Interview with James Esper from Espermachine!

Espermachine is the alter-ego of James Esper, an aspiring EBM/Synth-pop producer. He’s most notable for his latest release Dying Life, which he considers to be the epitome of his producing. Whilst Espermachine is a solo-project of his own, he co-operates with Tom Shear from Assemblage 23 from time to time, which can also be sensed in the production of his latest album. He’s also signed to the same label that Tom Shear is maneuvering, which is named 23db Records. I got the opportunity to talk to James about his touring, his first album, where he find the inspiration and creativity, what’s most important for him about electronic music and much more.

What’s the background of Espermachine and what do you think is the most important thing about electronic music?

– Espermachine came from a darkwave electro project I had been doing with a friend on and off throughout the late 90s and early 2000s. The sound was guitar heavy with a traditional drum set and synths. Some of the tunes had a good feel to them, others didn’t, and NONE of them were danceable. So, I abandoned that and started Espermachine. I wanted from the very beginning to make dark EBM music that was danceable, and could be played in clubs. So, one of the most important aspects of my music would be the heavy beats. It also needs a great vocal melody, as I like to hear a good vocalist. Supporting harmonies, sub rhythms and meaningful lyrics are also important. Good music needs the whole package to catch my attention. This “scene” has always been good about that.

Furthermore, I think it’s important for the electronic artists to be able to perform live. I can’t stress this enough. There are way too many internet artists out there who have no experience touring or performing on the stage. When I see a live show, I don’t want to only see a person standing behind a laptop. That’s alright in and of itself, because we all use those. But there needs to more. There needs to be a performance.

From a philosophical standpoint – where do you generally draw the influence for your lyrics? How do you think they’re viewed by those outside the realm of Espermachine?

– I like dark tunes with lyrics that pertain to struggle, hurt and a general feeling of hopelessness. I just don’t relate to the euphoric, uplifting style that some popular artists in this genre tend to portray. I can’t think of one eM song that sings of happiness and comfort. There is nothing wrong with that, it just doesn’t seem like reality to me. Dark themes and broody lyrics somehow make me feel better. Sort of like blues music. I wonder if some listeners might find our tunes a bit silly, but I think most get that it’s just a form of expression that is very common to this genre.

Have you been a part of any other group before Espermachine?

– I was a drummer in a punk rock band for several years before Espermachine. I also have a solid background performing in symphony orchestras, marching bands and the like. The electro darkwave duo that I mentioned above is another musical project that I enjoyed before Espermachine.

You call your latest album Dying Life your best work, how do you think you’ll topple that when you’re releasing anything new? What guidelines have Dying Life given you?

– Well, when I said that I was comparing it to anything we have made available to our listeners in the past; the self release version of the album in 2007 and also, an EP that I’ve had on our merch table for the past couple of years (but unfortunately didn’t get a lot of attention). The track list is different from the original album demo, replacing a weaker tune and adding an extra song. A couple of the songs (such as Out Of Time) have been completely reworked into what is basically a brand new track. There is a remix by Tom Shear on the album. From a production standpoint, nothing we have released has even come close to this recording.

As far as a next release, I just don’t view it as something that needs to top this album. I know that there are listeners who will want that, but I would feel smothered as an artist if believed that way. However I like to think that my songwriting has evolved (the track “Out of Time” would be an example as compared to the other tracks). Several of the songs have already been written, and there are others in the works as we speak. I already have an idea of how the next album will sound. Of course, it will be a 23db release and Tom Shear will be the producer. So I think everything is looking just fine for album #2.

When you’re writing your songs and lyrics, what do you generally do to concentrate on writing them? Do you have any certain setting where you’d prefer to be when writing?

– When I’m putting everything down to tracks, I like to be alone in my home studio with my cats and very little distractions (including facebook). I also like to have a friend (on the phone or otherwise) that I can show my ideas to after I get them down, just for encouragement (and to make sure that I haven’t lost it and starting to suck LOL). That just makes it more fun. Oh, and beer.

How does creativity come for you – does it come at random or are there any fixed positions in which you utilize to draw out your own creative beast?

– I can get an idea for a song anywhere at all. A lot of times I’ll be driving and hear something in my head. I like to walk and hum out tunes as well. And yes, ideas come to me randomly. I don’t have a fixed formula to writing, Sometimes I wish that I did, though, because I’d probably write more songs that way, but I prefer to let things happen in unexpected ways.

Do you consider yourself a part of the “industrial scene”? What do you think of it?

– I’ve performed over 60 shows in more than 30 different industrial clubs/cities so I do consider myself a part of it. What’s funny about this “scene” is that everyone knows everyone else. Most of my friends now are directly involved in this genre and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. There are downfalls too, but that comes with anything good. She can be a cruel mistress.

