By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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By Brian Palmer
Emperors of Japan weren't the first band to give away their music for free on the Internet, but they were definitely ahead of the curve when they released Your Freak Majesty as a free download on emperorsofjapan.com in 2006, long before big-name bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails followed suit.
"I think it's safe to say that they got the idea from us," singer/bassist Tony Poer deadpans. "We realized that there's people out there that are not gonna pay money for your album, but they might like your music. If you have MySpace, you probably get e-mails or comments (from bands) like, 'Oh, our album's up on iTunes.' Unless it's a band that you really know and really like, who gives a fuck? There's 10 billion bands that are trying to hawk their shit, and as much as I like supporting bands, I'm not going to just buy the iTunes album of some band I've never heard of."
Less than three years after their free debut, Emperors of Japan are already preparing to release their third album, Ice Queen, the follow-up to last year's Activator. That's a pretty brisk pace for a national act, let alone an unsigned local band. It probably doesn't hurt that guitarist Matt Townsend has a recording studio in his Chandler home, allowing the band to experiment and learn on the fly without racking up bills.
"It's a lot of trial and error," Poer says. "We've done a lot of stuff at other studios where we see people who know what they're doing, and we just try to copy as much of that, with the microphone placement and setup and stuff. But we still fucked up quite a bit. We recorded a whole track of an album with the wrong microphones on. We had a microphone that was off in the corner. We were like, 'Why does that sound so distant?' We just kept cranking the amp up."
"In a real studio, that would've cost us $500," says drummer Masa Schmalle, laughing.
Having a recording studio at your disposal has a downside. Most bands that have played together for several years, as Emperors of Japan have, tend to look back on their early days and wince. But few bands have those early days preserved on CD — and online — for posterity.
"It's weird to go back and listen to that stuff," Poer says. "I don't think we would've ever recorded probably half of (Your Freak Majesty) had we not had the tools to do it for free. We didn't really have a filter on ourselves. We just recorded the 10 songs that we had."
The band's learning curve has been steep, as evidenced by the polished sound of Ice Queen. It's Emperors of Japan's tightest, most organic album to date and, probably not coincidentally, the first on which the three members largely stuck to one instrument each — Poer on bass, Townsend on guitar, and Schmalle on drums. The atmospheric keyboards that were all over the band's first two albums are mostly relegated to just two songs on Ice Queen. The band has honed a sound that is ambitious and progressive — arty even — without coming off as pretentious. Many of the songs flow seamlessly together, but Poer stops short of calling it a concept album.
"I don't know that there's a concept, but we tried to make the whole thing really cohesive," Poer says. "I think a lot of the themes, lyrically, are pretty similar, but we didn't set out ahead of time to, say, make an album about robots or something like that . . . A lot of it is kind of, I don't want to say anti-government, but its anti- the government that ended in 2008."
Two songs that are sure to raise eyebrows are the provocatively titled "Faggot — A" and "Faggot — B," which were inspired by the ongoing battle over gay marriage.
"It's definitely a pro-gay-rights song," Poer says. "We seriously considered changing the title to something a little less abrasive. In fact, for a while I was calling it 'Say Yes to Hate,' which was what people had spray-painted all over the Prop 101 signs last fall. Anyway, the original thought was to give it a super-aggressive song title to get people's attention. But, of course, the flip side is that it could be misinterpreted as an anti-gay song. Masa and Matt convinced me to keep the original title. We figure that it's art, and it's designed to be provocative, and if somebody thinks it's gay bashing, well, then I guess the song is there to open their eyes."
The band balances serious messages with a sense of humor. The most straightforward, up-tempo rocker on Ice Queen is titled "I Want to Run Into a Knife 10,000 Times a Second Every Time You Say Goodbye," which Poer says is in reference to Townsend's affinity for melodramatic British troubadour Morrissey. And in an obvious nod to the late, great Wu-Tang Clan MC Ol' Dirty Bastard, the album's closing instrumental is titled "Baby, I Like it Raw."
Emperors of Japan plan to play Ice Queen in its entirety at this weekend's release show, and the band plans to stay busy promoting the album for the rest of the year. But Poer also has another noteworthy project on his plate: starting a record label with TheShizz.org founder Donald Martinez. It's an idea that has been kicked around for a while on The Shizz's message boards, a popular online gathering spot for a certain segment of the Phoenix rock scene. Poer hopes to make the label a reality, both as a way to boost exposure for the scene and further unify it.