Empire! Empire! front man Keith Latinen talks about his band's forthcoming album, emo, and graphic novels | Bleader

Friday, July 25, 2014

Empire! Empire! front man Keith Latinen talks about his band's forthcoming album, emo, and graphic novels

Posted By on 07.25.14 at 01:30 PM

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Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) members Keith and Cathy Latinen with their dog
  • Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) members Keith and Cathy Latinen with their dog
A slew of fourth-wave emo bands are descending upon Chicago this weekend to perform—some call Chicago home, others are from Missouri or Florida, and most have a connection to a small Michigan town about an hour outside of Detroit called Fenton. It's the headquarters of Count Your Lucky Stars, a small label run by Keith and Cathy Latinen, the husband-and-wife duo behind gorgeously melancholic outfit Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate). Count Your Lucky Stars's catalog has ballooned since its start in 2007—in the process the label played a major role in establishing the emo scene's current position as a creative source of indie rock that can chart on the Billboard 200. And, yes, many great musicians in the scene that have worked with the Latinens are performing in town this weekend, including Foxing, who are at Beat Kitchen tonight and Wicker Park Fest tomorrow; Dikembe, who play at Township tomorrow; and Pet Symmetry, whose members have released tunes from other projects through CYLS and who will appear at Beat Kitchen tonight and Wicker Park Fest tomorrow.

Empire! Empire! will be here too—the Latinens are doing an acoustic tour supporting the Early November, and they're playing Subterranean tomorrow night. The Empire! Empire! tour coincides with the release of their second album, You Will Eventually Be Forgotten, which comes out next month on CYLS and Boston's Topshelf Records. It's been five years since they released their debut (though they've dropped plenty of EPs and seven-inches in the interim), and they've put a lot of work into the lovely new album—they recruited Mineral's Chris Simpson and Braid's Bob Nanna to sing guest vocals, and they're pairing the album with a graphic novel called Ribbon. The book shares its name with the LP's first track, which focuses on a car accident Cathy was in the day she married Keith. The band posted the lyrics to "Ribbon" on their Facebook page near the end of June, and they've been publishing the lyrics to each subsequent song—they're doing it twice a week, every week until they finish You Will Eventually Be Forgotten.

Before Empire! Empire! left for their tour I video-chatted with Keith (and his dog) to talk about the new album. We ended up talking about the poems of Robert Lowell, Keith's relationship with Michigan, and starting an emo band at a time when most people had written off the sound as a thing of the past.

Leor Galil: Why did you decide to post the lyrics for forthcoming album on Facebook twice a week? What was the inspiration for that?

Keith Latinen: My standards generally for lyrics are if they're not strong enough to stand on their own as their own separate work—as a poem or piece of work—then it's not good enough. So I wanted people to view my piece in the work before they attached it to the music part of it. So, essentially it would take a seriousness as its own quality of work.

I feel like a lot of fans when reading lyrics or whatever kind of make exceptions. Like, "Oh hey, it's for music so it doesn't have to be as good as it possibly could be." I feel like if a lot of artists did what we did a lot more people would notice. I'm not trying to at all diss on any other artists, but I take a lot of pride in my lyrics.

I think that if you were forced to read the lyrics without having anything behind it you would sort of see some bands don't put as much thought into their lyrics as I wished that they'd do, and I want people to see that I do and maybe connect with it on a different level. Not a deeper level but connected with the words themselves as opposed to saying, "OK, this is a song, it's catchy, I don't have to think much of what the song means or what the word choices are or anything like that."

Each word I chose—you know, writing poetry is very much word choice and absence of word choice. Each word has to be there for a reason. Like if there's not a word there there's a reason there's not a word there. I suppose that's why I posted them, hoping to make that connection with people.

So in the process of creating this particular album, how did you approach writing the lyrics? Did you write them before writing the music? Did you make them as you were figuring out sort of the shape of each song?

I always write the music first. I've never been able to write lyrics first. The way I kind of look at it is when you're writing, when you have the song done you have this much space to put everything that you're going to say in. It's sort of like when you're writing an essay for school and you have "X" amount of words or "X" amount of pages, everything you want to say has to fit in those pages, you can't go over.

