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White Empress Interview

White Empress Interview
(via Skype)

White Empress


Paul Allender originally planned for White Empress to be a side project -- a band into which he could infuse the rebellious and raw spirit of metal, while Cradle of Filth took a break between albums. That break did not materialize, and Paul left Cradle of Filth to devote himself to White Empress. With an ambitious vision for the band, he set out to find a vocalist and cadre of musicians to bring the Empress to life in all her furious glory.

Sonic Cathedral sat down with vocalist Mary Zimmer for a one-on-one audience with the White Empress. Dive in for Mary’s behind-the-scenes take on Rise of the Empress, the coming breed of trans-humans, the pieces of home that found their way onto the album, and much more!

Sonic Cathedral:  Welcome to Sonic Cathedral, Mary! Would you start by introducing the court of the White Empress?

Mary:  Sure! Thank you, Robin. I think we’ll start with Paul (obviously), who is the founding member. People know him from his previous work with Cradle of Filth. And then there is Chela on the bass, and a lot of people have seen her live with Coal Chamber. She is awesome, and she is also Canadian. Then we have Jeremy on second guitar. He is from Wisconsin, but he is in a South African band called The Awakening as well as White Empress.

On drums, we have Zac Morris … not to be confused by that other Zack Morris. He is formerly of Silent Civilian; a lot of people know him from that band. And as well, he has been a live drummer for Ugly Kid Joe and lots of people, actually. Will, the keyboard player and orchestral arranger, he is from the U.K. Over there, he was also in a band called Damnation Angels, with this Norwegian power metal singer named PelleK. Some people know him. So, it’s interesting that everyone kind of has a résumé going into this. It’s pretty crazy.




Sonic Cathedral:  I know you’re going to get this question EVERY interview, but how did you and Paul Allender get together for White Empress?

Mary:  It’s kind of a long story. He was looking for some musicians, and they went through a lot of different singers. But he lives here in the Midwest … he lives in Saint Paul (in the Twin Cities) now, and so he was looking for somebody locally. Through a myriad of different communications, we got put in touch with each other, and it just sort of evolved into: “Hey, do you want to try some of this music out?” And I tried out some of the music that he had. He wouldn’t tell me what kind of vocals he wanted on the music. I asked: “Well, what do you want? Do you screaming? Singing? What is this supposed to be?” And he was like: “I’m not going to say what to do.” <laughs> So, I just went and did EVERYTHING, and then we decided that we really liked it, and liked how it was turning out, so we decided to keep working together.

Sonic Cathedral:  White Empress seems to be a wrap-around project, where there is a backstory that complements the cover art and visual look of the band … Paul actually mentioned a future graphic novel. When creating the lyrics and vocal lines, how does everything come together in a cohesive manner?

Mary:  The thing about it is: the band is set up in two distinct parts. On the one hand, you have the fictional White Empress character. Originally, we had wanted to make ourselves be the characters. We didn’t even want to tell anybody who was in the band; we just wanted to be the characters. But that really wasn’t realistic. The reason is because you can’t go super-far with the fantasy concept when people know who you really are. <laughs> I mean, it’s 2014, so everybody knows what you look like and who you are on your own personal Facebook or Instagram or whatever. It’s really hard to get people involved in a fantasy concept, if you actually try to be that concept. So, we kind of separated it into almost two totally related, but totally different, entities.

We’ve got the people who are in the band -- you know, Paul, me, Chela, Zac, Jeremy and Will. Everybody knows who we are. But then, you have the sort of cartoon … well, not cartoon … but there are a lot of different artistic representations of the White Empress that are not me. It is not me in some of the pictures; they are just art or drawings or paintings. There is a graphic novel design by an artist named Eric Godeau, and that will be a whole separate thing. We’re going to introduce a graphic novel into the concept as well. But we wanted it to be separate. While we’re visually going to represent the image of the White Empress on stage, people almost could get more into it when we took ourselves out of it and created this avatar image of her, using the artwork and using especially Eric’s graphic novel drawing. It is almost an anime looking type of drawing, and people have totally fallen in love with it. There are already a couple of people with a tattoo of his image of the White Empress and everything.

