Photgraph by Charina Pitzel

FOCUS // Defining Identity with Caspian’s Philip Jamieson & Jonny Ashburn

Being in a band has the potential to be every bit as challenging as it is fun and soul-fulfilling. But the beautiful thing is that no matter who you are, nearly every painful experience often reveals itself to be a valuable opportunity to develop new skills.

But it takes repetition and willpower to become truly great at something, and once you’re great at something, you just might keep on doing it because it feels great. You might even forget to take a break, something that eventually becomes vitally important as more and more of your life takes place on the sidelines of tours and recording processes. For some, it’s worth it. For many, it isn’t.

The bittersweet push and pull of achieving one’s dreams has always been formally present within Caspian‘s relentless work ethic and emotional post-rock sound. But the long-term effects of growth and self awareness have never been more perceivable than they are on their newest album, On Circles.

Founding member Philip Jamieson and co-guitarist Jonny Ashburn were kind enough to meet up with us backstage at Portland’s vibe-heavy Doug Fir Lounge and discuss learning how to trust the process, knowing when to take a break, and how working with new people helped rejuvenate their sound.

FB: The new album has a really cool, almost a “loose” feel, how self conscious of a move was that? Was it a matter of you all feeling a little more confident in trying multiple arrangements or ideas on top of each other or more of a sit down moment where you said “I want the feel to be a little more fluid?”

Philip: We wanted this record to sound more human for sure. There are more clinical ways to do that like tempo mapping for example. On our old records it would be like one constant BPM at 121 like ‘click-click-click’ and that could feel a little robotic at times. With this, there are spits and spurts where it’s up and down or pulls and releases. Just on an operational level we tried to employ that and make it more noticeable. In terms of intentionally wanting to accomplish that, yeah, absolutely. One of the biggest things about this record was not being so… ‘precious’ with the whole thing.

Jonny: Less possessive, yeah. Being able to work with a bunch of different people and have them put as much input in as possible, us having less boundaries on our work and other people’s work was a big part of it. We had Will mix the record… we weren’t even there for it! It was like “make us sound how you want us to sound” and that was the first time we’d ever done that.

Philip: The whole thing was like an ego death too. There is like a deflating sort of self-seriousness to post-rock that’s really off-putting for a lot of people including us, everyone takes themselves very seriously and there is there is this overarching feeling of like… “look what I’m doing with emotion” and it’s really obvious and that’s absent of that human thing.

FB: I definitely respect that. I think the best of bands that represent post-rock or art like that are the one’s that become aware of that. When you’re off stage the ‘self’ or image definitely becomes less important in a way and you have way more diverse ideas, rather than mining an hour long set of a particular emotion. But I really see that openness in the record. Like in the first half, or even on “Collapser” which is like, huge…

Philip: Oh, you mean “Gangsta’s Paradise?” (laughs) See if you can hear it. A dozen people in the last five days have told me that it sounds like “Gangsta’s Paradise,” and they’re fucking correct!

Jonny: Apparently. There is this one melody that has similarities to it, multiple saying it really blew my mind apart. It’s really fun to like, have people listen so carefully that they can pick something out like that. It’s certainly not anything we had any intention of doing but when I think about it, it makes me smile, like tonight when we play it, I’ll have extra fun because I’m going to be thinking about Coolio. (laughs) I bought that Dangerous Minds soundtrack, too.

Philip: “Collapser” was fun though. The last record was more heavy and dark in direction, and we don’t really like repeating ourselves. We already have that blueprint on the outside, so we didn’t want to do the dirge-y heavy shit for sixty minutes like we did on the last one.

FB: It definitely was a surprise to me. There is a lot of organic flow within the record and then there is just a sudden *slams fist on to desk* So as far as Will Yip goes, was there a particular record or story that influenced you guys to work with him?

Jonny: He worked with Pianos Become Teeth, and their last two records I play more than any other record and have for the last couple years.

Philip: Our bass player is in a really awful band called Sainthood Reps (laughs) and our tour manager is also their drummer, who is sitting right there. We actually met Jani on a tour we did with them in 2010, and they’re a fantastic band for the record. They did some work with Will for one of their records four or five years ago, and that’s how he got on our radar. We reached out to him and to our surprise he was enthusiastic to do an instrumental record, because he’d never done one before, and he likes challenging himself.

Sometimes you can get those really special collisions with someone who has never touched this kind of genre. People like us are so entrenched in it but you can really get that fresh, outside perspective that carries more water out of it. We had a phone conversation for an hour initially, and that’s the only amount of time it took to know we’d be doing the record with him. His excitement was contagious.

FB: So in the press release, you refer to something of an emotional inventory. I thought it was a really good phrase, and one more bands maybe should be more familiar with, particularly ones that really grind. How would you tell a band that they’re at a point where they should take an emotional inventory?

Philip: That’s a really good question. I mean, I would gently suggest it to a band, I would never tell them directly to do that. Yeah… I don’t know!

Jonny: It’s such a personal decision, it’s hard to say when is the right time for someone else to do it.

Philip: You can tell when a band is just out of gas. You can feel it radiating off stage like a cold heat. We had been touring for like fourteen years straight. We took breaks here and there but nothing all that sustained. You gotta let the band know you’ve earned the right to take a little break. When it feels from ‘well-earned’ to ‘well-deserved’ I think that softens the blow of any sort of any antipathy that might be smuggled in there with the sentiment. But we felt like we’d earned the right to do that, it was certainly necessary. Our old drummer was hanging by a thread, Erin was recently married and wanted to hit the Appalachian Trail, so it was a perfect opportunity for him to do that. It was good timing.

