I first got hip to New York’s Dead Empires back in 2012, when I was running another website and the then-instrumental trio sent me a copy of their debut long-player Waiting in Waves for review. I was pretty blown away by it, particularly in terms of their “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to songwriting, wherein you never really knew where they would go next in any given song. It was around this time that I started using the term “genre-fuck,” which I’ve also used a time or two here at the Vault, to describe those sorts of bands. Now, I know it’ generally bad form to go quoting yourself in…well, pretty much anything ever, but since that old site doesn’t exist anymore and that review of Waiting in Waves is thus lost in time and (cyber)space, here’s how I described that record:
I’ve stated before that I tend to appreciate genre-fuck bands, and there’s so much fucking going on here between the genres that I think a Dothraki orgy might even pale in comparison.
Fast forward to 2018, and Dead Empires have expanded to a quartet for their third album Designed to Disappear, adding vocalist/keyboardist Prkr to the band. I was able to chat with guitarist John Bryan about hat decision to add a singer, how that’s effected their songwriting process, tour plans, and more.
Indy Metal Vault: Hey, dude – so it’s been a while since we talked last. Not since 2012, in fact, when your first full-length Waiting in Waves came out. So what have you guys been up to for the last five years or so? Is there anything new in the Dead Empires camp…?
Of course, I’m fucking with you. After what I assume has been years of interviewers asking if you’ve ever considered adding a vocalist, Dead Empires went and added a vocalist. After spending close to a decade as an instrumental band, what made you decide to finally take that plunge?
John Bryan: It was a very natural progression for us, honestly. We didn’t plan on getting a singer- we’ve always been open to the idea, and like the rest of our creative process wanted it to be something that happened organically. If it felt right, we’d run with it. Pretty much as long as we’ve been a band we’ve had people offer to be our singer, but it always ended the same way- we’d say cut a demo, show up to a rehearsal, whatever- and nothing. With Jason it was so easy- we actually had the new album pretty much in the bag, and originally hit him up about doing some guest vocals. We loved his stuff with Torrential Downpour, and basically told him to do whatever he felt- and it was so good we asked for more and well, here we are. It’s been a super smooth transition with Jason, he fits in so easily it’s like he’s been here the whole time.
IMV: Aside from the obvious addition of vocals, the second thing that really struck me about Designed to Disappear—and frankly, it may have surprised me more than the vocals—is how mathy the album feels overall. In fact, I noticed that when listening to “The Form” the first time well before I noticed the vocals. You’ve always been a genre-hopping sort of band, and there’s still a good amount of that on this record, but the mathiness seems like a fairly new development. What I’m curious about is whether your songwriting started trending in that direction before adding Prkr to the band, or if you were already heading in that direction before deciding to add a vocalist.
JB: I think mathy riffs have always been there- If you go back and listen to Waiting in Waves there’s a lot going on in there, and for all its twists and turns it’s always building towards something- that continues to be part of our sound. With each album we try expand upon our sound and to try to be the best players we can be, so I think it was the natural next step for us. I like to throw in odd counts and a lot of what I call musical punchlines- the starts and stops. There are a lot of things we threw into the songs because they made us laugh. The overall thing we want to come through in our music is that it’s fun. Whether it’s bright and poppy or dark and sludgy, we hope that energy comes through in the songs and in our stage show.
IMV: I swear that not every question is going to involve adding vocals, but I do want to ask about how different your songwriting process is overall now that you have to consider where you might place vocals in the arrangements. Do you feel as though it’s forced you to rein in some of those genre-hopping tendencies within each individual song and try to write within more traditional structures? Or do you feel like having a singer allows you to push out even further, since there is now that more familiar vocal element there to anchor everything. I mean, you still cover a lot of musical territory on Designed to Disappear, but it seems like it happens more on a track-by-track basis compared to your earlier albums.
JB: We had most of this album written back in 2016- well before we even asked Jason to be a part of the band. And bringing him into the fold was so painless- we loved what he brought and visa versa, so we didn’t change much at all. And he has such a wide range that it makes all those oddball parts shine even more. He has a great singing voice, he can growl, he has his own pedalboard and synths. If anything, it leaves me feeling more confident in our ability to push the boundaries and density of our sound and add so much more.
IMV: I’ve only seen the lyrics for two songs on Designed to Disappear, and they seem to be on the complete opposite ends of the thematic spectrum. “The Form” reads like some sort of allegorical/sci-fi narrative, whereas “Slay Rider” draws from the great tradition of ‘touring band on the road’ songs. Is there any sort of thematic continuity in terms of the lyrics?
