Imperial Triumphant
Photo credit: Alex Kraus

Recently released “Alphaville” became not just one of the best records of 2020. But probably the best record of Imperial Triumphant, becoming the point of incredible growth for the band.

Metal Addicts, talks to the members of Imperial Triumphant – Zach Ezrin and Steve Blanco, about getting to a major label and combinability of musical elements, working with Trey Spruance and future plans, about writing “Alphaville” and collaborative side of the record.

Were there any records in 2020 that specifically caught your attention ?

Steve: Mr.Bungle-record!

Zach: John Zorn has a nice record!…What else I really enjoyed ?…

Steve: I haven’t been listening too much music this past year.

Zach: I don’t listen too much new stuff, really.

You’ve always been fans of many styles of music. And that’s what your music represents – whether this is your love to jazz or black-metallic tonalities. How much has the vision of the music you play and you want to play been changing over the years and records of yours ?

Zach: I think, that it just become more and more our own…sound. Every record we made with the same lineup for about five\six years now. So, we really got to get tight as trio. Every record that comes out since this trip started has been kind of more solid, more unique sonic landscape in the metal world. And it’s more of our personalities shining through.

Steve, the question for you: how it felt like when you and Kenny joined Zach and what was the moment of your unification within the band ?

Steve: It was right away! As soon as we started playing together, I knew…It was amazing, actually! It was right in the universe. We just started playing music together. It started sounding natural. And evolved the way it is.

I remember you noticed once that the writing process in Imperial Triumphant changed from song to song. What helps you unite all these different elements presented in your music, dealing with different set of rules each time ?

Steve: I think, all three of us see a lot of the same things in the world. Obviously, Zach, he started the band. And if you’d go the way back – it’s still very connected to what he was originally creating. It just kind of evolved with all three of us. Because, we’re so like minded in many aspects of this existence. And it’s just makes sense for us to continue writing about the world, the way we see, trying to look around at what’s going on. And then write about that.

Zach: I also think that even if one person writes 90% of a song, there’s still the trio-performance aspect that makes it an Imperial Triumphant song. Even if one member of the band wrote all the music, another member wrote the lyrics. There’s always three of us putting out personalities, style and techniques in the piece. No matter what writing structure we use, the methods, we always put through the same, Imperial Triumphant filter.

Each song on “Alphaville” refers to a different story of a different characters rather than the whole conceptual work. What unites these characters in the universe you’re creating ?

Steve: That kind of what I was talking about before! Even if…let’s say Zach sends the lyrics to the band. We take that and we turn it into a song. And let’s say, one of us, I send the lyrics to the band. Then we take that and turn it into a song. Even we didn’t set up to make a concept album…Cause, we didn’t actually set up to make a concept album with “Alphaville” or “Vile Luxury”. But because, we’re with each other in life, it’s kind of turns into a concept album. We sort of sending each other the lyrics on different sh*t. Even though, there are different angels of it. Zach, would you agree ?

Zach: Absolutely. There’s no like…Primarily we sing about New York City. But it’s so much bigger and deeper than that. That this spectrum of concepts we can pull on is still a very vast. And so, it’s kind of like: Imperial Triumphant taking their ideas and putting them through the machine and what comes out is music.   

What was the process of writing “Alphaville” like ?

Zach:…I mean it’s just the same as every time. We get together, we write. Or there’s an idea for a song. And we write that kind of steams for. There’s somebody comes within the rhythm. I think, Steve came with the rhythm for “Atomic Age”. And from that rhythm, the whole song slowly grew. It really does vary. [Kenny] Grohowski comes in with charts for “City Swine”. And we’re just reading the music, learning it and putting our own versions.

Steve: Yeah! The really cool thing about this trio: we can bring a song to a table and then it’s just: “Ok! Here we go! Let’s just rip it apart and turn into an Imperial Triumphant song!”. So, the process was really pretty painless, actually. We just agreed! We just wanted to make the best, we wanted to make the best song for the album. With each song.   

Dealing with such variety of styles and musical forms presented in your compositional structure, what helps you to understand when these element start resonating together ?

Zach: It’s like intuition…

Steve: Experience.

Zach: Experience and intuition. Trial and error. All the above, I think. Sometimes when we’re writing there’s a moment when we go: “Ok! It’s EXACTLY what this song needed!” and we didn’t even know it 15 minutes before. But there’s a part and we just added it making the whole piece more cohesive. And sometimes you know – when the piece is done and it’s just perfect.

Steve: And being open-minded too! Everyone’s allowed to put an idea. And we’re not gonna throw it away. We’re gonna think about it, try it out. Maybe rehearse it for a while and see if it’s cool! 

