Ten questions with Empathy Test

Empathy Test’s Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf
Super-smooth British synthpop masters Empathy Test have caught our attention recently during a Twitter scan of new music with their vibrantly textured melodies and haunting lyrics that stayed with us like a bittersweet memories of teenaged loves. The duo of singer Isaac Howlett and producer Adam Relf deftly blend ’80s-style electronic pop inspired by brilliant movie soundtracks like Drive, Terminator, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind along with modern indie groups like CHVRCHES and Purity Ring to create a stunningly layered and satisfying sound.
Empathy Test will publicly debut the entire new EP Throwing Stones live at a November 28 release party at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London. Tickets are available online for £6 or at the door for £8. Fellow London synthpoppers New Arcades are slated as the opening act.  The EP will be available through the Brooklyn-based Stars & Letters label on December 9.
Throwing Stones cover art by Adam Relf
1.  Gentlemen, congratulations on your gorgeous new EP Throwing Stones. You both seem to be in perfect synch with each other musically. What do you attribute to that success?
Well, we’ve known each other since we were kids, so we’ve had a long time to get to know each other! We share a mutual love for a good hook and a catchy chorus and we both enjoy music that’s dark and uplifting. We have our roles in the band well-defined, we play to our strengths and we respect each other’s opinions about how best to do things. That’s it really. 

2.  You two have been together as Empathy Test for less than a year.  What did you do previously?
Isaac was an acoustic singer-songwriter and Adam produced dance records for a few independent London labels. We attempted to work together before but it never really got off the ground. With Empathy Test everything just clicked. In synth pop we found a genre that suited us both, and we finally had the skills and experience to make it work. 

3.  Although you have been childhood friends, you just recently decided to play music together. What drew you together for this project?
Isaac took a two year sabbatical from London, spending a year in Brighton and a year and Barcelona. He came back to London and we started hanging out again. One day we were at Adam’s place talking about movies and music, and we were just inspired to make some new music. We recorded Losing Touch, and quickly realised we were onto something.


4.  You mentioned your shared love for ’80s synth pop, and your music does seem to echo shades bands like of Depeche Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. What are your influences from that time period?
We can’t say that either of us really listen to any of those bands now, although we are aware of them and the influence they’ve had on the current electronic music scene. Adam is particularly into the movie soundtracks of that time and as we use ’80s analogue synth samples we’re bound to sound a bit like the bands you mentioned. 
5.  There has been a resurgence of synth pop over the past decade or so with innovative bands like yours and also those like M83, Sylvan Esso, and Hot Chip. Is this a continuation of what was started 30 years ago, or do you see this as a completely new direction for the genre?  How do you see the genre progressing?
Again, we don’t really see ourselves as part of a particular genre or movement. Synth pop has seen a big resurgence as part of the 80s revival in all areas of culture. It’s great to be riding this wave but we like to think that as our career progresses our music will develop and change, as it already has done. We wouldn’t be surprised if the bottom falls out of the synth pop thing quite rapidly now because we’re nearing saturation point. We hope to stick around a bit longer.
6.  Visual art is an important component to your music. Can you explain more about that?
Adam is an illustrator as well as a music producer so he was always going to do our artwork. The artwork is inspired by the music we make and Adam likes to create a new piece for every track. We made a conscious decision at first, not to put up any “band photos” or too much info about us, we wanted to give the music a life of its own. The artwork was and is part of that. 
7.  You also both share an appreciation for movie synth pop soundtracks like Drive and Aliens. What about those soundtracks drew you to that music, and what made you want to expand on it?
There’s something primal and deeply evocative about analogue synth sounds that we find really moving. They’re alien and synthetic but at the same time somehow organic and human. They immediately give a dream-like quality to a track; we wanted to build on that. Essentially, we wanted to work those cinematic soundscapes into proper, memorable pop songs. I think we achieved that immediately with Losing Touch.

