Empires conquer Lolla’s storm

By Sophia Coleman

Local rock band Empires knows a thing or two about close calls.

Aug. 4 started out as a sunny second day of Lollapalooza, where the band—comprised of Tom Conrad, guitarist, Sean Van Vleet, vocalist, and Max Steger, guitarist and producer—was scheduled to play at 4 p.m. But a sudden rainstorm and evacuation of the fest made the likelihood of a performance seem bleak.

“Our set is cancelled,” Empire tweeted. “Nothing we can do about it. Hard to put into words how bummed we are. Thank you to everyone [who] traveled.”

Just as they came to terms with losing a major opportunity, they were told their set had been rescheduled for 7:45-8:30 p.m. on Sunday, right before major headliner Jack White played. No big deal, right?

The band, which formed in 2006, recently had their share of momentous publicity. In 2010 they made their first big-time festival appearance at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Just last year they made it to the top for slots of Rolling Stone’s first ever “Choose the Cover” competition, where they were handpicked from over 1,200 bands for a chance to be on the August 2011 cover. Voting was to be determined by fans across the country, and while they didn’t win, their exposure skyrocketed.

The competition had also helped push the band to record their latest album Garage Hymns, which released June 12, so their newfound fans would have new material to relish.

The Chronicle talked with guitarist Tom Conrad about what it was like to be in Lolla’s lineup, their new album and why trying less sometimes helps.

How does it feel to be performing at Lollapalooza—did you ever imagine yourself preforming here one day?

Tom Conrad: Well first, it’s very exciting, obviously. Shaun and both [went] to Lolla in 2007, I think, and again in 2008. We’re from Chicago, but I haven’t gone the last two years. I guess I never saw myself playing here, but everyday is a new surprise. I’ve definitely been looking forward to it for a few months.

You guys are one of the few Chicago bands performing at Lolla. So how does that feel?

It’s great. It also seems like we are one of the few rock bands that are playing. I feel very good about being in Chicago as a loud and noisy band and representing it that way.

Who are some of the bands you are looking forward to?

I haven’t thought too much about it, but I did see Black Sabbath.  We’re big fans of Little Dragon, and I want to catch some of Doomtree’s set.

When did you guys get the news that you were performing at Lolla, and what was the reaction?

We found out around end of March, early April. And it was interesting because, in the last few years, we had been submitting to get into the lineup, and we never got it. But this year we didn’t really try as hard, and we got in. It’s definitely an honor to be here.

Go figure, the time you didn’t try as hard you got it.

Yeah that’s kind of been a life-lesson lately. Things will fall into place and just keep doing what you’re doing and it’ll work out.

Which leads me to ask, what did you guys learn from the 2011 Rolling Stone’s “Choose the Cover” contest, where you made it into one of the top four slots?

We didn’t think we’d get as far as we did. We got a lot of promotions and were able to get our name out. Obviously it was important to us. I feel like, especially with music today, there are so many great acts, and it’s kind of hard to stand out. So we got some exposure. But now we have a lot of control over on our own music. And I look back and think, “Thank god,” because we got exactly where we needed to get and still made it out alive. The band has always done our own recording and everything is done between the three of us. I guess we are kind of control freaks.

Tell me about Garage Hymns.

We started working on Garage Hymns in 2010. The process was different in the sense that the songs on our record were demoed out and recorded six, seven, eight times. It was the first time we really did our homework so the actual recording process was very quick—about two weeks. We didn’t have to overanalyze progressions, arrangements or tonality. What also added to the beauty of it was the nuances and weird personality…it has a lot of character.

What are some of your favorite tracks?

It’s hard, because to be honest with you—we’ve had this record done for about a year now—I still feel great about it. There have been other projects that we’ve done where I felt great about it, but then six months later I’m over it.  When I reflect on the record, I feel really confident about it, and I have no regrets. It’s probably the first thing in my life that I feel really strongly about. We didn’t have any filler songs and we did the best we could.

What do you feel when you listen to the album?

Since the writing and recording process was spread out over a year and a half, almost two years, we were going through a lot, especially with touring and doing that damn Rolling Stone contest. I moved twice, once to a different place to Chicago, and then I moved to New York. So, a lot of change underwent that was reflected in the album.

A few media outlets said that the album had a “Springsteen-esque quality,” others said the album reminded them of “The Gaslight Anthem and The Killers in their best moments.” What do you think of that?

Some people have said that—but I don’t f—–n’ hear it. We’ve never really tried to sound like anyone else. We’ve done what was natural to us. We are big believers in carving out our own path.

Do you have any particular influences?

As a group, we are all big Led Zeppelin fans. I grew up on a lot of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and early ‘90s stuff.

I heard you went to Columbia College for a little. What was that like?

I went to Columbia for art and design—hated it. So I left and did some extensive touring with the band, then I came back and decided to go back to Photography [in 2007] and loved it. The only reason I stopped going was because the band got busier, and I felt like if I was to pursue any sort of art form, it was music. So, I still shoot a lot. I’m a person [who] puts two hours into music, and then I know I have to do something else and spread my creative energy as wide as I can.

Columbia is definitely a place where creativity is in abundance. What do you guys have planned for after Lollapalooza?

Touring for the fall. We will announce the dates shortly. We’ll be playing Lincoln Hall on Aug.21 with The Pomegranates, who are from Cincinnati. We are going to get started on some new writing and recording shortly.

For more information on Empires, visit WeAreEmpires.com