Empathy Test is an independent London (UK) based electronic pop band formed in January 2013 by childhood friends Isaac Howlett (vocals, songwriting) and Adam Relf (composition, production). Over the course of a year, the pair wrote, recorded and produced four original compositions, which would be self-released digitally as the Losing Touch EP in February 2014.
The title track and lead single, Losing Touch, caught the attention of Mark Roberts of Brooklyn (US) based record label, Stars & Letters Records. Roberts expressed an interest in releasing the band’s material and, spurred on by this early affirmation, Empathy Test recorded a further four tracks and sent them over for his approval. A deal was signed in April 2014, with a release date for the EP, Throwing Stones, scheduled for December of the same year.
Losing Touch, which has now had 540K views on YouTube and over million plays on Spotify (two million if you count the remastered version), also garnered attention when it was featured in a viral video produced for Liverpool Football Club by UK artist and animator Richard Swarbrick. Swarbrick’s animated video clocked up over 264K views on YouTube and was shown on Liverpool FC’s official TV channel.
Swarbrick went on to use a second Empathy Test track, Kirrilee, in another viral animated video, Cats of YouTube, which received over 183K views, and a third, Last Night on Earth, in a series of basketball animations commissioned by ESPN. Kirrilee also brought the band further attention in the US when it became the official soundtrack to a Bill Murray inspired art fair, The Murray Affair, in San Francisco on August 8th, 2014.
In September 2014, Empathy Test gave their first live performance, a self-booked headline show at The Sebright Arms in London. With fans having flown in from abroad and The Sebright Arms just shy of full capacity, the show was a resounding success.
The Sebright Arms show earned the band their first live review, from Louder Than War, who described the event as follows: “in front of a packed room of grinning appreciative people it requires noting just how marvellous this band are and how this band with the synths and laptop have made this music lark look very fuckin’ easy”.
Also in attendance was Thomas Görnert, CEO of one of the biggest Alternative/Gothic music festival in the world, Wave Gotik Treffen. Having flown in from Germany to attend the concert, Görnert booked Empathy Test to perform at the 2015 event, directly after their performance.
On 22nd September 2014, an instrumental version of new track Here is the Place previewed as the soundtrack to a video entitled The Next Generation Asks World Leaders at UN: Why Not Act on Climate Change?. The short film was produced by Al Gore’s Climate Reality and was shown in a presentation at the United Nations.
A week later, the title track from the Throwing Stones EP premiered on Clash Music. Writer Robin Murray described it as “gorgeous, sumptuous future pop” with “nods towards Depeche Mode” and “21st century producers such as Purity Ring”. Here is the Place then premiered via KCRW on 3rd November, with comparisons to M83, Purity Ring and CHVRCHES, and praise for “a big dramatic sound that swoons ecstatically between the nostalgic and immediate”.
Throwing Stones was also Record of the Week on BBC Introducing in Kent and the band were interviewed for the show, which was broadcast on 1st November 2014.
Empathy Test gave their first international performance at Reithalle Strasse E in Dresden, Germany, on 6th December 2014, having been personally invited by the club’s owner, Robert Grund. Grund was fundamental to the band’s growth on the international scene, playing the band’s music to industry contacts that visited his club and introducing the band to Jan Winterfeld of Pluswelt (Germany) who would later become the band’s booking agent.
On December 9th 2014, the Throwing Stones EP was released by Stars & Letters Records, earning the band a 10/10 review on Swedish alternative music website Brutal Resonance. Reviewer Kjetil Haugen proclaimed: “there is no doubt in my mind that this is a perfect release”. The band were also featured in Idolator’s 14 Under the Radar Synth Pop Acts We Loved in 2014, along with Salt Ashes (UK) and Kid Moxie (USA).
In March 2015, Here is the Place featured in Season 4 of MTV’s popular reality TV show Catfish, bringing the band further exposure, particularly in North America.
Empathy Test added drummer Adam Casey to their live line-up ahead of an appearance at Hard Rock Cafe London’s Battle of the Bands in April 2015 and a Bombay Bicycle Club (UK) support show in May, before heading to Wave Gotik Treffen in Germany on 23rd May 2015, where they performed to over a thousand people. In the 30 minutes following the performance, the band sold all of the 200 self-produced CDs they had brought with them.
Joining forces with fellow London-based Synth Pop band Vivien Glass (now Strange Eyes) (UK), Empathy Test crowdfunded and booked a successful ten date co-headline UK tour over the summer with keyboard player Liza Sweeney standing in for founder member Adam Relf. The tour was punctuated by a headline show in Oslo, Norway and appearances at Kopparberg Urban Forest and SOS festivals in London, Create Festival in Kent, and BAS Festival (discontinued) in Basildon, Essex, the birthplace of Depeche Mode.
