- Posted on Mar 7th 2011 3:30PM by Emily Tan
Empires will bring their ingenuity and a load of new songs to Austin for this year's SXSW. Spinner recently caught up with guitarist Tom Conrad to talk about how he ended up designing the cover of 'Bang,' his feelings about the Rolling Stone cover contest and why he isn't too worried about being signed to a record label.
How did the band get together?
I've known Sean [Van Vleet, frontman] for a long time, since pretty much high school. We didn't go to the same high school, but we've known each other for a long time through mutual friends. I was coming out of a long tour and travel, and I was looking to get settled in Chicago. We ended up moving into a place together, and we both needed a creative environment -- just looking for a change of pace. Ryan [Luciani] joined because we were looking for a guy to play drums and see what would happen. Max [Steger], who plays guitar and does the recording with us, joined a few months later. It kind of snowballed to what it is now. The first year, we weren't even playing shows because we were working on our music.
Since you were working on material for a year before even taking your music to the stage, when did you play your first show?
That first year, we were sitting on a little over 20 songs. As soon as we knew we had 'Howl,' which we put out in 2008, we were pretty confident to start playing out live. The first year was more of just writing and recording, and it wasn't until a little over a year after that we played our first show.
You released 'Howl' for free in 2008 to see how people would react, and you got a huge response. How did you feel about that?
When we put out the record, there were no strings attached -- no e-mails -- and [we] just kind of put it up on the website. Through word of mouth and friends, it just spread virally. All it did was add more reassurance and confidence that we can do this, and there's something working here.
Did you ever wish you could have just put a price tag on it?
Sean is a pretty prolific writer. We practice pretty much five times a week, and every week, there'd always be something new. We've always kind of had the mentality that there's so much, so we keep moving onto the next project. We believe that we can always do better than what we just did, so we always try to take it up a notch. Once it's out there, move on to the next project.
Empires did everything from the writing to the mastering on 'Howl.' What did it teach you guys about yourselves as a band and what you're capable of doing?
That's the unique thing about the band: Outside of the band, everyone has an extra skill to bring to the table. Sean does creative writing outside of writing songs. Ryan does a lot of film work. Max does the recording. I do a lot of photography and design work. It seemed like a lot of the grounds were covered, so it's one of those things that are like, "Why outsource to somebody if you could do it yourself?"
What was your mindset going into you second EP, 'Bang?'
With 'Bang,' we actually tracked up 15 songs and only five of them made it. A few months later, we did two more songs that just felt more cohesive with the other five, and we knew what was missing. With 'Howl,' we recorded at someone's place. With 'Bang,' we went down to do drums in Kansas City, and [it] was a little bit more thought out. We felt like with 'Howl,' it was more all over the place, as far as songwriting and sonically and tonality. Now we know more what we're going for.
When did you get into music?
I have been playing since I was a wee kid -- like 11 or 12 -- and that's all I knew how to do.
What was the first song or band that made you fall in love with music?
My mom used to play guitar to me when I was growing up, but when I was 6, 7, 8 or somewhere around there, my cousin gave me this black cassette tape with Tom Petty's 'Wildflowers' on one side and [Nine Inch Nails'] 'Pretty Hate Machine' on the other. I just remember this black cassette tape with the two different bands on there.
Empires are also part of the Rolling Stone cover contest. How did you feel when the magazine picked you guys as one of the 16 bands in the running?
It was definitely flattering. We're going into it with no expectations. My mom has always told me that opportunity knocks every day, and I should take it for what it is and just keep rolling with the punches. Whenever you're handed one of these opportunities, just take it with no expectations. It is what it is.
What is the ultimate goal for Empires?
Regardless of [the outcome of the] competition, there's still music we're working on. We just finished 10 demos recently. We're recording on our own. We're ready to do another record soon. We want to keep doing what we're doing -- keep making songs and keep releasing them. As far as a label, in this point in our career, it never really stopped us. Since the band has always done things on our own, there isn't anything that can hold us back.
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