EMPTY PALACE: STARS AS NEURONS IN YOUR BRAIN
Holy shit, we said when this arrived in our inbox: shredding guitars, analog synths, psychedelic lyrics, and raging drum solos the likes of which we thought had gone extinct thirty years ago, presented along with some of the most gorgeous rotoscope-style album art we’ve seen in awhile. As for the vibe of the music itself: think late Black Sabbath plus Iron Maiden with a little Blue Oyster Cult in the mix, and you’ll have the idea. (Also blowing our minds is the fact that this was self-recorded and self-engineered in a basement rather than in a fancy studio.) That said, it must be noted that this isn’t empty-calories style classic barroom rock’n’roll (though we love that too; don’t get us wrong!) What we have here is a set of well-composed songs, meticulously recorded and then precisely executed by four extremely technically proficient musicians who can play in lockstep without losing any intensity or sense of spontaneity. No easy feat with these songs, which usually start off by busting down the door with ferocious around-the-world drum rolls and infectious keyboard hooks and then take off on a journey to places you never would have expected but seem nonetheless to make sense. There is no verse-chorus-verse, A-B-A-B predictability here: “God-Shaped Hole” starts with a pulsing analog synth and slightly flangey “aaaahs” in harmony, and then careens directly into to good old fashioned guitar-shredding and then to a break and then to more shredding and a tight drum roll and then more shredding before leaping into the verse—and that’s all packed into the first forty-five seconds of the track! “I Liked the Old You” opens with a gentle swell of synths, punctuated by bass and drum stabs; enter flanged-out vocals in unison with a single analog synths which then in turn changes to arpeggiated guitars and organs and a new theme. And again, all this happens in under a minute and yet manages to make perfect sense compositionally. The day they headline their first arena show, I’ll remember the first time I heard this record. They play tonight at the Satellite. This interview by Kristina Benson.
Tell me about the projects you’ve been in besides this one.
Patrick Houston (vocals/synths/guitars): We’ve moved around to several cities and played in local band and toured nationally. Nothing besides van-level punk bands. The drummer and I had a screamo-hardcore band called Angels Never Answer. We did Denver for nine years, and then moved to Portland for a little while and tried to get what would have been this band going there but it just didn’t work out. It seems like a lot of moving around, but it was over such a long period of time—we were in Denver for almost 10 years.
Where are you from?
The brain of the band originates from Alabama—me and the drummer. We picked up our bass player in Colorado.
A while back you wrote that that you had a breakthrough, and figured out how to play together, what a band feels like, and what it should be like to play in that space. Can you tell me about that breakthrough?
Not without using hippie-dippy New Agey speak! I think something that happened to us in our original bands, or in any long relationship you’re going to have with someone, or people you’ve been playing with for a long time, there’s a crust that develops. You start thinking about that person as a static entity. We all know what that person is going to say before they’re going to say anything, we know what they’re going to think before they utter an opinion, and you kind of trap those people in a bottle of your expectations and project onto them the things that you think they are. And I think there was so much friction trying to get this record out, and trying to finish this video that we’ve been working on—all the projects we’ve been producing—a lot of friction. I think there was so much that it sort of imploded, but in a constructive way, and we were able to give each other room to grow and be the people that we are, and not the static people that everyone thought that everyone was. It resulted in this general constructive vibe that’s really been coming to a head in a constructive way that I’m really excited about. The bone broke and now it’s been setting stronger than it was before.
Did you guys ever sit down and say, ‘This is the sound!’ or did it come about organically?
Five or six years ago I started building this road jam compilation. And at the time, I didn’t know I was building the template for what Empty Palace is, but I was totally doing that. When it came time to start writing songs, it was like ‘What about Jefferson Starship?’ and some of it was dripping with cheese, but there’s this kind of song that doesn’t happen now, and the main staple of what people are taking from the late classic rock era, and there’s a vacuum there. I love that stuff! And I guess everyone likes to think that their band spins stuff around enough that it sounds like them, and not just aping. I hope that we’re doing that but that’s not really up to me to decide. But I think we do do that.
In a way though, I feel like when people say that a band is derivative of other great bands, it’s kind of an enormous compliment. If someone can rip off Aphrodite’s Child, for example, and sound exactly like them—well, I want to meet that person.
You hear derivative work all the time. One pitfall for us is that we have to be really careful to not sound like a Black Sabbath ripoff band because there are like 8,000 of them. I love that stuff, that’s the meat and the bun for us. That’s home base. But what if I sounded exactly like Robert Plant or even Ozzy Osbourne? Well that can be a total liability, because there’s already been a Robert Plant and an Ozzy Osbourne. The best thing you can do is get lucky and sound like you.
Tell me about the album art.
Our drummer works at King’s Road merchandise—they do all the shirt orders for Epitaph. And they have a badass graphic artists, and we told them we definitely wanted that Ralph Bakshi Wizards and Visitor—we definitely wanted that rotoscopic animation looking sort of thing, and we turned it over to their buddy and that’s the first thing he came up with, without any notes from us and we didn’t have any notes for him. It’s the coolest cover art I’ve had anything to do with. And for the album itself—one thing that’s really exciting about listening to that stuff is the idea of an LP as a back to front, 40-minute journey. We like to listen to music that way, so we tried our hand at it. So we sat down and made a collection of songs that we thought went together, and then we tried to make an auditory journey. I don’t know if it’s completely a concept record; it’s more a collection of songs made into one unit, but they’re welded together at the edges rather than being start-to-finish, continuous as one work. My favorite one is probably the title track—‘Between the Stars’—the first one on side B. That one’s about the dark spots in your subconscious that you can’t be aware of, the fear there. Like stars as neurons in your brain, and the dark spaces between them. It’s kind of trippy psychedelic space stuff.
EMPTY PALACE WITH CATALINE AND JAMES AND THE GIANT BEAST ON THURS., MAY 21, AT THE SATELLITE, 1717 SILVER LAKE BLVD., SILVER LAKE. 9 PM / $8 / 21+. GET TICKETS HERE! EMPTY PALACE’S THE SERPENT BETWEEN THE STARS IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM SNAPPY LITTLE NUMBERS. VISIT EMPTY PALACE AT FACEBOOK.COM/EMPTYPALACE.