When a major label executive with an extensive history in the music business makes several trips from his cushy spot in Los Angeles to a frigid basement in Omaha, there must be something special about the band. Atlantic Records A&R Jeff Blue saw something in Emphatic, Omaha’s hardest working rock band.
“I flew out to Omaha 8 or 9 times and worked with them in a basement. It was very organic. No matter what anyone says, it was four guys sitting around with a computer that was always crashing, writing songs and developing a sound that we were ecstatic about,” Blue says. “That’s the most fun I have. It’s better than being on tour or anything like that. It’s the process of creating something in a basement in the dead of winter in Omaha. I mean, I watched the seasons go by. I’m a guy from L.A. and I wanted to go home so badly, but I would always come back for more because it was such an amazing thing working with these guys. Sitting in a basement, freezing your butt off in a kitty litter box of a studio and creating these songs was what it was really all about.”
The man responsible for launching the careers of monumental artists such as Linkin Park and Macy Gray sees a bright future for Emphatic. Fronted by vocalist Patrick Wilson and chief songwriter/guitarist Justin McCain, Emphatic has been on the grind for almost a decade. Their work ethic was something Blue recognized immediately.
“I think Justin and Patrick have been paying their dues for a long, long time. I feel that they’re not manufactured. I feel that they’ve developed. They’ve come into their sound and with a little guidance, it’s all them. They’re phenomenal. There are very few people that have that in their inner core and I think they just needed a little help,” he says. “Justin is an amazing writer and I think Patrick is incredible at understanding how to deliver things. They’re great partners at developing their attributes. It was easy for me to bring out their strengths and for the two to recognize them. I think Emphatic, literally, have made one of the best records in a long time. I hope that they top the charts because I think they deserve it.”
After releasing four independent albums and playing night after night, they had tremendous local support, but it wasn’t until they found their home at Atlantic in December 2009 that things really started to take shape. Their debut album, Damage, is the by-product of the relentless efforts Emphatic put into setting themselves apart from other rock bands in Omaha. With influences ranging from Korn to Pantera, their hard rock sound screams loudly on disc and even louder on stage.
“I feel like we sound amazing on record, but we are definitely a live band. I know that for a fact because when we were out on tour playing places where people have never heard of us before, people come up to us saying they are never going to forget us. We bring energy to the stage which we hope is second to none. That’s what we try for every night,” McCain assures. “We want to leave it all out on stage and kick ass. We get wild. Patrick spins his hair [laughs]. It’s such a great partnership with Pat. I’m mostly business and Patrick is a monster of a front man. We’re like the dynamic duo.”
As soon as McCain and Wilson joined forces with guitarist Lance Dowdle, bassist Alan Larson, keyboardist Jeff Fenn and drummer Dylan Wood, Emphatic’s line up was finally solidified. Their chemistry is undeniable and whether you like hard rock or not, there is something to admire about their musicianship. It’s tight, well-polished and explosive.
“I think Patrick is the best front man in rock today. I’m not just saying that because he’s in my band and I’m biased. I believe in him and I have since day one. Period,” McCain goes on. “No matter what, we deliver full blown intensity and adrenaline on stage. We put on a show. We just don’t play our songs up there. You can see the chemistry when you watch us play live.”
While it’s clear they are making strides in their career and yes, they have a major record deal, that doesn’t mean the tough work is over. In fact, it’s just beginning. The boys are getting ready to hit the road on the “Carnival of Madness Tour” with like-minded groups Theory of a Deadman, Alter Bridge and Black Stone Cherry which will last approximately five weeks. It’s a grueling schedule with lots of late nights, lengthy drives and minimal sleep. Then there’s the interviews, photo shoots, video shoots and other promotional obligations that will leave them very little free time, but you won’t hear any complaints from them. McCain and Wilson realize their luck.
Blue has made an impressive career of artist development. He built Linkin Park from scratch and turned them into international, multi-platinum artists. His hopes for Emphatic are no different.
“I look for believability and by that I mean, I’ve got to feel the band is real and I need to connect with them and believe in what they’re doing. That comes from the personality of the singer, the guitar player, the writing and it comes from a palatable energy that I can feel,“ he says. “That’s the main thing I look for. If you have that then you can create from that and develop from that.”
Wilson and McCain seem in awe of being able to work with Blue. Their experience with Atlantic has been amazing. That’s a rarity considering all of the artists taking the independent route and taking careers into their own hands.
“Jeff Blue is a very smart man when it comes to finding bands and he is very methodical about it. He’s always looking for the next big thing. He wants something that he can take a hold of and make into something larger. Not to boost my ego or anything, but he took us. It’s incredible he took the time out to cultivate us. That’s pretty awesome,” Wilson says. “We’re hoping for as much success as we can. We’re hoping we can go out there and play these songs to as many people as possible. They are really different and we want a chance to portray the many sides of Emphatic.”
