone like that write a song, it kind of hits you because he’s been doing it for 45 years. He can write a song in 10 minutes: He does the piano, then the lyrics, and plays it out and has quite a credible song. And I know he did that [wrote a song in 10 minutes] for some of his biggest hits like Rocket Man. He basically just played it out which is quite incredible.
“It’s certainly obvious to me that once you have met a guy like that and once you’ve seen him working that you really respect their talent. Having the ability to see the melody and just playing the song straight out of your head and he’s also an incredible pianist. He just makes it look so easy.”
Mayes sets out the events that lead to Pnau getting in touch with Sir Elton, explaining that “He was in Australia a few years ago and he heard our music – normally when he goes to a country he listens to a whole bunch of music and he found us through that. And then he had dinner with a friend of ours, got Nick’s phone number, called him up and told him that he loved the record. Nick’s like ‘Wow, that’s amazing, can we to meet up while your still here?’ So we met up with him and he told us that he would do anything he could to help us,” smiles Mayes.
“We were like ‘Wow, amazing… Elton John is going to help us’, so that was obviously a bit of a life changing. Since then it has been amazing to have someone with so much experience in the music business involved in your life.”
Finally, Mayes elaborates on the new Pnau live show that he and Littlemore are bringing to Australia for this year’s Big Day Out; starting off by telling that the dancing fruit that were a famous inclusion to their last major festival your didn’t make the cut. “Well,” he says carefully, “there won’t be any dancing fruit,” he chuckles. “I would say that it’s even more intensely visual than before. More people on stage. Just not really as cheery as last time.
“What’s the highlight?” he asks. “Well that’s pretty obvious… The new songs are the highlight”
PNAU are playing BIG DAY OUT alongside Tool, Rammstein, Iggy & The Stooges, MIA, Lupe Fiasco, Wolfmother, Grinderman, LCD Soundsystem, Primal Scream, Angus & Julia Stone, John Butler Trio and heaps, heaps more at Flemington Racecourse on January 30. Tickets are sold out – but there are ballots through bigdayout.com. PNAU’s new single The Truth is out later this month.