I sort of think that it's nice to have limitations. So whatever story I'm going to convey has to fit into this chunk of time, and I feel like if I did it the other way around—for me at least—I think the work would suffer. I like to have, in fact, I won't even write any lyric until the music itself is recorded.

We went to the studio, recorded all the music, and then I wrote the lyrics, because I like to know what I'm working with in every aspect—how it's going to sound, how everything fits together .

It's been interesting seeing the way that your writing style has progressed from the first album to the new one. There seems to be a little bit more of an autobiographical push—not push, but just the amount of detail in the new album is really rich. You can see that filtering into your songs in the recent splits and four-way splits. I mean, there was a recent four-way split where you start with "Summer Linden County Park." I've never been to Linden County Park but that just creates this image right there.

What I really wanted to do with this new album was I want to do all the work for you, for the listener, the reader, so all they have to do is imagine themselves there. Give them enough details about everything so there's not a lot of metaphors, it mostly it is what it is, I'm not trying to hide anything.

Going back to what you said earlier, when we first started the band my writing style was very different. It was mostly much more dense metaphors, so mostly probably you wouldn't know what I was talking about unless I told you what it was about. In fact, even our band name is large and silly metaphorically, and I think since then I've cleaned up a lot of my language and a lot my writing. You can look at that in our songwriting, we kind of trim the fat and kept what is good. Same thing with the lyrics—we talked about why everything should be there and if it's not serving a purpose it needs to go. That's sort of how I felt about the whole songwriting approach for this.

It's really funny because a while back my parents were like, "Hey, here's a bunch of stuff in our basement," I think our basement had flooded at my parents' house. There was a bunch of boxes and stuff we were going through and I kept—I've always been a pack rat. I had taken a poetry class in college and I kept a bunch of my work that had been marked up by my professor at the time, and her criticism was she would say things like, "Oh, this is too vague, add that there, this needs to be there."

At that time I was like, "Oh, whatever, she doesn't get what I'm going for, I don't need critique"; when you kind of lose that sense of, I think, pride, that concern with the self-defense mechanism—"I don't need that, she's wrong, she doesn't understand deeper," or whatever. But all the critiques that she had were spot-on, like dead-on. So as I continued to write—it's great that you know this, a lot of people probably won't know this but if you read and follow Empire through all the splits and EPs—it's really a cohesive movement towards what we ended up with this new album. It's a nice and gradual, logical step. But for people who listen to our last full-length and to this full-length I think there might be a disconnect because they haven't followed the steps.

Also, I'm a big fan of certain authors. We wrote an EP called Home After Three Months Away when we went to Japan. The title—and there are four tracks on it—each title of each song is [a reference to] my favorite poet, which is Robert Lowell. He's one of my favorite authors. Actually, I discovered him through that poetry class in college. The way he uses language is so succinct and so image-based and so is . . . I really got really heavy into John Steinbeck, who also sort of has really, really pretty language. He dresses up plaintive language and makes it sound graceful and beautiful and it's sort of useful to know all the old writers and authors. And just writing more and more slowly led to what I've come to today.

You mentioned this professor, have you spoken to her since looking back at your papers and seeing her notes and going, "Oh yeah, she's spot-on?"

I haven't. To be honest with you I bet she would not even remember who I was. It doesn't bother me or anything but this was probably . . . boy, I graduated in 2005 or 2004 or something like that. It's pretty unlikely that she would remember me, but unwittingly and begrudgingly even she was actually a huge influence on me. Her name is Anita Skeen.

There's a song on Middle Discography, which was released at the same time as Home After Three Months Away that talks about a class I had with her, and there were a couple other writers in the class that were really, really talented—way, way more talented than I was, and their work was beautiful. But there was—this may be a bit silly, it may be a side tangent that might not be important, but I'm gonna tell you anyway.

Go on, go on.

OK, well, this was the beginning of my hyperrealism, my hyperliteralism—that's not a real word but you know—I was becoming very, very literal so this was like you can trace the steps, especially from this point on.

