INTERVIEW – Empathy Test Talk to Us About Their Album ‘Monsters’

The synth-pop band Empathy Test released their brand-new album last month. ‘Monsters’ has received rave reviews from multiple media outlets. You can stream the album via the band’s Spotify.

The album features 10 outstanding tracks – making it difficult to pick a favourite. We wanted to know a little bit more about the making of the album, and what Empathy Test has planned for us in the future. We got in touch with vocalist Isaac Howlett to discuss this further. Here is what he had to say;

You’ve just released your album ‘Monsters’. Can you start by telling us a bit about it? 

‘Monsters’ is the third album by London (UK) synth-pop act, Empathy Test. Empathy Test is myself, Isaac Howlett (singer/songwriter), Adam Relf (composer/producer), drummer Christina “Chrisy” Lopez, and synth player Oliver Marson.

This is the first album where all four members of the band contributed to the recordings, with live drummer Chrisy performing live acoustic drums on the record for the first time (previously we only used electronic drums on the recordings) and Oliver writing synth parts for four of the tracks as well as performing on it too.

The sound of the album was inspired by the performing members of the band jamming for the first time, after a soundcheck in Hamburg, last Halloween. The result, a new track called ‘Monsters’, inspired the big, bold sound of the new album and the ten “monstrous” tracks on it. 

What is your favourite song off the album and why? What’s the inspiration behind the song? (this can be a collective band favourite or a personal favourite)

It changes all the time, but at the moment my personal favourite is ‘Stop’. It has this really chilled, but weirdly sexy groove to it (a first from us?). “Slinky” was the word I think a fan used. The vibe reminds me a lot of ‘Lullaby’, by The Cure, in which “Spiderman is having [him] for dinner tonight”. You can almost sing that over the top. 

Lyrically, it’s slightly ambiguous, and, as is often the case with my songs, at first it appears to be about a relationship, “If you only knew what you’re doing to me, would you stop / Or would you just carry on?”. Really, it’s about stress and anxiety caused by antagonistic and hurtful comments online. Trolling, essentially, and the way those comments go round and round in your head until you start believing them.

I also got to really flex my vocal muscles on this one, with a chorus that dives into falsetto and back out again, which is one of the things I find hardest to do, so there’ll be a lot of rehearsing of this one. But you have to push yourself.

Can you describe the writing process when creating a song?

The majority of this album was done in a kind of montage style. I had written five or six songs on my acoustic guitar and recorded simple two-track guitar/vocal demos of them and put them in a shared Dropbox folder for Adam. He then either built a track around them from scratch, or matched them with instrumental sketches he had come up with. 

At the same time, Oli was recording us some loops and ideas he had for synth parts and we tried them out with the rough ideas we had, tweaking everything in terms of tempo and key, in order to make them work together. We then sketched out the kind of drums we wanted using samples and gave demos of the tracks to Chrisy to record her drums with, which she did in her practice room. We got Oliver to come round and record the synth parts on his Dave Smith Prophet 08 synth and throw in some new ideas while he was at it. Then it was up to Adam to go in and produce the finished tracks.

The album touches on some serious modern-day issues such as; paranoia and anxiety, as well as life on social media. What’s the main message you want your listeners to take away after they heard the album?

There’s not really a message. It’s more about simply acknowledging that these things seem to be getting more and more prevalent and that so many of us are now struggling with those kinds of feelings. Even people you would least expect to be. So, just sharing those feelings I think is helpful for people, and empowering too. I guess having someone expressing what we are going through in a song, allows us to feel less alone.

Everyone has bad days and everyone struggles with their own monsters. And it’s useless to “compare” problems and struggles, because all of them are hard to deal with and all of them are valid. Maybe that’s the takeaway message. All of your feelings and issues are valid and you are not weak or some kind of failure for having them. 

Who in the music industry would you say are the band’s biggest influencers? Why do they inspire you so much?

Adam’s inspired by the movie ‘80s sci-fi soundtracks by the likes John Williams, Vangelis, and Brad Fiedel as well as modern underground dance music like Burial. I’m inspired by people like Brian Molko, Tim Booth, and Jarvis Cocker. Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley I’ve not really mentioned before. Then Noughties bands like Editors, Interpol and The National. Lots of guitar bands, basically. Since we started Empathy Test, I’ve listened to a lot of new indie electronic music, like Papertwin, Korine, and TR/ST, for example. 

Chrisy’s into her dance music and gravitates to stuff with prominent drums, unsurprisingly. Oliver is a big Bowie fan and likes the more weird and psychedelic end of the spectrum, but he and I cross over on modern eighties sounding synth stuff like Drab Majesty, for example. Why do they inspire us so much? Because they’re talented and express things in a way that is meaningful to us, I guess. And maybe they represent an ideal of how we ourselves would like to be.

If there was one question you wish you’d get asked in an interview, what would it be? And by all means, answer the question you come up with!

Off the top of my head, if you could have a superpower for a day, which one would you choose and why? It would have to be flying, because who wouldn’t want to be able to fly like Superman? I mean, I’m scared of heights, but I feel like if I could fly I’d be in control of falling so I’d no longer be afraid. And I imagine there’d be no other feeling like it. Either that or be invisible. The idea of being able to walk around undetected like a ghost is weirdly appealing, despite us having a song on the new album called Fear of Disappearing.

Finally, could you tell us of any future plans? What’s the rest of 2020/2021 looking like for Empathy Test?

A lot of things have obviously been cancelled and there is a lot of uncertainty around at the moment, for obvious reasons. So it’s pretty difficult to make any firm plans. Our album launch show at Camden Underworld in London has been rescheduled for 20th November, which will be a long, long time after the album release (it’s out now). We had a US tour booked for October but we also had to abandon that until next year sometime. We’re still hoping that our September headline tour of Germany will go ahead though.

Basically, our current plan is to get in the rehearsal studio as soon as possible, learn the new songs and get gig-ready again. Then we’ll look into doing some live streamed gigs from the practice room and maybe have an online launch show instead. Right now, I’m just powering through 900+ merchandise orders from our album. It’s totally crowdfunded and self-released so I’m very busy with that. Once that’s done, I’m suddenly going to have a lot of time on my hands, so I’ll be seeing if I can get another album’s worth of songs written. Maybe our fans won’t have to wait three years for album number four.

Massive thank you to Isaac for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us! ‘Monsters’ is an album that everyone needs to listen to so make sure you go check it out! Follow Empathy Test on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for more updates.

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