In November 2018 Australian progressive rock band Southern Empire played what many regarded as the gig of the weekend at the HRH Prog Festival in North Wales, in their first ever gig in Europe at the beginning of what became a very successful U.K. and European tour. TPA’s Leo Trimming met with Southern Empire band members Sean Timms (keyboards), Danny Lopresto (vocals and guitar) and Brody Green (drums).
Welcome Sean, Danny and Brody. Can you tell me how the band formed?
Danny: In 2013 Sean called me. We’ve known each other for about 25 years. I’ve worked with Sean before as he has his own studio in Adelaide.
Sean: I’ve known Danny since he had curly hair! (Laughter)
Danny: I used to be like Mufasa from The Lion King!
Are you all from the Adelaide area?
Danny: Yeah, we’re all Adelaide boys.
Sean: I’m from Swindon (in England) originally.
I’d heard that – you’re playing The Victoria in Swindon on this tour.
Sean: It’s really exciting for me to play my hometown. I made sure I got a gig in Swindon because it’s important to come home. I still have relatives there who will hopefully come along.
Going back to your roots. Like Kunta Kinte… just to be clear, Kunte Kinte is a character in the Roots TV programme and not an insult!
Sean: Yeah, we’ll get to the insults later. You’ve only got to have the tape rolling for two minutes and you’ll get some insults from me!
We digress – Danny, carry on.
Danny: Like I said, I’ve known Sean for years and had just done some work in his studio. He’d always said to me “I want to get a band together with you”. About 5 years ago he called me to tell me Unitopia had just disbanded and he wanted to start something new – would I be interested? I jumped at the chance. I wasn’t really doing much at that point. Sean played me some demos of the first album. We played with those and put some stuff down, and we were both happy with what we heard. Then we went about recruiting the other boys and slowly put the band together. We had a guitar player on board before Cam (Blokland), but he ended up being a nightmare to work with so we had to let him go.
Sean: In the words of Arnold Scharzenegger, “We had to let him go”. (in ‘Arnie’ voice)
Danny: Brody and Jez Martin (bassist) had come on board at that point. We had a rehearsal with this guitarist and it just didn’t work. Brody and Jez suggested Cam – he was like a ‘Gun Guitar Player around town’. He was doing the International Guitar Festival in Adelaide at the time. I’d met Cam in 2009 when he was doing a Satriani tribute show. He was only about 20 years old.
So he was quite a ‘catch’?
Danny: He certainly is – he’s a great guy. All the boys are just amazing to work with and great personalities. So we were lucky enough to get this blend and put it all together, and here we are.
It’s a corny question, but what are your influences? I’m noticing you have a Clash t-shirt on, Danny, for instance?
Danny: I like everything. I’ll listen to everything from Sinatra to Meshuggah and Slayer, and everything in between. My favourite band is Kiss. I’m a Kiss freak. I love the David Lee Roth era of Van Halen. I’ll listen to Yes and Genesis. I’ll listen to pop, swing – anything. As long as it’s good I’ll take something from it for me.
How about your influences, Brody?
Brody: I listen to a lot of stuff. My two main things, as contradictory as they seem, are symphonic black metal and musical theatre.
Can you say that again, please?!!
Brody: symphonic black metal – pretty heavy, intense, angry and extreme stuff… and then musical theatre.
Danny: Can you name a couple of bands?
Brody: Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth.
I’ve heard of Cradle of Filth. Who could forget a name like that?!
Brody: There’s that… and then I’ll go home and listen to the Les Miserable soundtrack, which I love.
That’s a potent mixture.
Sean: Brody’s actually performed in musicals.
Brody: I’ve done a lot of musical theatre in the past. I think for me I’m really drawn to a lot of the more epic sounding stuff. A lot of music that incorporates orchestral and symphonic elements. So I guess especially with prog one of the things that really drew me in was hearing all the orchestral parts with really interesting drumming and guitars. The vocals are very layered like musical theatre. My roots are more theatre and metal.
You can hear elements of that in Southern Empire. Sean, I know your background was in Unitopia. Most of our readers will know that, but this band has a heavier edge to it, doesn’t it?
