If you’re in a Star Wars-themed, progressive instrumental band that play in full costume, taking John Williams’ grandiose Oscar-winning scores to metallic heights, there is but one date in the calendar year that serves fit to mark the arrival of your latest opus.
Galactic Empire’s second full-length, brilliantly titled Episode II, sees the quintet continue their pillage through the film series’ back catalogue – doffing their caps to the legendary composer while also contorting his work into a dizzying flurry of tech-metal.
As luck would have it, today is May The Fourth and MusicRadar manages to find enough of a signal boost to reach Dark Vader at his castle in Mustafar – or as he happily explains, Chris Kelly from Pennsylvania.
Here, he talks us through the challenges in reinterpreting elongated and complex musical structures while cloaked and masked as the most infamous Sith Lord of them all…
Greetings, Dark Vader! What is the story behind this most unlikely of missions?
“Yeah, that’s me, man… you can call me by my real name if you prefer. So in the beginning, our drummer Grant McFarland – also known as Boba Sett – made a drum video of The Imperial March, playing along with the orchestra.
“I helped him record the drums and his goal was to get a million views. I guess he thought maybe it could be possible considering both play-through videos and Star Wars are quite popular.”
And how did it do?
“He got a good few hundred-thousand I think, but it didn’t quite reach a million. It still did fairly well overall, I’d say. Following that, the idea eventually came to him of adding guitars into that arrangement, so that’s when me and our bassist Carson Slovak got properly involved.
“Him and Carson operate a studio called Atrium Audio here in Pennsylvania. We didn’t know how we were going to put guitars to it or if we were going to add to what was already there in the orchestra. Somehow we ended up doing it as a recreation of John Williams’ original arrangement – those arrangements are already quite busy as it is.”
That must have been quite the task. Where do you even start in that kind of musical quest?
“Grant is blessed with perfect pitch, so thankfully he took a lot of that role. He spent meticulous hours grid-editing the orchestra so it was all at a consistent tempo and sat there, bar-by-bar, picking out every individual line that was going on. His ear’s pretty insane! Before we knew it, he had it all ready to go.
“Guitar is not his main instrument, but he understands music well enough to show us note-by-note. Then we thought about how it should look and someone suggested the costumes with a green screen behind. We also figured out with the movie [The Force Awakens] coming out, there were certain days where we could guess there’d be a decent amount of hits.
“This was literally all about making a cool YouTube video. We certainly didn’t have any expectations about this turning into a band. We got two friends to be in the first video, pretending to play the parts with gloves or whatever, learning the arrangement enough to fake it…”
And this was the video that went truly viral?
“The video went out and we thought maybe we could hit a million one day much later down the line. And we got that in about eight hours! By the end of the first week, there had been eight or nine million views and from there it totally spiralled.
“A few weeks later, we got a call from E! Entertainment – one of the Hollywood celebrity television channels – asking us to fly out to LA and play on the carpet during their Oscars coverage. And we were like, ‘You don’t understand… we don’t know how to play this, haha!’
“We had never done anything like this before; we were just doing it for fun. After that, then came booking agents and record labels, so we figured, ‘Well, all right – looks like this is gonna be a thing!’”
What is it about the original scores that works so well in a more progressive metal style framework?
“Believe it or not, what we play, even all the way down to the rhythm guitars and bass, is all from what the orchestra is playing. There’s nothing made-up. It’s just performed on different instruments, like tuba parts on distorted chuggy guitars.
“I know it doesn’t sound the same, but it’s actually a straight one-to-one copy! John Williams’ scores lend themselves well to this style. He’s known for these big, epic and memorable themes. Also classical music has always gone well with metal – there’s a lot of neoclassical metal bands and shred guitarists out there.
“There’s a good amount of overlap in dynamics, emotion and intricacies between the genres. I feel like the overall goal of both genres is to impact the listener mentally and make them feel something. When played on heavy guitars, it comes out sounding like crazy tech thing – it’s pure chance we stumbled across it in a way that works!”
There’s a fair amount of technique required in order to execute a lot of the parts…
“I certainly don’t consider myself to be a great player... I’m not sure if any working guitar player does. But honestly this kind of playing is a whole different animal – nothing repeats and things change key all the time.
“One of our guitarists described it as the longest game of [memory test] Simon, because the amount of mental space needed is just absurd. It’s sort of embarrassing; I have almost zero theoretical knowledge on guitar. None of this music makes sense to me. I learned it through sheer force of will.
“Honestly, if anyone has the drive and motivation to play these songs over and over again with a metronome, they would be able to do this. All my teachers used to get mad at me because they’d try to teach me scales and I’d just get bored because my attention span is terrible. I never learned any of it properly- I can barely fake my way around the pentatonic scale.”
So how did you end up nailing the technical aspect?