Are there any songs that you’ve made that sounded good to begin with but that you’ve put on-hold or scrapped before letting it come on a release?

– There is a tune that we’ve been playing live for a couple of years now called “Into Bronze” that I’m fond of. It will be on the forthcoming album. There are others that we’ve been playing that are not on DYING LIFE as well. I usually don’t scrap any songs unless they are bad, and it’s usually obvious when they are. There have been a couple of instances where all I have is a chorus written and it sounds good, but I have no idea how the rest of the song goes yet. I like to keep those around. I cannot count the times I’ve written the next classic in my head and forgot it. But that happens to all of us, right?

Where do you normally record your music, do you have any certain studio you like to record it in? What gear do you normally use when recording?

– I record in my little home studio. It’s a poor man’s studio, nothing fancy. I have an old Mac mini and an Mbox that I use w/ Protools or Ableton when I’m recording vocals. I now use a Rode NT1 microphone w/ a little preamp and a little dbx compression “to tape”. I mix using Alesis Monitor One MK2s.

As far as synth, I don’t own a Virus. I’m a Reason user. It’s simple to use and easy to get your ideas flowing. The sequencer is fantastic. It’s easy to listen to all the hype against any software you might be using. You can go to one thread, and everyone says Logic is the only way to go and everything else is garbage. Go to another, and they are hating on Logic and it’s Cubase, and on and on. The problem with today is there are too many options and not enough talent using the tools that you have. I like to learn new things and have new gear. But until I can afford a decent upgrade this is MY way. There is nothing you cannot do using Reason. If you can’t make it sound good using Reason, your skills probably suck.

How is it to work with Tom Shear from Assemblage 23 – does his expertise influence you or your sound in any way? How did this “co-operation” start to begin with?

– Working with Tom has been fantastic. He’s easy going, understanding and best of all, likes to show others how to do things better. My own production skills have greatly improved since working with Mr. Shear, through his advise and also, because I was able to hear how he took my sounds and improved them production wise. Hearing the way he mixes the songs that I write really helps me to gather a better understanding of how I might like to do mine in the future. Don’t get me wrong though, I still like certain things done the old James Esper way too, and hope to possibly gain more of a balance with that on the next album.

Espermachine has performed with Assemblage 23 a couple of different times in the past.  I gave Tom the original demo album after a show we did with Assemblage in Fayetteville, AR. He mentioned that he liked it, and a couple of years later at a gig in NOLA he offered me a contract with 23db Records.

Some influences are pretty obvious in your music – but have you been influenced by something else than those in the same genre as you?

– Well, lately I’ve been listening to a bit of soul music (such as Percy Sledge, The Drifters) and also the Rolling Stones. A bit of jazz here and there, even a dose of old time country music. But I don’t see how that would affect any songwriting in this genre, other than the fact that I like to keep my ear on new sounds in general. My favorite style of music is still EBM/Synthpop, and I don’t think that will change much.

What would you say separates you from the other acts in the same genre? What makes Espermachine unique?

– Espermachine loves to perform live. That has always been our thing. I love to travel and meet new people, and perform my songs for them. I love to sing. I like to keep it real on the stage, engage our listeners with quality sound and perform the best we can. We are not just another aggro band with distorted vocals over boring trance music.

In general, what influenced the aesthetics of your latest album?

– Natalie Dunn (SinfulGothic) designed our album cover. She let me look through her portfolio and pick something out that she did a few years back, and then she designed our album artwork from it. I originally thought it looked a bit aggro, but now I just think it looks cool, and it seems to fit the sound of several tunes on the album nicely. I especially enjoyed the fact that we were able to get a logo redesign out of it as well.

Are there any new bands or artists out there that you like very much and would sincerely recommend?

– I like a band from upstate New York called Third Realm. Nathan has a few albums now. Check them out!

If you had to choose between your songs, which one of them (or several) are you most proud of?

– My favorite Espermachine track is A Thousand Days (Extreme Sundenfall version). I am also fond of Siberia and the new version of Out Of Time.

So, do you have any plans on releasing anything new this year?

– Well, with supporting Assemblage 23 on the BRUISE tour this fall I don’t foresee anything new this year. I do have hopes to get something out sooner than later.

You’ve also been out touring when I wanted to interview you, so I must ask the obligatory question: how was touring? How were the fans? Was it all good?

– Touring was a blast. It’s not always a smooth ride, but this past “mini tour” went really well. Braydon Potter of Ab5urdum (Kansas City) supported me on the stage and we had a good time. Tim Mizerack of Standard Issue Citizen (Pittsburgh) is scheduled to support me on Assemblage 23’s BRUISE tour. I’s going to be a blast. The fans are always fun. Another great thing I can say about this scene.

