Chris Strong Chicago indie-rock trio Empires are back and grittier than ever.…
- Posted on Apr 27th 2012 1:00PM by Marwa Hamad
The band have been added to Lollapalooza and scored dates with Kaiser Chiefs and Temper Trap. Empires have also recorded a new album called Garage Hymns (set for a June 12) release they're characterizing as featuring some of the "loudest and rowdiest" songs they've ever written. And perhaps most importantly, after their experience in the Rolling Stones contest, they've come to realize they relish their freedom.
"To throw somebody else in the mix via [the Rolling Stone] contest, it just completely wasn't us," singer Sean Van Vleet tells Spinner. "We learned that we need to just keep doing this ourselves. Freedom is the most important thing when you're playing music these days. It's anyone's world right now."
Empires recently put out the Can't Steal Your Heart Away EP as a sampling of what's to come on Garage Hymns, and Van Vleet says these recordings are their most authentic yet.
"We knew exactly what we were going for [with this album], which is the first time I can actually say that," he says. "Something that is just not over-thought, something completely organic, completely honest to what we were. Before, back in the old records, I never really knew what I wanted when I was writing songs."
This time around, the band, who had previously recorded the Howl album in 2008 and Bang EP in 2010, did their homework and took advantage of guitarist-producer Max Steger's recording studio to produce Garage Hymns. The words "garage" and "hymns" were natural hooks for the band.
"The garage is a natural spot for music to be born," says Van Vleet. "It's a place where you don't really over-think it and you have fun playing. And it just seemed like, lyrically, there was this quality that was hymnal and not in the religious aspect at all. We titled it Garage Hymns and in that title the aesthetic was born."
Van Vleet, along with Steger and guitarist Tom Conrad, started working on the record in 2010 before the Rolling Stone competition had begun. They kept tweaking it into late last year and tracked the entire record within the short span of two weeks, never doing more than two takes on a song.
"We definitely wanted to capture the intensity of the band playing live," Steger says.
"Can't Steal Your Heart Away" is the haunting opening number and centerpiece off both the album and EP. The song, along with the EP's equally defiant second track "Surrender," are an accurate mixture of what the upcoming album will bring, says Van Vleet. There'll be ballads to accompany the rage, too.
Some of the band's most vulnerable ballads ("Gift of Asylum," "Hold On," "Stunned") have been left off albums in the past, but Steger says the second single off Garage Hymns will be a slowed-down version of the song "Shame," which has been floating around in various forms since 2007 and remains a fan favourite at live shows.
"The vibe [of 'Shame'] is very haunting and beautiful at the same time," says Steger. "It took us a while to finally find the right way to present it as a full band."
Van Vleet agrees, adding: "It's a completely different animal than the acoustic version we recorded and we're really, really proud of that song."
The majority of the band's songs over the past four years have had an underlying theme of despair to them. Van Vleet struggles to pinpoint why he so frequently pens these anguished tales.
"I don't have an answer myself for that, I've thought about it before," he says. "The only thing I can really think of is that I tend to write the second after I wake up. That's what I do, I'm a morning writer; the night time is too distracting for me. I have to write really early in the morning -- stay up through the night or wake up right away. Maybe there's a darkness there that still hovers around after sleep or something like that, but I really don't know. Because outside of music, I don't really consider myself a dark person. Somewhere in the music, I guess that's born, and I still haven't figured it out."
Despite the hopelessness of its lyrics, Garage Hymns promises to rock louder and harder than any previous Empires efforts. Combine that with the band's relative youth and sense of freedom and it's not a leap to suggest the future's bright for Empires.
"Even though we've been around four-and-a-half years, it still feels like we're a young band," says Van Vleet. "I still feel like we have a lot ahead of us."