The Unusual Power of Instant Empire

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Instant Empire (scheduled to release a new album with a show this Thursday at the Marquis) played one of the first slots at the Westword Music Showcase last weekend. Most rock bands play at night, and most people experience music that they actively seek out after the sun has already set. Despite the circumstances, Instant Empire played the same type of set it would any other place or time, with the same level of fun.

On the road, the group has played to two people and to crowds of hundreds, but each time the attitude has been: You're playing the music largely for you, and if it's not fun for you, it's not going to be any good for anyone in attendance. Besides, you never know to whom you're playing and what will come out of doing your best down the line.

In another era, the kind of mixed-influence music that Instant Empire is doing at this point would have garnered the band the quasi-genre designation of "alternative." More recently, perhaps “indie rock” would be the supposedly appropriate blanket term. But with Instant Empire, neither directly applies. The guys have called their music “aggressive indie rock” in the past, but these days use the term “progressive dream punk.” There are elements of dream pop in the band's sound, but progressive rock and metal are an influence. Tastefully used time signatures and dynamics informs the songwriting and even the stage show. Vocalist Scotty Saunders gestures at times as though conducting the band and all playing with a propulsive energy suggesting the “punk” part. Also in line with punk is the underpinnings of social commentary.

“We told everyone to write three or four words that they liked and we compiled a list and we mixed and matched and Instant Empire came together, but we liked that because our lyrical content is a little bit of social commentary,” says Saunders. “Everyone in this modern day and age wants everything instantly. So that worked with some of the themes we write about and struggle with.”

But instead of the usual consumer culture and an uninspired evils of capitalism approach to its ethos of writing songs about people and their struggles, Saunders and co-lyricist Sean Connaughty look at an issue and mix in the personal and a more in-depth, layered, nuanced perspective, so that each song lends itself to multiple interpretations. This is especially effective and apparent on the band's new album, Lamplight Lost, recorded partly with Jonathan Low and (separately) with John Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone. It's out now on vinyl and digitally, with an album release show scheduled for July 2 at the Marquis Theater.

“We probably wrote 'North Dakota' at the height of the fracking boom in North Dakota,” says Saunders. “There were so many people going there, because there was so much money to be made. I have my own issues with fracking specifically, but with the song there are two levels of meaning and you could take the words and apply them to fracking and that would work. But we had some people we knew that were going to North Dakota to do some of the 'dancing.' There's a whole sex industry that has popped up around those kinds of camps. We wrote it also about the damage we're doing to the Earth and the damage you open yourself up to, being in that situation.”

“We try not to hit you over the head with this band except for maybe the volume,” adds bassist Aaron Stone. “There is a lot of subtext in our music, especially in the 'Dead Air' video and a lot of that was open to interpretation. And that's at the heart of the storytelling — it needs to make sense to different people for different reasons. If we were too prescriptive of what the story should be, it misses home in so many places. We've received positive reviews or confused, negative reviews of that video because some people didn't have the headspace to think about what was happening and wait until the end to see where it makes more sense.”

For a band that is aiming at pop accessibility balanced with artistic integrity, its approach to hooking the listener with the music comes from a somewhat unexpected place.

“I grew up in Texas, where, in the old school country, those stories are so perfectly told,” says Stone. “Many of the songs don't even have a chorus. It's not about a hook. It's about telling something that's identifiable and means something emotionally to the person that's telling the story.

“And saying it in a unique way. There's nothing worse to me that trite, knock-you-over-the-head lyrics. When someone says something uniquely or mixes metaphors and transition it all together and I can have an a-ha moment? It just crushes me sometimes. And that they just did that? That's awesome.”

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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