With their new album 'Monsters' to be released on 22nd May, 'Empathy Test' agreed to answer a few questions. Read on if you want to know how a spontaneous jam session led to the making of an album, what The Cure and Eminem have got to do with it and how the lockdown has influenced their work as a band. Thank you very much for taking the time and sharing your thoughts with us!
1. It’s a pleasure to have you for an interview. How are you doing?
Isaac Howlett: Well, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all totally had enough of lockdown at this point and are really wanting to get back to rehearsing and touring as soon as possible. But at least we have this new album coming out.
2. We just reviewed your new album ‘Monsters’, which features a single of the same name that first came to life during a soundcheck according to your website. Can you tell us a bit more about how that recording led to a new album?
Isaac: It was last Halloween in Hamburg, on the first tour we did with our new keyboard player, Oliver. We’d just done sound checking for a headline show at Bahnof Pauli and our support act, SONO, wasn’t due to arrive for another hour or so, so we just carried on playing. It was the first time 'Empathy Test' had really jammed as a band. Chrisy, our live drummer, was playing a stadium rock beat, which sounded enormous in the empty venue. Oli started playing this undulating bass part on his synth and a twinly, catchy lead part. The combination immediately sounded like it had existed forever.
I had some lyrics that had been kicking around for a while that I began to sing over the music and I just played around with the melody until it fit. The whole thing had this Placebo Pure Morning vibe to it; a relentless, driving energy. The lyrics I had were from two separate song ideas, one about the end of a party and the other based on a phrase an ex had used, about hangover anxiety (“baby, I’ve got the monsters”). The weird thing was, when I looked up 'Pure Morning' again later, it turned out to be about pretty much the same thing.
We recorded what we had on Oli’s iPhone and called it 'Monsters'. When we got back from the tour, I played Adam the phone recording and he was really excited. 'Monsters' was new and exciting and captured the energy of our live performances in a way that nothing we had done before had. We decided that the 'Monsters' should be the album title track and lead single, and form the foundation for the entire sound of the new record.
3. The new album is a self-release. According to you, what are the specific challenges of producing and releasing an album on your own?
Isaac: All our albums have been self-released. The main challenge is that you have to do literally everything yourself. On the creative and technical side, we do the writing, performing, recording, mixing and mastering all ourselves. Adam also does the artwork and we both do the layouts for the CDs and vinyl in Photoshop. I set a release schedule, find a PR company to do the PR campaign (although I also do a fair bit myself), set up the crowd funder, and order all the merchandise (this time: black vinyl, red vinyl, picture discs, CDs, mugs, t‑shirts and art prints).
I also set up the digital release on SoundCloud, YouTube, Bandcamp, our website, and with both our publisher and digital distributor. This involves uploading all the tracks, adding the tune codes, composer information, lyrics etc. which is very boring and time consuming. I also then do all our social media and mailing list emails, updating the fans with the progress of the album and crowd funder, and sharing all the press we’re getting.
Then of course, you’ve got to send out all that merchandise! We currently have 650+ orders on Indiegogo and 250+ on Bandcamp. That’s over 900 orders to process, and guess who is going to do them all? Yeah, me. I told myself I wouldn’t put myself through this again but seeing as how I’m in lockdown with not much else to do, here I am doing it again. Back in 2017, when we released our last two albums, I did all of this while still holding down a full time job, so it’s been nice this time around, to focus entirely on the release.
4. What are your personal favorite tracks on this album and why?
Isaac: Well, apart from 'Monsters' and the other singles ('Holy Rivers', 'Incubation Song' and 'Empty Handed'), all of which are cracking songs if I don’t say so myself, I’m a big fan of 'Stop' and 'Love Moves'. 'Stop' sounds like 'The Cure' covering 'Eminem'or vice versa, with a weird sprinkling of 'Nirvana' (you’ll hear it). The chorus involves some real vocal gymnastics, but whereas a lot of the other tracks are very much trying to grab your attention, some of the calmer, more relaxed numbers like this one, have a really nice atmosphere to them. 'Love Moves' is the album closer and is basically the antithesis of the opener, 'Monsters', both stylistically and lyrically. It has a really simple, positive message and acts as a palette cleanser after the anxiety-laden, claustrophobic intensity throughout the rest of the album.
5. In general, what is the focus of your creative process: Instruments or lyrics first? Would you say that you guys share the workload, meaning that everyone of you is in charge of something in particular?
Isaac: 'Monsters' as an album, really represents a halfway house on the way to becoming a “real” band (as opposed to the duo with live band that 'Empathy Test' was before), where writing is more of an organic, collaborative process. Chrisy wrote the drum part for 'Monsters' (the track), but elsewhere the beats were written by Adam and then expanded upon by Chrisy when she recorded the acoustic drums, adding fills and extra hits and cymbal work. It was a similar process on most of the tracks, with Oliver and the synths.
