Catching up with one of electropop’s rapidly rising outfits…
Empathy Test consists of childhood friends Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf. Formed in 2013, the London-based duo established themselves through a series of EP releases, including 2014’s Losing Touch and Throwing Stones. In 2015 they performed to a 1,000+ audience at the Wave-Gotik-Treffen Festival in Germany. They’ve also performed alongside the likes of Mesh and VNV Nation in times past. Their live outings also see their lineup augmented by Christina Lopez (drums) and Sam Winter-Quick (keyboards).
The band have enjoyed a broad range of coverage from the likes of BBC Introducing, XFM, Clash, PopMatters and Idolator (They were also featured in an article for Metro about bands to check out if you loved the Stranger Things soundtrack). As a result, the electropop outfit have enjoyed a rapid growth in fans interested in their evocative take on electronic music.
Launching a successful PledgeMusic campaign, Empathy Test expanded their original goal of funding their debut album release with a plan to release two albums instead of one. As a result, Safe From Harm and Losing Touch are on track for release on 17th November, alongside a launch party in London towards the end of the month.
Isaac Howlett kindly took time off from Empathy Test’s busy schedule to chat to The Electricity Club about the band’s beginnings, the state of the current electronic music scene and their plans following the launch of their debut albums…
How did the pair of you first get involved in music?
A long time ago now. We were both very creative kids, always drawing comic books, writing stories, building tree houses and recording our own radio shows. Whatever we thought of. Music was the natural progression after we had tried everything else. We taught ourselves to play guitar and started writing music in our teens. Adam began recording compositions on his PlayStation, while I was using a four track mini-disc recorder I bought off a kid from school.
Were there any particular artists at the time that you felt particularly influenced by?
We were listening to bands like Radiohead, Placebo, Pulp, Blur and Oasis – all the Britpop bands that arrived in the ’90s. It seems strange to say it now, but at one point I knew every single word of Oasis’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. Those bands made it feel like anyone could write songs and be in a band. I never forgave Noel Gallagher when he said the ‘Sally’ in ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ wasn’t real though. Suddenly, I realised all his lyrics were nonsense.
Why did you decide to use PledgeMusic to fund this project and what are your thoughts on how Empathy Test have done on it?
“I’d kind of decided a record label was pointless unless they could do something we couldn’t”
So if you can crowd fund the money, you might as well do it yourself, and keep the profit. It worked out immensely well and the campaign has been more successful than either of us could have imagined. 600% more, in fact.
At what point did you decide to do 2 albums rather than 1?
There was a lot of discussion about what songs would go on the albums and what songs wouldn’t. We also felt that the new material was too different to the old to be on the same album. We didn’t like the idea of a double album so we decided to create the album we should have put out in 2015 (Losing Touch) and the album we wanted to put out now (Safe From Harm), and release them both at once. Adam’s production skills have improved immensely since we started out, so it was also a chance to remaster all the old tracks and give them a proper CD and vinyl LP release.
Were there any odd or unusual reward ideas that you considered for this campaign?
Not really. We’re both really busy, live an hour away from each other and don’t meet up that regularly, so even signed items are a bit of a chore. And to be honest, it’s all about the music at this point. People just wanted an album. We gave them two, and a single. Maybe next time we’ll get more creative. It’s not like we needed to.
You’re including the early EP tracks on the albums. Are you reworking them in any fashion or are you happy with the versions as they are?
They’re mostly just remastered, with subtle changes most people won’t even notice. We were wary of doing “a George Lucas”! Adam extended ‘Where I Find Myself’ because he felt it needed something extra. I asked him to do the same with ‘Last Night On Earth’ because it’s really popular and really short, but he didn’t. I think it was because he doesn’t like it much. He doesn’t really do anything he doesn’t want to.
One of the tracks on the album Safe From Harm is titled ‘Burroughs & Bukowski’. Does literature have a particular influence on the lyrics for some songs?
