Big In Japan

7 November 2012 | 6:00 am | Kate Kingsmill

“Realistically, I don’t think it’s possible that we would do another record like that again. It’s also really natural for bands to evolve as well, and keep finding their sound.”

It's midnight in Paris, which sounds romantic but Electric Empire's Aaron Mendoza is busy chatting with Inpress while the rest of the guys in the band are upstairs watching TV dramas on their computers. “I think it's romantic if you have your partner here, but if you're with a bunch of guys, it's not really!” he laughs.

The Australian band have spent so long gigging their old-school soul sound throughout the UK and Europe now that they are regularly mistaken for being from almost anywhere else. Last year's Glastonbury appearance in particular “made a lot of people think twice about the band,” Mendoza admits. “It's funny how much of that was sent back to people in Australia. Even radio presenters were saying, 'I didn't know this band, I heard about them from overseas and then I found out that they were Australian.'”

While he appreciates that the band's success overseas is really helping back home, he takes umbrage with the local industry's perception of overseas success being more valuable. “Isn't that always the way?” he says. “I'm not saying that the people who are booking us back home are narrow-minded but it's funny how we've done so much overseas work and it's making people go, 'All right, well there must be something about this band because these guys have been to Japan and the UK, touring through France.' It happens all the time and it's something the Australian music industry could work on.”

And so the band are working the advantage that being in Europe brings. “There's a lot of good soul bands coming out of Australia, but over here (in Europe) you've got the population and you've got the history of soul and the network of people that are really into it and have a lot of respect for it. So it's definitely easier in terms of getting out there. It seems like there are a lot more opportunities happening over here.”

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France in particular has really embraced the band. “The French are just so into their soul and jazz and all that stuff,” Mendoza enthuses. He also argues that the industry there is more supportive of its local artists. “There is a certain percentage of Australian music that Australian radio stations have to play and it's quite small and international music is really high. And you come to places like Europe and it's the opposite, their highest percentage [is] local music that they play. They really support their local artists and bands. I think it's really cool and I think Australia could actually learn from that because there's so much good music coming out of Australia.”

While all the members of Electric Empire are Australian, the band began life in London, where founding members Dennis Dowlut (vocals, guitar) and Mendoza (keys, vocals) had both come to work on other, separate projects. “We ended up crossing paths and we were there for about two years,” says Mendoza. Their goal was to write really classic-sounding soul songs, “not just write songs and then add a soul feel, but write songs as they were written back then.”

The band's beginnings in London were difficult times. Dowlut had recently lost his brother, best friend and musical collaborator Darren, to a sudden terminal illness. The brothers had planned to move to America together after successful remixes for Mariah Carey and Elton John and mounting production offers but it wasn't to be.

The difficult London lifestyle added pressure. “We didn't have a lot of money, we were living in London, we were doing the grind. It was a hard time, it was emotional.” But it was just that, he says, that helped the band produce truly emotional material. “It actually helped with us getting down to writing songs that had grit, and that depth of when you listen to someone like Bill Withers. We even say with the new stuff, we talk about trying to get back down to that place we were at the time, because it was an emotional time. It definitely helps in terms of writing.”

Songwriting is of core importance to the band that are now a quartet, rounded out with Jason Heerah (drums/vocals) and Simon Olsen (bass). “It's really nice that people say it's like listening to an old record but all the songs are yours. For us it's not about settling on songs, it's about finding it and making sure it feels right. We'd all grown up listening to soul music from our parents and fallen in love with that music. And the influence was so strong that I think we just know when it's right. Sometimes we even talk about different songs from Stevie or whoever and why we like these songs and what it is about it that we like and [we] try to write in a similar way – trying to play something that has that same emotion.”

Their 2010 self-titled debut was a strictly vintage analogue affair that channelled all the soul greats from Al Green to Curtis Mayfield. Approaching the production of the new EP, Changin', an evolution in sound was inevitable, says Mendoza. “Realistically, I don't think it's possible that we would do another record like that again. It's also really natural for bands to evolve as well, and keep finding their sound.”

After self-producing their first album they decided to bring in producer John Castle to change things up on the just-released EP. Handing over some of the production control was simultaneously challenging and exciting. “We wanted to try something different this time. Johnny added his flavour and that's exactly what I was hoping for him to do. Taking what we do in terms of songwriting to someone like Johnny, who has got a bit more of a current, underground indie type of sound to it, [is] something that's going to help make our music a little bit more accessible without sounding more commercial or selling out or anything like that.” Castle has produced The Drones, Lior and Washington, but it was his work with The Bamboos that particularly impressed Electric Empire. “The Bamboos are a real '60s-sounding soul band but he's managed to bring them into today. It's just the type of music that he's doing, it's got that current underground vibe to it and we just wanted to have a little bit of that on the new stuff.”

Asked if this is part of a concerted effort to appeal to a broader audience, Mendoza says, “Yeah, I'd say that's a fair comment! It's definitely one thing that we want to do for sure. We just want to be able to widen the playing field a little bit and with some songs sounding a bit bigger… a bit more of that current flavour and that edge. We're playing bigger festivals and bigger stages so we're trying to have a mix of both. And I think you can, especially today.”

Electric Empire will be playing the following shows:

Thursday 15 November - The Hi-Fi, Melbourne VIC
Friday 16 November - The Arena, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 17 November - Golden Days Festival, Brisbane QLD
Friday 23 November - Mullum Music Festival, Mullumbimby NSW
Saturday 24 - Sunday 25 November - Queenscliff Music Festival, Queenscliff VIC
Saturday 29 December - Peats Ridge Festival, Glenworth Valley NSW