Empyre - Spring 2020

Did Coles & Henrik Steenholdt

Here at Rock Today we were recently educated on the concept of synchronicity. Introduced by psychologist Carl Jung, synchronicity and ‘meaningful coincidences’ are events that occur with no casual relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. In other words, on a phenomenal scale it’s about being in the right place at the right time. We can all perhaps think of examples of where we may have witnessed this and it’s important that we take a moment to truly understand how profound and powerful it can be. We’d like to share a perfect example of synchronicity where in 2008 Henrik Steenholdt responded to an advert placed by guitarist Did Coles for a singer to join a local covers band. It was this event that would go on to cement a truly gifted partnership and in the formation of Empyre, a groundbreaking hard rock band who released their game-changing debut album Self Aware in July 2019. Did is a hugely gifted guitarist and one who has found a unique, powerful and captivating style. Steve Vai once said that anyone can learn to play guitar. And he was absolutely right. The very foundation of rock music is built by artists armed with only a few chords and the pentatonic scale, and many have gone on to have successful careers. But Did is different. He has studied his instrument to exponential levels. There is no fleeting romance with his telecaster, no casual affair. He has immersed himself in the guitar pool of wonders and is exploring every cavern, every reef to unlock its aural possibilities. Quite simply he has mated for life with his six string and the musical output is staggering in its versatility and originality. Henrik owns the most wonderful vocal talent. Such is his skill he is able to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the very best rock singers of the last generation. We are well aware of what a huge statement it is to say that Henrik is in the same league as artists such as Chris Cornell and Scott Weiland but this is a simple fact that can not be denied. Together Did and Henrik have created Empyre and, along with bassist Grant Hockley and drummer Elliot Bale, they’ve taken rock music in a new and refreshing direction. Empyre’s music is intelligent though also accessible. There are informed observations of the world we live in and Self Aware is entirely an album experience such is the cohesion of its 11 tracks. There is something incredibly gifted here about the songwriting in that it focuses on authentically relevant subjects and consciously avoids the shallow. Self Aware touches on relationships, political observations and human reactions to life’s twists and turns, all of which make for an intense yet heartfelt experience. But their delivery is far from preachy. There’s simply a respectful sharing of their own observations which wonderfully draw us in. It’s actually a really unique gift they own and with their musical voice they have the power to impartially educate the next generation on real and relevant issues. Now that is the true power of Empyre. We catch up with Did and Henrik ahead of their show in Blackpool to hear about their journey since Self Aware’s release 6 months ago. Unsurprisingly, it’s a freezing evening and the cold sadly extends to one of the upstairs artist reception areas which we have been allocated for today’s interview. As we make ourselves comfortable it’s with the greatest of will power that Henrik avoids the temptation to wrap himself in the sumptuous bedding he has spied in the corner of the room. Did, however, with his full fur hat, clearly feels just a little bit more prepared… and pleased with himself. As a capacity crowd begins to gather downstairs our conversation begins…

Henrik Steenholdt & Grant Hockley

Your debut album Self Aware was far from a rushed affair. You took your time to create its 11 fantastic tracks. The songs were nurtured, given a chance to breath and naturally allowed to evolve into what would become the Self Aware album. You gave the record the celebratory release party it deserved when it was eventually released on 5th July last year. How did it feel when the record was finally released?

Henrik – I’d describe that as a relief! (Laughs!) To have it out there as an entity and as a whole because we’d done 2 EPs before that, and then to add the 5 tracks to the 2 EPs was great. A lot of people had been asking us for this for about 18 months before that: ‘When’s the album coming? What are you gonna do?’ and those are all rightfully good questions to ask. We were probably I’d say about a year late.

Did – We had some stumbling blocks. We had to recruit new members and, as can often happen with band, we did have stumbling blocks.  I have a great degree of patience. I’m all up for delayed gratification. It’s great when people are saying ‘get it out there’ but certain songs that were released last year people are only responding to now. I can almost foresee that. Henrik likes things ordered. In some degrees we were late with the release but for me it was really good planning. It was ready when it went out.

Henrik – I agree with Did. I’m not so great on delayed gratification. I want it done in a very structured fashion but that just wasn’t possible. The artwork wasn’t done, we had to do some re-recording on a couple of tracks and those were the right things to do rather than rush it out of the door when, as we see it, it wasn’t completely done.

Did – Even if the tracks are recorded we do a piece of artwork. We use artists like Zandra, Grant (Hockley) the bass player’s wife doing some fantastic artwork. My brother did some artwork and we used a lady called Michelle who’s an incredible artist who got recommended to us from a friend. We do a piece of art for every song so that takes time to put together and edit as well as all the music and everything. So we’re trying to develop that side as well. It’s good for merch though because people can say ‘I want that on my shirt!’.

