A couple of weeks back, following their celebrated Glastonbury performances, SoulCuts sat down over lunch in a Wimbledon pub with the three affable fellas from Electric Empire – Dennis (vocals and guitar), Aaron (keys and vocals) and Jason (drums and vocals) – to discuss their debut album, their inspirations and what the future holds in store for the band.
The group’s debut album is a timeless collection of classic soul that I’ve been banging on about on SoulCuts for some time (check my review here). We’re not the only ones though, any soul website, radio station, podcast or blog worth its salt has featured Electric Empire over the past month. And with good reason! SoulCuts started the conversation…
SoulCuts: Given that the album actually came out a year and a half ago, I was surprised that we haven’t heard about you already, particularly in the UK, as there’s a really strong soul community here, always looking to support ‘new’ soul.
Dennis: We were surprised too (laughs).
Aaron: The only way it’s been known about over here is via a few iTunes sales, but we came over here to move that on, do the Glastonbury festival and reach out to more people.
Dennis: What did you think when you first heard it? Were you thinking about three black American guys out there, doing it?
SoulCuts: Well, the press release let me know that you guys were pretty big down under.
SoulCuts: Um, not really! Honestly, I was hoping for a Home & Away/ Golden Lady mash-up, super funked up vibe!
Aaron: Oh man, what do you call thongs here?
Aaron: Oh shit, right mate. Pictured us in three thongs! (Shakes his head).
SoulCuts: That’s a more specialist kind of vibe, right.
SoulCuts: OK, let me pull myself together, we need to talk about the music. It’s a unique approach to have three vocalists, all instrumentalists in the band, sharing lead vocal chores. Was this always part of the sound by design?
Dennis: Pretty much.
Jason: It naturally happened, just by the nature of the songs that we wrote. Even though some of the songs were written when Dennis and Aaaron hooked up in London.
Dennis: Yeah, we started creating the album when we hooked up here in London in 2007.
Aaron: Yeah, it just started out as writing exercise. An attempt to write the kind of songs we like listening to.
Dennis: There was never a conversation, like, come on, let’s start a band.
Aaron: Nah, it was just an exercise. You know, why don’t we try and write some songs like those that we put on everyday, be it Marvin or Stevie, and it just started like that. We really wanted to write songs that are not so complicated with that old sounding classic chord progression, melodies…
SoulCuts: So, what album’s would you like to see booked Electric Empire in somebody’s collection?
Jason: Hopefully, Stevie Wonder, Talking Book. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On.
Dennis: Hopefully people in the UK that are listening to Adele will pick it up, because (laughs) you know that’s a LARGE population!
Aaron: It would be great to find ourselves next to the greats, but also current and fresh.
SoulCuts: The music’s inspired from the past, but not stuck in it.
Aaron: That’s right. Our sound is evolving as a band, we’re evolving from that 76 to 82 soul sound.
Dennis: You know. I like where we are now. We’re still underground, and I like that a lot.
SoulCuts: But the sound isn’t underground, it’s very well produced, welcoming, not obtuse or overly challenging for the floating listener.
Dennis: No it’s not.
Dennis: Just word-of-mouth, people discovering us by a word-of-mouth reputation.
Aaron: Maybe the reputation. It’s not pop, it’s not big production stuff. It’s something that you search for, perhaps discover, like how people got on to music back in the day. A lot of the time we get discovered at our live shows and people vibe off that because we try and put on a really good live show, connecting with the audience, not just standing there looking cool.
Dennis: We just did Glastonbury and bumped into Neneh Cherry, taking her kid to see Beyonce. And I didn’t have a CD and then our tour manager went and got one and she’s talking to him and says, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of this band. Some Australian friends said I should check them out’. So the word is spreading. That’s so cool. It’s really nice.
Aaron: There’s something cool about having that reputation.
Jason: We just see our Facebook wall ticking over after the live shows, it’s great to see the feedback and guys wanting us to perform more shows, asking when we’re performing in London.
SoulCuts: So guys, the name, Electric Empire. For me, it doesn’t convey the sound of the band. Please, help the foolish English boy out…
Dennis: OK. Well, the name comes from…me and my brother were in a band, he passed away in 2005, so one of the last songs he wrote was called Love Electric, which was about Heaven, so I just added Empire to the end of that and thought that the next project would be called that…and I felt that it was a universal thing, representing above and…
SoulCuts: OK, I get it. That’s meaningful, and cool!
Aaron: It was cool. When we were doing that exercise, you said that name Electric Empire.
Jason: It’s just a name that stuck, meaning so much more than just a production company.
Aaron: I like it because it does spark discussion…I mean, it sounds like a rock band, it’s quite an epic name…touch wood, it becomes a bigger name.
Jason: And the Empire’s building, those people that have looked us up, bought the album, come to the shows, they’re all part of it. And hopefully as it grows, so will the live shows, with more percussion, brass, you know, with more budget…
SoulCuts: Talking of budgets, it’s a pretty ‘full’ sounding album with live instrumentation, horns etc. It doesn’t sound like there were any budgetary constraints when making the album.
Dennis: We just pulled all our recording gear together and did it with no budget.
Jason: We did it over at my studio in Melbourne, on top of a mechanic’s warehouse, I separated three rooms, vocal, drum and control, and we recorded and tracked it all there.
Dennis: Yeah, all vocals were done with us in the same booth, snug tight round one mic, sharing headphones.
