The year was 2020. The world had gone dark and the connection to music had gone completely digital. In his isolation, HM contributing writer Andrew Voigt discovered veteran extreme metal act Imperial Triumphant’s 2020 release, Alphaville. The trio is comprised of founder, Zachary Ilya Ezrin (vocals and guitars), Kenny Grohowski (drums), and Steve Blanco (bass, keys, and backing vocals). Hailing from the great city of New York, the band has four studio albums and three EPs under their belt.
The avant-garde jazz metal hits like a barrage of instruments from a myriad of decades, combined into a colorful array of melodic chaos. To say that Imperial Triumphant has a distinct sound would be minimizing their unique approach to extreme metal. Their bizarre and artistic music philosophy pays tribute to the greatest influences in jazz, rock, metal, and classical music — from Miles Davis and Geddy Lee to Les Claypool and Stravinsky.
Voigt spoke with bassist and co-songwriter, Steve Blanco, about Imperial Triumphant’s unique style, the massive bass presence in their music, and the rise and fall of civilization.
You and the guys live in New York City, right?
Since 2014, you have been doing bass, keys, and background vocals for Imperial. Outside of your involvement in the band, what else do you do with your musical talents?
Well, I do all kinds of music stuff. I’m a jazz piano player. Most of my life was dedicated to the piano up until this point. I do some film stuff. I’m really into filmmaking and editing, as well as a bunch of other side work. I fix guitars. Whatever I’ve got to do, I try to keep it in the creative box.
How would you describe the stylistic leaning or overarching genre of Imperial Triumphant?
Well, people use the term “avant-garde.” That seems to be broad enough to cover a lot of different things, so that kind of works. I usually just call it extreme metal, because to me it’s just another level of some type of music with less rules and more experimenting with styles and whatever. The jazz part comes up a lot, but you know, that’s just a part of who we are. No matter what we do, that’s just going to be in there. We didn’t set out to create a new style or new genre or anything.
“But we’re very into the Art Deco era of New York and how that sort of relates back to several thousand years ago, and the connection of all of that in civilization. It’s a big part of what we look at and observe, so that aesthetic fits what we do.”
Intentional or not, the band’s sound is very distinct. One of the strange things that jumps out at me when listening to your music and looking at the artwork is a Roaring Twenties vibe from the early New York and Chicago era.
I mean, even if we said it wasn’t intentional, it is intentional, because it’s coming from our minds somewhere. But we’re very into the Art Deco era of New York and how that sort of relates back to several thousand years ago, and the connection of all of that in civilization. It’s a big part of what we look at and observe, so that aesthetic fits what we do. And New York, you know, a lot of it is buried in the evolution of what’s grown up around it. There’s so much Art Deco stuff here. Have you been here? Where are you?
I’m in Charlotte.
Oh, you’re in Charlotte. Cool.
I’ve definitely been to New York City.
Yeah, so you know. There are symbols all over the place in this town. They’re mysterious.
What is the band’s writing style? Is one person writing the songs, or is it all three of you?
The writing is a group thing. Someone might bring a chart that they’ve written out, someone might bring a demo that they’ve played instruments on, someone might just have an idea. We’ll bring that and the three of us will rehearse that in our space until we develop it into a song. But it’s very group-oriented, so we’re all writing.
Are you literally writing out the music in composition form, or are you more like jazz musicians who just flow?
Both, actually. Sometimes we put stuff down on paper because it helps to organize it. Other times, we’ll play an idea in rehearsal until it starts to feel like something that means something to us.
A lot of bands have a revolving door within their lineup, where musicians rarely stay around for long. You guys have been the same trio for 7 years now. Did you know each other longer than that?
I’ve known them as long as I’ve been in the band, and I think Kenny knew Zach for another couple of years before that.
Zach is the founder of the band, right?
Yeah. Zach made this band when he was a teenager. He’s just stayed on course. It’s very challenging to hold this together for that long (laughs). Kenny and I also have a lot of mutual friends in the New York jazz scene, because we were both into that scene for many years.
When you joined the band, only one full-length album had been released. You subsequently were on the following three records. How has it been staying together for three records and counting?
Yeah, when this particular lineup finally got together, the band seemed to take a lot more shape. Having an actual band and keeping the band together is the hardest part of being a musician, really.
It sounds like you guys play for the right reasons, not just mere success and financial reward.
Yeah, and we’re also fortunate that we like each other. We’ve become like a little family over the years through all the crazy experiences we’ve had around the world.
I recently saw the news that Imperial is going on a brief tour in October.
Yes, finally. It’s been like two years.
Within the extreme metal world, especially in a sub-genre like black metal (if we were to label you as such), it’s rare to find a band or artist who relies heavily on bass. In fact, it sometimes seems nonexistent. That is far from the case with your band. Imperial Triumphant is a similar concept to bands like Primus and Wolves At The Throne Room hypothetically collaborating. What inspired the heavy, driving bass influence in a genre that often lacks that presence?
It’s more like we just want to utilize all three instruments to their fullest potential. I mean, we have crazy guitars, crazy drums, and crazy bass, and it’s all going together and against one another sometimes, and other times, perfectly in concert. I think the subject of “metal bass” is an interesting one in the world of bass, because committing to playing bass in metal can be, like you were describing, kind of weird where there is no bass. Why even have a bass player where the bass is just doubling the lowest guitar note? That’s not the way I play.
