In November 2015, members of the local indie-rock band Instant Empire found themselves nearing a breaking point. During the preceding year, they had invested a great deal, both emotionally and financially, into the production and release of their first album and were exhausted after touring. Sensing that a change of pace was needed, they decided to take a break from performing and spend more time in the studio creating together.
“I would say we were at a very tough point,” vocalist Scotty Saunders explains. “But the last two years have gotten us really refreshed and in a good mental state. I think the music is better for it.”
After extensive time in the studio, the band released its second album, Last of the Lovers, in August.
We sat down with Saunders to discuss how embracing change has influenced Instant Empire's sound, how his dreams serve as inspiration for his lyrics, and the theme of aging in the new album.
Westword: Going from a lot of live performances to focusing on writing and creating — do you feel that has changed your sound?
Scotty Saunders: I do. I think we’re better songwriters. As you grow in life, hopefully you continue to hone your craft. I was a little bit late to music. I’m totally self-taught on everything. I’m the lead singer, and I write the lyrics. Everyone else comes from a long and detailed history of playing music and studying music, whereas, I’m sort of the exception…. I think we’ve all gotten better at what we do. We sort of whittled down to an extent while writing these songs. Instead of six of us in a room writing a song, it slimmed down to just four of us. That allowed a lot more flexibility and creativity and gave a bit more space to the songs sonically.
Last of the Lovers — what is the album about?
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I would say there are a number of themes. This is the closest thing we have to a concept album…. It’s so weird, because people meet me and say, “Scotty is a happy, fun guy,” but I write deep, dark stuff. That’s just whatever comes out. With this album, there’s this perspective of all of us in the band getting older: As you continue to age, there’s this realization that time starts to morph your old memories of who you were as a kid…. If there’s any theme within this album, it's aging and time and what it does on you. It can be really difficult to deal with, but there’s still beauty within that, going through life and capturing those tiny moments and things that resonate with people. There are these tiny bursts, lyrically and musically, of hope and sincerity that hopefully come through the songs. But there’s definitely a very dark [undertone].
“Last of the Lovers” — specifically, that song — has a few different meanings, but that’s the one love song of the album. We don’t typically write too many love songs; it’s just not what we do. On the surface, it’s about two lovers; you know when you really love someone, the whole world disappears when you’re together. It’s very much about that. They’re so in love with each other that they’re “the last of the lovers.” But there’s this sub-piece we’ve internalized on a different level in the way that we’re trying to approach music. There is a real romantic notion in our band; we’re a band full of people that really love albums. I know we’re in a Spotify single era, but when bands really do beautiful pieces of work that are holistic and speak to you for a whole, entire album, I think that art is sort of being lost. In the most romanticized version of ourselves, I think there’s a piece of us that wants to continue that. It’s a little play of maybe our stance in the larger scheme of the music world. We’re fighting the good fight to an extent.
What did you tap into specifically while writing the songs on this album?
It’s probably the most personal album, lyrically, I’ve ever written. Some of our older albums, I would tap into characters. There are still pieces of that, but I think there are more pieces of what I was going through.... When we were writing this album, I kept having this recurring dream/nightmare of driving, and my brakes stopped working. It’s the worst dream in the world. I would be driving down the road, and the brakes wouldn’t work, going down icy curves just trying to not to die. I can’t even count how many times I’ve had that specific dream. I finally thought, “What the fuck is this dream about?” So I started Googling “dreams where you can’t stop and your brakes don’t work.” I found this weird website called Dreamhawk and started reading about this dream. It was all about my anxiety with a lack of control in certain aspects of our lives. There was tons of that going on for me personally and with the band and where we were…. I fully embrace this. I like to have control in situations, and there was all this stuff in my life I had no control over, so the song “Spotlight” specifically tapped into that. Just being in the band’s relationship and our personal relationships with wives and fiancées, a lot of that came into that. Keeping those relationships together can be really difficult.
We wrote “Shapeshifting” about this daughter watching her father struggle through Alzheimer’s, totally losing his memory, and he can’t remember a lot of things. There’s a lot of darkness in that. I’ve seen my parents get older, and all of us are struggling with that. People are getting sick and passing on, and I think a lot of this album is dealing with that aging aspect and a lot of the difficult things as you continue to get older and are dealing with that loss. A number of the songs on the album are centered around that last corner of your life or just death in general. That’s not anything new. I’ve written about that in the past, but there’s a real heavy sense of that in this album.
How do you think the shift to a more collaborative, focused approach to creating shaped the sound and style of Last of the Lovers?
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As a band, we were able to take our time with this album; we didn't rush anything. The guitar tones, the synth parts, the vocals were all given time to be created and to be refined. That breathing room resulted in the most cohesive set of songs we've ever written. We got into a groove. We've been doing this so long that writing songs has become something we know how to do. We know our roles, we know more about how to record the sounds and atmospherics we want to incorporate into the songs. Sonically, I think that really comes out if you listen to the entire album as a unified work.
By becoming more comfortable with change as a band, how do you think that has benefited your art —specifically, this album?
Sometimes when you begin writing a song, you have this initial vision for what you think it will sound like. And sometimes it'll come out like you initially thought it would. But I think we've gotten better with letting songs go places we might not have initially imagined they would go. I think we've embraced changed perceptions from that standpoint.... With any song you write, you are sort of creating something out of thin air anyway. Allowing your initial perceptions of what something "should" be to shift to what something "will" be is liberating. I think it makes better art.
Instant Empire, SIR album-release show, 8 p.m. Friday, December 8, $10-12, Marquis Theater, 2009 Larimer Street, 303-487-0111.