October 9, 2019 Interview – Andy Leo of Crown The Empire
In today’s music scene, how do you set yourself apart in a sea of endless lookalikes? Aside from the obvious, one can go the conceptual route and dream up fantastical themes for their material, but what happens when real-life kicks you in the gut and you have to get some things off your chest? What happens when you are forced to step outside of the world that you’ve created and get vulnerable in front of your audience?
Certainly 2019 is a hard time to be human, but Texas’ Crown The Empire are doing just that on their fourth full-length offering, Sudden Sky. Fraught with personal reflections on the quartet’s innermost fears and anxieties, the collection delves deep into all things tangible and real, quite a contrast from its predecessors 2012’s The Fallout, 2014’s The Resistance: Rise of The Runaways (2014), and, to some degree, 2016’s Retrograde.
At a time when the band are sitting on the cusp of the next stage in their evolution, Vocalist Andy Leo sat down to talk about Sudden Sky, how it represents this stage of the band’s career, the fear inherent in being vulnerable on record, and much, much more.
Cryptic Rock – Next year Crown The Empire will celebrate your first decade as a band. What has the past ten years taught you about yourself?
Andy Leo – (Laughs) Yeah, ten years is an insane amount of time and it’s so bizarre to say it. I ran into somebody at a restaurant, I was out in L.A. on a date—which gives me plus-size cool points because it never happens in L.A. Somebody was like, “Yo, dude! I’m seeing you guys at this festival—I used to be such a big fan.” I was like, “Used to be? You say it like ‘back in the day’. Am I chopped liver now, am I 50-years-old?” I just turned 25! It doesn’t feel like we have the credibility yet. This is the only thing we’ve ever had: I’ve never had another job, I’ve never done literally anything else except for this. I’ve grown up in it and with it—it’s taught me everything.
Cryptic Rock – So you were 15 when the band started?
Andy Leo – Yeah! Fifteen when we decided we were going to do it, but 16 was the first time I could drive. As soon as I turned 16 I got my driver’s license, and the first place that I was allowed to drive to that wasn’t school or home was to Hayden’s house so that I could audition. That was a big deal. They were a little bit older, they were both 17 and juniors, and I was a freshman. That’s when it happened and we got signed the next year, and then all this—we’ve been going! (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – Wow, so you really haven’t done anything else but the band.
Andy Leo – (Laughs) I’m not joking when I tell you that I really have no useful skills in society!
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Don’t say that! Alright, let’s just get right into the record, Sudden Sky, which arrived in July. It clearly deals with mental health and surviving being human in our modern world. Assuming that you have a personal stake in the topic, where was your head at going into the writing and recording of the record?
Andy Leo – Coming into it, we knew that this record was very important. We went through a huge lineup change, and our record was basically dead in the water before we could even really tour off of it as it was intended. The fans were divided. Between the music and the lineup change, it was a scary feeling; like “Does anybody care? Does anybody give a shit?” I knew this had to come from the realest place that it could. We’ve always had a narrative: our music’s always been set in a theme.
This time we were just like, you know what? We’re just going to give it as real and raw as we can. We’re not going to use as much of a narrative or a story, we’re just going to talk about everything point blank. That’s scary, too! These are my actual feelings. (Laughs) So, I think coming from that place and being comfortable—it was a cathartic release for us—and we were also able to show a side to us that I don’t think had really been talked about yet.
Cryptic Rock – Were you afraid to be so vulnerable?
Andy Leo – Absolutely! I don’t know if you get the gist of my vibe from this conversation, but it’s so hard for me to even look people in the eyes without cracking a joke. I’m a nervous talker more than anything—that’s been my schtick this whole time. There’s such a vast contrast, there’s a duality between how we conduct ourselves and how we carry ourselves, and what we’re artistically feeling and what we’re capable of creating and putting out.
I was like, okay, this is going to be scary but this is something that I feel is integral to me maturing and advancing myself as an actual person. You can’t just ignore the seriousness of something, you can’t just not talk about things that are actually going on all the time. You can only ignore it until it fucking implodes or explodes; something’s gotta give somewhere. So, yeah, this is super scary! (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Well, have you had a good reaction from the fans? Have many of them related to what you’re discussing on the album?
Andy Leo – Absolutely! We came from the wave of bands that got lumped together, and we were quick to be pigeonholed into what people thought we were. Trying to separate yourself from the pack and do something real, do something different is always going to be, again, super scary. (Laughs) People love to talk shit about Crown, but this has been the most well-received record in our entire career as a band.
Cryptic Rock – That’s great! People love to talk about everybody, so try not to let that bother you.
Andy Leo – That’s true. My friends are roommates with a YouTuber who is super famous, she has these endearing messages. There are people who are legit doing nice things and people will still comment and go, “Yo, fuck you to death!” (Laughs) Why would he post that? Why would you wish death upon someone? You’re right, it’s a weird world right now.