They will get plenty of chances to execute their new material for thousands of potential fans and work towards establishing themselves as a national (and eventually international) force to reckon with on this tour. With Damage out in stores, they have high hopes for the record.
“I would honestly have to say as far as expectations, I don’t have any. But I’m always a wishful thinker and I’m hopeful. I hope it does great. I hope it’s a massive success and there’s no expiration on the record and that it lives and stands the test of time. The world is what the world is and you never know what’s going to happen, but I do hope it sells really well,” McCain says.
Produced by Grammy Award-winner Howard Benson (Papa Roach, My Chemical Romance, Seether), Damage contains the excitement and energy Emphatic delivers on stage. The first single, “Bounce,” is receiving regular radio airplay. Working with Benson was literally a dream come true for McCain.
“Truth be told, I wrote Howard a letter five years prior to working with him. I said, ‘Howard I love you, you’re my idol. Please produce our record.’ I knew he would probably never see it. It’s ironic, isn’t it? What are the odds that someday I actually would have encountered him yet alone work with him? He was an idol of mine and someone I always dreamed of working with,” McCain says. “I liked his work. He worked with Papa Roach, Halestorm and Skillet and all of these bands that I loved so I’m very familiar with the sounds that come out of the studio and how his records translate to the world.”
“I actually use the word surreal at least once a day. That’s the only word that can really describe the feeling. There are so many bands out there that are trying to do the same thing so it’s almost like when I personally think about that, I’m speechless at times because it’s so incredible to be in this position. We’re so grateful and honored,“ he continues. “We’re always going to work our asses off, but when we actually think about it, it’s like ‘wow, we’ve actually come a long way.’ It wasn’t handed to us by any means. We definitely put in the work. We know at any given moment, there’s an up and coming band that wants to take our spot. So every day is a grind and we look forward to how we’re going to make Emphatic important today and how we’re going to make our audiences grow. We’re going to bust our asses for this.”
It’s been a sometimes bumpy road. Several years ago a deal with Universal Records fell apart before they could release a record. However, the band quickly embraced the relationship with Atlantic. Amidst the line-up changes and local gossip about who did what, Emphatic survived. While the line-up change wasn’t necessarily something Wilson or McCain wanted, it was a crucial move in ensuring Emphatic’s future.
“I don’t think it’s really relevant at this point. People need to understand at the end of the day, it’s a very difficult thing. No matter what. Every time you reach a point where you think you can relax, you can’t,“ Blue explains. “It just gets harder, just like anything that’s worthwhile in life. This business is harder every single day.”
“We got together in 2004. That’s when Patrick started with us. It was us and a group of guys that are no longer in the band today. In all honesty, it’s really been Patrick and me the whole time, regardless of who has or hasn’t been there,“ McCain says. “We’ve been through a lot of line-up changes. It’s not uncommon. Patrick and I are the only ones that signed the deal as a band. He and I have a great partnership and we both love what we do. I write the songs and he executes them.
Blue understands what some fans think of the major label business, but he searches out genuine talent and those that aren't the real deal don't register with him.
“I’m not going to say anything negative about major labels at all because I work with all of them. All the bands I develop, I’m very hands on with - anywhere from the songwriting to production to performing. I’ll get in there and help with every aspect from imaging and live performance. I feel like I’m part of the team,” he adds. “I’m like the older band member [laughs]. I sit in and help with everything. I make sure it’s believable. If I can feel that, it’s real, but it has to be the right band. The believability has to come from the band. I can’t create that. I’m a great facilitator and more like a team leader.”
What now? The deal with Atlantic is in place, the tour bus is ready to go and Damage is flying off the shelves. It seems as if Emphatic’s only uncompleted task is to get their fan base to exponentially grow so world domination is plausible. Crazy as that may sound, it’s a concrete goal. McCain and Wilson know that in order for that to happen, remaining humble is key. That’s not easy when you have people asking for autographs and lining up to talk to you.
“Staying legit and staying true to yourself is most important to me. People can smell if you’re phony. You have to remember where you came from and keep that in the back of your mind. Don’t forget your roots,” Wilson says. “This is a great opportunity. I wish I could share it with everybody. Being able to meet other bands all the time is a really fun lifestyle. If this is on the record, then yes, I keep myself in check on the road [laughs]. This is too big of a deal to waste it on something stupid. I don’t give people a reason to hate.”
McCain agrees and always remembers to give Omaha credit for putting them on the map.
“It really started with big support in Omaha. We’re from the metro area and have been well received since the get-go. I guess radio really helped break Emphatic. Getting airplay helped us sell-out shows and continue to do so. I guess that’s kind of the major thing that set us apart from other bands. It lasted and it kept on building. The buzz didn’t fade out,” he says. “I hate to say my true opinion sometimes because it gets twisted, but I think there needs to be a straight up fu*king rock band. Indie rock is the only thing that’s really made it out of Omaha. We’re going to do the best to change that.”