Empyre - Summer 2019 - “Debut album Self Aware - groundbreaking!”

The debut album Self Aware - absolutely groundbreaking!

Hailing from Northampton in the UK, the journey for rockers Empyre began more than 10 years ago when in 2008 Henrik Steenholdt responded to an advert placed by guitarist Did Coles for a singer to join a local covers band. Did had graduated from Guitar X at London Music College and had returned to his home town of Kettering. Being straight out of music college, Did was keen to earn some money and he recognised that a covers band was a great way to do that. But even at this early stage of his musical career, clear rules would be insisted upon in order to ensure his integrity and passion for music would be followed. Quite simply this was about only playing music he and the covers band wanted to play. At his audition, Henrik delivered tracks such as Alive by Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilot’s Plush. It was Did’s brother who pointed out Henrik’s incredible talent, a view shared by Did whose first instinct was that this was not a covers voice. There was something quite exceptional here. With Henrik firmly in the band, the band would secure many residencies as well as gigs at beers festivals and weddings. Though they were successful and earning a living as musicians, in the back of Did’s mind was the fact that Henrik’s voice was not a covers voice. The pair began writing original material though it wasn’t until 2016 that Empyre would share this in the form of their self-titled EP and its follow-up EP Something Remains. Fast forward to 2019 and Empyre are now about to release their debut album Self Aware – and it’s a game changer. This is original music in every sense. It’s dark, it’s introspective, it’s bold. It’s also hugely uplifting and almost hypnotic in the way it captivates the listener, grabbing their attention with its infectious hooks. In short it feels like there is almost a new genre of rock emerging, and it’s one with the potential to have huge mass appeal. Statements such as these do of course need to be handled with care but what Empyre have created is a record that fully deserves the rock community – and lovers of guitar-based music more generally - to take notice. With only a few weeks until Self Aware hits the shelves, we caught up with Henrik and Did at the Waterloo Music Bar in Blackpool to talk about how it all came together…

Did Coles & Henrik Steenholdt

To date you have released 2 EPs including 2016’s Something Remains which included tracks such as Only Way Out. These showcased a very new and original sound and this sound has been carried forward to your forthcoming debut album Self Aware which is being released on 5th July. Why has it taken so long for the band the create your first album?

Henrik – In 2016, the friends that we were doing recording the EPs with, we all sat down and asked "What we wanted to do now? We’ve got the CDs , we’re not out gigging, do you want to gig and do something serious with this?" and they were like "Guys, we need to earn some cash".

Did – The reason they couldn’t commit to something was because the nature of a covers band is that it’s a really full commitment. You have to invest your own time, often your own finances and at the cost of doing other things as a professional musician that you might get paid for. So those 2 guys – and we’re great friends still – they wanted to earn money from music. So it was still just me and Henrik. So we had to recruit a bass player and a drummer basically. 

Henrik – This is demonstrated on our YouTube channel, that we’ve got stuff back from 2016 onwards. We’ve got a couple of acoustic versions of Only Way Out and Just A Ride, and that’s just me and Did doing it because we thought ‘well what could we do to while we go out and look for the right drummer and the right bass player’.

Did – We wanted people who wanted to do it so we kept occupied with the acoustic and with writing new material. So basically we were a 4-piece band with 2 members. What can we do? We just focussed on acoustic and trying to build a awareness of the band

Henrik – At that stage we’d done three gigs as Empyre. We really wanted to get out gigging 

Did – But without a band you can’t. 

Henrik – We found another drummer, found a bass player, did our first gig at the Zombie Hut in Corby. Since then we’ve had a change of drummer and a change of bass player again but now we have a solid line up who know what to expect out of Empyre. Elliot the drummer knew us from when we were a covers band and whilst he never played in that band he was an obvious choice. He has been with us 2 years now.

Did – But we’ve got the 4 members now, the 4 square unit.  Everyone wants to do it, everyone is committed, everyone is passionate and everyone is driven whereas it’s hard to push everything with just 2 people, even if their hearts are in the right place.             

In advance of the album’s release we have been teased with the tracks Too Little Too Late and the latest single New Republic which continue to reflect the band’s dark sound but also one which comprises so many infectious hooks. What is your vision for creating this record?

Did – That’s a really nice phrase: infectious hooks! 

Henrik – Something that we liked first and foremost. We had a rule in the covers band where if any member said they didn’t like a song then we didn’t play it no matter what it is or how much somebody loves that song. So we kind of had a similar mentality and sentiment about this album. We’re going to write music that we like, we don’t know if anybody else is going to like it riff-wise, melody-wise, lyric-wise. And it was driven by Did and I but it was a case of we want to play music that we want to stand on stage and play. We tried out quite a lot of songs and some of them have gone by the wayside. We’ve got one which is just too country for us which hasn’t featured on the album, one which was perhaps a bit too soft…

