Interview: The Empire Shall Fall

Regular visitors to EspyRock may have recently read our review of ‘Awaken’, the remarkable debut album from Rhode Island metallers The Empire Shall Fall. The long-awaited European release date of this absolutely astounding record has finally arrived, and this week I was able to interview the band, discussing their main influences, the process of writing and recording ‘Awaken’, the formation of the band, and just about everything else you could wish to know about the world of The Empire Shall Fall. Here is what they had to say.

There is something of a contrast in your musical backgrounds, which range from metalcore to hip-hop. What brought the band together?

Jake Davenport (lead guitar): Love for a variety of music and having a strong message.

Jesse Leach (vocals): I, for one, have always enjoyed a wide range of music, from reggae to indie rock to grindcore. To me, meeting a person who shares the same views on music is pretty rare. Everyone in this band has a love for different styles of music and we all share those with one another. This definitely helps when writing as we have many inspirations to draw from. When we travel in the van, and swap iPods and playlists, it can be almost as fun as playing the shows.

When the band was formed in 2008, did you have any specific goals or expectations in mind, or was it simply a case of five people coming together to create music that they love, without any particular aims?

Jake: When the band formed in 2008 it was just the four of us, with Alex Chapman on drums instead of Jeff. We had some tentative hopes for the project, but most of that time was just spent practising and hashing out “us”. We had to figure out who we were, and it took all of two years.

Nick Sollecito (bass): Yeah, and that being I think any band has hopes of being able to reach a large audience and be respected. We are getting there.

What was behind the decision to name the band The Empire Shall Fall, and what does the name represent?

Jake: Jesse had the name and we all liked it. “Empire” is kind of open-ended. It can stand for corporate exploitation, political corruption, and can even personify racism and violence.

Jesse: What Jake said.

How was the experience of writing and recording the debut album? Given that each of you has been through the process as members of other bands, do you feel that this put you in a better position than other new bands?

Jake: In short: hell. Recording was an unorganized mess and we really got on each others’ nerves. But we are so proud of what we did, and the fact that we did it ourselves, and now we know how to do it better next time. Personally, TESF has brought out a different side of me musically and personally, and I could not be more grateful.

Jesse: For the most part, I enjoyed my vocal sessions. Working with Marcus (guitarist/producer), Mike Slap (engineer and emcee for the group Symmetry), and Eric (engineer at Sound Ape studios in Providence, RI) was a great experience. They were all fun to work with and they were all able to get into the groove with me. Big respect to those guys! I did, however, have a three month creative block, but the results were the songs ‘Awaken’ and ‘Our Own’, so it was worth the stress, in my mind.

Jeff Pitts (drums): All I can say is this: it was incredibly comfortable, regardless of any (and all) of the speed-bumps we encountered along the way. Drum-tracking was really organic and just felt unnaturally natural (if that makes any sense), as compared to other bands I’ve been in. I think having done this quite a few times before with other bands, you really tend to appreciate when things go well, as you have past experiences to draw comparisons to. But I suppose the inverse could also be said about having a really bad experience with a current situation, when you’ve had good experiences in the past. I guess it really just comes down to having realistic expectations, and I think the more experience you have, the more realistic your expectations will ultimately be.

Jake and Marcus, as your performances on ‘Awaken’ bring together contrasting styles of metal, as well as elements of other genres, you must have been inspired by an intriguing array of guitarists. Is there anyone in particular who stands out as a major influence?

Jake: I can’t honestly say one in particular, even if you specified a genre. Although, I would certainly include the guys in Meshuggah, Bulb from Periphery, and Tosin of Animals As Leaders, and the dudes from After The Burial. Studying them taught me to approach the guitar in all new ways.

Marcus de Lisle (rhythm guitar): I have always been into melody, and taking the guitar and trying to express it as its own voice. If you really focus in on not only what you are playing but how you are playing it, then a whole new world of tone and expression is really right in front of you. In the past, certain players such as Joe Satriani, Guthrie Govan, Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc have influenced me both melodically speaking, as well as from a technical and emotional standpoint in my playing. They all have different approaches on the guitar, but each one of them demonstrates that raw emotion through their playing by the way they choose, bend and hit notes.