How does Espermachine and James work together, what’s the general difference between the two?

– Well, Espermachine is James Esper. But I think if James Esper were to release a side project, it might be more “gothic and broody” and less synthpop/ebm compared to Espermachine. But for now, this is what I like and I want to focus on eM and getting a new album out, so there are no plans to do any side projects in the near future.

What do you like to do when you’re not working with the music?

– I have a furry herd of cats that I take care of. I think most everyone knows I’m a cat enthusiast!

If you had to choose a few shows, which one(s) of the shows have been the best one so far?

– One of my favorites would be a recent gig we did in Denver for an all ages night known as Baby Bat. Everyone was very enthusiastic, and that always makes for a great show. We did a performance a few years back in New Orleans that was a blast. The people there are always fun. Drunk happens!

When we talk about the historical industrial of the late 70’s and early to mid 80’s, which groups did you prefer the most? Have any of them influenced you the least?

– Human League, Depeche Mode and OMD are some of my favorites from that time period. I also like the Cars and Devo and a ton of other new wave rock sounds. New Order, Dead Can Dance and the Cure have influenced me. I would like to say that I listen to Einstürzende Neubauten or Throbbing Gristle for cool points, but I just do not. Although I’d be down for a record listening party if there are any takers. I miss hanging out and checking out bands that I’ve overlooked with friends. Another favorite that comes to mind is Gary Numan.

Why did you decide to make your venture in the Synth-pop/EBM/Industrial sector and not another genre?

– Synthpop/EBM is my favorite sound. I love dark melodies over danceable beats and I always have. No other genre really touches me the same way, and honestly I couldn’t even begin to make a go with any other sound other than this one.

Also, what do you think about the music industry? Have it affected you in any way?

– I have been fortunate enough to sign with a great label that steers me in the right direction and likes to do things the right way. So my experience with it so far has been just fantastic. I used to believe that CDs were dead. I don’t believe that anymore! I know that with the right promotion and a good album people still love to have physical copies. This along with the digital medium really brings to light that there are MORE opportunities out there than ever before to share music with your listeners. It always seemed like one vs the other in the past. I could be wrong, but the battle between digital and physical seems to be over, and a good balance exists now. I don’t do this to try and become a big time artist. I just like to share my music with people- from the stage and through the various music mediums. So from my standpoint, things are a lot more positive than I had been led to believe before doing this.

Would you consider yourself an “all-eater” or an elitist when it comes to music?

– I am a lover of all types of music in general. However, I don’t like every style of ebm in the genre. I think that is more or less due to the fact that this sound is very close to me. I can come across as a bit of a snob at times when I declare that “this is wrong, very very wrong!”. But hey, I just like what I care about to be done well. What can I say?

If we talk about movies and the likes of it, have any movie in particular moved you into an emotional high?

– Bladerunner. Don’t judge.

Do you have any recommendations when it comes to figuring out the history of industrial? Are there any good books or movies about it that you’d like to recommend?

– There is a fantastic documentary that appeared on British television that I really enjoyed called Video Drome Discotheque: British Synth Documentary. Last I checked it was still posted on Youtube.

I also hope that you’re going to shows yourself, or at least have in the past, which ones would you say have been the best artists or bands ever that you’ve seen live?

– One of the best live shows I have ever seen was The Cure in Dallas back in the early 90’s. More recently, Ive enjoyed seeing Imperative Reaction and SITD. That show was very good. I live in Arkansas, so it’s not easy to get to a quality live show very often.

Checked Discogs for a moment and saw that your debutalbum was self-released and not on a label – do you have anything to say about it if you’d compare it to Dying Life?

– The original album demo just doesn’t sound very good. My production skills at the time were weak and the overall mixes are very “muddy”.  However, if you listen to the old recordings, and compare them to the same songs that can be found on the DYING LIFE album, I think you will find that the songs are intact from beginning to end, and that Tom really didn’t change them all that much. I’m afraid that many people think that my producer did some song writing for me, and that is just not the case (other than the remix). He’s an outstanding producer and knows how to take an idea that he is familiar with (and enjoys) and makes it perfectly presentable to the audience that you’re trying to reach, which in this case is the club dance floor. I couldn’t be more happy with the new album, exactly the way it is.

What would you say inspired you musically and creatively to take the step from the first to your latest and making it good? How was the creative process of Dying Life?

– Continuing to play out live and never giving up. Meeting other musicians and talking to them. Meeting Tom Shear and the excitement of working on the album to bring it up to level and making it better. I had a lot of fun revisiting the album, recording everything over from scratch and sending my producer the files. After a couple of months, I’d get a song back to check out. Those were always fun moments! 

Thank you for this interview!

– Thanks Jonas!

Listen to Espermachines latest album Dying Life over here:

You can also find him over here:





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