So we had to memorize a poem for that class, and you had to memorize and recite it. At the beginning of the year she'd be like, "OK, two people on this day will memorize and recite their poem, etc, etc," and you're supposed to choose something that you can recite it and memorize it and it's not too hard to do. And I chose a poem called "Water" by Robert Lowell—there's a song of mine called "Water" I named after that.

Most students are like this, when you start off the semester you have all these high intentions like, "Oh, I'm going to study, going to read everything, and make sure I'm up on everything." So I ambitiously chose that poem and was like, "By the time that it comes to me I'll be ready for this." And then the night before I was like, "Oh, man, I have to do this poem tomorrow." I half-heartedly studied it and tried to memorize it. I definitely should have done a better job, but fortune was on my side because the next day when it was my turn to recite the poem in class, my teacher had gone to the optometrist that day. Her eyes were superdilated, she had to have a new vision test. And so she was wearing those dark, Ray Charles . . .


Yeah, those sunglasses. She couldn't really see, so I acted like I was really nervous. I was nervous but I acted like I was more nervous than I really was and pretty much verbatim read the poem from the sheet of paper that I had printed out in front of me. No one in class, not anyone, said anything to her. Like no one ratted me out at all. That's how I got through the class—that particular assignment anyway. But yeah, that's more of a tangent but . . .

No, no, I like that. Part of what I like about the new album is it feels like there are all these great anecdotes from your life, from growing up in Michigan. Michigan is obviously a huge part of who you are—or at least that's how it feels. How has growing up there, going to school in Michigan, setting up your band and your label there impacted what you do?

I think it's a large part of everything, it's who I am; I'm definitely from the midwest, I'm definitely proud of that. I like the state, I like people being friendly, and I think that there's this earnestness that is in my approach to everything. You know, seeing us live I'm always I sort of . . . maybe I apologize too much for things. Like if somebody bumps into me I probably say "sorry," that kind of thing.

Yeah, it's a big part of who I am, and I didn't realize how important that was to me until I left. I left Michigan, I ended up doing an internship at Militia Group Records in California for a couple months. It was just after Cathy and I got married, and we moved out there with the intention of, "Hey, we'll probably stay out here if everything goes well." So it took us leaving—like really leaving—and thinking we wouldn't come back to really appreciate what we had.

Then we came back and had a newfound love and respect for Michigan. It kind of gets dogged a little bit, like Detroit and Flint—which I grew up right outside of, like 15 minutes away from Flint. Detroit was always 45 minutes, an hour away—I'd go there quite often for Tigers games or concerts. I feel like Michigan sort of has that kind of attitude of "down but not out" and always working; despite everything, working towards self-improvement and always having that optimism. "Hey, we're coming back, we're going to do something."

And that's how I sort of feel my personality is too. It's okay to be defeated once and again, as long as you always get up and you keep going.

When was it that you moved to California?

June of 2006, after we had gotten married, and actually that trip itself is pretty well documented in our songs. "Ribbon" is about our wedding day, that accident that happened with Cathy. "How to Make Love Stay" is about coming back. "The Only One Who Could Ever Reach You" is about going to California and hating it.

Now I've been back since then, I don't feel that way at all but it was that little time in my life—it was one of those times where I went there and I was like, "I'm not going to let this defeat me. I'm going to find friends, I'm going to work," and earnestly trying. It just didn't work out at the time. I was definitely bitter about it for a while. Not at all anymore, it's kind of strange to not feel that way.

It's weird to sing a song that you don't have a ton of emotions attached to. And then there's a couple songs, like "I Swim Like a Minnow" is about coming back. We turned that [move to California] into our honeymoon where we took an extended trip out to California, and if we saw something that we wanted to do we'd stop and do it. We stopped in Kentucky . . . like my brother had moved out to Arizona, at that point we spent a stint with him, and then we went out to California.

But then after it ended up not working out, we made our way through the northwest and across the top, back east and back home. We got to see the Redwoods and stuff. It was also the first time . . . I had never seen so many of those places, and it was the first time for me going to those places—that too was a trip of discovery.

And was that right before you started the band and the label?

