Need a band to score your next film or curate your next festival? Empath are game. Originating from Philadelphia, the band are constantly exploring new creative avenues to express their music whether it be with papier-mâché miniatures of themselves or sourcing sound bites from classic horror films. Referring to their music as psychedelic might not get you on the guestlist, but you can count on a natural trip when listening to their new record ‘Visitor’. Now, having produced their latest record ‘Visitor’ over lockdown, the band are stronger than ever ready to show off that energy internationally starting from Japan to New Zealand. Playing at venues like Red Rocks and Le Guess Who, Empath are eager to revisit these international stages. Is the band name Empath more original than Post Malone? Read on for the answer.
What inspired your new record ‘Visitor’?
I don’t know if there was a single inspiration. The writing process had started and, you know, we would just write a few songs here and there. But no, it wasn’t until we had the whole thing sort of compiled. And then, we even mixed a few songs before we figured out the album title and concept. So, I think we had the body of work before we had the idea and concept. We joked at one point that it was our ‘tropical record’, because there were some moments that sounded like steel drum hits or something in more than one song. Well, the end of ‘Corner of Surprise’ is like a “din-din-din” and in ‘Born 100 times’ Jem has a keyboard patch that sounds like a marimba steel drum. We’re like, “We can play at your dad’s Tiki Bar.”
You list the score to the old film Nosferatu (1922) as an influence on the record, could you unpack this idea?
Our best pal Sean, who’s helped us do a lot of the recordings in the past, came to Philly for a week around Halloween. Together we decided to find weird sounds so that we could kind of create songs that just never end. So, there’s just passages in between each song, and we just watched tonnes of horror movies. We were like let’s sound grab this and sound grab that, which ended up being like weird walking and weird creaking from that movie. Similarly, we sound grabbed a few things from the original ‘The Wicker Man’ like laughter from a bunch of kids. When we got the album artwork, we discussed liminal spaces which inspired Sean and I to find weird sounds that you couldn’t quite work out the origin of. We wanted creepy house sounds. I recorded my air conditioner; I think that’s on the record. Everything was kind of manipulated so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s what. We were guided by the theme of being in a place that maybe you don’t belong or aren’t supposed to be there but you’re there hearing weird s**t.
So, a lot of the creative process was bingeing horror films and taking excerpts from there?
Yeah, that was part of it for sure. As for the things that, you know, go from song to song, I would say yeah, we use a lot of those. When certain songs end, weird sounds come in that would bridge the gap from song to song, which is what we took from those movies. We are always inspired by film and scoring for sure. Like creating an ambience or sort of an ethereal nature around it. I think we just had put some songs together and then once that was more concrete than we kind of sculpted everything else around it. So, it was kind of, you know, you just fumble your way through it until you kind of get a bigger picture of what’s happening. Using stuff from movies is a cool way to soundscape or sound collage stuff, you know? We like things to feel cinematic.
As a band, would you ever consider scoring a film?
Absolutely. That would be amazing. Yeah, we’d love to if anyone will let us do it. Put the word out for us.
Would that be a horror movie too?
I wouldn’t want it to be, I don’t watch horror movies. Yeah, Jem doesn’t like horror movies. [Laughing] Actually, I watched ‘Titane’ recently, and there’s a Future Islands song on the soundtrack. Maybe a sci-fi thriller rom com? Yeah, a sci-fi rom com seems more up our alley. Lots of arpeggiated things, that would be cool.
How did you find it recording this new record in a formal studio for the first time and how did you do it before?
It was fun. It was cool being in a nice studio. Before, we would just rent a house where we’d make our own studio and record. That’s how we recorded the last record. And ‘Visitor’ was in an actual studio. It’s the first time we’ve put the production in someone else’s hands. It wasn’t so much where we were, it was just kind of having this guiding force. That was kind of nice to, you know, let go of a little bit of control. But also, we chose to work with Jake Portrait for a reason so we were excited to see what he would do with it. It was a unique experience because we recorded during the height of COVID. There was this three-inch soundproof glass that Jake had to yell through with his mask the whole time. We spent very little time in the same room. He would crack the studio door open and yell through with a mask on which we’d often struggle to interpret. We had a week in his studio, but we were almost never in the same room as him because his wife had just had a baby and his grandparents were staying with him. So, a portion of it was done remotely at my home studio and then we were sending Jake a bunch of files through Dropbox that he was compiling and mixing in for us. A strange way to do it, but I kind of like that though. We roughed the record out and then he kind of perfected it. I feel as though we sent him so many files to go through of like overdubs which was fun to send such a range of random ideas. I can only imagine him just opening up this thing and being like, “what? Where does this even belong in the song?” That was fun to hear the stuff that he picked and didn’t pick. At one point, we were like, okay, Catherine has to be here with us the next time we do it, because we stayed up so late switching out all the snare drum hits with like hand claps and we were just going so crazy. We thought, we need Catherine to be here to reel it in because we’re feeling chaotic. Every song has like 10 tambourine parts. Remember that? On ‘Paradise’ you switched out tonnes of the sounds and we were trying to do like polyrhythms with hand claps. [Laughing] We were like, “What the f**k are we doing?”
