Interview with Imperial Triumphant: Masks confronting Music
Imperial Triumphant are the sound of the metropolis. New York’s new kind of black metal. This avant-garde darkness takes human form in the trio of Zachary Ilya Erzin (lead vocals/guitar), Kenny Grohowski (drums) and Steve Blanco (backing vocals/bass), and since their formation, the band has carefully cultivated a unique sonic and multi-medium experience for their audience.
It’s meta and complicated, but intentionally so. The musicians speak intensely and earnestly about what they are trying to convey, and their mission as a band is as ambitious as their music – both, meaning to transcend expectations of the genre …or at the very least being labeled ‘just another metal band’.
I spoke to all three members of the band on the phone when they reached Orlando (Florida) a day or two after their hugely successful Miami show at Gramps, alongside Uada, Panzerfaust and Gnosis.
Any show at the start of the week can be a hit or miss affair, let alone one as niche as this. Even fans can be easily dissuaded from heading out, as the week’s hardships loom ominously in front of them. This show was packed, however, with members of the crowd buzzing that “this was the band we came to see” when Imperial Triumphant wrapped up an excitingly new kind of show.
I left determined to learn what the band was about, beyond the beautiful yet intimidating 3D and gold-leaf masks that often shield their identity; and their immediately impressive and kaleidoscopic sound.
Zachary, one of the three distinctly New York, New Yorkers, answered my call, almost immediately noting the oppressive heat in the slightly disoriented way non-Miamians often do. I got the sense they might already be homesick…
So you guys are very proud of your hometown of New York and your music reflects that …You’re all natives, right?
Zachary: I’m a native, Steve’s a native and Kenny is actually from Miami.
Kenny: But my family ’s from New York…
So would you ever leave New York?
Zachary: Where we gonna go?
What is it about New York that’s so special and so conducive to the arts do you think?
Kenny: It’s the one place where no matter what your industry or your preface to being there is, everyone there is single-minded on an agenda. Whether it’s a positive or a negative one. It doesn’t matter what you’re about, more often than not people are moving to New York because there’s something they are trying to accomplish. [New Yorkers] are a little more single-minded and almost more sociopathic than a typical city-dweller. Not all cities have that kind of energy to them, but New York does. It can lead to some really dark shit but it can also lead to some really great art.
Zachary: Yeah, there’s a speed to the city that is very fast and very…you feel it when you’re there. You’re just like “I gotta get going, I gotta move, I gotta get this done”.
To me, jazz is synonymous with New York, and you can really hear it in your music… if an avant-garde, black metal version. Do any of you have a background in jazz? And is this one of the layers of homage to the city?
Kenny: Yeah, we have some very heavy jazz backgrounds actually. We studied jazz and played jazz for years and years.
Steve: Still do so.
Kenny: Yeah, still do it. No matter what we do, it’s a huge part of us.
Yeah, I almost heard like John McLaughlin, Trio of Doom in there.
Kenny: Thank you very much.
Steve: Yeah, Mahavishnu was cool. That whole movement is pretty influential in a lot of ways on this band. That whole time period for music is, you know. The 60’s and 70’s – a lot of the stuff that was being reflected in the jazz scene at the time became part of the zeitgeist, it was part of American culture. It wasn’t just this forgotten music of the time that kids today think is stupid and boring, you know?
Kenny: Yeah, also I think there’s a dark side to it. From an artistic point of view, jazz had a pretty good run, and it kind of decayed quite a bit as a lot of cultural things happened in a way…So I feel like the way its come out for us kind of mirrors that decay. A new wave.
So you guys are fresh off the release of your latest full-length, Vile Luxury. Can you tell me a little bit about where the name came from?
Zachary: I think I was thinking about the record, and what I wanted it to portray. “Vile Luxury” just has such a duality to it, and really, if you had to sum up New York in one phrase it would be “Vile Luxury”. The place has the absolute, top of the pyramid, highest peaks of culture and finance…everything, but also just the lowest, most disgusting forms of existence. And they’re just a block away from each other.
Visual elements are a huge part of your work – from your merch to your album art, to your music video. How important are these visual aspects to you as a band?
Zachary: Heavily. Yeah, It’s very important to us. To us, this is more than just a band with music. It is a creative outlet in so many ways, in so many forms. It’s just too limiting to only think about the music. We’re really creating an experience.
