Isaac Howlett (vocals) from Empathy Test
EMPATHY TEST is slowly going back to life. With some new concerts scheduled in Germany, the UK, and Poland, they will finally give their fans a chance to meet during live shows. Even though the isolation pandemic time was particularly difficult for them - the Covid-19 struck while their career was getting its peak - they did not give up and managed to survive and, as I assume for the interview, strike with an even greater force. Isaac Howlett opens up about how hard it was to be deprived of the possibility to play gigs and how frustrating to be caught at a point when things were going smoothly and then just collapsed due to outer circumstances. A lesson they took and got stronger. About sorting the principles, fighting the odds and being strong despite feeling weak at times. Great, honest, important interview
Reflections of Darkness [RoD]: Recently, you posted a photo of the band with a note, “Just in case you forgot what we look like”. It was significant. We all miss seeing you on stage, and I suppose the pandemic time was quite a test? For us, for you… Especially that your career was speeding like hell when the Covid-19 struck… Was it frustrating, or you took it the Zen way…?
Isaac: Oh, you have no idea... In 2019, as you say, EMPATHY TEST had reached a real peak in our career. In January 2019, we toured with VNV NATION in the UK. Then we went more or less straight onto a tour of Germany with COVENANT. We flew in and out of Germany every weekend for six weeks or so, playing to some huge audiences. There was a really good vibe and everyone was having a great time. We did a couple more shows with VNV NATION in Spain - Madrid and Barcelona - which were fantastic. We played at Wave Gotik Treffen to an audience so big they couldn’t get any more people into the venue. Afterwards, we sold more merchandise than we have ever sold in one night. We also played at M’era Luna for the first time, to an equally mind-blowingly large audience.
Then, we had our joint headline UK tour with ACTORS, which was a tough one, ending as it did, with our keyboard player Sam leaving (everyone has their limits when it comes to touring). Chrisy (our drummer) was also at Glastonbury for the second week, so I finished the tour with Elliott Berlin on keyboards and a deputy drummer (Joe Mutton). But at that point, I felt like nothing could stop me. I just kept going and going, whatever obstacles were thrown in my path. We replaced Sam temporarily with Angel Metro for the USA tour with AESTHETIC PERFECTION, which was a dream we’d been waiting since 2016 to realize: six weeks on the road and a multitude of life changing and life affirming experiences I will never forget. Chrisy and I returned back to England exhausted, and went (literally) straight to a rehearsal with our new keyboard player, Oliver. A couple of days later, we flew out to Germany for yet another tour.
Daniel Graves was sick of course, so we ended up headlining all the shows for which we were supposed to be the main support for AESTHETIC PERFECTION. Hey, we even had IRIS supporting us! I could barely stand up at some of them, I was so exhausted. We finished the year with a homecoming show at the biggest venue we’ve ever played in London - Islington O2 Academy - and were surprised to have done a pretty decent job of filling it. Oliver slipped into place like he’d always been there, and on we went. When 2020 began, we barely took a breath, headlining Owls ‘n’ Bats Festival in January and then performing at E-Only Festival in February. Just before Covid-19 finally reared its ugly head for real, we had our first ever show in Stockholm - and it was a headline one. It was pretty funny looking back, as Oliver had a really bad cough the whole time, and the Uber drivers were freaking out thinking he had Covid. Who knows, maybe he did.
By that point, we had a new album (‘Monsters’) almost ready to release and headline tours planned in the UK in May, Germany in September, and America in October. 2020 was going to be even bigger than 2019. We were totally on a roll, and when Covid hit we figured it would be over in a month or two, so we decided to put the album out anyway. The tours would be delayed but they’d happen. I pressed “go” on the crowd funder and it went really well, we hit our initial target of £4K in twenty minutes. Then began the slow realization that Covid wasn’t going anywhere soon. Tour by tour, show by show, everything was being either pushed back to 2021, or being abandoned completely. The PR company we worked with for the album release tried to convince us to delay the release because everything was just “Covid, Covid, Covid”. Even our producer and non-performing co-founder, Adam Relf, was saying maybe we should wait. To be honest, I’m glad we didn’t because, well, just how long would we have waited? And how would we have survived financially?
