"Instant Empire, to me, really reflects — at least from the band-name perspective — how, in America, everybody wants everything all at once," declares Instant Empire frontman Scotty Saunders. "Everybody wants it instantly. To me, Instant Empire is the perfect descriptor for sort of this modern time that we're living in."
The rise of Instant Empire, on the other hand, has hardly been instantaneous. Since the group's beginning, three years ago, its progression has been steady and deliberate. Now, on the verge of releasing its third EP in as many years, Instant Empire is just getting ready to start work on its debut full-length.
The band started life as a duo, when Saunders and guitarist/vocalist Sean Connaughty began writing songs together after meeting through an ad on Craigslist. After penning a batch of songs on acoustic guitars over the course of five months, the two determined they would need a full band to help them flesh out their songs. Connaughty tapped his friend Matt Grizzell, who was playing drums with Alan Alda at the time, to keep time for the new project, and from there, the outfit grew into the six-piece it is now, with guitarist Lou Kucera, bassist Aaron Stone and multi-instrumentalist Doug Chase rounding out the lineup.
"I think we just wanted to give ourselves a little bit more room," says Saunders. "There was a lot we wanted to do, sonically. We wanted to really diversify our sound. We wanted, if people put headphones on, for them to get lost in the music. I think it just gives us a little bit more room to do that."
Since both Saunders and Connaughty grew up listening to more lyrics-oriented artists like Bright Eyes and Okkervil River, the two naturally spend a lot of time on the words. "I'm sort of obsessed with lyrics and words and stuff like that," Saunders confesses. "Both Sean and I do tons of reading, so I think that does come out a little bit. We're probably even more obsessed with more modern-day lyricists, musically. Every time I hear a new song that sparks my interest, I want to go instantly to Songmeanings.com and read the lyrics and study them. We're sort of dorky like that. Sean and I will spend entirely too much time trying to figure out exactly how to word a sentence. We sort of laugh, because we don't even know who's listening to this shit. It's like, whatever — that's what we do."
When the band started writing "Flickering Youth," Saunders was reading T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which has been described as a "drama of literary anguish." But while the songwriters drew inspiration from it, Connaughty says they tried to reimagine the 1915 work through a younger lens and in a more modern setting. "We don't want to take anything away from Eliot at all," Connaughty clarifies. "It was more of a jumping-off point than a direct influence. It's not like these songs are specifically about 'Prufrock,' but it takes the themes from 'Prufrock' and reimagines them."
"A lot of what we write about in general is that struggle with modern life," says Connaughty. "Our lives have become much easier in so many ways, but at the same time, people aren't necessarily used to work and struggle and sacrifice in the age that we live in. I know it sounds cheesy, but it seems like those are important values that we need to remember — how to fight and still have some life in you and go for something. How you struggle with living life in our American culture."
The powerful, anthemic "Flickering Youth," from the band's new three-song EP, Keep Up!, captures some of that fighting attitude. Even though it boasts lines like "We'll never be young/We'll never be further from dead," Saunders says it's like the protagonist is ready to attack death. "We don't believe quite yet that [death is] going to happen," he explains. "I mean, obviously it is, but I think there's a little bit of attitude in that where we're sort of trying to fight against that."
"It's the choices we make," Connaughty adds. "We're not blaming anybody. It's so easy to fall prey to that. It's the choices you make as an individual — or not needing to make choices — that gets us into this scenario. I think the whole new record is kind of about that. The choices we've made have led us to this position. How do we fight that? How do we rewrite ourselves as individuals?"
Initially, when Instant Empire first got going, Saunders and Connaughty wrote songs and brought them to the band. These days, the songwriting process is much more of a collaborative effort, and Keep Up!, which was recorded primarily over a weekend by J.D. Feighner at his 1620 Studios in Colorado Springs, represents more of that combined work. For Keep Up!, the group wanted to go in and knock it out and make the record as raw as possible to give it more of a live sound. "It's probably the truest reflection of who we are," notes Saunders, "at least at this point in time."
The same could be said of each of the act's releases, particularly the first, self-titled EP, which documented an early stage of the band, when the musicians didn't necessarily know who they were or where they were going. As is often the case with a band that's just starting out, the recording was intended to help secure gigs more than anything else.
With the next EP, however — Heavy Hollow, issued last May — the band labored over the six-song disc and ended up having to re-record some parts at least three times due to hard-drive failure. Immediately following that release, the members of Instant Empire started writing songs that would end up on Keep Up! "Honestly, we really liked them," Saunders says, "and we just didn't want to keep them in our pocket. We wanted to get something new out in the world before we went and did a full-length."
Once Keep Up! is on the streets, the goal is to start writing as many songs as possible for the band's inaugural long-player. "I don't think people know how long it takes to put together a song and make it sound like you want it to," Saunders muses. "And I think we're all sort of perfectionists."