Sean: It does. The last thing I wanted people thinking was that Southern Empire was just Unitopia with a different singer. So I set about treating the album recording and the personnel and the way the whole thing sounded in a different way. It was quite a deliberate thing to not only have a harder edge but also to have younger ideas coming through. I’m not into symphonic black metal personally but, hey, if Brody wants to inject some of that into it…
Danny: You can take something from it.
Sean: That’s exactly right. Brody has free rein to make those sorts of suggestions, as does everybody else in the band.
Brody, you co-wrote Cries for the Lonely. The drums are great. It’s an awesome track.
Brody: Thank you.
A lot of people will focus on your Unitopia origins, Sean, but it’s good that you’re not trying to be ‘Son of Unitopia’. You’ve gone in quite a different direction to Unitopia.
Sean: If people want to hear Unitopia I’d recommend they listen to Mark Trueack’s new band United Progressive Fraternity – it’s good stuff.
You share a song with U.P.F., don’t you?
Sean: We share a couple – Travelling Man and…
Danny: How Long
[Travelling Man is a U.P.F. song which has the same roots as Crossroads by Southern Empire. How Long is a Southern Empire song which has the same roots as Intersection by U.P.F.]
Sean: What happened was there was a lot of those songs were written for the next Unitopia album. When we disbanded there were all these songs and Mark said did I mind if he recorded them? I said it was fine, but asked him to make sure he changed them up a bit. Due to time constraints, he basically had to take the demos and recreate them. His guitarist and producer, Matt Williams, recreated them and that’s what became the first U.P.F. album. Because they were demos I was never 100% happy with them. For me they were incomplete as pieces and arrangements. So what you hear on the Southern Empire album for How Long and Crossroads are for me more complete versions. There are crazy arse time signatures and Brody and Cam came up with all sorts of things.
Those U.P.F and Southern Empire songs are not identical at all. You’ve filled them out. For me they have much more of an expansive feel.
Sean: I guess they’ve taken on the form I wanted them to take on, and more because of the input of the rest of the guys.
Perhaps we’ll move on from Unitopia as you must get tired of Unitopia questions.
Sean: It doesn’t worry me at all. I’m proud of the stuff Mark and I did, and I’ve heard some of the new U.P.F album, and it’s extremely good. But I’m even more proud of this stuff with these guys in Southern Empire.
This Civilisation album has a lot of people talking about it as one of THE Prog Albums of 2018. I think it’s right up there, to be honest – it’s outstanding. I’ve been listening to it a lot in preparation for this interview and it bears repeated listens as you start to hear more. Initially, I underestimated Cries for the Lonely but I listened again on the epic journey up here and thought “Bloody Hell, this is really good…”, but I’ll stop gushing like a fan-boy now.
Sean: Don’t stop, we like it! (Laughter)
Where did you get the name Southern Empire?
Danny: I just came up with that. It’s really weird because we toured the States last year and everyone was going on about the ‘White Power’ thing and I was thinking ‘WOW! That’s so NOT where I was coming from?’!!
Jeez!! White Power connotations?!!
Danny: Yeah, it was really heavy. It was like… FUCK, you know?!
Yeah, I didn’t have you down as the White Power KKK Band!
Danny: Yeah, the name is actually because we’re from South Australia.
Is it to do with the stars of the Southern Cross?
Sean: Yeah, Southern Cross, Southern Empire.
Danny: We’re from the South of Australia and we’re sort of trying to build an Empire, so I just put it together.
Sean: Danny had about 100 names on his iPhone that he’d jotted down because I’d asked everyone to come up with five names and we’ll pick the best one. I was just scrolling down, saw it and said “That’s it, that’s the one!”
You just knew?
Danny: That’s where I was coming from with it all – where we’re from and what we’re trying to do.
You’re obviously proud to be from South Australia. I’m from Devon and have absolutely no idea what the progressive rock scene is like in Australia.
Danny: It’s virtually absolutely non-existent.
Danny: There’s a few Prog Metal bands.
Sean: It’s mainly Prog Metal.
Danny: Toehider! (Laughing) There’s also Karnivool.
Brody: The Australian Prog sound is very different to the European Prog sound. It’s more dirty, bluesy rock with the different time signatures and atmospheric approach as opposed to the epic classical and jazz influence in a lot of European Prog. Australian stuff is more based around a bluesy folk influence…
Danny: AC/DC meets Yes!
