Adam Relf and Isaac Howlett are the songwriting duo behind Empathy Test, one of the UK’s most promising young synthwave acts. Childhood friends who share a love for film, science fiction and 80s analogue synth samples, they have just independently released By My Side, a brooding, bittersweet EP that is sure to delight fans who enjoy the roomy, cinematic sound of acts like CHVRCHES, Purity Ring and SURVIVE.
Yet while the same dreamy, serene synth lines, complex programming and reverb-drenched rhythmic snaps are present on By My Side, this release from Empathy Test ultimately distinguishes itself by the quality of its songs.
Lead single “By My Side” is a study of a dysfunctional relationship, as Howlett, channeling the angst and lassitude of Ian Curtis, sings “There’s a great white elephant hidden in the room/Maybe you didn’t see him in the gloom” over a sparse and melancholy backbeat. The expansive chorus – consisting simply of the question, “Don’t you wanna be by my side?” – rides on top of the minor-key synthesisers plaintively, as if trying to come untethered from the song’s sad undertow.
“Vampire Town”, meanwhile, is a peppier song, with lively synth syncopations propelling the verse as Howlett declares he “needs a break from this vampire town”. Complex textures – gongs, octave swells, snare volleys – join the mix as the song leads into its chorus-line, Howlett singing “I know that we will always be friends” in a voice that can’t quite disguise its own scepticism or pain.
It is a mature and memorable brace of songs, and more’s the pity that the other two tracks on the EP are simply remixes, by New Portals (“By My Side”) and – far more successfully – Papertwin (“Vampire Town”). We caught up with Adam Relf and Isaac Howlett, the intelligent, erudite duo behind Empathy Test, to chat to them about Blade Runner, Stranger Things and the romance of 80s synth…
The band’s name is a reference to Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner. Do you guys often seek musical inspiration from other forms of art? Would you agree with critics who describe your music as ‘cinematic’?
Definitely, we are both really into film, and particularly Science Fiction. We grew up with films like ET and Close Encounters, Flight of the Navigator, and then later, Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator, Robocop. There is a huge influence on the Empathy Test project from those films, both musically and aesthetically. The whole concept of Science Fiction, exploring the limits of human experience and emotion, is also what we attempt to do through our music. Adam is an illustrator as well as a music producer. He does all our artwork and production, and so all of the influences he explores in both jobs feed into the Empathy Test aesthetic. Isaac is also a lover of literature and studied it at university, so you’ll hear little snippets of that in his lyrics, most obviously in one of our as-yet-unreleased tracks called “Firelight”, where the line “I’m a man more sinned against than sinning, oh I swear” is straight out of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The poet WH Auden once said that, “All art aspires to the condition of music.” Do you have any thoughts on this comment?
Oscar Wilde said, “All art is quite useless”, because it aims to do nothing more than create a mood, feeling or emotion. In that sense, music is the purest form of art. It does not ‘do’ anything; it is not ‘for’ anything, it just ‘is’. We make it to express our feelings; the listener lives those feelings vicariously, or else relives their own feelings through the music. It instantly transports you to a new, or old, place. There is a lot of nostalgia in our particular style of music because we use analogue synth sounds, which immediately transport people back to the 80s.
Your songs are earnest and you seem to take the lyrical aspect of your compositions very seriously. Is this genuine songwriting ambition perhaps something that, you feel, electronic music has been a little shy of in recent years?
Totally! Our main aim when we started out was to combine synthwave with proper, intelligent pop songs – complete with catchy choruses and memorable hooks. However, the essence of Isaac’s songwriting and lyrics draws from influences of indie guitar bands from the 90s, who traded on introspective, soul-searching lyrics: everything from Counting Crows to James, Crowded House to Placebo.
Does seeing the success of a band like (Stranger Things soundtrack purveyors) SURVIVE make you think, “Oh, great – people are loving that 80s synth sound again”, or does it make you worry about whether there’s enough space at the table for Empathy Test, too…?
To be honest, it is a good thing for us. We were worried everyone had had enough of 80s synths and then along came Stranger Things and put it back in the limelight. However, we are constantly evolving, trying to develop our own signature sound that defies pigeonholing. If you listen to our early stuff, like “Losing Touch” and “Kirrilee”, and then play this new EP, the difference is pretty huge. We are keen to show we’re not just another couple of guys with synths, burying our heads in nostalgia. We are very much looking forward now.
Speaking of synth sounds, are there any pieces of equipment/studio gear that, you feel, have helped you bring a signature sound to this EP?
Everything we use is soft – i.e. we use plug-ins and virtual instruments. Generally, we use GForce Software impOSCar, which is a soft version of the classic British analog synth the OSCar. It has a great warm, analogue sound. We have used that on all our EPs. However, a lot of the new EP is Adam experimenting with samples. He has been finding interesting noises and turning them into harmonic drones by putting them through various plug-ins, drenching them in reverb and then slowing them down.
If you were given the option of either never being able to play live again or never being able to record again, which would you choose and why?
That is a tough question for Isaac, not so tough for Adam, who is way more into making the music than performing it. In fact, you are more likely to see Isaac on stage with just our live drummer Christina Lopez and keys player Jacob Ferguson Lobo than with Adam, as the touring life is really not his bag. However, I think if Isaac had to choose he would also continue making the music over performing it. The buzz you get from creating a new track is euphoric and then you get the joy of sharing it with other people, too. That’s more important than getting up on stage and getting a round of applause at the end of every track…. just.
Finally, if you weren’t musicians… what would you be?
Adam is already living one of his other dreams, to be a successful graphic artist, so presumably he would be doing that. He is also keen to keep exploring different artistic mediums, and his dream would be to write, direct and score his own movie. It is ambitious but he is well on the way! Isaac is keen on performing, so he would probably be an actor, or – when he is feeling more introverted – a writer.
Empathy Test’s excellent By My Side EP is out right now.
1. By My Side
2. Vampire Town
3. By My Side (New Portals Remix)
4. Vampire Town (Papertwin Remix)