I N T E R V I E W
‘Trash Dynasty’: An Interview with Empress
by Trevor Faville
Empress is a two-piece band who evolved out of Hamilton’s Cheshire Grimm in 2019, following the departure of Kat Waswo from that band. With the release of their new EP, ‘Trash Dynasty’, on the 10th of September, Trevor Faville caught up with Lora and Craig and talked about the transition from Cheshire Grimm to Empress, the challenging aspects of working as a two-piece, the new release, and more!
HUP: The journey from Cheshire Grimm to now, what were some of the important steps and/or decisions you made?
Lora: Personally, for me, being in the band with Kat (Waswo, Cheshire Grimm bassist) for seven years… that was quite a change. Quite a difficult adjustment. We’re still really close friends. Earlier this year we worked on Grrrlfest which was really fun. That was a festival that ran over three days and had more than 30 artists.
It was more of a natural progression for me and Craig - that's how I feel about it, anyway. I'm really stoked with the re-brand and the change of sound that we’ve got, because it feels really authentic.
Craig: Probably the biggest step we didn’t make was actually Kat leaving the band. She was wanting to focus on her own stuff, which was obviously the right decision for her. We kind of rolled with it initially and thought we would carry on the same as before - as a two piece instead - but I think we pretty quickly decided that the music we wrote with Kat was different to what me and Lora wrote. It became a kind of natural progression. We decided we needed to change up from Cheshire Grimm and become our own thing.
HUP: That's what I was curious about, because it looked like a dynamic change. Things are being done differently because one person isn’t there. So, it evolved as a result of that.
Craig: Yeah, and I think partly it's the mechanics of being a two piece versus a three piece. We tried for quite a while to play some of the same songs, but just mechanically it doesn't quite work the same. We kind of... reinvented a little bit, and then we sort of thought, “actually, maybe we need to move away from what Cheshire Grimm was, and be its own thing”.
Lora: I feel like, personally, we were probably leaning towards the rebrand anyway, after seven years, two drummers, two albums… like we were sort of leaning towards a different sound than what it was at the start anyway, and I think I’m kind of stoked with what we’re doing now because it's not like we have to play stuff that we wrote that long ago - that we don't like playing any more! And, also, that Craig doesn't have to play things he did not write... that's a big plus, y’know?
HUP: Both of you are experienced musicians. What's your balance between contemporary and formative musical influences? Is it older music that still inspires you, or is there a lot of new music around that you are learning from?
Craig: I guess, for me, music peaked at my emotionally most vulnerable (age), and it's all been downhill from there! But I listen to a lot of contemporary stuff, but to be honest I’ve moved away from a lot of the genres that I grew up listening exclusively to. Like, I was really into heavy metal almost exclusively up to my mid-twenties. Now I am in my mid-thirties the contemporary music I listen to tends to be much more diverse. It's a lot more electronic. A lot of rap and hip hop. Still quite a lot of metal, but nowhere near as exclusive as it used to be, and I think honestly 90% of my influence comes from the stuff I was listening to when I was thirteen to twenty. It's not a deliberate thing by any stretch, but it's hard wired in my brain.
Lora: Yeah, I’m the same as Craig, actually. I played in loads of death metal bands and things as a youngster - sort of grindcore and heavy metal was pretty big for me as well as ‘90s Grunge. The Melvins, Hole, and punk music and stuff. But recently, I’ve kind of been getting into St Vincent, Holly Herndon, Run the Jewels. I also had many friends that inspire me. One of the big inspirations for the way I write songs - the songs in particular that I write for Empress - is New Zealand band Left or Right. I love the heavy reggae sort of vibe and that's what gives some of our songs - not all them! - but that was an inspiration for a long time... so big shout to them. They are a band from Dunedin.
Craig: I guess I could throw in there quickly one of the big influences that I - interestingly - had is… and a lot of it has come from joining a band that already existed, but, Cheshire Grimm was actually a really big influence on what I play, because that's where I made my entrance into the band. I copied previous drummers and Sam’s (Holdom) style straight away because I had to learn it. That has kind of just naturally flowed into what I was writing, I think.
