Who Is Allowing Empire of the Sun to Keep Happening?

We spoke to the neon-lit masses at their Coachella set to find out.

by Andrea Domanick
Apr 15 2017, 9:48pm

Empire of the Sun is like the Law and Order of festival bands, but not SVU: You'll watch it if it's the only thing on—and it's always on—reliably palatable and too inoffensive to actively dislike. And yet every time, you're equally surprised that it's still a thing.

The Australian duo broke out in 2008, emerging alongside M83, Miike Snow, Owl City, and pre-oontz Calvin Harris as part of the late 00s twee-DM wave—that soft-around-the-edges crossover between the last gasp of indie rock and the incoming electronic takeover best described as Garden State: The Next Generation. This was a time when words like "cinematic" and "sparkling" and "ethereal" ran unchecked as go-to pop music descriptors; but by 2013, it all meekly receded into the middle-distance origins from whence it came.

But not Empire of the Sun. Year after year, these be-masked doofuses end up as top festival billings, bringing their New Age, childlike sing-a-longs to festivals from Coachella to EDC. Armed with a guitar, synths, wacky hats, and backup dancers, the duo seems to make a selling point of being pleasantly accessible and generically weird enough to make EDM kids feel edgy and hip, and rock bros feel sexy. They're the platonic ideal of a Coachella band: Colorful mass appeal politely straddling genres with catchy melodies and theatrical spectacle whose draw is more about experience than artistry or familiarity. 

The thing is, you don't need to know more than a couple of songs to enjoy it, and anyway, everyone is really there to see "Walking on a Dream" close out the set before Dillon Francis. Actually, these guys are still making music? Their third album, Two Vines, dropped last year. But can you name an Empire of the Sun song other than "Walking on a Dream"? Maybe "Alive"? Well, as we found out, neither could a lot of the people at the band's Friday night Sahara tent set at Coachella. But this tens of thousands-capacity tent was packed. Who are all of these people who picked Empire of the Sun over literally any other act—including Radiohead, Travis Scott, Little Dragon, Mr. Carmack, and DJ Shadow? Who is encouraging this? We waded into the neon-lit masses to investigate.

John, 28, LA

Noisey: What's the appeal of this band?
John: You feel you're on their space ship, launching off into a new dimension.

Oh my god. So you've seen them before?
I haven't. This is my first time.

So how do you know it feels that?
Just from seeing this, right now. We're starting to go on their journey.

But you can't even really see them from back here.
Yeah. I don't know.

Do you follow their music? Have you heard their last album?
I haven't. That's why I wanted to come check it out. Because I've never heard their album yet.

So what do you think the draw is? How do they keep landing on festivals year after year?
I mean for one, they play live. Their visual show is like, adds so much to their actual performance. And they're actually playing music, it's not just lip syncing like Britney Spears. No hate on her. But I'm just saying like, they're a solid group.

Why are you choosing to see them over other acts that are playing right now, like Radiohead or Travis Scott?
I'm gonna go watch Radiohead later. But I needed to see this first. This inspires my work a lot. I'm also a drummer and musician. So coming to Coachella to see amazing acts inspires my work. It inspires me when I go back. You need that rejuvenation sometimes. That energy boost. I've been coming to Coachella since 2005. So I remember seeing M83 playing outside in the middle of the day. Daft Punk, Bjork.

Does Empire of the Sun kind of follow in that tradition for you? That kind of spectacle?
They do. And they do in their own way. It's not contrived, it's real. You can see the heart of the music, you know?

Romy, Brooklyn, 21, Natalie, LA, 22

Noisey: Is this your first Coachella?
No, it's my fourth. And it's your what, seventh?

Wow. So you're vets. Why did you come to see Empire of the Sun?
Romy: Honestly, they're very good live. They're pretty catchy, but it's not just some pop band.

Have you been following their music for a long time?
Romy: Honestly, I just love "Walking on a Dream." I love that song. That was the inception of me listening to them. It's so catchy. But they have a little edge to them. Something unique about them.

You guys both seemed to be dancing pretty hard.
Romy: Well, "High and Low" I think is one of the best songs.

Have you heard the new album?
Romy: Not really, honestly. I was excited they were coming to Coachella, but I wouldn't be able to say like, yeah.

Were they a selling point for you this year?
Romy: Um, kind of. Honestly, the headliners always catch. I love Lady Gaga. And Radiohead. But I've wanted to see Gaga for a really long time.

You weren't bummed out they switched her for Beyonce?
Romy: Honestly, no. Lady Gaga would put on just as good of a show. She kills it. If there's anyone to parallel Beyonce, in terms of a performance, it would be Lady Gaga.

Vicky, 26 and Morgan, 28, Southern California

Noisey: Have you seen Empire of the Sun before?
I have not but I'm really excited to see them. I think the biggest thing about them is that they have a lot of theatricals. They have a really good stage presence, so when they perform they're really interactive with the audience. I hear that's really good. And the music is really upbeat, electronic, so I feel like that's good.