Henrik – But it’s tough to choose what to put on the front on a T shirt, or even the back of a T shirt. So we’ve got artists who work with us and we do some of it ourselves.

Did – Yes, Henrik does artwork as well. I can’t draw. Only stick people! (Laughs!)

So if we see a stick man T shirt, you know that the inspiration is from you, Did! 

Did – We do like minimalism but that’s maybe too minimalistic! (Laughs!)  

We very proudly reported Self Aware to be groundbreaking and a game changer. The reception you have received has been justifiably incredible with industry figures and fans being being bowled over by the music. Examples of some comments include:-

• Just discovered this band yesterday thanks to Planet Rock and they are brilliant

• This is amazing!

• Self Aware is definitely our album of the year! Not one weak track! An impeccable album

• A stellar album

• Very powerful lyrics, terrific vocals and fantastic music

• A real masterpiece 

• I am at a loss for words. This is just so amazing. Brilliant work indeed

Very, very cool indeed

How does it make you feel when you hear words like these that show how powerfully you are connecting with people?

Did – Well, thanks for all those kind comments from all those people who are supporting us and are enjoying the music. I think both of us write about personal perspectives and also about wider subjects in general, and one thing that I really like is how people listen to the music but that it resonates from their own interpretation. Only Way Out in particular is a song that people really identify with in their own lives for whatever reason and they have that connection to it. So to reach people on an emotional and personal level, that’s really what music’s all about. We are just a band trying to climb the ladder and at this level to have some of your songs be anthems for people’s lives and for those comments to come through, that’s reassuring and makes it all worth it, I guess. 

Henrik – When we played here last time, and at other gigs, we’ve seen people crying in the crowd when they hear Only Way Out and in a slightly perverse way, that’s just great. That’s exactly what we’re aiming for. We are the sort of band that wants the intensity of emotion that’s about the music. We are not a performance band as such - we are not jumping around stage – we are trying to give off that emotion through the songs, through the lyrics and through the vibe and that’s basically it. So those comments are always great to hear! 

Did – And just sort of the classic thing of the fact that we’ve sat in a room at Henrik’s or at mine, writing some lyrics, editing them and then 6 or 7 months later people know them and people are singing them. That is really weird. It’s really strange. And also people recognising you! I’ve got a pet hate of when someone says hi, I want to say their name. Some people I don’t know and I just have to go ‘Alright, chap!’ That annoys me because obviously they are really in to the music. So stuff like that’s been interesting. We’ve attracted new fans and not just in the UK. South America is going really nuts for Empyre – streaming it, watching all the videos, commenting on it. We might have to get a plane or something! (Laughs!) Get on a plane, not buy a plane! (Laughs!) Stuff like that you can’t predict happening. You might think ‘Okay, we’re just releasing in the UK’ but then it’s ‘Look what’s going on here in Argentina!’. It’s all good. Maybe the appeal from the lyrics from a philosophical perspective is that some of our songs are dark and we do project out there that we’re dark and atmospheric. There’s no ‘head in the clouds’ optimism, there’s just a heavy dose of realism which is kind of what everyone feels. They touch subjects that people do generally think about. So like Too Little Too Late is written about the breakdown of a toxic relationship, but underneath that it’s about the person who’s been screwed over coming out stronger in the end. So there’s a little bit of realism and a bit of hope, I guess, in a lot of the songwriting.

Elliot Bale

Well you’ve mentioned that you write from experiences and that people will interpret the songs in their own way and find their own connection, and with that in mind I’d like to talk delve a little bit deeper into the music and talk about some specific tracks. I would like to start with Too Close. Lyrically this is something particularly profound. With the opening line "two sides to every coin, you’re the quiet, I’m the noise", the words would go on to paint a picture of how we are all different, it’s the differences in people that come together to create wonderful things but also how we can all have insecurities and how we may feel pressure to strive to be something which is perhaps unachievable. But the line that hit me the hardest is "pleasure sows the seeds for tomorrow’s pain". It’s the suggestion that all good things come to an end and the unfairness that we have no choice but to deal with that. If it any time we are happy, it will eventually come with a cost, and generally how fragile happiness can be. To what extent is that a fair representation and what inspired you to write this song?

Henrik – That’s bang on. I’d say that you’ve captured it in how fragile happiness can be and how easily a very happy situation can crash down. 

