GIITTV Introducing: Emperor Yes


We visit the independent and East London based studio, ‘House of Strange’, to sit down with Ash Gardner and discuss his previous endeavours and new project, Emperor Yes.

The studio itself makes for an interesting visit, and I am glad to take the opportunity to take a quick mosey about the place. It’s situated in the basement of the large open flat that Gardner lives in. Besides the vast array of instrumentation at hand here, not to mention an entire cupboard filled with a ridiculous amount of pedals, just so many pedals, the place is surrounded by a large amount of work done by various different artists in London and elsewhere, from street to antique. For a first time visitor it is quite mesmerising to see what seems like such a vibrant and engaging, yet strangely calming place to dedicate a period of intense creation to.  It certainly has warmed the atmosphere of what used to be a large, old East London, Victorian dog biscuit factory. But all of that aside, there was still a purpose to my visit, and some questions that needed asking.

You’ve said that ‘Emperor Yes’ was based around a certain number of tick boxes, such as ‘No computers, songs with choruses, songs that are easier to digest structurally, lots of vocoders, and to be able to bring back the guitar’. Can you run us through some of these choices, and why you’ve elected to go with that.

I’d been writing with ‘House of Strange’ for about six years before ‘Emperor Yes’ came around, and I reckon all the tick boxes would’ve come from things that I just wasn’t happy with in the previous project, or that I’d thought, ‘that might be the reason why people aren’t engaging with this’. We played our first show the other day, and there were people we didn’t know singing along with the first chorus of ‘Wasps’, and I was like ‘Ah, so this is why people write choruses!’ And then, having gone to guitar making University and being surrounded by people who just wanted to speak about Guitars constantly, talking about pick-ups, scale lengths, and fret boards, I just didn’t want to use any of that [with ‘House of Strange’]. So now I’m kind of over not wanting to do that because opinions change, so I’m just totally keen to make loud distortion sounds again. I read a quote from Einstein that said ‘Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. So I know what ‘House of Strange’ has yielded and I want to try something different now.

So, do you think you’ve deliberately tried to make it more accessible?

I think, at heart, the type of stuff that I really like is vaguely universal, I like music from all the different genres, and I think ‘House of Strange’ was slightly weirder than my personality actually is, so I feel like I‘ve come back down to realising what I‘m all about and that this is what I like to do. So yeah, I think ‘Emperor Yes’ is pretty up to date with what I’d like to be doing at the moment.

You mentioned playing your first show the other day, how did that go?

Yeah, it was awesome, there were people there and there were no gear malfunctions! My only gigging experience last year was with ‘Three Trapped Tigers’, we must’ve done about sixty or seventy dates, and I reckon one out of ten of those shows wouldn’t have a technical fuck up. So starting this, I didn’t want to make it as difficult for us as is it is with ‘Three Trapped Tigers’, I don’t want to add that extra level of stress, you’ve already got to think about going up and playing in front of people and remembering your parts. So all the gear side was fine, and although there were a few errors, we felt, ‘well this is.. do-able’, and people seemed to like it, so it was a really good start.

So in many ways, you’ve stripped things down?

Fuck yes, we’ve stripped so much stuff back, and I’ll eventually get my ass in line to start the live show back up again with projections and mad lighting effects and stuff. But just for the time being I want to make sure the music is good and people can identify with that, and then I’ll start putting more extras in.

The band’s still in its relatively formative stages, and you all have other commitments to attend to, so have you come round to figuring out a vague plan for the rest of the year?

We have some more recordings to do in the next couple of months, and we’re going to gig as much as possible, although the primary commitment for me and [Adam] Betts is ‘Three Trapped Tigers’ so whenever that‘s on, we‘ll be doing that. I don’t think they’re going into the studio until summer, so up until summer it’s going to be full steam ahead, and see how far we can get in that time.

I’ve noticed a few people compare you to ‘The Postal Service’, has that surprised you?

Yeah, totally, I used to listen to that band years ago and just completely forgot about them. But I get it, there’s an electronic bed, and the vocals are slightly soft, and positive, but slightly melancholic at the same time, I guess ‘Grandaddy’ is also a good match. But we all like so much different music, and like to cram in as much different music as possible, so I wouldn’t be surprised if people heard anything that we’ve listened to in the last ten years, which is ‘Pantera’ to ‘Simply Red’.

Are there any other groups that have really grabbed your attention at the moment?

There’s so many good people at the moment, ‘Summer Camp’ hardly existed a year ago. Those guys have created not only incredible pop tunes, and an awesome sound to go with it, but a wicked environment and feeling to it too. But working so much in the studio, I don’t feel like I’m really on top of what’s happening at the moment. On tour with the Tigers, I’ll see all the bands who are vaguely around so I have a vague ear of what’s about, but yeah I don’t have a lot of time to unearth awesome bands, which isn’t great.

