Empathy Test: When Science Fiction Parallels Reality
Ahead of Empathy Test’s upcoming tour, SLUG had the opportunity to chat with frontman Isaac Howlett about global differences in concert culture, the future of AI in the music industry and the best science fiction cult classics. The band will be playing at The DLC at Quarters Arcade Bar on Thursday, Oct. 26 with locals IMPXVIII and their touring support NITE from Dallas, Texas.
The U.K.-based band has finally embarked on a tour to promote their album Monsters. The title track “Monsters” itself is about anxiety, and it’s a word that Howlett and his girlfriend used to describe the feelings that anxiety can provoke. The album’s dark, claustrophobic feel gave it great resonance during its pandemic release, but Monsters does not leave you stranded, closing on an uplifting note with the track “Love Moves.” Though the album was released in 2020, due to the pandemic and Visa backlogs in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the band can now properly promote their release. I’m grateful they are making a stop here in Salt Lake City.
Howlett says that the music he creates is like an “empathy test,” using music, technology and electronic instruments alongside personal, powerful lyrics designed to provoke emotion.
Acoustic singer-songwriter Howlett teamed up with composer and producer Adam Relf to produce dance music, and after trial and error and many scrapped tracks, synthesizers proved to be the missing link. Empathy Test was then birthed in 2013. Isaac writes emotional and catchy pop songs, and Relf—who likes to do his work behind the scenes—writes darker dance music in the vein of The Prodigy. The synthesizer effectively blended the two styles, allowing the band to forge a career. The band members each do their own thing, so Howlett feels that there is currently no type of music that is similar to Empathy Test. Howlett says that the music he creates is like an “empathy test,” using music, technology and electronic instruments alongside personal, powerful lyrics designed to provoke emotion. It is deeper than just a cool name—it’s a style of music.
Both Howlett and Relf love science fiction, which is not surprising given that classic ’80s movies such as The Terminator and Aliens had amazing electronic soundtracks. ’80s sci-fi fans will recognize that the band’s name comes from the movie Bladerunner, in which synthetic humans are tested to prove they are human using empathetic responses. Howlett feels that the film is one of the best movies ever made because it questions what really makes us human and tracks the growth of artificial intelligence, which is even more of a topical question today.
When it comes to AI in the music industry, Howlett is very wary. He feels that we are becoming too reliant on technology, which is cutting humans off from each other and the world. He explains that there is a proliferation of shallow communication that is eroding “real” communication and causing major psychological problems. On a basic level, Howlett says, today’s technology provokes caution, and he worries for humankind. On a larger, more important level, he believes that we as human beings should remain in control of AI technology. It should not be used only by a small percentage of society to control everyone else and further concentrate wealth while the majority population becomes poorer.
To Howlett, anything can be used for either good or evil. When it comes to art, it is important that these things work for us; we do not work for them. These types of technology have both the power to change our lives dramatically and to make the world a better place. For instance, in the fictional utopia of Star Trek where poverty and hunger have been eradicated, technology is effectively utilized to create food from nothing. The characters travel around the universe with clean, renewable energy; therefore, people fight less and work toward the greater good. A world like that may be possible, but not if we let ourselves become part of the machine.
On a basic level, Howlett says, today’s technology provokes caution, and he worries for humankind. He believes that we as human beings should remain in control of AI technology.
The negativity around creativity with AI is the same rhetoric that appeared when synthesizers first became popular in music creation. Many thought that the electronically-created sounds that mimic a violin, drums or any other instrument would replace the talent and skill of actual musicians. Recording technology has evolved to the point where renting studio time to record an entire album is no longer necessary, and more talent can be shared. Although Howlett still finds himself reminiscing about the days of yore, reflecting on a time when the creative process entailed gathering musicians at the same location and composing music note by note, innovation embraces changing social norms. Luckily, we have already embraced some of the technology to improve what we have while not losing the tools that are already in place. Howlett feels that AI will change things, but most people will still want human connection.
Climate change is another common concern these days. Howlett understands that he is not a scientist, but realizes that we may have gone past the point of no return when it comes to living on Earth. He also understands how powerful greed can be when it comes to changing the way things are done. Colonization on Mars seems ludicrous to him, as he feels we live on a lovely planet with everything we need—we just need to look after it better. Howlett admits, though, that creating a backup plan for humanity may be the only option for survival, if it were ever necessary for humans to become extraterrestrial. The chosen pioneers to develop Mars could give us a nice head start. Unfortunately, for Howlett, this still leaves the contemplation and fear that those at the top of social structures will consume all the resources for themselves. These people in power could become producers of canned air, akin to those in another science fiction cult classic Total Recall.
The band always wants to give the best possible performance they can, and there have never been any complaints about Empathy Test’s level of talent, regardless of whether the venue is a stadium or a shed.
On the subject of touring, Howlett notes that concert culture is very different here in America. Artists are frequently surprised when they first visit the US, and the experience was no different for Empathy Test. They played rough and ready because they never knew what to expect at every venue, though each was completely different. Some were essentially a shed, and some were enormous concert halls like those Germany where the process of organizing crowds is very polished and nearly perfected. The friendliness and open arms Howlett found in North America left him genuinely surprised and touched, and he is looking forward to coming back. The band always wants to give the best possible performance they can for the venue and the budget they have, and to this point there have never been any complaints about Empathy Test’s level of talent, regardless of whether the venue is a stadium or a shed.
Be sure to catch Empathy Test, Nite and IMPXVIII at The DLC at Quarters this Thursday, Oct. 26, for a close and personal experience with the band. Keep up with their music at empathytest.com.
Read more interviews with national touring acts:
From Doom Metal to Gothic Folk: An Interview with The Keening
Apocalyptic Sound: An Interview with Clan of Xymox’s Ronny Moorings