Did -  We wrote that song on the basis of the theme of duality. In the Eastern culture they have the yin yang symbol which is basically that the track can be summarised as – and you’ve made a really good observation – one thing can’t exist without the other. So good can’t exist without bad. So what you’re saying about happiness and everything and the good times that happen in life is balanced out by sometimes the opposite affect, and just being aware of the fact that there is a balance between the two. It was just thinking about that subject and shaping the lyrics. The video reflects that as well with its imagery of a coin and a lion.

Henrik -  There are some contrasting features in there. I think if there is one song on the album that perhaps hasn’t been noticed as much as it could be, in our view should be, it would be Too Close. It’s a song which in its entirety sums up Empyre in terms of it has quite a different vibe, it’s got a very interesting guitar part from Did that’s perhaps Police-like and it has this massive chorus and it has a lot of musical elements to it including a long musical outro, and I think much like Homegrown it kind of encompasses everything that Empyre is musically, but perhaps hasn’t been embraced yet. I think that’s a really slow burner that people are going to find on the album. If people listen to the album a lot they’re going to find that and they’re going to like it more and more and more, but perhaps isn’t one that immediately hits you in the face when you listen to the album.

Did - There are some personal things going on there but under the umbrella term of duality. The pre-chorus, Henrik is singing it in the first person but I just imagined it him singing this massive note that he does so well when required. And it is just how it relates to some personal stuff and we did it as a tribute track because I lost my brother a few years ago. So before releasing the album I just said to Henrik that I’d like to do something for him because one of the reasons I’m into all the music I like is because of what he listened to. That was just like really important to me. But I agree with Henrik that that’s one of the tracks like Only Way Out that people will overtime grow to identify with on a personal level, maybe like how you’ve interpreted it. You’ve pretty much given a really good overview but there are certain aspects of that song that you can probably draw into your own life. I think a lot of people will reach that level, they maybe just haven’t heard it yet.            

Henrik - The duality and the fragility for me, from my perspective, and I know all the intricacies of that song, I like the fragility idea that you brought on this. But that’s life! It is fragile.          

One of the things I love about your whole approach to presenting music is how incredibly creative you have been, and we’ve already mentioned today how there is artwork associated with every track. Your videos are a hugely immersive experience, and with that in mind I would like to talk about your video for the album’s opening track My Bad. You have created the most wonderful comic book feature video where London is smouldering and deserted, tensions between the 2 of you have risen to unprecedented levels and you’re taking it out on the city and each other. In this Marvel saturated era that were are in, it’s an absolute genius move. How do this concept come about? 

Henrik - I’ve seen some artwork that a guy called Pete Linforth. He has a great style where you basically take a picture and destroy it and we wanted to get across the idea of a British rock band where we take London and destroy it. So these were 2 ideas that were basically combined. Pete and I found some images of London, found the right one and he did his thing and made the great picture with the bus and the tube station and the smouldering buildings and destroyed it! Then I did some after effects work to make a canvas to make the plumes of smoke move and the traffic lights move and the fires and all that sort of stuff. We thought about how we could integrate this into a video. We were working with a guy who had done the Something Remains video before which is pretty much stock footage, but I’d seen another video done which was animated or drawn, or at least it was that comic book style and I said ‘Can we do something like this? Can we have Did and I as 2 effectively alter egos fighting out in a backdrop of a destroyed or apocalyptic London and can we fight it out in a viscous fashion?’. He came up with this amazing artwork which is just awesome and then he put it into a video of which we’ve had a great response!

Did - It’s come out really cool! There is a little aspect where it reminds people of things, like someone said to me the other day, of Sin City, if you remember that kind of graphic novel. We kind of wanted it to look like that and Marvel. The superhero thing is interesting because I’m a massive Marvel fan and everything: Deadpool and Wolverine and everything. But incidentally, it’s a comic book thing but we weren’t thinking about capitalising on any of those. It wasn’t that intentional. We just loved what this guy was doing with animation and gave him the comic book as an idea. Henrik gave him a good brief. When it came back we went ‘Can you put us in it!?’ (Laughs!) He just said ‘Oh, I’ll just need some head shots’ and he came back with this! We were really happy!

Does the comic represented in the video actually exist and or would you consider releasing it?

Did – Marvel actually have an Empyre comic coming out spelt with our name. They’ve nicked our name! So it’s already out there basically. Marvel are doing our free marketing for us! But seriously, it would be nice to have an Empyre graphic novel.

Henrik - One of our friends suggested that we should get it printed out as a lyric book or a comic book that we could actually sell on the merch store and maybe that’s something we will do at some stage. There are about four or five pages, it has the front cover and it is built like a comic so there will be a reason to do it.

Did – We will just have to see how the single builds. Spotify users are going to listen to the track and hopefully that will lull them to the music video and we’ll see where things go from there.

