Interview: Henrik Steenholdt of Empyre

Northampton-based Empyre are set to release their stunning new album ‘Relentless’ on March 31st. Their first for highly-acclaimed label Kscope. The quartet launched the album with a listening party in a cinema, followed by a full gig later that night. Frontman Henrik Steenholdt joined us to talk about the listening party and subsequent gig, as well as what was involved in signing with Kscope.

The playback of the album in the cinema in Northampton looked like it was a lot of fun, those cinema seats looked very comfortable!

It was a lot of fun, yes. We wanted to have a little bit of a WOW factor when people walked in, we wanted to make it so that there was something on the big screen when everyone came in. We wanted to keep it really quiet and you didn’t see anything moving on the screen until the first track ‘Relentless’ kicked in and you got the full-on music video. And then there were the red leather seats that reclined, and a bar so you could have a drink…we wanted to do something different, and we hoped that no one else – at our level – was doing that kind of thing. We wanted to do something extra, I mean, it’s not too hard to just set up a PA and play the album through it, but we had full-on surround sound coming out of all the speakers just to try and raise the bar.

The Empyre sound is quite cinematic, so it makes perfect sense to have a listening party in an actual cinema.

The first place that I thought about the listening party was this little boutique cinema in Northampton, and at that time I didn’t even know if I could use all the speakers because the first time that I went down there to test it out you could only use some of the speakers. If it was a case of plugging in a laptop and playing the music through that then you could only use the front speakers, so I asked how could I make it so we could use all the speakers and they said that we had to do a 5.1 mix…and I was like “shit!” [laughs]. So I went home and spent the whole afternoon googling “how do I make a 5.1 mix”. I found a site where I could make a basic 5.1mix, sent that to the cinema and they tested it and said it should work, so I went back again and tested it, and then went back again once I had done all of the songs in 5.1. We played about with it and made sure that all the sound levels were evened up in the front, middle, and back of the cinema. So I suppose cinematic sound is a bit of an Empyre thing, and maybe now all the more with the new album and the orchestration…it’s a bit more complex than the last one!

It might sound like a vanity project, but I just enjoyed sitting there testing it in the cinema! I loved just sitting there enjoying our videos on the big screen…I was sitting there thinking “this is brilliant!”.

As well as it being a listening party, there was also a Q&A with the audience, were there any questions that threw you off?

Yes, there was one…someone asked us if we were planning the next album…and I was thinking that we hadn’t even released this one yet! [laughs] I thought that I had misunderstood the question…and that’s the one that springs to mind as the oddest question of the day. Most of the questions were about the tech used to make the videos, how the songs were written, what were our favourite songs, you know, the questions that you expect to be asked…I did not expect though to be asked whether we had started the next album!

Were you nervous about letting people hear the new album for the first time? You don’t strike me as a band that gets nervous?

It wasn’t nerves about people hearing the music, I was really excited about people hearing the music, and relieved to be finally able to play it to a room full of people because that’s been a burning need for the last six to twelve months. I was actually nervous about the technical side of things because all of that was on my laptop, and I had to make sure that it was all working properly, and if it didn’t work then had I a backup on a disc – that kind of thing. Even though I had tested it all beforehand, I was nervous about it not being technically great. I could handle all the talking, but then it wasn’t just the talking; it was the talking and then going off to play a gig! The nerves were; could I last the whole day…of doing all that, and was anything going to go wrong, and would my voice be alright. That was where the nerves kicked in, but in terms of people hearing the music…we couldn’t wait!

What was the gestation period of the album like? I have this image of you guys taking a painstaking amount of time over the most minute of details…or was it the opposite? 

It was more of the painstaking example. That comes from going into the first lockdown and all thinking about what we were going to do. I thought that we would be back out gigging in a month or so! I wasn’t too worried. Once we realised that we were in lockdown for the long haul, then we started the writing process. I had a bit of a setup where I could write and record, Did and I [Did Coles, guitar] were in a bubble so I was able to help him set up some recording stuff for himself. And then it was a case of making sure that Elliot [Bale, drums] could record on his electronic kit and Grant [Hockley, bass] could also do something. I mean, Grant started out sending me stuff on his phone…and that was one of the big jokes at The Black Prince; we’ve still got the video of Grant sitting there playing, and I’m thinking “This is a great bass riff…but what is that in the background?”…and it was his washing machine! [laughs]. That’s so us! But, yes, it was painstaking. We just wrote what we could, until we managed to get into the studio. Locked down, again, practice some more, back into the studio…I think that we did it in three main sessions.

And straight after the listening party was the gig at The Black Prince, would this have been the first time that the majority of the new tracks were performed live?

We have definitely played all of them at least once, when we went on tour with Mason Hill – about eighteen months ago – we used that as an opportunity to test some of the songs. We picked about four or five that we then started to put into the set around the ‘Self Aware’ stuff, just to try them out. Songs like ‘Quiet Commotion’, and ‘Your Whole Life Slows’ didn’t get a look in on that tour, and maybe a few others that we only played once. So The Black Prince would have been the first time that we did absolutely everything in one go. We are still getting used to playing these songs, there were some that we played pretty well, and some where it is like we are comfortable playing in the practice room but we are not at gig level yet.

Did the crowd’s reaction to any particular song surprise you? Maybe one that you weren’t expecting to go down as well as the rest, but it did.