And it gets harder and harder as time goes on, doesn’t it?

Definitely, and all the people who I hang around with are either all musicians or people my age, who are slightly getting on, and not so into music anymore, so those mother-fuckers are talking about babies and shit, it’s not like when you’re hanging out with your friends and you’re like, ‘Dude, I watched this awesome movie and I checked out this wicked band,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, well my boiler’s broken!’ You just think, ‘Lads, come on! Shit is only beautiful when you really fucking try hard to make it special, if not, everyone just gets really jaded.

You introduce yourselves on your blog as a ‘live band’, is this a reference to playing live, or the way you go about recording, perhaps more organically?

Yeah, a little bit of both, I’m really liking bands at the moment that aren’t quite so produced and maybe a bit rough round the edges, using lots of technology but not using in a way where you just whack on play and just go with it, ‘cause it just doesn’t seem to have any power in it any more, like it used to. Technology has come so far on now to let you actually play it, rather than it play you. And we have one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen, so I don’t think we need to worry about staying in time with him!

Your lyrics seem to come from quite an abstract place, would you say there’s often an overarching theme, or is each song independent and autonomous?

Each song deals with different subjects but they’re all very science-y, history based, because that’s the kind of stuff that really grabs me, I just watch tons of documentaries all the time, I don‘t watch too much else so it‘s no surprise that‘s all that I write really.

These days you see quite a lot of bands started by kids in their late teens who are very sort of ambitious, and maybe a bit naïve, in terms of what they’re getting themselves in for, just in the sheer volume of bands at the same level, for years often. Do you think having taken the time to work with different projects and different people, and record other bands here and elsewhere, do you think that’s helped you establish what it is you want to do, because you do have such a specific criteria?

I think so, but whether that’s a good thing or not, I’m not really sure, but definitely yeah. You do it long enough, you see people do things that get them forward, some people do the same thing and it gets them backwards, you see a lot of what works and what doesn’t, and what kills bands, what doesn‘t. It’s kind of like creating a universe, you need a really special set of materials, and timing, and luck, but with pre-planning and knowledge it can help. It’s like pouring water into a cup, but there’s a hole in it, and you’re continuously pouring water into it, so if I continue pouring water into it, it’s going to stay there, but if I stop, and let the water go, I can re-assess the situation, and plug the hole. There’s lot of people who work really, really hard and don’t have anything to show for it, and I don’t want to end up like that. I watched the ‘Anville’ documentary, those guys are just so hard-working, but man, that’s no way to end up.

Yeah, but there’s a kind of strange romance to it all, isn’t there?

Exactly! The most amazing thing about the music industry is the way that everyone fronts ‘the magic’. It’s like a big bluffing game, everyone wants it to be more special than it really is. There’s this funny thing where everybody bluffs each other, and the audience are pushing one way, and the band’s going ‘Well, we’ll do whatever you want’, but they’re like ‘No! We don’t want you to do whatever we want, we want you to do what you want!’

But really, they want what they want, they just want you to say it’s what you want?

Exactly.

You run this recording studio, ‘House of Strange’, and you’ve talked about the mission of it being to ‘turn the act of making music into a fully interactive experience’, could you explain that a bit, in terms of what it involves, and who else it involves?

So I run the studio, so I’ll produce, and engineer, and mix, but it really depends on each project that comes in, and what they want, if the band leaves happy, then I’m stoked. With the whole interactive thing, I think there’s a lot to be found in music in the visual side of things, like what ‘Summer Camp’ have done so effectively, they’ve created this awesome vibe around their band. So we’ve recorded a lot of videos here, and it’s fun to try and help people create a world that’s bigger than just a tune. As far as aesthetics and such, I’m really into guys like Michel Gondry, who manage to make incredible looking things, that are really DIY. And as an audience member you can make a lot of excuses for it not looking really, really good. An audience wants it to work, so if you’re trying to give something that says ‘We’re really professional’, then people will think ‘well if this is really professional then that’s really shit about it’. Artists can do really simple drawings that people really engage with, so there’s like a funny middle ground between it not looking really good, and not looking really shit. Plus, it’s just a way of really trying to identify what a band is up to, what their lyrics are saying, how they’re acting, everything needs to pull in one direction. Every time you encounter a band, it’s often a very visual experience too, and as you say, there are so many, and tonnes of them are really good, so you’ll often hear a band, and the music’s really good, and then you’ll see them, and think ‘ah, well they’re never going to make it’. Kids are looking for someone to look up to, that’s why I got into music, it was always the vibe going on that got me into it, like the energy of punk and stuff. Kids have got so many different people vying for their attention, they know what’s real and what’s acted well, so they’re going to pick the shit that speaks.

 

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