April 11, 2006

Up the Empire ups the ante

You’ve already heard of Up the Empire. It’s just been a while since you’ve seen them.Half of this New York City noise-pop quartet is Ben Lord and Chris Renn, two chums who met at duPont Manual High School. After graduation they formed the Kilowatthours and released two albums for ambient-rock label Temporary Residence. Two new members left, so Lord and Renn found new ones, and changed the name.“I’d have to say that I think it comes from, and is about, change of power,” Lord says of the band’s name. “It’s most often seen as a means of overthrowing something that’s not going right.”What is going right is the buzz, the shows and the energy Up the Empire has been generating since Renn, 28, relocated to New York from Louisville in 2003. “I had to move, otherwise they would have fired me,” Renn said. “It’s good though. I needed a change.”New York is not exactly foreign territory. Lord attended college there and stayed after graduation. The other two members, Doug Keith and Dan Hewins, have lived there for years.Lord, now 27, said that if living in New York affects the band’s songwriting, it does so in ways they don’t realize.“People are the same everywhere. You can find the exact same types of stories in Louisville that you can find in New York. We just get a lot more of them,” he said.“Our world is pretty small here. Everyone finds their own small town within the big city. You see the same people every day; you go to a lot of the same bars all the time. Because of that, your mentality doesn’t change all that much,” he said. “You just have way more options at your disposal at any given time. I’m able to take in so much more than I feel like I could anywhere else on a very regular basis. The number of bands going on at any given time is astounding.”Which makes playing live a different animal. Audiences in New York are hungrier, Renn said. “Playing here is odd because people just want everything now.”“It’s true,” Lord says. “Daily, you’re facing the fact that you’re not the only show pony in town. You’re not even one of the 10 show ponies in town. You’re a brown horse in the middle of the damn magical show-pony stables, and you’ve got to find a way to grab people’s attention.”Sounds like a homecoming gig might be in order: Up the Empire plays tonight at Uncle Pleasant’s, as part of a Midwest and East Coast tour in support of the EP. The Slow Break and The Photographic round out the bill. What else are you gonna do on a Wednesday night?Up the Empire’s first proper recording under the new name is The Seaside EP, a four-song opening salvo released in February that churns and burns around the centerpiece “Stars at Noon.”“The goal is for the music to be honest. That’s all,” Renn said.Seaside was recorded by Dean Baltulonis (The Explosion, Paint It Black) and Jay Pellicci (Deerhoof). The spooky opener, “Careful What You Say,” the band members did themselves. Using different producers for the EP was part of an experiment, Lord says.“I really wanted to find the right person for the right song, try to create some different kind of magic each time,” he said. “In the end, it hampered the process for us, though. Really slowed us down.”A possible fall release is scheduled for Up the Empire’s first full-length, Light Rides the Super Major, which the band has been recording in New York. “The songs are, in one word, thick!” Lord said. “We’re just really trying to bridge that sonic gap between your heavier bands, like Queens of the Stone Age and Sonic Youth, with more pop-driven melodies. It’s really something akin to Dinosaur Jr. with less solos and more singing.”Asked where the title comes from, Lord stays mum. “It’s a secret.”Afro-centrix, an Atlanta-based reggae band with some pretty legit chops, have been hanging at Gerstle’s the last couple Sundays. The band’s last Louisville stand (for awhile, at least) is this Sunday. Sounds like a phenomenally pagan way to spend Easter. —Stephen George Contact the writers at leobeat@leoweekly.com and sgeorge@leoweekly.com, respectively