I think the reason they are so quick to do that is because they can get into that drawing, that fantasy concept, the fictional concept, whereas, they’re not going to be so ready to tattoo my or Paul’s face on themselves. So, it’s really cool. It shows that people really, really love the concept and artwork, and they really love imagining the White Empress. Because when you make it this fictional character, everyone can take it, and make her their own. But also, we didn’t want to be cheesy and make concept albums because that is creatively stifling. We see what happens when people try to continue a concept that is forced over a certain number of albums, and that gets really old and stale. And people find it hard to relate to, after a while.

So, there are maybe two songs on the album that I wrote about the fictional White Empress character. They possibly could be parts of the graphic novel because, there are just some times, where I thought that inspiration was appropriate. The whole rest of the album is not at all about the White Empress. So, it’s just different philosophical topics and different unrelated things because we really wanted the music to be genuine, and we wanted it to be relatable as well. And that comes from real life topics and relevant things -- thoughts and impressions that maybe don’t apply to the character of the White Empress. So we sort of have this dichotomy, but we all make it go together anyway. <laughs> That was a long explanation!

Sonic Cathedral:  Talking about the fictional White Empress, is she a character that has warmth and mercy, or is she the epitome of a warrior?

Mary:  I think there are times when she is both. So far, the concept is open to development, but I think with any rich character development, you see layers of both. The things that we’ve written so far about her -- a couple of songs and the biography by VK Lynne -- there is one song that certainly indicates a degree of take-over and power, and then, there is another song that indicates compassion and consideration. The other song is about listening to someone who people wouldn’t listen to, or giving that person a chance. I think any character with any sort of depth to it is not going to be all-or-nothing. They will have elements of both things.

White Empress 


Sonic Cathedral:  If you could replace part of yourself with a cybernetic organism -- without pain and without looking like a freakish tin-can concoction -- would you do it? If so, what would you replace?

Mary:  Oh wow, that’s a really good question! I love the idea of integrating technology. I guess it would depend on what kinds of devices were available, but ideally something that would enhance your brain somehow. Probably, nano-bots or something like that.

Sonic Cathedral:  You have written quite a bit about musicians getting their minds right regarding the digital age and the new way of doing things. For bands that are emerging now, what do you see as the blessing and the curse of being in a digital world?

Mary:  Well, it’s largely a blessing. You know, the mistake people make in this whole classic analog-versus-digital argument, is that they imagine that somewhere, back before the year 2001, there was some sort of magical time in which every band that was working hard got some major record deal and was able to live off it. When the actuality is: It was much harder in the analog age for a band to make it. You had to depend on a record label; you had to depend on terrestrial radio, which was almost impossible to get on if you were not on a record label; and there were very few artists actually getting attention and/or getting signed. Whereas, nowadays, you have limitless opportunity to book your own shows, get your own interviews, be your own publicist, get your own airplay, sell your own music, and make your own merchandise.

I mean, it’s honestly such a brilliant thing for musicians, and it’s really up to you as a musician, rather than waiting for someone else to discover you in an impossible time to get discovered. <laughs> I think it’s much more reasonable for a musician to be financially successful doing that. Maybe not in a giant rockstar sense, but you could probably make a good salary just by doing that, and make a good living. If you really get good at it, and you have something extremely catchy, you might wind up like Macklemore. I know he’s not a metal person, but he’s an independent artist who owns the rights to all of his music, and didn’t … absolutely did not, whatsoever … need a major label behind him. It would not previously have been possible to own all your music and actually keep the money from it. That’s the other thing that people forget: Now, by doing those things, you own the music. So, I think it’s nothing but a blessing, and I think that people who don’t understand that, really aren’t thinking realistically about what the past situation was and what the present situation is.

Sonic Cathedral:  White Empress will be storming the stage soon to unveil the new music live. With members in Canada and the U.K., will everyone be there for the live shows?