Well, Cathy and I had been in a band called Anna Flyaway, there's no reason anyone would know it. We played, honestly, two shows. But we had recorded an EP, or I guess [were] in the process of recording an EP. And I had started Empire! Empire! as a solo project so that I could start recording, so by the time that I had recorded the Empire! Empire! solo-project EP I would be better at recording when it came time to record Anna Flyaway's EP—it would have more polish.

It was at that point we were recording all of our stuff and my goal for that [Empire! Empire!] was like, I always wanted to do something where I did everything myself—recorded it, wrote, played all the instruments. And my other goal was I just don't use any distortion at all. So anyway, I ended up recording that, and that was all done, except the for the vocals, before we went to California and then we came back and I finished the vocals and we put it out.

We sort of knew by the end of the Empire! EP being done that Anna Flyaway, the other band, was not going to happen, it was breaking up. So we decided to put our efforts into Empire! Empire! Kathy and I were talking, and we were like, "Well, let's make this a real band." So that was the beginning of that.

You started it as a solo project, now it's become this thing with a very large discography. It's a pretty impressive thing. And the label has blossomed, exponentially. When you started both, did you ever see anything like this happening?

No, not at all. Both things were very organic. It just happened where . . . it just sort of happened.

I first started the label as like a vehicle for the band. No one wanted to put out our record. We didn't know anybody who wanted to put out our record. So we were like, "Hey, we'll do it ourselves." And then when we were touring we just started meeting more and more bands that we thought were incredible and also did not have a label that was willing to put out their record. I was like, "Hey, we'll do this then."

It was really kind of like a symbiotic relationship with Empire! being more of that fuel for it. More of like, "Oh why would anyone want to sign with my label? Oh, well, my band is doing well enough and we've met each other on tour, we've hung out." And it just sort of snowballed from there. And it's at an interesting point now and it has actually been at this point for a while where . . . it used to be mutually beneficial, and it's not that they aren't now, but now they're both two very . . . I don't want to say big things but they're two very demanding things. So they both are competing for attention and it's harder to manage both of them because of that.

You know, "This needs to be done for the band, this needs to be done for the label." And in general because of the people who are counting on me for the label, almost always the label wins out, which is actually a big reason why it took us so long to write a full-length, because it takes a lot of time and dedication to write a full-length. We're always so busy doing stuff for other bands that I didn't want to shortchange them.

And you also have a full-time job, correct?

I actually don't anymore. I've been doing the label now for four years—my job is the label now, and the band. Cathy has a full-time job, but that might soon change with this album. It's a real distinct possibility that she's going to be able to quit her job and come with me again on the road. And then when we're home, both of us do the label. Really we're at the point where I need the help for the label. And also I'm very tired of leaving without her. She's been with the band for so long, but the formula that we have used for a long time is whatever band that we go on tour with that becomes our backing band.

Cathy hasn't done a U.S. tour for like four years, which is crazy. It's just been me with whatever musicians that I can borrow. But I would love to have her back on the road with me. And also she's put so much time and effort into the band as well, that it's not fair for her not to experience the shows and all the things that I get to do. And so hopefully soon she can do that as well.

You mentioned at the beginning, you didn't know anyone who wanted to put out Empire!'s stuff. Is there any particular reason why? What did people say when you approached them?

Well we didn't know anybody—that's part of it. And I had never been in any notable band. There's no reason that you would,—you know, like any new band. People like to talk right now a lot about the "emo revival" and there's a lot of people who said, "Hey, this never went away." But that's absolutely untrue because being in a band in 2006 or 2007 and playing these shows where we would play with like screamo bands and hardcore bands . . . mostly hardcore bands . . . but it was heavier bands and we would play with a lot of like bar-rock bands and stuff like that. It just wasn't really a viable option.

So it was like, at that point it was like "this is dead." You know it was just a dead thing, and it happens with genres. There's not always a renaissance to them . . . I mean there's still ska bands but there's no like . . . there was a ska-revival period, a ska period when I was in high school, in like 2000, '99, '98, something like that, so that was like Reel Big Fish.

Yeah the third wave.

