Holy Roman Empire

I recently spoke to guitarist Neeraj Kane about his current project, Holy Roman Empire. Kane is a veteran of a number of notable hardcore acts including The Hope Conspiracy and The Suicide File, but this band, which includes guitarist Jay Jancetic (ex-Arma Angelus, Stabbed By Words), bassist Geoff Reu (Killing Tree), drummer Tony Tintari (ex-Rise Against, Shai Hulud) and vocalist Emily Schambra (Long Distance Runner) is a little different from any of his past projects.

The band released their debut EP, Lost in Landscapes last year. Neeraj gave me some insight into his band, and how the world of punk and hardcore sometimes bleeds into his "other" life as a teacher.

You've had a long history in pretty aggressive hardcore bands likeThe Hope Conspiracy and The Suicide File, but Holy Roman Empire is pretty different. Why the new direction?

Well, I guess as a band, we just ended up playing the style that we are playing now (which is still evolving in my opinion). I don’t think any of us went into it saying we want the band to sound like this or like that, it just kind of evolved to what it is now. Almost every member of the band has been in aggressive punk/hardcore bands, but when we started this, all we knew was that we wanted it to be different than our previous endeavors but how different was never really talked about.

We would just come to our practices with riffs that were not really heavy hardcore or punk rather more melodic and power pop or rock (whatever you want to call it), and we just went with it. One thing we did know about our direction was that we still wanted to be different and unique and still take the ideas we all had from our old bands about pushing the envelope musically and continue that philosophy in this band as well when it came to songwriting. We also know collectively that we want to make an impact on the current musical landscape whether it is underground or in the mainstream.

I mean from my standpoint yeah the music is pretty different from my previous bands, but I always wanted to do something different musically, it does not mean that I am not into aggressive music anymore because I am, as are most of the other members, but we just wanted to create music that also reflected the other types of music that had huge influences on our lives, and many of those were not just punk and hardcore bands. But the bottom line is that we wanted to create music that was moving, powerful; yeah it is musically different, but the ethos or the idea behind Holy Roman Empire is the same when it comes down to it.

How did the band get together?

Jay, Geoff and I had been playing together for a few months, and we were looking for a drummer. I had heard that Tony wasn’t playing for Shai Hulud anymore and he was back in Chicago. All of us had been big fans of Tony’s drumming, and I personally thought that his style would be perfect for some of ideas that we had. So I decided to give him a call and see if he wanted to play with us and just to see if would be into some of the stuff that we had been working on.

Tony agreed and the chemistry was pretty much instant. So we decided to get a practice space and just started working with different ideas. We wrote and reworked songs for almost a year before we actually got Emily. When she joined we started recording a demo, then wrote songs for an EP and we finally started playing shows after a year and half of initially starting the band.

It felt like the EP was written before Emily joined the band, but The new songs are really cohesive and seem to really reflect the participation of the entire band.

The songs off the demo were written before Emily was in the band, and we re-recorded two of the songs from our demo for the EP, as well. When she joined we started to include her into the initial song writing process, and started changing the way we were thinking about song structures. Most of the songs on the EP are a product of that change in writing, but our new songs have really come into their own- we’re much more focused and collaborative in our song structure and writing now.

How does songwriting work in the band?

Pretty much someone comes to practice with a riff and we just work on it. Sometimes Geoff and Tony might have a rhythm part and Jay or I might just write a riff on the spot off their bass and drum line. I hate to use the word "jam," but we "jam" on a lot of the riffs that someone brings to the table. Sometimes Emily might have vocal ideas and we might just work off that. After a rough skeleton is done, usually we record it and give it to Emily to work her magic. Other times various members might sit down with Emily one-on-one to go over melodies and harmonies with just guitars to come up with vocal lines. It’s a very collaborative process, there is no single songwriter; everyone contributes and everyone has their specific specialty in the song writing process. We are extremely democratic, and honest. If riff just is not working or the majority of the band is just not feeling the riff, that opinion is voiced and the idea is tossed or put on the backburner to be reworked at a later time.

I had a student come into class one time with a portable stereo and play a CD of one of my old bands. Apparently after I left, all these students found out what bands I had played in and even filled in for and all that. I would have students come in with hardcore or punk shirts of my friends bands or band I had toured with, and I would just play dumb and not say anything.

With HRE your main focus, what do you hope the band can achieve?

HRE as a band was started with the intention of going full force. It is not a project and never was. We just want to play music all the time and for as many people as we can. From the get go everyone had agreed that we wanted to make amazing music that is different from a lot of the music that is being played on the radio and everywhere else. As a band we want to bring the intensity of the bands we used to play in and were influenced by to a larger audience than just the punk/hardcore scene. But the bottom line will always be that we want to have fun and really make music that’s interesting and innovative in some way, shape or form. We feel an urgency to really rise above the status quo with our music and live performances.

Emily recently did some pretty high profile recording with Rise Against, and the members of that band are huge backers (based on my conversations with them) how do you feel about the future and the well-deserved attention this will bring?

The guys in Rise Against are close friends of ours and support us tremendously. We all think its great, and if it draws more attention to our band then that’s awesome. We are really grateful that we have such an awesome band/friends in our corner. With having Emily sing on their record it has really shown us that they really want us to succeed as a band, and that means a lot to us.

We cannot really predict the future, all we can do is see what happens, and keep doing what we are doing as a band, and if this helps, then great. I mean we will always be grateful for their help, their friendship and support.

I understand you teach full-time, if you don’t mind me asking, how does that fit into your life which has been pretty intertwined with music over the past few years.

