Empires recently finished recording their second full length album, GARAGE HYMNS. The band’s self-produced debut album, Howl, garnered a massive amount of attention when they released it on their website back in 2008, and now, with GARAGE HYMNS, Empires feels that they have found the sound they’ve been searching for all along.
“We’re definitely more defined than ever,” explains vocalist Sean Van Vleet. “We’ve figured out what works for us as we’ve played together more, and now the music feels really honed in.”
It’s been a rapid ascent to critical acclaim for the young Empires, who came together in 2006.
“We never started out saying ‘We’re going to be a punk band,’ or ‘We’re going to be an indie band,’” says guitarist Tom Conrad. “What we wanted to do was never acknowledged in words. It was more like, ‘Oh, you play drums? Sweet. Show up and let’s play.’ And that evolved to what we have now.”
The band finished Howl in guitarist and producer Max Steger’s studio in March, and their “all over the place” approach had obviously worked out for them: the album garnered thousands of downloads online, including over 15,000 in its first week alone. “With Howl, we worked out the instrumentation of the songs as we recorded them,” explains Max. “With the band being so new, we took a lot of freedom experimenting with different sounds and genres. I think that gives the record its diversity and charm.”
Howl was named one of the top five local albums of 2008 by Metromix Chicago, and Empires spent the rest of 2008 and much of 2009 building a profile locally. They sold out several of Chicago most popular music venues, including Schubas, the Beat Kitchen, and the Subterranean. Then, late in 2009, they went back into Max’s studio to record again, and in 2010 they released a seven-song EP called BANG.
To generate more interest in their second collection of self-produced material, the band put out BANG in the form of monthly digital singles until physically releasing a deluxe edition of the album in March of 2010, right before their first SXSW appearance.
The BANG EP and their first SXSW appearance ushered in some good national attention.
“Whether we’ve been trying to spread the word ourselves or not, the word-of-mouth amongst our fans has always been really nice,” says Tom. “People have always been talking, and more people have been getting into it. We’re really grateful for that.”
With the BANG EP and a raucous makeout music video for the title track keeping a lot of attention focused on them, Empires quietly began demoing the songs that would later become GARAGE HYMNS in the summer of 2010. Then, from February to May of 2011, the Empires fan base came out in droves once again when Empires was one of sixteen bands being considered for the August cover of Rolling Stone.
Hand-picked from over 1,200 artists by Rolling Stone editors to be part of the magazine’s first ever “Choose the Cover” campaign, Empires advanced (through public voting) to one of the final four slots. Rolling Stone called Empires a “big, multi-faceted, tower of power” and said that “inspired by the independent spirit of ‘90s grunge, Empires’ music takes the urgency and emotion of that era and reboots it for a new generation.”
“We actually started recording and tracking everything during that competition,” explains the band. “It was bizarre, because the Rolling Stone thing was great for us, but we were part of this huge contest where we didn’t have any control over things. The voting was all done by the fans. So we got back from a show in New York, and just said okay, let’s make this record, because we have control over that.”
“The Rolling Stone contest rallied our fan base,” says Sean. “So when it came to the record, we really tried to finish it as quickly as possible—for the fans—which made us do it really honestly. Takes were very minimal. That’s why there’s a live feel to it that we really love.”
The “live feel” on GARAGE HYMNS that Sean refers to is a more loose approach that comes as a direct result of the way the band went at the recording process from the very beginning.
“GARAGE HYMNS was figured out mainly in the practice space,” explains Max. “I wanted the recordings to sound more like the bandin practice, and I wanted to avoid any slick over-the-top production. We wanted to be as gritty and raw as possible.”
Tom adds that the difference between GARAGE HYMNS and Empires’ earlier records is that the songs on Garage Hymns were all demoed out six, seven, eight times beforehand. “When it came time to actually start to record the album, it was a really quick process,” he says. “All the homework was done, we just had to play the songs.”