We did just one tour in 2020, which was more than many bands managed. A “socially distanced tour” of Germany (and one show in Switzerland). It was completely bizarre and I was totally unfit by that point, months of sitting at home having left me totally unprepared for the stresses of doing a tour during Covid times. We were playing a set of almost completely new songs, we had a new technical set-up, and we had had the most stressful journey out, ever. After our final performance at the NCN Special Festival, I felt so awful I thought I had Covid. Thankfully, it was only exhaustion. Apart from a live-streamed concert in January, we still haven’t done a single live show in 2021, so far. To be honest, sometimes I’m confused about what year it is. The rug has been completely pulled from beneath our feet and the seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory we were on at the beginning of 2020, has been completely blown away. 2019 feels like it was five or ten years ago.
RoD: What was the isolation experience like for you personally? Were you just struggling for survival, creating or, I do not know, getting a better overview on what’s important? Some tried to apply philosophical understanding to the situation. I’m asking this cause there were so many approaches to handling the situation that, to be honest, I was overwhelmed. As many people as many ideas. What was yours?
Isaac: Primarily, I distracted myself with the mammoth task of sending out all of the merch orders from the Monsters album crowd funder. There were over 1,000 orders in the end, and I packaged and sent out every single one of them, single handedly. It wasn’t like anyone could come round and help me! I tried to focus on each day, not thinking too much about the future and taking it one day at a time. I told myself it would all be over soon and we’d be back out on the road touring the new album. And the new album itself had a lot of really great feedback, so I tried to focus on that. But inevitably, the buzz from the album started to die out, and without any touring to keep it alive, it soon began to feel like the ‘Monsters’ was going to sink without a trace.
I then discovered that cabin fever is a totally real thing, not just something from a horror movie! I was living in London with a few housemates and I started to become fanatical about every little annoying thing they did, obsessing over their behaviour and the things they said, in a way that I realised later was neither normal nor healthy. I managed at one point to get on a plane and go hang out in Austria for a bit and when I came back, I had this sudden realisation just how weirdly I’d been behaving. I went so long and so often without talking to people that I lost the ability to formulate my thoughts into words and on the odd occasions when I’d talk to one of my housemates in the kitchen, I’d often find myself regularly struggling to find a word. Once the merch orders were all sent, I tried to focus on writing some new songs, but I felt totally uninspired and miserable, and eventually began to wonder if I’d ever write anything ever again.
RoD: Do you feel you’ve changed in any way?
Isaac: For sure. I mean, it’s difficult to tell how exactly. As you say, I’ve had time to realise that a lot of what is most important in life, we totally take for granted, normally. I’ve discovered how necessary human contact is, how important friendships are, and how it is important to also have a life outside of music and touring. And of course, I discovered fitness, health and personal freedoms cannot be taken for granted.
RoD: You are totally independent - totally on your own in terms of management and all. I could imagine it must have been particularly hard for you in such challenging times. How did you manage? Are you the “never give up” type of person? Did you have your moments of doubt? Even if you did, you managed to overcome them… how?
Isaac: I didn’t really have any other choice, to be honest. In 2018, I was made redundant from my day job, after I spent so much time away on tour, I guess my boss started to wonder if it was worth paying me for. Although it was scary as hell at the time, it was the push I needed to go full time with the music, and I have never looked back. Of course, I am now living on a fraction of the money I was before, but that doesn’t matter much when you are doing what you love. Some days however, it does feel like a bitter blow fate has dealt me. I finally got free of my day job, I had one amazing year touring the world and then a global pandemic hit and it all got taken away from me. However, I can’t dwell on that, I just have to keep believing that soon it will all come back. And yes, I’m still having moments of doubt, moments where I think maybe it’s time to just give up and do something else because my God, it’s been tough. Coping with the sheer level of near constant disappointment, it’s been tough for us all.
RoD: I know you have some concerts scheduled - let’s see: there will be Eastside Open Air in Karlsbad on 27th August and then Prague Gothic Treffen on 28th of course (where I’m hoping to meet you), Hanover on 3rd of September and Gelsenkirchen on the 4th, FAME in Poland on 24th September (you seem to be very unlucky with Poland, hoping this time the show WILL actually take place, some people are even taking bets on it), and then a London headline on 15th October… We are all keeping our fingers crossed there is no delta, epsilon whatever covid variant preventing the gigs from happening. My question is: are you slowly going back to life? Getting your vocal cords, muscles ready for live shows?
