Empathy Test – An Interview

They have definitely ticked all the boxes for dark and brooding electro beats. Empathy Test’s take on 80’s synth inspired by sci-fi soundtracks is a clear direction of the London duo’s aesthetic. Listening to their latest EP Throwing Stones you can’t help but picture it as the start of what could be an epic soundtrack. There is something quite humble about the fact that Empathy Test have such a thought out idea behind who they are and what they would like to do with their music.

Not letting their beliefs falter in any sense Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf’s hauntingly catchy beats set out to do what they intended. With an abundance of musical projects being undertaken this year along with working on tracks for their LP we can’t wait for the year ahead in the futuristic-pop world of Empathy Test.

KALTBLUT: How did Empathy Test get together?

Empathy Test: We met in a hippy commune when we were kids. One of those places where they share the cooking and cleaning and do a lot of yoga and meditation. We’ve been making music together, on and off for years. The idea for Empathy Test came from a conversation about film scores, and in particular the analogue synth Sci-Fi soundtracks of the 1980’s. We wanted to take those dark, cinematic landscapes and mould them into intelligent pop songs with a chorus you can sing along to.

KALTBLUT: What was the idea behind your name?

Empathy Test: We were looking for a name that showcased our love of science fiction. It made sense that it should come from one of our favourite Sci-Fi films – Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both the film and soundtrack are a big influence on the musical and artistic aesthetic of the band. Beyond that, an empathy test is what’s used in the film to work out if someone is human or android. Our music, although made with a machine, connects on a very human level.

KALTBLUT: How would you describe your sound to someone who hasn’t heard your music before?

Empathy Test: A couple of people did a really good job of this on our behalf. Sabotage Times described it as “dark, brooding cinematic electro pop; think Fiction Factory meets Purity Ring with a dash of Depeche Mode thrown in for good measure” and Against The Odds said “sensual, enigmatic vocals over dreamy, haunting synths, all coated in soft, irresistible melancholy”. We like to think that’s a pretty good description!

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KALTBLUT: Can you tell me a bit about your musical process in getting the ‘Throwing Stones’ EP together?

Empathy Test: Like our debut EP, Losing Touch, most of the songs were written by Isaac on an acoustic guitar. Our recording sessions generally involve Isaac playing the guitar while Adam transposes the melodies into synthesised sounds via a MIDI keyboard and computer, weaving in his own as he goes. Once we’ve added a beat and built up a loop, we record the vocals and begin to map out the track. Holding On was based on a loop that Adam created for a previous project and Hope For Me was an amalgamation of a song Adam heard in a dream (yes, really!) and a half-finished track Isaac had been working on around the same time.

KALTBLUT: If you were to re-do the soundtrack for any film… What would it be?

Empathy Test: Not sure we agree with “re-doing” the soundtrack to anything! Iconic films general have iconic soundtracks and replacing them with a new one seems pretty sacrilegious. Far too much “remaking” goes on these days as it is. We’d love to write an original science fiction film or TV series of our own and do the soundtrack to that! Something dark and gritty, like Alien.

KALTBLUT: How would you describe your lyrical process?

Empathy Test: Lyrics can either be really easy or really difficult to write. The less you have to think about them the better. That’s why Isaac tends to write very personal and emotional lyrics; it’s easier to write good material about things you’ve experienced or you feel passionately about. Well, it is for him anyway! Generally, he writes his lyrics while playing the guitar, so he’ll play some chords and sing whatever’s on his mind. It’s a cathartic process.

KALTBLUT: Were there any challenges you faced in getting the EP together?

Empathy Test: For us it’s always time. We try and get together to write music a minimum once every two weeks – which is nothing – but even that doesn’t always happen. We both have day jobs and all sorts of other things going on to occupy us. Hopefully, if things take off and we start making enough money, we can spend more time on it. With the Throwing Stones EP being our second release, we also knew we had an audience – that someone other than our friends was going to listen to it – and that added new pressures. We think we surpassed ourselves though!

KALTBLUT: How do you feel the UK has influenced your sound and musical process?

Empathy Test: Well, let’s face it, the UK knows how to do misery and angst! The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division, New Order, Radiohead, Placebo, Muse…all bands we’ve known and loved. Us Brits have got all these unresolved issues and repressed desires, and on top of that it never stops bloody raining. We use pop songs as thinly-veiled cries for help. Oh, and we love a bit of irony too, so we’ve mastered the art of making heartbreak catchy – danceable even. What was that song by The Wombats – “Let’s dance to Joy Division and celebrate the irony…” The album was called A Guide To Love, Loss & Desperation. We’re singing from the same hymn sheet!

KALTBLUT: Your music has a dark 80’s synth feel to it… Is that something you steered towards naturally?

Empathy Test: Not really. Adam’s always been into his movie soundtracks and used to make underground dance music using samples. Isaac was always into guitar music. We tried mixing guitars and electronica but it didn’t really work for us. So we replaced the guitars with synths and everything fell into place. We just wanted to make music that’s epic, anthemic, dark, emotional and catchy.

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KALTBLUT: Who is on your playlist at the moment?

Empathy Test: Isaac is the main ‘consumer’ of music in the band and acts as a radar for the both of us really. He’s currently enjoying NZ’s Black City Lights, who have sadly just split up, NYC’s Aeon Rings, Minuit Machine from Paris – all of whom have done remixes which will feature on our upcoming ‘Throwing Stones Remixed’ EP! Apart from that, Future Islands, Haim, Lana Del Ray, FKA Twigs, Bombay Bicycle Club, Alt J, Grimes, Tei Shei and Desperate Journalist, a new London band channelling Elastica, Echobelly and Sleeper.

KALTBLUT: What do you guys get up to when you’re not making music?

Empathy Test: Adam’s a freelance illustrator and does all our artwork. He also has a couple of other musical projects too. He was really into US politics for a while and was always watching American political chat shows online. Then he moved onto ancient intelligence and was reading all this stuff about amazing feats of engineering that we couldn’t do today, let alone thousands of years ago. He gets pretty obsessive about stuff, which is probably why he’s good at music production! We both love watching movies and TV series like Breaking Bad and GOT, and Isaac’s recently got into climbing. He also likes going to art galleries and museums, but most of his free time is taken up with managing the band.

KALTBLUT: 2015 seems like it’s going to be a big year. What have you got planned for Empathy Test?

Empathy Test: We’ve been shortlisted for SXSW but haven’t received confirmation yet. It’s getting pretty close now! Before that, we’re putting on our own night with fellow London synth-poppers Vivien Glass on 6th March at The Islington, London which we’re hoping might become a regular thing. We’ve also been booked for Wave-Gotik-Treffen in May – the biggest Gothic festival on the planet. BAS 2015 in June, which is a festival in Basildon, Essex celebrating the town’s synth pop heritage. We’ve just reached the second stage of the Hard Rock Rising global battle of the bands too. The prize is to play to 60k music fans at Hard Rock Rising 2015 in Barcelona. We’re also working on new tracks which will hopefully form a debut album. But as we hinted before our next release will be the Throwing Stones Remixed EP, which is going to be awesome!


18.04.2015, The Good Ship, London, 24.05.2015, 24. Wave-Gotik-Treffen 2015, Leipzig, 13.06.2015, John Dee, Oslo, 27.06.2015, BAS Festival 2015, Basildon