It has been a whirlwind year and a half for instrumental rock giants Caspian. The Beverly, Massachusetts sextet (including original member Calvin Joss, who continues to write and record, though his ability to travel with the band is very limited) has toured the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia since the beginning of 2014, and also released what may be their best album, “Dust and Disquiet” in September 2015.
The band is currently on a short tour of the Midwestern and Northeastern United States with Defeater and Triple Crown labelmates O’Brother, and will be heading to Asia for two weeks of shows before returning to US soil to tour in support of Underoath during March and April. Guitarist Philip Jamieson took some time out to answer questions about the tour, the transition to playing music halls in addition to clubs, “Dust and Disquiet,” Audiotree Live (past and present!), their approach to the fostering a connection between band and audience, and more.
ARCTIC DRONES: Aside from Cleveland, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, the upcoming tour features stops in some less tread-upon towns. Certainly there are not the typically-expected shows in New York City or Boston. Living in Burlington, VT, I can say definitively that I am glad for this. Was there a specific design in setting a more circuitous route?
PHILIP JAMIESON: It was a decision made in conjunction with our management. For a band like us that isn’t drawing 1000+ people a show, over-saturating major markets can have a negative impact on turnout sometimes. That said it will be nice to play some places that are more off the beaten path. Shows like that always end up being some of the most memorable.
AD: I have seen you twice at The Middle East Downstairs in Boston, and that venue is just a notch above in terms of audience experience – bands always sound their best there. What are some venues that stick out to you, from your perspective as a performer, and maybe also from your perspective as an audience member?
PJ: As a performer the number one thing is having a muscular, dependable sound system that can handle the sonic nuance and high volume we shoot for. Without that it can fall apart sometimes quickly. Now that we travel with a light designer, having a powerful built in light rig is also really important and adds something special to the live experience now that we didn’t know was there prior. Other than that every venue has its own kind of charm. As both a performer and an audience member I love venues with the high ceilings so that the sounds can bounce around and the mind has some space to wander around and drift away. Having cheap beer for sale doesn’t hurt either of course.
AD: During your most recent European tour, you found yourselves stepping out of the typical club setting and playing some serious music halls. Can you talk about what this was like, and if your approach to performance differs depending on what kind of venue you are playing?
PJ: It was a very different experience for us that took a little bit of getting used to, but something we want to embrace more as time goes on now that we know what to expect. Our first show in that kind of space on tour (the 10-year anniversary performance here in Beverly at the Larcom Theatre fits the description also) was in Ghent, Belgium at Le Minard which is an extremely ornate, beautiful concert hall. The audience ended up remaining seated the entire performance, which was a first in close to 700 shows for us, so it was a bit jarring at the outset of the show. Initially it was really strange since it created what felt like a rift between our very physically animated performance style vs. a stationary, immobile audience. As the show went on we collectively began to embrace it and walked off stage feeling like we were part of an orchestra. That created a unique and welcome sense of satisfaction.
Our next performance in an atmosphere like that was in Schio, Italy at Civico Teatro a few weeks later and I decided to change the setlist up a little to give the show more of a slow burn to accommodate the anticipated seated atmosphere as opposed to the slam you out of the gates rock show experience like we were performing in clubs that tour. Switching the set worked to varying degrees of success, but the audience atmosphere and general vibe of the night was one of the best we have ever experienced in our entire career. Much like any normal rock club, ultimately it’s a fluid atmosphere that changes day to day with whatever is in the air in our camp, regardless of venue.
AD: You’ve been touring all over the world in recent years. You have no doubt been asked a number of times to comment on the cultural differences between regions you have visited. I would like to spin this question in a more musically-skewed fashion. Can you speak to how people’s interest in and approach to instrumental music is similar or different in various parts of the world? By all accounts, it seems that instrumental rock is consistently growing in popularity around the world. If you go onto YouTube and type the name of a single instrumental band, the recommendations for other bands are tantamount to a vortex that one could lose themselves in for days. These bands hail from every corner of the Earth. It seems that the lack of a language barrier has allowed this kind of music to grow exponentially on a global scale during the last ten years. Do you find that audiences in other countries are more willing to shed the belief that vocals are the driving force of music, and do you feel that it will take more time and effort for Americans to do so?