Have you been following them for a long time?
Yeah, a few years I guess. Since their first stuff came out. I've listened to them for a long time.

Have you listened to their last album?
I don't think I have. I don't know, maybe. I'm not up to date with every album that comes out. But their music I definitely enjoy. Now I don't feel like a real fan! [Laughs]

Are you planning to see Radiohead or anyone else during this set? How do you perceive them?
Vicky: No, we're going to see Dillon Francis right after. We just saw the XX though. We saw Crystal Castles and a little bit of Mac Miller. I know Radiohead a little bit. I don't perceive them because I don't listen to them a little bit. But I heard they're really good! But I want to dance and feel good.

Morgan: I feel like I'd have more fun here than Radiohead. They have a very broad range of music. It's pretty creepy. They have some mainstream music. They have a lot of chill music. They have some music that's pretty out there, too. I think personally I just wanted to dance around a little bit more, and I don't think I would've gotten that at Radiohead. I originally came to see Radiohead, but then I changed my mind.

What is it about the stage show that really sells it for you?
Vicky: They have a really good performance. I feel like other bands are just singing, and I feel like Empire really wants to impress their audience.

What do you love about Empire of the Sun?
Morgan: Their music is always upbeat, it's very party music. But they stay true to their fans. They don't change their music that much. Like a lot of bands will change their music too much and alienate their fans. Empire of the Sun has stayed pretty consistent. But they've always been in this kind of phase of New Age music, I guess. It's like, not totally electronic, not totally indie, not totally rock. They stayed on top of that really well. And it's so catchy. Their main hits are so catch.

What are your favorite songs?
Morgan: I don't know if I can say a favorite.

Have you seen them before? Have you heard their last album?
Morgan: I haven't. So I'm really excited. I think I've heard it? I think I started listening to it before. I'm not really sure. I'm not sure how many I have.

Do people follow them, like hardcore?
Vicky: I think they're one of those bands where they come on the radio and everyone knows who they are, and they're like really stoked. Maybe there is a following. I don't know.
They're not super mainstream, but it's enough to keep people interested, I guess.

Ryan, Palm Desert and Jimmy, LA

Noisey: Are you a big Empire of the Sun fan?
I don't know them that well, I came because some friends told me to. I'm here for Dillon Francis, he's one of my favorite DJs in the world. Not a lot of people love Empire, but they like the way they perform. It's like a good warm up to whoever the headliner is. I think they play a lot of popular music so that's where everyone gets hyped up and gets moving.

Who are you here for?
Kendrick. LA born and raised! Dropping a new album too, liiiive!

Have you been to Coachella before?
No, this is my first one. It's been a blast. Just a lot of walking and roaming and sightseeing.

Can you tell me about your outfits? When you thought about how to dress for Coachella, what was going through your head?
Just trying to fit in. Neon colors. Tank tops, shorts. The temperature is 90 degrees, you gotta be ready to take things off. No socks. Go SoCal style. Unless you wear the light up shoes, 'cause those are killing it! What a fantastic time, for sure.

Anonymous Girls, 20, LA

Noisey: What is it about their music that makes you want to see them over anyone else who is playing now, like Radiohead or Travis Scott?
Girl 1
: It's feel good music. It's very uplifting, it makes me really happy. It brings people together.

What songs do you like by them?
Girl 2: "Walking on a Dream." Um… I haven't heard their new album. But what I really like about them is that they have crazy makeup and stuff, like no other artist. I think they put on a good show. They give you something to see.

Have you been to Coachella before?
Girl 2: It's my first time, and her second time.

How's your experience so far this year?
Girl 1: It's our first time camping, so it's a really different experience.

Who else are you excited to see? Who did you come here for?
Girl 2: I'm excited to see Kehlani. I'm excited to see Bon Iver.

Girl 1: Kaytranada. Kendrick Lamar, I'm really excited to see him. Lorde! Yeah, finally.

Since you haven't seen them, how did you pick up that they were a good act to come see?
Girl 1: I guess from just listening to their music years ago, and then their videos on YouTube on stuff. They're different you know? They got a different sound.

Anjani, 28, San Francisco

Anjani: Hurry up! They're going on!

Noisey: Have you seen them before?
Yeah, twice. I love their performance they put on. I feel like it's not just about the music, but also the show they do.

Have you heard their most recent album?

Do you follow their music?
No. It's more the experience. It's the costume changes, everything they do on stage is really exciting and really fun and it makes you feel really pumped up.

Why do you think they draw such big crowds? Nobody seems to "follow" them or have listened to their new album.
I don't know. I really like their music. The few times I've seen them live it was great and knowing they were here at Coachella, it was like, I have to see them! It was a selling point for me.

Who else did you come to see?
Kendrick, Lady Gaga, the xx. A lot of other random people. I've been in 2014, 2013, and 2011. Ok, I'm gonna go watch the show now.

All photos by Christina Craig.

Andrea Domanick has lots of questions like this. She often asks them on Twitter.