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Empyre - The Return Of Live Music - Summer 2021

The May bank holiday weekend has given the residents of Blackpool in the UK much to celebrate. It’s been the hottest day of the year so far, Blackpool Football Club beat Lincoln 2 – 1 resulting in their promotion to the Championship and best of all, Empyre are in town to kick start the return of live music with an acoustic set at The Waterloo Music Bar! In their first live outing in 2021, we catch up with the Henrik Steenholdt (vocals/guitar), Did Coles (guitar), Grant Hockley (bass) and Elliot Bales (drums) backstage ahead of the sold out show - and there is an enormous sense of excitement. This isn’t just about connecting with audiences again. It’s about Empyre showcasing their incredible new album The Other Side, an acoustic representation and companion to their debut record, Self Aware. The venue is packed with rock fans proudly wearing Empyre’s trademark lion art, and this serves as strong and heartwarming evidence of the band’s incredible yet unsurprising growth over the last 18 months. With a palpable air of anticipation building, our conversation begins…


So here we are. Live music is back! How does it feel to be back playing live again?


Grant – That question may be best answered after the gig but I’m pretty excited! It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for months. It’s what we do and it’s why we do it. I’m really, really excited!

Henrik – I’m especially excited because we get to play the acoustic album. It’s our first opportunity to play the whole thing since we announced it. The fact that we are going to get to finally play it after what feels like a long, long time, that’s a special thing to do.
Did – For me, it’s like what Grant said, it’s why we do it. It’s the fun, it’s the enjoyment and it’s the reward for all our hard work. But to use Henrik’s word ‘opportunity’, prior to the pandemic certainly there was a trajectory that looked like it was gathering with Empyre after the Winters End Festival and there were opportunities opening up for people to see us live. So I think us being back on stage is one of the best opportunities for us to put the music out there to new fans and to just spread the word about the music. So I’m excited, yes, but this is also how we can now take the bull by the horns and present our music to new people.
Elliot – I’m so excited! Like we’ve all said, it’s been too long, way too long! To finally be able to showcase these tracks live, all of them for the first time, is going to be special! Personally, I felt nervous on the way here because it’s felt like a lifetime since we’ve all sat on stage together. We’ve been in the studio and rehearsal rooms and that’s fine but it’s finally come down to how we’re doing it now.

Well I think that’s a really good point because we have taken live music for granted. When you say you feel nervous I wonder what other emotions you must be feeling. We can’t underestimate what a big thing it is for live music to be back.


Elliot – Yeah, it’s been organised for a while now and we knew it was all coming but we rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed and we all know what to do. Then suddenly the day appears and it’s as if I’m going back to my first ever gig because it just seems such a long time ago. The nerves are just excitement.
Did - I think that’s perfectly healthy because once you’re maintaining a healthy, regular gig schedule you become a gig fit. You become locked in and we will naturally just slip back into it. But with this length of time not being on stage I do feel a little bit apprehensive. I certainly feel a little bit of nervous energy, certainly about the piano side of things for me because I’m not as confident in that respect, but we’ve done all the ground work. I think it’s healthy nerves rather as well as excitement from my perspective.
Henrik – It’s a bit of a regeneration because of the gap. There’s been nothing so there’s a little aspect of that excitement because it’s like starting again but we’ve still got something to build on. It’s so nice to start in a place that we have a history with and we know so many other people who are here. It’s still a gig but it’s almost like practising in front of friends. I don’t mean a practise in the sense that we’re not going to put on a show, it’s like we’ve invited everyone to our practise room and then we get to do a gig for them.
Grant – I kind of feel like I did when I was younger and going on stage for the first time. Those kind of nerves, and it’s wonderful because apart from say some of the bigger gigs where we can take a jump onto a bigger stage in front of many more people, you don’t get complacent as such but you’re comfortable and it’s nice to be uncomfortable. It’s those feelings that you’re kind of pushing for and you want to get onto those bigger stages because you’re trying to get to the same place you’ve been to previously but it takes more and more to get there. One silver lining from the lockdown is that I can now get that from any gig because it’s so wonderful to perform to people.
Did – Like you said, we took it for granted didn’t we? We took all of the live music aspect of seeing originals bands, rock bands, any genre – and we took it for granted. It’s been completely removed from the music sphere so that absence has created obviously a need for people and the musicians themselves. I agree with Grant in that it’s not necessarily alien but it feels fresh.

