The Empire Strikes Back: The Just Like Heaven festival takes place at the Rose Bowl this weekend, and it’s described as “featuring your favorite era-defining indie artists from the 2000s.” This year, that means headliners the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, plus the likes of MGMT, Future Islands and Hot Chip.

It would be easy to think of Just Like Heaven as a contemporary version of Cruel World, so soaked in nostalgia is the latter. But M83, for example, has been around since 1999. Empire of the Sun since 2006. They’re relatively fresh, but not exactly brand new in the ever-changing popular music landscape.

Both of those have had their ups and downs in this millennium. EOTS haven’t released an album since 2016.

“It’s been quite a while now,” says EOTS’s Luke Steele. “I just figured the other day I think it was 2016, the last record, and that’s getting a bit too long now. Just before the pandemic, the band just felt so tired. We’d been to Japan a couple of times, we’d been recording a lot of stuff. And we record so much material with Empire – we’re really quite choosy about which songs make it onto the record. I basically just said I’d had enough, and I’ve got to go and make a solo record. I wasn’t even sure that the band was going to resurface. Then the pandemic hit, and it was just the amount of calls and emails – the excitement for the music went up. People found a lot of solace in it, and that drew Nick [Littlemore] and I back together. We’re now quite heavily back into the next phase.”

That next phase has seen Empire in the studio for the last six months, pulling songs together from sessions in Japan, Australia and L.A. After releasing the solo album Listen to the Water a year ago, Steele feels ready to go again.

“I was waiting for so many years to make that record, because it’s quite a simple palette,” he says. “It’s guitar and vocals, a pedal steel and a percussion player. I’ve been doing that since I was 15. But I think once I turned 40, I felt my youth slipping through my fingertips. Realizing it’s gone made it quite clear that I had to make that record. The songs got delivered to me like breadcrumbs. I’d finish a song in two days and then I’d get the next one and finish that. It was obvious that God’s favor was to make that record right at that time. Now I feel accomplished. I had to do that to show that I could make a record, produce and mix and be a lone ranger. I definitely feel liberated now.”

M83 released their Fantasy album in March, and Anthony Gonzalez has been delighted with the response.

“Yeah, it’s been out for a month and a half now,” Gonzalez says. “I’ve pleased. To be honest, I feel extremely grateful for what’s happening for me. I know the market is super difficult, very competitive, and I take whatever comes to me, and whatever comes is a blessing. We live in a time of consumerism where it’s really hard to find a spot and music is tough, like a lot of artistic jobs. So yeah, I’m really grateful. We played a sold-out tour, the fans really love the album and the live shows, so that makes me happy, so it’s very nice and a good feeling.”

Having never played Pasadena before, the French-born, L.A.-based Gonzalez is excited for this festival. After all, he goes to Pasadena every week to play soccer.

“It looks like the festival is really big and I heard good things about it,” Gonzalez says. “Festivals are always a little different because you don’t play in front of your own audience. So it’s a good way to grab the attention of other people. It’s also more risky because it’s not your own fans, so it’s more exciting with a little more adrenalin.”

Steele is excited to be on a lineup with M83, as well as MGMT.

“These bands that, when Empire hit, they hit at the same time,” he says. “I don’t know how they feel, but I feel like we’ve come up together with whatever it was – that new vaporwave, pop kinda thing. So it’s gonna be great. I’m back in my old stomping ground. I don’t live in L.A. but I’ve just left after living there for nearly 15 years. So to go back and play for my past hometown is gonna be great.”

Steele left Los Angeles after the world opened up again, after feeling isolated from his family during the pandemic lockdowns. That said, he’s happy to bring an Empire show back here.

“Nothing really beats California, especially going into the summer,” he says. “I think that’s one of my most favorite times. There’s such a beautiful feeling in the air, California in the summer. I think it’s going to be really great.”

Meanwhile, the Empire man is looking forward to performing in front of a festival crowd despite enjoying his band’s own headline shows.

“I think every artist probably gives the same answer,” he says. “They both have their beautiful idiosyncrasies. But the festival is an undeniable energy. I think everyone’s realized that so much since being shut out for two years. All the vibrations of humans and the sonics of mega PAs, the dirtiness and everything – it can’t be beaten.”

Gonzalez says that M83 will be bringing it, despite performing an abridged one hour festival set.

“No surprises, we’ll play ‘Midnight City’ and a few other hits,” he says. “We want to make sure that we bring the most up-tempo tracks for a festival. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Finally, both bands have big plans for the rest of 2023, with M83 looking to release more singles and videos from Fantasy.

“There seems to be a lot of writing and a lot of just trying to wrap up what I think is a great new era of Empire,” adds Steele. “I’ve just got a lot of work to do. Time to get busy.


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