Jesse, you have stated that the lyrics on the album should remain open to the listener’s interpretation, and to me, they appear to represent an optimistic picture of self-belief, change and unity. What was your inspiration behind these lyrics?

Jesse: Life. It sounds generic and a bit general, but all too true. The life I have lived and live; the world around all of us. Like Bob Marley said: “So much trouble in this world”. To me, my goal as an artist and as a human is to be part of the solution. Even if I am just simply an inspiration to another artist or human to have a voice and express themselves, that is right on!

Jake and Marcus, one aspect of ‘Awaken’ which truly impressed me is its diversity, which is largely channelled through the guitars. ‘These Colors Bleed’, for instance, appears to contain strong elements of thrash, while ‘Choir Of Angels’ combines death metal with somewhat jazz-based melodies, not to mention the more expansive, epic riffs on the title track and ‘The Kingdom’. Was it a deliberate move to incorporate so many styles into your work, or did this come about unintentionally?

Jake: We very intentionally wanted to be diverse, but that was just a general rule. As we were writing, it was the songs themselves that dictated what would work and what wouldn’t.

Marcus: ‘Awaken’ was really just a matter of how we wrote together at that moment in time. When I joined the band they had already written ‘The Kingdom’, ‘These Colors Bleed’, ‘Voices Forming Weapons’ and had some rough sketches for a couple other tracks. I came into the fold as not only the new guitarist trying to feel out how these songs were going to take shape, but how things were going to evolve for the rest of the album. I also had to keep in mind that I was producing the album, so I wanted to make sure that, from my standpoint, each song served its purpose as initially intended, rather than trying to rewrite every song just because I think every song should be the next ‘Stairway To Heaven’. As for the various styles and genres we tend to flirt with, I think it just kind of happens how it happens during the creative process. We both play and listen to so many different kinds of music that, at this point, if a certain riff or song idea is coming off better in a different style or feel, then we will just go with it rather than force something to be played under certain guidelines for a genre. It’s liberating to be able to view writing music as music with no bias and not as writing music with restrictions.

Jesse: To me, it gets me excited to push genre boundaries. I tend to get restless with genre limitations. There is no other way with this band. We all come from different places, musically. However, I will say this: our next record will be a bit more “focused” as I feel we have found “our sound”.

Jeff, when you joined the band replacing Alex Chapman, were you able to make your mark on the band’s sound, or had much of the material already been written, meaning that you were playing someone else’s music?

Jeff: I would say that about 60% of the material had already been written by the time I joined, and by that I mean there were some songs that were complete for the most part, others that were partly established (but were sort of loose ideas consisting of verse-chorus-verse type formats) and others that were brand new ideas that were introduced and had came to fruition after Marcus and I joined. The latter was what ended up being the songs ‘Awaken’ and ‘Our Own’. I think with these two particular tracks you can really hear “me” and my style, but more importantly, you really hear “us” as the new five-piece that we were. To me, it’s night and day.

When I write drum parts for songs, I really try to focus on what it is the song calls for, rather than just playing something flashy for the sake of playing it. For example: a crazy drum fill in a part of the song when the song itself doesn’t call for it. It’s important to me to feel like every part has its place in the song. When it came time to really look at Alex’s parts, it was very apparent that there was very little that needed to be changed, if anything at all. I’ve known Alex for a long time and I have a great deal of respect for that guy. He’s an incredible player, and in my eyes, the majority of the parts he wrote were exactly what the song called for. Realizing that, my job as a drummer then became making sure that I was playing those parts as my own, but all the while incorporating those subtle nuances that make me a different drummer than Alex, as we are two very different drummers. It’s sort of a signature style or sound that I think each musician naturally develops over time. I wanted to make sure that I was doing his parts justice, but doing so with my own “voice”. I’ll be honest; it took me a while to really feel like I was able to do that. But I think if you heard the old demos of Alex’s songs, and compared them to the versions on the album, you would hear that if I’m playing Alex’s part, I’m doing so in my own style. At least I would hope that’s somewhat apparent, haha.

