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Daring to dream

Luke Steele talks through the meteoric rise of glam-pop super-duo DREAMS,  the creative process of the band and the friendship that binds it all together.

Katie Cunningham

Coachella is known for assembling the world’s biggest artists: the Beyoncés, the Kendricks, the Rihannas. It’s a festival most bands only dream of playing, an event that makes or breaks careers, and a bill even established acts have to fight for a spot on.

And yet, when Coachella’s 2018 line-up dropped, it featured one name that would have been foreign to just about everyone reading the poster. Four lines down, wedged between rapper TroyBoi and Seattle’s Perfume Genius, was an act called DREAMS. It’s not just that DREAMS weren’t big—they were practically non-existent. They had no fans, no social presence, and absolutely no one had heard of them. Because, at that point, they hadn’t put out a single song.

So how did a band with no releases to their name snag a spot at the world’s biggest music festival? It has to do with its frontmen. DREAMS might be a new project, but the two artists who make up its membership are household names. A collaboration between Silverchair legend Daniel Johns and Empire of the Sun vocalist Luke Steele has been teased and talked about for years. In 2018, the dream became a reality, with Coachella set as their grand unveiling—and no one was more amused by the ridiculously high-profile debut than the duo themselves.

“Melody ... is like the breath of God”

Luke Steele, DREAMS

Luke Steele performing as part of DREAMS at Coachella

“We were laughing together before we went on, like, ‘we’ve never played together, we’ve never played these songs and we’re at Coachella, what could possibly go wrong?’” Luke Steele tells me. Thankfully, the show—which doubled as Daniel Johns’ first live appearance in years—went off without a hitch: “It was amazing,” Luke says. “We just had this vision of launching this band at the biggest festival in the world. It was really such a milestone.”

DREAMS might have been born on the Coachella stage, but its origins go way back to the grimy green rooms of Australian venues. Before Luke Steele paired up with Nick Littlemore to become Empire of the Sun, he fronted the legendary Australian band The Sleepy Jackson—who, in 2003, were picked to join Silverchair on tour as a support act. It turned out to be a fortuitous booking—Steele and Johns hit it off immediately.

“Dan always had a grand piano backstage, so we started writing in his dressing room pretty much on the first show,” Steele says. “I was like a student, learning from Dan. He’s such an artist and such a creative genius, you can’t help but be filled with imagination and inspiration when you’re around him.”

Luke says their connection was an intuitive one. “We’re both frontmen, we’re both singers. We both love melody and songs. We really resonated on melody—everything from beautiful old 1930s black and white string arrangements to Brian Wilson to Ryuichi Sakamoto.” Steele is deadly serious about melody: “Melody,” he says, “is like the breath of God.”

Over the years, they recorded “hundreds and hundreds” of songs together, most of which will never see the light of day. After all, a 15-year-long collaboration has meant a lot of starts and stops. “I’ve been with my band for ten years and Dan’s been in Sydney. I’ve been touring a lot and Dan’s been in the studio. We’ve both been on different schedules,” Luke explains. “We might not see each other for a year or two and when you catch up, you more spend the time listening to records and talking about what you missed. We’d always do a little bit of work, but you’d only get so much done, then you’d leave again and the next time you catch up you’d be into all different kinds of music. And so you’d start something new again.”

DREAMS and Jamie Foxx at Coachella

While fans have been holding out for the collaboration for a decade now—Steele first let slip in a 2008 interview that the pair were in the studio together—it was only around two years ago that they really committed to bringing DREAMS to life, going to work on a set of songs that were a far cry from the “acoustic guitar” jams they started out with back in ‘03. “We decided to start finishing an album for real. And we realised that we wanted to make a record that was something we’d listen to when we’d hang out with our friends and party—something that has Berlin electronica but also has guitars and great melody. A hybrid of all our favourite sounds.” 

The first taste of that cocktail of influences, ‘No One Defeats Us’, arrived in early April, just a couple of weeks before their Coachella show. Luke describes it as a “warrior mantra”, and the song that best encapsulates their vision as DREAMS. “We needed a song that was so strong, so representative of what we were talking about,” he says. “That was the song that really started the record.”

The video for ‘No One Defeats Us’, which features Johns shirtless, clad in a faux fur jacket, tripped-out contact lenses and swinging a baseball bat around, made it clear the duo aren’t dulling down their eccentricities yet, either. But despite being two of Australian music’s biggest personalities, passions in the studio never hit boiling point between Steele and Johns.

“Funnily enough, we don’t really clash that much because we’re both very open to possibilities,” Steele says. “And we’ve both been through so much, this isn’t our first rodeo.”

It’s obvious they both have a relentless desire to create and reinvent. Between them, the pair have sold 15 million albums, scooped up over 30 ARIA Awards, and been part of half a dozen different projects—but neither Johns nor Steele want to slow down. As Steele puts it: “Dan and I, we’re still so hungry as artists”. What they’re making now, he tells me, is the sort of music that could only come from a lifelong friendship. They’re songs that could never have been made by either of them solo: they’re built on the chemistry of collaboration.

“It has nothing to do with either one of us alone,” he says. “It only has to do with us together.” 

DREAMS will play their debut Australian performance in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall as part of Vivid LIVE.

Dreams (Daniel Johns & Luke Steele)

In their only Australian shows, the long awaited spectacular electro-pop collaboration between two iconic Australian artists, Silverchair’s Daniel Johns (aka Dr Dreams) and Empire of The Sun’s Luke Steele (aka Miracle), has finally arrived.

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