Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)

Keith Latinen is “emo” and, despite what the world attaches to this term, he’s pretty proud of it.

“The whole emo debate is really funny to me,” he admits, “I can understand why bigger national bands—like Mineral, or Jimmy Eat World, or Death Cab [for Cutie]—could hate it but, when I was growing up, being called emo didn’t bother me; when people labeled me that, it made sense because those were the bands that I liked.”

Like Latinen himself, his band Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), who released their first full-length What It Takes to Move Forward in 2009, plays music that could also be classified as emo, but that depends solely on how one defines the term, since it means so many things to so many people.

If one wants to believe musical mythology, emo was a four-letter word even as an emerging genre back in the mid-1980s. Wherever the word came from, it quickly became a condescending way to refer to a handful of bands within the DC hardcore-punk scene that preferred melody to machismo and the personal to the political. Bands that hopped on this bandwagon, though sometimes derided, were often influential; people were listening, even though they may not have wanted to admit it.

In the early- and mid-1990s, more and more emo bands found a fan base, albeit in the music industry’s pale and ugly underbelly. Bands like Braid and Sunny Day Real Estate; Jimmy Eat World and Jawbreaker; the Promise Ring, Mineral, and many others enjoyed the sort of success for which most burgeoning indie bands could only dream—consistent touring, name recognition, the ability to regularly play music to interested parties and maybe make some money.

“I’m twenty-seven now,” Latinen says, “so I was young at the tail end at the original emo movement. I was fifteen or sixteen years old when I saw Jimmy Eat World on their Clarity tour. My dad was really cool and he dropped me and my friend off at the show and picked us up after. I saw At the Drive-In and the Promise Ring; I saw Death Cab when they were tiny. I guess I can use this as bragging rights, but I feel pretty fortunate."

When major labels took notice, though, and emo entered the bright and blinding world of the mainstream—when the context changed and emo could no longer be compared to its punk-rock older brother—the term lost its meaning. Though the musical quality was there, it was easier for record companies to market emo as a look and a sound, which assisted in both stripping the term of whatever significance it still held and redefining it altogether.

Some bands collapsed under this appropriation; others stayed true to their sound, but struggled against the new connotations of the term emo, which now included melodramatic metalcore bands, generally misogynistic messages, teenage boys wearing black eyeliner to match their monochromatic ensemble, and (perhaps the most puzzling) suicide. What once was an honest musical expression of universal emotions became a set of ill-constructed stereotypes.

It’s because of these stereotypes (or at least despite them) that Latinen continues to write music that evokes the emo of his adolescence. What it Takes to Move Forward was written by both Latinen and his wife Cathy Latinen, who plays guitar for Empire! Empire! “Cathy and I were in between drummers and bassists at the time, actually,” he remembers. “Both of us wrote it played guitar, and I played drums, bass and pretty much all of the auxiliary instruments too. I recorded it all at my parent’s house. It was quite an ordeal, too, because I didn’t want to step on my parents toes, so I had to wait for them to leave. I would set up all the drums and hopefully get a song done before they came back, because I wanted a consistent sound.”

The album’s opening track “How to Make Love Stay” serves as an effective prelude to the rest of the record. The Latinens pluck their guitars’ strings almost as gently as Keith sings, his lyrics sometimes delivered with a whisper. When the song makes a delicate dynamic jump into its chorus, which is whipped suddenly into six/eight time a tight snare drum’s ticking and a bass guitar’s low grumbling, Latinen’s whisper rises (only slightly) to a whimper. He sings, “You were so sure you found yourself that you branded it into an oak—the one you swore reached through the sky and swallowed the city line. You had yet to hit twenty-three (an age that would swallow you whole),” before the song slips back into its peaceful, serene state.

“That song is about the confusion of not knowing at all where you are and where you’re going,” Latinen explains. “I guess I had in the back of my mind that, either during college or at the conclusion of college, whatever band I was in at the time would really take flight. All of the sudden, I graduated from college and I was back to square one. It was the first time I didn’t legitimately have a clear path of where to go and what to do. “

The rest of the record takes musical cues from this song; “Rally the Troops! Poke Holes in Their Defenses! Line Our Coffers with Their Coffins!” features similar dynamic shifts—often from quiet to frail to quiet again—while “The Next Step to Regaining Control” contains those same clean guitars, spinning carousel-like in six/eight time. More so, though, the rest of the record takes lyrical cues from “How to Make Love Stay”; Latinen’s lyrics use relationships (and especially the hypothetical “you”) as metaphors for other ideas, other events, other emotions. It’s these musical and lyrical conventions—the softness, the intellect—that make Empire! Empire! feel so emo, since these were the methods employed by emo bands in the 1990s.

For this reason, Latinen and his band could be considered revivalists; they are playing music that they love and want to keep alive. It’s also why Latinen started Count Your Lucky Stars, a record label where he hopes not just to release music by his band and artists that fall under the emo umbrella, but re-release emo records that people might have missed first time around. “We’re finding those bands and their labels“, Latinen explains, “and finding a way to release our favorite albums on vinyl. It’s a way of tying the old to the new.” This also makes Latinen an archivist for this tiny, influential musical style that the world is trying to forget for the wrong reasons.

“What we’re doing,” he explains, “and bands like us are doing is taking what would have been the logical next step in the direction that bands like Mineral and American Football took. For whatever reason, however it happened, the term emo evolved into an ugly word, but we’re embracing the term, and we’re taking it back.”

Because, to Latinen, emo, like all music, is more than music, and especially more the stereotypes attached to it by the mainstream. It’s an expression, a slice of subculture that, for a time, has something significant to say—or at least a significant way to say it. This is why Latinen has proudly pinned emo to his sleeve—not as a fashion statement, but as a cause.

Latinen drove to his parents' house in the early spring of 2010 to record these songs on their landline, since people had been telling him that the reception on his cell phone had been inconsistent and unreliable. He conducted his interview on the same afternoon.

"Rally the Troops! Poke Holes in Their Defenses! Line Our Coffers with Their Coffins!" appears on Band's 2009 record titled
What it Takes to Move Forward. "Lucky" is a Seven Mary Three cover; the song originally appeared on the 1997 album RockCrown.

Visit the band's
MySpace for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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