Empathogen’s Experimental Rock Makes the Most of “Separation Anxiety” (Interview)
Like many other activities that involved people from disparate locations coming together in a small, airflow-devoid space for several hours, the pandemic really put a damper on band practice—and thus, much of what tends to come out of that, like songwriting and collaboration. More recently, a lot of people have been able to make it work, but there has been a suspicious rise in one-man black metal bands, too. It makes sense: digitally and remotely creating songs with other people is hard work—beyond the technical skills required to record, simply getting on the same page musically is something that was already hard in person and can be nearly impossible through email and Zoom calls.
Empathogen is a product of the pandemic, from its founding to its execution, and one that thrived due to its limitations. Drawing together members of Chicago's weird and heavy underground scene (including Snow Burial, Sons of Ra, Without Waves, Polarizer, Uncouth, and Tides Cult) and capping it off with session drums from Failure drummer Kellii Scott, it's an entirely remote creation built without even much in the way of conscious coherence. Their first single "Separation Anxiety" was written by each member adding in their own part without knowing what else was to come. This looser approach bypasses a lot of the challenges more structured projects face, though it does place a lot of faith in the contributors—fortunately, the result is a killer slice of brooding Chicago rock that defies further classification.
The multi-layered nature of the song isn't surprising, given its genesis, but the whirling tiers of guitar, bass, keys, and noise all interlace rather gracefully, lashed together by a hypnotic and repetitive rhythm. It's a wistful song, dwelling on might-have-beens rather than any present misery, but it's also bolstered by intermittent threads of hope (and novel uses of guitar harmonics that I could have sworn was a cowbell).
Check out the single (available on Bandcamp currently where proceeds go to NIVA) and read an interview with Erik Oldman (Sons of Ra), the project mastermind, below.
Empathogen seems to be a portmanteau relevant to our current pandemic circumstances; is the musical direction shaped around those circumstances as well?
The project started off prior to the pandemic as really as something I wanted to do in a conventional songwriting context, writing straightforward rock and metal tunes. There is an aesthetic with combining different aspects of bands I enjoy who are more with elements of space rock, shoe-gaze, prog, and dark/doom metal. I had a bunch of ideas and riffs that I was writing for what would become more of a solo album.
Last March was devastating. I had just released an EP with my group, Sons of Ra a few weeks before the lockdown was in place, and put together a plan for a run of shows to support and push the release. The plans all vaporized so I shifted into studio and woodshedding mode. The aesthetics with the direction and sound were really amplified by the effects of the world.
Was "Separation Anxiety" composed and recorded in isolation, or were you able to get together to collaborate on it?
Everyone had to record their own pieces in their own space as we were completely locked down. I had a skeleton of a track ready and shipped it out to those who wanted to participate in working, borrowing from the idea in the visual arts of doing an exquisite corpse-style composition with recording. The premise was I had no idea what the others were going to do with it, just my faith in their abilities as artists to produce something interesting. They had no idea what I had recorded. They were free to pick up and take the material somewhere else. This could have ended up as a collection of collaborations, or one giant mix. The latter case worked out, everyone who recorded really brought elements that worked together to give the piece its depth and layers.
You've pulled in top-notch musicians from all across Chicago's heavy scene for this project. Can you talk about the lineup and how it came together?
They’re all friends who are artists I greatly admire. Most who I’ve known from a number of years. I messaged everyone who I figured would understand the aesthetics I was going for with the material. Chronologically speaking, Ben Bowman (Snow Burial) laid down a really wild vintage analog synth drone. Anthony Cwan (Without Waves) came back with a killer bass line he did on a heavily-processed baritone guitar. Ian Palmer (Polarizer) really brought in an arranger’s touch with providing some nice atmospheric keyboards, piano, acoustic guitars, and a sort of cool syncopated clangy guitar counter-rhythm overdubs for different sections. Karl Grzeszczak (Uncouth, Tides Cult) laid down a wild, droney lead guitar with some blues references.
I was working on some vocals for the tune, but after hearing all that it seemed to be a pretty complete piece and I really liked what everyone had contributed, I wanted to be able to let those layers shine.
The thing that really helped finish the track off was finding the right drummer, knowing that we would most likely need access to a studio once things settled down with the pandemic. That was sort of a challenge with not being able to work face-to-face locally with someone.
A serendipitous moment was when I found out Failure’s drummer, Kellii Scott, was offering session tracking from a studio in LA. A number of us are fans of the band and were thrilled he was up for recording. We had a few emails to talk through some logistics, but that’s it - again, I put faith in the artist’s abilities. One thing to note is the drums set up the mood of the tune in with an over-the-bar fill. We didn't really talk about it, he just nailed it. Once we got the initial drum mix back, we were all blown away.
Spenser Morris did live sound for some of Sons of Ra’s shows in the past. When he ran the boards for us, the quality of the mix and presence in my stage monitor blew away our in-ear monitor system. That stuck with me and I wanted to work with him on a recording project, so he was up for doing the final mix and mastering. He’s done an amazing job, given how the material has been recorded.
How has the quarantine been going for you? Have you been able to keep your other musical endeavors in flight?
It has caused some ups and downs on a personal level. I’ve done some woodshedding as a guitarist and have taken the opportunity to do some remote learning things for composition.
Music-wise it’s been really about changing gears from live shows to writing full-time and exploring different things I’m able to do with the guitar.
Empathogen is starting to take on a life of its own as a studio project. We’re all thrilled with the results of the first tune. I’m sketching out a few more things to work on with the group.
I also have been collaborating on a dark-ambient loop-based project with another friend who is a double-bassist in the orchestra world. That’s yet another side different side of music creation as it’s about space and dynamics with just two instruments in a mostly improvisational context. We’re still both remote at this time but planning for a release of some sort this year.
Sons of Ra has put out some fun video covers, we’re not able to get together just yet to rehearse live due to some risk factors with family members. I’m working on writing the next batch of material to complete the full-length. That’s been in fits and starts but will be happening this year in some fashion.
Proceeds for this single are going to NIVA for their Emergency Relief Fund, and we're looking at live shows returning in some, if limited capacity, as we head toward the summer. What do you think the scene here in Chicago is going to look like?
It will certainly be different, probably sparse and slowly reopening things through 2022. I think the perception and speed in which things will return to normal will be tied to how quickly we all can get vaccinated along with how hard and quick the second wave will hit. Venues in the suburbs and a lot of smaller venues and diy spaces within the city are putting things together right now. Personally it's still too risky until I’m vaccinated.
We all agreed on doing this track as a fundraiser for NIVA’s emergency relief fund. Many of our friends and loved ones and some of our respective bandmates worked in the live music and service industries and were hit really hard by the pandemic, it seemed like the best way to use the art to help the cause.
"Separation Anxiety" is out now on Bandcamp.