Brody: It’s not longer, grungy songs with keyboards. It’s more two guitars and they will have a lot of delay on it. They’ll write 6 or 7-minute songs with weird, different time signatures. That’s our kind of Progressive which is very different to what I hear with European Progressive rock bands – they’re two completely different sounds.
Danny: Our sound in Southern Empire is the combination of the two – we’ve got the Australian sound, and we’ve got the European sound with some of the American sound like Dream Theater. You can’t help but have some of that imprinted in your brain after years and years of listening to that stuff. Of course, it’s going to come out somehow, influencing your music.
What’s your profile as a band within Australia?
Sean: It’s near Zero. We’ve never done a gig outside of South Australia. The last time we did a gig in our town was last April as support for a rock band.
So you’ve got more of a profile over here?
Sean: Oh Yeah, much, much more. No-one knows who we are over there.
Sean: It is strange.
That must be a bit galling for you after a while?
Sean: I kind of think it’s a bit cool… it’s like ‘we’re BIG in Japan’!
Danny: But Adelaide’s behind us. They know us in Adelaide being Adelaide boys, and we do other projects. Brody and I have worked together in a covers band.
Sean: He plays it down but they do two or three nights a week and they play every week, and they get anywhere between 200 to 600 people to their gigs.
That’s what pays the ‘bread and butter’.
Danny: That’s our ‘day job’.
A lot of Prog musicians are like that. You know Peter Jones from Tiger Moth Tales?
Sean: Yeah – he’s amazing!
Well, he plays covers in clubs and small venues in Northern England a lot, but now he’s also playing keyboards, the saxophone and singing vocals for Camel – it’s a dream come true.
Sean: Yeah, I know, that’s very cool. Good on him.
But he never forgets his roots and never looks down on it – that’s what pays the bills.
Danny: Yeah, I’m quite happy to sing Jessie’s Girl – it doesn’t bother me.
Did you have a background in other bands previously, Danny?
Danny: I’ve just had the covers band, going for nearly 32 years now.
You don’t look that old, to be honest!
Sean: He was a very wee lad when he started!
Danny: I do that band with my brother and Brody. Just a 3-piece covers band. We play three gigs a week, and we’ve been consistently doing that for years. We just played a cruise ship a couple of weeks ago with Foreigner.
You haven’t done anything like ‘Cruise to the Edge’ or similar yet?
Sean: We haven’t been invited yet.
I don’t think it will be long – you should be playing something like that.
Sean: I think we’re on people’s radars now which is just what I wanted this album to achieve. The first album was to just get it out and say ‘Look, we’re here’, but I wasn’t expecting to set the world on fire with it.
It had a good reception though?
Sean: Yeah it had a very good reception but the second album made people think ‘OK, it’s not a flash in the pan, they’re here for a while. They’re producing music and touring’. So I think people are hopping on board and discovering the first album as a result of Civilisation as well, which is great. I want the band to be successful not for anything I’ve done or I’m doing but for these guys in the band.
Danny: …and a little bit for you!
Sean: A little bit for me, but they deserve it because they’re so incredibly talented and hard working. Brody and Danny toured with me last year to the U.S in May, and we did a band called ‘Unit DB’, which was a bit of a conglomeration of Unitopia and Southern Empire with Mark Trueack.
Danny: …and Steve Unruh on violin.
Sean: Cam has never been overseas in his life and Jez and Brody have never toured overseas doing their own music. No-one apart from myself had been to Britain and Europe to tour.
Danny: It’s a beautiful place.
Sean: Brody’s parents are English.
Where are they from?
Brody: My Dad’s from Telford and Mum’s from Luton.
Sean: Jez came over when he was young but that’s it.
So it’s like a voyage of discovery and also like a holiday for you?
Sean: Yeah, absolutely.
Can you tell us about your forthcoming tour.
Sean: HRH Prog will be the opening gig. Then we go to Germany, Belgium and the Boederij in Zoetermeer, Holland.
That’s a classic Prog venue.
Sean: After this gig we’re joined in Germany by Seven Steps to the Green Door and Damanek. Our sax player for this tour (James Capatch) is also playing with Damanek.