Music has been and is my priority. I started teaching because I wasn’t in a band at the time, and I didn’t know what I was going to do musically. I needed to pay bills so instead of working as a waiter or some shitty temp job, I decided to actually get a job doing something that I went to school for (I think I lucked out in that sense). It fits in my life as my day job until HRE gets to the point that we can be on the road more consistently.

Teaching is not something I plan to do long term. But right now I look at it as my day job, that just so happens to be a job where I can give something back to society and pay my bills while HRE is in the early stages. HRE is my priority and right now everything revolves around that and having a lot of breaks being a teacher definitely helps and has helped with the early stages of HRE.

Speaking of songwriting, Emily has an amazing range, and it's noticeably larger than songs in a hardcore band, I'm wondering how it's been adapting to a "singer" rather than a screamer.

I mean we are really lucky that we have a singer like, Emily. She is so naturally talented. However as far as the melodies are concerned she comes up with most of them. We might offer some ideas here or there but for the most part it is her. She may ask us for some help in regards to some parts and that’s where we will give her some suggestions, however when it comes to dynamics; that is where some of our past experiences come into play.

For some choruses or bridges where it needs to be very energetic we might draw from our past experiences and that’s where Emily might increase her vocals dynamics thus adding to the energy but that’s about it. So in regards to adapting; there really wasn’t any, besides some vocal dynamic things here and there. Everything else just sort of fell into place, and the chemistry was instant. However I am sure if you were to ask Emily she would also be able to go into more detail on how she feels she adapted to us, and our playing styles.

As far as labels, there are a lot of places you could go with HRE, I was wondering if you had any labels you'd love to work with.

I mean there are a lot of labels we would love to work with, it is just a matter of one that is interested in us, and believes in us as a band, and believes in and will stand behind the music that we make. Also a label that knows that we probably would not look good in cowboy boots, shitty moustaches, eye liner (well except Emily) or whatever the new trend is (ha-ha). I think personally an ideal label as far as an indie is concerned would be Epitaph.

I have always been a fan of a lot of their bands and the way they run their label, I think their ethic is awesome. There are a lot of labels that we are into, but in the end that specific label for us has to be into HRE and the music we make. We don’t think there is really one label we can say is "for us". We simply want someone to be genuinely interested in what we are about and can back us being on the road constantly and can push what we’re about to "the kids".

On that subject, if you could pick an ideal touring lineup, who would that be?

That’s a good question; I would love to go out with Rise Against at some point. I mean they are close friends or ours and really support us. We also just finished a week and half stint with Maps And Atlases from Chicago, they are amazing and would love to go out with them for a longer period of time.

Basically we would love to tour with bands that don’t necessarily sound the same as us. A lot of package tours these days have bands that sound very similar, if I was a person attending some of these shows I would be bored.

Again we’d love to hit the road with the Rise dudes. Or even Lawrence Arms or Pelican. We’re good friends with those guys and they are all GREAT Chicago bands. We’d like to see diversity in these tours again. A Morrissey tour would be amazing as well… at least for me.

A lot of people write-off female-fronted bands more quicklty than they ought to, do you find an odd response from old fans, new fans based on the lineup and sound?

Yes most definitely. I thought the hardcore punk scene would be more open-minded than a few years ago, but it still not as open minded as I thought. I mean we haven’t gotten anything really negative, but still you get the one comment that like, "what the fuck man, these guys don’t sound anything like their old bands. And oh, they also have a broad/chick singer. What the fuck!"

You realize that sexism and macho attitudes still are prevalent in the hardcore/punk scene.

A comment like this you just dismiss, and realize that sexism and macho attitudes still are prevalent in the hardcore/punk scene. However from new fans there might be the occasional comment like "I am not into female singers but this band is good". So I guess as far as a reaction on the fact that we are female fronted band is mixed, but all we are trying to do is rise above all the mediocrity out there and in our case we hope we are doing it with a female fronting our band.

That’s all. It was not like we set out to have a female or male fronted band. It was just whoever fit, and it happened to be Emily. She just blew us away, and continues to do so.

It’s very tough because again we do see a TON of comments such as "you know, I don’t usually like girl singers, but you guys are really damn good". It’s good they like us, but that’s tough to swallow sometimes. How do you respond to that? "Hey, thanks! I don’t usually like sexist people who have a narrow mind, but you’re all right!" its like why must one preface a comment or review with a statement/or disclaimer like that.

Does music bleed into your day job at all? Do kids even know about your "other" life?

Well, my day job for now it is in the inner city, so the musical culture there is predominately hip hop and top forty, which is cool because they have got me into some amazing stuff. For example I love Mike Jonz, Paul Wall and Bun B. I also think Justin Timberlake solo record is amazing!

Anyways so my students know about my "other" life and they’re just like "yeah dude you play in a rock band" so they really have no idea what its really about what it all entails. But when I did my student teaching it was in a suburban school where things are a bit different. An area where I have heard that the football teams come out on the field to AFI. But there I tried to keep it under wraps for awhile until some of the students did google me because they saw me at a pretty big "concert" and they found out I was friends with some of their favorite bands and that’s where the googling started.

I had a student come into class one time with a portable stereo and play a CD of one of my old bands. Apparently after I left, all these students found out what bands I had played in and even filled in for and all that. I would have students come in with hardcore or punk shirts of my friends bands or band I had toured with, and I would just play dumb and not say anything.

However when they googled me it was over. I got all the questions: "Do you know this band? Do you know this person", "Your band was one of my favorite bands." However it was on the tail end of me being there so I did not really have to deal with it that directly.