Nov 2023 25

Isaac Howlett speaks with ReGen about the creative progression behind Empathy Test, from crowdfunding to angering German goths and more.


An InterView with Isaac Howlett of Empathy Test

By Stitch Mayo (StitchM)

Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf have earned a formidable place in modern synthpop over the last decade with Empathy Test. Across several albums and singles, the band has earned critical and commercial acclaim, sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in the electronic pop arena and having music appear in various media networks and platforms, including the BBC, Netflix, MTV, and more. 2020 saw the release of the duo’s third album, Monsters, followed in 2022 by the Time to Be Alive live record, solidifying Empathy Test as a force to be reckoned with in the scene. Now, the band has just completed a headlining tour of North America, with ReGen catching up with frontman and chief songwriter Isaac Howlett to discuss the band’s success and creative progression. Furthermore, we discover the real meaning behind one of the band’s most popular T-shirt slogans, along with some hints of what is yet to come.


First of all, how are you? How has your 2023 been so far?

Howlett: I feel like Empathy Test has already packed so much into this year that I can’t even immediately remember what we’ve done. But the main takeaway is that we are finally rediscovering who we were pre-pandemic and pushing forward again. It feels like the treading water is finally over, although life has gotten a lot more difficult in many ways.

You’ve recently concluded your first North American tour alongside NITE after a bit of a debacle with visas previously – how has it gone and what was the reaction across the pond?

Howlett: We were here in 2019 as main support for Aesthetic Perfection, so this was our first headlining tour. NITE was the main support on all dates. It had been a long time coming, for sure. We began planning this immediately after the tour with AP, and it got cancelled because of Covid, and then because of a late-arriving visa. The reaction was great – plenty of tickets and merch sold and great audiences.



Losing Touch was the breakthrough EP for Empathy Test. How did the success of that release impact your journey as a band, and how has your music evolved since then?

Howlett: ‘Losing Touch’ is still our biggest track to date. It’s been played something like eight-million times on Spotify. It’s appeared in viral videos, a Netflix show, and an NSFW Instagram advert for Dolce & Gabanna. It was even shared on Twitter by none other than Boy George. Career-wise, it has probably accounted for a third of our success. While our music has progressed and our song structures have gotten more complex, it’s solid songwriting that brings success, and we hit the ground running there.

In 2020, you successfully crowdfunded your Monsters album. How has the direct connection with your fans through crowdfunding influenced your creative process and your relationship with your audience?

Howlett: I think it a creates a very strong connection between ourselves and our fans. They’re part of the process. We did the same thing with our twin debut albums in 2017. Our fans have helped us release all of our albums so far. I don’t think it’s affected our creative process, but it’s meant that we’ve never had to be pressured into doing anything we didn’t want to by a record label… because there is none.

Your fanbase has grown steadily over the years. How do you engage with your fans, and what role do they play in the band’s journey?

Howlett: Mostly on social media – Facebook is a big one for us, then obviously Instagram, and Twitter before it got Elon Musked. We’re working on our TikTok. We have a mailing list too, tour diary videos, and as we said before, we involve them in the process of us releasing our music through crowdfunding.



Having shared the stage with iconic acts such as VNV Nation, Covenant, Mesh, and Aesthetic Perfection, and having climbed the ranks at notable German festivals like Wave Gotik Treffen and Amphi, how have these experiences impacted your growth as a band and your future aspirations in the industry?

Howlett: Doing support slots for more well-known bands is a great way to get new fans. The first tour we did with Mesh worked incredibly well for us; festival slots too. You’re basically being provided with a new audience to win over, and if you do a good job, you reap the rewards.

Your live performances are an important aspect of connecting with fans. What do you enjoy most about performing live, and do you have any memorable show experiences you’d like to share?

Howlett: For me, performing live is the purest form of freedom and artistic expression. When you have forged an emotional connection between yourself and the audience and you are feeding off each other’s energy, it’s exhilarating. It’s like you become one with the music and audience.
Denver was one of those moments – there was so much drama surrounding that show, it almost didn’t happen. The fact that it was finally happening, and everyone involved was so thrilled it finally was, really pushed the emotion up to 11.

For those who may not be aware, can you explain the ‘Real Gothics Are Disgusted’ origin story that features on some of your merch?

Howlett: I received a Facebook message request from this crazy guy in Germany, who had just sent me this punctuation-free, all-caps rant, which was mostly incoherent, but basically suggested that artists, particularly goth artists, should not charge money for their gig tickets or merchandise. How dare we call ourselves goths and make money from our art? He ended the message with the phrase you mentioned. Someone suggested that I put it on a shirt, so I did… and charged people money for it. We’ve now sold out of those shirts on this tour.



Looking forward, what’s on the band’s roadmap for the upcoming years? Can you tease us with some of the exciting plans or developments that we can look forward to?

Howlett: Creatively, we are currently at a bit of an impasse between me and the silent producer member, Adam. We both have different ideas about where to take the project next, so I don’t really know when there’ll be anything new. I’m thinking of releasing some solo material in the meantime. But we’ve also got our 10-year anniversary next year, and we’ll be touring for that. I’d like to make a documentary movie for that too.

What is your perspective on the evolution of the darker alternative music scene in the U.K., and how have your experiences within this scene influenced your own musical journey? Are there any standout bands or artists that you’ve crossed paths with or shared stages with that you believe are worth checking out for those interested in this genre?

Howlett: I moved out of the U.K. following Brexit, and I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to scenes. There aren’t any bands I’d directly compare Empathy Test to. At the moment though, if you’re looking for dark new U.K. bands, I’d suggest checking out La Rissa and Auger, from Manchester and Blackpool, respectively.

Speaking of the U.K., very important question… Marmite – love it or hate it?

Howlett: Love it. Wish it was available in Austria.


Empathy Test
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Photography by Secret Playground Photography – provided courtesy of Empathy Test
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