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by Richard Thorne

Empress: Sailing the Seas of Grease

by Richard Thorne

Empress: Sailing the Seas of Grease

Leaving Hamilton and her grunge/pop duo Cheshire Grimm behind guitarist, singer and audio engineer Lora Thompson spent four years working in Melbourne as an AV tech, returning to NZ to teach audio engineering at SAE in Auckland. Once again Kirikiriroa-based, Thompson is these days teamed with drummer Craig Gilliver, and together they make beautiful loud alt rock noises under the righteous name Empress. Their highly recommended six-song debut EP ‘Trash Dynasty’ is out on September 10, with a matching six-date tour to follow. Here’s a quick intro to the sound and songs of Empress. 

Where was ‘Trash Dynasty’ recorded?

Lora: In my home, for the most part. Interestingly, there is only one song where an actual bass guitar is used, which is Sit Down. I did the engineering and we self-produced it – maybe one day we will get funding and can pay someone else. There is one additional credit for Sailing the Seas of Grease which was mixed by Kane Power.

There’s 25 mins of fabulously grungy guitar and brave vocals here. Any favourite amps or instruments you relied on?

Lora: I use my Orange for all the overdriven guitars. I recently began using an MXR bass DI for the Octave split which improved the tone immensely. Craig plays a handmade Samplonius snare that he loves.

Are these all Empress-origin songs or were some brought in from previous bands?

Lora: These are all fresh ideas written after the previous band (Cheshire Grimm) ended. I don’t think we were actually going for a particular sound, this is just how it came out. It’s quite long because we actually were aiming for an EP, but decided to record Mental Health Inquiry (which we wrote later) at the last minute. 

How does the EP’s title fit the song collection?

We kind of got to the end and couldn’t decide what to call it. As you can tell from the song titles, we don’t exactly get too sentimental when we name stuff. We considered a self-titled EP or naming it after our first single ‘Sailing the Seas of Grease’ but somehow we settled on ‘Trash Dynasty’. Dynasty is a play on the fact that our name is Empress too. 

And the band logo. It has a strongly ’70s psychedelic feel. Did you do that yourselves too?

Lora: Guy at The Moskon Review has always done the art for our previous band, Cheshire Grimm. We just kind of told him we needed branding and he came up with the direction. 

Craig: He’s an amazing artist and we’re stoked with everything he does for us. 

Gotta ask, how does the title Sailing The Seas of Grease  relate to the song’s lyrics?

Lora: It doesn’t! It’s an inside joke for Primus fans, a play on their album title ‘Sailing The Seas Of Cheese’. The title and lyrics are completely unrelated, I just always wanted to name something “sailing the seas of grease.” It was a joke I had thought of for quite a few years, and this was one of the options for the EP name as well; but as this single came out in 2020 I felt like we needed to name it something fresh. 

The song is about losing touch with a friend and being sad, but moving on with life. I was listening to a lot of Chelsea Wolfe at the time and was really inspired by her vocal style. 

We also really enjoyed making the video for this one that we shot in an old dairy factory and edited ourselves. Big shout out to Lauren Mann and Rhiannon Thomas who performed in this one and Gwyn Barrie (who designed and made me a custom outfit). 

Mental Health Inquiry is much more story-based than the other tracks and has two killer lines: ‘Ignorance is a gateway drug…’ and ‘Kill the weed and smoke yourself…’

Lora: It was written about the cannabis and euthanasia referenda that NZ held in 2020, and it’s fairly literal. At the time, I think ‘Kill weed and smoke yourself’ was just something funny that someone said.

I have always appreciated how some other artists can write a song that tells a story like that – something we could never do in our previous band, Cheshire Grimm. So I decided to give that format a go here. This is one of my favourite songs to play live, it’s always good to get the audience chanting ‘ignorance is a gateway drug’! 

Theftones has some especially dynamic singing. Playing live do you find it a challenge to keep the vocals clear of the instrument noise?

Lora: I’ve always said, I would hate to do live sound for myself. No issues cutting through the mix as such but I think because this song starts off quiet, some engineers get quite a shock when I start really projecting and yelling. It’s always been the same in every band I have sung in, so these days I try to soundcheck with a range of different vocals.

Like most of the titles, not much meaning here, except I think it was a working title that kind of stuck. Craig thought the original riff sounded like Deftones. It’s certainly a really hard song to sing and one that I was nervous about writing, but I’m very happy with it now. It has allowed me to challenge myself vocally. 

No Tomorrow sits pretty much on the metal spectrum but the lyrical origins seem rather more personal?

Lora: This riff was one I wrote in Cheshire Grimm that was never used, but I really like playing it and we are both suckers for a good metal riff! 

This song and this video we released with it are all about partying, being an addict and losing your mind, not directly personal but more observational –  ‘I’m doing fine’ is quite sarcastic. The bridge lyrics, ‘Silence burning on my tongue, I will never be enough, all your lies have come undone, I will never be enough,’ are a dig at the music industry and its rampant issues with addiction and inequality. 

At the end of the day we believe our songs mean whatever the listener interprets from them, so any interpretation is just as valuable as ours! 

In Sit Down there’s a studio comment at the end. Does it have any direct application to the song’s lyrics?

Lora: That was just Craig at the end of a drum take and I thought it was funny to leave it in. There are loads of backing vox throughout the EP, if you listen closely, particularly on No Tomorrow and Mental Health Inquiry. I enlisted the help of a few friends including Dity Maharaj from Coridian, John Ropiha Slivsgaard from Crap Date/Are We Dead Yet? and Heather Bolton from Vox Venus/The Acetones. 

So far as the lyrics go, this one was written back when we were Cheshire Grimm, but again, never made the cut. I think it’s probably about standing up to someone in an abusive power dynamic – I wrote the bones of it originally around 2015/16 so it’s quite an old idea. I like the spin that we’ve put on it and especially love Craig’s drumming on this track. 

Craig: I don’t particularly enjoy the recording process, and it was a small example of my struggles with it!