Which tracks on the album are you most proud of?

Jeff: For me personally, I’d have to say ‘Awaken’ and ‘Our Own’, as those two tracks were written after Marcus and I joined. I think they really represent the sound and direction that TESF is headed, and I think we were all really able to express ourselves in those tunes. They were a true collaborative effort, and I think you can really hear that in those two.

Nick, you grew up as a jazz musician in high school and you have become involved in many other genres, a key one being hip-hop. What was the appeal of The Empire Shall Fall and playing a much heavier style?

Nick: I don’t think I thought too much about jumping into a metal band. The idea came to me driving home from NYC while visiting Jesse. I just sort of did it. Though I will say that the appeal now is that I get to play loud, fast, and aggressive (something I don’t get to do in hip-hop/jazz). I have also grown to love the performance aspect of live shows. I feel like a kid that gets to run around all day until he is flat-out exhausted.

Jeff, if I’m right, you were part of a pop-rock/R&B band before you were involved with The Empire Shall Fall. How easy was the transition into playing that music and then coming to a heavier style?

Jeff: Well, I started playing drums when I was 11, and by the time I was 12 or so, found myself playing in hardcore/metal bands. I did this pretty much all through my teens, and for a few of those years, got into jazz pretty heavily. After high school I played in an indie-rock band, and then eventually in the pop/rock/R&B band that you’re speaking of, but all the while continuing to listen to the heaviest of the heavy (as well as a LOT of other genres, of course). I think I was really trying to push myself as a player, but really, I think I just took on any opportunity that came my way, regardless of what it sounded like (for the most part). When TESF sort of fell into my lap, I found myself having come full-circle, in a sense, by playing something this aggressively heavy again. I had never been opposed to playing a heavier style after high school, but never really sought it out either. The hardest transition for me was stamina, really. There was a distinct period of conditioning, I remember, and cramping up during rehearsal and sometimes even shows (as we began consistently playing shows immediately after I joined). It’s funny, because I still don’t really consider myself to be a “metal” drummer, so much as a drummer who plays in a metal band… and I have to say, I think I really like that. I like to wear many musical hats!

‘Awaken’ is, of course, released in Europe on June 21, and your fanbase seems to be growing rapidly in the build-up to the release. Are there any plans to tourEuropeat some stage?

Jake:As we have said before, we would love to, but we just can’t afford to yet.

Jesse: All in due time.

Which current bands and artists are you fans of? Are there any that you could perhaps recommend to our readers?

Jake:Certainly those listed before, but I have also been listening to a lot of Circa Survive, Coheed & Cambria and Minus the Bear lately (all of which have new albums that are all killer). Jesse just got me into Erykah Badu, and I have been revisiting some Coltrane and Guru records lately. I just bought Ravel’s Bolero (for 4 dollars!), and that, as expected, is awesome. And I’ve been listening to a lot of A Perfect Circle in honor of all the rumors floating around them (they are probably in my top 5 favorite bands ever). There is so much great music out there. Just start listening!

Jesse: Orb (anything by them is amazing), Dub Trio (just killer stuff & live they are ridiculous), Band of Horses, as Jake stated Erykah Badu (love that woman), Sage Francis (a friend of mine and a great artist), Symmetry (Nick’s other hip-hop band, great emcee), Romen Rok (a local emcee from Providence and a childhood friend), Big Business (massive grooves, ½ of the Melvins), Damian Marley (Bob Marley’s youngest son, his new record with Nas or “Welcome to Jamrock”), Red Sparowes (anything by them), Bat for Lashes (like a younger Bjork), Sun Kill Moon… so many more, but that’s it for off the top of my head.

