Luke Steele: A man on his mettle

The Sleepy Jackson's Luke Steele has looks... and now 'Personality'. Fiona Sturges delves into his stream of consciousness
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The Independent Culture

Nothing can quite prepare you for the sight of The Sleepy Jackson's Luke Steele in the flesh. Not long out of bed after a post-gig night out, he has still found the time to put on a smart, pinstripe suit, apply some eye-liner and tease his jet-black hair into Edward Scissorhands-style peaks. When he arrives in the lobby of the ultra-hip west London hotel where he is staying, a sea of heads turns to look at him.

If Steele's appearance demands our attention, then so does his music. In the past few years, this precocious 26-year-old has been variously described as Australia's answer to Brian Wilson, a fledgling George Harrison, and "the missing link between Phil Spector, Gram Parsons and Beck". Where other musicians might feel intimidated by such lofty comparisons, Steele isn't one to suffer from self-doubt. "I always knew that I would make great music," he says. "And I've always been very ambitious. With [his 2003 debut album] Lovers, I wanted to sell a million copies. I wanted it to reach everyone. In the end, it sold 200,000, which I guess was pretty good for a first album."

Expectations are running high for Personality, the follow-up to Lovers, and the initial signs are good. The reviews have, so far, been glowing while the album went straight into the top 10 of the album charts in Australia this month. "Yeah, I've got a good feeling about this one," Steele says. "I realise now that things like sales and reviews are out of my hands. But I know that the right people will buy it. I wanted this album to be more like an oil painting than, say, a colour printout. It's a bit more romantic than Lovers. It's not so much like regular pop than a series of tantalising sounds. There's a lot going on. It's one of those you-need-to-take-a-shower-when-it's-finished kind of records. Do you know what I mean?"

Well, no, not exactly, but then Steele's conversation can take some bizarre twists and turns. He specialises in stream-of-consciousness anecdotes that veer off the point so dramatically that, by the time he's finished, you've forgotten your original question. When I ask if he gets carried away with the rock'n'roll lifestyle, he launches into some unfathomable metaphor involving a mouse and a cellar full of cheese. I think he's trying to tell me that he's matured since the early days, though it's impossible to know for sure.

Steele may like to give the impression that his success was a foregone conclusion but it hasn't been without hurdles. First, there's his alleged megalomania, resulting in the departure of at least 10 band members, including his brother, Jesse. He is quick to point out that the only person he fired was his brother and that everyone else left of their own accord (he and Jesse have since resolved their differences). Since 1998, the band has gone through no less than four line-up changes, with Steele as the only constant member.

"It's hard running a band like this," he says. "When other people come in, I think they're quite intimidated by me and my reputation. But I've learned how to keep going, and I just pray for humility and the strength to carry on."

Then there are Steele's difficulties with depression and alcohol in his late teens and early twenties. Since then, he has swapped the booze for the Bible, and claims to be back on an even keel. "God and my brother got me through it," he says.

It's no surprise to discover that a tough regime accompanied the making of Personality, with band members forbidden to drink alcohol and committed to working 10-hour days. Steele also decreed that everyone had to wear suits. Once again, his modus operandi caused friction. "Basically, we had to sack the manager, and then two of the band members went with him and started their own band," he says. "I was so angry, I felt I'd been lied to. Because of that, a lot of the songs are about truth and God's word. Now, apart from Malcolm [Clark, our drummer], I use session musicians. It's more professional that way. Everyone knows their job and there are fewer egos involved."

Does he think he's difficult to work with? "Not at all," he replies. "It's just because it's always frenetic, you know? Music's a big project and it's always changing. People have got to keep up. It's hard because there are times when you've got to be a bit of a bastard, which isn't necessarily in my nature."

If Steele's people skills could do with a bit of work, there's no doubting his ear for a melody. Where Lovers took listeners on a magical mystery tour of his record collection, Personality is a far more ambitious and polished affair; a work of widescreen drama complete with anthemic choruses, soaring strings and endlessly layered vocals. But the stylistic restlessness remains, from the sunshine pop of "Devil Was in My Yard" and the Todd Rundgren-esque "How Was I Supposed to Know" to the understated funk of "I Understand What You Want But I Just Don't Agree".

"I believe that the role of the musician is to take from the great artists of the past and create something new," Steele says. "It's hard to get stuff done when you've got no house, no car and no money. But I like the challenge. That's why artists die young, because every day there's a constant struggle. You've got these things in your head that are so important that they somehow have to be put out there. At the same time, you've got to be professional and you've got to have stamina. I think that was the problem with some of the last guys in the band. They didn't have the stamina."

Named after a drummer friend, Leonard Jackson, who suffered from narcolepsy, The Sleepy Jackson was formed by Steele eight years ago in Perth alongside Jesse and friend Matthew O'Connor. Initially, Steele wanted it to be "a Beatles-type band, with everyone writing tunes and contributing their own ideas". He adds: "But you don't always get that straight off. As I'm finding, it can take years. A band is just a crazy life apprenticeship."

Musical talent clearly runs in the family - alongside his guitarist brother, Steele's father, Rick, is a blues musician. The family would regularly be woken up in the early hours of the morning by the sound of his dad and his friends singing John Lennon songs.

A former art student, music always featured prominently in Steele's college projects. Even now, with the band taking up so much time, he continues to dabble with different art forms. He paints in his spare time, and has also found the time to work on a film script. "Every day, I have to work on about 50 things," he says. "I finish a song and then I get to work on my painting. A friend of mine, Michael, said to me that to be a good artist you have to refine one art form and then move on. You can't be this painter that uses too many colours. I hope by using different mediums I can reach more people. One of my purposes is to inspire people, to give them something to live for and to hopefully bring some light into their day. If I can do that, then I can consider myself a success."

The single 'God Lead Your Soul' and 'Personality' (Virgin) are out now

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