Did & Henrik

Well just talking about the music itself, My Bad is another really powerful track, and lyrically there is the suggestion that there are things happening in society that need to change before it’s too late, that it’s time to act, to stop being in denial and to realise that we can make that change. It starts with us as individuals. There is also a clear message that by fighting against each other ultimately no one wins, starkly portrayed in the video by you both lying lifeless on the ground. What events inspired you to write this song?

Henrik - It’s a lot more literal than you might think! It’s basically the fact of Did and I arguing about what goes on in the band and how we operate. It’s exactly what it is in the video. It’s simply exaggerated. It’s a caricature of what has happened in the past and the arguments of ‘should we do this, should we do that’ and sort of fighting over what we should do. In the end, the whole idea is that is actually an appeal to salvage that because as the pre-chorus says, ‘if it all comes out’, if we just let loose on each other then where does that leave us then? Basically as the video suggests it leaves us both dead and we’ve got no Empyre.

Did – We are ultimately just better working together rather than rallying against each other with ideas. That’s how we work. We’ve known each other over 10 years now. It’s a personal thing from Henrik, there was a lot going on in both our lives at the time and ultimately we are better working together with not one person leading the other or the balance of power. It is much better being a union.

Henrik – A duopoly! (Laughs!)                

Well you’ve said that My Bad is the 5th single but you’ve also said that it’s the last single from Self Aware. After 6 months it seems a little early to be closing the chapter on Self Aware. Is that what you’re doing her?

Henrik – No, it’s the last single that’s going to be released from the album as you know it at the moment. So as Did alluded to earlier there is some other acoustic stuff we are going to be releasing and there’s going to be some songs that you know but not necessarily in the format you know them. So I can’t say exactly what’s going to happen with that but we are going to release some acoustic stuff, which we seem to be quite well known for, only it won’t be just the 2 of us, it will be all 4 of us. But as it stands at the moment, we aren’t going to release any more electric material from Self Aware. It was always the plan to release the 5 singles because the other 6 have been on the EPs.           

With Self Aware having made such an impact and with so much support from industry figures and fans, do you feel you have created a launch pad to take Empyre to the next level? 

Did - I think it’s really nice of you to say that. In terms of our 2020, we are going to do exactly what we did in 2019 which is absolutely graft! That’s what we do as a band. We’re going to keep playing live and we’re going to keep giving it our all in every aspect, from design and artwork to performing on stage to trying to get in at the best festivals, to doing good releases and to try and work with the best people we can to grow a fan base. All the support that we’ve got already that wasn’t there before has definitely increased our trajectory. The everyman down the street will always say "you just have to meet the right person" or "you just need a lucky break". We have got some really big industry support from people like Bob Harris, the iconic radio DJ - he’s loved what we’re doing but he’s in the county world. His thing is developing country artists. We had some really good feedback from Classic Rock magazine in their High Hopes, and in the media and everything. What we really need is a little bit of luck as well. I believe that you make your own luck through working hard to meet those right people but definitely, without trying to be too bolshy, to get where this band where it deserves to be we just need the right person or right team to come in and say "Guys, you’re doing everything you should be doing but I’ve got 20 years of experience, follow me". Hopefully as the band progresses we will get that.

Henrik - We’ve tried to build that platform, not just with Self Aware but with the videos and the artwork. Someone who we met 3 or 4 years ago asked Did and I "What’s the aim of Empyre?" and this was before we’d really released anything. It was always to play the big rock festivals. So do Download, Hellsfest, whatever the big rock festivals are in any country around the world. That was always my aim. It wasn’t to be famous, or make a shit ton of money. I just always wanted to play the big rock festivals and the big gigs. So we’ve tried to make that bedrock. What we need now is more exposure, we need people to hear it and latch onto it. The difficult thing is to actually make that step from where we are now to stepping onto Download or stepping onto Ramblin’ Man or Sweden Rocks or Hellsfest or wherever it may be, Europe or further afield. They don’t often tend to give a junior band a break. So hopefully the platform is there. There are so many people who said our music is arena-ready and made for the big stages so let’s test that!      

As our conversation draws to a close, it is with huge pride that we look back on what an incredibly successful year 2019 was for Empyre. It is also with huge anticipation that we shall observe their next steps. As well as the music being able to stand proudly on its own 2 feet as perhaps the perfect example of the evolution of rock, the band’s overall creative talent, passion and driving force must surely turn the heads of both new-fans-in-waiting and those industry figures who can gift that little bit of oh-so-deserved luck. 

To find out more, visit www.empyre.co.uk and in the meantime, check out the incredible video to the 5th and final single from Self Aware, My Bad, below.

***STOP PRESS*** - On 6th March, Empyre will release their cover of Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name from the 007 film Casino Royale!