PJ: If I have learned one constant that pertains to all human beings from all the places we’ve been, it’s a simple one and it’s that people are just people, wherever you are. They all react positively to a great show and sort of indifferently to when you’re phoning it in. Granted they all have subtle different ways of expressing that. Germans are a bit more austere in general, UK fans want a bit more of the rock star stuff sometimes, Asian audiences are more respectful and not as insane – these are all huge generalizations, but you get my drift. I’m not so sure it’s breaking down a language barrier or anything like that if I’m being totally honest. I’ve seen Chinese audience who don’t understand a word of English lose their minds at concerts to vocally-driven bands who are singing in English, and then we get up on stage and they have the same reactions. It might just be a testament to how novel this kind of highly emotional, crescendo driven music is for some people out there, experiencing it for the first time now that the internet can deliver it to them in the most remote places. Some of these developing, not as on-the-grid countries out there also don’t have those singular, widespread, discussion-governing media outlets like Pitchfork or whatever in the mix to dominate the conversation and make their minds up for them and fall in with the critical herd, as opposed to here in the United States and places in Europe.
AD: I’d like to talk about the new album a bit, starting with “Run Dry.” You have said many times in the past that one of the things you most love about the instrumental format is how open to varying interpretations it is. “Run Dry” seems like the first time the band has been compelled to have an explicit sense of purpose to accompany a song, and it helps to inform the reading of the album as a whole. I mean this in a very positive sense. The placement of the song in middle of the album – you have said that you chose to do this in order to give it some buffer, to protect it. However, I feel like its placement actually helps to anchor the rest of the album, and I don’t think I am alone in this thinking. Is this something that the band is looking to explore further on future recordings? Or is it more simply a song that fit the exact moment, but not necessarily a calculated part of the equation going forward?
PJ: It’s definitely something we will be exploring deeper on future recordings, hopefully with more experimental songwriting that incorporates all of the things we began to establish on Dust and Disquiet. I’d like to think that the last record was the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we are capable of doing when it comes to exploring different timbres, moods, genres, etc. I guess only time will tell.
AD: Moving on to the title track, I have read that “Dust and Disquiet” was written out of jam sessions, and wasn’t tinkered with much before recording. That being said, it seems as if its progression mirrors the arc of the entire album – starting softly, with an early, loud crescendo, then settling down into calm before building to an intensely moving finale. Was this by design, or a naturally occurring “happy accident?”
PJ: It became pretty obvious to us pretty fast that the title track was calling for a more conventional, traditional 12 minute “post-rock” song structure right out of the box. A lot of our songs and foundational melodies start with that reality built into them because it’s what comes natural to us and then we spend months and months actively trying to subvert / deconstruct that and write something with a more interesting, different structure. We do that to keep things interesting for us and to challenge ourselves, amongst other things, which I think is absolutely central to the creative process and is one of the reasons we are still here after 11 years still making records. For the title track our motivations were to do whatever was 100% natural and just simply felt right to us without much collective discussion or picking apart. None of that was even discussed or shot called by us – we just went in and did it and discussed a little bit of the structure and that’s all. There is a place for one song like that on every Caspian record I think and there always will be.
AD: Something I have noticed about the album is a shift in the band’s approach to songwriting. The soft build to crescendo dynamic isn’t as much a focus now as it once was. Instead, there are songs like “Arcs of Command” that pummel the listener throughout, “Run Dry” with its singer/songwriter qualities, “Sad Heart of Mine,” which has a very judiciously-administered “loud moment” right at its peak, or the title track, which seemingly peaks a third of the way through, then proceeds through a lengthy build to a breathtaking second climax. It’s certainly your most dynamic record to date. You have said that the writing process now revolves largely around you bringing a loop or melody into rehearsal and building on that, but can you speak to any philosophy behind this? Is it borne out of necessity, or is it a clear creative decision on the part of the band? Has your more recent approach to songwriting changed how you view your older material?
PJ: We tend to plant seeds, water them and then then focus on whatever begins to grow. Some ideas die before they take hold and others blossom exceptionally fast and then we are just along for the ride. Others take a great deal of manicuring and trimming and constant, disciplined attention if they feel like ideas that have a shred of purity and integrity. Like anything in life, the most important part of the process is simply showing up and being willing to get to work. Having foundational ideas in place before showing up helps move the creative process along better and gives us something to latch onto every night rather than showing up and staring at the wall for hours if we don’t happen to find ourselves in that moment of pure unbridled inspiration, which is a fleeting moment that you can’t always count on materializing every time. So in that sense yes, it’s done out of necessity and foresight. It doesn’t change how we view older material because we see the bigger picture and can see how we are adapting to what works for us over time. It speaks to the bigger story arc of our band and our development as individuals operating within the collective.