Lora: Chelsea Wolfe is another big one for some of the songs on this EP for me but... older Chelsea Wolfe, like when she had the Doomy kind of heavy distorted sound.
HUP: Your next release: What have you done? What is it? How did you do it?
Lora: heaps of crying! Loads of crying… Blood, sweat, tears. Craig had to indulge in some intoxicants….! That's what we have done! The actual answer is we have a six-track record. It may be slightly longer than an EP. I don't know, but I don’t think it's quite an album. It's all very super-DIY -we did it all ourselves. We intended to finish it last year but the previous lockdown made that pretty tough. We are supposed to have a six-date tour coming up... Dates might change (due to covid restrictions). It's our first EP as this band- so that's pretty cool.
HUP: Is the previous Empress single ‘Sailing the Seas of Grease’ on it?
Lora; Yep! Both singles are on it, plus four other tracks. One of them that we only added at the last minute earlier this year.
Craig: ‘Cos we decided that Lora needed more to do! I would just like to add to that - massive shout out to Lora because she's done all the technical stuff… well, ALL the stuff! I showed up and sucked at drums for a few hours, and she’s turned the whole thing into an amazing set of tracks.
Lora: I'm really happy with them, actually, because I think part of the thing about it taking so long led to the advantage of lots of listening, and lots of tweaking, and I’m pretty happy with the production that we’ve got on it. And the performances I think are really good.
HUP: What are some of the positives, challenges and interesting aspects of working as a two piece?
Lora: I guess, at a gig, if somebody stops playing, it's pretty challenging! It's pretty easy to organise, I reckon. We can just be like “hey, do you want to do this?” “yeah/ nah? Cool?” Give them an answer straight away.
Craig: I've never been in a band that has practiced every time that we said we would practice and this band has been the first one that basically like… there's never any problems. We just… we literally sometimes organise a practice in an hour! “Are you free this afternoon?” “sweet, swing over, we’ll jam”. That's fantastic. I guess in terms of challenges, I wouldn't say there are too many really. The big one is probably we've still got a lot of crap! Having a full size drum kit to haul about with the two of us…
Lora: A giant pedalboard that weighs 20 kgs. That's gonna be fun for the tour!
HUP: What about the sound? It has not proved to be much of a worry, filling it out live?
Lora: Filling it out is not an issue. I think the issue is looping sometimes can suck if we don't have someone who is good on monitors with us, you know? It's a challenge for Craig because he’s playing drums to a loop that's coming through a guitar amp, or bass amp and a guitar amp. That sometimes can be a challenge.
Craig: Lora’s done a huge amount in terms of filling out the sound. We were jamming out at my house a while ago, and the first time Lora brought an extra amp to use, which is a bass cab, with - I think it was a guitar amp - but she’d used her splitter and had the two signals going, and my neighbour showed up complaining thinking that there was a four or five piece band in the back shed! “It was fine when it was a two piece, but now there is a whole band, it's just too much noise!” I think (Lora) has done an amazing job of filling that out.
Lora: That's how we measure our achievements. I’m hiding in the back there and she's going “oh, but we didn't know you were gonna have whole bands here!” Mission succeeds!
HUP: When I saw you live, it was definitely working. I am always reminded of Robert Fripp (King Crimson guitarist) who talked about bands being ‘small, mobile, intelligent units’ and it's a curious thing when you get down to two people. It's interesting hearing how you deal with that.
Lora: On that note, I’m a huge King Crimson fan too. So that's pretty important, all that kind of background.
HUP: You operate like a lot of bands do now, with a self-managed, independent approach. So when it comes to setting up a tour, it seems an epic amount of work. Is it? How does that work for you?
Lora: It's pretty easy I think now, because we've sort of been playing for a bit - a couple of years. So people ask us to play. I think the hardest thing is probably when we are going to a place where we haven't been before, which for this tour was going to be Wellington and Tauranga. I think the issue we've had this time is methods of transportation - booking flights and stuff. I think at one point we were gonna catch the Interislander… then we weren't... it's always interesting booking all of that.
HUP: It's a big change, and that whole thing (touring) would have been handled by someone else, once. Now it's not unusual to see bands like yourself handling all of that internally… and it becomes a normal part of being a functionaking musician now. That you have to handle all of this yourself.
