Luke Steele: Rising and shining

Steering The Sleepy Jackson through two break-ups drove Luke Steele to drink and born-again religion. Clare Dwyer Hogg talks to the 'difficult' creative force behind Australia's hottest new export
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes, you gain an impression of a person before you actually meet them, only for them to, disconcertingly, defy it when you actually come face to face. It's true in the case of Luke Steele, the creative force behind The Sleepy Jackson. Steele's reputation as a "difficult" case precedes him: his ex-band members say he's impossible to work with - although maybe they're bound to say that now that The Sleepy Jackson are taking off so spectacularly without them - and the single that's in heavy rotation on the radio at the moment, "Vampire Racecourse", is a result not of the first, or second, but third, incarnation of the band. Luke Steele has been the only salient factor in all its revolutions.

Steele is in London to coincide with the release of The Sleepy Jackson's debut album, Lovers - there was an EP before - and is holed up in a hotel in Shepherd's Bush. He wears sunglasses while having his picture taken on the balcony and he's still wearing the shades when the interview takes place, dispensing with them only briefly. "I watch people about 50 per cent of the time so I don't have to make personal contact with them," he mumbles. This would fit the "awkward bastard" persona attributed to him, but his tone is too dry to be serious, and suddenly there's a bit of a chink in his armour.

What does he think of his image? "Of course there's going to be a whole load of rumours," he replies. "But it's only one kind of perception that says I'm hard to work with." The band started off, he says, with his brother and one other. He asked his brother to leave because "it was my brother and it wasn't happening", but everyone else left of their own accord. The same with the other permutations of The Sleepy Jackson. He's said in a number of interviews that it was like leading an army who didn't want to be lead, and he says it again here. "I've said that so many times. It's my favourite thing," he admits smiling.

The thing is, characterising his band in terms of an army probably doesn't really do him any favours. It makes the process sound less boho, more like a dictatorship, but when he explains, it sounds a bit different. "I've always wanted to have a Gomez kind of band where everyone's..." he pauses. "You know, different kind of marriages with each other. But I think being too lenient with music can be a real nightmare. You can be lenient to an extent - like I want you to play this melody and at the ending do your own thing - but you realise things have got to be tight." In other incarnations of the band, he says, it wasn't tight at all. "I was pretty loose and all over the place and didn't really know what the sound of the band was going to be." He pre-empts the next question, continuing, "I still don't know, but now at least I've got a stronger vision to tell people." It seems pretty clear that the music has been enriched by whatever conflict and process there was behind it.

Lovers is a cacophony of sound. The genre, if that's important, is difficult to pinpoint, which is probably the point. "Miniskirt", for instance, is a song which to all intents and purposes sounds like the opening of a country ballad, and then has Steele breaking in to sing "If I was a girl, I'd wear a little skirt into town," while "Vampire Racecourse" has a relentless beat and honky-tonk piano that builds up and up until Steele's shout-sings "Is this what you want?" over and over again. The music on this album clearly intends to force a reaction that goes deeper than foot-tapping.

"I just really want to create good music," he says, by way of a low-key explanation. It's what he was trying to do before, without being able to bring the others along with him. He adjusts his sunglasses. "In the last band, I'd write a song, and the guitarist would have written a melody, and it would fit perfectly together. I'd say, 'Let's make this a really good song together,' and his reply would be: 'Oh, I'm saving that for my band.'" The difficulty was that Steele had to ask his band members to join in order to help him out. The Sleepy Jackson was top priority for him, but not for them. "I can see it clearly now," he says. "It's always been, you know, such a big hassle to do things like write a song and I just hate that, when together you could make something so beautiful, but one person just doesn't take that risk. People who don't take risks..." He pauses. This has obviously been An Issue.

"People that play in the band would say they were open-minded," he continues. "But then I'd say, 'Why don't we put beat loops in this and make the vocals backwards?' But they'd say, 'How's that going to work? Are you some crazy? Do you think you're some kind of genius doing your stuff or something?' But at least I've got my ideas instead of sounding like Nirvana or something..." He trails off again. That's a conversation he's had a few times, it seems. Was it because the others were thinking in more commercial terms than him? "I think I'm the most commercially aware out of everyone," he says. "I still don't get it. I think that's why a lot of people join cover bands, because they just don't have the mentality to create something."

He doesn't pull any punches, but there's a distinct sense that a few punches have been landed on him. There was a period of intensive, destructive drinking that happened after the break-up of the second The Sleepy Jackson band, until his brother pulled him out of it. His brother and a new faith in God, which he's kept. It's a more specific faith than the broad brush-stroke covered by "spirituality", and he doesn't shout it from the roof-tops, because the connotations aren't worth it, and he's had enough with rumours. He will say that it's changed everything about where he is now, which is a good thing as far as he's concerned because it has grounded him in something "other", something that isn't necessarily shaken by what happens in the band.

However you may feel about that, it has come in handy for Steele, who has arrived from the capital of Western Australia, Perth, to an English welcome that's been stirred by a potentially unnerving level of hype and critical acclaim. The hype was surprising. "Because we started in Perth in really crap bands, we're a bit old hat over there." He stops, and starts to laugh behind his sunglasses. "Yes, I feel a bit old hat," he continues, still laughing.

Old hat? If this is old hat, then old hat is becoming the next big thing.

'Lovers' is out now on Virgin