Peter Timmis investigates EMPIRE NATION, the four piece pop rock band led by "polite shouting chef" Ed Bird
Soon to be getting airplay on Cross Rhythms radio is "Safe With Me", an infectious, hook-laden pop rock song by Cambridge-based band Empire Nation. The band's biography reveals their level of ambition: "Their modest aim is to change the world one riff at a time, using their faith, creativity and refusal to conform to the norm. They want to produce music that will make everyone from students to politicians sit up and take notice. To illuminate what matters, to reject the mundane, to live and play in the context of something bigger than a first impression; to challenge, magnify and amplify." A little while back Mike Rimmer invited the band's frontman Ed Bird onto his Rimmerama radio show. Ed, as a teenager, played drums with a Christian rock group called River, who released their debut album in 1995 and later changed their name to Evergreen.
Mike began by asking Ed what he remembers about his days as Evergreen's drummer. "It took up most of my school years - I spent a lot of time off school - my attendance was 48 per cent one year because I was off so much drumming with the band. They were all late 20s or 30s and being 14 at the time they had to sneak me into some venues. It taught me to grow up quickly because we were playing some 'interesting' venues. I can remember doing an interview with Chris Cole on Cross Rhythms about 10 years ago. I was probably about 14 or 15 at the time."
What did Ed do once Evergreen went their separate ways? "I trained as a chef and worked for about five years. I was fairly good and I made head chef at 21. I won a few awards and at the time I was the youngest head chef in the hotel I was working at. I did have to shout a few times but I didn't swear like the chefs on the TV. I was always a polite shouting chef."
Now playing guitar, piano and singing Ed - along with Sam Dransfield (guitar), Sam Greene (bass) and Sam Glazebrook (drums) - set about starting a new musical project that was to become Empire Nation. What was the genesis of the group? "We started about three and a half years ago at a Christian youth worship event. Originally the band got together to play other people's worship songs and grew out of that. We started writing our own stuff then tried to decide a name for ourselves which took a little while." Mike asked how the group settled on their "grand" sounding moniker? "The way we came by the name is not actually very grand," explained Ed, "I had a list of about 300 names and gave the band members one of these lists each and said 'there you go, pick your top 10.' The next week we had 10 names and I said 'pick your top five or top three,' and three out of four of us had Empire Nation in our top three, so that was fairly conclusive."
In 2007 the band released their self titled debut EP and Cross Rhythms noted that the band had "a signature of their own" and that they were "no clones". Said Ed, "Since the EP's release we've been playing around the place trying to build a bit of a following, honing our skills and gelling together as a band. It's been great fun with the other boys, getting to know how each other plays, but it does get a bit confusing having three people called Sam in the band. We've considered changing the name of the group to 'Sam Nation,'" he joked. "They each have their own little pet name; we've got Sammy D, Greene and Glazy."
For their debut album 'Airtight', released back in July, Empire Nation teamed up with producer Paul Burton (Snow Patrol, Athlete) and "delivered a high quality, consistent sound that brings to mind a mix of Delirious?, Leeland, Simple Minds and occasional hints of Morrissey's vocal tone (minus the angst!)." Standout tracks include the hooky pop rock of "Light My Way", the melodic title track and, of course, "Safe With Me". Commented Bird, "This album's really kind of a mixed bag of songs, just to say 'here we are, this is what we sound like, this is what we can do'. There's something on the album for everyone, so there's some very overtly Christian worship songs, there's some that are more secular, some that are in the middle, a couple of slow songs, even for people who don't like music at all there's some silence between the songs, which is really nice. Now the album is out we are in a place where we are trying to decide which route to take."
But is it difficult to sustain all those things at the same time? Do people get confused about the band's direction? "Yeah, yeah absolutely. . . I was meeting with our PR guys and had a long chat about it. We would like to honour our first commitment which is a heart of worship. We would also like to do something new and contemporary with that, so I think following on from bands like Delirious? and YFriday, who have now ended, that kind of leaves a big void, so yes it would be lovely to try and fill that spot with some great worship songs. 'Such A Time' is a good worship song, it is all about being born for such a time as this, really wanting to start something new in the nation and set people's hearts on fire."
Isn't there a danger in following a worshipful direction that it's difficult to stand out from the crowd? "Yeah, we're definitely of the mindset to do something different, not to fall into that kind of stereotypical sound which you hear quite a lot of." But isn't the difficulty of not doing the stereotypical sound is that people can't connect to what you're doing? "The trick is to try to do something good enough with a lot of integrity, with a lot of heart and lot of passion, and if you get it right it will work and if your get it wrong then 'hey'."
The band have played a wide variety of venues. "Varied, we launched the album in Ely Cathedral, it was an event called Rave In The Nave and straight after that we played an outdoor event and we've played many smaller shows. We're concentrating on PR at the moment so we're not doing so much gigging but that will come fairly soon. We've hooked up with a PR team called Resound Media, who work with Philippa Hanna and a few other guys, so we're now working with them, starting some good projects and getting some leads and meetings, which is great." Do the group want to remain independent or get signed to a label? "We're not sure - we have set up our own mini-label called Working Bird Records to give us a base to work from. The industry's changing so were staying fluid at the moment and seeing what comes."
The members of Empire Nation are spread out between Cambridge and Exeter, does the fact that the group attend different churches make developing worship songs difficult? "It's nice as we're not always on top of each other so when we meet to practice or play its always fun to see each other again. It can be tricky at times because we each have to drive two hours or so to practice. We meet in the middle just outside of Reading but we all think that it's worth it; we have so much fun and our hearts are in it so it comes fairly easy."
Does Ed think it's going to be tricky for the band to break out and create something different? "Yes, but we definitely like a challenge, and the race is on to see who'll get there first!"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.