You are one of the very first bands to be back performing live and what’s quite interesting is that many of your fans actually see Empyre taking a lead role in the return of live music. Everyone’s talking about Empyre and you’re the band people are following. Do you see yourselves as taking a lead role and more broadly how important is it for you to strike while the iron’s hot and grab these opportunities as they arise?


Henrik - We certainly took the first opportunity we had. I think over the course of the last few lockdowns we managed to do 3 gigs, which in one way sounds rubbish but in another way when so many bands were not doing any sort of gigs, we’re very grateful. We have tried every single nook and cranny to throw in any gig that we could do, whether it was an outdoor one or an indoor one. I wouldn’t say that I feel like we are leading the way but we are just again taking the opportunity to get out and play for the people that we know are as desperate to come and see us as we are to get on stage. They are desperate to see live music and hear live music, so we are just trying to be there at that time.
Grant – Thee venues give the platform and without the venues we wouldn’t be able to play. So it’s not us, it’s the venues (that are leading).
Did - And it’s great that they think of us in that respect, and other venues across the UK as well that want to give us the opportunity to literally be first in line. Different bands have different circumstances. Some bands are not going to be able to play until later in the year but we’re fortunate in that we are basically all in the same county and we are all in the same area so certain restrictions imposed upon other bands for taking advantage of opportunities don’t apply to us because we are all able to see each other and rehearse. We aren’t dotted about the country, nor do we have to do extensive planning to put something like this on. Everything is just ready so if an opportunity presents itself and we want to go for it you can guarantee we’ll be there, and that’s very much what’s happened here.

Tonight your are playing an acoustic show to support your latest incredible album, The Other Side. You are no strangers to playing acoustically but this record is something quite special in that the songs are not simple, acoustic arrangements of the Self Aware full electric record. These tracks have been nurtured over time, and given the most beautiful, intelligent, deeply considered production. Your fans waited patiently but it certainly seemed that Empyre had a vision for this record and a standard that would not be compromised. To what extent is this a fair statement to make?


Did - Absolutely! The thing about The Other Side is that it was actually scheduled. It wasn’t as a consequence of the pandemic – loads of bands were forced into doing other creative things. We were in the studio in September 2019 and the idea originated from a couple of things. We released Self Aware which has been great but myself and Henrik actually met each other with acoustic guitars doing covers and that’s how we also formulated the songwriting to start with – just acoustic guitars and lyrics. The first opportunities for Empyre were on acoustic stages so the first gig we kind of got, Breaking Bands, that was on an acoustic stage before we showcased our electric stuff. The musical side of it is yes, we don’t want to simply pick up acoustic guitars and just rehash the same approach because certain songs take on a whole different emotional depth if you rearrange them and re-interpret them. Part of this was inspired by our mutual love of the MTV unplugged series. Now they were live concerts: Nirvana, Stone Temple pilots… all of those iconic MTV things, we really love them but I think we said was ‘let’s go into the studio and let’s do a full production of the interpretations’. The acoustic side of Empire was planned before the pandemic. No one saw it coming but fortunately for us we were in a position to have steadily released new music over the past 12 months with new music videos. These are reimagined tracks that have in some cases taken on a completely different musical level and interpretation. I mean one track has an orchestra on it!
Elliot - We were very lucky to have it all there ready to go into this crazy year we’ve been in but we haven’t just gone in and played the same track just with an acoustic. Like Drive, originally we did and then Did played a different intro and we went “No, that is the new intro!’.
Did - Pretty much everything has been re-interpreted. Cut To The Core is largely similar.
HenrikCut To The Core is the most similar. Drive has been reinterpreted. Just A Ride has a whole new solo. Drive and Cut To The Core, I like both those songs more as acoustic tracks. Only Way Out is of course different. My Bad is of course different. Stone is a little bit darker. Too Close has a completely different ending to the Self Aware version. So we didn’t want to use it or treat it as a throwaway. We wanted to put as much time and effort into doing this as any album rather than it be seen as an acoustic throwaway, second CD, bonus track… that kind of stuff. I think some of it sounds as big, potentially even bigger, than Self Aware!
Elliot – It’s quite nice to play your own songs and be able to change things around. In some instances we were asking ‘Why didn’t we do this in the electric?’

