Empty Houses: Pop Punk Kids with a Motown Sound
An unexpectedly soulful side project from the members of Fireworks.
I like to imagine I went into the attic of my grandparents’ house and opened a crate of old records. I find one that sticks out, so I dust it off a bit, put it on the turntable, and close my eyes. I hear the crackle of the recording, the soulful female voice and it clicks that this is a timeless Motown record. When I open my eyes, I realize that it’s currently the year 2015 and I’m listening to new music created by a few twenty-somethings from a pop punk band. This isn’t a side project, this is something special. It’s a huge step in the right direction. This is Empty Houses.
Vocalist Ali Shea, accompanied by Adam Mercer and David Mackinder (Fireworks) have put their heads together to create a new breed of genuine feel-good music. In an industry lacking depth and raw talent, this trio is already leaps and bounds ahead of their peers, with potential to crossover into a mainstream mainstay. The endearing melodies and upbeat musicianship should put a smile on your face because you can tell these three genuinely love what they do.
We recently spoke with Mercer and Mackinder about the project. Check out their first single, “Far Away” below. Listen to more here.
Noisey: To be honest, when you sent me the songs to check out I was not expecting it to sound like this. I have plenty of friends in bands who work on new projects that end up sounding virtually identical to their previous efforts. What do you think sets this apart from your other musical endeavors, specifically Fireworks?
Mackinder: I think the main thing that separates Empty Houses from other projects I’ve been a part of, besides the way the songs actually sound, is the way in which songs are written. I feel writing for Fireworks for me has always been about creating ideas that promote an array of different sounds and lyrical content. With this project, there is a certain familiar sound or feel we aim to achieve, while trying to make it creative and cool but not contrived. All the songs thus far have been coming out very naturally.
I know both of you have grown up in the suburbs of Detroit. Does your location have anything to do with your love of the soulful Motown style? As musicians I know you’ve always been all over the map in interests, but it seems like now you really get to make that more apparent in your music. Are there any artists that specifically influenced you?
Mercer: I feel like being from the Detroit area makes you proud of the fact that Motown was born here. All that music is inspiring because it’s fun and just makes people feel good, and that’s the feeling I want people to have when they listen to our music. It was certainly fun for us to make it. I don’t think I can name one artist that influenced us without naming 100, but they come from all eras and styles of music.
David, you’ve been the lead singer of Fireworks for a long time. Standing at the front of the stage and holding only a microphone, you have the ability to directly interact with the crowd. How was the transition from fronting a band to playing an instrument again? Do you have a preference when it comes to singing as opposed to playing guitar?
Mackinder: It’s definitely a bizarre thing for me when it comes to singing and playing guitar. Playing guitar has always been my warm security blanket—most of the ideas for Fireworks start with me noodling around with a guitar then I make that transition to show the rest of the band and then work on just the singing part. Writing songs for Empty Houses has been refreshing and comforting because I can write guitar parts and just envision Ali singing them. There is a certain chemistry Adam, Ali, and I have that works well with this method.
The vocals from Ali Shea have this endearing, vintage style to them. Her voice is instantly recognizable and everything from her tone to the delivery is just flawless. How did all of you meet and what lead to her singing for the group? What is her background as a vocalist?
Mercer: Ali says she was a “closet singer” for a long time. She did a few musicals in high school and went to college for theater, but has never taken lessons or anything like that. She has just always liked to sing and has found ways to do it. I think Dave first found out Ali could really sing when he saw a YouTube video of her covering something, I can’t remember what it was. We’ve all been friends for a while so it just made sense to do this and has been so much fun. Her voice is really great and I’m happy we were able to release some songs and make this happen.
One exciting thing about starting a new band is completely wiping the slate clean. You have no bias from fans, no expectations and most importantly no boundaries. With this new genre, Empty Houses is an open book. I could imagine the strangest thing will be going from judging crowds reactions from stage dives and sing-alongs to people just dancing and smiling. Do you have any expectations once you start playing shows?
Mackinder: It’s definitely an open book and all really exciting. I think now that songs are surfacing, we are all just really eager to see how it’s received. Personally, I'm not sure what to expect. I'd love to just to see people dancing and smiling just legitimately happy at the shows. Though it would be really funny if Ali had some secret mosh call power during a 6/8 ballad.
The amount of people that this music could reach, given the right push from a label or whoever, is pretty outstanding. It reminds me of something you would hear in a coffee shop around the holidays and notice that it cheers everyone up a bit. As far as modern artists I could imagine comparisons to She & Him. Is there a specific artist or modern musical group you’d love to share the stage with?
Mackinder: It's actually hilarious to me because I've been playing in a band for almost a decade and released three albums, but the moment I showed my mom a Garageband demo of an early Empty Houses song, that was the one time I actually felt she was sincerely excited. I think the songs seem to connect with people of all ages. We don’t really have any specific artists in mind, we’re just eager to start playing. However, She & Him would definitely be cool! Rilo Kiley would be another cool one for me to share the stage with.
There are three main members of the band, but the songs have a lot of really interesting musicianship. What does each person play on the record and live? Do you plan on bringing out a few other people to play the auxiliary instruments?
Mercer: On the recording, I played piano and organ and bass on one song. Dave played bass on all the rest and the guitar on all songs. Our friends Tymm Rengers and Justin Pence came in and played drums and trumpet, respectively. Ali obviously sang and all of us contributed to harmonies and backup vocals. Ideally all our live shows will be with a full band, so we’re working on getting all those pieces in place.
What is the master plan for Empty Houses? Do you have plans to tour and travel or is this mainly a studio project? Do you want this to be your full-time gig?
Mercer: This is definitely a project we want to see grow. It would be great to play shows and travel with this; we all have sort of adjusted our lives to take this as far as we can. We’re self-releasing this EP, but we definitely want to find a label home for future releases. Above all we want to have fun, and we’re excited for the future whatever it may bring.
Jonathan Diener is on Twitter - @jonodiener