Cryptic Rock – It really is and that kind of plays perfectly into the next question. In “20/20,” you go so far as to suggest that people need to disconnect and actually step out into the sunshine. How does a band who are reliant on social media and online promotion find a balance between shutting it down and spending time offline and taking care of the necessary business?
Andy Leo – We’re still figuring that out ourselves. The weirdest thing about the internet is that it’s this amorphous blob that you can shape into whatever it is you want your world to be surrounded by. So, if I want to look at big titties all day on the internet, I can make that my reality. If I want to be in a community of furries, or the dudes that like to get their balls stomped on—whatever your weird thing is, you can make your world just that. Whatever political viewpoint. But it’s isolating yourself from real people and people with different opinions, completely different walks of life. The more you lose yourself in that, the less genuine it feels to interact with all types of people which is super important; that’s the entire point of everything.
We all fall victim to it: I like to follow girls on Instagram or Tinder or whatever it is. Everybody’s got their vices, but it’s important to remember that human connection above all is the only way you’re ever going to be able to fill that void that’s constantly being refreshed—it’s endless. You can scroll forever: there’s endless bullshit to waste your time on. There’s only a limited amount of time to actually make something of yourself and do the things that you want to do instead of looking at what everybody else is doing all the time.
Cryptic Rock – Do you think that fans will actually understand that message and step away from their cell phones, computers, and being online, or do you think that’s just a no-win battle?
Andy Leo – I don’t know. I want to believe, I don’t want to be cynical about it. I think that’s part of the record too: “Hey, you are capable of so much more than you think!” As long as people can at least consider the message; get a train of thought and break your sequence, whatever it is.
Cryptic Rock – Hopefully it will allow some people a chance to sit back and do some self-reflection. Speaking of which, “What I Am” is reportedly a very personal and especially vulnerable moment for you. The song is amazingly infectious and it has a universal relatability. Are you happy with the finished product and are you happy that you allowed yourself to be so vulnerable?
Andy Leo – Oh yeah, 100%. Again, it’s horrifying. It’s just like taking a leap through anything: you don’t know where you’re going to land and you don’t know how people will receive it. It doesn’t matter how much I feel and how much I want people to relate to something, if they don’t fuck with it—if they’re like, “This is dumb and I hate it!”—then I can’t do anything about it. To be as vulnerable as I can and have it be well-received is huge to me, and it’s definitely one of the proudest times I’ve had in my life.
Cryptic Rock – Obviously, “Mzry” is another entirely relatable track—so many of us fall into a rut and we kind of revel in our misery and forget that we have the power to see the world in a better light. With the touring lifestyle, is it harder to dig yourself out of that rut? What do you do to escape feeling miserable?
Andy Leo – (Laughs) I don’t know if I’ve entirely figured it out yet. At this point our lives on tour have been consistently crazy. We’re all still working at something, but I think being able to recognize your habits and being able to look at your problems from an outside perspective is something that is so essential. It’s so essential to be able to fix whatever it is, or at least take the first step to understanding yourself and what it is that you need to get out of.
A lot of people, you dig yourself into a hole so deep that it seems like it’s your default setting. You come across these people and it’s like, “Why are you so sad? Is it really worth getting mad at the waitress because she forgot your extra pickles?” Think about things from a different perspective; it’s never as heavy as it has to be. At least being able to recognize that and pull yourself out of it is the first step.
Cryptic Rock – There are a lot of amazingly intelligent and insightful lyrics throughout the album. Do you have any personal favorites that are really resonating with you right now?
Andy Leo – Right now, in particular, maybe just because I’m in the motions of what the song is based off of, but “Blurry” is the most relatable to tour life for me. Again, we’ve been touring for ten years now, so we have homies in each city and they’re so excited to see us, ‘cause it’s been six months to a year. They come out and are like, “We got you guys this bottle of Jack.” It’s like, oh sick, we’ll slay it together and we’ll have a party.
Fast forward, next day: “Hey, what’s up? We missed you guys—here’s a bottle of Jack!” After 35 days of that, they’re like, “Hey, what’s up? I hope you guys are ready to party—we got you guys a bottle of Jack.” And you’re like, “Ah, fuck! Put it with the rest of ‘em!” We have four sitting on the counter right now.
You get so caught up in, whether it’s people-pleasing or chasing girls or whatever it is—you get wrapped up in it. It’s hard not to just fall back into the habits and be self-destructive. Putting other people before you all the time isn’t necessarily great and healthy, but I find myself doing it all of the time. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – Well, as the singer of a band, everybody wants something from you, and if you say no you become the bad guy.
Andy Leo – That’s the thing—it’s a lot of pressure. People say it’s as easy as don’t do shit you don’t want to do, but it’s not that simple! (Laughs) I don’t think I’d be a good performer if I didn’t constantly want everybody in the room to feel good—or at least feel something with me, you know?
Cryptic Rock – Saying don’t do something you don’t want to do, it really depends what it is. You don’t have to drink 35 bottles of Jack to make people happy!