And I think that’s a wonderful thing because acoustic performances are often described as being the more simple and straightforward interpretations of what may have been electric tracks but what you have created are really beautifully complex compositions, and you have used different instruments too, for example, piano on Only Way Out. How easy is it to recreate those songs acoustically in a live setting?


Grant - I don’t consider it to be a studio album. What we’ve recorded is effectively what we are going to do tonight. So I think it will be fairly close.
Did - How it works is that whilst rock bands won’t want to admit this to their detriment with acoustic guitars, regardless of whether it’s simple cowboy chords or it’s complex, you are more exposed. The music is certainly more naked. Henrik’s voice, which is a great asset, is more exposed out there. There’s no distorted guitars, there’s no heavy drums, there’s no distorted bass.
Henrik - There’s more space which helps actually. Vocally sometimes there’s more space to play with because I can control my voice a bit better in response to what the guys are playing. But there is no distortion and normally it’s not so loud. An electric gig is full on. There is a lot of noise for me to try and cut through to tune and to actually get the notes. What’s really nice about acoustic is its cleaner.
Elliot – You can pinpoint things a lot.
Henrik – Yes, which works for us but the pressure is if you make a mistake it’s harder to clear it up.
Did - That’s what I’m saying – you are more exposed. With something like New Republic with all the over-driven guitars and guitar solo, no one is going to know if I drop a note! (Laughs!) Not that I ever do, but no one is going to know. But on Too Close, with the little improvisation bit at the end, if I make a mistake it’s definitely more noticeable. So in that respect there’s a degree of pressure but then you’re just so immersed in the music when you’re playing you don’t have to disguise mistakes. Every musician in our group will take on a certain different dynamic when we are playing acoustically. So Grant with the change of his bass and with certain new techniques that have been incorporated into The Other Side, they are just not in the Self Aware electric stuff. There are other musical elements and textures that are brought to the forefront and it literally is the other side to our band. It’s our musical alter-ego!

I’d like to talk more about your live commitments but before we do, I wanted to pick up on some of the really special things you do for your fans, in particular those who preordered The Other Side all received a personal message from a member of the band. No there was no promise of this nor did anyone expect it, but social media blew up as fans shared their messages. Where did the inspiration- and the time – come from to provide such a special gift?


Henrik - The fans are showing a commitment in investing in us without necessarily knowing what’s going to turn up so we wanted to return the favour and to give them something they’re not necessarily expecting. If you’re going to invest in us we want to give you something extra. We’re gonna do something a little bit extra this evening for those people have taken the time to come here, some of whom have had journeys of 4 or 5 hours. If you make the effort for us we will do our very best to make the effort for the fans and those who support us, and that’s basically where it came from. And as for the time, we just spent a long time happily signing cards and trying to come up with something to say! Some people we were signing cards to we recognised the names and there’s a lot of people we haven’t got a clue who they are. So all we can do is hope that they continue that support, that they enjoy the album and that they come and see us on the road somewhere down the line.