All those bands. But you haven't seen a resurgence really since then. I mean I never would have predicted this to be a thing again. I always thought it would be you know, like, just a small, passionate group of people. But that was the nice thing about touring—I didn't come across a lot of bands like that, but the bands that I did come across, I said, "Hey, please join my label." 'Cause they were having the same feelings. They were also unaware—usually all the bands that I met were unaware that other bands were playing this. There weren't a lot of bands.

When I heard Joie De Vivre for the first time, I was like, "Oh my God, this is incredible." I remember they had messaged us about setting up a show. And then when I listened to them, I just remembe being like, "Oh my God these guys are amazing." And like messaged them on MySpace being like, "Please let me call you, I want to talk to you, I want to talk to you about putting out a record."

And so we were able to sort of cherry-pick all the bands because there weren't any other labels doing what we were doing. This sound had been dead for a long enough time. And you know, it was one of those like, weird maligned genres. It had morphed to the point of not being recognized. People considering like Fall Out Boy or My Chemical Romance or stuff like that being "emo" or whatever. Which to me, it's always been to me like Mineral, Appleseed Cast, early Death Cab, early Jimmy Eat World, that's the kind of stuff—American Football—all that stuff that I was into. That was always my image of it. And obviously there's going to be a million people that will be like, "No it's Rites of Spring, it's whatever." But to me, that was what I grew up with.

So it was very surprising to me to find anyone playing that. I never stopped playing that but that doesn't mean that it wasn't dead. Or close to dead.

You didn't think it would be much more than a small, passionate group that you'd become a part of—at what point did you see that group expand into the size that it is today?

I mean it's just been like a slow and steady build. And then when other labels started—I'm not not gonna say they sort of passed me up—but when they started you know putting out releases in the same genre and the same ilk, it was just like a snowball effect. When we started, I think the only other band that we knew were playing anything that would be considered in this vein of music was Joie, Algernon [Cadwallader], Street Smart Cyclist—which eventually became Snowing. It was pretty bare-bones for a long time there.

It still blows my mind that any of this happened or is happening. To see any of this happen is very surreal, it still doesn't feel like it's like a thing. But it clearly is, right? I mean, people are clearly listening to this.

The forebears are listening too. I forget what year I think I saw you post something about [Mineral front man] Chris Simpson, like "Chris Simpson listens to us." At what point did you connect with Chris? And he's on your label now!

Yeah and that's so insane. That's like, he and Ben Gibbard are my two favorite singers of all time, very closely followed by Knapsack, Get Up Kids, and Braid, and all that. But those two especially . . . [stops to calm down his dog]

I ended up messaging—again on MySpace, I'm messaging on MySpace—I messaged [Simpson's solo project] Zookeeper, and I was like, "Hey Chris, I know you might get this all the time but Mineral and the Gloria Record hugely influenced me and I just wanted to thank you so much for that." And hey this-is-my-band type of thing, like, "Hey if you want to listen that's fine but if you don't want to listen, I understand that." So we actually talked for a while through that.

Then we ended up playing a show in Austin at this place called Trailer Space Records on one of our tours. I think it was 2010. We went down there and I messaged him and I was like, "It would be amazing if you came out to our show" and not expecting him to at all. But he ended up coming. And it's funny, because I had a Mineral hoodie that I wore all the time, I still have it—hoodies are like, oh you can wear those every day—so I was wearing that on tour. And I saw that he was there, I was like, "I think that's Chris Simpson." I went into the van and changed because I didn't want to be that guy. So I went up and I introduced myself. It turns out he had lived in real close proximity—he had been able to walk there.

Yeah we just ended up talking from there and I was like, "Here, please take all my band's stuff. I love your band, etc, etc." We just kept talking and developed a relationship. The fact that he does guest vocals on our record and that [Braid's] Bob Nanna does guest vocals on our record . . . it blows my mind that the people that I looked up to all my entire musical life, both of those bands are now on our record. That just blows my mind. You know, it's really cool for me because I feel like he sort of ties the old in with the new.

How did you approach Chris and Bob, having had these relationships with them—I know you've released Bob's stuff too. How did you approach them to contribute to the album?