Aaron: You know, people often ask us, ‘Man, what gear do you use?’ But it’s not like we had a lot of vintage gear.
Dennis: The sound we achieved was just cutting top end. It’s not the answer, but we wanted that vintage sound and that definitely worked.
Aaron: All of us have that background of old soul music, it’s been fed to us since we came out of the womb. If you get into the right frame of mind and keep sculpting, you can get that right sound. It’s just a matter of time.
SoulCuts: On the first few listens of the album, I think your influences come to the fore very strongly.
Dennis: Who do you hear?
SoulCuts: Stevie, Donnie… I mean Stevie’s the strongest. But it’s from that less commercial era, the pre-75 era to my ears.
All: You’re right, man.
SoulCuts: First of all, I thought, is this just an emulation of Stevie’s sound, but then I’ve always considered that Stevie actually created his own sub-genre of soul, or actually even a distinct genre, so I listened again and, undoubtedly, the songs stand out as their own, despite the influences.
Aaron: You’re not wrong. The Stevie vibe is strong, particularly on tracks like Then It’s Over, Brother, Life Again, Everything I Am. It is very Stevie in terms of the production, and we really wanted to get that. But, I think you’ve touched on something very important. Stevie is our bible. And we were cool with people comparing us with Stevie, but we knew we weren’t ripping off songs, they were their own, as you say.
Dennis: When you talk about Stevie, there’s the commercial stuff, the 80s stuff, but there’s Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life, Secret Life of Plants.
SoulCuts: Now you’re going deep.
Dennis: (Laughs) You know, we never thought we’d get back to London and that people would pick up the record, and enjoy it. You know when we made the album, we did wonder if anybody would support it.
Jason: We’re loving that the album was made in 2009, but it’s 2011 and people are discovering it and finding it to be fresh.
Aaron: The first album, we really just did it for us. And created something that’s just us.
SoulCuts: You’ve released the album independently. Did you start the album thinking that you’d look for a deal?
Aaron: We were always thinking, we’ll make it for ourselves and maybe there’ll be interest. Hopefully. And there has been some interest, but not from the right labels.
Aaron: We had our eye on coming over to the UK all along. There’s a bit of the underground vibe and coolness, something great about having the UK support before going to the states. UK and Europe is open to music from all areas, open-minded, less pop generated. It’s great to have that behind you before going to the States, which we would love to do.
SoulCuts: Reading your bio, your music is apparently ‘soul searching’.
Dennis: Oh god! (Laughs)
SoulCuts: What does that mean?
Jason: I guess the bio was written a while back, but, in saying that, I think it’s more a personal term than a description of what we’re doing through the music, rather than creating a new genre of soul music.
Aaron: The first album was quite mellow and emotional, with Derek’s brother passing. It called for soul searching.
Dennis: I still pick up the album and can’t believe that we collectively found those tunes.
Jason: It’s the biggest compliment to say the album’s Stevie-esque. I mean, I’d be worried if you said that it sounded like Curtis. Although we do love Curtis! It’s good that we’ve got that period off our chest and now we’re moving on. When we get home we’re knee-deep in recording the new album.
Dennis: I reckon if we have an interview in another year’s time we may have a different discussion, perhaps less about influences and more where we’ve moved to. I mean, we’re always going to be compared to records of the past due to the nature of our sound, and that’s cool. I mean, we’re never going to sound like an Usher or a Justin Beiber record.
SoulCuts: Oh man! (Laughs)
Aaron: Our goal is to stand on our own songs.
Dennis: While people see us at the shows performing, we’ve all got our own studios and each one of us is completely obsessed with production and searching to get that timeless soul sound.
SoulCuts: Will the Empire grow, would you produce for other people? Don’t get me wrong, the band is great, and we need you to make more music, but I can really see you guys doing production for other artists.
Jason: Totally, that’s something that we really aspire to do.
Dennis: A few artists in Australia have started that, including Kimbra, she’s just been signed to Warner Music Worldwide.
Jason: And we’ve just come off a tour with Mayer Hawthorne on the East Coast, so we can hopefully get a chance to remix his stuff.
Dennis: It’s funny. Mayer Hawthorne’s band had no idea that we were from Australia. They thought we were from St Louis (laughs).
Jason: It was a massive compliment, man.
Dennis: But you know, above all, we really love being in London and the UK, man! So great to know that people are feeling the music
Aaron: If we had the money, we’d consider living here. We may be coming back at the end of the year, hopefully. Possibly doing something big.
Dennis: Has the music been received well here? Don’t lie to us, man!
SoulCuts: Oh yeah. It’s that timeless sound, people will always pick up on that. Timeless rather than retro. I have a bit of an issue with the retro label.
Dennis: Yeah, we don’t like that label. I mean we’re aware of that, but, for us, it’s always song first. You could easily take a sixties sample, and loop it, yeah, it’s retro, but doesn’t get you over the line.
SoulCuts: Style first, not music.
Dennis: And that’s our influences, you know. The first album I heard as a small child was Songs in the Key of Life. It’s all about the music, not a look, or a label.
Aaron: These are our influences, we did it. They’re coming from the right place, they’re deep in us. We thought nobody would listen to it, and we did it for us. Making this album, it was like opening an old murder case and trying to solve it, you know.
Dennis: (Laughs) Oh man, that’s deep!
SoulCuts: Cheers guys, you just killed it!