Interview with Did & Henrik of EMPYRE

In our latest interview we sit down with Did Coles & Henrik Steenholdt of EMPYRE to discuss the upcoming release of 'Self Aware'...

Words by Erik De’Viking

ED: Hello and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s much appreciated. I know you hail from Northampton, and your debut album Self Aware is set to be released on the 5th of July – great album by the way – but for those readers of ours who may not know EMPYRE, tell me about the band and how it came to be.

DC: Thanks for the album feedback, much appreciated! We are a four-piece Band with our musical roots and base in Northamptonshire.

Henrik Steenholdt: Lead Vocals and Rhythm Guitar

Did Coles: Lead Guitar and Backing Vocals

Grant Hockley: Bass Guitar

Elliot Bale: Drums

Empyre was born out of a Rock covers band myself and Henrik had been playing in for years. We mutually loved this Band but my attitude from day one was that Henrik’s voice needed to sing and perform original songs and we both wanted to write our own music so slowly began to prioritise this.

HS: We recorded a couple of Empyre EPs but without much of a plan as to what to do with them or what to do next. Did and I made a decision a couple of years back make Empyre our priority and take it a lot more seriously, that gave us the impetus to make a step-change in the way we do things. We formed a plan, with getting a bass player and drummer as key targets and then got out gigging consistently across the country. Grant lives locally to us and joined us two years ago, and Elliot, whilst we have known him for a few years we’d never gigged with him. When the last drummer left Elliot was the obvious choice for a replacement.

ED: Self Aware, as I said is a great album, with very plush production values and a rich, deep sound. Where did you record it?

HS:  We recorded it at Parlour Recording Studios, Kettering with Neil Haynes. Neil has known us for years, and has been great to work with. We’re very happy with the sound that has been achieved with this album.

DC: Neil’s production approach to recording “Self Aware” has resulted in the album’s sound. We couldn’t be more content with the final result.  With Neil, we recorded every track in a relaxed studio environment and nothing was rushed, everything had attention to detail and we really had fun in each session. Studios and recording can be pressured and stressful environments to play in but fortunately the dynamic for recording “Self Aware” was very creative and productive! The tracks sound pretty much the way I envisioned the music in my head.

ED: How did you approach the creative process for writing the album, and how much of it was a collaborative effort? Is it like, “I’ve got this riff”, or “I’ve got this lyric”?

HS:  It works exactly like that some of the time, often a song is spawned by a line or a riff. ‘Too Little Too Late’ was a lyrical inspiration, ‘New Republic’ and ‘Too Close’ were songs inspired by guitar riffs. It’s always collaborative even if one of us turns up with an almost complete song. That’s typically just one guitar part and some lyrics, so even if the outline of the song is fairly complete there is still a lot to add to that and to hone.

DC: The songwriting process is universally collaborative across all of Empyre’s material and “Self Aware” is the music that has been produced from this approach. A song can start in a multitude of ways, with a riff where inspiration hits and you record the idea on your phone, this is how “New Republic” saw its genesis. Or from being inspired by something like your favourite comedian… “Just a Ride” is a nod to Bill Hicks, or something personal like the fallout from a toxic relationship… “Too Little Too Late” reflects this and is a kind of self-empowering anti-love song! “Too Close” is a theme idea that centres around  the idea of duality so Empyre songs can spring up in varying ways from different approaches but we really only play and write the music we want to write and perform.

ED: Do you have any rituals that help you get into the zone for writing, or can you literally write on the go, jotting things down as they come to you, so you can develop them later?

HS: I wouldn’t say I have any rituals, but I certainly have loads of short video clips and sound bites of me playing or singing something that I want to develop further. The frustrating thing is that sometimes I get new ideas when I’ve gone to bed and then I have to make the decision of whether or not to get out of bed and pick up the guitar and get recording something.

DC: I have a songwriting notebook where lyrical ideas, song themes, titles and words are gathered in a complete mess! Traditionally I write lyrics by hand and note down any tricky chords to remember or progressions. The phone also is a handy tool for recording ideas on the fly. A lot of ideas for melodies and riffs I imagine in my head and sing out loud and try and imagine Henrik singing the vocal line. I find collaborating in songwriting works the best for me personally. If I generate a cool riff,  or even the arrangement of a nearly complete song this then is where the starting point begins of refining it, changing it, and developing it with us as a band and it can then turn into something better than my original idea. This approach for me works better than working independently. Myself and Henrik sit down with our ideas and that is where the creativity really ignites with the music and then it gets even more exciting when Drums and Bass come in and add their own ideas to the mix.

ED: Returning to the album, ‘Stone’, ‘New Republic’, and ‘Only Way Out’ are a few of the stand-out tracks for me, but you have 11 strong songs there. How do you go about choosing what will be a single?

HS: It’s a collective decision between us, management and PR. Ultimately we have the final say but it turns out that with Self Aware everyone was pretty much feeling the same way about what to release and in what order. It’s always interesting for us to hear what people think are the stand-out tracks and pleasing that in a lot of cases that differs.

ED: It’s truly an impressive first offering for a band. One that you can be very proud of. Listening to it, it doesn’t strike you as a debut. It’s very tight, original, well-orchestrated and highly developed. You can hear hints of your influences in the structure, the vocal phrasing, and the sonic layering, but you’re offering a fresh and unique sound that stands out against your contemporaries. Did you always have a vision of this is the sound you wanted, or did it come about organically over time?