It was at BAS Festival that they met Jan Winterfeld of Pluswelt Promotions for the first time. Impressed by their performance, he offered the band a place on a European tour with Mesh (UK) the following year (2016).
A third Empathy Test EP, featuring remixed tracks from the Throwing Stones EP was scheduled for a release via Stars & Letters Records in August 2015. Throwing Stones Remixed featured a Thomas Datt (USA) remix of Here is the Place was the first track to premiere, courtesy of Earmilk, who praised Empathy Test’s “emotional electronic music with a depth in its measure”. Datt’s remix was later picked up by UK Trance DJ, Solarstone, who re-released a dub mix of it on Pure Trance Volume 4, in November 2015. Minuit Machine (France) provided their take on Throwing Stones, which premiered on PopMatters and the Aeon Rings (USA) remix of the same track later premiered on Berlin based website, Kaltblut.
During the promotional campaign for Throwing Stones Remixed, the band reached a mutual agreement to part company with Stars & Letters Records as Mark Roberts, who had begun working on his debut album as We Are Temporary, felt he was no longer able to provide the level of support Empathy Test required. Singer Isaac Howlett completed the PR campaign himself and, like Empathy Test’s first EP and all releases since, Throwing Stones Remixed was self-released.
Empathy Test rounded off 2015 with a headline slot at Riba Rocks festival in Spain and support shows in London with The Japanese House (UK) (reviewed here) at Camden Barfly and Summer Heart (Sweden) at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen. In October, Empathy Test returned to Dresden, Germany, for a headline show at Reithalle Strasse E. Jan Winterfeld was in attendance and after the show he asked to become Empathy Test’s booking agent in Europe.
The band agreed a deal with Winterfeld and in April 2016, and Winterfled’s agency, Pluswelt, booked Empathy Test to perform two shows in support of German Synth Pop veterans De/Vision in Leipzig and Berlin. Over the course of the year, the band also supported LCMDF (Sweden) and Avec Sans (UK) in London.
To coincide with their first European tour opening for Mesh (UK), Empathy Test self-released a new double a-side single, Demons / Seeing Stars, in September 2016, which featured two of their most popular tracks to date. Released via digital, CD and 7” vinyl picture disc, the band sold the entire run of 500 CDs and 300 picture discs. Demons was ‘Track of the Day’ on XS Noize, who described it as “a stunning coupling of Relf’s ethereal atmospherics on synth and Howlett’s distinctive, perfect aching vocal”.
Prior to the two-week European tour, Adam Casey left the band and founder member Adam Relf decided he no longer wanted to tour, so Empathy Test recruited current drummer Christina Lopez and keyboard player Jacob Ferguson-Lobo via adverts on Gumtree. Main support on the Mesh tour was Industrial Pop act Aesthetic Perfection (USA). After two shows, frontman Daniel Graves asked Empathy Test to tour the USA with him, something that would finally become a reality in 2019.
The band rounded off 2016 with three German shows; two in support of VNV Nation and a second headline show at Reithalle Strasse E in Dresden. VNV Nation’s frontman Ronan Harris described Empathy Test as “the solution to most of the world’s problems” as shown here in Empathy Test's December 2016 video tour diary.
In January 2017, Empathy Test performed at Planet Myer Day (Germany) and in Denmark (a support slot for Mesh) and Sweden (Electronic Winter Festival) for the first time. In February 2017, Empathy Test released a second single, By My Side. The b-side, Vampire Town, premiered on The Line of Best Fit, who said it “wouldn’t sound out of place snaking into the soundtrack of Netflix series Stranger Things”.
A third single, Bare My Soul, premiered on Clash and was released in April 2017, to coincide with a second European tour, which included four dates opening for Aesthetic Perfection and a further nine as main support for Mesh. Keyboard player Jacob Ferguson-Lobo left to concentrate on his own music (he now plays full time with GeeJay) and was quickly replaced with Samuel Winter-Quick.
Buoyed by the success of the singles and two European tours, where they performed to audiences of 400-1,000 people a night, Empathy Test began planning the self-release of their debut album. One album quickly became two albums, when the band were unable to decide which songs to put on the album and which to leave off.
Meanwhile, the band clocked up performances at Liverpool Sound City (UK), Amphi Festival (Germany), VNV Nation’s Unter dem Himmel (Germany), Infest Festival (UK), NCN Festival (Germany) and The Electric Dreams Weekender (UK) where they performed alongside ‘80s Synth Pop legends such as The Human League and Blancmange.
