Since we first discovered them when we listened to their second EP Throwing Stones, the staff at Brutal Resonance has been smitten by Empathy Test's electropop ballads. Following them through their singles and up to their twin debut release Losing Touch and Safe From Harm has been an absolute delight. Furthering our discovery into Empathy Test, we got an interview with vocalist Isaac Howlett of Empathy Test about the new albums that we have called legendary.
It always seems like such a short time between interviews even though years have gone by. Last time we talked it was in December of 2014 when Throwing Stones had just released. Flash forward three years and now you're getting ready to release a double album. Tell me, how has things been for Empathy Test between all those years? It's noticeable at the very least to say that you've garnered a ton of fans between then and now.
Isaac: Time flies! We got lost in the wilderness for a while after we released Throwing Stones. The idea was to release the remix EP while we got the album done, but then we parted company with Stars and Letters Records, the indie label that released Throwing Stones. I ended up finishing the PR campaign myself and by the end we had no album and no idea what to do!
We knew we wanted to move forward stylistically but we didn’t know in what direction. We created a load of new material, then decided we didn’t like it. Eventually, we got offered a support slot with Mesh on their European tour and it was just the energy injection we needed. We’re really grateful for that opportunity.
You have been steadily releasing EPs leading up to the release of the album starting with Demons | Seeing Stars in September 2016. Those songs were outstanding to say the least, and the ones that followed were of equal purity. Each of these singles you gave a full physical treatment to; CDs and Vinyl were available alongside the digital download. Was pressing all your EPs into physical format a conscious decision that you made? Do you prefer physical to digital?
Isaac: For the Mesh tour, a friend suggested we release a couple of new tracks beforehand, and then put them on a vinyl picture disc to sell at the shows. By this point, we had generated enough income to afford vinyl and a run of proper, replicated CDs. With Adam’s amazing artwork it seemed silly not to create something physical and we’d had people asking for vinyl from the word go.
We chose to release 'Demons' because we’d played it live in the past and we knew it would go down well. 'Seeing Stars' represented a new direction, so it was an experiment to see what would be most popular. We really didn’t anticipate the success the single would have, particularly Seeing Stars, which has had over 200K plays on Spotify and has become our second biggest track so far.
After selling all 500 CDs, and I think we’re down to 40 of 300 vinyl, we planned an ambitious release schedule to lead us through another Mesh tour and up to the crowd funder. We’d have something to sell on the second tour and hopefully have generated enough momentum for the crowd funder to generate enough money and interest in an album. Obviously, it all worked really well!
You are going big with your debut album as you're doing a twin release. The first one is Losing Touch which collects and remasters songs from your first two EPs Throwing Stone and Losing Touch onto one entire album. Why did you go back to these songs to re-release them? Was it a personal whim or was there fan demand for a new pressing? Or something entirely different perhaps?
Isaac: We knew it was time to release an album but we couldn't decide what to put on it. We also knew we had to put a few old tracks like 'Losing Touch' and 'Here Is the Place' on there, because people were going to be really upset if they didn't end up on an album and in particular, on vinyl. But where would we draw the line? What about 'Kirrilee'? 'Last Night on Earth'? 'Holding On'? And by this point we had so many new songs too, 'Demons', 'Seeing Stars', 'By My Side', 'Vampire Town', 'Bare My Soul'...there was just too much for one album.
On top of all that, we were going to have to remaster the old tracks for live performances because the difference in the production values on the old and new tracks were so vast. So, if we were going to remaster them all anyway, it made sense to re-release them. There were also some songs like 'Siamese' and 'Sleep' we had recorded so long ago they didn't fit with what we were doing currently. All of this pointed to doing two albums: the one we should have released in 2015 (Losing Touch) and the one we wanted to release now (Safe from Harm).
On the first album there are also two new songs that I've not seen before, 'Siamese' and 'Sleep'. Rather than putting them on the second twin, you kept them on Losing Touch. Do these songs more or less match the root sound of Empathy Test? What can fans expect from these two tracks?
Isaac: As I said, 'Siamese' and 'Sleep' were recorded in 2015, we were actually performing them live at one point. For some reason, we lost faith in what we were doing and felt like we were heading in the wrong direction stylistically. We were in such a hurry to move forward and shed the '80s revival schtick that we lost the essence of what made Empathy Test special in the first place. 'Siamese' and 'Sleep' effectively sat on a hard drive for two years, gathering dust.
We have a habit of writing things off and then coming back to them and wondering what the hell was wrong with them in the first place. 'Demons' is another example of that - we created multiple versions of it and eventually released the first one, which is the one on the album. So that's why that track ended up on the Losing Touch album, despite being released at the same time as 'Seeing Stars'. It was from the same period as 'Siamese' and 'Sleep', maybe even earlier.
The second of these twin debut albums Safe From Harm contains a couple of remastered tracks from the recent EPs that have released in the past year such as 'Vampire Town' and 'Seeing Stars'. Though they have been just released recently, what made you come back to these songs to remaster them? Do you ever feel as if a song is finished or are there always new touches that you can do to complete them?
Isaac: Same reason we revisited the earlier tracks. Releasing these albums has been kind of a watershed moment for us. Adam's learnt so much about producing music in the past couple of years, he wanted to bring everything up to the same standard. I think if he had his way he would never release anything to be honest, he would just keep perfecting it and perfecting it until I don't know, the bitter end? But we balance each other out quite well. I'm a little hasty and spontaneous, he holds me back and makes sure our standards remain as high as possible. If that means people have to wait six months' longer, so be it! It’s part of the beauty of being independent. We're hoping it has been worth the wait.