Not Marek Arnold?
Sean: Marek cant make the British leg of the tour so Jamie’s going to play in Europe as well. Marek will get up to play some solos and kind of share it in Germany. In the U.K. we play Swindon, Southampton, Robin 2 in Bilston and the Boston Music Room in London. We finish with a C.R.S. gig in Maltby on December 1st and fly home on December 3rd.
You’re going to be knackered!
Sean: We are going to knackered, but a good knackered – but it will be tight for time.
How did you meet up with Guy Manning of Damanek and join them, Sean?
Sean: Kind of through U.P.F. We met in 2010 when Unitopia toured and did Summer’s End and a short U.K./European tour. I met Guy then and we’d remained Facebook friends in contact. When Mark asked Guy to be part of U.P.F.’s first album, and Guy knew he’d be performing these pieces on keyboards that I’d written for Unitopia he was skyping me saying ‘How do you play this bit?’ and ‘What advice can you give me?’ – stuff like that… he kept saying ‘I’m not a keyboard player, I’m not a keyboard player!’
I remember him saying that jokingly when playing with U.P.F. at Summer’s End in 2014!
Sean: So we’d sort of chat on Skype a bit. After the U.P.F. album came out Guy had written a whole pile of songs that Mark did not feel were suitable for the next U.P.F. album so he had all these songs lying around. He asked Dan Mash and Marek Arnold and they became Damanek. He needed someone to add keys and help mix and produce so he asked me.
I saw Damanek play Summer’s End a couple of years ago – their debut performance, I think?
Sean: Their ONLY performance so far! (Laughing)
A unique experience then!
Sean: I flew in from Australia. We rehearsed for a day and then we did the performance.
Southern Empire’s first album was largely written by Sean, and the second album has more jointly written songs. So what’s the writing process in the band?
Sean: I guess I come up with the initial ideas, apart from Goliath’s Moon which Cam came up with the initial idea and then I took it and ran with it. Then Cam took it away and worked on it some more. Then with the guys in the studio we workshopped things together. For Cries for the Lonely I had a couple of minutes of something that I played Brody and Brody goes ‘I’ve got lots of ideas’. Then he’d take it home, do some stuff and send it to me. Then he’d come in and sit with me and say ‘This is kind of what I was thinking’. Then I’d kind of programme it up and fill it out and do my thing. Then Cam would go ‘I’ve got this really cool thing in 5/4 that you’ve got no idea what the time signature is’, and you kind of… (Sean makes a bemused noise)
Civilisation feels more like an organic collaborative kind of album. The first one is fine, but it does sound like your album Sean with the other guys appearing on it, whereas Civilisation feels like a proper ‘Southern Empire album’. Is that how it feels to you?
Brody: I know Cam, Jez and I definitely come from a more metal background – we’ve all played in metal bands before and dome a lot heavier stuff so I guess there’s a lot more of that influence brought in to the songs for the second album. The first album was obviously Sean’s stuff and we came in and played it with our kind of flair, but we were still trying to be more appropriate for the sound Sean had written. With the second album we thought we’ve got more of a blank slate here so it’s had more of our metal influence from an earlier point.
I’m interested to know why you’ve got a quote from President Richard Nixon on Goliath’s Moon. Whose idea was that?
(The quote is from Nixon’s famous phone call to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin after they landed on the moon in 1969.)
Sean: I just searched for a Moon quote! I also wanted to start with a song about the Moon that was in the public domain so that’s why there’s a bit of By the Light of the Silvery Moon. It all had that Moon connection. I guess you’d have to ask Cam about what he feels the lyrics of that song means. For me it’s about something that you can’t quite get but wish you could – that eternal longing for something. It might be for a girl, or fame and fortune, or just a nice house. It could be a longing for anything – it could be sanity.
I hope you don’t mind me touching on this subject but I read in the sleeve notes, Sean, about your ‘Faith in Jesus’. The song Innocence and Fortune seems to have quite clear references to a redemption experience. How does faith inspire your lyrics?
Sean: I have no problem talking about my faith. Because I’m a Christian a lot of the lyrics come out of that, but I don’t want to be ‘preachy’ at all.
