Empyre / The Challenges Making Relentless And Writing The Saddest Song

Having signed with Kscope, Empyre released Relentless earlier in the year, which marked another leap forward for the band. MetalTalk’s Sophie James caught up with the band for a chat at The Tivoli, and here is Part One of the interview.

Interview – Empyre

“Relentless was pretty big because that was our first album with KScope,” Henrik Steenholdt (vocals and guitar) said. “It’s been pretty well received, I think.” One of many highlights for the band this year was the album launch show at KK’s Steel Mill.

“That was really good,” Henrik says, “a nice way to celebrate the release of the album. We’ve been a bit selective on gigs. We tried to do more of the headline stuff. We did three headline shows, March, April, and May, KK’s acoustic and then the Black Prince gig, which was the pre-release party with a listening event at the cinema beforehand.

“Towards the end of the year, we’ve got three or four headline gigs. We’re back in Wales at The Patriot in Crumlin at the end of September. We’ve got Leos, and we’ve now just announced Hastings … Black Box and Hastings for the Empyre. We brand it as Ebenezer Empyre Christmas Humbug. Yeah. 16 December.”

Empyre - Tivoli - 27 July 2023
Empyre – Tivoli – 27 July 2023. Photo: Jason Samuels/MetalTalk

The approach for Relentless was different “because it was largely written during the pandemic,” Did Coles (lead guitar) said. “With Self Aware, we wrote with acoustic guitars. But they were largely put together in rehearsals before we went into the studio. The tracks were massively organised and arranged, and parts sorted out in rehearsals.

“This time around with, with the same sort of songwriting process, Henrick would have some ideas, I’d have some ideas. We had folders on Google Drive to work with. We would put together fully formed demos as much as possible and then share them with the guys so they can have parts. Then we went to the rehearsal rooms just to work on the finesse of the tracks and the final details.”

“It was really out of necessity,” Henrick says, “because at the time when we were working on stuff and coming up with ideas, it was the hardcore lockdown pandemic time. I don’t think Did and I saw each other at one stage for about four or five months.”

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“It was great,” Did laughs.

Empyre - Tivoli - 27 July 2023
Empyre – Tivoli – 27 July 2023. Photo: Jason Samuels/MetalTalk

Henrik and Did formed a bubble. “That meant we could actually write,” Henrik said. “It worked quite well. Did and I could form verse/chorus of songs and then send them over to the guys. We were all working out how can we record at home. We didn’t necessarily all have the setup to be able to record our parts.

“Luckily, Elliott [Bale, drums] already had an electric drum kit. I pretty much had everything I needed. Grant [Hockley, bass] had to set himself up too. But we managed to get through doing video recordings. Your whole life slows, basically.”

The band talked about the sharing process, ripping audio from videos they had each recorded, and working on things together. “When Grant could come around to my house, we re-recorded his bass part and did it that way,” Henrik said. “It was kind of a nice way of doing it, getting it all together before going into the rehearsal room because then everybody knew their parts because we’d all written them at home and were well rehearsed.”

The recording of the album took about nine months. “Elliott, probably about nine takes,” Did said. “We start with the drums, and we generally have a click going through.” Elliott was able to lay down the drum parts on a single day for each song in three or four takes. “I don’t know how,” Eliott smiles. “I’ve never been like that ever. Don’t know what’s happened.” The band laugh.

The band would then move between vocal takes and guitar takes, adding bass, with the final vocals added towards the end. Often guitar solos will be added almost on the last night.

“The recording process and putting things together is really fun,” Did says. “The tricky thing is not necessarily the recording and all the enjoyment of executing the parts, it’s fucking mixing.”

“The most parts had been recorded in the first six months,” Henrik says. “Then we went through a bit of a mixing stage, sort of rough mixes. What other parts do we need? A lot of these Did and I recorded at my house, and then we put another week in the recording studio to mix and do some more bits of recording just to sort of tweak things. Then try to mix it again.

“We still couldn’t get quite the sound we want. So I gave it to another mixing engineer, and so all told, it was 12 months from the start of recording to the finished product.”

Empyre - Tivoli - 27 July 2023
Empyre – Tivoli – 27 July 2023. Photo: Jason Samuels/MetalTalk

It’s a lot of work to put yourself in the shop window, I suggest. “We knew we had to better Self Aware,” Henrik says. “With the people who like Empyre, that’s rated quite highly, I think. We were confident Relentless was going to be better, but we had to make sure it was. It was better in our eyes, and it was a load more complex. There are loads more guitars, and there’s loads more synth, orchestration, and more layered vocals in some parts.”