AD: You typically end sets with “Sycamore,” and the ending, when everyone pulls the drums up on stage, gives a real feeling of family and cohesiveness to the band, and it obviously connects with audiences. Can you talk a bit about how that aspect of the performance came about? Also, the song “Dust and Disquiet” has a very legitimate “set-closing” vibe. Any chance audiences will see you start alternating your choice of songs to end the set list during upcoming tours? “Sycamore” has become such an anticipated moment for audience members, but do you personally feel a desire to mix things up somewhat?
PJ: We feel that desire all of the time definitely. “Sycamore” is a difficult one because just about every night, we get up there before we start playing it and feel like we’ve beat the shit out of it at this point. Then we step back and remind ourselves that there is always someone in the audience who hasn’t witnessed it before and that ultimately makes it worth it to us and then some. Anyone who has seen us live remembers distinctly the first time they saw it performed and I’d venture to guess it was one of their favorite moments at a Caspian show ever. We’ve done tours where we’ve dropped it entirely and it simply didn’t feel like a Caspian show. There’s the real chance that we are saddled with that song forever whether we like it or not and I think we’ve made peace with that. As for how it came together when we were writing / performing it, it wasn’t rocket science. We were just jamming the end of it, Cal looped his guitar line and walked over and started banging on a drum, I followed his lead, we spent a few minutes fleshing out the beat, and that was that.
AD: You experimented with a very interactive concept in 2015 by hosting listening parties for “Dust and Disquiet.” Do you have any plans or ideas to further explore this idea of intimacy between artist and fan in the near future?
PJ: No concrete plans yet but we will absolutely be doing something like that with the next album, guaranteed. We could do the same thing again just on a larger scale or find something completely different to do, we aren’t sure yet. But the experience of engaging like that with our fans remains the most unique, impactful and memorable experience I have had to date with this band. It really reconfigured a lot of things inside of me as a human being and crushed feelings of growing cynicism that I was battling pretty heavily with at the time.
AD: After the release of “Waking Season,” you recorded a short set for Audiotree Live. They succeed in two things in particular – selecting great artists, and making them sound fantastic in studio. Can you speak about this experience?
PJ: We didn’t know much of anything about Audiotree before we got in there to do that session, just that it was on our day schedule and that we had to load our gear in and play the songs we had selected as best we could. After setting up and sound checking for a little bit we took a break and they had bought like a hundred of some of the best Pizzas I’ve ever eaten, and we all just sat around and laughed and ate and chilled and it was amazing. When we got in there, everything felt right. I chalk a lot of that up to Evil Vince, the DJ they had in there that day. His presence and enthusiasm and general demeanor really connected with us and made us feel comfortable. That guy was the absolute best. They run a really pro, well-oiled operation at Audiotree and have some amazing people that make it all come together over there. Looking forward to getting back in there this Winter.
AD: I want to talk a bit about instrumental music in general. In recent years, we have seen so much progress. North American-based multi-instrumentalists and one-man acts such as Cloudkicker and thisquietarmy have done amazing things within the instrumental format. Bands like Tides of Man and We Lost the Sea have lost vocalists for varying reasons and re-emerged with instrumental records rather than seeking to add new vocalists, with the results having been acclaimed. Do you think that the ever-growing presence of bands such as yourselves has begun to erode the popular notion that rock music needs vocals, and as a result has offered greater encouragement to bands such as the ones I mentioned to step out and do what they are doing? Do you think that the musical landscape is shifting dramatically in terms of what audiences are willing to open themselves to?
PJ: I don’t think that ultimately we or anyone else in this genre are eroding that notion to be 100% honest with you. Let me try and map it out in terms of the way I see this develop in my head and bear with me. What initially attracts people to this style of music is the outburst of pure emotion that they experience on first encounter with it, whether that be at a live show or a song someone shows them. On a gut human level, people can very easily tap into and connect with the moment of release and catharsis that contemporary post-rock serves up on a silver platter as its main dish. It can be powerful on an immediate level if it’s done well. After a little while, people take a closer listen to the records and spend more time with the music and search out more bands like this and unfortunately, I fear most people realize that a lot of the songs are just lazy excuses to build up to epic crescendos that try to achieve that sense of pure emotion.