8.  You’re kicking off your tour with an EP release party on November 28 at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London. Can you tell us where you will tour and what to expect at your live shows?
We haven’t actually booked a proper tour yet, as such. We’re looking to sign with an agency because booking tours is a logistical nightmare we’d rather not deal with! We’ll start with a UK tour, then Europe and finally America, it’s all a question of how big we get and how soon! The live show is something we’re developing at the moment. We’ve got a new set-up where all of our instruments, including the drum pads, will be on three separate tripods. We’re auditioning a drummer to join us on stage. 
9.  You recently signed with the U.S. indie label Stars & Letters Records in Brooklyn, New York, which seems to be a great fit for you.  They boast a rather impressive stable of indie acts such as Shocking Pinks, Bad Blocks, and Misfit Mod.  We know you are about to release the new EP, but can you tell us what’s on the horizon with Stars & Letters (e.g., new album, videos, etc.)?
Everything depends on the success of the Throwing Stones EP really. Once the EP lands and the dust settles it’ll be a case of taking stock and sitting down with Stars & Letters to decide the next move. Stars & Letters are very keen for us to release a début album with them – they wanted an album as our first release, but it had always been our plan to release at least two EPs before a full-length album. For us it’s about building an audience. The last thing we want to do is to release a whole album and no one to hear it! 
However, we’ve plans for a Throwing Stones Remixed EP in the new year, with some really exciting bands lined up to do remixes. The first one, by Sweden’s Lost Years, has already previewed on Soundcloud. We’re also working with Richard Swarbrick, who did the Liverpool FC animation featuring Losing touch on our first music video. We’ve seen his ideas for it and it looks incredible.

10.  Any chance you’ll bring your live show to the States?  Specifically this blog’s hometown of New Orleans?
Yeah, definitely, I’m guessing we’ll make a preliminary trip over to NYC as Stars & Letters are based there. We’ve applied for SXSW too, so maybe if we get picked we’ll be over for that. As we say to everyone that asks, we will get to you as soon as we are physically able to! 

Tasty synth-pop from London’s Empathy Test



One of the better offerings from the synth-pop world is coming from the duo of Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf, collectively known as Empathy Test.  In their latest offering Throwing Stones, the title track from their forthcoming EP due in November, Howlett’s haunting voice floats through Reif’s beautiful electronic landscapes for a satisfying electronic pop slice not heard since the genre’s golden age of the 1980s.

Taking their name from the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, producer Relf seem to disprove the movie’s premise that advanced machines lack empathy.  His deft use of electronic media demonstrates a mastery of warm melodies that envelop you like a warm down comforter on a chilly country evening.

Empathy Test will throw their EP release party on November 28 at the Hoxton Square Kitchen and Bar in London.  We look forward to hearing more from these two.

FRIDAY 5 ACROSS THE LIPS: Five bands we wish would get back together


1.  LCD Soundsystem


Years active: 2001-2011
Number of albums: 9 (including three EPs)

While I try to keep an open mind to all genres, I’m not a fan of what is generally known as “dance music.”  It might be because it seems like there isn’t much of a creative process in making it.  It might be because the lyrics to most dance songs seem vapid at best.  Or it might be because I have no coordination and can’t dance my way out of an open burlap sack with all the sides removed.  Regardless, it’s just not for me…unless that dance music is coming from LCD Soundsystem.

I’ll admit that I haven’t been a long-time fan.  I can’t go into the nuances of their music or tell you the different stages of their decade-long career.  I came to the LCD Soundsystem game late, perhaps two or three years before the breakup.  I became hooked to their clever, humorous approach to dance, which made it more appealing. What’s more fun than moving your hips to “Losing My Edge” while watching frontman James Murphy getting his face slapped repeatedly to the beat for four minutes and 27 seconds?  Or the thought of “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” where you can “Dance Yrself Clean (with Kermit and the Muppets)” with lots of “Drunk Girls“?

Yep, that was one dance party I wish never ended.

2.  The Smiths


Years active: 1982-1987
Number of albums: 16 (including 10 compilations and one EP)

For some reason, Morrissey recently declared in a Billboard magazine interview that “I don’t know a single person who wants a Smiths reunion.”


I’m here to declare I’m that single person who really wants a Smiths reunion.  I’ll sit in the audience by myself if I have to.

I first heard the Smiths during my DJ days at the University of Denver’s student-run radio station, KAOS, from 1983-86.  It was a far cry from what I was used to during my high school days in central Michigan, where we were fed a regular diet of Bob Seger, Journey, and Billy Joel.  The most alternative thing we listened to at the time was maybe Cheap Trick (Patti Smith didn’t count because the only tune we heard her sing was actually a Bruce Springsteen song).

There was something off about the Smiths, but I loved it.  Morrissey’s velvety smooth voice interlaced with Johnny Marr’s dirty guitar work created an incredibly complex and gorgeous tapestry of juxtaposing sounds.  Couple that with the irony of Morrissey’s lyrics dripping with sadness, depression, and defeat against a wall of Marr’s joyously upbeat chords and you had something offbeat, fun, and as addictive as heroin-laced Dove chocolates.  I didn’t really know what to make of the Smiths at the time, but I knew I could never go home again.  And I was very good with that proposition.