Many of the new tracks were formed by taking a pre-written song of mine, mixing it with an instrumental of Adam’s, and then adding a synth hook of Oli’s and Chrisy’s acoustic drums. I still mostly write with an acoustic guitar and generally write the lyrics, vocal melody and chords simultaneously, but then often Adam will paste my vocal over a completely different set of chords and tweak each to fit. In that way, you can come up with some really interesting juxtapositions, like 'Bare My Soul' for example, where we dropped what was essentially a ballad, over a dark garage track.
6. Apart from the music, I wanted to point out that I really love the artwork on the singles and albums that you have published so far. I could see that the original artworks have all been designed by Adam himself. Have you been painting or doing graphic design as a hobby or is this your actual profession? Would you be able to tell us a bit more about how the artwork is linked to the music?
Isaac: Yeah, as well as producing the music, Adam is our inhouse artist. It’s his main profession and one in which he is also very successful. There was never really any question of whether or not he would do the artwork and he’s always had very strong ideas as to how it should look and how it is linked to the music. We’re both very into science fiction, the origin of the name 'Empathy Test' having been inspired by Blade Runner, of course. The artwork explores similar themes, the idea of what it is to be human, what it means to be a conscious being.
7. What are your favorite latest band/artist discoveries that you would like to recommend to the Electrozombies readers?
Isaac: We’d love to do a tour with someone more mainstream like The Cure, White Lies, Editors, Placebo. I think we have a similar genre-crossing appeal.
9. You have been playing at various festivals in Europe during the last few years. Which one was your favorite and why? Is there any place (city or location) you dream about for a concert?
Isaac: W‑Festival last year in Belgium was pretty cool, we had 'Echo & the Bunnymen’s' dressing room a few hours before they did. 'The Stranglers' also played the same day. But the dream is to one day play Glastonbury, on the Pyramid Stage.
10. Even though the current situation doesn’t seem to allow any specific planning, I still would like to know if you are planning to go on tour later this year to promote your new album. Are there any concrete plans for autumn or winter? Maybe you have already figured out dates and places?
Isaac: We had tours booked in both the UK (end of May) and America (October). The UK tour was rescheduled before it was even announced. We are now looking at November, in the week following the Camden Underworld show on the 20th, but we’re holding off announcing any more shows until the situation is clearer. We don’t know at this point when events are going to be allowed.
We have had to abandon the American tour because getting a visa is so expensive and it only covers the time you are due to be in the country. So if we committed to it and then had to reschedule, we would lose a minimum of £2,000. So the likelihood is, we’ll be going to America in March 2021 now. At the moment, it looks like our German tour in September will go ahead, but if there is a second wave of Covid-19, that might get put in jeopardy too.
11. How do you keep yourself updated about new music? Which media do you follow to stay up to date?
Isaac: Mostly through Spotify Discover playlist and word of mouth, to be honest. I follow a lot of music blogs on Facebook too, and sometimes I’ll find something there.
10. Which bands/artists were your musical idols when you were young? And how would you say they have influenced and shaped your own music over the years?
Isaac: Jarvis Cocker, Brian Molko, Tim Booth and Robert Smith. They all wrote confessional lyrics that you could understand and associate with, and none of them were afraid of writing pop music, albeit a little more subversive and intelligent than your average. I think that’s 'Empathy Test' in a nutshell.
12. Speaking about “being young”: Which important life wisdom would you like to share with your younger, 16-year-old self?
Isaac: Don’t waste time trying to pursue that elusive record deal, don’t wait around to be “discovered” by the music industry, get out there and do it yourself. People aren’t going to back you if you’re not doing anything, but they’ll all come running once you have the slightest bit of success. Then you say no, and keep all the money.
13. Do you have a favorite quote? It can be from a song, a piece of literature or anything else.
The Smiths, How Soon is Now?"]I am human and I need to be loved / Just like everyone else does
14. Let’s imagine the following scenario: You plan a vacation – would it be rather a tropical or a northern destination?
Isaac: I hate being cold, so tropical. Oliver: Tropical. Chrisy: Tropical.
a. On your way, your ship is destroyed by a storm and you get stranded on a deserted little island. Not much is left, but your music player survives. Which tracks are definitely on it? Every one of you, please name 5 tracks.
Oliver: My Prophet synthesiser. Isaac: In the past I’d have probably said my guitar, no question, but sadly these days it would probably be my phone. Chrisy: Yeah, I’d miss my laptop.
c. Surprise – you got rescued! Who’s the first person you’d call and what would you tell him/her?
Oliver: I’d call my mother to tell her I’m okay, as she’d probably be the most worried. Isaac: I’d call Oliver’s mother too. Chrisy: I’d call MacDonald’s and ask if the menu has changed.
15. Would you like to share a few kind words to Electrozombies for our testimonials section 'People who spread love'?
Isaac: Electrozombies is one of the few publications that still bothers to actually review new releases and talk about them in a meaningful way, instead of just copying and pasting a press release. For that alone, it should be celebrated. But it also looks great and gives a voice to up and coming artists doing something different.
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