The latest album from UK rockers Empyre is Relentless. We caught up with vocalist Henrik Steenholdt, who fills us in on the album, their signing with Kscope, tour plans and other topics.
Chad Bowar: Give us a brief history of Empyre.
Henrik Steenholdt: Empyre grew out of a covers band that lead guitarist Did and I were in. We started to progressively write our own tunes over the course of a few years, until we got to a point where we had enough material to gig with. At that time we had also reached the stage where we wanted to play our original music more than other people’s and around 2016 we made that decision to focus almost entirely on Empyre, phasing out the covers band within following year or two.
Describe the songwriting process for Relentless.
Some bits were written as early as 2019 around the release of Self Aware, but most of it was written during the pandemic. Some of it came about from listening to old riffs or melody ideas we had stored on recording apps on our phone, and others on our computers, and we started working on whichever of snippets gave us inspiration to write more. I also got in using samples and synths and that provided a lot of musical inspiration, particularly for songs such as “Waking Light,” “Your Whole Life Slows” and “Cry Wolf.” Typically Did or I would form the basic structure of a song, or at least a verse and a chorus individually and then collaborate to flesh that out into a song before presenting it to Grant and Elliot for their parts to be added.
What is your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
Listening to the first part of Did’s guitar solo in “Silence Screaming.” It was sitting high in a basic mix as the only guitar part and it came out of the speakers like machine gun fire.
What was the biggest challenge in recording Relentless?
Working around the pandemic and lockdown periods. In the end we had to record the album as blocks of tracks over three sessions comprising of 4-6 days each, that ended up being spread across 8-9 months. We also had to rehearse songs before taking them into the studio which was also tough when lockdown periods with varying regulations were being imposed. So whilst a lot of it was fun, it was a slow process watching the album come together.
How has your sound evolved from Self Aware?
It’s a lot more complex on Relentless. We’ve written using more guitar parts along with orchestration, other samples and synth in practically every song. Certainly all the recorded versions contain either orchestration, samples and/or synth somewhere, and we integrate as much of that as possible in a live environment. We didn’t impose any barriers on what we would and wouldn’t include with regard to instrumentation whilst writing, and that has brought challenges with regard to how we perform some songs live. I’m sure we’ll be tweaking and enhancing those elements for live performance as time goes on.
What lyrical topics do you cover this time around?
Self belief, grief, loss, suicide, loving relationships gone bad, building an empire, or more precisely trying to build the following of Empyre, our own personal pasts and general introspection.
How did you come to sign with Kscope?
Just after we finished recording and mixing the album our manager was working with another band on the Peaceville label, sister label to Kscope. He suggested presenting the album to Kscope to see if there was any interest there. At the very least it would provide us with some early industry feedback on the album. It came as quite a surprise when they showed interest and then that led to a period of negotiation resulting of course with us signing. I don’t think they had any awareness of us before they heard the album.
What are your goals and expectations for the album?
That’s a very hard question to answer. We’re very proud of it, I can say categorically that I have never worked on anything as hard in my life as writing, recording, promoting and everything else surrounding this album. My goals and expectations for it have no limitations and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, I just feel passionate about the music and believe in it. But we hardly expect that this album is going to lead to us playing stadiums the next time we go on tour!
We’ve released two albums in the past and we know that the hard work will have to continue for us to get to the level we want to be at. We can only hope for critical acclaim and that it helps to build a much larger audience for our music, as well of course as being received positively by our present fanbase.
Talk about the AI aspects of the artwork and video for your latest single “Waking Light.”
The fact that it’s now possible for an algorithm to produce amazing images from a simple prompt is incredible. To investigate the opportunities that offers was irresistible, and I had already played with those possibilities before starting work on the single artwork and video for “Waking Light.” I was surfing YouTube a couple of months ago and came across someone who had used a combination of AI tools and Adobe After Effects to create an “infinite zoom” sequence. I thought it was really engaging and intriguing and watched the tutorial on how to do it. I have very basic After Effects skills, but enough to follow along.
So I started making a test sequence based on the woman’s eye you see at the start of the video, with images that “grow” from there. The visuals produced for that test sequence were hard to control in terms of detailed elements, so I ultimately gave the AI fewer constraints in terms of prompting and just went with almost anything it suggested. The result is perhaps not very “Empyre,” but it was a fun technological project and hopefully it’s something not a lot of people have seen before, so has a bit of “wow factor” about it.
What has been your most memorable Empyre live show?
A show in the UK called Planet Rock Winter’s End. It happened a few weeks before the first lockdown and it was our biggest show ever at that stage, to around 1000 people. We were all ill. I had passed out the night before in the bathroom (no, not due to rock n’ roll reasons), Did was on painkillers for back pain, Grant had a kidney infection or something similar and Elliot almost used his drum stool as a lavatory perhaps due to food poisoning. It was the hangover slot, opening their main stage on a Sunday lunchtime. We thought we were about to stumble through a set to about 100 people and leave dejected. We were wrong. The room quickly ended up packed, we made it through the whole set, the crowd loved it (75% of which had never heard us before) and we had a 45 minute merch queue, selling out of CDs and T-shirts. An unbelievable day we’ll all remember.
What are your upcoming show/tour plans?
We’ve got a handful of headline shows around the UK to promote the album and some summer festivals booked up. Very recently we joined ITB booking agency so we’re hopeful of also touring before the year is out.
What inspired you to get into music?
Watching a UK pop music show called Top of the Pops and seeing what popstars did on that show and on videos, it just looked cool when I was 3-4 years old. I also always responded to as a child, I have really early memories of listening to Abba, perhaps as young as 2 years old, so it seems there has always been something about music that fascinated me.
Who were your early influences and inspirations?
Abba, as alluded to above, and a UK artist called Shakin’ Stevens were my earliest favourites. Then as I got into rock first it was Dire Straits, then Bon Jovi, Extreme and Guns N’ Roses. That led to grunge and Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana. I can still remember the first time I heard “Alive” by Pearl Jam, that probably sealed the deal for me on what I wanted to do.
What was the first rock concert you attended?
My first rock concert was Extreme in December 1992 at the Birmingham NEC on their III Side to Every Story tour.
What are some of your non-musical interests and hobbies?
I enjoy cooking, but that has taken a back seat to content creation for Empyre. I really do enjoy coming up with ideas for artwork and videos and trying to create what I visualise in my head, although that is not always successful. AI has made it easier though and that’s fun to combine with my rudimentary graphic design and video editing skills.
Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
We of course would like everyone to listen to the new album Relentless and come and tell us what they think online. If they like what they hear we have two other albums available on CD and on all the streaming services (Self Aware and The Other Side), plus a YouTube channel full of videos and interviews. You can access it all from www.empyre.co.uk
(interview published March 31, 2023)
Watch Empyre – “Waking Light” Video