The Losing Touch Remastered and Safe From Harm albums were self-released via crowdfunding website, PledgeMusic on 17th November 2017. The PledgeMusic project was a huge success, ending 661% funded, and the two albums were released in November 2017 via digital, CD and 12” vinyl formats. To date, the band has sold over a thousand copies of each album on CD and 300 copies of each 12” vinyl.
Brutal Resonance gave both albums a 10/10 review, while Elektroskull gave Safe from Harm 9/10 and Losing Touch Remastered 10/10. Empathy Test performed both albums in their entirety at Empathy Test’s sold out album launch party at Zigfrid von Underbelly in London, with Synthwave artist Nina supporting, before the band took off on their first headline tour of Germany in December. Two of the six shows were also sold out.
In March 2018, Empathy Test embarked on a second UK tour, this time as main support for Covenant (Sweden) with their own headline shows in between. In April, the band performed in Russia for the first time, supporting DE/VISION in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg before performing at summer festivals in Germany (Plage Noire), Sweden (Subkultfestivalen) and Canada (Terminus), the latter being their first show in North America.
In May, Losing Touch again brought Empathy Test international attention, this time in Latin America and Spain, when it appeared in two separate episodes of Spanish language Netflix show Luis Miguel, a biopic of the life of ‘80s Mexican superstar singer. Suddenly, Empathy Test had 14K Spotify listeners in Mexico, with the USA on 10K.
In October 2018, Empathy Test performed in Poland for the first time, at Warsaw Dark Electro Festival, before embarking on a second, more ambitious tour of Germany in support of new double a-side single Holy Rivers / Incubation Song, which they released on 31st October.
The EP premiered on XS Noize, who said: “it’s the contrast between uplifting beats and heart-rending lyrics that create a perfect melancholy, proving time and time again Empathy Test’s talent for making electro-pop music with depth, meaning and feeling”. Clash meanwhile, praised the new songs’ “shimmering synths, glacial electronics, and heartrending vocals”.
In January 2019, Pirate Studios invited Empathy Test to their South London studio to perform a live session which was streamed live, worldwide, via their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. Later in the month, the band supported VNV Nation on their seven date Noire tour of the UK, before heading to Germany with Covenant for 10 dates of their Fieldworks tour, in February and March.
In April 2019, Empathy Test headlined Artefaktor Radio Live at Elektrowerks in London. In May, they performed in Barcelona and Madrid for the first time, once again as main support for VNV Nation. To coincide with a two week, double headline UK tour with Canadian Post Punk band Actors, they released a new single/EP, Empty Handed, on 17th June, 2019.
During the June UK tour, live keyboard player Samuel Winter-Quick, who had been with the band for two years, decided he had had enough of touring and left the band midway through the tour. Elliott Berlin (Aesthetic Perfection, Telemark), who had for some time been acting as Empathy Test's live sound engineer and had been flown over for that purpose on the Actors tour, stepped in temporarily as keyboard player.
In August 2019, Empathy Test performed for the first time at M'era Luna in Germany and W-Fest in Belgium, with Elliott Berlin on keyboards. They then embarked on their first tour of North America as main support for Aesthetic Perfection, in early September. USA Synthwave / Witch House producer Angel Metro filled in on keyboards for the entire six week tour.
Before the band went to North America, a chance connection on Facebook put them in touch with singer and synth player Oliver Marson. Marson had recently put out his own '80s inspired synth track, Cocaine Romance, and had been listening to Empathy Test on Spotify. He messaged Isaac to say how much he'd enjoyed the tracks and Isaac asked him if he played keyboards.
A week or so later, Marson was invited to meet the rest of the band at the Hen & Chickens pub in Highbury & Islington, where they have conducted all their business meetings since 2015. From that moment, Oliver was essentially in the band. They met with him for one rehearsal before the US tour, at New Rose Studios, where they have rehearsed since 2016. While Isaac and Chrisy toured North America, Oliver learnt 13-14 tracks in preparation for their return.
Isaac and Chrisy returned from America on 22nd October and had a second rehearsal with Oliver, before flying out the next day to Germany. They headlined shows in Brunswick, Nuremburg, Russelsheim and Hamburg, before appearing at Pluswelt's 20th anniversary festival in Oberhausen and Berlin.
Empathy Test is set to headline O2 Academy Islington on 16th November and will appear at Electrixmas Festival in Malmo, Sweden on December 7th, before headlining A Not So Silent Night in Keighley (UK) on 15th December. The band is currently working on songs for a third album, but a release date has not currently been set.