Empire of the Sun's Luke Steele talks CRSSD Fest, stage mishaps

Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele stands out for several reasons, whether he’s performing at Coachella in Indio, Electric Daisy Carnival in New York or CRSSD Festival at San Diego’s Waterfront Park. He headlines the sold-out, two-day CRSSD event this weekend, minus longtime musical partner Nick Littlemore, who records — but no longer tours — with Empire.

Even on his own, Australian native Steele will stand out with his exotic space-traveler stage attire. He favors Kabuki-like makeup and elaborate headdresses that tower in the air.

“They’re so heavy!” he said of his helmet-like gear. “The main one I have is made of full-on steel, oh, man. I had to get it re-made in aluminum because it was putting my neck out of whack every time I would wear it. Not good.”

Steele’s attire mirrors Empire of the Sun’s cosmic lyrics, which on this Australian neo-synth-pop duo’s third album, 2016’s “Two Vines,” chronicle a modern metropolis overtaken by a jungle.

“We’ve always just wanted to make beautiful music,” he said, speaking from his Los Angeles home. “We’re not really too worried about what the world is doing.”

A married father of two, Steele, 38, also stands out as a devout Christian. That makes him a major anomaly in a dance- and electronic-music world that often likes to party in a big way.

Steele’s online tribute to the late evangelist Billy Graham last week provoked criticism — including from Empire’s Littlemore, who tweeted: “Not all of us are interested in celebrating a life of a bigot #fyi.” (Graham’s Feb. 21 death came just a few hours after Steele spoke to the Union-Tribune.)

Steele doesn’t overtly proselytize in the lyrics he sings, even if Empire’s second album, 2013’s “Ice on the Dune,” does employ biblical-inspired imagery.

“We want to change people’s minds, inspire them, show them a whole world of imagination and let them be taken to a whole other place they’ve never been,” he said.

Steele also stands out because of the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar he plays at concerts by Empire, whose music has been described as “Daft Punk meets Fleetwood Mac.” It’s an instrument featured at electronic music events like CRSSD as rarely as a rack of synthesizers, sequencers and digital sampling devices is used at a blues festival.

“My father is president of the Perth Blues Club, so I grew up there for 25 years. Blues has been my whole upbringing,” said Steele, who then asked a question of his own. “Do you like JJ Cale?”

Told that the late Cale had lived in San Diego County for more than 20 years and was the subject of several in-depth Union-Tribune interviews, Steele almost gasped.

“No way!” he said. “Oh, wow. That’s amazing! We always warm up (for Empire concerts) to JJ Cale. And me and my dad’s No. 1 song we do together is ‘Clyde’ (from Cale’s 1972 debut album, ‘Naturally’). I always warm up to JJ Cale, always.”

Steele is knowledgeable about Jimi Hendrix, Robben Ford, Stevie Ray Vaughan and other blues-fueled guitar greats. But he reserved his biggest praise for Cale, who died here in 2013 at the age of 74.

“There’s something so special about the pocket JJ sits in,” Steele noted. “It’s a kind of a groove that is unique to rhythm and (Cale fan and collaborator) Eric Clapton used to try so hard to fit in that pocket. JJ had this unique touch on guitar, with just his fingers, no effects.”

Empire made its 2016 album, “Two Vines,” largely in Hawaii so that Steele could surf. They completed it in Los Angeles with such guest artists as Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, former Prince collaborator Wendy Melvoin​​​​​​ and two David Bowie band alums.

For Empire’s upcoming fourth album, Steele and Littlemore have been recording in Tokyo. They are using such traditional Japanese instruments as taiko drums and the 13-stringed koto, as well as the voices of Buddhist monks.

In concert, Steele is often accompanied by several dancers and two members of the bluesy English band Gomez, guitarist Ian Ball and drummer Olly Peacock.

Will he use any taikos at CRSSD?

“No, no. That will be on the new record,” Steele said.

“CRSSD is amazing. It’s gonna be so good to be back in San Diego. For us, San Diego has always had an unpredictable, electric energy to it. We always have a high octane show … there.”

CRSSD Festival

When: Noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday, rain or shine

Where: Waterfront Park, 1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego (next to the San Diego County Administration Building)

Tickets: Sold out (must be 21 or older to attend)

Online: crssdfest.com

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