Artist Session: Empathy Test

With a stunning new single dropping on September 9th, we caught up with London electronic pop duo Empathy Test about their sci-fi influences, European tour, and more.

Hey guys thanks for chatting! Who is Empathy Test?
Empathy Test is Isaac Howlett (vocals) and Adam Relf (production). We’ve known each other since we were six and eight respectively and have been friends ever since. We grew up in the South East of England and we both now live in London.

We heard that your name was inspired by the film Blade Runner. Tell us about that and has that movie influenced your style?
We made our first EP (Losing Touch) before thinking of a name. So it was a case of finding something that worked with the music. We’ve had a lot of people compliment on it, so we’re glad we spent some time thinking about it. Isaac decided to re-watch one of our favourite sci-fi movies, Blade Runner, for inspiration. In the movie, they use an ‘empathy test’ to work out if someone is a human or a highly advanced android called a ‘replicant’. The theory is that it’s empathy that distinguishes us from machines. Empathy Test makes music with machines but that music speaks to people on a very human level. The fact that the Blade Runner soundtrack was also an influence on our music, created a neat circle of reference.

You’re currently on tour in Europe, making stops in the UK and Germany, what can fans expect when they see you live for the first time?
On the 16th September, we head out on a proper tour bus for the very first time and will be on tour for two weeks straight. We’ve recently taken on a new live keyboard player, Jacob, and drummer, Christina. They’re both very cool and very talented so we’re really excited to try out the new setup with them. We’re going to be doing a lot more things “live” too, so hopefully it’ll push the energy levels up a notch. You can expect to hear a bit more variation from what you hear on the recordings and Isaac stepping out from behind his keyboard completely to connect with the crowd.

We loved your 4-track EP Throwing Stones. Clash Magazine described it as, “gorgeous, sumptuous future pop which arrives dripping in synthesised sounds, there are nods towards Depeche Mode here alongside 21st century producers such as Purity Ring.”  Who are some of of your biggest influences?
For Adam, it’s ‘80s sci-fi soundtracks by composers like John Williams (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and James Horner (Star Trek, Aliens). That was our starting point. Our aim was to mix that analogue synth sound that has seen a resurgence with soundtracks for movies like Drive and now again with Stranger Things, with proper songs, catchy choruses and memorable hooks. Isaac’s songwriting and vocal style is influenced by what he was listening to when he first started writing; ‘90s Britpop bands like James and Placebo. Add to that a few flourishes of underground dance music producers like Sub Focus and Burial, and you’re starting to build a picture of the anatomy of an Empathy Test track.

How has your sound evolved the release of your debut EP Losing Touch?
Losing Touch was minimal and dark, with simple, kick-snare, kick-snare beats. The second EP, Throwing Stones was a little lighter and brighter. The music was more complex and the four tracks more varied in style and sound. EP closer Hope For Me hinted at a more modern, cutting-edge electronic sound. We both really liked that more relaxed, confident style. But after heading wholeheartedly down that path we discovered that our music had lost some of the magic that made it special in the first place. It was those analogue synth sounds, basically. So we overhauled all the new material we’d done, putting those ‘80s samples back in and watching the tracks come to life. Our new double A-side single is kind of an experiment, to see which track people prefer, because they’re quite different.

Describe your sound in one word.
We like to think Clash did a pretty good job of that with “sumptuous.”

Give us the rundown of your double A-Side ‘Demons / Seeing Stars.’
Demons is a live favourite and popular with the fans who liked the darker sound of our first EP. We actually scrapped this version of the track and made a new one…which we also scrapped! It was only after we saw the reaction from our fans when we said Demons would not be appearing on our album, that we revisited the original version and realised there really wasn’t much wrong with it. Around the same time, we were approached by Z2 Comics, who wanted to use our track Kirrilee in one of their YouTube videos. The comic book they were advertising was about a demon, so we immediately thought maybe they should use Demons instead. We quickly mixed and mastered Demons and sent it over, but they had their hearts set on Kirrilee. So then we thought, we might as well release it now.  But we felt Demons was something of a throwback to a sound we’d moved away from, so to balance it out we’d throw in another track, Seeing Stars, that perhaps says more about the direction we’re headed.

What was your most memorable performance?
Definitely Wave Gotik Treffen (the huge Gothic music festival in Germany). We played in this massive venue with a domed roof, to at least a thousand people. We were stunned. The only problem was, we couldn’t hear anything on stage. The venue and stage were huge and we were so far away from the monitors. We really struggled to hold it together. When we came off stage we were really depressed about it – we’d been given this amazing opportunity and we’d messed it up. But then we went to the merch stand and found it swamped with people. We sold 200 CDs and were signing stuff for half an hour. So it can’t have been that bad!

What do you guys do outside of music?
Art, cinema, literature, theatre, drinking, partying, festivals. That probably just about covers it.

KrissyArtist Session: Empathy Test

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