Well the rest 2021 is already looking really exciting for the band in terms of live performances. You do of course have your own headline shows, but there is one particular tour you’re part of that I think has the potential to be particularly special, and I’m talking about the run of September shows with Hollowstar and Mason Hill, together 3 incredible bands representing the very best in British rock. I actually think that when September comes there will be quite a state of mania. This does have the potential to be THE tour of the year. You must be able to sense that there is something happening here?


Did - There are a lot of dates and they now stretch into October as well, so firstly it’s brilliant that Mason Hill have invited us. It’s a band that we’ve been following and also it’s great that they’ve had national chart success. So that instantly appeals, that we are playing alongside a fellow rock act who is doing really well, and probably have a fan base that might not necessarily have heard our music. The thing about the 3 bands is there is enough contrast. We are quite unique and people struggle to put Empyre into any rock musical corner but that gives us the opportunity to be able to perform alongside so many other different bands within the rock world and elsewhere. Also, so many of those tour dates, we’ve never been to these places but we know we’ve got people who listen to Empyre there. So from my perspective it’s going to be great to play in these new locations, at new venues, alongside 2 bands we haven’t played with before. There’s mutual benefits on all levels. By that time we will be really gig fit and there will be some exciting things happening. You’ve all been experiencing The Other Side and the single releases what we’ve been writing… so there is going to be new material. That’s all I’m going to say!
Henrik – For new and up-and-coming bands, Mason Hill, Hollowstar and us, we all started and managed to get a first foot on the ladder around the same time, around 2016 or so. Without wanting to sound conceited I think it’s a great lineup. You can see what’s happening with Mason Hill – they got into the charts as Did said – and that is a massive achievement because well who else has done that recently from our kind of crowd? It’s basically being Those Damn Crows, and Massive Wagons. Now Mason Hill are following them and we hope to follow in their footsteps. So to go on tour and the fact that so many people won’t have heard our music, it opens the doors for us. And not to forget Hollowstar who have been on tour with bands like Skid Row. It’s a pretty strong lineup and pretty compelling is the way I will describe it.
Elliot - It’s going to be great to see peoples reactions. We see a lot of fans comments saying “Empyre are a great band – go and see them live!”. It’s what we are best at and it’s what we love doing.
Henrik – We’re going to struggle to decide what to put in the set. It’s going to be a tough decision.

Empyre’s new acoustic album, The Other Side
Empyre’s new acoustic album, The Other Side

You are also playing some festivals this year: the Steelhouse Festival in July where they will celebrate their 10th anniversary, Rockin’ The Bowl at Don Valley Bowl in Sheffield in September and WinterStorm in November, as well as others. With so many great bands at all these festivals they all promise to be fantastic events. What are you looking forward to most about these festivals and is there one you are particularly looking forward to playing?


Grant - I’m really looking forward to Steelhouse. One of the main reasons is my dad should be joining us on that one as crew. It’s a festival I’ve had my eye on for awhile. The stage looks great, the size is awesome, my parents live in Wales… 