The singles from the new album and the old stuff from ‘Self Aware’ obviously went down the best, with the new stuff, people are still getting used to it so there was a lot of listening going on. Everything was well received but the part that surprised me the most was the amount of singing by the crowd during the old songs. We probably haven’t played to as big a crowd of Empyre fans as we did that night, and there were songs from the last album like ‘Stone’ that people were singing along to, and I could hear them almost as loud as my vocal. It’s great but it almost puts me off because we are not used to that! And if you watch footage of it online, you will see us react, we do a doubletake and are like “What?!…you are singing?” [laughs] So those are the moments that surprised me. Big response for ‘Waking Light’ and ‘Parasites’ that we opened with, we started big and they went down really well.

‘Waking Light’ is a fantastic set opener, but it is easy to see that one gradually moving up the setlist. With the new material, is the setlist a work in progress?

It is exactly that, yes. And that’s pretty much the way that we see ‘Waking Light’ as well. We think that it is going to be a biggie live for us, we have used it as a set opener a few times because we want to make an impact. The advantage to ‘Waking Light’ is that I don’t play guitar in that song and I can move about on stage, and at The Black Prince, I could get right to the edge of the stage and could literally touch people, so that was great. But it is a work in progress and we will probably mix things up when we play our launch gig at KK’s in April, we will still play everything from ‘Relentless’ but we will mix it up. So I don’t know if we will start with ‘Waking Light’, it is a good one to start with though because I can engage with the crowd straight away…and that’s a good way to bring people in from the start.

You mentioned the crowd singing along, they obviously didn’t follow the rules on the Empyre t-shirt: “No singing. No clapping. No looking as if you are having a good time.”

Bastards! They don’t fucking listen! No matter how many times we tell them they still don’t get it. It’s only getting worse! I don’t know why we bother. [laughs]

The self-deprecating sense of humour has always been a part of Empyre, in a way, you guys remind me of John Cleese as Basil Fawlty…very dry and with a wry smile on your face, is this the way that you have always been?

[laughs] Yes! I think most of us in the band are quite cynical at times, can be sarcastic, and have a dark sense of humour. But because we have dark, brooding, atmospheric, melancholic songs, we don’t really smile much onstage. We have a bit of banter and love the heckling from the crowd, but if we didn’t do that then we would have a massive reputation as being up ourselves, and stand-offish. We certainly want to show that we are serious, and highly ambitious, and want to do these things…but we are also really happy to take the piss out of the persona and break that fourth wall, and I think that it is funny when everyone can take the piss with us. The latest thing that we are doing is that in pictures we are not doing the metal horns, we are doing the [stereotypical Italian] hand gesture [think Inglorious Basterds]. And if we are playing a support set and announce that the next song is the last song and we get boos…we are trying to increase the boos! When we did our crowd shot at The Black Prince and everyone has their hands up…they are booing, and we think that is hilarious because if anyone is videoing that and posted it on social media, then it would be so confusing to anyone who didn’t know the band…”Why are they all booing?”

Empyre being signed to the prestigious label Kscope is such a perfect fit…

We feel that it is a fit in terms of songwriting. We know that you couldn’t call us a prog band, but regardless of the genre when you have got people like Steven Wilson, Alex Lifeson’s new band [Envy of None], The Pineapple Thief, Anathema…a lot of them have come and gone with the label, maybe the back catalog is still there…but there is a rich history there of renowned songwriters, and that’s one of the reasons that we are proud to be on Kscope. We feel that we are being validated as more than just a rock band, and from a dark brooding sense, bands like Klone, O.R.K., and Steven Wilson to an extent…I mean, on ‘Relentless’ with the track ‘Forget Me’ I set out to write the saddest most depressing song I could…that was my aim. [laughs]

Do you feel that you succeeded in doing just that?!

I hope that it is emotional, and I hope that it is sad, but it actually has a euphoric and beautiful ending. It has the piano part in the middle that really breaks it down and Did is doing these weeping swells over the top, and I think that is perhaps the saddest bit. The bit where we are supposed to give you goosebumps. And then from there it just explodes into this typical Empyre big outro. So yes, I think that we did a particularly good job on that one, and that was one that good a really strong reaction at The Black Prince.

When did Kscope come on board?

At the start of 2022 we were starting to prepare to release the album ourselves, and our manager – who was working with another band on Peaceville Records, Kscope’s sister label – always had Kscope in mind for us if we could produce the goods, and he knew that the album was “the goods”, so he said, “Let’s give it to Kscope to see what they think”. In the meantime, we were just planning our release, and Kscope came back and said that they were interested. I remember sitting on the sofa one night, I think it was a Tuesday night, 8 o’clock, and our manager messaged me to say “…they are interested…”, and I was like “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” [laughs]. I was showing my girlfriend the message and saying…“Look at that!”. Everything moved quite slowly after that; they had to speak to the head honcho, and I wanted to speak to the musicians union to get some legal advice, between the two parties it did take a while because we wanted to get it right. Everyone was very patient and finally, we announced it all in September 2022.


Find out why Empyre and Kscope are a perfect match when ‘Relentless’ is released on March 31st, pre-order information, here.

Forthcoming live dates:

April 30th – Station 18 Festival, Swansea

June 2nd – LoveRocks Festival, Bournemouth

July 30th – Steelhouse Festival, Wales

Tickets are available from:

Interview – Dave

Portrait image – Rob Blackham

All live images – Dave Jamieson

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