Not to spout clichés, but artists are often difficult people.
When it comes to synthpop, standing out from the pack is easier said than done. The genre is a constellation of nascent stars with bands competing to be brighter than the rest. Riding on a polite yet insistent buzz with just two EPs to their name, Losing Touch and Throwing Stones, London’s Empathy Test is how synthpop was meant to be: The robotic notes of a keyboard rendered human and given a beating heart. By corralling everything in vogue with today’s soundscape—ethereal atmospherics, meteoric melodies, 80s throwbacks—Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf’s style feels of-the-moment. But it’s the duo’s own brand of emotive theatrics, hook-loaded songwriting, and some of the more forward-thinking sonics that’s astronomically ambitious for the still-infant band.
Empathy Test’s tasteful palette is a welcome change of pace. Howlett’s vocals are a multifaceted instrument, the emotional kernel in the duo’s makeup. He can sound cutting, aching, triumphant, and weightless—sometimes all at once. Even at its most powerful, the vocals possess a relatable humanity, which brightens the adolescent glow of his lyrics. Howlett’s words might look overwrought on paper, but when set to the emotive sounds that Relf trades in, they sound towering, impassioned, and life-affirming. Throughout their two EPs, we find the guys in a long tradition of bands that take a highly personal sense of turmoil and blow it up onto an arena-sized screen. Beneath the polished electropop exterior is a tangled knot of introspection and irresistible darkness.
Tracks off the Losing Touch and Throwing Stones EPs are available to purchase after the jump!
Hi, Isaac. Let’s start with the name. You’re unquestionably a Blade Runner fan.
It’s pulled directly from the movie. It’s the scene where Deckard meets Rachael and performs the empathy test on her. We’re big Sci-Fi fans and that’s one of our favorite films. In Blade Runner, they have the empathy test to work out whether someone’s human or an android. The connection is meaningful because we make electronic music using machines, but the vocals and lyrics engage on a very human level. It can take a long time to come up with a band name because it’s such an important and unimportant thing at the same time. In the end, you just want something to call yourself, but it’s very difficult to come up with something that sounds good and has the right connotations. So many things have the wrong connotations.
Can you recall seeing the film for the first time?
I remember seeing Blade Runner for the first time and thinking, “Wow, is that it?” because it’s such a classic film. I guess when you watch it, you’re expecting more. It’s essentially about a guy who has to track down and kill six androids and that’s basically the entire film. But as I got older and watched it a few more times, I realized it’s such an amazing and fully developed vision of a dystopian future. I think very few Sci-Fi films managed to do that—create a real world—and the atmosphere is just amazing in it. I guess that’s what we aimed to do with our music as well.
The reference to Blade Runner also makes sense seeing as that your music is extremely cinematic. You guys packaged a big sound.
Adam is really into movie soundtracks and cinematic soundscapes. I’m very much into catchy songs. Not cheesy pop, but I like songs with a good chorus and a good hook. We kind of meet in the middle to create something with a lot of depth and musical artistry, and with that catchy, memorable chorus and hook. We wanted to create the whole package and the artwork was part of that. Adam is also an illustrator. The idea behind the artwork was to, first and foremost, create a world for the music without the image of us as performers being the focus of it. We made a conscious decision in the beginning not to release formal press shots of us standing around looking like a band with a detailed biography. We wanted the music to have a life of its own. Interestingly enough, I think releasing the artworks affected the kind of fans that we started off with. Adam has said that the artwork is kind of his vision of what a computer might come up with if it was to become conscious and start producing art.
You come from an acting background, don’t you?
In terms of the whole acting thing, writers choose what they want to focus on when you give interviews. Basically, I’ve always wanted to be a performer of some kind. For a long time, I wanted to be an actor and took a lot of drama classes. In the end, I just got bored of learning lines and taking on characters. I learned to play the guitar and performed in a couple of school concerts, which made me realize I could just be myself and that was much easier. Around 14, I changed my mind and decided to become a singer-songwriter. I didn’t go to drama school. I actually went to uni and studied English Literature, and Adam went to art school, of course. I think Adam and I’m both into art in all of its forms. Music was just a new way of expressing ourselves. But Adam was always into Sci-Fi films from a young age. He used to record all of these dark, violent films without his parents knowing, and then I’d come around and watch them as well. We grew up watching Alien and Robocop and stuff like that. He’s also really into John Williams and all of those classic 80s film score producers.