Mary:  Everybody is coming for the live shows, except Will from the UK. He is going to be on the hard-drive, unfortunately. It is just because of the cost, at this point, for this small run of shows. We all collectively agreed (and Will, too) that it would be better to hold off. But everybody else is going to be here. It was kind of crazy -- Zac is out in LA, Chela is in Canada, Jeremy and I are in Madison/Milwaukee, and Paul is in the Twin Cities. We’re all going to be getting together from quite a big distance, and I had to fill out a lot of Homeland Security paperwork just to get Chela here for these shows. <laughs> So, we’re really excited, and we’re really glad that we were able to do it. There is going to be quite the media explosion of things. Social media is just going to totally blow up with things; we have so much going on.

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Sonic Cathedral:  Getting back to the songs on Rise of the Empress that do not deal with the fictional White Empress character, what sorts of topics have been on your mind that find their way into your lyrics? You are (for example) a strong proponent of renewable energy.

Mary:  Well, a lot of the lyrics on this record are thematically related, and a lot of them relate to a concept called “the singularity”, which is the idea that we are approaching a time where technology and biology eventually will become indistinguishable -- like Cylons, if you will. <laughs> Not exactly in that way, but to the point where technology will be biology, and vice versa, and there will be no digital/analog distinction. The scientists who map out the exponential growth of technology … this one scientist in particular whose work I read is Ray Kurzweil, and he talks about how we are approaching the singularity.

I actually specifically talk about that in “Obsession with the Empress (Human to Divine)”, and it’s in some of the other songs -- the construct of the universe and our place in it, and how we are going to change. Things are going to change, and our understanding is going to change. Are we going to be the new gods, or are the gods going to take our place? Will we become extinct, or will we become trans-human? It is inevitable, so these are things that are going to be really relevant a lot sooner than people realize because of that exponential growth of technology. You know, we already see it with how integrated we are. It is only in its mildest form right now, but most of us will see this singularity, believe it or not. These are the things that I feel are pressing in my head.

Sonic Cathedral:  Do you find yourself delving into the science behind Ray Kurzweil’s theory to keep abreast of developments? Do you think the singularity is a benefit, or do we lose our humanity by becoming integrated?

Mary:  Well, we do become something else; we won’t be the same species. It is the next step in evolution. What we find, when we look at the organization of matter … and energy evolution is matter and energy organizing itself into progressively better order. Why we have a brain versus a single-celled organism. The functions that we can compute are highly sophisticated, and we’re more evolved. It is almost like the intended destiny of the universe is to organize itself.

We just don’t really understand (and scientists know this) to what end. What is the point? We can kind of see what is happening now. It is still the same matter and energy that belongs to the same universe -- we’re part of the same universe -- but our existence will be vastly different. And yes, honestly, if people end up being like Amish, the last of the analog humans will (unfortunately) become extinct eventually, and trans-humans will take over and so forth and so on. We’ll become totally different beings. So yeah, we will lose our humanity, but I don’t think it is to a loss.

Sonic Cathedral:  To be honest, that makes my brain spin, Mary.

Mary: You have got to read Ray Kurzweil, that’s all I’ve gotta say. It takes a lot; you’ve got to really WANT to read it because it’s very mathematical.



Sonic Cathedral:  Some of the tracks that really stood out for me are “The Congregation”, “Sven’s Tower”, and “Erased and Rewritten”. Can we get some insight into those tracks?

Mary:  “Sven’s Tower” is really interesting. That is one of the songs on the album that is actually about the White Empress character. I thought it would be cool for part of a graphic novel or something, but it’s based on a real place which is kind of cool too. In Wisconsin, we have this place called Door County; it’s like the little arm thing on the map that sticks out into the lake … or the thumb, if you made it look like a hand. <laughs> So that little peninsula that sticks out, I’ve spent a LOT of time there. It’s probably the most beautiful place in Wisconsin, and my favorite place is there, called Sven’s Bluff. It’s this beautiful bluff that looks out, and you can see Michigan across Green Bay. There are these islands right there called the Strawberry Islands, and there used to be a tower there called Sven’s Tower. It’s like this firemen’s look-out tower.

