Pnau formed in Sydney, New South Wales by Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes. The two met at secondary school and began performing together in the mid-1990s, initially playing acid, house, and trance music. Littlemore recalled meeting Mayes when he was 10; "He tripped me over. We hated each other for a couple years and then we started sneaking out and going to raves when we were about 13 and we formed a bond over intense music." Littlemore and Mayes created their first album when they were in their mid-teens. "It was called Fractured Geometric Spaces Made of Light," Littlemore remembers, "Which is probably why it was never picked up."
In 1999, Pnau officially released their debut album Sambanova under the independent label Peking Duck. It was recorded in a bedroom studio and they only expected to sell a few thousand copies. The album turned out to be a surprise success when it won Best Dance Release at the ARIA Music Awards. A week later, however, the album was pulled from record stores for using uncleared samples. In a 2003 interview with The Age, Mayes recalled that they had no understanding of sample clearances due to their naïveté in the music business. Mayes claimed that the album's recall did seriously affect their commercial sales. Littlemore later contested "They screwed us over for $300,000. Warners didn't; another third party did. But that happens. We're still here, we're still doing it."
In subsequent years Pnau went on to make many live appearances at music festivals like Big Day Out in 2001 and Homebake in 2002. During this time, they garnered a reputation for their lively performances. Amidst this era, Pnau released their second album, Again in 2003. The album was not a commercial success and Littlemore was later quoted as Again being "the worst record I’ve ever done". Littlemore has since retracted the statement. When asked if he still considered Again to be his worst record, Littlemore responded, "Well next to [Soft Universe]. They're sort of on par." Littlemore further explained that a lot of his opinion is formed around the albums' commercial success, which is an easy headspace for him to get into since "everyone loves Empire of the Sun, it's sold 1.1 million records." Despite the seemingly unfavorable album response, several tracks received considerable acclaim - the most noteworthy being We Love The Fresh Kills which was a significantly popular single for the duo at the time. However, because of Again's lackluster success the pair parted ways for some time to work with other artists such as Robbie Williams, Van She, and Lost Valentinos.
When the two reunited in 2007 they wrote over two-hundred songs together and started to lay down an entire album. They sent a work-in-progress track to long-time friend and collaborator Luke Steele, who sent back the track with his own vocals. After receiving the track Littlemore and Mayes decided to scrap everything they had laid down to focus on a more vocally centered album. The track became known as With You Forever and the finalized album was released under the self-titled name Pnau. The album not only featured vocal work from Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore himself, but also had many guest appearances such as Ladyhawke, Nik Yannika from Lost Valentinos and Michael DeFrancesco from Van She. The album was released to high critical acclaim and gained unexpected favorable attention from Elton John, declaring it to be the greatest record he'd heard in ten years.
Inspired by their track "With You Forever", Pnau began work on a collaboration with Luke Steele. Originally titled Steelemore, Empire of the Sun made its debut on 4 October 2008 with Walking on a Dream. Nick Littlemore and Luke Steele took the roles of bandmates, while Peter Mayes assumed the role of producer. Some critics where quick to note that the band sounded more like a work of Pnau than Luke Steele's band The Sleepy Jackson. Empire of the Sun has achieved international success having been certified 2x platinum in Australia and gold in the United Kingdom, as well as winning eleven ARIA awards. Pnau makes it clear on their Myspace numerous times that not only is Empire of the Sun a side project of theirs, but that they are also the producers. Regarding Empire of the Sun, in early 2009 news began appearing that Nick Littlemore had disappeared. The reality had been that Nick Littlemore had left Empire of the Sun to begin work on the fourth Pnau album along with Elton John.
In 2011 Pnau released Soft Universe. Littlemore has described it as a very "emotional" album, inspired by the break up with his long-time girlfriend. With input from Elton John, the album features Littlemore singing all the vocals on the album along with tracks co-written with fellow Aussie artist Martin Craft and producer Mark Saunders. The album was positively received, although mainly critics expressed discontent with the lack of the "endearing weirdness of previous Pnau and Empire releases."
On 10 March 2012, the first remix track from the anticipated, upcoming Elton John rework album commissioned for Pnau was leaked, initially airing on Pete Tong's BBC Radio 1 broadcast. It was also revealed the remix album will feature eight tracks and is currently set for a April 2012 release.
New album and 2011 tour
Pnau's new album titled Soft Universe was released on 22 July 2011. The accompanying small Australian tour of the same name will at this stage cover only four dates, visiting Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle.
One accepted pronunciation of Pnau is "pah-now". The name is commonly accented to simulate the sound of a gunshot. Nick Littlemore explained the name was the result of an instance when he was speaking in tongues. After shouting gibberish for half an hour, Littlemore decided Pnau would be an appropriate band name.
Another theory on the pronunciation, according to one interview with the pair, is "pah-nyeow". The group has on other occasions explained that the name "rhymes with meow".