April 8th, 2011
Young Prisms. Young Galaxy. Young the Giant. Young Empires. Jake Palahnuk jokes about staging a battle of the “Young” bands. He’s even considered a showdown on reality TV. But in the end, the 27-year-old bass player of Young Empires says it’s the music that will distinguish his band from the rest. We spoke to Palahnuk after his band composed an infectiously energetic mix tape for The Block magazine — proving the band can easily move from performance to production.
The Toronto-based trio formed just over a year ago. Since then Jake Palahnuk, Robert Aaron Ellingson and Matthew Vlahovich have slowly been stealing the limelight. The band’s self-proclaimed “world beat haute rock” style has landed them gigs in Canada, the U.S., and even South America. They have graced the stage at renowned festivals like South by Southwest, garnered space on the latest Kitsuné Maison release, and performed at a Grammy’s private show for the likes of Arcade Fire. Young Empires achieved all of this independent of any label and with only five bedroom-mixed, self-released demos.
We caught up with Palahnuk at his home in Toronto for a Sunday chat that covered a range of topics, including jamming versus smoking weed, music in the digital age, and, of course, the band’s upcoming debut album.
The Block: Let’s begin with a lyric from one of your most popular songs: “It takes a thousand miles to reach the stars tonight / and you will find your dreams they come alive.” At the risk of sounding dramatic, are you seeing your dream come alive?
Jake Palahnuk: Absolutely. We’ve all been in bands since we were like seven years old — it’s the only thing we’ve ever wanted to do. And the bands all had mediocre success but nothing compared to the buzz we’ve received and the traveling we’ve already done in the short time we’ve been together. We’re very fortunate, very excited for the future and what’s in store.
TB: When you were a kid, was this all part of the grand plan?
JP: In my last band, we were signed when I was 19, so I kind of came out of high school thinking I’d never work a day job in my life. And, you know, they feed you all the bull crap like, ‘We’re going to do this for you, just sign with us and we’ll make you huge.’ It’s just a bunch of bullshit. If you don’t sell 100,000 records in the first six months, you’re fired. It was a rude awakening getting dropped from the label and having to get a job for the first time to support myself. It wasn’t what I wanted but I’m glad I did it. It makes it all the sweeter having another chance at it now.
TB: Could you take us to the moment when Young Empires became a band in earnest?
JP: When I jammed with Matt and Jim for the first time, everything clicked – like, ‘this is what I want to sound like.’ We didn’t really come together to be a band right away, though. We more or less wanted to jam in our spare time. That’s just what we like to do. Some people like to watch TV, some people like to smoke weed, we like to play music. Then Matt actually got a show offer for a solo project about a week after we’d been jamming. He was like, ‘you guys want to do this as a full band for the first time?’ We hadn’t really written many songs, but we thought, hey, why not? You know, it can’t hurt.
TB: So was Young Empires the name you chose for your first gig?
JP: Yeah. We liked the idea of Young Empires’ imagery — you know something regal and something big. I think we had ‘empire’ with one name and ‘young’ with another name and we just put them together. Little did we know that there are so many other bands named ‘young.’ All of a sudden, Young the Giant hit the market, and Young Prisms. Like, what? I think we even get called Young Prisms on blogs sometimes when they come to shows. So we had this idea to have like a battle of bands, but only the ‘young’ bands, where only the winner gets to keep their name and everyone else has to change [laughs]. If they want to, I’d love to do something like that. But you know, whatever. As long as we are the best ‘young’ band then it doesn’t matter. We’ll see who is the first one to really break out. I think Young the Giant’s got us so far, but they also have a major record label on their side.
TB: In a year’s time you should drop the gauntlet and challenge everybody.
JP: (Laughs). Yeah, some sort of reality TV show or something. You can cover the whole tournament to see what we can do.
TB: I read a review that described one of your shows as “a guitar center – filled with enough equipment for at least a ten-piece band.” What was the first instrument you picked up?
