Thanks to record labels like Norton and Crypt, the definition of garage rock has, for many people, come to mean overdriven guitars, fiercely distorted vocals and a manic sensibility that aligns the genre closer with the punk rock that followed its original wave than with the pop and R&B that preceded it.
While this definition is far from inaccurate, it’s also a narrow one, only taking in the facets of garage rock that are most likely to appeal to today’s punk-minded music fans; just because Crypt’s Back from the Grave comp kicks ass doesn’t mean there’s not a whole lot of goodness to be found in Rhino’s Nuggets series.
“It’s R&B,” says Empyres bassist Jeff Orlando when asked about where his band fits in the garage-rock spectrum. “As far as I’m concerned, if you wanna call us a garage band, that’s fine, but we’re a garage band with a great rhythm section, and we’ve got a dynamic frontman who can sing and play and do splits.”
Although the band claims former members of Orlando glam-rockers Fantasie and garage-punk legends the Hate Bombs, the Empyres is an outfit focused on the soulful and melodic end of the garage sound.
“It’s something we believe in, first and foremost,” says Orlando. “We love this music. Secondly, we’re sort of adding something to the music scene by introducing dance music. There are few bands in town you can dance to, outside of the jam bands where you sort of drunkenly sway along to their songs. We can get people on a dance floor and do the Watusi and the Twist and whatnot.”
“[The ’60s] was just such a great time for music; it was just fun,” says vocalist-guitarist Dave Ewing, who brings his years of experience in the Hate Bombs and the Four Shames to the Empyres’ table. “I like punk rock, but you listen to the Buzzcocks playing a Pretty Things song, or the Undertones and they’re playing a Chocolate Watchband song … it’s not that big of a step. Punk was less than 10 years after the ’60s garage stuff and a lot of those [punks] were just the younger brothers of the guys that did the garage stuff in the ’60s.”
The Empyres may not deliver the sort of face-melting attack that Ewing’s previous bands were known for, but they’re not short on swagger. That “great rhythm section” of Orlando and drummer Aaron Zacktan (ex-Fantasie) locks in a tight and swinging groove that belies the myth that garage rock is necessarily sloppy, stupid or out of control.
And Ewing’s stage presence – part manic true-believer, part ambassador of quality – provides a powerful accelerant to their crowd-pleasing live shows.
“Even we call ourselves a garage band, but we don’t rely on just feedback and fuzz and mayhem to create a presence,” says Orlando. “We rely on the fundamentals of R&B, a little funk here and there, some punk attitude and some pop songcraft to get people involved in what we’re doing.”