London-based four-piece, Empathy Test, are preparing to release their stunning new album, Monsters, a richly textured, cinematic record that wraps melancholy in a darkly catchy synthpop blanket. After relentlessly touring their debut albums Safe From Harm and Losing Touch, the band have pushed their sound in previously unexplored directions all while showcasing their ability to write catchy electropop songs that sink slowly into the subconscious.
The first single from the album, “Monsters”, signaled the band’s both thrillingly expansive and unnervingly claustrophobic approach to the record. Driven by thundering drums and clean, analogue synths there was a feeling of deep unease that slithers, serpent-like through the track. Elsewhere, the album moves from shadowy bangers like “Empty Handed” and “Holy Rivers” to the gracefully shapeshifting ballad “Making Worlds” via the thrilling push and pull of “Doubts”. Throughout frontman, Issac Howlett commits his most personal inner thoughts to song. From the anxiety-ridden “Fear of Disappearing” to the desperate “Stop” each song finds him trying to tame the dark thoughts in his head to mixed success. Here, Howlett talks in detail about the new record.
Who were your musical heroes growing up?
Jarvis Cocker from Pulp, Tim Booth from James, Brian Molko from Placebo and Robert Smith from the Cure. I was only ever going to be a frontman.
When did you know you wanted to be in a band?
The whole Britpop era, particularly Blur and Oasis, made me want to be in a band. The bands from that period of UK musical history made you feel like anyone could pick up a guitar and write songs. It was an incredibly exciting and ambitious era.
When did you guys know that you were onto something with Empathy Test?
From the moment we recorded our first track, “Losing Touch”. Our friends were like, this is it! A year later, when we put it up on SoundCloud, we started getting people writing about us from as far afield as San Francisco.
How would you describe Empathy Test to someone who didn’t know you?
Dark, cinematic synthpop with a modern twist, deep lyrics and emotional vocals.
How do you look back on Losing Touch and Safe From Harm?
Losing Touch represents the first two years of Empathy Test and is like the baby of the family. We were still finding our feet, and that very much involved emulating the bands that we wanted to be like, Kavinsky, Desire, Electric Youth. The bands on the Drive movie soundtrack, basically. The beats were simple kick / snare beats, the vocals were conservative, staying quite low in the verses and going up an octave for the chorus. It was all pretty formulaic.
Safe From Harm is like a teenage Empathy Test, rebelling against what was expected of it and trying out new things. The beats got more complex, as did the vocals. It was also a bit of “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” reaction to the heavier, four to the floor EBM bands that we mysteriously found ourselves playing alongside in the alternative/goth scene. We had fans saying, can’t you write some faster stuff? Our reaction was to go softer, and slower.
How do you feel you’ve developed since releasing those albums?
Like all the best projects, Empathy Test has taken on its own identity, one that defies genre and scene. Playing a lot of shows (we did five tours last year) has also taught us what works best in a live environment, and that has fed back into the music.
Did you feel any pressure going into the making of this one?
The pressure grows with every release. We always set out to not only impress people but surprise them too, and that’s a pretty hard thing to do consistently. It’s also impossible not to upset a few people each time, who were expecting more of the same.
How was your approach to making Monsters different?
This was the first time we shared some of the writing with the live band members, our drummer since 2016, Christina “Chrisy” Lopez, and new keyboardist, Oliver Marson, who joined last year. Up to now, it’s always been just myself and the other founder member, Adam Relf, doing all the writing.
We also had Chrisy record acoustic drums and Oliver record analogue synth parts, instead of only using virtual instruments. That’s really given the new record a new energy and organic quality that was perhaps lacking on the first two.
Did you start off with a clear idea of how you wanted the album to sound?
Yeah, Adam wanted it to sound like a phone recording of the band demoing what became the title track, Monsters, in a sound check. The drums sounded huge because they had the natural reverb of a big empty venue, and the kick was slightly distorted because it was recorded on a phone. The whole record was built around the drum sound, basically.
How much of the album was written before recording?
The majority of the songs were written, they just needed fleshing out. That’s how we got it all done in two and a half months.