It sounds like the collaboration was quite an accomplishment considering you did this during covid.
Yeah, it was amazing. Truly. The more time passes, looking back, it is so crazy that we did that in the height of COVID. None of us got COVID. Randy built like a home studio, and we just sent so many files to Jake. It just made it cool because we had so much time. We could just do a little bit on this and a little bit on that day. What we were worried about working in a studio was being rushed and thinking, “Okay, we have this much time and it’s going to cost this much money.” But it didn’t end up being that way, which was cool. We got what we needed to get done in the studio, which was mainly just the first layer of everything like the vocals and stuff. It was kind of like we had almost unlimited time once we were back in Philadelphia at Randall’s. We had more time than we’ve ever had to just think about it. Yeah, it didn’t seem like time was money, you know. And then Fat Possum came and said all these things are due in three months and we were like, “Oh, God”. Time flew by.
Rolling Stone referred to you as “America’s most inventive young psychedelic band”, what would you say makes your band psychedelic?
I feel like that’s just a word that people use to describe rock music that’s not, you know, a more clear-cut genre or something. I don’t really identify with that. But I guess I can see why we were referred to as that. It’s just like a description of weird guitar music. I mean, Black Sabbath is my favourite band and they’re psychedelic rock or heavy metal. People hear loud guitars and think, “Oh, that’s psychedelic rock.” Which I’m fine with. It’s nice that they said that we’re young and inventive. “America’s most young and inventive band.” [Laughing] I think that’s a weird stigma amongst a lot of rock bands being called psychedelic. Zack was talking about that too, saying, “What does psychedelic even mean?” It’s not a genre. But I also hate genre typing music where everything must fit. But I get it, as a viewer, you need to call it something. But, you know, I hate that everything must be, Oh, it’s a post punk band. It doesn’t really mean anything, you know. [Laughing] It happened after a certain time – “Okay.” [Laughing] Yeah. I love psychedelic music; you know what I mean? Every single thing that I listened to, is, in a sense, psychedelic music. I just feel that it’s a term that people use and think, “You could smoke weed to this.” That’s my take, my hot take.
If you could choose to transport to a certain era of music, which would it be?
What did that guy in Berlin say to you Garrett? Oh, he said it to Randall, and he said that we would fit in with–when was Nobot and The Bad Seeds all living in Berlin Randall? The 80s man, like new wave, no wave. I forget what he said though. He was like, “You guys would fit perfectly in the early 80s of Berlin when they were all squatting.” I’d choose any time period but the Baroque era, I just don’t get it. [Laughing] I am ‘Ba-roke’ enough as it is. Or like, ’67/’68 Velvet Underground era is also love, you know? Talk about some psychedelic proto punk Am I right? How many genres can we throw in here? [Laughing] Or the 70s after the love generation was kind of fizzled out and everyone was sort of strung out, you know? Or, when new metal was hot. I’d play Woodstock ’94. Oh that’s ’99, ’94 seems cool too because Nine Inch Nails headlined. You think we have anxiety now? If we were side stage at Woodstock ’99 we’d be like, “We got to get out of here. We got to get out of here. We got to get out of here.” [Laughing]
Catherine, you said you coined the lyrics to ‘Diamond Eyelids’ from a string of memories, can you tell us more about the creative process of the song?
I don’t know, sometimes there are just moments that stand out and feel kind of cinematic or feel like they’re hitting on some kind of feeling. And then the putting of two things together that are not related but have a similar feeling and just kind of elaborating on those memories. I feel that’s how I write lyrics some of the time. So, yeah. Without giving too much away that was what happened.
How was your experience making the music video for ‘Diamond eyelids’?