3.  Das Racist


Years active: 2008-2011
Number of albums: One studio album, two mixtapes

Remember when hip hop was clever and fun?  Yeah, I barely remember that either.  The likes of Sugar Hill Gang, Beastie Boys, and NWA are long gone and have been replaced by rappers slurring lazy rhymes with no irony, sense of humor, or any purpose.

Then along came Das Racist, three apparent slackers from Brooklyn with degrees from  Wesleyan University who employed humor, academic references, foreign allusions, and unconventional style of rap that hasn’t been heard in years.  Taking their name from the short-lived MTV show  Wonder Showzen in which a character constantly yelled “That’s Racist!” between skits, the trio intentionally or unintentionally set out to make rap fun again, which included songs about trying to find your buddy at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, a tribunal led by Michael Jackson, and the finer points of stalking.  Some saw them as a joke, others saw them as an important milestone in modern hip hop.

Incidentally, while the name was meant to be a clever homage to Wonder Showzen and how a serious accusation had become little more than a quip, it backfired as some thought the group was comprised of white supremacists, which is not the case.  All three are men of color who are definately not racists.

4. Sonic Youth


Years active: 1981-2011
Number of albums: 30 (including four compilations and eight EPs)

I pretty much grew up with Sonic Youth, so I took the news rather hard when I found out they disbanded following the separation and subsequent divorce of guitarist Thurston Moore and his wife/bandmate, bassist Kim Gordon.  It was like losing someone you love who was also taking all her cool stuff with her.  It was devastating.

Sonic Youth is arguably most influential band of the modern rock era.  They did things with guitars that had never been thought of before, such as alternative tuning and playing the instruments with screwdrivers and drum sticks to create vast walls of dissonant sound.  They championed other indie bands, such as Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, and Cell, after signing with Geffen’s DCG label.  They came out with 30 great albums in 30 years (not counting singles and bootlegs), nary a clunker among them.  They are the greatest band of all time.

Their fifth album Daydream Nation was enshrined in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005 for being “…culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”  The Registry describes the album:

“Pioneer members of New York City’s clangorous early 1980s No Wave scene, Sonic Youth are renowned for a glorious form of noise-based chaos. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo had previously performed with Glenn Branca’s large guitar ensembles, and their alternative guitar tunings and ringing harmonies attest to this apprenticeship. On Daydream Nation, their breakthrough album, the group’s forays into outright noise always return to melodic songs that employ hypnotic arpeggios, driving punk rock rhythmic figures and furious gales of guitar-based noise. Bassist Kim Gordon’s haunting vocals and edgy lyrics add additional depth to the numbers she sings.”

And now they’re no more.  Given three decades of unfettered brilliance, we’re fortunate to have such an in-depth collection of incredible avante-garde musical art from which to draw because they’re gone for good.  The world is worse for it.  One more show wouldn’t deaden the pain, but it might alleviate it a bit.

5.  Cell


Years active: 1990-1995
Number of albums: 2

Cell had so much potential, but was a victim of being in the right place at the wrong time.  I first heard them when they opened up for Sonic Youth at Tuxedo Junction in Danbury, Conn., on July 2, 1992, to promote their first album, Slo-Blo.  That was about a year into the grunge era which, unfortunately, would only last a few more years as Kurt Cobain’s suicide on April 5, 1994, marked the decline of the genre.  As grunge went, so did Cell.  By 1994 they released their second and final album, Living Room, then they faded into oblivion.  During their short career, they produced some powerful guitar rock that was just as much on their albums as it was live.

Tei Shi’s pleasant late-night psychotropic ride

I don’t know much about Tei Shi, which I found on Gorilla vs. Bear while randomly listening to posted songs, but I know I really like what she’s doing.  There’s very little about Brooklyn singer on the Web other than her rich, trippy electonica pop songs such as “Nevermind the End,” which puts me in mind of a tranquilizing moonlight ride through the snowy woods.  Nice way to spend a Friday night…

“Fall in Love” with Phantogram

I was instantly struck by “Fall in Love” by New York’s Phantogram, which I heard on Pandora tonight while ironing my shirts (the excitement never stops).  Its warm, sensuous beat seduces you from the moment it starts.  Filed with lush, dreamy vocals and a vibrating low-end, Sarah Barthel’s sultry voice flirts flawlessly with Josh Carter’s pulsating keyboard work.  They truly have a knack for ethereal psychedelia and swooning, stabbing synths.

Lykke Li to release new album May 5

Pitchfork announced today Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li will release her new album I Never Learn on May 5. The new album follows up 2011′s Wounded Rhymes, and is the last in a trilogy began with her 2008 release Youth Novels.

Helping fuel anticipation, Lykke released this trailer for the forthcoming album:

And here’s a little more if you can’t get enough Lykke: