Heralding from the long roads and forests of North Vancouver, Empire is one of the most unique rock bands in a province where every band is trying to be unique.
From afar, you might mistake them for a heavy metal outfit — frontman and guitarist Jordan Heaney and bassist Jason Tancredi are definitely rocking the headbanger hair. But despite appearances, the band is actually a culmination of four very different musical backgrounds. Heaney, a self-professed jam-enthusiast, approaches his songwriting with a flair for improvisation reminiscent of his idol, John Frusciante. Jason, in his own words, is a “disciple of every genre” who can be caught listening to Enya when no one else is around. Drummer Reg Pepito, despite admitting to be a “geek” with a love of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is practically obsessed with heavy metal. Finally, guitarist and pianist Brian Tancredi, an admirer of both classic rock and the work of bands like the Strokes, approaches music with “classical structure, but an afterthought of the contemporary.”
The result is a musical style that often overlaps across several genres and styles. “Party Up”, for example, opens with a tapping-heavy guitar riff before dissolving into a softer piano melody, while “Nine Friends in a Car” is a fast-paced Strokes-inspired tune. “Meet Me in a Little While”, one of the band’s best known tracks, features an intricate, almost robotic beat with a guitar progression that marries melodies and chords and then sends them on a honeymoon with chiming notes from a xylophone. It’s a style that makes little sense on paper, but works beautifully in the band’s live dynamic.
We managed to catch up with Empire in their hometown, right beneath the shadow of Grouse Mountain. Between jokes about Reg’s TMNT fixation and horrible tales of a wet grad gone wrong, the band talks about their unique approach to cover art, their Eminem phases, and what’s in store for their first ever EP.
LL: So, what’s going on with Empire right now?
Jordan Heaney: Right now we’re recording our first EP, which is gonna be awesome. It’s gonna have something like five to eight songs on it, hopefully. We’re just trying to make it pretty much like our live show, and we’re just translating it to an MP3 format.
I noticed all the band’s singles have this very funky abstract cover art. Who makes that?
JH: It’s a collective thing with the whole band. The idea behind it is that when we write a new piece of music and record, we’ll listen to the music with a canvas in front of it, and just start painting as a way of translating the sound into something visual. I’ve been doing most of it, Jason has done some, specifically for “Meet Me in a Little While”, but we’re trying to get more into it and make it more of an image thing.
Does anyone in the band have a history of painting or visual arts?
JH: Not really, but before I got into music I would spend hours colouring in other people’s books as a kid. You know, inside the little lines and shit? Like that big red dog.
Clifford. Shoutout to Clifford.
JH: Yeah, that guy. I would spend hours colouring his book and drawing little figures around the scenes, and then it came to how it is now. Whenever I listen to a new album, I always look at the cover art first, and when I’m listening I’ll always have those same colours inside my head. So when I’m listening to like, First Impressions of Earth by the Strokes, everything in those songs is like black red and white.
This sounds like synthesia.
JH: I don’t know if that’s it. It’s just that when I look at the album cover those are just the colours I see when I’m listening to it in my head. So if I have it, I’m really bad at it.
So Jason, you mentioned you went on a little hike for painting “Meet Me in a Little While”?
Jason Tancredi: Yeah, we decided we were just gonna hike up into Greenwood, find a nice little spot in the middle of the woods, and throw some paint around. Basically, we just tried to listen to the same song on repeat and tried to pick up the vibe of it visually. It turned out pretty well. We each started from one side of the canvas, and it kinda blended in the middle, which is a lot like our songwriting process, really. We used leaves as brushes and everything, we weren’t trying to paint a landscape so much as we were trying to paint a feeling.
The song “Party Up starts with a distortion-heavy guitar riff that then turns into a soft piano piece. With all these different elements going on, what kind of musical background does the band have?
JT: It’s all over the place. Our latest song we’ve been working on has three completely different parts. Often, we’ll be jamming along to a song and will add a completely different type of instrumentation to it, so we approach in a different way but from the same angle, per se.
JH: I like to jam.
Reg Pepito: “Hi, I’m Rod. I like to party” [laughter[
JH: But musical background wise, I’m super into John Frusciante. He can play any chord, and then play like a riff over it, so to the untrained ear it sounds like two guitars are playing. So I really do try to write my songs in the styles of a jam.
JT: I like to consider myself a disciple of every genre. I don’t think our individual musical backgrounds matter so much as how we blend them together. A lot of our songs will go from soft piano parts to heavy riff breakdowns. It’s just our style.
RP: I kinda went through the phases that everyone goes through. Like in Grade 7 I was that nerdy kid in glasses who listened to lots of rap music.
Was it Eminem? Please tell me it was Eminem.
RP: Dude, of course it was Eminem. Dr. Dre, all that. When I got into high school I got into Metallica and hard rock. I knew I wanted to play drums when I first saw Dave Grohl playing in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. I just thought “Wow, that guy is like Tarzan, and I want to be him.” At the same time, I was in cadets doing marching stuff, playing in jazz band with Jason.
JT: Jazz band was a huge influence for us. We always try to keep it funky.