Colin Marston, once described your approach as a very open-minded. Over the years you used to combine very characteristic black-metal feel with some jazzy-elements – not even within your playing. But on a level of instruments, featuring both tube and piano parts in “Transmission Of Mercy”. What drove you putting these elements into this song ?

Zach: That one was basically…I think, the foundational idea behind this song was: “Let’s do a piece in a jazz-standard format!”. One sheet was written out as a chord progression. And it’s kind of long form. But that’s the form. There’s no like “Riff A”, “Riff B”, “Riff C”…

Steve: Jazz-head.

Zach: Yeah, just like a jazz-head basically. And that’s where kind of where it’s started. And obviously, the song took its own form and went off into its own direction. We never stick the rules. And it’s coming out being its own thing. But it’s really kind of simple more straight-forward. And I guess it’s turned out to be an interesting piece. Because, we ended up putting our faith into other musicians – like J. Walter Hawkes, for example. I wrote the melody at the beginning. But then, the horn solo – its own him! And we worked with him before. We understand that he’s an incredible player. He understands what we’re trying to do. So we ask him ok: “Can you send us some tracks, improvising ?”. It’s a collaborative leap of faith. We knew he’s gonna bring something incredible to the table. And that’s something we, maybe not would have thought of.

“Alphaville” became probably the most collaborative record of yours – having different guest artists. How it feels to get out of this circle of intimacy and move to more of a collaborative type of work ? Even though, you already did some collaborations.

Steve: Imperial Triumphant…And Zach, correct me if I’m wrong, always been open to collaborative with other creative people. So you have the band, which is the core driving force behind everything. And that brings all these other amazing experiences. Recording taiko drums with Tomas Haake was like…It doesn’t get that much cooler than that. And that just the result of that open environment and willing the other creative people in. The artwork too! Zbigniew [M. Bielak’s] cover of the album is phenomenal. And Zach had worked with him on that. That brought another incredibly creative talent tool. I think it’s just a cool vibe Imperial [Triumphant] has with art in general. Think about art! The whole thing is art. Not just music, not just a band.

Zach: We’re very particular about the people we do work with because when we select someone to collaborate on video\visual\fine-art\musically – we understand that they’re sharing out vision. They know what we’re trying to do. And that really makes the whole process much easier. Because, we don’t say: “You have to do this! You have to do that!” – we just say: “Hey! This is our art! We love what you do! Go crazy!”

A seamless Photoshop paper texture with an infinite canvas and self-applying light and shadow texture effects for digital drawing and painting

I’ve been thinking about a certain comparison with “Alphaville”. The first thing came to my mind was Christopher Nolan’s movie – “Inception”. Which is a stereotypical heist-movie. Following all the stylistic stratification. But at the same time, it goes a little bit deeper. Within the architecture of this picture. Just like with any records of yours. I was wondering, how do you define the difference between your band and other representatives of black-metal\metal genres ?

Steve: There are many variables for every band that make the unique. I would say that one of big things with Imperial Triumphant is that it’s a very simple thing. It’s actually the way we play together. Me, as a music listener, hear that as something that’s unique to our band. Beyond that, I would say: we don’t let our egos get in the way of art, so much. We try to just…Like Zach was saying before about the people we collaborate: let everybody use their voice. It’s their voice. That’s what’s gonna make something unique in the long run.

Zach: I agree with that! And adding to that, I’d say that something that makes us to stand out is that we’re really-really-really give a f*ck! There’re lots of bands that really great. And generally, they also give a f*ck. And we pay attention to EVERYTHING, when it comes to this record. Down to what kind of paper the vinyl sleave would be printed on. Everything is important to us. And every aspect of this artwork is a creative expression and the decision to make. So Imperial Triumphant is a platform we can explore many forms of art.

You’ve always been speaking about the previous “Vile Luxury” as about a certain point of growth. What did you feel passing through that phase and getting to the label like Century Media now, with “Alphaville” ?

Zach: Century Media is great! Because, they’re on the same level of mindset as we are. They’re very serious, very focused and very business oriented. And that’s kind of the same mentality that we bring to out music. So, it’s been a really-really great collaboration with them.

Steve: Working with Century Media is fantastic! The whole team is awesome! I love emailing with them and talking to them. Everybody’s been great to us! And we do our best to deliver everything on deadline. Like Zach was saying – ‘cause we really give a f*ck and really like to get things accomplished. That’s what we’re trying to do. Life is an accomplished thing. It’s just been very good relations to us.

Zach: Yeah! They took a chance on us, singing an obscure avant-garde metal-band. And then we deliver with “Alphaville” which’s been a crush ahead. 

If we’d speak about the current lineup of Imperial Triumphant, what was the beginning of your path like, what were the shows like ?