We've already had a taste of what Safe from Harm will give us musically and emotionally, but what can fans expect from this new piece of work? Do you feel as if your music has matured throughout the past few years?
Isaac: When we finally got all the tracks together, decided what order to put them in and had a listen through, we were surprised at the massive scope of styles, sounds and textures there were. It really was another level in comparison to Losing Touch and left us suddenly feeling very accomplished! We felt the same way when we finished the Throwing Stones EP. If the Losing Touch album is the baby of the family, Safe from Harm is the teenage sibling. These things take on a life of their own, I think that’s why albums are still important, if only to the artist.
And what is the overall theme of Safe from Harm? I've always known Empathy Test to be a powerful project that does not throw songs out without meaning and I doubt that has changed for this album either.
Isaac: There’s no overall theme, that would make it a concept album, which it isn’t! But there is a lot more light on Safe From Harm than there is on Losing Touch. You can see that from the artwork. I guess if I had to choose a theme it would be walking out of the dark and into the light. You can feel that on the second track 'Everything Will Work Out', which has one of the most upbeat and positive choruses we have done to date, “I’ve got this funny feeling that everything will work out”. It purposefully follows the dark, brooding and quite claustrophobic opening track, 'Bare My Soul'.
Then you’ve got 'Trampoline', which has the line “I’m getting there, I’m almost at the point of no return”. Again, it’s about leaving the past behind, finally. Then there’s 'Vampire Town', with its theme of reconciliation and enduring friendship, the album title track 'Safe From Harm', with its repeated refrain of “I will keep you safe from harm”, 'All It Takes' with its “this is the beginning of something wonderful” chorus and 'Walk Right Out', the title of which says it all, really. I guess the albums should really be called Losing Touch and Moving On!
How does Empathy Test go about writing lyrics? Do you pull from personal life, social issues, the world around you, or do the lyrics come from a more creative, artistic side that's not so grounded in reality?
Isaac: They are all pretty much grounded in reality. The only ones which are more abstract is 'Holding On', which deals with various themes and emotions rather than a specific relationship, event or person. For that reason, I have never been as proud of it, lyrically, but there are some people who like that song for that very reason, so each to their own!
I always love asking this question because it's a tough one, but out of all the songs on both twin albums which is your favourite and why?
Isaac: This changes all the time, for both of us. Adam’s current favourite is 'Trampoline'. He likes the subtler tracks that aren’t always as popular – like 'Hope for Me', for example. The ones that creep up on you. 'Trampoline' terrified me at first because it seemed so throw-away – as if we hadn’t even tried. It seemed too simple. But the more I listened to it the more I could feel the power behind it. It works because of its fragility and subtlety. Suddenly, it seemed like one of the best tracks on the two albums.
The same with 'All It Takes'. I wanted it to be this big, bold statement with an epic chorus. It felt frustratingly low-key at first. But again, the more I listened to it, the more I realised what an amazing track it is. I was really surprised, because the response to 'Everything Will Work Out' was actually quite muted. 'All It Takes' caused quite a stir. I think that’s my favourite, right now. Or 'Burroughs & Bukwoski', which has a similar dream-like vibe to it but it’s more of a throw back to the first EP.
10. I can imagine that Losing Touch and Safe From Harm has taken a lot of time, energy, and work to get done. But what's next for Empathy Test? Do you have any remix albums, EPs, live shows, or anything of the like prepared for the future?
They nearly killed us, to be perfectly honest! We set ourselves a phenomenal task which I don’t think either of us really comprehended at first. I certainly didn’t. Luckily, we’re getting great feedback already and that lifts you up again and gives you new energy. I imagine making an album and people hating it would be the worst experience ever! We’ve pretty much exhausted our supply of tracks for the time being, hopefully we can ride this wave for a while. But we have some ideas in the pipeline and I don’t think it will be very long before we release a new single. We’ve got the headline German tour in December and a whole bunch of live dates lined up next year. We’re also in the process of booking a UK tour for March.
This is more or less a question of curiosity than anything, but what has Empathy Test been listening to lately? Any new or old bands that you think deserve some attention? I'm always looking for new bands to listen to.
Isaac: Pop is not a dirty word for us, so you’ll find the likes of Lana Del Rey, Haim and Dua Lipa in our top tracks of 2017. Also, The Horrors, Daughter, The XX and Bleachers. Check out Kiki from Stockholm if you haven’t already, her track ‘Birds’ is awesome. Check out Papertwin (please release some new material guys!), Sea Change, Furniteur and Peckham ladies Waterbaby too, all of whom have remixed us recently.
And lastly, I wish you the best of luck with the new album. Empathy Test has always been great and that has not changed. The space below is yours to say whatever you wish. Cheers!
Isaac: Well really, we just want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has helped make the crowd funder such an astounding success and to the fans who spent ridiculous amounts of money on it! Everyone has been so supportive and patient because we really having taken an absolute age to get everything done. Hopefully it was worth all the effort! Keep listening, liking, posting and supporting our live shows because it really does help keep us going. Much love!
We grew up under the golden reign of communism. Red stars, pioneer neckties... Now, when I see the young generation, I feel a bit pity for them - yes, they play cool PC games, watch Hollywood cartoons, and eat western candies - but they are deprived of that romanticism that we had in our time.
Cyclotimia, Jan 01 2004
I've been writing for Brutal Resonance since November of 2012 and now serve as the editor-in-chief. I love the dark electronic underground and usually have too much to listen to at once but I love it. I am also an editor at Aggressive Deprivation, a digital/physical magazine since March of 2016. I support the scene as much as I can from my humble laptop.
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