Following an album release party last week at Piano’s, their band Empty Chairs have just taken the next step in their north Brooklyn-born relationship, releasing their debut album Caveat Emptor.
Wheeling sounds of electronic soundscapes with a synthesized folk-rock backbone, the band has started to pave their own way in the Brooklyn music scene.
The band sat down with me last week at The Lunchbox in Greenpoint to discuss their history and musical inspiration.
Where are you guys from originally?
Whitney: I’m kind of from all over. I’m originally from Florida and then I moved to Massachusetts.
Matthew: I’m a proud child of New Jersey.
Peter: I’m from Denver, Colorado.
Where do you guys live now?
Whitney: We’re in the Greenpoint and Bed-Stuy area.
So you are all from different areas. How did you meet?
Peter: Whitney and I met in Boston. She was in school and I went and played a show, and we ended up meeting there at a mutual friend’s show at the Lizard Lounge. She moved to New York not too long after that, and I met Matt working at a restaurant here in Williamsburg at DuMont Burger.
Whitney: We both went to Berkley, and our friends went there too.
What did you study?
Whitney: I was in music therapy.
Peter: I studied performance.
What instruments? Peter: bass and upright bass.
When did you start playing that?
Peter: I started when I was young, in high school. I was like 16 I guess.
Had you always played in bands?
Peter: I was always in rock bands in school and through college, but my scholastic focus was jazz music.
So what were you doing while they were in Boston?
Matthew: So I met Peter while I was working at DuMont Burger. He was the delivery driver, I was making the donuts. I was playing in a couple of bands at the time and Peter gave me his Empty Chairs EP, so I was listening to that all the time. They ended up needing a little bit of auxiliary percussion on the album.
Had you been playing drums for a long time?
Matthew: Oh yeah, man. I went to college to study music performance; I went to Bard College in upstate New York. So I did a mixed percussion major. I did a lot of , but my own direction was more pop-rock band oriented.
So the EP that you guys were passing around back then, how did that come about?
Peter: Well it budded out of a recording project I was calling Empty Chairs back in the day. I made an EP before that one that I never released and then I ended up bringing five tracks into the studio with a drummer friend of mine, and then Whitney sang on those tracks. That was actually the first time she sang and was on the EP. I made that with the same engineer that we recorded our full-length album with.
So when was all of that happening?
Peter: That was in 2011.
Did you come down here with the intention of forming a band?
Peter: I came down here with a band. I was in a band with some friends and we ended up moving down here and ended up living in an apartment together. The band ended up breaking up for one reason or another.
Whitney: Now they’re Rubblebucket.
Peter: Now they’re in Rubblebucket. They’re the rhythm section.
Where did you come up with the name Empty Chairs?
Peter: Well, the name Empty Chairs I picked when I was making the very first track when I was reading this book that was like the complete works of Van Gogh. I felt like it was very important to feature in front of the book Van Gogh’s paintings of empty chairs. He got really into painting empty chairs and a big percentage of his work was just these two empty chairs of friends of his.
They had this art collective when he was getting older that he formed with his friends where they would have a model there and paint the model and paint each other painting the model. It was like an artist collective and after a while everyone started leaving, and it just ended up being him there so he was painting the guys’ empty chairs.
I felt when I was making it, it was in homage to the musicians that I’ve played with in the past that were no longer around since my band had disbanded. So it was sort of reflective of the fact that it was a solo project and I also thought it was just kind of audacious to call a band Empty Chairs.
After bringing on Matthew and Whitney to the group, in what ways did they add to your sound?
Peter: Well I was having a hard time playing shows just as a solo act. I wanted to be more collaborative and I wanted to have more people just because that’s what I love about music; the interaction between people and the therapeutic nature of the bond that’s formed with people when you practice and play music. So I think it was just for the love, and to want to be a part of a group that we’re all looking toward a shared goal.
When I saw Matt play I was so impressed with this guy.
Do you remember the first time you guys played together?
Matthew: Well, I guess it was at Spike Hill. That was our first show. But our first rehearsal was in your (Peter) apartment.
Peter: It’s been about a year and a couple months that we’ve been playing together as this band.
How has the group developed over the last year?
Peter: Well, my view of the music has changed a lot. The music sort of lived inside my computer rather than the physical world, and now I really feel that it’s more dynamic performance in an active show between people. Before it was more of just a representation of the recordings and now the recordings are more of a representation of what we’re doing live.
What kind of stuff did you guys listen to growing up?
Matthew: I came up with a lot of classic rock for a long time, and then I got into a metal phase, but then I got into a super pretty music phase. It was probably Sigur Rós that started to do it. I just got really obsessed with all of their music.
That’s always been a thing for me as a musician. I just always loved those two ends of the spectrum. Totally blissed-out sound, often times with vocals that I don’t even really understand, a beautiful sound, or incredibly harsh and intense noisy metal.
The first time Peter saw me play was bass and drums, sort of a thrashy metal duo, and so I think it’s funny that one rehearsal is like that too, especially playing the Roland SPD-SX, the drum pads – like that was huge adjustment.
On my part, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the electric kit and to also bring out as much dynamics and touch as possible with it, and then work in acoustic sounds and work in acoustic symbols.
What’s the benefit of playing with the electric kit that you couldn’t do with a live rock band?
Matthew: We’re very much samples-based in performance and so there’s just completely electronic sounds and samples that are necessary to a lot of the songs.
Peter: I think it’s a unique sound. We play with real cymbals and electronic drums, so it’s a little unique compared with what other people do, where they just have all electronic sounds or they just have a drummer. A lot of times I feel the synthesis between electronic and acoustic doesn’t come across.
What kind of stuff do you guys bring up on stage with you?
Peter: We’ve got the Core Synthesizer, we’ve got the Roland sampler and we have another Roland sampler and the guitar.
Why the guitar?
Peter: I think it’s the marriage of the acoustic and the electric. I wanted to go in an electronic direction, but I also wanted the music to retain some tradition. I feel like the part of my personality that’s like the Neil Young or Elliot Smith that’s embedded in tradition is being manifested in the folk-guitar guy strumming away in the corner.
How do you explain the current music scene taking place in Bushwick, Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, or even the Lower East Side right now?
Whitney: I don’t think we really pay attention to that.
Peter: I think we pay a little attention to it. Like you said earlier, a lot of people from around here aren’t necessarily from here, and I actually know quite a few people that I knew in Boston – my friends in Celestial Shore, Computer Magic and my friends in Friend Roulette – they’re really awesome and I knew all these guys before I moved. I think people are just kind of congregating here because it’s a place where artists feel safe and they’re free to do what they have dreamed about doing.
What is the meaning behind your debut album?
Peter: It is from the Latin, which means “buyer beware,” where they had a law in place in Rome apparently that the seller of any goods or services could disclaim the buyer beware. If there was anything defective or unpleasant about their experience, they could not argue or send back a product.
I thought it would be kind of a funny title, something that’s meant for enjoyment and purely meant for medicinal purposes as far as music is. Also, some of the sounds on the album are a little jarring and tough to swallow on the very first listen.
Check out the Empty Chairs Bandcamp page at (www.emptychairs.bandcamp.com) and listen to their new album Caveat Emptor out November 5.