‘They were part of my sinew’: Empire, the British band who changed the 80s without you knowing it

Awkward, unambitious and with only one album, the trio still left a huge mark, influencing the Stone Roses as well as the entire DC hardcore scene. Empire retell their story, while Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto explains their impact

As the guitarist in Generation X, Bob “Derwood” Andrews crafted some of the most scorching and incisive riffs of the punk era. But in late 1979, after quitting the band, he was stacking chairs after boxing matches in Wembley Arena for a few pounds a night and his next musical venture, Empire, was about to prove a critical and commercial failure.

Andrews, though, would end up inspiring some of the greatest artists ever to emerge from the American underground, including Fugazi and Henry Rollins, with Empire’s lone album Expensive Sound. A masterpiece of clarity and restraint, it is hailed by its numerous fans, who also include Johnny Marr of the Smiths and John Squire of the Stone Roses, as one of post-punk’s finest “lost albums”. Most remarkable of all is how circuitous the path to that recognition has been.

In Generation X, Billy Idol and bassist Tony James were the songwriters and strategists, while Andrews and drummer Mark Laff – just 17 and 18, respectively – were the hired help. Poached from his hard-rock outfit Paradox a week earlier, Andrews was given a haircut and shoved on stage. “I didn’t move much due to being terrified,” he says of the first Generation X gig, “and the fact that hairs from my cut were still down my back and neck!”

By the band’s second album Valley of the Dolls, the power imbalance had become untenable. As Andrews tells it, Idol and James were determined to control the messaging, pressuring him not to do interviews or reveal his love of “dinosaur” bands such as Deep Purple. “I just felt like: am I really that replaceable? I thought I’d go and see.”

Citing the album’s poor sales, Generation X’s label allowed Andrews and Laff to slip out of their contracts. Ironically, Andrews’ chair-stacking gig was anything but a comedown: “I’ve never been so relieved in my life. I was free, and financially I was better off; we got £30 a week in Generation X. It wasn’t like I’d left Foo Fighters.”

What’s more, Andrews was hearing a new sound in his head. If Valley of the Dolls – produced by Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople – was a glam-ish, throw-everything-at-the-wall affair, now Andrews was looking inwards. “During 1979, [me and Laff] came up with a whole different way of working with Generation X,” he says. “I’m not sure the other two liked or appreciated it. So we took the kind of one-string riffs we were doing and made it even more spacious and minimalist.”

At first, the duo’s ambitions were modest: “We were gonna be an instrumental band; I would be like Hank Marvin.” But once he started hearing lyrics and vocal melodies, Andrews realised he had to sing. Picking up mild-mannered bassist Simon Bernal, the trio rehearsed in his parents’ kitchen “until the neighbours got up a petition to ban us”. By August 1980, they’d worked up enough of Andrews’ songs to record an album and start playing live.

Empire’s minimalist sound ran counter to every contemporary trend: New Romanticism, synth-pop, and the new wave of British heavy metal. And Andrews, by his own admission, made for an unlikely frontman: “I wanted to push myself to feel uncomfortable; I always have. [But] an audience can tell when you’re shy or uncomfortable, and it makes them feel the same.”

Empire’s lone single, Hot Seat / All These Things, was released in April 1981 on a tiny indie label, followed a month later by the full-length Expensive Sound. Pressed into the graphic design role, Andrews opted for an unorthodox die-cut jacket with little identifying information. “I was just really naive, a little bit embarrassed. I didn’t even put my name down as the singer.”

The few reviews were scathing; frustrated by Bernal’s lack of commitment, Andrews sacked him after a mere four gigs. The band shambled on through a series of lineup changes, but to little avail. Talent and punk pedigree notwithstanding, it appeared the sun had set on Empire.

But the band, so maligned at home, managed to send a seed of sorts across the Atlantic. It landed in Washington DC, where the punk scene was on life support.

A few years before, the city’s uncompromising brand of hardcore punk – Minor Threat, the Faith, Void, et al – had put DC on the map. But with crucial bands folding and shows becoming increasingly violent, the aggression of hardcore appeared to be a dead end. Asked about this time now, Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye recalls: “The Faith breaking up was a huge deal. And the scene just … it kind of sucked. It was depressing, a lot of people bailing. We had these meetings about ‘what are we gonna do?’”

Empire’s music suggested a different approach. After record store owner Skip Groff returned from London with a copy of the 7”, scenesters such as Michael Hampton and Chris Bald of Embrace took notice of the stark, direct, and above all emotionally vulnerable sound. The record sent ripples through the tight-knit punk community.