Isaac: Behind the scenes, I am doing literally everything I can to ensure these shows happen. There’s a plan A, a plan B, there’s even a plan C. I’ve become a legal resident of Austria and have been here solidly for the past four months. I have been cycling and swimming to get my fitness back up to pre-Covid levels. I have cancelled any plans to go back to the UK before the tour in order to eliminate the risk of being banned from anywhere. Certainly, in my lifetime, there has never been a harder time to be a UK musician. Not only are we having to contend with Covid-19, like everyone else, but we are also dealing with the monstrous self-inflicted disaster that is Brexit, and the political fallout from that. Add to that the fact that the UK is being governed by a bunch of wilfully incompetent, corrupt, short-sighted, self-serving individuals who couldn’t care less about arts and culture and in particular, live music, and you have a totally toxic situation.
RoD: From our previous conversations I know you are a stage animal, you love live performances and contact with your audience - so I can imagine cancellation of all live shows must have been particularly difficult for you. What were your ways to stay in touch with your fanbase?
Isaac: Well, obviously social media is the main one. I still manage all of our social media accounts myself. I did a silly lockdown video diary and a solo acoustic live stream from my bedroom which was so totally weird and scary I’ve not got round to doing another. And of course, the New Year’s Eve live session where we recorded all our parts separately and spliced it all together. That went down well. And the proper, full band live stream concert from Camden Underworld was a huge success and brought us in some much-needed funds. I’ve done some radio interviews too, whatever I can do to keep people happy, interested and in touch with what we are doing.
RoD: What do you think about the idea of “live stream concerts”? It was quite popular during 2020 and 2021, many artists took it as a chance to perform in front of their audience, have some interaction…
Isaac: It’s not the same for me, to be honest, in any shape or form. Performing in front of a camera to an audience you can’t see or hear, while it may be an interesting and exciting novelty while we wait for “real” shows to return, is no replacement for the face to face, shoulder to shoulder connection of being in an audience or on a stage.
RoD: Your last release of 2020, ‘Monsters’, is doing very well in terms of fans’ feedback or charts… are you working on something new at the moment? Did you have time or a chance to meet with other band members and cook up something nice for us?
Isaac: In a word, no! Like I said, I have been feeling pretty low during lockdown and I haven’t seen many people. Sadly, for me, that doesn’t translate into being productive and writing new material. For a long time, I just watched a lot of Netflix and ate a lot of biscuits, haha. But I have written two new songs I am happy with now and have some others I am working on. There’s also a surprise collaboration with another artist coming soon, so watch this space. And of course, I’m rehearsing for my solo show, supporting none other than Peter Heppner in Gelsenkirchen on August 15th. That’s woken me up a great deal. Then, the full band tour starts on 27th August in Halle.
RoD: Since we last spoke there were some changes in the band’s line-up. Could you tell me more about the change and the current band members? We haven’t had the chance to discuss it yet. How is the cooperation going?
Isaac: I think bands generally either evolve, or die. There are usually one or two people who are the core of the group, and others come and go when they have had enough, or the collaboration is no longer working. When we started out it was just myself and Adam Relf making music on his computer. After doing a few shows as a duo, we knew we needed to add something or someone else to the stage. We didn’t really know many other musicians so we brought in drummer Adam Casey, who was a friend of a friend. EMPATHY TEST could have ended back in 2016 when Casey told us he couldn’t be out on the road for two weeks in one go, and Adam decided he felt the same way. Touring is not for everyone, and it can be really tough juggling two lives. So, I said to Adam, I want to do this tour, it’s all I’ve wanted to do. So why don’t I find a keyboard player and drummer who do want to spend two weeks on the road, and you stay at home and work on new music? That’s when Chrisy joined. We really lucked out with Chrisy, because she was not only perfect for the band in terms of her commitment and talent, but she understood what we were trying to do and helped us to become a better live band, technically and musically. And Oliver, who joined at the end of 2019, is the first keyboard player we’ve had who is contributing musically. I’m still looking forward to seeing what we can achieve as a band in the future.
RoD: You are always busy, active, I suppose you have nice things for us in the pipeline... could you disclose anything at this point?
Isaac: Unfortunately, not, but you can guarantee the quality will always be high, when we do.
RoD: Is there anything I could wish you for in the future? What is your biggest dream at the moment?
Isaac: My biggest dream at the moment is just to feel completely free from worry and anxiety again, losing myself in the music and the magic of the moment. I hope it happens again soon.
All pictures copyright by Empathy Test