Were you both working on music independently before Empathy Test?
I used to perform as a solo acoustic artist. A lot of the songs that we’re making now are reinventions of songs that I’d already written on the acoustic guitar. I think songs have a life of their own and you can do it in any kind of style, and different people will like it. Adam used to make dance music, which is how he learned to produce, and we have the benefit of having really solid production. Adam and I’ve done projects together before, but nothing really worked. With Empathy Test, we found a sound that worked for us both. We had to get to a point where we could work together as well. [Laughs] We’re both quite difficult people and needed to develop a way of working and find the patience, really. It’s still touch-and-go sometimes.
So you’re both very stubborn and opinionated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you’re working in a creative field.
We have very strong ideas on what we want to do. When you’re making music on the computer, there’s always the one person sitting there. We had to develop a way of working where I can record the vocals and we build the general track together, then Adam can be left to his own devices with loads of other stuff. Then we come back together because when you’re working away on your own, you kind of lose sight and direction. With the Throwing Stones EP, Adam put loads of stuff in to make it the best it can be and when we listened to it a couple weeks later, we ended up taking it all back out again. Empathy Test just happened at the right time in our lives and everything’s been really fast for us. We recorded the music for the Losing Touch EP quite casually over the whole of 2013. When we released it, we had no idea what would happen. We stuck it on SoundCloud. I started promoting our songs on social media and it got picked up by loads of people who just loved it. Our friend, Richard Swarbrick, made a series of animated videos set to our music and those went viral, which caught the attention of Stars & Letters on Twitter and we sent over some new tracks. It’s been amazing.
I don’t know how Stars & Letters found me, but they sure know their audience. I found your stuff in my inbox one day. One track in, I was completely hooked.
Was it “Throwing Stones”?
It was actually “Holding On.” It’s quite conceptual and abstract compared to the other tracks you’ve done. How did you imagine that song fitting on the EP?
The songs that ended up on the EPs were really incidental. For the Losing Touch EP, those were just the four tracks we did and we didn’t have any other songs. For the second EP, we were working on a few more—I think it was six tracks—and it was really the four tracks that came together in the end. But you’re completely right about “Holding On” kind of being the only one out of all of them that’s more abstract. In a way, I’m less proud of that one because it has less personal meaning for me. [Laughs] “Holding On” was also different because Adam came up with the music for it some time ago. I wrote improvised lyrics to the music so the process was a bit different than working on both at the same time. There are just a few clues like the mention of flashbulbs, but I created this death scenario in which a celebrity couple have either been mugged or hit by a car. It’s sort of like this Gotham City scene when Bruce Wayne’s parents are gunned down. The thing “disappearing out of view” are their spirits. With that particular song, it’s more about the atmosphere and the vibe and less about incorporating a solid narrative.
Writing a conceptual song seems like an interesting exercise because you’re, well, exercising a different part of your brain.
I find it harder to write a conceptual song, to be honest. When I write lyrics, I tend to not dress it up. I say what I think and feel rather than using lots of imagery to get something across. I’ve tried in the past to write songs with meanings that I don’t want to give away and make it a lot more subtle, but I struggled doing that. I really can’t write Radiohead-type songs where you create a general feeling. I suppose “Holding On” is the closest to a concept song that I’ve gotten. But it would be nice to be able to do it. Being in a stable and happy relationship means that my supply of angst is running dangerously low. [Laughs]
Can you recall a memory when you first connected to music?
My first musical memory is my dad playing me classical music. I couldn’t tell you what it was—I should really find out—but it’s interesting because it comes back to what Adam loves about movie soundtracks: It’s the mixture of the narrative in music and the way music can tell a story without words. I remember my dad playing me a piece of classical music and telling me what was happening. I seem to remember there being a boat and a storm? I was just a toddler. Then there was Paul Simon’s Graceland that my mom had on vinyl. I used to get her to put it on and dance around the living room. My mom was also into Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and a lot of folk artists. When my step-dad came along, he introduced me to The Clash, The Cure, and loads of 80s punk. He was a real avid listener of John Peel and took all of his suggestions. It wasn’t until I hit my teens that I started listening to my own kind of music. Britpop happened. Although I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, it was probably Oasis that got me wanting to play guitar and write songs. I knew every single lyric to “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” My mom had a guitar and as soon as I could play three chords, I wrote my first song. I’m sure it was terrible.
