Peter Mayes, musician, PNAU
How do you know when a mix is done? It’s when there is an involuntary physical reaction ...
If you haven’t heard any PNAU tracks before, then you must be living under and exceptionally soundproof rock, boulder, or mountain. The creators of infections dance-floor fillers have crafted hits such as ‘Wild Strawberries’, ‘Embrace’ and last year’s mega-hit ‘Chamelon’ have been at the top of the game for more than a decade, and have even worked with Elton John. The trio of Peter Mayes, Nick Littlemore (who is also a member of Empire of the Sun) and Sam Littlemore are about to knock our socks off once more with their new album Changa – a record filled top to bottom with incredible jams. Changa will be released in full on Friday November 10, so to get you hyped for its release we chatted to Peter Mayes about the record’s creation and the trick to writing huge festival bangers.
Take me back to a few years ago! Obviously everyone in PNAU is busy with various projects, but at what point did you start shifting back into PNAU mode over other things?
It began about four years ago. It was largely driven by geographical constraints because Nick and I live in Los Angeles and Sam lives in Sydney, so basically whenever we could get in for a month or so, we’d do that. At some points we were only working on the album once every six months or so. It was drawn out, which is why it took so long, but it’s really nice to have the luxury of time when you are working on the record, as you quite often don’t. To have that time away when you don’t listen to it is really invaluable because when you come back to it is almost new to you and you know instantly what to do, rather than working on something every day for months and you get oversaturated and can very easily lose your way.
With that process, when did you realise that you’d finally accumulated enough work for an album that you could stand behind?
Well, we kind of wrote a lot initially and then ditched it. So we started again at one point. But I guess once we had Chameleon and working with Kira Divine we really helped give us more of a purpose. Once we had the voice for a lot of the record it really helped us focus on it. To a larger extent we leave it to the label and management – they’ll tell us when we’ve got a record, otherwise we’ll just keep going. Obviously to get to the ten or 12 songs you have to write a lot, and that’s generally the best way to go because you up the quality level a bit or as much as possible, but we don’t tend to do albums very often but we’re always trying to make them quicker. It just takes time, and there were long periods of inactivity though we keep busy in general.
Speaking of ‘Chameleon’ – it took the country by storm. Was it released as a taster for the rest of the album you knew was coming or did you feel like that song deserved to be heard as soon as you made it?
Yeah, it felt good. It’s funny because we play a lot of songs at our live shows, but every time that one comes on – it’s so simple, there’s only a few chords – there’s just this feeling about it. I don’t spend much time sitting around listening to my own music, but it’s nice to hear it and have people receive it well. As you say, once we had that – we thought ‘Okay cool, we have a single’, we could just keep going. It gives you inspiration to complete the record. It’s always hard to finish things.
Are you perfectionists?
Yeah, I think definitely. The songs go through a lot of iterations. In some ways they end up sounding a little bit unfinished – we try not to overcook them. It’s really hard to not do that, to not go too far with the production. But with the mixing and the final polishing we get pretty anal with that.
The album sounds great, so the work paid off. I’m curious as to how you go about shaking things up between albums. Was there a conscious discussion about the direction you wanted to head in with Changa?
I guess there was, but even when you do that I find you quite often go off the road map. I think Sam is often the one to say, ‘I think we should do a track like this’, but it never ends up being what you think it will initially. ‘Chameleon’ was written over a completely different record to what you hear on the radio. It was a very simple afro, clubby, house thing – and in many ways you could say that’s what it is now, but it was totally different. None of the chords were there – we just jammed out the vocal. Once you’ve got the vocal, you can do anything you want. You can change the music and put it together in many different ways.
In terms of shaking up the style between albums, what’s your thought process when it comes to experimenting?
We’ve always loved house music and it feels like house music is always coming back. We grew up on all sorts of different electronic music, but we never really listen to very similar music to what we do. I think if we did that, we’d just do what everyone else is doing. Whether we’ve done that anyway, I don’t know. (laughs) We intentionally don’t immerse ourselves in the same kind of sounds because we don’t want to sound exactly like anyone else. In terms of the change of the styles between records, that’s partially because of time but also because we don’t want to do the same thing every time.
We’re there any times when you found you had to consciously push yourselves out of your comfort zone creatively?
No, I mean outside of PNAU we work on a vast variety of musical styles. We don’t force ourselves to do anything, it either works or it doesn’t. Sometimes we’ll take ourselves out of our comfort zones and it can be a positive thing and surprise yourself in terms of what comes out, but if something is forced then it will sound forced. Generally the best ideas come pretty quickly, and then it’s just matter of producing and honing it into a finished record.
You seem to have a knack for nailing that danceable vibe in your music, when do you know that a song has it?
I guess it’s just when you’re sitting there on it and you can’t help dancing. How do you know when a mix is done? It’s when there is an involuntary physical reaction. Sometimes you think you might have something and then you come back to it and go, ‘Oh god, what was I thinking?’ We rely on the people around us to let us know. Our manager will always tell us when we’re done. It’s really our job to just create and keep pushing ourselves.
Do you find it’s easier to reach that point at this stage over your career?
I think it’s still trial and error. If it got easier we’d just write ten songs and put out the record! You never really know, but there are certain ones you feel it in the studio and it feels good and you play it to people and they react. Then you kind of know. You really need to play it to other people that have no affinity to it initially, just listening to it with fresh ears.
For you personally, what are you most excited about with this record or are hoping people with catch on to?
I guess just the same kind of things we’ve always been doing – the positivity and the fun aspect of it and the way that comes across in the show.
On that note, you’ve been touring the country recently on some big festival bills. How have been people been responding to the new tracks when you drop them in a live set?
It’s been really good and to be honest we’ve played a few shows in Australia this year where we’ve played new stuff – a lot more than we used to. We’re also touring with Kira Divine, so it’s great to have her singing the songs we’ve done with her an the reaction has generally been really good. It’s definitely a different reaction to songs that people have heard before, that’s just a human thing, but overall it’s been positive!
Are you bringing anything else to the stage show to up the ante?
We’ve brought back the video element, because I think that’s really important with electronic music – the visual representation of it. I think having Sam in the band is great because he’s very talented in the visual arts as well. He does the video and edits it all live and manipulates it all… sorry, Nick is just taking the piss out of me now. He’s looking at me with a guilty smirk – I’m distracted. Yeah, I don’t know I think we’re upping the ante by bringing Kira with us. But with the last Soft Universe record we really did it as kind of a live band with drums and guitars and us all singing. It was really fun to be in that kind of band for a while, in terms of the performance but I think what we’re doing now works better with the kind of records that we make. We’re generally playing festivals, so it makes more sense atmospherically – having that big video screen keeps you immersed in the whole experience.
Finally, what are you finding personally inspiring that is informing your work or how you live you life?
I think it’s great that with everything that is happening with the music industry and downloading, that music itself is bigger than it’s ever been. Otherwise, I don’t know. It’s nice living in Los Angeles to be honest because it’s very sunny. (laughs) After living in London for a while – which is the direct opposite – it has a huge impact on your daily life, and if you daily life involves making music then it makes a difference.