What was the first song you wrote for the album?
Well, there were singles that came out in 2018 and 2019 (“Holy Rivers”, “Incubation Song”, and “Empty Handed”), which were then updated for the album. But really it was Monsters that became the template for the rest of the album and the first track we finished.
Can you describe the typical journey of a song from the idea in your head to the finished product?
I normally write with an acoustic guitar. So I’ll start strumming a chord sequence and then sing whatever comes into my head. Maybe that’s some words that have appeared in my head earlier, or at the time. I’ll keep playing it over and over until some more words appear and then I’ll maybe write them down and that’ll spur another line.
Once I’ve got at least a verse and a chorus I’ll record a simple guitar/vocal demo for Adam and put it in a Dropbox folder. If he likes it, he’ll also do a sketch of how he thinks it should sound and then send it back. We’ll then work on it together until it’s got a structure and I’ll write any remaining lyrics we need and then record the vocals. Then it’s just a process of refining and refining, until it’s done.
Which songs were the easy ones to come together and which were the most frustrating?
“Monsters” was the easiest, because it was pretty much done when it was handed to Adam. All we had to do was recreate the phone recording and decide how the track would progress beyond that. Some of the other tracks were more difficult. In my mind, “Fear of Disappearing” was one of those. It took a long time to get that one sounding right. Hopefully it doesn’t show.
Was the writing and recording of the album always harmonious?
Yeah, I think once we hit upon the sound of the album, and Adam and I were on the same page, it was quite easy. The main issue we have is my impatience to get things done and released, versus Adam digging his heels in and pausing to do a million other things. But we get there in the end, and it’s always worth it.
How would you describe your individual approaches to making music?
I’m very much about immediate gratification and results. My songs are a means to an end, that being to say what I want to say and get on stage to say it. So I guess that’s why I’m a songwriter rather than a producer. A song can be written in half an hour if you are in the right frame of mind and you are feeling confident and inspired.
Recording and refining the ideas takes time and sustained concentration, which is where Adam comes in. He’s more of a technician, and although I have very high standards for myself in terms of writing and performance, he’s the real perfectionist of the band. Every detail has to be perfect. He once said he’d be happy for there to be no third album at all, if he wasn’t happy with it.
Why do you think you complement each other musically?
Adam and I are kind of yin and yang in a lot of ways; one spontaneous, emotional and driven, the other methodical, measured and pragmatic. I also tend towards writing catchy, accessible pop, while Adam brings a darker, more obtuse edge. He seems to deliberately make rhythms undanceable and melodies unhummable. It stops us being too saccharine and too overtly pop.
Have you ever considered intentionally fostering a little bit of antagonism and tension to get the creative juices flowing?
I don’t think anyone in a band deliberately creates antagonism and tension, it makes life more difficult. It just happens naturally when you have very different and strong creative personalities working together to create one product. It’s always there and I’m not going to say it hasn’t been the basis for writing at least a couple of our most popular songs. And musically, there’s very much a feeling, as I’ve touched on a couple of times, that Adam is deliberately doing the opposite of what is expected of him.
Were there any tracks that didn’t quite make the cut that you may revisit in the future?
Yeah, we had about 15 songs floating about and just went with the ones that seemed to work best. There’s a few I hope we’ll revisit, off the top of my head, “Dreaming of Trees” is a beautiful ballad which just wasn’t right for Monsters.
Do you think you have fully realised your vision of what this collection of songs should be?
Yes, I think this is the album I’m most happy with, so far.
What lessons do you think you have learnt to take into the making of the next EP/album?
Keep it fresh. Keep writing new songs because it’s the new material that is the easiest to produce and the fastest to come together. Bringing in new people to the mix also brings new energy and ideas.
How does it feel to be releasing an album in the current climate?
Really weird, basically. In some ways it’s made things easier. The fact that we’ve not had real life things taking us away from home and studio. It’s also given us a captive audience who are all bored and stuck at home, thirsting for new material. But then there’s the fact that we have no idea when we’re going to be able to rehearse these new songs, let alone perform them to an audience. That’s really tough.