Do you always start on the acoustic guitar?
Even now, that’s how I write. I was never really interested in becoming an accomplished guitarist or learning scales. It was just something to write songs on for me. When I take the songs to Adam, he translates that into synth parts and strings and whatever.
It’s been my observation that songwriters are repellent to the idea of deconstructing the meaning behind their songs. How autobiographical are your lyrics, generally speaking?
Generally, the songs are autobiographical. I don’t like stuff that doesn’t mean something, you know? I think that’s why people are very affected by our songs and find them so emotional. They’re all real emotions. Even though people might relate to them in their own way, they’re all very personal to me. For instance, “Throwing Stones” is about the end of a relationship. It’s about going around to that person’s house to try and wake them up, even though you’re not supposed to be seeing them anymore.
Your music is fairly dark. Is it difficult to draw out those emotions when you’re not feeling particularly downbeat?
For me, it’s not really a refined or defined art. You just play the guitar and sing a lot. Sometimes a song happens and sometimes nothing happens. I think it’s good, for me anyway, to start with an emotion by remembering a situation and how I felt, and how I feel about it now. Also, Adam adds a lot of the darkness. He’s very good at taking the emotions from the songs, running with it, and building on it. A song like “Where I Find Myself,” which is probably the most depressing lyrically, came out when I had a really bad flu and in bed for days without eating. It was a real hallucinogenic kind of flu. I was finally well enough to get out of bed, but still feeling weak, and that’s when I picked up the guitar and sang a self-pitying “I’m really ill” kind of song. [Laughs] Perhaps people are like, “God, you must be really sad!” but it’s a cathartic thing and you’re aware that you’re creating something as well. You find ways to express yourself and probably make it more intense than it actually was. A lot of people have said that the songs are really sad, but uplifting at the same time. With “Where I Find Myself,” I was slightly worried that people might think it’s a song about self-harm, which it isn’t. No one’s really asked that yet, although someone did think “Last Night On Earth” was about suicide, which it isn’t.
Now that you’re two EPs in, what discoveries have you made in terms of how people perceive you and what you’re doing as a band?
When we put the Losing Touch EP out, I think we got slightly pigeonholed as a goth band. We have a lot of fans that are into gothic music. There’s a whole area of electronica and synthpop that fits into that alternative scene and because Losing Touch has such a cold gothic feel to it, we ended up in this place that we weren’t expecting to be as a band. We don’t have a problem with that at all, but it’s a very specific genre with a very specific audience that you’re playing to. One of the reasons behind us choosing Stars & Letters was because they represent a completely different kind of electronica and synthpop. We didn’t want to end up in this 80s revivalist scene because that puts people who aren’t in that scene off. When we released Throwing Stones, there may have been some disappointment amongst people who liked Losing Touch because it’s completely different. On our first album, we’ll definitely have two songs from each EP, plus six new tracks. And we’re already moving in a slightly more upbeat direction on the new tracks we’ve played live a couple of times. We want to keep that kind of simple, cold sound, but also expand out a bit.
What’s informing your decision to start going in a more upbeat direction?
When you perform live, you realize what songs work and what you need more of in your repertoire. Since we have a lot of downbeat tracks, it means there aren’t many peaks and troughs in the energy of our performance. So when we made this new track, “Siamese,” we saw some real energy in it. Playing live to an audience has definitely influenced how we want to move forward.
What do you remember about your first-ever live performance?
People were expecting a lot, but it was a surprising success. A hundred people showed up to see us and for any band’s first gig, that’s pretty amazing. There were people who flew in from Germany and Norway, which was just insane. I really didn’t know what they were expecting. There was this review of the show where the guy said we needed more visuals and he wanted us to be more aloof. Adam felt quite strongly that—and he still does—the music should impress people, not anything artificial. We’ve since added a drummer, I’m playing a MIDI keyboard, and we have Adam on the laptop. It’s weird because I’m used to playing with a guitar, and having a drummer and a bass player. Performing electronic music live is a completely different thing. I quickly discovered that there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. Our label boss, who’s also an electronic musician, told us, “You have to strike a balance. Don’t try to play something that’s on a track if it’s going to make your performance less exciting.” Right now, it’s impossible for me and Adam to perform all the stuff that we do in the studio, but we’ll build up to that.
