“I grew up with a lot of metal, so the heavier side of prog is where my roots are." Southern Empire and the making of Civilisation

Southern Empire
(Image credit: Angelo Granozio)

Southern Empire’s second album Civilisation is short on tracks but big on adventure, as the Australians told Prog in 2018.

It feels a little peculiar to hear Southern Empire describe themselves as “prog on a diet”, considering their new album sprawls on for more than an hour despite featuring just four songs.

The jewel in Civilisation’s crown is found firmly in the meaty Crossroads, a 29-minute romp through melodic rock, symphonic prog, a dash of Porcupine Tree edge and a brief appearance of saxophone-led Latin jazz. On the face of it, SlimFast prog this ain’t.

But it’s the Australians’ desire to focus on the nuts and bolts of songwriting rather than any overblown, fretboard braggadocio that draws the diet description, with the group keen to avoid their music feeling bloated or pompous. Sometimes less can indeed be more.

“You can have the twiddly bits, but you need the song,” says keyboardist, vocalist and saxophonist Sean Timms on the phone from home city Adelaide. “The backbone of any piece of what we do has got to be the song.”

“We don’t want to disappear up our own arses on stage,” chips in lead singer Danny Lopresto. “We’re all there to have a good time and enjoy the music, so we want to entertain and have fun in what we do, and not be like we’re giving a serious lecture. ‘Hey, I can play 40,000 notes in six bars.’ It’s not about that.”

It’s a policy that’s served the five-piece well, not only on the impressive Civilisation but also on their 2016 self-titled debut album too.

Adelaide may be more than 10,000 miles away from the UK, on the south coast of Australia, but Southern Empire feel close to home. There’s a warmth emanating from Lopresto’s on-point and theatrical vocals, and it’s allied with a stream of comforting melodies and lush instrumentation. 

It’s a formula that was swirling in Timms’ mind when he founded the band following the dissolution of his group Unitopia in 2013 after nearly two decades together. A clutch of the Australian proggers, including vocalist Mark Trueack, instigated new collective United Progressive Fraternity out of Unitopia’s ashes. Timms however decided to headhunt high‑calibre musicians for his own project, recruiting guitarist Cam Blokland, drummer Brody Green and bassist Jez Martin alongside Lopresto.

Southern Empire Cover

(Image credit: GEP)

The singer had known Timms for 25 years, and was the first choice on a shortlist featuring just two names. “I didn’t want a Peter Gabriel soundalike or a Jon Anderson soundalike,” reflects Timms. “I wanted something a bit different to that – a singer with a great voice, and a distinctive voice.

“On the first album I was the dictator. I’d already had all the songs written for the first one, so the guys just came in and learnt the tunes, rehearsed and we played them. But for this album, it’s definitely more of a team effort, which is what I’ve wanted to work towards since the band started. 

“I don’t need to call all the shots – I don’t need to be the head honcho, I’m quite happy to be part of the team. If it needs some leading here and there then I’m happy to do that, but to let everyone have a say and have a contribution, I think that way things become a lot more exciting, a lot more organic, and you’ve got the benefit of five people’s minds rather than one.”

It’s the pooling of the five minds’ diverse musical influences that gives them such a multicoloured palette to create from. 

“Everything that we’ve ever been influenced by just comes out in everything we do. And we’re influenced by everything from Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra up to Meshuggah and Dimmu Borgir,” Lopresto says. “I can speak for all of us and say
that we take something out of everything that we listen to. You can grab something out of pop, you can grab something out of reggae and you can grab something
out of swing.”

Timms and Lopresto bring classic prog and hard rock influences to Southern Empire – the latter proudly sports a Gene Simmons T-shirt as he speaks – but the younger trio of Blokland, Green and Martin inject more contemporary inspiration. This mix of old and new helps Southern Empire feel rooted in bygone decades without sounding out of place in the 21st century.

“I grew up with a lot of metal, so the heavier side of prog is where my roots are, like Dream Theater and Opeth,” Green says. “I’m big a fan of Porcupine Tree and Leprous, and the more sort of not quite as metal but still edgy kind of progressive bands. I listen to symphonic black metal and symphonic death metal probably more than prog at the moment. And then there’s Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder…”

Civilisation was recorded at Timms’ home studio because “it costs a fortune when you record at somebody else’s studio,” he laughs. All members were encouraged to put their own personality into the tracks. It’s a confident, uplifting evolution from a band who seem to have just about everything going for them.

The four songs just about cover the whole lyrical gamut, from opener Goliath’s Moon, a track about the “elusive thing you want that’s just out of reach”, to the more political Cries For The Lonely, which is no doubt a by-product of the Trump era.

“I guess that’s my protest piece,” Timms says about the latter. “I just see the way we’re treating other people as nations against other nations. I believe the gospel according to Sean: is ‘be cool, dude’ and in four words, ‘don’t be a dick’. And I think that a lot of countries and individuals, the way they’re treating the impoverished, the poor, the refugees, the people who don’t have anything that come out of horrific situations… things like building walls and kicking people out out of fear.”

You can shoot from those political ills to Innocence & Fortune, for example, which dips into Timms’ love of British TV show Doctor Who. “There’s some lyrical timey wimey themes in there if you care to look hard enough,” he says, somewhat bashfully.

Southern Empire find themselves within a prodigious prog scene in Australia, with the band pointing to Karnivool, Caligula’s Horse, Anubis and Toehider as some of their peers doing big things down under.

“There’s some really talented people here,” Timms says. “I guess we don’t have the population, so it is difficult to do many gigs over here, and because it’s such a huge country, it’s quite difficult to tour. The nearest capital city to Adelaide is Melbourne, which is 800 kilometres [just under 500 miles] away. And then you’ve got Sydney, which is another day away. It’s not an easy task to gain ground here.”

Southern Empire

(Image credit: Angelo Granozio)

But where they are set to boost their reach is in Europe, with a string of shows booked in the UK and beyond in November and December. These include a slot at the HRH Prog festival in Wales alongside the likes of Hawkwind, Pendragon and Martin Barre. It’ll be another entry in the scrapbook for Southern Empire, who started life without knowing if they would even release an album or tour. What Timms did promise his new colleagues, however, was that they would at least record an album – and the rest would hopefully fall into place. Every stride Southern Empire make forward, it seems, is truly treasured.

“When I asked the guys if they wanted to be part of it, Unitopia had disbanded and I wanted to put something together that was as different to that as I possibly could,” he reflects. “Whereas Unitopia was driven mainly just by Mark [Trueack] and myself, I wanted to get bunch of guys where it was a democracy and we all contributed.

“I said to the guys that I can’t promise anything apart from the fact that we will record an album, whether it gets released or not. If it does get released, whether it gets released through a record company or independently, I don’t know. I didn’t know if we would do any gigs or tour, although that was the aim. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we don’t take it for granted. Everything we do is a bonus, everything is a step forward, and everything is appreciated. If we get five people or 50 or 500 to a show, we’re blessed.”

Lopresto adds, “At the risk of sounding clichéd, it’s just about the music. We just love playing live so we don’t care. We just want to make music. We don’t care how we’re doing it, we just love playing and making music, whether it’s in a covers band or doing this or doing a fill-in gig.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Timms smiles. “It’s just about the music, man.” 

Chris Cope

A writer for Prog magazine since 2014, armed with a particular taste for the darker side of rock. The dayjob is local news, so writing about the music on the side keeps things exciting - especially when Chris is based in the wild norths of Scotland. Previous bylines include national newspapers and magazines.