Lora: Yeah, with some of our gigs too, like the Tauranga one, that's not organised by us, so we do outsource some of them where possible. We’ve got a festival coming up called Sanctuary Sounds that we are supposed to be playing in too-. It's a bit of a mixed bag.
Craig: I would say Lora makes it sound easy. But she's incredibly organised as I would assume - as a general person, but in terms of band stuff she just knows what to do in terms of everything. So she makes it sound simple, but it doesn't look like it from the outside!
HUP: So then! EP, tour, is it presumptuous to ask if you have plans after that?
Craig: Like Lora said we’ve got the festival that we are playing in December, and I guess hopefully as we go through the tour we would pick up more momentum for tours and shows as we go. At the moment we are all in this weird kind of holding pattern to see what happens anyway (with Covid restrictions). It's a strange world we live in at the moment.
HUP: For each of you, name a favourite piece of musical equipment and tell us why you like it?
Lora: Pick the chimes!
Craig: I would probably have to say, my ride cymbal. My HH Sabian. It's really versatile, you can use it for nearly anything. And I have thrashed the shit out of it. For a couple of years now and it's still... still not a dent on it… somehow!
HUP: Good cymbals are for life...
Craig: Yeah, that's the plan! Typically with me, not so much. They tend to last 2-3 years, but this ones been going a while.
Lora: I have narrowed it down to - when we made this EP - it was that TC electronics Sub ‘n Up, which is a pedal I have. One of many. I don't even know how many I have. And it's got this tone print that sort of sounds like an organ. I think I've used it on four out of six tracks on the EP. I totally recommend it. It's quite affordable as well, and quite compact. It's basically a three times Octave creator with these kind of weird tone prints, but I just use it on the setting that sounds like an organ, cos we don't have keys or anything, and that kinds fills it out a bit. Sounds really good!
HUP: For each of you, what's a favourite on stage/ touring story?
Craig: I think probably for me, we played a show in… I think it was Napier, back when we were Cheshire Grimm, and I was quite sick. So we got a bit jacked up on caffeine… and stuff…(!). I was a bit sick and I think Lora was a bit under the weather as well, so we got all jazzed up on caffeine and we played this show, and it went really well. We were playing a couple of shows with the Skinny Hobos. The show went great, we got off stage, me and Lora were pumped. Thought it went absolutely mint… and Kat got off the stage and she was a little less than impressed because we apparently played everything about 20 percent faster than it should have been.
Craig: …causing Kat grief to even sing the songs! But you know, the crowd went nuts. It was a really great show... as far as everyone else seemed to be concerned! I feel bad about it for Kat, but it was one of those times when you just really got into the moment. I think it was a hell of a lot of a fun performance.
Lora: Yeah, it was a good show! I think the thing about being a two piece is that it's quite easy to get on the same level, because there is only one other person to get on the level with. It’s good.
Lora: Funny that you mention Skinny Hobos because I think - I'm not sure - but one of these stories might be a Skinny Hobos tour. Something about a bar of soap that had been shoved in the smoke alarm at the hotel… when we pulled off the cover. That was kind of funny ‘cos we were worrying about covering the smoke detectors so someone could smoke in a room and then it was like… cool, there's a bar of soap in the battery hole.
And then the other one was, last time we went to Takaka and played Roots bar, which we are hopefully gonna go back to again soon. I think I was a bit out of it and I made this young dude scull a bottle of tomato sauce. It was quite a rowdy crowd, and we played quite late, and he was quite rowdy up the front, so I was like “Oh yeah, yeah come up here”, and then I don't know what I said actually… but I made him scull this bottle of tomato sauce that was sitting on the sub next to me. I don't know why it was there….
HUP: Did he take the lot?
Lora: Yeah, at the time, at the time he did. But then apparently he went and spewed up and went home, which I felt really bad about… but he was kind of heckling us, so...
Craig: It was probably the alcohol to be fair, rather than the T sauce!
‘Trash Dynasty’ is available at Bandcamp and all major streaming services. Tapes and CDs will be available from gig venues.
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