Elliot – Free accommodation!
Grant – It’s free accommodation for me! (Laughs!). And it’s on a mountain and I love mountaineering so I get to kill two birds with one stone! But any opportunity to get out and play, particularly festivals where there are big stages and it’s open air, there is something quite special about that. Not to detract from small club type experiences because that’s got a different vibe but they are different experiences and they are both equally as valid about but different so you want to do both of them. And that’s really important. So to go out on the bigger stages again, which we’ve not been able to do for a very long time, will be really special.
Henrik – For me there are certain things that feel rockstar if I can put it that way. A big outdoor festival like Call Of The Wild or Steelhouse where it’s busy and there are lots of people, you can kind of get that rockstar vibe. The other side is that in a small, packed out, noisy, sweaty, hot venue, there is another vibe there which still feels kind of rockstar. They are both completely different. I remember one festival that we did a few years ago, the Rock And Blues Custom Show, you could see for miles from the stage. Our view was excellent! We got our foot in the door because we played the acoustic stage the year before. We started off with Homegrown, which is by no means a song we would normally start with, and thought ‘we’ll see how it goes’. We felt it was a good way to ease us into the set, and it just suited the mood. There was like a breeze, it was hot and it was a great day. The crowd grew, you could see people filming it on their phones… That’s what I’m looking forward to from the festival! When you know that from the minute you start the vibe is there, people crowd around and you can see inquisitive conversations asking who this band is. The merch table at the end – that’s the telling point! If there is a queue at the merch table, we know we’ve done the job we need to do.
Did - I’m looking forward to all the festivals. Steelhouse is going to be particularly cool for me because Therapy? are playing the day before and we’ve been exchanging a few messages. I was 12 years old and I picked up a guitar and learned Screamager and now we are playing on the same bill as the band who made the music I was playing in my first year of guitar playing. Also at the same time I was listening to Rock Anthems, a double CD with The Final Countdown, and Europe are headlining, so it’s pretty cool that in that respect we are on the same bill. That’s pretty special! The other thing about festivals that appeals is the drums. The sound of a mic’d up kit! To get those sounding absolutely huge and anthemic. I love the sound of live drums! It’s one of the best sounds ever! We’ve had this on a small scale with Empyre but I just look forward to people singing the words back to us while they’re listening to the show.
Henrik – Any words! (Laughs!)
Did - Some people have even gone a step further and had lyrics tattooed. One day it will be a really cool experience to have that on a larger scale, to have hundreds of people to sing back to lyrics to Empyre songs.
Elliot - I think that is the goal!
Did - That’s the festival environment.
Grant –It’s risky though because when it’s happened before, Henrik’s being so distracted that people have people singing lyrics that he’s forgotten the lyrics.
Henrik - It really threw me once. It was the first time I’ve ever experienced anybody singing a song back to me and it was something remains. Peter Carroll is the guy to blame for this. He was singing Something Remains and during the chorus I was so thrown, thinking ‘he knows the words!’ (Laughs!). I’d forgotten them! (Laughs!).

But I can imagine that being a really profound moment for you when you realise there are people singing the lyrics back to you. 


Henrik – There are things like that that are rockstar moments for me. It’s like the first time I saw an Empyre T-shirt, the first time we experienced people crying at our shows – for the right reasons! They are weird things to experience for the first time. Now I just want the whole audience to cry when we’re playing Only Way Out. It’s that thing that shows that we are capturing that emotional intensity, that recognition that it’s here in the room. That’s something you can’t get on a CD, you could only get that a live show. 


2021 is now very busy for Empyre. At the risk of sounding greedy, what else can we expect from the band? 


Henrik - I don’t think it’s any great secret that we are recording another electric album. On the whole the album is recorded but it’s not mixed, it’s not mastered and we’re not in a situation where we have it in our hands. Whether any of that music will actually be released before the end of the year I can’t say at the moment. I don’t know. 
Did - We do have a busy period. We’re going to be working hard over the next 6 months developing the live show and going out performing to the best of our abilities at all the shows because these are gigs we haven’t been able to do over the last year.  
Henrik - It’s a bit of a planning stage. Most of our focus at the moment is the live shows. It’s all about the gigs that are coming up. We are really looking forward to all the festivals and we’ve got a gig with Those Damn Crows in July. But we will be planning for the second album! 


As our conversation draws to a close we reflect on what an incredibly exciting time this is for Empyre - a hungry band leading the charge in the return of live music. Numerous festivals, headline shows and high-profile tour appearances means that fans have across the UK have every opportunity to see Empyre throughout the summer. An Empyre show is truly an exhilarating experience and you need to experience this for yourself. 
The Other Side is available now. Check out www.empyre.co.uk for more information and in the meantime enjoy the stunning acoustic version of Only Way Out below.