“I grew up only playing cover songs, then I got into death metal, but none of that was theory-based. The proper way is to learn about what you’re looking at, understanding why you play it and developing your chops from there – but everything I know came from learning Metallica, Megadeth and that kinda stuff.
“Those guitar players sounded good to me and I wanted to do that stuff as well as I physically could. If you have enough of a drive to do something, you’ll get it done. It’s just a case of putting in the time.”
You were using PRS guitars for a while, but recently switched to Kiesel… any reason why?
“I still love those [PRS] guitars, but there came a time for a change, and on our last US tour, I debuted the first guitar Kiesel made for me. It’s not a matter of better or worse; things just sorta worked out that way.
“It’s cliché to say it’s the player not the gear – and, actually, the gear absolutely matters – but I think when you get to a certain level on your instrument, the differences in sound and feel will be minimal on whatever model you choose to play.”
Kiesel also signed up the UK’s very own Andy James earlier in the year…
“I was stoked to see Andy join the Kiesel roster. I’ve never met him, but he seems like a great guy and his playing is mind-blowing!
“There’s another English player I’m really into: Guthrie Govan. On one of our last tours, we were in Nashville and it turned out Hans Zimmer was playing. A friend got us into the show and watching him play that stuff was unreal. I was about to cry for most of the show – that’s how beautiful it was…”
So what are your guitars fed into?
“Our rigs look complicated, but they’re actually very simple. Nobody has pedalboards, none of us use cabinets – it’s all straight into the Axe-Fx where the patch controls are done; it also runs the backing tracks, lights, click tracks and everything is wireless.
“Our live show is as streamlined as can be. This kind of music takes up enough of our attention, not forgetting we’re all in costumes – worrying about tap-dancing through pedals would be a nightmare.
“All of us have an extremely limited field of vision through our helmets. If we moved and couldn’t find our footswitch, we’d be screwed. So we try to minimise the amount of things we need to focus on on the stage.”
It must surely get damn hot in there, too…
“It’s not as bad as it looks… but it is bad. The ones we use live are altered for mobility and breathability; they were designed for the purpose of being worn onstage. So they are actually as comfortable as they can be.
“It was a shock to the system playing in a mask at first, but we quickly got used to it. Your peripheral vision is suddenly taken away – you don’t realise how important it is until it’s not there. My entire head has to rotate if I go up three frets. It’s quite the adjustment!”
Do you have any favourite pieces to play? Or do they all just blur into one?
“At the moment, maybe just because it’s more fresh, there’s a track that I love on our new record called March Of The Resistance which is from The Force Awakens, so it’s a fairly new one.
“I don’t know if it’s because the music is a bit simpler, more like a regular song in ways, but it’s super-driving and makes you think, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s go shoot stuff!’ Jesus Christ, that’s probably the most American thing I’ve ever said haha!
“I also like the Throne Room end credits sequence that was the closing track on our first album, which is still on the setlist as it’s one of our favourites to play. It’s hard to pick a favourite when you’ve gotten so heavily involved with the music; you learn to appreciate each song.”
What advice do you have any for anyone wanting to play the sweep-picked arpeggios heard on your records?
“I would recommend watching our other guitar player, haha! His name is C.J. Masciantonio and he now dresses up as the character we call Kylo Ren. In the original video, he was the black Stormtrooper.
“He does all the crazy fast, intricate sweeps, whammy bar bits and counter-melodies while I stick to the main ones, which are longer, held out notes. There’s a lot of picking I need to do as well, but it’s usually alternate or legato. There’s very rarely something that needs to be swept; usually it would be something random like a flute – nothing at the forefront of the orchestra.
“That kid is ridiculously good, so he handles all of it. Sometimes I watch him and get genuinely depressed. I can sweep, but I don’t like the way I sweep and I hate the way my right hand works.”
Finally, is there an end-goal for this project? What happens when you’ve conquered the galaxy and run out of Star Wars music?
“We’ve talked about it a bit, more in the form of jokes. If we completed the entire catalogue and there was zero Star Wars material remaining, which would be a bit overwhelming, we could still carry on touring.
“We have a gimmick that’s – for lack of a better term – more or less timeless: people will always dig Star Wars, so as long as they like the music, we have a market. We’ve been asked if we’d do originals, and I don’t see this band ever doing that. There’s a pretty specific purpose for this project.
“We actually see ourselves as a John Williams tribute, so if we did anything different it would be touching on his other work. We’ve made jokes about doing Indiana Jones in the Star Wars costumes with a fedora on, which is getting even more ridiculous, haha! I can’t say whether that will happen.
“From the beginning, this was going to be a band that would either work or fall flat on its face… we’re all just riding the wave until we can’t ride it any more.”
Episode II is out now via Rise Records.