During the nineties SynthPop was having a rough time. As R&B, Indie and Manufactured Pop dominated the airwaves, SynthPop artists and their fans were marginalized to the outskirts of musical society. Ironically for a genre with the word ‘pop’ in it’s name, SynthPop became unknown, underground, surviving through small groups keeping in touch on the Internet, at first on Usenet and mp3.com and later dedicated forums and a handful of small labels. Being so small the ‘Modern SynthPop’ scene, as it became known, became a little too insular, a little too satisfied with it’s lot, and eventually, unfortunately, became stale.
However, a few of these bands stood out from the pack, disregarding what their peers were doing by drawing from outside influences or just being plain better songwriters than the rest.
One of these bands was Dublin’s Empire State Human.
Aidan Casserly Seán Barron & Lar Kiernan formed ESH almost ten years ago and since then have hit the top spot in the US iTunes dance chart, scored for film and commercials and chalked up a huge 130 tracks available on iTunes.
April 14th sees the release of their latest studio album, entitled ‘Audio Gothic’, 10 expertly crafted slices of electronic pop where regimented dance drums and synth arpeggios seem to naturally interweave with funk bass and Aidan’s impassioned vocals. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very electronic sounding album, but somehow it seems to come off sounding more fluid, more organic, than you might expect. I think that might be down to the quality of songwriting here, there are some artists who are fantastic producers but would never pen an all-time-classic song away from the computer, with ESH there is that songwriting ability that sometimes needs to come before the synths.
From the haunting, soundtrack-esq opening of ‘Audio Gothic’ that seems to breeze right into the album proper’s catchy poppiness there’s a variety of different styles at play from introspective mid-tempo tunes to dancefloor killers. Easily up there with Mesh or (the once great) Iris in terms of quality but with maybe more to appeal to listeners outside of those bands audiences.
There’s even an extremely rare guest appearance by Wolfgang Flür, founder member of the legendary Kraftwerk!
This is Pure SynthPop (or, indeed, ‘Modern SynthPop’) at the top of it’s game.
Also, as I look out my window on this sunny day, I can’t help feeling this is quite a summery album too!
Take a listen to two hand picked tracks from ‘Audio Gothic’:
electronic rumors managed to catch up with Aidan to pick his brains about ElectroPop, the new album and working with ‘a robot’:
ER: How do you feel about the resurgence of interest in ElectroPop in the fast few years? Do you see it as having any relevance to ESH? And how does this interest feel after the last decade or so of SynthPop being one of the smallest or under appreciated music scenes worldwide? Do you feel like you’ve “weathered the storm”?
AC: With the increase in popularity and the chart success of electro music the last few years, it is somewhat pleasing for a band like us to see this happen, as it shows a certain amount of foreseeing on our behalf with regard to what the future trend of pop music would be. But having said all that, we were always in it for the long run and not for just the moment, or indeed to be part of a trend or fad.
We signed with Ninthwave Records in the US, on the back of the ElectroClash scene in 2002 for our debut album “Pop Robot”. FisherSpooner came and went and so did ElectroClash, yet our synth battle against the mainstream stayed the same. With the same battles to get the releases out and the reviews in.
Electro today is fronted mostly by female singers, yet ESH are still on the periphery with male pop vocals, but there’s certainly more of a chance that this time around we could cross over, and show our real potential.
ER: Would you say Audio Gothic is the ESH album you’re most proud of?
AC: Most definitely, yes. When we announced news of a new album last year, it was greeted as a rebirth of the band, after a 3 year break without a new album. The last studio album was “Cycles” in 2005. We released a number of digital album (two in 2008) but a CD release carry’s more weight. It’s the real deal for us. We reviewed all our releases, and decided we wanted more quality control and to be completely self produced, whilst completing this process. We picked 10 tracks for “Audio Gothic” but included a hidden blue grass cover for spice.
This outlook made for a hybrid album of electro with some acoustic touches under pinning things. We are so very proud of this release, as the creative force of myself and Seán Barron has made a giant leap forward for us. The effort and time was certainly worth it. But we’ve decided that the wait for another new studio album won’t be as long the next time (4 years). With this in mind, we’ve begun writing and recording a follow up album. This year we’re 10 years as Empire State Human. When we started in 1999, it was like music suicide to be in a synth band at that time. Now we’ve 130+ tracks up on iTunes, a film score completed, some advert music, a #1 in the iTunes dance charts in the US with a cover of “Theme To Halloween” and loads of remixes for other bands. We’ve even executive produced a successful tribute album to 80s band Dead or Alive along the way. Not bad for a band from Dublin, signed to a label in North America is it?
AC: With small breaks and gaps in the recording and writing processes, actually both ESH and TGC were running side by side for a while and are still running as we speak, with recording on going on both fronts. ESH are totally self contained, self produced and self written and the songs do sound like a different beast altogether. The dynamics of Seán and I make a band like ESH very special and clearly unique from our point of view. Whilst my voice sits on top of both acts, there’s a different spark to each one clearly.
We just knew the time was right to get ‘back into business’ and focus fully on the completion of a new ESH album.
We hold our synth love right on our chests, always against the grain of what seems popular and we are always willing to throw in a curve ball to mess up peoples heads along the way.
I think a band like The Garland Cult survives and thrives on working with a number of outside producers and co-writers. It’s centers on glam and certainly does have a camp side too it. It’s colourful, it’s fun and it’s totally poptastic!
ER: How did things come about with Wolfgang Flür?
AC: Seán was asked by the promoter make a DVD of Wolfgang’s DJ set, and appearance with Dave Ball (from Soft Cell) here in Dublin last year at The Tivoli Theatre. In doing so, he got on really well with Wolfgang and they clicked, as both are very relaxed and easy going people, who talked music on the same level, it was clear that a bond had formed firstly, as we are the more pop than he’s ever worked with. He expressed interest in hearing our music firstly, and was very positive when after he heard it and when we asked him to join us on a track.
We choose a song that was certainly not associated musically with either ESH or Yamo or indeed Kraftwerk in sound or style with “Melancholic Afro” as a song. Wolfgang responded so well as it was different and not expected. His contribution is so good. Also, he’s one of the nicest people we’ve ever met in the business. He’s a class gentleman and true artist. I can’t pay him a higher compliment, other than he’s just SO COOL!!!
ER: Are there any of the current crop of ElectroPop artists that have particularly interested you? Do you find any of them, or their success, an inspiration to keep at it?
AC: I love The Preset’s “This Boy’s In Love”, Maggie and Martin’s “Mon Amour” (which we are currently remixing), Aube Records full roster which is really fantastic. La Roux and some of Lady GaGa but not all and an artist called Annie.
Good songs inspire us, not only artists. These sounds and songs could be from the 1940, 50s or 60s. We’re magpies with a pure musical lust.
ER: Seeing as how there is renewed interest in SynthPop, and SynthPop live (especially in London), do you have any plans to take ESH on the road?
AC: We’d love to take ESH to London. We did try to arrange that last year but things fell through in the end. In August 2008 we did play Retrofest in Scotland which had Boy George headlining, and some great 80s electro bands. Videos of our appearance are on YouTube and they’re a good representation of what to expect. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdoEvJbDevE
Some fans travelled up North to see us, which was a great surprise to us.
If any club reading this would like to invite us over, we’re certainly open to offers. I’ll be in London end of April, so I may pay a visit to a synth night to test the water.
ER: Cheers Aidan!
‘Audio gothic’ is released on Ninthwave Records on April 14th and can be pre-ordered here:
Empire State Human’s back catalogue is still available: