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Interview: Empathy Test

by François Zappa

In the dystopian future of Blade Runner, the Voight-Kampff test measures the variation of bodily functions, such as respiration, heart rate and eye movement to determine whether an individual is a replicant. Nowadays, the emotive music of Empathy Test would be the perfect tool to verify the humanity level of someone. We spoke with Isaac Howlett, voice of a band who saw the future, and this future sounded  like synths. Or maybe androids dream of electric guitars?

—How did you and Adam meet? I read something about a hippy commune, is it true?

—Ha, yeah, something like that. That’s the simplest way to explain it. Our parents shared a mutual interest in spiritualism and that’s how we met. We used to hang out together at the weekends when they had their meetings, from the age of six to about fourteen. We used to spend the time building tree houses, drawing comic books and swapping Star Wars figures.

—Your name comes from the tests made in Blade Runner to know if someone was a replicant. Knowing your love for sci-fi, did you ever consider writing more sci-fi lyrics?

—The sci-fi influence comes out in the artwork and music, primarily. The lyrics are very personal and emotional. We’re not too keen on the idea of concept albums, it would feel somehow lacking in substance and the raw honesty that characterises our catalogue up to now.

—Your first try at music was under the name of The Magnet Men, how was your music then?

—The Magnet Men was Adam’s project with another friend, Ned Woodman. When Magnetic Man effectively stole their name, they became Imetic and I did some guest vocals on one track. They now call themselves Figures of Eighty. You can hear their remix of “Bare My Soul” on the Bare My Soul EP.

—You said that you were fans of Oasis. What made you leave your guitars to buy synths?

—We were fans of their first two albums for sure! It was Oasis that convinced us that anyone could pick up a guitar and write songs. We tried a few times to work together with guitars and beats in the past but nothing really came together. When we heard the synth soundtrack to the Drive movie, we decided to try synthesisers instead of guitars. It worked really well and Empathy Test was born. We’re not ruling out guitars in future, though.

Losing Touch, was your first EP, released in 2014. Where and how did you record it?

—We “recorded” the whole thing in Adam’s bedroom, same place we’ve recorded everything else! We notoriously only use VSTs (virtual synths) so in actual fact the only thing “recorded” in the traditional sense, are the vocals. It allows us to produce music very cheaply and to completely overhaul a track if it’s not going the way we want it to.

—You made a cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” I must confess that I am not a bit fan of the original but yours is quite alright. Did you ever release your cover?

—Adam doesn’t like it much to be honest! It was before we had a strong enough handle on the Empathy Test sound to effectively translate someone else’s song into an Empathy Test track, so for him it’s not Empathy Test canon! It was never officially released, we just put it on SoundCloud and YouTube. It’s okay!

—Your second EP was Throwing Stones, and the critics did not throw stones to you precisely, but you got really good reviews. Did you start thinking that Empathy Test could have a bright future?

—We see what you did there. Yeah, we originally released the first EP on Stars & Letters, the record label of Mark Roberts of We Are Temporary. He agreed to release the EP just two months after we self-released our first EP, so we knew things were looking good for the project.

—At this moment, you crowdfunded a tour with the band Vivien Glass. How was the experience? How much a band like yours needed for a tour?

—It was hard work and we were very lucky to cover our costs. I think we asked for £5K on the crowdfunding and only got £2K or so. A big difference to the one we did two years’ later for the albums, which was 661% funded! But we got more money selling merch at the shows too and it was an amazing experience. Adam didn’t want to do it, so we had a stand in keyboard player and our first drummer, Casey. I was working under a new philosophy that if you want something to happen you’ve got to do it yourself and it paid off.

You also played one of your first gigs with the Italian band Kirlian Camera. We like them a lot at the Garaje, how was the experience?

—Yeah, that was our first international show and only like, our third or fourth actual show. It was in front of around 500 people in Dresden. We were pretty nervous. We learnt a lot, though, and were very grateful for the opportunity. Kirlian Camera were very complimentary too, which gave us a boost. We bumped into them again at WGT a few months later.

—Your third EP, Throwing Stones Remixed presented, as the name says, some remixes of your songs. Do you have any artist you would like to remix you?

—I’d love to hear what Sylvan Esso would do with one of our tracks. But having The New Division and Man Without Country remix our last two tracks was a real treat. The Aeon Rings and Minuit Machine remixes from Throwing Stones Remixed are also very popular.

—The following EP Demons/Seeing Stars was released in 2016, and was the only thing you released that year. Do you think it was more difficult for you to write songs at the moment or were you too busy with other things to write new songs?

—We lost direction a bit after parting ways with Stars & Letters Records. The remix EP was supposed to be released as a placeholder while we worked on an album, but we weren’t happy with the new material we’d recorded and we just got a bit stuck. Then we were offered the European tour with Mesh and realised we needed something new to sell on the tour. There was no chance we’d get an album done in time, so we did the single and released it as an EP on CD and 7” vinyl picture disc, both of which have sold out.

—In 2017 you released two singles, “By My Side” and “Bare My Soul” both with some remixes. How do you feel when you listen to one of your songs redone by other artists?

—The first reaction is always “WTF have they done to it?” It always takes a few listens to adjust to my vocal over a different backdrop. But generally it’s just really nice to hear someone else’s take on your song. It’s a proud feeling, especially if it’s someone you admire.

—After that you released two albums, Safe from Harm and Losing Touch, both with new songs and previous songs remastered. Did you ever think of publishing one album with new songs and the other with the old?