I think I talked to both of them in person about it. But it was one of those things where you can make the greatest plans and wait for them to not happen. So I remember with that I was like, "I don't care how long I have to wait to have both of them on the record." Once they agreed to it, essentially, it was going to happen. And actually it did, I had to wait an extra, I want to say like three months. Everything else was done, I was just waiting on the guest vocals.

And Chris was like, "Oh, I'm really sorry, I'm trying to make this work, but if I'm holding up the record, by all means, I understand if you can't wait." And I was like, "Nope. I'm waiting. I don't care how long it takes. This is superimportant to me." Fortunately Bob lives in Chicago, you know, so when we played a show in Chicago one time I just had him come over to Eric from Dowsing's place, and Mikey from Dowsing recorded it for us. So for Bob I'm sure it would have been just as difficult as it was for Chris. In fact he had tried to make it out to his studio—it's not easy to do, to find that time.

So with Bob we were just able to knock it out. He killed it. We did like two takes, we probably could have used his first take. He's just a professional, he's very good. Chris, he had to find the studio to do it and the plans fell through a couple times, but it was just so important for me to have him on that record. And in the end, it was one of those things . . . like, I thought this album was coming out last year. It didn't come out last year. And that was part of the reason for it. But in the end, waiting a couple months and getting a product [with] one of my heroes on the record is so much more important than having the record out like three months or four months earlier or whatever. In the end you don't remember those months, but I'm always gonna remember having them on a record. You can't take that away.

With that, the album's coming out next month, correct?

Right, yes.

And it comes with a graphic novel?

Yes, yes.

How do you plan to sort of celebrate it? What are your next steps for after that? Because I know you have the acoustic tour coming out, besides that, I know you said Cathy might quit her job?

Yeah so we're having a big to-do in Flint, because it's the closest hometown place, because there are not a lot of places to play. There's a club that I grew up going to called the Local that reopened finally. And so we're having a big get-together at that. We haven't announced details yet, but Evan from Into It. Over It. will be playing it. Dowsing's gonna play it and possibly Kittyhawk, a whole bunch of Count Your Lucky Star bands. There's a local band from around here that's incredible called Kid Brother Collective that had broken up. They were active in the early 2000s, late '90s—we released one of their records after they broke up, and they're reunited for this show.

So I really want it to be a real celebration, and bring some stuff to a place that traditionally doesn't draw as well. You know, people will skip Flint over pretty easily—touring bands do not even realize it's an option or whatever, so I kind of want to draw attention to that as well. So it'll be August 30th, just a little bit after the album comes out. So it's kind of nice because it actually gives people a chance to get to know the album. And then after that in September we're playing a show with Mineral, which is insane for me. We're playing a show with Mineral in Columbus. We're going on a seven-and-a-half-week tour—so a very, very long tour and hopefully Cathy will be be there for that.

It's funny because of the Early November tour we had to push back the album-release show, because it was gonna be around the same time. And then that sort of like put us in a weird place. Hang on a second, my dog is being . . . [Steps away to calm down his dog.]

Anyway, so yeah we had to push it back. And then it was weird because we were planning a tour after that, like right after the album release, but then we got offered that Mineral show and obviously I can't turn that down, so we rearranged the tour for that. And then we really wanted to see American Football—I don't care, like, I don't know how many shows they're gonna be playing—and I wanted a chance to see them. So they're playing Pygmalion Fest. We specifically routed our tour to be like, start here, make it up to Champaign for that show, then we went out west. And then looking at the time, we're like, Oh, we're playing [Florida punk festival] Fest, so the timing worked out so we just kind of crisscrossed back down around and almost end our tour around Fest time.

It's really long, but it's been a long time coming, because we've only been out west once, and not many people saw us. We're trying to play everywhere so no one can be like, "Oh, you didn't come here forever or at all."

And who takes care of the dog when you're on tour?

It's a very good question. Definitely something that we've considered. Normally since Cathy hasn't been going on tour, that's one reason we got a dog, so she had somebody with her to keep her company while I was gone. My parents have graciously said that they would keep my dog. And they have a dog, it is a cocker [spaniel], and when we were training our dog, he was going through a bitey period—he's still going through a bitey period—we borrowed my parents dog for a week so we socialized him. So you can only do so much when a dog is being disciplined—but another dog doesn't have scruples, so she put him in his place. They have a good relationship. Yeah I think that actually worked out well for him.

