With an appearance on Letterman and a collaboration with Grammy-nominated producer John Congleton now under their belts, Chicago indie rockers Empires don’t seem to be slowing down or letting the success go to their heads. The four-piece—Tom Conrad, Sean Van Vleet, Max Steger, and Mike Robinson—will release its third full-length studio album, Orphan, via Chop Shop / Islands Records Sept. 23.
Pop ’stache followed drummer Mike Robinson backstage at this year’s Hideout Block Party & Onion A.V. Fest to talk about joining Empires, the new album, and keeping it simple.
Pop ’stache: Empires is kind of a ballsy name. Where did that come from?
Mike Robinson: Yeah, it’s bold, right? Just to give you a little background, I’ve only been playing with band for, like, two years now, and Orphan was the first record I did with them. I’ve heard Sean [Van Fleet, singer] and Tom [Conrad, guitarist] answer this question so many times. So apparently, they were trying to think of band names, and they weren’t happy with what they were coming up with. Sean happened to look at his heater or air conditioner, whatever it was, and the brand name on it was Empire, so he decided, “Cool, we’re going to call the band Empire.” Then he was on the way to band practice, so Tom picked him up from the train and was like, “Hey, I thought of this name. What do you think of Empires?” So Tom and Sean, for whatever reason, were on the same wavelength. Before my time, but I know the backstory.
P ’s: You guys have a really do-it-yourself ethic. For example, Tom does all of the artwork. Can you expand on that?
MR: When I started playing with the band in 2012, it was even more of a DIY thing. All of the records to date were done in Max [Steger, drummer]’s home studio. He produced everything, he recorded everything, he mixed everything. Tom does all the artwork, Tom does all the merch designs [and] tour manages. Everything is very close-knit. And now, with the label being involved, the dynamic really isn’t that much different. It hasn’t departed too far from that do-it-yourself environment even with a major label being involved.
P ’s: So you’re really catering to yourselves.
MR: Totally. There’re a few more people with input now, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s nice to have an outside opinion. Sometimes we get way too far into our own heads and we can overthink a t-shirt design for days, and someone can swoop in and be like, “Stop. Worry about other things, this is fine.” It’s very helpful.
P ’s: A lot of Empires’ music is very intricate and kind of anthemic. Was that something you planned on doing or did it just happen?
MR: Nothing was planned. When Sean started writing these songs…it was apparent that they were almost pop-oriented. It’s cool that he sort of put himself in someone else’s shoes and was thinking from a perspective that wasn’t necessarily his own. Like I said, we can get into our heads about a fucking t-shirt design, let alone a song, so I think that was a freeing, nice exercise for him to do, writing from this different perspective, and it changed everything. It changed they way I looked at the drum parts of the songs, the way Tom and Max perceived guitar parts. Are they gonna sound like guitars? Are they gonna sound weird? Be atmospheric? Or is it gonna sound like a rock band? Each song was a different story and each song was approached a little differently.
P ’s: Obviously, your addition to the band will have an effect, but would you say Orphan is going to be different from Bang or Garage Hymns?
MR: Definitely. It’s way different. At least, we think so. It could be that we’re in our own heads, which is very likely, but I think it was a natural progression. The other big difference with this record was that Max had done everything to date in his home studio, and [for Orphan], we recorded in Dallas with John Congleton, an outside producer who we had never worked with before. We just looked up to him and we admired his records a lot. He did most of the St. Vincent records, War on Drugs, Explosions in the Sky. He worked with David Byrne from Talking Heads; the list goes on. That was a big player, a big factor in the difference in sound. It was nice to have that outside input that we genuinely trusted and looked up to. I think we would have been disappointed if we went down there and he said, “Oh yeah, everything sounds fine.” There were a lot of changes that were made, and I think they were all for the better.
P ’s: What do you think you bring to the table?
MR: [Laughs] I don’t know. I like to keep things simple. I really like to let the song be what it is. I know a lot of drummers that are really great and they just overplay, and that’s one thing I’ve never wanted to do. Sometimes I may have the tendency to do it live when it gets a little more exciting and more in the moment, but as far as the record goes, my main objective was to never step on vocals. If Sean is singing, I want to be as simple as possible and let the song be what it is and breathe and let people hear the lyrics rather than some crazy drum fill over what could be a very important lyric. That’s one thing I try to be very mindful of.
P ’s: What should listeners expect from Orphan?
MR: I think growth, mostly. The word “mature” was used a lot. The sound matured, especially when we took it to John. [The songs are] going somewhere else that wasn’t really expected, and once we got to John we really honed in on everything, really focused on the important parts of the songs. We stripped away a lot. When people record, they tend to add a lot, and we were focusing on “What doesn’t need to be here?” rather than, “What else can we do? What can we add here?” and I think that’s really important. Like I was saying earlier, one of my objectives was just to be simple, and I felt that was a theme throughout the record. Don’t overdo it. Let it be what it is. I think that has a lot to do with the maturing sound that came from the record.
P ’s: I caught a sense of that, especially with the lyrics. There’s a lot of repetition, Sean singing one line over and over.
MR: I’ve heard Sean discussing with people that he tried to be more clear in what he’s saying, rather than thinking of the best way to phrase things or the most clever way to phrase things. He was just keeping it as simple as possible and saying what he wanted to say. When I said that Sean was writing from a different perspective, I think that was mostly musically, but lyrically it seems to be a bit more personal than Garage Hymns and that could just be the simplicity of the lyrics.
P ’s: One thing you mentioned that stuck out to me was the concept of “What can we take away?” It’s kind of the approach that one would take to writing a novel. A lot of editing.
MR: Making a record is a long process, and it’s easy to get tired of things. We’re still not tired of anything. Playing these songs, every time we play them, it still seems fresh. I think that has a lot to do with really being confident with what we did when we were doing it and not overthinking it and just committing to an idea. That was a big goal, just committing and not going back and changing things all the time. Some of my favorite records are made that way because they didn’t have any other option in the ’60s and ’70s, whatever. That was a conversation that John Congleton sparked while we were working with him, committing yourself to whatever you’re going to do. Like, just fucking do it.