Yeah, definitely. I devoured books when I was growing up, and studied literature at university, where I did a lot less reading! William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski are two of my favourite writers, but they were also the names of two goldfish I had when I was living in Brighton. So there’s a bit of a double entendre there, in the lyrics “I’m on my way back home / Burroughs and Bukowski”. The song is about choosing a different life, being the one who goes home alone, and finding solace in books. There’s also a blatant Shakespeare quote in another new track, ‘Firelight’. “I am a man. More sinned against than sinning” is straight out of King Lear.
How did Christina and Sam become part of the Empathy Test team?
Before the first European tour we did with Mesh in 2016, our first drummer, Casey, decided things were getting too serious and he wasn’t prepared to put in the amount of time the band was starting to demand. Which is fair enough. The thing is, Adam then decided he also couldn’t give up two weeks of his life to focus on just one thing. So we decided to put together a new live band which could operate with or without Adam, to give him the freedom to only do the shows he wants.
Playing live and touring isn’t for everyone. I love it! We put out an advert and met Chrisy, and Jacob, who played keys for us for about six months. Before the second Mesh tour, Jacob decided he wanted to focus on his own music, so we found ourselves having to recruit a new keyboard player very quickly. Sam was recommended by a friend and turned out to be the perfect replacement, although his living in Bristol slightly complicates things.
“It’s always difficult working out how to perform electronic music live, particularly when it’s as intricate and layered as ours”
Did you find the transition to live performances an easy one? Or were there issues in getting the songs into a live setting?
It took us a while to get on stage. It’s always difficult working out how to perform electronic music live, particularly when it’s as intricate and layered as ours. There’s a lot of drones in our tracks; phrases and sounds that come in and loop for long periods of time. To have everything live you’d need a lot of people playing very simple things, over and over. You could trigger them all using Ableton but then it’s like, what’s the point? So a lot of stuff ended up on the laptop. But visually that’s not very exciting.
We added a live drummer to boost the energy and Chrisy’s suggestion to use a hybrid acoustic and electronic kit has made a huge difference. Chrisy’s incredibly talented and proactive, we’re really lucky to have her. She’s also been designing a DMX light show for us, which will make an appearance at our London album launch at Zigfrid von Underbelly on 25th November and on our German headline tour in December.
What are your thoughts on the contemporary electronic music scene and are there any artists that stand out for you?
It seems like most music around at the moment is electronic. There’s so many different genres, all borrowing from each other. The market’s kind of saturated. I’m sure journalists are getting the press release for our albums and thinking, “oh great, another synth band”. It’s got to that point. We’re doing our best to grow beyond genres. You should definitely check out Furniteur and Waterbaby, who have both remixed our latest single, ‘Everything Will Work Out’. Far and away my favourites though, are Papertwin. To me, they’re next level.
What’s next for Empathy Test?
We’re already thinking about album number three. The good thing about Adam being not as into the live side of things is that he stays focused on making new music. It’s very easy to get caught up with the gigging, touring and releasing and forget the creative side of things. I played him a song I’d been working on recently and he messaged me the next day to say it was excellent and that I should finish it. That’s a good sign – last time that happened the result was ‘Seeing Stars’, which quickly became our second most popular track, after ‘Losing Touch’ of course.
We’ve got the London album launch on 25th November, then Electric Dreams Weekender with The Human League on 2nd December, then our headline German tour in December. Chrisy and I are also currently booking us a UK tour for March 2018. Then we’re going to Russia with DE/VISION in April. It’s all happening!
The Electricity Club extends its thanks to Isaac Howlett.
Safe From Harm and Losing Touch are due for release on 17th November. Ordering details via https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/empathy-test-album
Empathy Test are also performing at the Electric Dreams Weekender (alongside The Human League, A Flock of Seagulls, Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby, Avec Sans and others) on 1st-4th December Details via: https://www.facebook.com/events/513692095639972/
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.