I thought: “Wouldn’t it be cool if Sven’s Tower and these islands and the bluff were actually part of the White Empress’ fantasy kingdom?” So, I made this little story about this little guy. He is the underdog -- maybe the deformed hunchback or Elephant Man type -- just somebody that everybody totally underestimates because of how he looks, basically. His job is to sit in the tower, look out over the bay, and make sure that no one is going to attack. This one night comes along, and he sees some ships creeping in through the fog, and they make a mistake. It’s a moonless night, but they lit a candle, and he sees it. He is smarter than everybody thinks, so he decides that he is not going to sound the alarm because he doesn’t want to give away that he knows that they are there.

So he just runs to the White Empress, and tries to tell her. The guards don’t want to let him in because he’s not important, but the Empress decides to give him and shot and hear what he has to say. Because he didn’t sound the alarm, they are able to launch a sneak surprise attack. I just thought, if they battled them on the shores of the Strawberry Islands, that would be how they got their name … because the sand got all covered with blood. <all laugh> So, I kind of tied some real life things into the concept of that one. Oh, what were the other tracks you asked about?

White Empress 


Sonic Cathedral:  “The Congregation” and “Erased and Rewritten”.

Mary:  “The Congregation” is about a real life situation that happened to me when I was a kid. I don’t want to go into too much detail because it’s about this letter a person wrote to me years later about some stuff from when we were kids. It was a person I hadn’t talked to in a really long time, and it was really fascinating because there was just like a really poignant point in their life that changed because of who they were and who I was. It was really interesting that, as an adult, this person was able to reach out to me and to explore that a little bit. But out of respect for them, I don’t want to say too much about that one because they probably had no idea that I was going to write a song about them. <laughs>

Sonic Cathedral:  <laughs> Fair enough!

Mary:  “Erased and Rewritten” is another one of those “let’s talk about the universe and science and stuff”, and the song explores the whole idea that the universe is just matter and energy organizing itself more and more. You can even track evolution on the same mathematical scale that you can track processing rates on. Everything in the universe is set up mathematically really similar because it all is moving towards one end. But it’s kind of like: “Well, then what happens? When it becomes all organized, then does the Big Bang just start all over again? Does the same matter and energy just keep cycling itself? And to what end?” So, is it just going to keep happening over and over again; is it just a cycle of being erased and rewritten over and over? It is more like a philosophical question about things that we don’t have the answers to yet.

Sonic Cathedral:  Which songs off Rise of the Empress are you particularly looking forward to playing live?

Mary:  Definitely “The Ecstatic and the Sorrow” is going to be really awesome! There are actually a couple of things up our sleeves that I’m looking forward to as well -- some surprises that you guys don’t know about yet. Then we also have … hmmm, which ones? … I want to play them ALL live, but I think “Erased and Rewritten” and “A Prisoner Unleashed” will be pretty fun too. They’ll all be awesome! I am just looking forward to playing music this heavy live. I like how heavy the music is, and I think live, it’s finally as heavy as I want it, which is cool!

Sonic Cathedral:  Paul had mentioned that, in creating the band and album, he wanted to go for that raw, live, high-energy, thrashy feel that sometimes is missing from female-fronted metal shows, which can be rather demure. Do you share that feeling?

Mary:  Yeah, I’m like Paul in the fact that I started … well, not at the same time as him … but when I started playing music, I was more in the raw underground thing of it all because, back when I started playing, there weren’t hardly any females. I always wanted to be in the heavier bands (the thrasher bands), and that is always what I was in. A lot of times, I could have been in a more Nightwish-y type of band -- and I LIKE that type of music -- but I don’t like to play that type of music, is what I realized. I like to play heavier and faster; I definitely love the screaming; and I definitely have to have that in there.

It’s weird because I listen to all kinds of music. But really, when I play live, I want to be in people’s faces -- definitely, more like the old-school scene. I’ll be honest, I had a hard time in Belgium [at Metal Female Voices Fest] last year because I didn’t know how to handle the crowd. I was used to a waaaaaay different crowd here in America, the more raw/death metal/mosh pit type of crowd. So, for me, I don’t even know if I know how to address the typical FFM fan … and I’m really referring more to the classical-oriented bands, whom I love to watch and I love to listen … but once I was on that side of the stage, I didn’t know what to do with myself because I’m so used to the aggressive, raw show. <laughs> That’s what I like to do; that’s what I like to bring; and that requires really heavy music.