Did – We’ve had loads of ideas that we’ve just put to the back edge. I suppose the vision for Empyre or what we cohesively try and see is that we are united in that we love rock music but we also love multiple styles and genres outside of rock music. We want to do something a little bit different, a little bit current and maybe sort of not cliché. We want to bring our own voice from the musician perspective. I always envisioned the band as being one which plays accessible rock music which people can really latch on to and identify with lyrically, emotionally and all these things but also there’s a little bit of intricacy. There’s a drummer that has technical prowess, there’s a bass player who has technical prowess, there’s a sensational singer and there’s me on guitar doing my best! (Laughs!) So it’s like bringing in that element while at the same time, not necessarily being like the Dream Theater-esque full of virtuosos but accessible - anyone can listen to it. And yes we have some dark, introspective edge to our writing – we are writing about subjects that everyone thinks about but maybe doesn’t talk about – but it’s realism really and there’s uplifting messages behind it as well. That’s why people latch on to the lyrics and the songs. That was my vision for the band. The album is a reflection of that.

Henrik Steenholdt

I’ve mentioned a darker sound but one thing we do need to pick up on is the lyrics and the subject matter. Your songs reflect observations and to some extent frustrations and disappointment, whether it’s with the state of the world or relationships. Whatever it is, this isn’t music looking at life through rose-tinted glasses. There’s something really fresh and it’s delivered in an incredibly fresh way. In many ways Self Aware can be seen as perhaps an uprising, or at least artists being brave enough to tackle these subjects head-on. To what extent do you think that’s a fair comment?

Did – Everything you’ve just said is a really good depiction of the songwriting. I think, to bring in the album title, there is an awareness with what we write about and I think what you’re saying is that it’s just honest. Jimmy Hendrix said in the 60s "Write about the present, write about what’s happening now, right about things that happened to you personally". So New Republic was partially written about just observing political media and things, and what’s happening with modern day terrorism, and then also Manchester happened (the Manchester Arena bombing on 22nd May 2017 – Ed), and that was the lyrical inspiration for it alongside other things. That’s what’s happening in the present.

Henrik – But is an observational thing. We’re not a political band. 

Did – We are not trying to send a message. We are not trying to recruit people into any political movement or anything. It’s just a perspective. It’s like this is happening in the world, let’s write about it. 

Henrik - It’s a weird casualness about some of the topics we are writing about. New Republic is quite an aggressive song but that suits the style of it and the lyrical content and the rock-ness, but we’re not trying to be Bono.

Did – Exactly! We are not trying to do that at all. It’s awareness. And Too Little Too Late, the other song you drew attention to, that’s a personal experience. That is the reality that hits someone, and it doesn’t matter what kind of relationship, everyone has been involved in some kind of intimate relationship with a partner – it doesn’t matter who they are – and what happens afterwards if that relationship was toxic, reflecting back on that time. So it’s kind of like an anti-love song in some respects but the message is that ultimately the person who has felt betrayed or whatever has come out stronger in the long run. So it’s about a message of hope that anyone who’s been involved, and most people have been in a relationship with other people, if they’ve had a bad time and they go through some trauma afterwards or whatever they will get over it and they will be okay.

Henrik – The first verse is about obsession and the infatuation with someone, and then things go bad where you begin to resent them and hate them and the third verse is about becoming the bigger person and the regeneration of yourself.

Did – So in that respect it’s a bit of a storytelling song. That’s from country music. I’m hugely influenced by country song writers and country music: three chords and the truth. Tell the truth.

Henrik – But no pick up trucks! (Laughs!)

Did – Yeah, no pick up trucks and no cowboys! (Laughs!) Bringing that to rock music is maybe a little bit different…

Just drawing you back to New Republic, one of the lines you sing is "we are going to start a New Republic". What does that mean to you?

Henrik- For me the lyric seemed to fit the song and it is the way we perhaps see the world going. All civilisations end in disaster. Every single civilisation that ever existed, the Romans or whatever, there’s been some sort of disaster that ended it. So almost inevitably there is going to be a new republic, whatever that is. There’s going to be a revolution. But it is throwaway and I don’t want to get too serious about it!

One thing I do want to touch upon is the artwork for the album. The cover depicts a close-up fractured eye which beautifully portrays the thoughtful and introspective nature of the music. There is a real impact here. What were you looking for in an album cover and how did it come together?

Henrik – It’s a gorilla’s eye or based on a gorilla’s eye. That is not what we set out to do! That final product is completely different to the album cover that Did and I originally envisaged which was a picture I found of a little boy on a massively long infinity pier on a tricycle with a storm brewing. 

Did – Which was a really good idea: the innocence verses perceived disaster. The balance of the innocence of life against the backdrop of (future disaster) but it was very hard to graphically convey that. 

Henrik - We went through multiple artists and graphic designers to try and depict this picture that I found.

Did – But the gorilla eye came from how we’d been very frustrated. Album 1, you want it to be exactly right. There’s no excuse for album 1. Album 2 is the danger album but there’s no excuse for album 1. You’re presenting your band, your music and what you’re trying to convey to people who will hopefully latch on to your message and your music. So actually, interestingly enough, the idea for the gorilla eye came from Henrik’s music room.