Well, my girlfriend made it. She made the puppets of all of us at our apartment here and then shot it at her studio. But the process of making the puppets was like months long, papier-mâché. And she had this pregnancy suit that she had made a few years back that I wore. We were just waiting for basically a reason to use the pregnancy suit. [Laughing] This is it baby. Of our videos, I feel that it has the least amount of hits, but that’s kind of the one to me. That is a work of art. [Laughing] That was the most intensive one for sure. Yeah, just for Halle, not for anybody else. [Laughing] But it was cool to see our little puppets come to life. Yeah, that was probably my favourite video.
How did your fans react to the video?
I’ve only heard good things about it, people love it. But like I said, I don’t know if everyone saw this one. Where are the reactions, where are the people saying, “Oh my god, she just gave birth to the band you know? [Laughing] It’s a wild f*****g video, but I’m still waiting to hear back on it. I saw a comment saying, “I’m going to show this to my 80-year-old grandfather.” Something like that. When we put it out, I feel like all our friends thought, “That is the greatest music video I’ve ever seen.” I would tell them that Halle made puppets which took months and they just thought, “That’s fucking crazy.” And we still have them, we can use them for something else. Maybe next record, we’ll use them for something else. We’ll just change the hairdos. Yeah, hopefully we can put clothes on them, or not.
You formed the band together in Philadelphia as roommates, did this start off as a random conversation over breakfast or how long did it take?
Well, so yeah, me [Catherine], Garrett and Jem lived together. Randall lived a few blocks away. But Garrett and I [Catherine] were playing in other bands. We kind of started talking about music as soon as we met and moved in together. Because we didn’t meet each other until we moved in together really, or just before. It was kind of a weird coincidence that we ended up together. Because there were seven people and we had mutual friends. So, we all ended up together there. And then we found out that, oh, Garrett plays drums and I play guitar. So, we just naturally kind of started playing music together. I feel like our love of Times New Viking inspired us to think, “Oh, we’ll teach Jem how to play keyboard like this, this will be sick.” Catherine and I [Garrett], would just jam in the basement. Whenever the mood would strike, we’re like, “Oh, yes! Let’s jam in the basement.” Because we had everything set up down there. I can’t recall exactly when we thought, “Oh yeah, let’s do this.” Was it when Perfect Pussy broke up? I think so, we had recorded two songs in the house. But yeah, I think that was right at the time that Perfect Pussy was dissolving. So, we were just having fun. We didn’t have huge plans. Then, slowly over time, Randall joined and then we put some things out that people liked. Here we are today. Heck yeah!
The name is quite unique too.
Garrett and I [Catherine] were standing in the kitchen one day and he said, “I have an idea for a name. It’s a combination of our names. Emily and Catherine.” [Laughing] I don’t know, Garrett’s name got lost in there somewhere. So, Empath. Yeah, I was like, “EmGarrCath.” Then I realised that my name didn’t have to be in it. At that point, we were obsessed with all those new age cassettes. I recall always seeing things like ’empathy’, ‘transcendence’ and all the Alice Coltrane records. It just seemed fitting. Yeah, and I still like it to this day. [Laughing] Thank God.
It’s almost as though you used a random name generator on the internet to come up with it.
Yeah, that’s true. Garrett is a random word generator. [Laughing] A band name is like the hardest thing to come up with so as soon as he said it, I thought, “This is fine.” We don’t have to think about this any longer. Just nail that down and not think about it anymore. I feel like this is literally the only band where we didn’t almost break up trying to figure out a band name. You know? [Laughing] Everyone was just like, “Yeah, yeah let’s do that.” And then we’re just like, “Okay, I guess we’re making an Instagram.” Then we made it official. Yep. Now, here we are. We haven’t been sued over the band name, which is kind of crazy. There was that other band from Tennessee that was like a metal band that we were at first, “ohhh–.” Or that producer in Germany who had that name and we thought, “Someone’s going to come for us.” But no one has.
As a band, what would be the equivalent to summiting Mount Everest?
I would say a big one was when we did that Modest Mouse tour playing at Rolling Rocks. [Laughing] Oh my god, I guess I need a beer. I mean playing Red Rocks. Would love to play Japan, Australia, or New Zealand! Yeah. International touring, when that comes back, I feel like that is going to feel like summiting Mount Everest. Because right now it’s just crazy not being able to do what you want to do. I think helping to curate a festival would be really cool. We played at Le Guess Who in the Netherlands and that was probably my favourite festival we ever played. It was curated by all these artists that we’d liked already. Getting Holly Herndon and Deerhoof. I would love to headline a festival and help curate it.
IMAGES: MARIE LIN