JP: I was actually a drummer for most of my youth. I loved the drums. I like to hit stuff and make a racket. I was playing percussion in middle school and it wasn’t that fun, but it was better than playing the flute or clarinet or something cheesy. And plus, drummers got all the babes, so that was a big draw to that instrument as well [laughs]. But in high school, there was a band I wanted to play in and they only needed a bass player so I picked up the bass, taught myself and ran with it from there.
TB: Your music seems to be so intertwined with beats and computer-generated elements. How much does the electronic and digital aspect fit into your creative process?
JP: The way we compose is a bit backward from any other band I’ve been a part of, in that we don’t come together and say, ‘Here’s the song, here are the lyrics and here’s the melody. Here’s the acoustic guitar and piano. Let’s build the instrumentation around that.’ It often starts with the rhythm, a catchy drumbeat that was programmed. Often we will throw on beats we’ve made and a guitar hook Aaron has and jam it out and kind of throw on a cassette recorder, then go back and listen to see what parts worked. From there, it’s like, ‘Hey this part sounds good, this verse, this chorus — what could this be?’ And we build that way. So often the songs don’t come together until after three or four weeks of jamming different parts. When we’ve done all that, we’ll take the four parts and arrange them into a proper song.
TB: Amid all the live shows, you also put together mixes like the one you’ve done for us. What thoughts go into DJ projects like this?
JP: Anytime you’re a band, you want to showcase that you do have taste in music. It is an honor to be asked to do a mix tape and we’re excited when we were asked to do one. Actually, we’re doing a DJ mix for a clothing line as well – Hanson clothing, based out of Toronto here. In terms of song selection, we just put together songs that we like and think other people will like. The majority of stuff that we listen to tends to be on the electronica side: good remixes, producers, especially production. Being gear heads, we love finding producers that we like, and figuring out how it sounds so good.
TB: In this digital age, we see artists give away songs for free and sustain a career through live performances and word of mouth, like Girl Talk. You haven’t been signed yet. Is this the way of the future bands and for Young Empires?
JP: That’s a good question. I think the business has changed so much that no one really knows the secret to making careers anymore. You mention Girl Talk makes a living off of his shows. I think the new reality is that live shows, film and TV is where you make your careers, as far as money goes. We could sell MP3 bundles for five dollars, but to be honest we’d rather have people listening to our music on their iPods and sharing it with their friends. We want to be people’s favorite band, not a band that no one cares about in three or four years. So we don’t mind giving away free music if it helps fans get there.
TB So you have finished recording your first official record and want to release it soon. Any teasers for your fans?
JP: The five demos we’ve released on line weren’t supposed to be official release tracks. Even “Glory of the Night” on the Kitsuné compilation was a demo done in our bedroom. So those songs will be remixed on the record along with six new ones no one’s heard. We always want to be make sure that when a new song comes out it sounds like us but doesn’t sound like us. We’re also speaking with producer Chris Zane, who did the last Passion Pit, Les Savy Fav, Shy Child, the new Friendly Fires record… Chris does really good stuff and has expressed interest in mixing but nothing has been signed. We are at the point where we want a pro mix done because, although we produce, we’re not professional producers or mixers by any means. I think Chris could take the tracks to the next level and could be a good fit in terms of how crisp and clear all his mixing sounds.
TB: It’s been just over a year since you released your first demo. People say the journey is just as – if not more – important than the destination. Where do you see the journey taking you in 2011?
JP: It’s tough because we’ve had such a strong start to the year. We’ve done stuff we never thought we’d do. We got to the Grammy’s and played a private party for the Canadian nominees, like Arcade Fire, met a Backstreet Boy, stuff like that. We went down to South America last year for a show, and eating the local cuisine there and drinking wine on the rooftops was an incredible experience. It’s been kind of unreal and surreal. I just really hope it continues and that we can take it one week at a time.
Words Jamie WilliamsTweet