w/ Mike Robinson of Empires

Lisa Sanchez
‚Äč2014 was an exceptionally busy year for Chicago rock band Empires. They released their fourth album, Orphan, they performed on "Late Night with David Letterman" and played an impressive slew of festivals and concerts that has boosted the band's image exponentially. Although they've had an exhausting year, Empires shows no sign of slowing down in 2015. The alternative four-piece are still riding the critical acclaim of Orphan and find time to perform with punk legends like Alkaline Trio and embark on their own multi-city May tour with Geographer. On their way down to Alabama, drummer Mike Robinson made time to speak with me about the band's plans for the summer, how their atmospheric music translates live, and how they keep sane on the road.
Comprised of Robinson, vocalist Sean Van Vleet, and guitarists Tom Conrad and Max Steger, Empires is revving up to make 2015 even bigger than their stellar previous year.
"2014 was fucking crazy, non-stop, but we're all still exhausted from last year. We had the chance to play to a lot of new faces. It's definitely been a long year and we're excited to keep going."
Robinson commented on the astronomical progress the band has made in a very short amount of time. Now, on the cusp of a new summer festival season, Empires faces a plethora of options for the creative and fiercely independent band. May 12 marked the beginning of the band's 20-plus city tour with San Francisco indie kings Geographer.
Empires infuses many different elements into their music and combines a harmonic mix of distorted guitars, atmospheric thrumming, pinpointed accents, and emotive vocals (provided by Van Vleet) that create enthralling sounds, both live and on their recordings. I saw the band for the first time recently when they opened for Alkaline Trio on the band's first night of the Past Live tour at the Grog Shop. Empires put on a powerhouse performance, bringing out raw energy while maintaining the multi-layered aesthetic of their music.
"When we first recorded Orphan, we were worried how to make it come across live." Robinson explained, "Like, on 'Silverfire' there's all of this backwards noise atmosphere in the beginning. We had to figure out the best way to perform that. I hope that we still do a good job keeping it close to home and keeping the subtleties [of the song]. But, playing it live, you do change it up a little bit."
No matter where they're performing, Empires naturally feeds off of crowd energy to infuse their live performances. The band has performed at a number of huge festivals, including Bonnaroo, South by Southwest, and Cincinnatti's own Bunbury Festival as well as numerous club shows across the country and in their native Chicago. The May 2 show garnered a lot of energy and interaction from the Grog Shop crowd, but it wasn't the first show Empires played with Alkaline Trio. They had opened for the fellow Chicago natives in Minneapolis a few days before to a more lackluster reception.
"Bands like Alkaline Trio have a real cult following, so sometimes the crowd doesn't care who goes on before." Robinson said. But, whether invigorated by the fans in Cleveland or disregarded elsewhere, Robinson assured the band always wants to leave people impressed. "We'll do everything we can to put it all out there on stage. We gauge the crowd and feed off of their energy. In Cleveland, it was great, people were dancing and singing along. Depending on where we are, it's going to be a different vibe."
Although the guys in Empires appear to be made of grit and tenacity, constant touring can take its toll on anyone. "We do lose our minds. I think it's impossible not to," the drummer laughed, "We always say we're getting dumber everyday." The road can be tedious, but the members of Empires try hard to find things to entertain themselves, even if it's creating rivalries amongst themselves. Robinson, a native of Akron, is a big Cleveland Cavaliers fan and is invested in the NBA playoffs, while vocalist Van Vleet playfully roots for whatever team is facing the Cavs. "Sean loves to hate everything I love," Robinson joked.
On top of watching the Cavs, playing fantasy football, and listening to numerous podcasts, the band also combats boredom by constantly trying to hone their craft. "We don't work on too much new stuff on the road. It's important to focus on the songs we'll be playing for the next 3 weeks," Robinson said. Their tour with Geographer spans Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, into Canada, New York, New England, with stops in Boston and Philadelphia, then down south to Atlanta and New Orleans to finish off with three dates in Texas.
At the time of this writing, Empires has no official tour schedule for the summer. "We have festival performances, but no tours set up. Nothing is nailed down yet." Robinson said. But, of course, Empires already have a laundry list of festival dates the band can be seen at including Austin City Limits, Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky and 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines, Iowa.
Empires, among many other things, is a band to watch out for. They have talent, drive, and the performance skills to break through and make waves in the alternative music scene. Orphan is still relatively new, but as Robinson pointed out, "Orphan is old to us now, but some records take time to seep in and resonate with people." From the sound of it, Orphan and Empires will be resonating with audiences for a long time.