HS:  Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. This album has been a good few years in the making. The songs have really only been “gig tested” in the last 2½ years, and they have all gradually changed over that time and before to become what they are now. It’s really been an organic process. When I write I don’t try to emulate anyone or any sound, I just play or sing what I like the sound of. Typically Did and I will write a track and it gets passed back and forth between us as we form a clear idea of the track, the sound, and the guitar parts and then present it to the band to add their bass and drums. Once we’ve got it to a place where we’re happy to put it in a set and try it we’ll play it at a couple of gigs and see how it goes down, and then stick with it, amend it, or drop it.

DC: With album 1 you have to really put everything you can into it to truly present who you are as an artist. I did have a ‘vision’ for what Empyre could try and accomplish musically…. The band I envisioned in my head was one fronted by an exceptional singer with a unique voice (box ticked), a drummer that provided intricacy behind the kit and wasn’t solely playing the cliché ‘boom tish’ approach to rock drumming of yesteryear (box ticked) a creative Bassist who could provide interesting lines with a massive sound (box ticked) and a Lead Guitarist who…. Well we’ll forget about him! I firmly believe that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts and so desired a band and an album that could bring in 4 people that excel at their individual instruments but together could make something better overall. Empyre is a team effort and “Self Aware” is an album that presents the fruits of our musical teamwork.

ED: Who would you count among your influences, and how much of an impact has that had on your sound?

DC: I think one of the beautiful things about Empyre is each musician has a mutual love of rock music. Yet we all have varying stylistic influences outside of rock so I think that both would influence and have an impact on our sound. We would site influences ranging from Seattle era grunge bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to rock heavyweights like the Foos, Guns n Roses and Audioslave. But each musician brings their own personal influences to the table which shapes the Band’s sound. For example, Elliot loves “Twenty One Pilots”, Henrik is a huge fan of “Del Amitri, Alter Bridge and Abba, and I love modern country, instrumental rock and pop music, Grant loves Tool, King’s X, and Faith No More. Varied, I think! As well as music we are influenced by the world around us. The album has songs inspired by philosophical comedians like Bill Hicks, a HBO series protagonist from “True Detective” (Rust Cohle), atheism, existentialism and relationships.

ED: Unfortunately I missed you guys when you were in London, but hopefully I’ll get another opportunity in the not too distant future. Now you’ve played a number of dates throughout June and have at least one date coming up in July, any plans to play any further shows this year?

HS: We’re doing quite a bit local to us over the summer, both electric and acoustic shows, trying to bolster our local following. We’re sure we’ll be out doing a fair amount of gigging further afield in the latter part of the year, and as soon as we can announce anything we will.

ED: How have the crowds been reacting to your music?

HS: I’ve seen people cry during Only Way Out, I’ve seen people almost falling over doing air-guitar during Did’s epic Homegrown solo, I’ve seen people singing along to our songs and putting me off so much that I forget the lyrics, because I was surprised in a good way I hasten to add to ever see anyone sing along. Most of the reaction to a live show comes at the end of the gig. We’re not really a band to mosh to, it’s cool when people do, but we sometimes joke that Empyre gigs have three rules: No smiling, no clapping and no singing along. That’s not a criticism of the crowds, it’s an exaggeration of an atmosphere that we often create which is more about an intensity and people embracing the music and moment than people going crazy. The no smiling on stage often applies to us too, we’re always having a good time on stage, we just don’t express it by smiling. Be it after a live show or feedback that gets through to us online the reaction to the music has been amazing, a lot of people saying “it’s different”, “it’s intense”, “it’s emotive”, and that’s for me at least exactly what I want to hear.

ED: With that in mind, let’s talk about generating a fanbase – how do you attract (and keep) fans of your music in this era?

DC: Social media allows direct engagement with fans of the Band so we prioritise being active online with all the regular outlets like Facebook, Instagram…etc We have newsletters, a private Empyre fan group that people can join and engage in and we have regular website updates. I think generating new fans is about getting out there though and playing to people, festivals and gigs. If they like what they hear and see then they are likely to explore the band more and with online resources like YouTube and Social Media this is easy for them to then find us. The other way round can also work in that someone discovers us online or listens to a song on Spotify and decides to come to a gig. It’s hard to gauge in today’s music world what the most effective method to take is with loads of fan related matters but we do our best to be a genuine, authentic rock band that go a little against the grain and love to play live!

ED: And finally, what’s next for EMPYRE?

HS: We have a music release plan that stretches into next year, but more than that we’re keeping under wraps for now. We hope to be doing another run of dates in the latter part of the year, we already have a couple of festivals booked for 2020 including a return to HRH AOR. And there’s the small matter of turning our minds to album two.

ED: Thank you again. I wish you all the best for the release of your album, and hope to catch up with you on the road soon.

HS/DC: Thank you!

While you’re here, why not check out our review of Self Aware.

Written by: Erik De’Viking

My Global Mind – UK Editor

Erik De’Viking is a London based freelance music journalist. His musical interests include music in all its forms, and he is constantly on the lookout for new bands and genres to discover and later preach about to the masses.

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