When that happens, people then begin to view this style of music as manipulative and manufactured in its attempt to be “emotional” and “powerful” all of the time and they then may take a step back and ultimately retreat to whatever they were doing in the first place musically. Nobody likes feeling emotionally manipulated constantly and that is the Achilles heel with contemporary post-rock music. That original emotional outburst cannot feel manipulated or forced and when an entire record consists of nothing but crescendos going exclusively for that, it can start to feel really fake, off-putting and most importantly, un-musical.
Remember that in the bigger picture of indie rock, this is still a sub-genre of a sub-genre and, like it or not, this kind of music is still (most certainly not a big deal at all to me, but for the purpose of discussion) extremely un-cool, un-hip and un-trendy. Besides the big legacy acts out there like Mogwai, EITS and GY!BE, it gets hardly any coverage or attention from bigger musical press outlets and that might be because of the reasons I mentioned above, among many other important socio-cultural factors. It has trouble getting a real foothold because so much of it can be un-musical and be seen as ultimately emotionally manipulative. The initial encounter I mentioned at the outset has a short shelf life because it requires more than crescendos and emotional outbursts to sustain it. A lot of the time, and I honestly mean zero disrespect to a lot of contemporary post-rock music out there, it simply doesn’t try to penetrate beyond that and people ultimately stop caring or being influenced by it on any level besides maybe a small morsel of that first encounter manifesting itself in their search to convey something heartfelt.
So in short, I don’t think this music is having a huge impact on music as a whole beyond that short initial event. That encounter definitely does count for something, but in the long run it can’t go the distance and do much to change the musical landscape as a whole. That is one of the reasons why it is important for us to try and diversify and not just go for the crescendo jugular with every single song, even though emotions will always be central to what we are doing and quite often they’ll be on no-shame, epic display. That’s just who we are and we have no interest in changing that to be cooler or hipper. I hope that makes sense.
AD: You are obviously one of the most noted instrumental rock bands currently working. Does indie fame look much different than indie obscurity?
PJ: I wouldn’t go so far as to call what we have “fame”, though it’s nice that our music is on the radar more than most. We are certainly very lucky to have more than a few people listening to and appreciating our records, it means more than I could ever explain and I mean that 100%. If we were making millions – hell, even thousands – of dollars from our work and were affording an opulent lifestyle that kept us from creating music or corrupted it in some way, that might be different story. In our minds we are still fighting for legitimacy and relevance, in an age when bands doing this kind of music are a dime a dozen. So there’s still something to fight for and as long as that remains, there isn’t a whole lot of difference to much of this, honestly. It’s certainly extremely true that it is much easier to create something inherently more pure if you’re an obscure unknown than a well-known, but that’s a longer discussion.
AD: Have you come across any musicians in your recent travels, regardless of genre, that audiences should be getting on board with?
PJ: Jo Quail and Circle Takes the Square were the main support acts for our recent US and European tours and I can’t convey how much of an impact their music, and equally their personal presence, meant to us. Neither of them are super obscure nor are they massively popular but they deserve to be performing for thousands of people a night, easily. As far as bands doing atmospheric rock, I’m surprised more folks out there don’t know of Lehnen, our friends from Vienna. They are making some of the most sincere, powerful, sophisticated records out there. Those guys bleed every note.
AD: Are there some things that are not music-related that stand out from recent touring – food, art, film, culture – that you’ve had the opportunity to revel in?
PJ: Oh, the list is too long to recount. I’m a film buff – which should be code for film snob – so I try to get my hands on whatever I can. For 2015 I thought Josh Oppenhemier’s “The Look of Silence” was one of the most powerful documentary experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a sequel to “The Act of Killing” which wiped me out when I saw it a couple years ago. Everyone should watch both of those films immediately. Lately I’m back on a Ken Burns kick and can’t get enough of everything he’s done, at the moment it’s my second pass through “The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait”. Ken Burns is a national treasure and his films should also be mandatory viewing for every citizen of the United States. Food wise it’s been the normal obsession with cooking various kinds of fish and discovering new Pizzerias, as always. Business as usual…
AD: The obvious, but unavoidable final question: How long are you planning to tour in support of “Dust and Disquiet” before returning home to consider new material?
PJ: We are going to let new material develop as naturally as possible and really take our time with a new record, I think we’ve earned the right to sit back and not force anything to come together too fast. I say that with every Caspian record and then out of nowhere we just get to work and start cooking but I really mean it this time – I want our next album to be the purest thing we’ve ever created and fully believe that it will be if we stay patient and true to ourselves. At least, I’d hope it would be. We’ll be on tour most all of 2016 trying to get everywhere we can and I imagine maybe a little bit into 2017, but it’s hard to say.