How are you managing to promote the album and connect with your fans during lockdown?
All the usual ways. Crowdfunding, blogs, websites, social media, mailing lists etc., but obviously it’s all now solely online. Print media has pretty much gone out the window, but that was dying out anyway. Everything is suddenly more intense, as people have way too much time on their hands. We’re constantly being asked to do live streamed gigs, which is both difficult and weirdly invasive. It feels like you’re inviting hundreds of people into your home. And way more interviews, for some reason.
How are you managing to communicate as a band?
Well, I still see Adam, as he lives walking distance away and his studio is in my house. I communicate with Chrisy and Oliver via a WhatsApp group and we’ve had a Zoom chat or too, which is fun.
How are you coping personally?
I’m up and down every few days. Mostly, I’m just concentrating on getting this album released. As we are totally DIY, I am essentially the record label and I have literally hundreds of merch orders to deal with. As long as I keep busy and focus on the day to day I’m okay. It’s just when I start thinking about the future that I start to go a bit crazy. I just keep thinking of the lyrics to the Smiths’ “Panic”. Will life ever be sane again?
What’s been your most memorable show so far?
I’ll never forget the performance we did at Planet Myer Day, a small festival in Leipzig in January 2017. That really was a “level up” moment. You know you’re in for a good show when the crowd cheers loudly as each member of the band takes to the stage. There were so many people in the audience wearing our t-shirts and singing along. That was a real “wow, we’ve made it” moment.
What’re the best and worst things about being a touring artist?
Nothing beats the feeling of waking up every day in a new city, with a new venue and a new audience to play to. But sleeping in a bunk the size of a coffin on a moving, and usually pretty smelly vehicle, for weeks on end? Not so fun.
Have you had any surreal moments in your career to date?
Probably most recently when Boy George started randomly tweeting about us. He called our album, Safe From Harm, a “musical orgasm”. It doesn’t get much more surreal than that!
What are your thoughts on the state of British music at the moment?
It kind of reminds me of the football industry, which I don’t know much about so forgive me if I’m wrong. But the focus is way too much on the Premier League, while the grassroots are underfunded, and being totally eroded. In music industry terms, this is due to there being no protection for small venues against developers and noise complaints. All these small venues are getting shut down, so there are fewer and fewer places for new bands to play.
Add to that an audience who are spoilt for choice and on the whole, are only going to see established names, and things are getting very difficult for smaller bands, new acts and DIY bands. Now with COVID-19 shutting everything down for months on end, a lot of these venues aren’t even going to reopen. We’re going to see an even bigger shift towards there only being big arena shows with big names. That’s going to completely stifle new music.
Hopefully, there’ll be a positive reaction to that. A neo punk movement, guerilla gigs, something to fight back against this wanton destruction and corporatisation of music.
Which British bands would you recommend to our readers?
That’s kind of tough, the UK isn’t producing that many good new bands right now, sadly. Most of the stuff I’m listening to at the moment is coming from America. But I’d recommend a couple of indie bands in the Editors and White Lies style ilk; October Drift and the Slow Readers Club.
What would be your three desert island records?
Fine Lines by My Vitriol, The Sun Is Often Out by Long Pigs, and Boxer by the National.
If you could only keep one song from your career so far, which song would it be and why?
I guess it would have to be “Losing Touch”, the song that spawned our whole career and continues to be our most popular. In six years, I’ve not gotten bored of playing it live.
What memorable advice have you been given by bands you’ve toured with?
Don’t eat the death sauce.
What kind of advice do you give to newer bands you take on the road?
When it come to touring, ask a lot of questions, because although it appears there are no rules, there’s a hell of a lot of unwritten ones that everyone will hate you for, if you break.
How do you cope in hot weather?
I was in the medieval quarter of Barcelona in August, and it was too hot to move. That’s when all the locals go on holiday somewhere cooler. We sat in a darkened room with six-liter bottles of water beside us and rigged up a series of straws so we could drink water more or less constantly. And don’t speak, it’s just annoying.