But the needle truly dropped a year or so later, when a promo copy of Expensive Sound turned up in a short-lived suburban record shop. During his one and only visit, a young punk named Guy Picciotto struck gold. “It looked so minimal I wasn’t sure it was a legitimate release, but it had the songs from the single and some cool Xeroxed promo sheets inside so I took a chance,” he says now. He took it straight to Dischord House, home base for the DC punk label of the same name. “The minute we heard the first song we were just totally blown away.”

Picciotto’s band at the time, Rites of Spring, melded intense emotional catharsis to a blistering punk backdrop; today, their 1985 self-titled album is hailed by many as the beginning of emo. By the time he joined Fugazi two years later, Picciotto had utterly absorbed Expensive Sound. Listening to the album recently with his wife, Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill, Picciotto struggled to hear its impact. “She’s like: ‘What are you talking about? This sounds like Fugazi!’ And suddenly for the first time I was able to hear it. It really had much more direct influence than I’d thought. It was so part of my sinew, you know?”

After Empire folded, Andrews formed the neo-rockabilly group Westworld, scoring a surprise UK hit with Sonic Boom Boy in 1987. In the mid-90s, he took yet another counterintuitive turn with Moondogg, an electronic pop and rock act. These days he keeps a low profile, living outside Joshua Tree National Park in California, but he’s far from idle: earlier this year he released Derwood and the Rat, a collaboration with Rat Scabies of the Damned conceived as Empire’s follow-up album.

Though Expensive Sound has now been reissued four times, including last year, Andrews has until now been largely unaware of the band’s influence. When told of its impact on the DC punk scene, he expresses equal parts puzzlement and pride: “If I heard you saying that, I would immediately think you were talking about someone really fricking cool I’d never heard of!” he replies. “That album was the first 11 songs I ever wrote. I felt like I’d broken out of a horrible situation which was doing me in, mentally. It was very optimistic – and I think somehow that vibe came across in the recording.”

Seth Lorinczi

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'A 50-storey-tall Iggy Pop!' Alison Mosshart's fantasy festival
The Kills star, who releases a spoken word album this month, imagines a New York festival with speakers on every corner – and a resurrected Jimi Hendrix

Interview by Jenessa Williams

23, Jul, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Ukrainian hardcore, Nigerian alté and Red Bull-soaked bloghouse: 2023’s most promising musical newcomers
From Memphis rap to Manchester post-punk and Laurel Canyon-worthy beauty, a new generation is coming this way

Shaad D'Souza and Laura Snapes

29, Dec, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
‘I will outshine them all’: the enduring genius of Bloc Party
As US pop-punk band Paramore claim the London band as the primary influence on their new album, we look at how Bloc Party bridged the gap with emo – and continue to inspire young artists today

Jenessa Williams

06, Dec, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Rites of Spring and the summer that changed punk rock

Louis Pattison: Something was in the air in Washington DC in 1985 – a revolution that tried to rid punk of its machismo

Louis Pattison

27, Nov, 2012 @2:23 PM

Article image
‘We never wanted to become a Factory tribute band’: A Certain Ratio on mortality, Manchester – and Madonna
The massively influential band have been plying their blend of jazz, funk, post-punk and pop for 45 years. But as they release new album, the founding members are in no mood for nostalgia

Fergal Kinney

03, Apr, 2023 @10:10 AM

Article image
Wu Lyf: better the devil you don't know

Satanic youth cult or rock'n'roll revolutionaries? The rumours surrounding Manchester's Wu Lyf are legion – but their desire for anonymity has a simple explanation, discovers Paul Lester

Paul Lester

09, Jun, 2011 @12:30 AM

Article image
Fugazi return with online gig archive
Washington DC legends to make hundreds of performances from more than 15 years of touring available to download

Sean Michaels

28, Nov, 2011 @10:32 AM

Article image
Life Without Buildings: in praise of the cult Glasgow band revived on TikTok
Fronted by Sue Tompkins and her free-associative language, the band have become a touchstone for TikTok teens – and, on their 20th anniversary, still sound like no one else

Jennifer Hodgson

19, Jan, 2021 @10:33 AM

Article image
Wilco: Cousin review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Jeff Tweedy and co’s 13th album bears a close family resemblance to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but with Cate Le Bon in the producer’s chair, it has an appealing wash of left-field weirdness and its lyrics express an older man’s anxieties

Alexis Petridis

28, Sep, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
$5 gigs, not $10m deals: the story of US punk label Dischord Records
With no contracts and cheap releases from the likes of Fugazi and Minor Threat, Ian MacKaye and comrades rejected booze, drugs and riches to give US punk a conscience. They look back on 40 years of righteous noise

Daniel Dylan Wray

20, Nov, 2020 @8:00 AM