As a musician, I like to hear all the instruments; I like to hear everybody doing things. I just find it interesting. It’s all subjective, obviously. I mean, being compared to Les Claypool is a massive compliment, because that guy rules. They are very comfortable with lots of bass, and it works in our band and our style of music. We’re also just a trio; there are only three of us. The other thing we’re trying to do is get a huge sound. To have a huge sound, you have to utilize everything you can.
What are some of your personal influences?
So many different influences, obviously. Bass players, from Jaco Pastorius to Larry Graham, Geddy Lee from Rush, Les Claypool… A ton of piano players, obviously, because I spent so many hours of my life with that instrument, which is a beautiful instrument. It’s kind of antiquated these days; I’ve sort of watched it fade away. It’s kind of a dark thing, but it’s still an amazing machine that makes these amazing acoustic sounds. Great piano players like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans; a lot of jazz records, Miles Davis records that I love from the late 60s, a ton of early 20th Century, mid-20th Century classical music that I grew up listening to that totally messed with my brain and charged it up, like Stravinsky; other composers – Ligeti – he’s a favorite of mine.
A ton of filmmakers have influenced everything I do, too. I got bitten by the cinema bug years ago and that’s had a huge impact on everything, because these great filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick seem to be looking at everything from such a big picture, a really wide lens.
Have you made any films yourself?
The last thing that I did was actually our music video for the song “Excelsior,” and that was really cool. We had a great time doing that. We did that right in the middle of the lockdown, so that was an interesting experience (laughs). I’ve made a whole bunch of short films. I haven’t directed a feature yet. That’s on my radar; hope to do that someday.
Can you tell us whether or not Imperial is planning on releasing a new album in the future?
Yep. We’re actually working on the new record now. As far as release time goes, sometime late 2022 or something, if all goes well. We’ve been working on it for quite a while, so it’s coming along.
How excited are you to play your 2020 album release, Alphaville, in front of a live audience?
Pretty psyched! We got stopped. The album came out and we’re just right out of the gates, and then…stop. So yeah, we’re pretty excited to play material from that record for an audience. I think a lot of our fans are psyched too, so it should be cool.
For our readers who also play bass, what gear do you use?
The bass I’m playing most of the time these days is just a Fender jazz bass that I’ve completely destroyed and modded. I’m one of those people. I have to tinker with stuff; I just can’t help myself. I have to rip stuff apart. So yeah, just modded the hell out of it and it’s very cool. I love it.
I love Fender basses, but I like lots of basses. I’m really getting into Ibanez basses recently. I like a lot of the Ibanez stuff, especially their higher-end basses. Some of them are made in Japan and then some are what’s called a premium line – I like a lot of those instruments. I love Orange amplifiers. That’s what I used on the record, if anyone was ever curious. And I just have a ton of pedals, way too many pedals. It’s a little bit of a problem.
Getting to a deeper question: Does Imperial Triumphant have a philosophical or spiritual ethos that drives the music?
Well, I mean, we’re three different people, so I can’t speak as if it’s a hive-mind kind of thing, but we do have a lot of similarities. In the philosophical sense, we get pretty deep into looking at civilization and where things have gotten.
And you know, we kind of focus on a lot of evil, because we see a lot of evil around us. We’re living here in the apex of evil, by the way. This city (speaking of New York) I think we all know this is the apex of evil. There’s a lot of great stuff here, but it’s also the center of evil. And I think that fascinates us as regular people on the outside. That fascinates us to look at how that center of evil has moved through history. I wasn’t there 5,000 years ago, but it seems like there’s some information out there that maybe leads us to look at these things. Generally, I think that’s our main thing: just to take a look around and observe things that have gotten us all to the point we’re at now. That’s probably where I would keep it.
As someone who has delved into the lyrics, I’ve noticed a theme I consider to be addressing materialism, consumerism, and our modern-day concepts of success. Is that a fair interpretation?
That’s definitely a part of it, sure. But you know, I think it’s open to interpretation. That’s how we would like it to be, because who are we to tell anyone what to think or believe? We’re just looking; that’s all. So, we just sort of manifest these things that come out and the listener gets to interpret it. I think that makes for a rich experience. Just the whole way that civilization and the financial system…People might misinterpret us even by thinking that we’re anti-something. We’re really just looking at what exists. The changes in the financial system throughout history, and also the things that haven’t changed – like rinse and repeat – those things fascinate us.
In my case, it seems to be addressing our modern lens of what it means to be a “success.”
That’s a good interpretation. Self-worth is definitely a big part of it. Even when we’re addressing it as a group or a population, we’re looking at self-worth and where that’s taken people because many of us have a terrible image of ourselves and it’s self-deprecating, which is not very healthy (laughs).
How have you personally approached your self-worth?
I’ve had my own struggles with it over the years, up and down, I’m sure just like everyone else. Music’s been a big help because music allows my ignorant brain to focus on something and stay in a space for a while, especially in our current state where everything flashes so fast now, everything just zips right back. Scrolling on the phone constantly. The scrolling life, I guess we could call it. George Orwell saw a lot, but he had no idea about the scrolling life (laughs).
We all have our personal struggle. We’re all trying to get to a place that’s beyond the material or beyond this external stuff that’s coming at us all the time. I feel fortunate that music is a part of my life. Music is in itself a very spiritual experience because it takes you outside of this whole thing.
As touring is coming back into focus, obviously buying a ticket to a show is a great way to support you guys. Outside of going to a show, how best can your fans support you?
The best way to support us is buying our merch from our website merch store. The music business has changed so much in the past 10 years, so musicians don’t really earn very much from record sales or anything like that. Live shows and merch, and just checking out the music.
Imperial Triumphant was posted on July 16, 2021 for HM Magazine and authored by Andrew Voigt.