—That’s pretty much what we did. Losing Touch is music from 2014-2015 and Safe From Harm 2016-2017. “Siamese” and “Sleep,” the “new” tracks on the Losing Touch LP, were previously unreleased tracks we recorded around the same time, or just after, other older tracks like “Throwing Stones” and “Here is the Place.” We were playing them both on the UK tour in 2015.

The remastered tracks on Safe From Harm were the singles, released 2016 onwards. All together, we released 22 tracks in one go. At the time, that was everything we had. It was a process of wiping the slate clean so to speak, of putting out everything we had done so far at a standard production quality and then moving on.

—You are influenced by 80s sci-fi movie soundtracks like John Williams’, Brad Fiedel’s. What do you think of the present revival of these sounds, thanks to the soundtrack for Stranger Things or bands like Carpenter Brut?

—Well, we are very much a part of that and we wouldn’t be where we are today without it. Personally, I think the nostalgia has gone a little too far and artists do all need to keep pushing things forward, not just keep on faithfully recycling the past in a magpie-like manner. I don’t think we as Empathy Test are doing that, though. We get compared to a lot of ’80s groups simply because we use synthesisers and write pop tunes. But that’s ignoring a lot of other influences that just aren’t so easy to pinpoint.

—You used PledgeMusic to fund your records, how was the experience? For a generation that’s completely alien to this way of funding, can you tell us a bit about your experience with them and Tiinu?

—Crowdfunding is awesome. If you have a loyal fan base, you can achieve amazing things. It’s helped break down the barrier between fans and artists in the same way social media has done. You sell directly to the fans and they help fund your releases. You can also offer all kinds of fun things they don’t normally get, like Skype calls and handwritten lyrics. They get something special and you get to release an album your own way. It did mean I had to single-handedly send out 700 orders myself, though. Not that I’m complaining. I’ll just use a fulfillment company next time! Unfortunately, PledgeMusic has apparently been very badly managed and looks set to collapse, but don’t let that cloud your judgement of crowdfunding!

—How do you value the importance of YouTube and Twitter as promotion tool? How have they helped your career?

—When we were first starting out it was all about SoundCloud and Twitter. You put your music on SoundCloud and you went on Twitter and found your audience. It worked extremely well for us. Now it’s more about Instagram and Spotify. But the idea is the same. You have a platform where you can showcase your music and a platform where you can network and grow your audience. The important thing is to take your music to the people who will like it and hand it to them on a plate.

—Your music appeared in two episodes of Netflix TV series Luis Miguel. Did you see the episodes, how did your music fit in a biopic about a famous Mexican melodic singer?

—I only saw a video someone recorded on their phone and sent us. I think the producers of the show liked the ’80s elements of our track, “Losing Touch,” as the show was set in the ’80s. But I also think they liked the timeless, hyper-emotional quality of the track too, which was used in a very pivotal scene with a lot of drama. It really did well for us and we have a lot of Mexican fans now!

—Richard Swarbrick has used some of your songs for three of his videos. Do you know how he learned about the band? Have you thought about doing something together? I mean composing something for him.

—Richard is a very successful visual artist and a friend of ours. He was really into our music from the beginning. We met around the time Adam and I first started working on Empathy Test. He really helped us gain an audience around the world by using our music in his viral videos. We almost did a full music video together but he got really busy with his work and it never happened, sadly. He also got tired of people accusing him of ripping off the A-ha Take On Me video, because of the animations with 80s-style music!

—Your last release is the EP Holy Rivers from last year. How do you think that your music has changed from your first single?

—The style is very much our own individual one now, we’ve kind of nailed down who we are as a band. The beats on our first EP were very simple and the tracks as a whole had a naïve quality to them. The new tracks have more complex beats and arrangements but you can still feel the same magic that made Empathy Test stand out from the crowd in the first place. And actually, having Adam come to the shows and see us perform, rather than be on stage himself, has helped him to gauge what works well in a live setting. So the two new tracks, “Holy Rivers” and “Incubation Song,” are both really good to perform live.

—How has the addition of two more members change your concerts? Are you going to count with them next time you start writing new material?

—Early on, Adam decided he didn’t like touring (it’s seriously not for everyone!) so it was about me having some people to perform with at first, more than anything! The addition of Chrisy on live drums was a major turning point in our live shows, though. It was Chrisy’s idea to add acoustic drums to bring more energy to our performances and also Chrisy that pushed for herself and Sam (keyboards) to do backing vocals too. She’s extremely talented and we are very lucky to have her in the band. It’s likely she’ll start to have some kind of influence on the records too, for sure. Sam’s got a great voice too, but sadly we don’t see much of him between touring, as he lives in another city!

—Adam is doing the record artwork, it’s very beautiful I have to say. Do you know mainly how is he doing it?

—It’s all done on computer and involves building up multiple layers, like the music. That’s all I can tell you!

—How was your experience playing at the Wave Gotik Treffen? It was your first festival, right?

—Yes, it was awesome and frankly, terrifying! We really weren’t ready for that huge stage and venue in 2015 but we just about pulled it off. And we sold 200 CDs after, so it can’t have been that bad. We’re very much looking forward to coming back in 2019 and showing just how far we have grown as a band!

—How is your concert at the W Festival going to be?

—Sensational, we hope! We give every performance 100% and we’re really excited about playing in Belgium for what will only be the second time, especially at such a big festival with so many great bands. We can’t wait! By then we should have a lot of new songs to play for you too.

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