That’s not how it comes across. You’re not overt about it.
Sean: I think you can be clever about it. I think you can be poetic. I think everyone, whether you have a similar faith to mine or you don’t, everyone would say they believed redemption is possible. They believe in things like Hope and Sacrifice. Whether you believe in a supreme being or not, there’s something out there that’s bigger than us, even if you call it ‘The Universe’. So a lot of those ideas and lyrics just come out naturally. They’re just a natural progression of what I believe.
If it means something to you it will come out in your music.
Danny: I think it’s what you take from it too. Even when I’m singing these songs I don’t look at it that way, interpreting Sean’s lyrics. I just look at it as something positive out of life. I think everyone has a belief in something. Even if you’re an atheist you believe in that, don’t you?
Quite often an artist will create something, and the person receiving that art will take their own thing from it even if that wasn’t the artist’s original intention. The best art expresses itself in such a way that you can take what you can from it.
Danny: That’s right.
If the art is too didactic or too prescriptive and obvious it becomes a ‘sermon’ or a ‘lecture’ which does not touch you emotionally.
Sean: I find lyrics like that, whether they’re sermonising or not, I find that lyrics that are too obvious just grate on me. I just try and be a little more obtuse with my lyrics so they’re more open to meaning and interpretation. With Ghost Written…
Danny: Ghost Written was the working title of Innocence and Fortune.
Thanks. That’s interesting – I didn’t know that.
Sean: Ghost Written was a song which originally had lyrics by Steve Unruh. I wrote the music ages ago for a Samurai of Prog album and Steve wrote the words. I just took the music and made it into something else entirely. The lyrics came about from my love of Doctor Who.
Sean: If you’re a Doctor Who fan and listen to the lyrics you might be able to pick which episodes it’s based on.
We have a TPA colleague who is a ‘Whovian’ – he denies it, but he’s a massive Whovian so I must mention that to him – he’ll like that… and would probably be able to work out the episodes!
Sean: A lot of Doctor Who is about Redemption and Hope.
… and Resurrection and Rebirth.
Sean: It has very positive messages, so I’m not surprised you took that sense of redemption from the song.
Just a couple of questions left – thanks for the time. There’s a lot of Prog bands out there. What do you think stands out about Southern Empire? Why should people listen to your band?
Danny: Without meaning this with any sense of arrogance from what I’ve heard I believe we offer something different – there’s more of a melting pot in our music. You’ve obviously heard Crossroads – so one minute we’re rocking out, next minute we’re doing some jazz thing, then it goes Latin and then it goes to theatre, and so on.
Right across the spectrum.
Danny: Yeah – we ALL love everything, any genre of music, and we’ll take something from it and throw it into the song.
I was interested to hear about your different musical backgrounds, and it shows when you travel across that spectrum. Whatever the style of music you play you’ve got the chops. I hear some bands trying to diversify and they’re not comfortable with it, whereas it sounds like Southern Empire are comfortable because you’ve played it with the breadth of experience and backgrounds.
Brody: We’re all professional musicians and we’ve all had to do Jazz gigs, Funk gigs, and musical theatre productions and rock bands. We’ve all done different things so we know all about different styles. So I think we can bring in things from outside the normal ‘Prog Rock’ sound because we can authentically do Jazz, Latin or Funk.
That comes across.
Danny: I think once you hear us you know it’s us. We definitely have our own sound and… voice. I’ve noticed in many Prog bands the vocals are really ‘clean’, and I’m not criticising in any way. My vocals are a bit ‘dirtier’, so as soon as they hear us they just know. We’re a bit more unique in that sense.
Definitely. What are your future plans? Is there a third album on the way?
Sean: Yeah – we’ve already got a concept and a title. We’ll start writing that when we get back. Hopefully that will be out in 2020.
Last question – which of all your songs would you choose to show someone unfamiliar with the band what you were all about?
Danny: For me it would be Cries for the Lonely.
Sean: I would choose Crossroads.
Brody: I would probably also say Cries for the Lonely as we were all throwing ideas into the recording process – everyone in the band has had a say in the building of that song.
They’re both excellent songs. Thank you for the interview. It’s been a real pleasure.
Good luck on the tour and the next album.