A Time to Be So Small: An Interview with EmptyMansion’s Sam Fogarino

Riot House

It’s the run up to the release of the EmpyMansion’s first album Snakes/Vultures/Sulfate and Sam Fogarino is feeling relaxed. Eerily so, in fact.

The seasoned drummer may have experienced the highest peaks of 21st century indie stardom and critical reverence as Interpol’s spruce drummer, as well as racking up credits with groups such as The Last Night, The Holy Terrors, The Wahoos, Gus, and Napoleon Solo, but EmptyMansions represents his first attempt at fronting a band, as well as being the central creative force. It’s enough to make any seasoned musician anxious, but in contrast, the 44 year old is unperturbed.

“Interpol has taught me to not really worry about that,” says the Philadelphian on living up to the expectations of both critics and his fan base. Few musicians admit to fretting about critical reaction, of course, but Fogarino assertions are delivered with kind of lethargy in his voice that indicates he really means it. “Being in that band, we’ve been on both sides of being the loved indie darlings to getting the full-on backlash. Both sides of that hopefully gives you the balance to realize why you make music. In a funny way, you want people to like it, you want people to emphasize and identify with what you’re doing, but at the point of inception it has to be for you — it has to be because you can’t help it. Because you can’t do anything else.”

The backlash Fogarino mentions refers to Interpol’s fourth (and most recent) album. Released in 2010, the self-titled record became their critically worst-received to date. After the disappointing reception and departure from the group of Carlos Dengler, the remaining members went on hiatus, focusing on a variety of other projects. EmptyMantions represents an outlet for songs he Fogarino wrote away from his fellow band members during Interpol’s last tour — something he found enriching throughout.

“There are two sides of the coin when you’re writing songs on tour with a band,” he affirms. “You’re not being really creative with the music that you’re presenting when you’re playing shows because that work has been done, so you kind of take that energy that you have from playing for 90 minutes and, coming off, your adrenaline — you’re on fire. I would take that and pour it into these EmptyMansions songs.”

While Fogarino is the group’s chief catalyst, Snakes/Vultures/Sulfate is the result of a strong collaboration. Present on the tour that spawned the EmptyMansions set was Brandon Curtis, a long-term Interpol affiliate who had previous opened for the group as part of his band Secret Machines and was now playing keyboards with Fogarino and co. The two built a strong rapport to the point where Fogarino felt comfortable playing Curtis some of his solo demos.

“Next thing you know, he’s producing,” says Fogarino. “It kind of came about mid way through that touring cycle. We had a couple days off in Mexico City and I invited him to my room. We listened to some stuff together and he gave it to me straight. That was when it was kind of decided that he’ll be jumping on this project. It was at that meeting that we had, where we mainly talked — we didn’t listen to too much music. It became apparent that he knew what he was doing. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing yet, but I felt comfortable with him being at the helm. It gave me a lot more freedom but with a safety net because I trust him on an aesthetic and artistic level.”

Completing the EmptyMansions line-up is experienced guitarist Duane Denison who has built his reputation in The Jesus Lizard, Silver Jews, and various other bands. But before the trio could lay anything down, Fogarino needed to get to grips with providing lead vocals for the first time in his career, and he cites his Interpol cohort as providing motivation.

“Paul Banks from Interpol, he was like, ‘Look man, you just got to do it. I know that you can.’ Paul’s heard me kind of fuck around with him in the same room and he’s always said, ‘You should work on singing because your voice is really strong and you’ve got something,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah whatever.’ It finally got to the point though, regardless of feeling confident and ready to do it, I couldn’t keep writing these songs and depending on somebody else to complete them that way.”

Becoming more confident with his voice proved liberating for Fogarino, removing certain barriers from his songwriting. No longer did he have to rely on other vocalists to convey his messages or worry that they would be unable to connect with the material as he would like. While he also stretched himself by providing guitar and synths on the album, removing these shackles by singing was one of the most rewarding aspects of the EmptyMansions process.

“Most of the time when you’re working with somebody who’s worth it that’s a vocalist, they’re going to write their own lyrics. I’ve worked in the past with Adam Franklin [on side project The Setting Suns] and I’d never tell him what to sing — I’d never put words in his mouth. He just does it so well on his own, and it keeps a song honest. And the timing just felt right. It was kind of one of those things like learning how to swim as a kid: you can talk about it, you can get lessons but at some point you’re just going to have to do it. It just felt right. If the music felt forced I don’t think it would have happened but everything felt like it was aligned properly so it just felt like another part of the process. I’ve been around the making of records for over half of my life so while I’ve never really sang on records before it really didn’t matter, it was just like another thing that had to be done. I think having been around it for so long, after a while it didn’t feel so awkward.”

Snakes/Vultures/Sulfate is likely to both appease and impress Fogarino’s existing fan base. All too often great bands’ breakaway projects can feel like inferior efforts, as if one quarter of a classic band working on their own equates to 25 per cent the quality. Not so with EmptyMansions. Like Interpol’s work, its finest moments scrape the darkest corners of the post-punk revival with tidy guitar lines, sharp rhythms and spiky hooks.

Snakes/Vultures/Sulfate represents a very clear picture of Sam Fogarino the artist and songwriter today. It’s a wholly honest effort, and while Interpol has given him a platform and a ready-made audience, he believes EmptyMansions is a project that he would have eventually channelled regardless of how his career has panned out.

“I realized that if I didn’t have the luxury of the privileges playing with Interpol and being able to release a solo album, I would still be doing it. I think about where I come from and I’ve made music for much less in return, far less. When I think about that I really don’t care about the pressure of it, in a positive way. I do want people to like it but I’m not going to get hung up over negative criticism, or maybe it might just get ignored [laughs]. I guess the bottom line is that I felt that I succeeded in something when I completed the record, the fact that we’re talking about it, that’s a bonus. Then my poor little ass has to go and write music with Interpol, I just feel lucky all the way around really. If it falls flat on its face, I’ll be happy that I got to do it.”