You gotta understand that for us, our bass player passed away obviously and we didn’t stop, we just fucking plowed right through that. And not in denial or anything, but we were like, “we gotta make a record. We gotta fucking write something about this.” We mourned and everything but there wasn’t a couple years off kind of thing, it was just… keep going. That was pushing it right to the very edge, so when we did that Katatonia tour in 2017 we were like… we need to press pause for a second.

FB: So as a long time collaborator, did it feel like the right thing to bring Justin in as the full time drummer?

Philip: Oh yeah, a no brainer. We had a really positive, productive, brotherly conversation with Joe, when we all mutually decided to part was the right thing for him. He knew it, and we knew it, that Justin was the dude. Just because he’s been part of this forever and he’s a sickass drummer. He’s a G.

FB: The first track on the album, “Wildblood,” has almost a jazz feel about three quarters of the way in with the heavy sax, there’s a really laid back feel I never heard work within your guys’s framework. It’s really subtle, it’s just some cymbal work in the background but I was really excited about it, this little back beat thing… *taps on table lightly*

Philip: I’ve never heard it that way, but now I will forever. That’s fucking cool, man.

FB: I know you weren’t going necessarily for a reinvention, but again in the press release there is again this feel of “let’s not take all we can make so seriously, and make it more for the sake of enjoyment.” How would you say that has paid off for you thus far? Do you feel like you got that captured on the record?

Philip: Absolutely. We’re really proud of it.

FB: Good. I’d actually be really sad if you weren’t. (laughs)

Jonny: A lot of that was just us wanting to feel those things while we were writing as well. Like the way we recorded it, we went down to a buddy’s studio in Connecticut, and spent a week a time there four separate times hanging out together. Just being together all day long. Not going back to our own places or jobs or anything just being in that moment, enjoying playing music all day with your friends. That’s gonna show up every single time in the songwriting I think. There was even more of that in the studio with Will Yip. It almost felt like I was in my early twenty’s again in a garage or something.

FB: Once you are out there playing every day, you really do catch this almost zen wave. Even in just one day so much can happen to interrupt that flow if you’re going home to your normal every day life.

Philip: It was a much more intentional process. A singular focus. It’s another thing I feel like we’ve earned the right to do. You do this long enough and you can shift up and change the process, and it’s a nice method we never really used before. But it was fruitful.

FB: Did that approach help you at all when you worked with the orchestra in Boston?

Philip: I don’t wanna say that was ramshackle, but we only had two three hour rehearsals with them, which was definitely not enough. Erin wrote a large portion of score, I wrote a bunch… the writing was insane. I worked as much on writing for that as I did for the record. It was insane. But once all the scores were done and we delivered them to the orchestra, it sounded good. They were all great players but as far as joining the lines and knowing when to come in was really difficult. We employed a few little things to make it work with the show and it went off without a hitch, so that was great. That was a fun experiment man. It was just very time consuming.

FB: Do you guys decide together where vocals appear on the record and does that happen as you’re writing the record or when you look at it as a complete piece?

Philip: I think it’s song specific. For “Circles on Circles,” I wrote that as just a straight up me and an acoustic guitar, and I brought it to the guys and they added their stuff to it. “Nostalgiast” with Kyle, I wrote a bare bones chord progression one afternoon I thought would be a Casian song. I didn’t even know if the dudes would actually like it because I thought the melody and chords were a little stock, but the guys liked it. It wasn’t until that song was done and then we decided that song was finished when we thought it would be cool if someone sang over this. And then we hit up Kyle, and he lit it on fire.

FB: As you become more self conscious of these ideas and what it takes to evolve your sound, what do you see in the next arch for Caspian?

Jonny: I don’t know if we’ve got to that point yet. But right after we were done with the record we all had the feeling that we were ready to write more and record more instantly. Sometimes the process can get to you and take a toll on you. But this time it was really smooth. But we’re just gonna be on the road doing shows. In terms of what that’s going to sound like, that’s anybody’s guess. We just had great collaborations on this one, and there is a lot where collaboration can lead us too that don’t sound anything like what we just did. Kyle on “Nostalgiast” just got the song and came back and just nailed it. He didn’t get much direction on that, he looked at Phil’s lyrics and came up with his thing and we got the first cut.

Philip: It was nice to do stuff on this record that’s different. There was another song that’s not on the record that’ll be coming out eventually that’s like… a weird psychedelic jam. Maybe not a jam, but it’s out there, intentionally so.

FB: I have faith! That’s exciting because I already almost feel like I’m listening to a different band.

Philip: That’s fucking awesome, man. We never want to do sequels, that’s one of the benefits of getting more material out there. We know what not to do. (laughs)

Jonny: It’s not hard to not do the same thing every time… But once you have a lot of material, you do have a lot of roads that are blocked off. It steers you towards other roads you might not have found driving through the brush looking for an opening.

You can pre-order tickets for Caspian’s latest tour here, or head over to their Bandcamp to jam their discography. Special thanks to Monica from Speakeasy PR and Bradley Cordaro for helping make this interview happen; it is sincerely appreciated.