Henrik – So I said to Did "We’ve got 2 weeks before we really need to get this album out and sorted, what are we going to do?". We were in my room where I’ve got a sort of computer set-up and my guitars and stuff where Did and I write some of our stuff and Did said "Why don’t we do that?". He pointed at a larger version of that gorilla eye but in a landscape way which is something I had completely ripped off a cool painting that I’d seen when I’d been to a zoo somewhere, and I done a really crap version of it – not even photo shopped.

Did – Blown up in landscape it was the perfect representation of the art and style that Henrik likes.

Henrik – It’s meant to be sort of dark and searching and looking with an intensity. It’s the intensity we wanted to capture: just that stare and that full ‘bam!’. Then we found some fractured polygon art.

Did - We combined the two and it came completely naturally, much easier than painstakingly going through this big idea of the child on the pier.

Henrik – It’s still a big idea and it still took a lot of time because we approached a couple of artists and they came back with a couple of ideas within 2 days but we just thought "No, that’s not going to work". So I designed and made it myself in Illustrator in Photo Shop! So I had to kind of upskill really quick! (Laughs!)

Did – Referring to the artwork for Empyre, we feel that music is art and we do a little something different that each song is a piece of music but we try and reflect that in an image or piece of art. So you have the album cover but each song – 11 tracks – has its own individual piece of artwork that you can see on our shirts.

Henrik – Grant’s wife, Zandra, who’s a really talented artist, she did the artwork for our cover of My Immortal, the Evanescence song. She did the artwork for Too Little Too Late, the 2 girls with the amazing hair. 

Did – Henrik designed New Republic. When you see a band release a new single, they’ve normally got some artwork or a video or something. We have that for everything. A piece of artwork for every single song. When someone sees a movie they can put a picture to the movie. If I say Jurassic Park you know the image. If I say Too Close by Empyre, you might know the song in a year’s time but that has a piece of artwork associated with it. So we are trying to do that kind of thing as well. 

Henrik with Grant Hockley (bass) & Elliott Bale (drums)

The album is out on 5th July. What sort of things are going through your mind at what is obviously a really exciting time for the band?

Did - At this point, I’ve been saying this recently, I think ‘delayed gratification’ (laughs!) because it’s the most frustrating thing for musicians because we have a new song but it could be picked up by someone in a year’s time or 2 weeks time or 2 days time and they love it at that point. I think we’ve got some really, really honest music that a lot of people are going to like, that a lot of rock fans are going to like. A lot of people outside of rock music clearly like it already - outside of the rock field – we are seeing that on social media already. We are seeing people of all ages sharing the videos and everything. We’ve just recently had another session published by Bob Harris from Radio 2. He’s just published another song, a single we did acoustically. So people are liking this outside of the rock genre. But we are trying to find our fans, our Empyre people and supporters who want to enjoy this music with us. But it is ‘delayed gratification’ for me. It might not happen today. On 5th July the album is out -great – but we are going to keep writing, we’re going to keep doing it, we’re going to be relentless and keep pushing it and writing new music. In a year’s time someone might listen to New Republic and go "Woah! What’s this about?! Why did I miss this?".

Henrik – I’m not that patient! (Laughs!) What’s going through my mind is an infinite amount of things in terms of how we get it out there, how we get it out to everybody, how we persuade them to spend that 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 5 minutes or 7 minutes in some cases to listen to a whole one of our songs and then engage with it, get them to a gig, get them to buy the album -whatever it may be. We’re not big on the whole pandering "Oh please come and love us!". We don’t want to impose ourselves on anybody but we still want people to listen to the music and that’s a very tricky balance.

Did – In terms of the delayed gratification, just to counter your argument, from 2008 I knew that Henrik’s voice needed to be heard. He’s got a great voice, the uniqueness of which which hasn’t really been heard a lot in London over the last 12 months. It took 8 years after that to get original music with him singing it because of the popularity of the covers band. To get to this point to be on tour and be releasing an album and everything, it’s been worth it. The album, we are putting a lot behind it and we want it to gather momentum. We’d love it to snowball and go viral and get all people sharing it and that kind of stuff, but it needs to happen organically though. It needs to happen naturally and it doesn’t need to be forced. People need to believe in it the way we do and we do believe in it.        

As our conversation draws to a close we reflect on what a truly unique and captivating band Empyre really are. The huge subject of where can rock music go from here? is one often debated by music fans – and quite reasonably so. When we take a look in the rear view mirror and reflect upon the myriad of styles that have evolved over the last 60 years or so it’s easy to surrender to the idea that it’s all been done. However, what Empyre have done is turn the page to the next chapter. Their dark introspective sound, bold lyrics and powerful delivery combine to create an entirely new and gripping experience. The rest of 2019 will see the band playing more shows and generally spreading the word. There are also plans for another 3 singles and videos to be released from Self Aware, beginning with the atmospheric track Stone at the end of July. It is with the highest of recommendations that we invite you join the Empyre ryde. Head over to www.empyre.co.uk to pre-order Self Aware and find out more.

In the meantime check out the video for New Republic below.