RP: I’m a huge hard rocker, but I also try to keep it melodic. That’s why I think we can kinda get together and make our own little take on it. I always try to make the song heavier, but I’m not ashamed of it.
Brian, you’re rocking the Bob Dylan shirt. Are you the folk influence here?
Brian Tancredi: I wouldn’t call myself a folk artist at all in the style that I play, but in terms of background I’m speaking for both me and Jason when I say our parents didn’t have television or cable. So the whole MTV thing, we never saw that side of music. Both of us were sheltered from the whole music scene, so we just listened to my parent’s record collection. It wasn’t like today where you could just look up a song. I’m not trying to paint this impoverished childhood, but all we could listen to was stuff like the Beatles or my dad’s Peter Frampton record. So then high school came around, and it was like “Wow, the Strokes exist”. It was a bombardement for me. As a result of that, I still have this classical sense when I approach songs, with an afterthought of more contemporary stuff.
A fun question now: there are a few other bands named Empire. There’s a German metal band called Empire, a Chicago band called Empires, and even a New Westminister group called Redeye Empire. Have you guys ever heard of any of those?
JT: Isn’t there a Filipino group called that too?
JH: I think our game plan if legal action is ever taken is pulling a blink-182 and just becoming Empire-182.
RP: We’re aware that there are other bands called Empire, and we might have to deal with that. If someone wants to sue us, and we have no money, we’ll change our name and just become Empire with a backwards E.
JT: We also considered Hempire at one point.
RP: No. Just no.
Another fun one. Reg, what is it with you and the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles?
RP: Dude, I just love TMNT. Mikey is my fave: his weapons are useless, he always asks about the pizza, he skateboards…..I even have a ninja turtles snuggie. I’ll stop there. It’s just a childhood thing that reminds me that I’m a geek at heart.
If every member of the group was a teenage mutant ninja turtle, who would be who? I’ve called it in my head already.
RP: Easy! Jason is Donnie, Jordan is Leo, Brian is definitely Raph, and I’m Mikey. WAIT! Guys, we’re being TMNT for our Halloween show. I will make the costumes.
Invite me, please. Back to business: what’s the EP process like so far?
JH: It’s …exhausting.
JT: There are nights where we are in the studio until 4 in the morning. We start at 10, because that’s when it’s available, but it’s truly tiring.
RP: But at the same time, being in the studio can give you those eureka moments. Playing a song so many times always gets the best sound out of it. I’m a real perfectionist. As long as we work together as a team, it all works out. I went to recording school, and the more you know the better. A lot of bands are blinded by the fairy tale that they’ll immediately be signed and make millions, but you make nothing unless you work hard.
JT: In the way of what to expect from the record, expect a very raw sound. We’ll often play all of our takes together to synchronize everything and capture that vibe. We find playing it all together helps us get the tightest sound we can get. We’re trying to record it as if it were our best live show, ever.
JH: For this EP, we made a really conscious decision to hone it down to a few songs that best represent our sound.
RP: What matters most is the vibe. It doesn’t matter if we mess up, as long as the vibe is good at the end of the night.
When I saw you guys play, some dude in a trench coat kinda started singing onstage. Who was he?
JH: That was Luke, one of Jason and Brian’s brothers. He used to play in the band and he left about 5 months ago so that he could pursue his own stuff, but he’s still a huge supporter, comes to all our gigs…
BT: He’s still around in the mix, he’s just not a permanent fixture.
A lot of bands go through a ton of bad names before they decide on one they love. What’s the worst band name you’ve ever played under?
JT: Bassic. We were a band with two bassists.
Please tell me it was spelt B-A-S-S-I-C.
JT: How did you know?
BT: I can top it. Six years ago, Luke was the drummer, a friend of mine was on guitar, and we went under the name of “the Harry Jerome-5000s”. That is a real band name. That has been on posters. If legal action is pursued against Empire, that’s our fallback.
RP: It was bad, but also really funny. We played Motorhead and stuff under the name “the Moaning Scones”. Our poster was a plate of three scones with faces on them holding instruments in the air.
JT: They played heavy metal at our grad afterparty.
RP: People were drunk as shit.
Believe me, I know the wet grad all too well.
JH: I had one that was me, Luke, and these two other kids, one of them named Ken, and we were called “Kenny and the Crossdressers”. And the first gimmick was that Ken was like, in normal clothes, but the rest of us were in our private school’s skirts. That was pretty weird. I was in another one that was me and Luke that was called Luke Tancredi and the Ego. I was playing two synthesizers and Luke was singing, and we would face each other onstage. We were ahead of our time– basically what Royal Bloods is trying to do now.
My last question: What’s next?
JT: Writing newer songs, things that are relatable to ourselves but also fun to listen to and to rock out to. We try to have fun for ourselves and make it fun for the crowd.
RP: We wanna play on a moving semi on the highway. And once we run out of songs, the truck will explode.
JT: We have an upcoming song called “Go the Fuck to Sleep” that’s inspired by Reg falling asleep in front of the TV every night.
RP: In my defense, I really like playing NHL, like, every night. It’s really fun.
Keep yourself updated with Empire by checking out their website