Is there anything that you want to add that my questions didn't bring up?

I'll just talk to you real quick about the graphic novel too.

When I was getting my master's in library science, and we had to take a YA class—a young adult class. I hadn't really read many graphic novels before, but one of the sections of the class was, "Read books from this list or or graphic novels from this list." So I started reading that, and got really into that medium—it's a really interesting medium because like it's sort of like a lighthearted medium, but it can be very, very weighty and very, very serious.

And I started reading more of that, like I have Bone and I ended up stumbling upon Jeff Lemire who did this book called Tales From the Farm, and it ended up turning into a trilogy. Actually by the time I discovered it, it was all done. But anyway, I read that and I just fell in love with that medium. As I was writing the new songs I was thinking, "Well, they're so literal." And at least, if I got my point across, they're very vivid—you can sort of imagine what's happening. So I thought it would be really interesting to have a graphic novel of it where everything that's happening in the song is happening in the book. And that way you also take the lyric and the art itself as a very separate work. I really wanted everything to be a separate work. So what better way to do that then to separate them from the music, in the very literal form, in the form of a graphic novel.

The cover of the Empire! Empire! graphic novel
  • The cover of the Empire! Empire! graphic novel
My first choice was [Kentucky illustrator and designer] Ben Sears, I love his work. He started to do more and more graphic novel work as opposed to just strict band illustrations and stuff like that. It's been really awesome to watch him grow as an artist, and he's very, very talented. We've been friends for a while and fortunately he was into the project. He sent me the first three songs finalized now—he's on that home stretch right now, so he's almost done—and they look incredible. I couldn't have asked for a better person to do it.

When I was writing the lyrics I wanted to make sure that everything was as factual as it can be—memory being a bit of a fluctuating thing, where everyone remembers things a little bit different. But I wanted to put as much detail, and accurate detail [as I could]. So maybe nobody else is going to care that the model and make of the van is exactly the same as it was when I was growing up, but I would call my dad and say, "Hey, I need this actual information." I need to know exact details for this stuff.

And so for the graphic novel, I put together a packet for Ben—it was photos from all of the periods. So I sent him like wedding pictures, or like pictures from when I was in high school, and the various periods of all those songs so he can base his drawings off how we looked at the time. I obviously looked very different, went through different phases, looked very different growing up. And Cathy did—obviously everybody does. So the way that we're drawn in the book is an accurate representation of who we were at the time of the song.

For example, he drew the church that we got married in, and it looks very, very much like the actual church we got married in. We used like Google Street View and stuff like that, and I took pictures of the intersection where Kathy got in the accident in case he needed it, or like pictures of Cathy's church growing up so he would have that. The place where my grandparents had their 50th-wedding-anniversary celebration, I took a snapshot of that. And [then I] combined that all, and I took notes. Ben texted me the other day and was like, "What was the model and the make of the car that Cathy got into an accident with?" Those kind of details that are really important that you can easily fudge them—like easily and nobody would ever know, but I would know. And so I wanted to put as much of that into the graphic novel as I did into the lyrics.

Another thing that people will probably say is, "Oh, well if there's a graphic novel, it would also make sense to just use that for the cover of the album—the graphic novel as the cover of the album." I wanted them to be two very distinct works, I chose a different artist completely to do the album art as the graphic novel art. And Ben, before he started doing all his drafts, he never saw an actual cover of the album. [Connecticut illustrator] Yelena [Bryksenkova] did all the album artwork and did a fantastic job, really dead-on, but she never saw any of Ben's stuff. And it was nice that they could independently work and not influence each other.

You could love graphic novels, and not care for my band at all, and you can still get into the graphic novel. The nice thing is, hopefully, you get like a tie-in of somebody [starting to read] graphic novels because of our graphic novel. And then maybe they'll get into poetry or a novel I'm into because of my lyrics. It's just nice to have those tie-ins. The album is more of an immersive experience than it is just a collection of songs.

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