White Empress


Sonic Cathedral:  Do you have to get yourself into any particular mindset to get on stage and be Metal Mary, roaring from the bottom of your lungs, or is that just you?

Mary:  I think I can just do it; it’s really strange, I know. Well, the thing is: The music puts you there. The music just puts you there. I mean, you can’t listen to the music, and not be there. It’s fast, it’s heavy as fuck, it’s got all these parts where the stuff just locks in, and whenever I practice with the music, that’s all it takes. Really, the only thing I have to do is be calm and focused before I go on stage. I can’t have a chaotic dressing room, talking to a lot of people, or that type of thing because I need to save my voice and energy.

Once the show is over, it’s a little bit different … I can hang out or whatever. But that’s about it. I don’t need to do anything super-outrageous because I’ve always felt like it’s the music that motivates me. Once you’re up there, the amps are super-loud, and you can’t ignore that energy. Honestly, the crowd will put you there as well. When you have the crowd and you have that raw crowd, and you are getting that energy back from people -- the pit is going, and people are just going ape shit -- that is really where you get it too. I feel like the music and the crowd, if they’re there, I am already put there from the second the first note is played.

Sonic Cathedral:  Are you going to be able to get any calm before the show, when your Glitter Twin, VK Lynne, is coming in from California with From Light Rose the Angels, to join you for the shows?

Mary:  <laughs> I am super-excited about that! It is so cool because it is going to be more like a European bill. In Europe, they don’t distinguish as much. They know about the subgenres, but they don’t care like Americans do. Americans are like: “Okay, we can only have death metal bands on the show. And we can have this type of metal band on this show, but we can’t have them all together.” I feel like having VK here … and actually, the line-ups for a lot of the shows that we’ve set up, because a lot of them have females ... we’re transcending that, or being more like the Europeans.

It’s all heavy music, but it’s all really different. So, come enjoy the show, but each band is going to stand out on its own. We are all collectively heavy. But VK’s band (for example), who I listen to all the time because I love it, is completely different than us, but it fits, it works. The fans are loving it, and they love both. The fans have been super-pleased with that arrangement. Yeah, of course, VK is one of my best friends, which makes it AMAZING, and I respect her so much too. Part of why I asked her to join us was because she owns it. She is going to bring it, and the band is very professional. They are going to kick ass, and put on a really good show. They are just a really tight, professional band with professional musicians, so it wasn’t just that she is a friend of mine. They are a kick-ass band who totally deserve to be there, and we’re proud to have them on the bill and proud to be playing this run of shows with them. <laughs>

But yeah, VK and I are going to insta-tweeta-facebook-agraming the craziness out of it! That’s what I mean about it being a media explosion, because we’re going to have those kinds of things going on. We’re also going to have other bands (that everyone knows and loves) that are also really different female-fronted metal bands, like Plague of Stars and Cwn Annwn, and it’s going to be really cool. Obviously, we’re all going to be going crazy and taking pictures together, but I’ll have to step away from the venue or step back into the dressing room for a few hours. I really do, because it’s a vocally-intense set, and I honestly can’t help myself. I’ve learned that, if you can’t make yourself stop talking, then you just have to remove yourself from the situation. I can usually talk after the show, but I just don’t realize how much talking wears out your voice before the show, so I’ll have silent pictures. <all laugh> But that’s okay!



Sonic Cathedral:  Mary, what final words do you have for Sonic Cathedral readers?

Mary:  You guys kick ass! Thank you so much for your support, and I hope you are enjoying Rise of the Empress if you have it already. I hope that everyone who is in the Midwest will get out to see us, but if not, don’t worry. If you are from another part of the world, there are going to be tons and tons of videos and photos. You are not going to miss out because we’re going to immerse you guys; it’s going to be like you were right there with us. We can’t wait to bring it to everyone!

Thank you, Robin. You rock!

Sonic Cathedral:  Keep rocking HARD, my friend. Thank you for talking with Sonic Cathedral tonight, Mary!


Photo credit (live shots): Janne Tamminen

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