For the past four years, Denver, Colorado-based indie rockers, Instant Empire, have been creating music with aspirations as big as their unique sound. While most IE songs are anthemic and rowdy enough to make for a raw and energetic live experience, the literate lyrics and musical complexity begs for repeated listens at home on the couch. Instant Empire’s brand of aggressive indie rock has drawn comparisons to The Hold Steady, The National, Manchester Orchestra and Bright Eyes.
Thematically, IE’s songs relate to the zeitgeist: our struggle to overcome isolation, to connect with others, and to find meaning in our chaotic lives. The band’s sound appeals to a broad audience, but the group is unafraid to experiment sonically. Songs are highlighted by a tight rhythm section, melodically rich guitar interplay, dark synth underpinnings, and vocals that are at once urgent and passionate.
Instant Empire’s debut full-length album, Lamplight Lost (which drops June 23, 2015), was recorded and produced by John Vanderslice (Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie, Mountain Goats) at Tiny Telephone Recording in San Francisco and Jonathan Low (The War on Drugs, The National, Kurt Vile) at Miner Street Recordings in Philadelphia.
Lamplight Lost comes on the heels of three previously released EPs – Instant Empire (2011); Heavy Hollow (2012); and Keep Up! (2013) – and demonstrates the band’s remarkable growth as both songwriters and musicians. Instant Empire was also recently chosen to record a single for the Grow Music Project, a non-profit organization spearheaded by acclaimed TV/film composer and producer, Chris Tyng.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with vocalist Scotty Saunders and guitarist Sean Connaughty to discuss the record. This is what they told us.
When did you begin writing the material for Lamplight Lost?
SCOTTY: Technically, the final song on the album, “Strike the Stages,” was written a few years ago … but the majority of the album was written over the last year-and-a-half. We wrote a ton of material for the new album and then sifted out the best songs and parts after we’d compiled lots of options. The majority of those songs had similar lyrical themes, so the entire album is interlaced with repeated imagery and motifs. For whatever reason, that material ended up fairly dark. I guess it was our mindset at the time. It can wear a bit on you – writing dark material – but after a certain point I think we just embraced it. While our live set tends to be boisterous and celebratory, we’ve never shied away from letting darkness seep in.
Which of the songs on the LP is most different from your original concept for the song?
SCOTTY: That has to be “Strike the Stages.” At one time that was one of the loudest, most rocking songs on the album. For a long time it felt like we were never going to come to any kind of consensus on where that song needed to go musically. That tune started out years ago with Sean and I just writing on acoustic guitars. After the melody and lyrics were fleshed out we brought it into the guys. These days we rarely ever bring a song in – most of our songs are created with everyone building the song at the same time in our practice space. That might have caused some of the difficulties we encountered with “Strike.” But, actually, while we were out in Philadelphia, we took a break one night from our Low sessions and the band worked together to re-imagine the song.
SEAN: We decided the song needed a lot of space; it needed to breathe. Vanderslice ended up recording and producing that tune and he really helped shape it in the studio. The percussion, guitars and piano parts – basically everything except the vocals – were all improvised on the spot. It involved Tristan, Sean and Doug making up their parts while Vanderslice & the engineer, Jacob Winik, just generally freaked out the signal chain with real-time delay, modulation, and compression tweaks straight to tape. No two performances were ever the same. I think at one point JV was calling for “more goat hooves.” It was like a surreal parody of the Christopher Walken/Blue Oyster Cult cowbell skit from SNL. But we are so happy with how it turned out.
What was it like recording with John Vanderslice and Jonathan Low? How did those relations come about?
SCOTTY: It was beyond cool … and probably a little intimidating. Both Vanderslice and Low had engineered or produced a number of records we really love. They’ve worked with bands like The National, Spoon, Death Cab, The War on Drugs … etc. They both also work in really cool spaces. Vanderslice, of course, has his Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco, which is an indie mecca, and Low records mostly out of Miner Street Recordings in Philadelphia. Being from Denver, it was amazing to travel to both coasts to record the album.
SEAN: Yeah, we were very isolated and immersed in the recording process. The recording of the album actually started in Santa Barbara with a producer named Chris Tyng. Chris runs a philanthropic music organization called the Grow Music Project. We recorded our first single, “Dead Air,” with Chris for GMP. Afterwards, we knew we wanted to record the album with a producer (or producers) that would push us past our comfort zones in the studio. We aimed really high with who we wanted to work with and were able to get in contact with John and Jon. They signed on and the album benefited immensely from their work.
The video for “Dead Air” is supremely creepy. Did you come with the premise behind it? Or was it the video’s director?
SEAN: It’s creepy as hell! We will take credit for the initial concept behind the video. That said, the end result for how the video turned out was definitely a collaboration between the band and Camera Speeds Inc., the production company who directed and produced the video. They were really supportive of the direction we initially came up with and were awesome to work with. We filmed the entire video up in the mountains outside Black Hawk, Colorado during the dead of winter. It was freezing the entire time, but I think the starkness of the landscape really helped create some powerful imagery for the video. We specifically wanted to avoid a typical music video. We wanted the story told in the video to be related to, but not directly the same as, the story told in the song. The woodland creatures, specifically the Donnie Darko-esque bunny, and the Frankenstein creation are definitely fantastical in nature. We wanted people to find new things each time they watched it … I think we succeeded.
Do you have any plans to tour this summer or fall?
SCOTTY: Definitely! We’ve got a number of Colorado shows and festivals we are playing this summer and then the plan is to head out to the East Coast for a larger tour in the fall. We can’t wait to play these songs for everyone.
(Visit the band here:
https://instagram.com/instantempire/ https://www.facebook.com/instantempire )