JB: You’ll have to ask Jason! It’s a funny thing, being in an instrumental band for so many years has changed how my ears interpret music. I tend to gravitate so much more to melodies than actual words now, which is part of what I love about Jason’s work. Then I go back and read the lyrics and enjoy it again on a new level. He’s brought me back to enjoying lyrics again. So much of his on this record are so positive, and honestly a bunch of them I didn’t even know until we were in the studio cutting them- but I especially loved that. Positivity- to me that’s the overarching theme of the record- and it’s so important right now.
IMV: After recording your first two albums at The Isokon in Woodstock, you went to New Jersey’s Backroom Studios for Designed to Disappear. What effect (if any) did that change in scenery have on your recording process? I noticed that engineer Scot Moriaty has previously worked with Prkr’s band Torrential Downpour – did that influence your decision at all to switch things up this time?
JB: I loved the Isokon, and Backroom was a very different experience. We’ve known Kevin (Antreassian, Dillinger Escape Plan) and Scot (Moriarty, Organ Dealer) for a while and knew they would be able to help us achieve everything we wanted to do with this record. We were aiming high with this album, tried a lot of different stuff and Backroom is a lot of fun. Not just in the good folks there, but they have so much gear you can experiment with and they are there to help you craft and perfect your sound. I was challenged and learned a lot there- especially considering we had the music written over a year ahead of time. I think that says a lot. And I learned you can live off coffee, carrots and seltzer. La Croix, specifically.
IMV: I always like to ask at least one gear question, since the topic fascinates me – particularly what folks have on their pedal boards. What did everyone’s studio rigs look like? How closely does your live setup mirror what you used in the studio?
JB: It ended up being a healthy mix of our existing rigs and some studio pieces. Personally, after experimenting with a bunch of amps and cabs in the studio, we ended up using my usual touring rig- a Verellen Loucks and an Emperor 4×12 cab- for about 80% of the album. We got some other tones from Friedman and Splawn amps when we wanted something a little different, and I definitely messed with a bunch of pedals. You can see photos on our Instagram of the pedalboard anarchy I had in some songs. It got a little crazy in some places, but overall I love what we put down. DJ used his touring rig pretty much exclusively as well, a Verellen Meatsmoke into a vintage Sunn 2×15 cab. Phil’s drumset was a blend of his own and some studio shells. Overall, though, it sounds massive and that’s what we were going for.
IMV: Dead Empires has pretty much been an independent band from the start, correct? This time around, though you’ve hooked up with Silent Pendulum Records for the vinyl release of Designed to Disappear. How did that come about? What made you decide that you wanted label support this time around? They did both of Black Table’s records – I know that you’re friends with them, and you share a bass player.
JB: Correct. Mike from Silent Pendulum and DJ are also in The Number Twelve Looks Like You, and Silent Pendulum has been re-releasing their back catalog as well. Mike has been a big supporter of this band, and really we partnered up to help give this album everything we could. He helped us get the vinyl out and we’re really excited about it – it looks and sounds beautiful. We’re even doing even doing a super-limited, one-time cassette press of the album this time around, so we can finally listen to it in our van.
IMV: As is always the case with Dead Empires albums, the cover art for Designed to Disappear is absolutely gorgeous. Somehow, though, I never realized that Revolution Dream Design is your guitarist John Bryan. What was the inspiration for the cover of the new album? I’m particularly curious about the color scheme, since I feel like you don’t see that many yellow/gold album covers in metal. What’s your preferred medium to work in? Was it primarily done digitally?
JB: Yeah! I do art under the name Revolution Dream Design, and I’ve done pretty much 99% of the artwork since day one. I work mainly digitally, and the art and music are pretty intricately tied together for this band to me, so I work equally hard on the songwriting as I do crafting artwork that matches in intensity. I’ve been trying to keep a similar theme/tone to all the artwork. I want it all to feel like a progression but most importantly uniquely like Dead Empires. For this album, the title and art concept actually came to me in a dream- true story. When we founded this band we toyed with the idea of it being a concept band, but we decided to let the music speak for itself and let people interpret it how they wanted. But all the art is meant to tell a story- Waiting In Waves was about the end of the world, Secret Snakes/Silent Serpent was about focusing on what’s important, and Designed To Disappear is about the effect of greed and embracing impermanence. We’ll get a beer at a show sometime and I’ll get in-depth on all of them with you.
IMV: I see that you have a handful of shows booked right after the album comes out, but do you have any touring plans beyond that? Maybe something a bit more extensive once summer rolls around?
JB: We hit the road in March for two weeks with our friends FERO LUX from Florida – we’ll be going down the east coast from NY to the tip of FL and back. We’ll be hitting a bunch of places we’ve been before, but also a bunch of places we’ve never been, so we’re really excited. You can get full tour dates on our site, deadempires.com
IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I’ll leave the last word to you – anything else you want to add?
It’s been a long time in the making, and we’re really proud of this album- so go pick that shit up. And challenge DJ to a game of Magic: The Gathering on tour. We dare you.