Zach: The first time the current lineup played was actually our first tour in 2015. That’s actually how I met up with Steve! Honestly, it was a great experience! I think, Steve and Kenny IMMEDIATELY heated off! They knew a lot of the same guys in the jazz-scene. And to have your rhythm section vibing so hard – that’s gonna make for extremely tight shows… And there were just small-tight shows. We played house parties, little tiny basements and stuff. And it was just really great to be able to do that, because, anyone who’re in the band would tell you that being on a road you get way-way tighter with your band and with your music then you ever could with your rehearsals and stuff. And you develop as musicians as well, I think.

Steve: The finny thing that I actually joined the band to do that tour! Zach needed the bass-player so he could say: “Yes!” for the tour. So that’s how I got on the road…

Zach: ( laughs )

When people describe your live-shows, the term “atmospheric” usually comes first. Is it important to create a certain atmosphere on a life-shows ? What are your goals like ?

Zach: We’ll put a great show – that’s rule number one. A kick-ass show. I think what we do on stage is unique. And the show we’re gonna put on. The presentation and atmosphere is a really fun and creative challenge. Because, we try to put on basically a stadium show in a small club. That’s our mentality. “What can we do with the budget what we have to create a wild, unforgettable, unbelieve experience ? That’s gonna stand out the most out of all bands…”. Something like that. And working within the budget you really have to be creative. You just can’t spend 10 000 $ on pyro. So, you have to figure it out. And I like that kind of puzzle, that kind of challenge.

Steve:…Although, 10 000$ for pyro would be awesome….

Zach: That would happen! Eventually!

Steve: Some pyro on the live-show – it would be great.

Zach: That’s on the long-sheet!

Steve: In general, live-show is very important to us. Creating the mood and atmosphere is certainly a big part of that. Because, that’s what makes the experience for a concert richer. So, I always enjoy a band put on a good show. Even though, that means: there’s now show BUT that’s their show. And they’re really good at it.

I was wondering if there are any examples of super-impressive shows you have right now ?

Steve: There are a lot of shows that stand out as really amazing experience…One of them would be when we saw Portal playing on a Maryland deathfest. That was a pretty standout show! Another – we went on tour with this band, Nordjevel from Norway. And it was hooking me every night, actually! I just love watching those!

Zach: And also, we toured with this band in Russia called Aluk Todolo…

Steve: Yeah, they were great!

Zach: A great example of band with very little stage production. But not that crazy…They were hanging their own lights from the ceiling. They were making efforts to put on a crazy show. And it worked! Because, it was a really AMAZING show. In a very low budget. It was really fun!

Steve: That was a good example of that atmosphere too. Cause, there wasn’t that much writing involved their music. They just got the basic structures and they just play…It was spacy but not boring. But not boring. It was very cool.

Imperial Triumphant being putting your records out. “Alphaville” is a different case. Cause, Century Media is a sub-label of a major label. But how important is this DIY-element for you, in your creativity ? From esthetic point.

Zach: The goal of the band is to collaborate. So when we have the budget for a big stage production – we’re gonna work with more artists bringing more hands and creative minds in the process. So, create more wilder presentation. To me, I don’t have this DIY mentality of my sleeve. Which is: do what you can with the budget you have.  

Steve: I agree 100% with that. I think, building a show and collaborative is very important aspect of music business and being a musician, being able to continue doing it. I think, DIY thing comes out of necessity…

Zach: Exactly.

Steve: …You got to do whatever the f*ck you got to do, in order to get to the next level. That means: carrying palettes of f**king bottled water. So we could have a drink, wash the van – whatever the f*ck we got to do.

Zach: Even Motley Crue on their first tour were building stage props and carrying them around from gig to gig…

Steve: ( laughs ). I think, there’s always be an element of DIY in the big picture, because the three of us really like to be hands on. I think we always be involved in every aspect of however this big thing gets.

Being a fan of Mr.Bungle I want to get to your work on “Alphaville” with Trey and ask you: how it was for you to work with a producer and what according to your opinion Trey Spruance brough to “Alphaville” ?

Steve: Working with Trey was absolutely amazing. Right Zach ?

Zach: 100%

Steve: He brough so much to the session, to the mixing, to the recording, to the mastering, cool musical ideas, the motives that were brought in. And just the general creative vibe. His passion and work ethic are sublime. He’s a really hardcore, really talented guy. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him. I can’t wait to work with him again.

Zach: I was excited to work with him, because I know his work. I know that, as a producer, he’s not gonna take us down the path that’s gonna lead to a poor product or a weaker result. But to elevate us to a higher level with his ideas and his thoughts. And that’s exactly what he did. Also, a mastering job he did on the record – we were very-very happy with. And, again, we’re very excited to work with him even more on the next one.