Speaking of the costumes and aesthetic of the band, did you always have this artistic conception of who you were?
Zachary: Right around the release of Abyssal Gods, our last full-length, I started thinking about creating an identity for the band that was more than just the generic heavy metal themes. A little more focussed. I looked at my surroundings and I realized that this is something that’s very unique to New York, this art deco, golden city, full of false promises and all this insane darkness – it was all around me. All you have to do is look up. These concepts slowly started growing over the years in our band, and it has culminated in what Vile Luxury is now – and it won’t stop, we still have a lot we want to do.
Tell me a bit about the masks – who made them/where did you find them?
Zachary: They were designed by Andrew Tremble who does a lot of our album artwork and T-shirt designs, then J. R Patterson is a 3D designer who rendered them into 3D and then we had them had gold leafed.
Kenny: Actually Steve did, Steve hand-gold leafed them.
Do they each represent something specific?
Zachary: There are definitely nods to certain imagery, whether it’s the ‘Bull on Wall Street’ or…
Steve: Or the Golden Bull, the ‘Original God’, Apollo The Sun. Obviously, there are all these mythic symbols, these have been around for thousands and thousands of years. You can interpret them in different ways.
In terms of the musical process – from writing, recording, final mixes to getting ready to tour – which part of the process do you find yourselves being most drawn to, and do you each have your forte?
Zachary: Personally for me, I really enjoy being in the studio rehearsing and coming up with ideas and jamming. Just because there are so many endless possibilities. It can completely change your mood.
Steve: My favorite part is definitely driving 19 hours a day. No, haha, it’s the writing part, the creative part and the collaboration for me that’s definitely the best. I love collaborating with these guys, and I love it when we get into the zone and everyone’s brains are super charged up and on fire…
Zachary: I think also the show. Performing is probably the best part actually. You learn these songs and you know them inside and out and they sort of come back to life when you play them live.
Kenny: If you craft your music carefully, that can be the best part of the day.
You guys are currently on tour and will be playing a ton of different venues, what to you makes a great show and a great place to play?
Steve: I would say the perfect show is one where we have the sound dialed in, the lighting’s dialed in, so we don’t have to think about “Oh, this is too loud”, we can really get into the music, and then start sharing that with a quality crowd. And a quality crowd is not so much about size, it’s more about the quality of the people that are into it…we’ve had some really good shows where people are really digging what we’re doing.
Kenny: The perfect show is the show that ends where everyone in the room is left changed… Where we created the vortex of energy that feeds the band to go to that place that they go to where they’re not on that stage anymore and they’re just in ‘that place’. Because then the audience can get pulled in with us. That’s the perfect show. It’s a very tricky thing, but if you can get it…That’s the goal.
I loved your video for Swarming Opulence. Are you planning on releasing any more videos for this album?
Zachary: Hopefully yeah, we’re kicking around some ideas. But I think music videos for us are like we were saying, another part of the creative process and an opportunity to express our ideas and our vision. So we take it very seriously, and we don’t want to ever make a video just to have a video. But we do hopefully have some plans to do another one for Vile Luxury. It’s tricky because they’re all such long songs.
Kenny: It would have to be more like a vignette it couldn’t be a music video. It couldn’t be a band once again rocking out in some dirty old house.
Steve: We prefer a narrative music video because again it’s an opportunity to express our ideas.
What do you have planned next after the tour wraps up?
Steve: We’ve already been writing and cultivating new ideas and new themes to explore. There are a few other musicians, guys, and gals that we’ve had on our radar for some time to bring into the fold. A lot of people have already agreed to record with us on the next record. So there’s some other stuff that’s happening that will hopefully snowball.
Zachary: We’re not really able to announce anything yet other than what’s been announced like Roadburn and Dark Easter Metal Meeting but we have a lot of stuff coming down the line. We’re going to be very busy.
*Note: this is an edited version of the author’s conversation with the band.
From the Too Much Love camp, we can definitely say that we’re excited to see what Imperial Triumphant brings to the table next. Make sure to follow them on Facebook and Instagram, on Spotify (the band makes a teeny tiny bit of money every time you play a song of theirs on Spotify) and, most importantly, buy their stuff on Bandcamp (most of that money goes to the band).
And last, but not least… The video for Swarming Opulence, mentioned earlier in the interview!