“Multiple guitar parts as well,” Did says.

“A lot of people don’t see that,” Grant says. “They don’t see that process from coming up with an idea, writing it, sitting down. There’s the four of us rehearsing it again. A lot of people just think you write music, record it and you get out and play gigs.”

“If you compare [Relentless to] Self Aware,” Henrik says, “I think Too Close has a little bit of orchestration at the start. There’s no other synth or orchestration on the whole of anything on Self Aware that I can think of. But then, if you look at Relentless, it’s on Waking Light. It’s on Parasites. It’s on Cry Wolf for a whole minute at the start. It’s on Hit And Run with a tiny bit in Silence Screaming. There’s a little bit in Roads To Nowhere, but not much. What else? Quiet Commotion has it throughout. And Your Whole Life Slows. So that’s one song versus ten songs that has additional parts. Plus more guitars, plus more vocal. So it’s way more complex.”

One of my favourites on the album is Forget Me. “I ironically forgot track six,” Henrik laughs. “The inspiration came from a South African philosopher that Did told me about called David Benatar. He had written a book called Better Never to Have Been. Neither of us has read that book, but the general premise as we understand it is that before you existed, you never experienced pain so you can’t be born and never experience pain. Therefore, there’s an argument to say you should never be. And I think that kind of started an anti-natalism movement. That’s not to say that I agree with that. But I just thought it was a really interesting take on life.”

It’s interesting to become inspired by something that you don’t necessarily believe in. “People have asked over the years about New Republic,” Did says. “Lyrically, it’s a politically driven, anti-war song. We’re not political. Lyrically, that was inspired about writing about a subject that was happening at the time and picking a topic to write about. So some of the things we talk about, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are affiliated with them.”

“Or even our own opinion of what it is,” Henrik says. “When it comes to Forget Me, I took that idea, but it was also inspired by Pariah by Steven Wilson, which was a beautiful duet that Grant introduced to the band. The structure of the song is kind of based around Pariah. I originally wrote it as a duet because, frankly, I can’t sing the chorus as I’d like to be able to sing the chorus. It should be higher than what I can do.

“So it was that, it was that it was the Better To Have Never Been idea, and I just thought it would be interesting to tell a story. Then when I was just mumbling lyrics, when I had the guitar riff, the first thing that came to mind is I’ll start with goodbye. And I thought, how can I get that into a song? And that’s kind of what triggered this. I’ll start with goodbye. Well, that sounds kind of dark.

“Then I just had in my head a guy going to see someone that they once knew. A sort of friend or mentor that they’ve got estranged from. But someone they knew they could trust and explain to them so that anybody who went, oh, what, you know, tragic loss. This guy’s killed himself. No, he just weighed up the pros and cons of life and decided I’d prefer to be dead.

“Because the best of all the years are gone, and as far as he’s concerned. So, really a kind of rational decision from that perspective. So, not actually that dark. I mean, once we die, we’re just going back to what we were before, not existing. So, what’s the difference? Because before or after, it’s the same thing.”

“How you described it to other people,” Did says, “is that you wanted to write the saddest song you could write. And it’s relatable. Someone listening to that for the first time might not have any clue at all about David Benatar. But they can relate it to their own life in a completely different way. They lost a friend, and it’s saying goodbye to a friend and that gives them really uplifting positive memories of that friend.”

Empyre - Relentless (Kscope) - Out Now
Empyre – Relentless (Kscope) – Out Now

“It’s euphoric,” Henrik says. “It’s not a downer. It’s a really euphoric ending.”

“It’s such a powerful track,” Grant says. “I remember being at yours and watching the music video for it for the first time and just being like shit!”

The band discuss how the most upbeat song, optimistic musically, can be littered with dark lyrics. “We like Abba,” Did laughs, “but think about something like one of the biggest 1986 rock songs that’s still recognisable today, Living On A Prayer by Bon Jovi. I think that’s a sad story about a guy who’s lost his job and his missus is struggling to make ends meet. But that’s what the story tells, that they’re living on the block from day to day.”

“So that’s the beauty of music. When I’m teaching guitar, just because it’s a minor chord doesn’t mean it’s sad and moody. You can recognise that by ear. But let me play a minor chord up here [high on the guitar neck], its funky. It’s interpretation.”

Part Two is out tomorrow.

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