Jeff: Jake and Jesse have listed a lot of my personal picks, so there’s no sense in listing them again. I’ve been listening to a lot more “Doom” lately: Neurosis, Eyehategod, etc. In that same vein, we recently played a show with the band Hull that ABSOLUTELY blew me away. Check those dudes out for sure. Also, the self-titled album from The Abominable Iron Sloth is ridiculous. I will forever be obsessed with the band Gogol Bordello (not as much about their newest release, however). They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I promise that you’ve never seem a more entertaining and energetic live show in your life. I was recently turned on to the band Karnivool and I really like their stuff. And finally, the band Candiria is an absolute must, in my opinion. In terms of blending many different genres, these guys were pioneers. I can’t really think of another band and drummer that has influenced my playing more. Start with their earlier stuff and go from there.

Jesse, throughout your career you have been renowned for your unique vocal abilities, which are demonstrated to great effect on ‘Awaken’. Do you have any words of advice for vocalists in metal bands who may be eager to improve their technique?

Jesse: Practice and really get to know your instrument. Push yourself to try different things; never settle and think you have mastered it, because you haven’t. Be original; do not simply emulate a vocalist you admire, try to “one up” them. Strive for greatness. Most important to me, though, is be honest with your lyrics. Be you.

Nick, I read that you were looking into opening your guitar company but the band took priority, so it took a step back, but you had stated that you were designing your own guitar. Are you still actively designing and working on your very own range of bass/guitars?

Nick: Man, I wish I had the time to focus on the guitar thing. I got about halfway through my first design, and then the album came out, and I haven’t had the time for guitars, as I act as manager of the band and I run all the merch and shipping. I’m just overloaded. On top of this, I just bought a house that needs a ton of work. I hope that in 2011 I may be able to start working on finishing that first design, but if all goes well with the band, I won’t get that chance. However, guitar design and sound fascinates me, as does wood-working. Someday I will get around to this.

Jesse, you recently rejoined your former Killswitch Engage bandmates onstage in Howard Jones’s absence. How was the experience of playing with those guys again?

Jesse: It was a lot of fun, as well as having brought closure to me. I was able to see behind the scenes of what they have been doing for the past eight years. I will honestly always remember those four shows. I am proud of them as a band and also quite grounded in who I am as a person. It further solidifies my feeling that all things do indeed happen for a reason.

As previously mentioned, ‘Awaken’ is being released this month in Europe. However, the album first came out in the US in November of last year, and time has passed since then. With that in mind, are there any upcoming plans to write new material in the near future?

Jake: Yes, we’ve already begun. If we are feeling optimistic enough, there might be some sneak peak rehearsal footage towards the end of the summer.

Given that all of you are experienced musicians, are there any words of advice that you would give to young bands who are in the early stages of their careers?

Jake: Honesty. You should be able to be yourself with your band, and you should expect the same from them.

Nick: If you are a in a band and you really want to “make it,” whatever that means, there is much more to it than just the music part. For us, the music is the easy part. The hard part is developing good business strategies and putting in a lot of work. It sounds shallow to see music as anything other than being creative and writing, but the reality of it is that you need to be organized and motivated to put in the work, because no one is going to do it for you. Give up the idea of making your goal “to get signed” because:

A: You will waste a ton of time trying to get the attention of record companies, rather than an audience.

B: The music industry changes every day. Record companies are not as relevant as they once were, and they don’t really know what to do about it. Take full advantage of this, as a young band.

Jeff: Get to know your fellow bandmates really well, as they are your family, and you should realistically be able to say anything to them, and they to you. Be open, honest and respectful to each other. Practice your ass off, but have fun. Start becoming comfortable with the idea that you’re almost certainly going to see each other’s “junk,” as at some point they are very likely going to try and trick you into looking at it anyway when you’re not expecting it…

Thank you all very much for your time.

Jake: Thanks for having us.

Jesse: One love to all and thank you to anyone who has supported us. We truly appreciate it!

Nick: Yes, thank you very much!

Jeff: Cheers!


About JJPorter

JJ is a 20-year-old student hailing from Scotland, who lives and breathes music. His favourite genres include a variety of styles of metal, as well as hardcore, punk, and just about everything in between. Contact JJPorter on Twitter or via Email.

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