Is it weird now to have to think about the live performances so much during the recording process? It wasn’t always like that I’d imagine.
With the first EP, we didn’t think about it at all. With the second EP, we thought about it a little bit. Now when we’re making tracks, we do sort of ask questions like, “Is this going to make it too complicated for me to play and sing at the same time?” Certainly, it’s become an issue whereas we didn’t think about it before. But it doesn’t affect us that much, really. In the end, we want a catchy chorus and a catchy hook. The simpler the hook is, the catchier it is.
Do you have plans to play shows Stateside anytime soon? I saw that you have a couple shows lined up in Leipzig and Basildon.
At the top of our priority list right now is finding a booking agency. The last thing we’d want is to release an album and no one buy it. It’s obviously important to build up your profile as much as you can before releasing an album. The show we played in Germany was amazing. We sold all the CDs we took with us and they were asking for more. Stuff like that has proven the value of touring and that’s something we’d like to do more of in 2015.
Can we expect a full-length in 2015?
We definitely feel that we should be releasing an album in 2015, but when and how that will happen has yet to be decided. We’ve got the full support of Stars & Letters. It’s about putting our heads together to come up with a plan that works for everyone. The problem with the Throwing Stones EP was that Adam was really busy with other work. After we finished the tracks and signed the deal, he couldn’t do the artwork until he finished a lot of other stuff, and things got held up for a good few months. As it happened, the EP came out in December, which is a terrible time to release something because everyone’s already writing their end of year lists. We need to strike a balance between when we’re able to get the music finished and when it’s commercially a good time to release it.
And I’m just curious, what’s this story behind Adam leaving London and you guys falling out of touch for a stretch of time?
Oh no, that was me.
Oh, that was you!
I didn’t leave London because of Adam or anything. [Laughs] You kind of set an age by which you expect to have made it when you’re dreaming about becoming a successful musician. I just had this year when everything either went wrong or I made it go wrong. I just didn’t feel like I could start from scratch again in London and a friend invited me down to Brighton, which people call “Camden by the sea.” I went down there and everything was very chilled out. Adam was a bit annoyed about it because we were working on this project, but I thought we could continue doing that since I was only an hour away from London. But we just kind of stopped and I got stuck in Brighton for a while. Then I went to Barcelona for a year and came back to London, by which point I was sort of ready to start a new project. Adam had forgiven me for ditching him and it all just came together and Empathy Test happened.
I really hope you guys continue to plow forward. You have a great thing going here.
Being in any kind of band is really difficult, you know? So many people want to do it and so few people actually make it. People often think that it’s because a band’s not good enough or there’s not enough room for them, but so many bands fail because it’s difficult for a group of people to have the same artistic vision and it’s always a struggle to work together. Not to spout clichés, but artists are often difficult people. I think we’re at a very important part in our career. We have some buzz going and we need to ride that wave as far as it will take us. We need to make an album next, but when we do it and how we do it is another question. I’m sure I’m overthinking it and Adam’s reaction will be, “Let’s just make some new tracks and see what happens.” [Laughs] And he’d be right to a certain extent because we do need some new tracks. But it’s about more than making new music and just putting it out there. There are so many things to consider.
If Adam has a different kind of energy and approach to the creative process, do you find that it ultimately benefits the band?
I think so. I’m very impatient. I want things to happen now as quickly as possible because I feel like we have this chance and we need to grab it. That does make me perhaps slightly hasty. If left to my own devices, I would perhaps put out material that wasn’t as good as it could be or should be, whereas Adam is there to drag his heels and make sure it is, which is excruciatingly annoying for me. [Laughs] Generally, in the long run, I see that it was a good decision to stall and make sure everything was perfect. But there’s a balance to be had because Throwing Stones came out way too late. We had a great reaction, but the step up I was hoping for in terms of exposure perhaps didn’t happen because it came out in December rather than August or September. There needs to be a balance. I’m always trying to push our career forward and keep to a timeline, and Adam’s there to make sure that the standards are kept high.