Andy Leo – (Laughs) There’s just some pressure, you know? People really, really love us! We saw some tattoos recently—somebody got my signature tattooed on them. It’s so much pressure! It’s like, “What are you doing?” And you don’t want to be like, “Why would you do that?” because it’s something that means a lot to them. It’s like, if you only knew—I’m not that great of a guy. I forgot to brush my teeth today! (Laughs) Don’t put me on that level.
Again, it’s a double-edged sword: I am so honored and I am so happy to be a part of this. It’s an opportunity that people wish that they could be in. So, I’m immensely grateful but I’m also—I should probably work on that, kicking the shit out of myself all the time. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Okay, this segues perfectly. Presumably when you were younger, there was an artist or band who, when it was the worst day in the world, they made it better. Who was that band for you?
Andy Leo – That’s so hard. I guess it depends on the mood. If I was in heavy mode, I would go for System of a Down—if I was just straight aggro, just straight angsty teen in my room, hate-moshing to nothing. Or something emotional like My Chemical Romance or even OG Fall Out Boy stuff. Just the first legends of Alternative, when the Warped Tour world was breaking out into the mainstream. That really opened the door to the possibilities to weird people being widely accepted and capable of being the shit.
Cryptic Rock – Lately it really feels like being the quote-unquote weirdo has become the norm, and now the normal people are the weirdos.
Andy Leo – (Laughs) It’s so bizarre! It’s like a scale, and the scales are being constantly tipped; it just rotates between what is cool and what isn’t. We talk about the end of the ‘80’s culture where it was like guys in leopard leotards with their hair feathered and stuff like that—that was the shit. Those guys, they could do anything they wanted. The follow up to that was to not give a fuck at all about what you looked like, you had your counter-culture come up and it was the Grunge thing. It was just like, “I look like garbage and I haven’t showered for six days and that’s my thing.”
Then it became about the Hip Hop stuff—now we’re wearing bling. Then the weird kids came out. Now we’re seeing a lot of crossover between the Alternative scene, our weird kid world, and mainstream Hip Hop. There’s always going to be a counter-culture, there’s always going to be something that’s coming up next. I love to see it! I love to see Emo kids become rappers now, I think that’s fucking hilarious but cool in the best way. It’s like who would have thought that little scene Jimmy is now the Trap star of the world? (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Alright, last question. At Cryptic Rock, we cover music as well as films, particularly Horror and Science Fiction. Are you a fan of either genre and, if so, what are some of your favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi films?
Andy Leo – A classic for me, it’s an oldie, but I’m a big fan of A Clockwork Orange (1972). At the time, being a degenerate teenager was the shit, and finding your gang after being forced to change. Coming out of youth; the day that you’re capable of doing all the crazy shit in the world, but you don’t really want to anymore. None of us ever wanted to be bad dudes, but you’re clunky—you’re given so much power and opportunity at such a young age. The end of the book has a quote that’s like, “Youth is like one of those wind-up toy robots you crank, and you set it on the table and it will senselessly bump into anything and everything, regardless of where you set it.” That resonated with me; I thought it was a cool message.
From the Horror side of shit, I love me some Alien (1979), even Prometheus (2012). All of my band hated Prometheus, but I thought it was such a cool, cool movie; an exploration of weird, science-y alien shit. Ex Machina (2014) is really cool, too—I love me some of that. What else? Under the Skin (2013) was a cool one with Scarlett Johansson. That was super dope—we literally named a song after it.
Cryptic Rock – The million dollar questions is do you like Star Wars?
Andy Leo – I’m a huge Star Wars fan! I have a giant Boba Fett tattoo. I’m a big fan of the antihero: the morally gray type of heroes. I think those are way more realistic than being like, “I’m the good guy.” People are more complex than that.
Crown The Empire Fall 2019 Tour Dates:
11/7 — Ventura, CA — Ventura Theater
11/8 — Flagstaff, AZ —The Orpheum
11/9 — Tucson, AZ —The Rialto Theater
11/11 — Dallas, TX —House of Blues
11/12 — Houston, TX — House of Blues
11/14 — Louisville, KY — Mercury Ballroom
11/15 — Indianapolis, IN — Egyptian Room @ Old National Centre
11/16 —Rochester, NY — Main Street Armory
11/17 — Columbus, OH — Athenaeum Theater
11/19 — New Haven, CT —Toad’s Place
11/20 — Providence, RI —The Strand
11/22 — Stroudsburg, PA — The Sherman Theater
11/23 — Albany, NY— Upstate Concert Hall
11/24 — Wilmington, DE — The Queen
11/26 — Grand Rapids, MI — Intersection
11/27 — Belvidere, IL — Apollo Theater AC
11/29 — Omaha, NE —The Slowdown
11/30 — Madison, WI —The Sylvie
12/1 — Columbia, MO —The Blue Note
12/3 — St Louis, MO The Pageant
12/10 — San Francisco, CA — The Regency Ballroom
12/11 — Anaheim, CA — House of Blues
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