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Joshua Batten chats with Southern Empire’s keyboard player and bandleader Sean Timms

Adelaidean Retro-Prog rockers Southern Empire may be relatively unknown in their home country, but with their second album Civilisation getting rave reviews in Europe and America, they’re on their way to becoming the new antipodean ambassadors of the genre. For keyboard player and bandleader Sean Timms, the positive reception is overwhelming. “I’m quite taken aback and humbled. When you put out an album, you hope that people will like it, but you very rarely believe that they actually will. So, when you get such high praise, it’s a little unexpected. It’s the most well-received album that I’ve ever worked on and it’s blown all the others out of the water.”

In my one-hour conversation with Sean, I was given great detail and insight into his life, love of music, and how Southern Empire operates as a band. A music enthusiast from a young age, he began playing piano at ten, and at fourteen he was given a copy of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to The Centre Of the Earth on vinyl as encouragement from his father. “That record changed my life. It had four songs on two sides, an orchestra, a choir, fifty-eight thousand keyboards, a narrator, a story, a concept, staging, a rock band and a man in a gold cape. I then heard that Rick Wakeman had been in Yes, so I bought their latest album at the time, Relayer. I couldn’t see Rick Wakeman’s name anywhere, because he’d been replaced by Patrick Moraz, but I played it over and over. The 20-minute opening track “Gates of Delirium” blew my mind. I had grown up listening to The Beatles, Cliff Richard, George Gershwin, Dave Brubeck, but Prog became my first love.”

Southern Empire formed in 2014, after the breakup of Timms’ previous band, the internationally acclaimed Unitopia. While that band’s frontman Mark Trueack went on to form United Progressive Fraternity, combining Australian and European musicians, Timms chose to keep things local when picking musicians for his new band. With singer/guitarist Danny Lopresto, lead guitarist Cam Blokland, bass player Jez King and drummer Brody Green, Sean has found a group capable of reaching new musical heights. Indeed, Timms says “These guys really keep me at the top of my game. They’re so incredibly talented that I feel like the weak link, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing about themselves. Danny’s constantly saying ‘I just feel so privileged to be in a band with you guys’, and I think we all kind of feel that way. We all keep each other on our toes, we’re all mates, and we’re all pretty unconditional with that. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which may be a cliché, but it’s definitely true for this band.”

The biggest difference between the band’s self-titled debut album from 2016 and Civilisation is that the other band members had more of an active role in the creation of the music this time round. That was an intentional decision on Timms’ part, who wrote all the tracks on the debut. “I really wanted to get away from having all of my compositions on the album. I recognise that I’m a half-decent writer, but I work best when other people are either contributing ideas to the songs or contributing songs that I can then work on.”

With more writers involved, the songs have been given the chance to stretch out as journeys and explorations. Indeed, the track list for Civilisation is a prog fan’s ultimate heaven – just four tracks, two of which are roughly ten minutes long, while the other two are twenty and thirty minutes respectively. Album opener ‘Goliath’s Moon’ was an active collaboration between Blokland and Timms. “Cam had one verse and a chorus, and originally it was a lot slower. I took that and sped it up, arranged it, and then put a placeholder middle section into the song, and then he came up with the three-part Gentle Giant-esque counterpoint section. He originally sang all three parts, and then Brody and Danny learned the other two. During rehearsal, he also came up with the crazy guitar duel where Brody goes crazy on his drums, and I put in the transition from the end of the counterpoint section to the outro.”

Similarly, Brody Green contributed heavily to the twenty-minute second track, ‘Cries for the Lonely’, which contains strong influence from Nightwish and musical theatre, with a spectacular violin solo from Samurai of Prog architect Steve Enruh. Lyrically, Timms says this is the most political piece on the album, and it’s the track that embodies the album’s title more than any other. “It’s kind of like my protest piece. It was based on the photograph of a little boy lying dead on the beach because the ship he was a refugee on had sunk. An iconic image, but just how sad that the whole situation is with people having such horrendous circumstances that the only way they can escape those is to pay some boat person an inordinate amount of money to get to a different country, only to be rejected there as well. It’s making some comments and observations about the way we treat each other based on appearance, religion, sexuality, political views and ethnicity. But you get rid of the skin, and we’re all the same underneath. We are all created in the same image, and we should treat each other equally.”

The album’s longest track, ‘Crossroads’ may sound familiar to die-hard followers of Sean Timms and Mark Trueack, as it was originally written for Unitopia’s aborted fourth album and was later recorded and released as ‘Travelling Man’ on UPF’s debut album, Fall in Love with the World. “Mark’s original intention was to re-work those songs and make them into his own versions, which I approved of,” Timms recalls. “But then time constraints meant that they weren’t able to do that, so they came out pretty close to what the original demos where. At the time I was a bit annoyed about that, and I thought that ‘Crossroads’ was one of those pieces that kind of felt unfinished. It didn’t feel like it had had enough work done on it from a songwriting and arrangement point of view.”

Lyrically, ‘Crossroads’ is inspired by the legend of the African deity Eshu, the ‘keeper of the crossroads’, and his female counterpart Ifa. “I liked the duality of that, the red and the black, and how perception about someone or something can be changed quite radically when you look at them/it from a different point of view. It speaks about choices, decisions and the path we choose to take, whether it be moving ahead, turning to the left, turning to the right, staying where you are or going backwards.” Finally, the album closes with Innocence & Fortune, with lyrics inspired directly from the two-part ninth season finale of Doctor Who. “I’m an unashamed nerd and geek, so I love Doctor Who, so if you’ve seen those episodes you’ll get where a lot of the lyrics come from.”

Southern Empire are gearing up for their first European tour in November, but due to their niche market, live performances in their hometown are extremely rare, and an interstate tour seems off the cards for the foreseeable future. When asked what it would take to get the band to Melbourne, Sydney and beyond, Timms made it clear; “We’d need someone to promote it, and give us some kind of a guarantee, even if it’s just covering equipment hire, backline and transport. In Europe and the UK, we know that we’re going to get enough of a crowd and merch sales to cover airfares, accommodation, equipment and van hire, and anything that doesn’t get covered gets covered by the export development grant that the government supplies. But when there’s no guarantees of enough heads to make it worthwhile, there’s no point in taking a cut of $3K-$4K per state/gig when we could put that $6K-$8K into a tour of the US in 2020. So, as much as we would like to perform interstate, there is just not the recognition for us as a band yet. If we were a Caligula’s Horse or a Karnivool and we had more of an Aussie following, we might consider it, and it might be a cart and horse thing where we have to do a few tours that don’t get a lot of punters to just build up the momentum. But we’ve all got families and day gigs, so it’s not always easy.”

So then, what does 2019 look like for Southern Empire? Timms says it’s full steam ahead for album number three. “I’ve asked the guys to contribute two songs each, and we’re either going to have five short songs and one long song, or ten shorter songs. We’ve got a concept for it, which is really quite different to what we’ve done before, but I think it will certainly be a progression of what we have done. And then in 2020 we hope to tour North America, so we’re in the process of discussing that at the moment.”

If you live in Australia and are a fan of classic prog rock bands like Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull, or newer bands like Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard, you’ll certainly find something to like about Southern Empire. It’s always nice to support a local band, especially when there’s not many bands in the Retro Prog style from Australia, so let’s get behind our ambassadors and support them. Who knows – within a few years they may be well known enough to organise a full-on Australian tour.


The writer Joshua Batten is a Melbourne based singer songwriter




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