Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf set up Empathy Test in 2013. The London (UK) based duo took the world by surprise releasing two successful albums “Losing Touch” and “Safe From Harm” in 2017. The band became one of the newest and hottest revelations in electro-pop land. Three years later now, the duo has been joined by extra members Christina Lopez (drums) and Oliver Marson (synths), which resulted in the new and already self-released “Monsters”-album. The songs are mixing refined arrangements and elevating melodies together with bombastic drum parts and the passionate vocals of Isaac Howlett. I asked a few questions about “Monsters” and other topics to the band’s singer.
(Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries)
Q: You guys set up Empathy Test in 2013 and I get the impression it became an instant success? I know it’s always difficult to explain, but what makes this success formula and what makes the chemistry between both of you?
Isaac: I think the ‘instant success’ was down to the strength of the first track we released, “Losing Touch”. It was a song that I’d started writing a few years prior to forming Empathy Test, but had never finished. Adam saw the potential and decided it was the song we should start with. It’s great to have someone who knows me as well as Adam does (we met when we were kids). He recognises my strengths and weaknesses and acts as quality control. I’m impulsive and impatient, while he is more measured and methodical. Essentially, we are the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
Q: When did you start composing the first songs for the new album “Monsters” and what kind of work did you have in mind? Are there some elements in the production process you wanted to improve or change compared to both debut albums?
Isaac: As with the first two records, “Monsters” is a collection of older and newer songs. The title track for example, was written in October 2020, while tracks like “Skin” and “Stop” were from 2019. Others, like “Doubts”, “Fear Of Disappearing” and “Love Moves” were much older. I think that’s the best way to create an album, because it allows time for songs to evolve. It also creates a more varied palette. We were pretty happy with the first two records, to be honest. Our only aim with the third album was to go bigger and bolder. We also added the Chrisy’s acoustic drums to the mix, which were previously only heard at the live shows.
Q: When listening to “Monsters” I experienced a kind of duality between strong, bombastic rhythms and refined, subtle sound arrangements. Where does that come from and how do you perceive and analyze your own sound?
Isaac: I think there has always been a duality in Empathy Test. Mostly, that duality is created by the presence of two strong characters being involved in the creative process, myself and Adam. But with this album, you are also beginning to see the influence of Chrisy (drums) and Oliver (keyboards) who are now starting to make themselves heard on the records. The sound of “Monsters” was inspired by Chrisy’s live drumming, but also by Adam stepping out of the live band and being able to literally see Empathy Test as a live act, as well as a studio project. I think like a lot of my favourite bands, Empathy Test is very unique and difficult to pin down to any particular genre.
Q: I get the impression it has been always important to hold on this DIY (do it yourself) way of working! I can imagine you’ve been approached by labels, but why is it that important to remain independent? And how do you see things evolving?
Isaac: When we started out, the aim was to follow the prescribed, ‘music industry’ path. Find a small indie label to release an EP or two, get a manager, then hop to a major label for the first or second album. But as we went on and those things didn’t appear, I began to do more and more things myself and quickly saw the perks of DIY. We still own all of the rights to our music, we have signed no contracts, we release the music we want to, when we want to, and we get to keep all the money. There are very few labels that I would consider signing with now, maybe none at all, it would depend on the contract. Really, it’s just about continuing to build an audience and to keep breaking new ground. At some point though, I may have to hand over the merchandising to someone because it is taking up way too much time.
Q: Your productions are always released different formats, but you clearly seem to like the good-old vinyl. What makes it that special to you and especially the different edits from the same work?
Isaac: It is more about audience demand than any personal preference, to be honest. No one in the band has a record collection. I only bought a record player to be able to listen to the test pressings! But I recognise the collectible nature of records, the novelty of a picture disc or coloured vinyl, and it’s a cliché, but they really do sound great. The low end on the new album sounds fantastic on the vinyl. And there is something about putting on a record and listening to an album all the way through that makes you appreciate it so much more than just putting Spotify on in the background. Playing a record is an event in itself. So I am starting to want to buy some of my favourite albums on vinyl too.
Q: Your new album has been released during the Covid 19 period and just after Brexit. How do you experience both events as musicians and simply as British citizens?
Isaac: No one in the band wanted Brexit, funnily enough. It’s the political equivalent of cutting off your own nose to spite someone else’s face. Both Brexit, and now Covid 19, will cripple the UK music scene, which was already under attack from property developers who were either buying music venues and turning them into apartments, or turning nearby properties into luxury apartments and getting them shut down with noise complaints. We have been losing small venues that were established for 50 years or more, at a rate of several a month. As a country, we totally take our music scene for granted and it is suffering because of that. I think the whole thing has to collapse before it can be rebuilt. It’s pretty much the same situation with everything else, in the UK. However, there is nothing like adversity to get the creative juices flowing.
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