Interview by Lindsey Craun.
It wasn’t long before Ryan Rogers and Micah McKee realized the great potential they held in songwriting. After years of writing songs to share with fellow friends in New Orleans, the two decided it was time to gear up and start a band. Ryan’s brother, Eric Rogers, joined in on the action along with Patrick Hodgkins, Leo DeJesus and Julie Williams to form Empress Hotel. Though Empress Hotel only recently began performing live, the ensemble has already stirred up a buzz in the pop world. Along with the release of their self-titled debut EP, the group will be touring the country this spring and concluding at South By Southwest.
We recently spoke with Empress Hotel as they travelled across North Texas headed toward their next show. We asked about the band’s origination, how living in “The Big Easy” has affected their music, and what they have in store for the future.
I understand that Micah and Ryan began writing songs just for fun, so what made them decide to get more serious and start a live band?
Eric: It was never really expected to become a band. Ryan and Micah started writing these songs and, because Ryan and I are brothers, I started just going over to Ryan’s house to hear his songs and was like “Man, this is really good. How can I get involved?” And then I guess we just started calling people random people we know to try to get together a band and one thing led to another and here we are.
You and Ryan are brothers, but how did the rest of the band find each other?
Eric: Micah and I had been in a couple bands together prior to this one and Ryan and I also had been in another band for a long time. Patrick moved down from Portland, Maine about two years ago and he met Ryan at a place all of us go to a lot called the Circle Bar in New Orleans. Patrick picked a seat next to Ryan, and Ryan made him buy him a beer, and they just kept in touch. Julie and Ryan met at Mardi Gras. Everybody in the band has kind of known each other except for Patrick, everybody’s from that general area.
How did you guys come up with the name “Empress Hotel?”
Eric: Micah McKee came up with the band name one night we were at a bar in New Orleans. A previous band that Ryan and I were in was called Antennae Inn, and when Antennae Inn broke up around when Ryan and Micah started writing and Micah brought up the name Empress Hotel, and there’s actually a hotel in New Orleans called that. It’s a very shitty hotel, paid-by-the-hour hotel where like… it’s just awful. It’s kind of homage to the last band we were in and its got a bit of a local story I guess.
How has living in New Orleans influenced your music?
Eric: Well New Orleans is like the best city on Earth. Not just the music, everything about the city is influential.
Ryan: New Orleans is a rare city and there’s a lot of things going on at all hours of the day and the night. Not having regular hours influences what state we’re in when we start to write music and I think it’s just a lot more impulsive when we actually write here. The biggest thing I can think of how New Orleans influences our music is to try to show something different because New Orleans kind of gets stale with their music with the brass and jazz and Dixie and all that stuff that’s really only, I don’t know, it’s just not what I’m into.
Micah: The song “Empress Hotel” for example is kind of a song about how closely knit everyone in New Orleans is and how it’s kind of a big city in a small town, and I guess that’s the biggest way New Orleans has influenced our music. A lot of its based on the interconnectivity and different social circles, social interaction and awkwardness and things like that that I think kind of foretell a lot of the song writing. That kind of weird, per-chance interaction you get with someone. The kind of thing that leads to a band starting, you know, like Ryan randomly meeting our bass player Patrick and that kind of thing.
What genre would you classify yourselves as?
Eric: We’re definitely a pop band, but there’s definitely some rock in there too. However, when you think about what defines a genre… Genres are so all over the place these days. I mean everybody’s got all these sub-genres and all that crap. It’s just a pop band, I mean, it’s very catchy and a little quirky at times so, yeah, we’re a pop band. I don’t like indie-pop, that just sounds ridiculous.
It’s been said that you’ve drawn inspiration from one hit wonders of the 70s. What elements have you incorporated into your own music?
Micah: They definitely help a lot in terms of guiding us along and very often it doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound good. A lot of those songs from that era, those one hit wonders don’t really have a lot of incredible depth to them. The words sound great together and the sound is kind of infectious… so I think that’s kind of where it comes to play. The hook. The hook is one of the most important things to this band, and very often we have a string of hooks and try to piece them together some way. For me, that’s the biggest way I can see that we’ve been influenced… the ability to kind of piece together these random hooks so that it all makes sense.
What can you tell us about your album coming out in March?
Micah: It’s got five songs on it and the songs were written and recorded close to a year ago. They were just touched up and finished up this summer. It’s kind of a pastiche of our favorite songs that we recorded. We have a song called “Mach Bach” on it, which is on the Urban Outfitters free music downloads. It’s called Empress Hotel too.
What do you hope your audience gets out of your tour this spring?
Micah: I hope that people connect to the live show as much as they have connected to these recordings. A lot of shows are extremely different from the recordings as far as live music, some are slower, some are faster. I just hope that people are able to connect to it on a personal level and that we don’t, like, shut people off. There’s kind of a fine line. We kind of want to be a mysterious band, we don’t want everyone to know everything about us, but at the same time we want to be one of those bands that people feel really comfortable going to see and kind of feel like you’re at a party. I hope that people are as connected as they are back home.
How does playing in a band with your brother compare to past projects you were involved with before joining Empress Hotel?
Eric: Empress Hotel is still a very new band. We played our first show in July, so we haven’t even been together a year, so I can’t be totally honest how it’s been going. I mean It’s going fine so far. Ryan and I get along better and we know the roles, I guess. Ryan and Micah write the songs, and I don’t try to step on anybody’s toes, so we definitely get along pretty well. With the past bands…I mean bands end for various reasons I guess. Bands that I’ve gone in and out of… there was a lot of angst and people who were really focused on the wrong things I guess. In this one, everyone’s got the same goal and we’ve got a lot of good opportunities coming our way right now, so everybody’s kind of on board to do what we’ve got to do.
What do you guys have planned for the future after you finish touring in March?
Micah: We’ll put out the record, tour on it, and we’re gonna keep writing songs. That’s what we like to do. I don’t want to necessarily be over-prolific, but we definitely have a goal of knocking out a few records in the next five years. Lot’s of touring and definitely tons of writing, and kind of integrating the live sound a lot more to what we do.
Eric: Touring as often as we can, and we’re going to go back to the studio in April. Touring, touring, touring. That’s about it.
Any new music in the works?
Eric: We’re always working on new music. The way the band got started Ryan and Micah wrote a song, finished it, and started working on another one. Those songs were brought into the band and we started getting them ready for live shows. Whenever we’re aren’t on the road or have a lull, they go back and write new songs. We recorded five songs for the EP but those weren’t the only five that were ready, we have about ten more in the tank ready to go. We’re always writing, always preparing old songs for new recordings. Some of the songs on the EP might end up on the next record as well as a bunch of new ones. But yeah, Ryan and Micah are always writing. Now that the band is becoming what it is, it’s gonna be incorporating Patrick and Julie and everybody into the writing process. But it’s mainly Ryan and Micah for sure.
Listen to “Empress Hotel” off of Empress Hotel’s self-titled EP here: