Under the moniker of Empty Streets, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Aaron Thompson creates dramatic electronic dream pop as a conduit for his checkered emotional state. But as a respected adult-film actor with the nom de plume Small Hands, Thompson (once described by a fan as looking like “all the best parts of Benjamin Bratt and Bam Margera in one tasty treat”) can drive your girlfriend, sister and/or mom to ecstasy in record time. Although he has a bevy of Adult Video News awards (the Oscars of pornography) to his name and admirable skills in both bedroom studio and studio bedroom, Thompson isn’t phoning it in anywhere.
“Empty Streets is a three-pronged thing,” he tells SPIN over the phone. “First of all, I’ve always loved bands like Depeche Mode and Sisters Of Mercy. Those bands are always on my playlists, even though I have a Clash tattoo. Then when my adult film career really started taking off, I didn’t have time to jam with guys or get in a room with people to practice three times a week. And I had been scoring for adult films and was already getting entrenched into the tones and playing synths and stuff. So I was like, ‘OK, I like this kind of music. I’m alone and I’ve got the gear.’ It seemed like a no-brainer to me.”
Sure, dudes want to hang out with him and the ladies want to hang on him. But Thompson is parsecs beyond a flexing dig-me stereotype. Diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, he spent his childhood under the tutelage of his Baptist preacher father, spreading the word of God and maintaining the church they had in San Diego. His first exposure to any kind of music was experiencing gangsta rap and Mariachi music in his neighborhood. After seeing MxPx play at a church youth group show in 1997, Thompson got caught up in punk rock and found inspiration in bands such as Social Distortion and Rocket From The Crypt. He was frontman for rough ‘n’ tumble outfit Stranger’s Six prior to becoming bassist for the Houston melodic punk outfit, Fenix TX.
In 2010, he started dating alt-porn maverick Joanna Angel, who enlisted him for one of her productions, and a [porn] star was born. This romance has offered both stellar highs [Thompson and Angel married in 2016 and are nearing a decade of being together] and emotional lows [his relationship with his father is completely extinct]. It’s that very dichotomy that powers Empty Streets.
On his latest release Age Of Regret, Thompson has tabled guitar-driven punk fury for electronic vistas. The six-song EP was recorded in quarantine at home with remote production input from Pierce The Veil bassist Jaime Preciado and former Dillinger Escape Plan founder Ben Weinman. While Regret sounds best between VNV Nation and Blaqk Audio on your playlists, the emotional context in his delivery remains undeniably strident. Thompson’s lyrics feel like they’re channeled by third-person ghosts with the singer adopting the stances of the characters ricocheting in his head. With lines like “This is the hand that feeds me poison” (the title track) and “You’re not half the man your mama swore you could be” (“Hearthrob Of The Ages”), Thompson is indeed working through something.
At various junctures, the tracks on Age Of Regret seemingly explore the concept of betrayal. Most listeners coming to Empty Streets would define betrayal as the act of experiencing great pleasure with someone outside a relationship that had been cultivated and sacrificed for—usually physical infidelity. By virtue of Thompson and Angel’s day jobs, that construct is irrelevant. The album closes with “I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost,” a song by the late Jason Molina (aka Songs: Ohia) where the heart of a wounded soul tries to do better despite his lover’s irascible nature. Thompson’s not fronting via artistic license: He’s contextualizing his life experience through a harrowing prism.
“I think the ultimate definition of betrayal is having an agreement between two people and then having it be broken,” Thompson says. “Betrayal can be sexual, but it doesn’t have to be. So to me and my wife—to relate it to porn—it’s not how we define betrayal. There’s no shadiness when she goes to work. I know that. I know what’s happening when I go to work. She knows. We talk about work when we get home. I don’t become directly aroused by the thought of my wife having sex with other people. But I am very aroused and excited at the thought of my wife experiencing every adventure, every high. I want her to have it all because I love her. So I’m happy if she goes out and gets gang-banged and has a fucking blast because I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, get it,’ you know? And I don’t feel disrespected at all because she’s coming home to me. She loves me and I feel very secure in our love. And that means when I go out and I do the same thing, it works both ways. We get this very cool, reciprocal circle that we just keep feeding each other’s needs and quest for adventure while remaining respectful to our home base at the same time.
“None of my songs are really about sex or sexual betrayal,” he continues. “When I write about betrayal, I’m writing about how for my whole young life, I followed the teachings of Christ and my father and the church to the T. I was such a good kid. I got straight A’s. I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs. I was the model child. And the result I got is garbage. Speaking to God or my father, how dare you promise me everything if I do all these things that, ‘this is the way it goes and you’ll be happy’? When I’m writing about feelings of betrayal, it’s never about like, ‘Oh, you cheated on me.’ That’s so small.”
Thompson says Empty Spaces will hit the road this fall in support of Age Of Regret in a configuration yet to be determined. He’s got plenty of things to ruminate on: navigating COVID protocols on the film set, developing a live show to properly frame what he’s feeling musically and perhaps embarking on a little personal self-therapy. When it’s suggested that Thompson should bring the neon cross used in the video for “Pleaser” for that special ecumenical Las Vegas feel, he laughs.
“We’re taking you to church when you come see us play,” he says with a small chuckle. “It’s just not the kind you’re used to.”