Never Say Never:
Caspian Hits All the Points On Circles
Many musicians seem to try to stand out with strange or shocking lyrics, so perhaps the most surprising tactic of all is to simply use no words whatsoever. Such is the case with Caspian: with few exceptions, the Beverly, Massachusetts band writes almost exclusively instrumental songs. That’s not to say that they aren’t as expressive as their wordier peers, though. Sounding like a cross between classic prog rock and some long-long experimental indie film soundtrack, their music is unusually powerful and evocative.
“We feel really comfortable articulating our emotions with instruments,” says guitarist/keyboardist Phil Jamieson, calling from his home. “We feel like we have something to say, and we can get the point across in a way that succeeds without lyrics. We accomplish what we set out to accomplish, which is to express our feelings instrumentally.”
So far, this method has worked well for the six-piece band. Debuting with an EP, You Are the Conductor, in 2005, they released their debut full-length album, The Four Trees, two years later; both received much critical praise. They’ve just released their fifth studio album, On Circles, in January. This lengthy and successful run still seems somewhat surprising to Jamieson, who says the band, which formed in 2003 when he and the other founding members attended Gordon College (a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts), was originally done just for fun.
“We didn’t have intentions of recording or going on tour,” Jamieson says. “We just had a practice space and we’d get together and drink some beers and screw around with pedals and get weird. It was a really fun exploratory time for us. One thing led to another, we started playing gigs, and it caught on with a group of friends who thought it was really unique and interesting. Then around 2006, we really started chasing it. We were like, ‘Let’s buy a van, let’s go on tour and see what we can do.’ We booked a bunch of tours by ourselves and played for three or four people a night, but had a really good time cutting our chops. We just took it from there. The process materialized really organically for us.”
Jamieson believes that being open to unorthodox ideas and techniques has been a critical factor in Caspian’s evolution. This approach arose somewhat out of necessity, as only guitarist Erin Burke-Moran has had any formal classical training and is the only member who can read music. For his own part, Jamieson believes that being self-taught has actually been quite beneficial. “I took guitar lessons in high school for four or five months, and found that it was difficult for me to take instruction. I just had my own weird approach to playing and writing that didn’t seem to map on to anything like lessons or learning music theory. I’m the kind of person that, if I get a new guitar pedal, I don’t really read the manual. I just throw the manual out and then try to subordinate that pedal to whatever vision I have in my head. Sometimes you come across some happy accidents, or you discover something the pedal wasn’t designed for. I play by my own rules.”
Even so, Jamieson says that he and the other members do strictly adhere to one consistent guiding principle when it comes to songwriting: “We do actually start with the mood. Someone will bring in a really small melody or simple chord change, and that central piece gives us a mood from the get-go, and that really sets the tableau for what we’re trying to go for. So it is governed almost exclusively by mood, for sure.”
Another rule the band members set for themselves is to write songs that they’ll be able to enjoy playing live – an especially important consideration for a band that has become known for undertaking exhaustive tours throughout North America, Europe, and even China. “If you’re going to get up [onstage] every night, night after night, and play the same songs and be genuine, you’ve got to write music that you enjoy performing,” Jamieson says. “That’s why we take songwriting so seriously. We want our records to be great, but we also know if we’re going to be on the road for a long time, there’s got to be something about [the songs] that gets us out of bed. We’re committed to writing songs that we’re playing with sincerity, every night.
“Our show is really explosive. We definitely try to retain a lot of the gentle sensibilities and tones that there are in the records. But we try to make a really heavy impression on people when we play live. We play with a lot of emotion. We lay it all out there. The show is really intense and fairly noisy. It’s a giant wall of sound. It’s a really physical show. We get really into it onstage.”
Jamieson says he’s excited to play the new songs from On Circles for people, especially because the first single, “Circles on Circles,” has been well-received since it was released in early January. There was some question about how longtime fans would react to it, because it is one of the very few Caspian songs to contain vocals. “[That song] is just me and an acoustic guitar, singing. I was excited to see how people were going to respond to that, just because it’s so wildly different for us, stylistically and compositionally.” He sees this vocal track as further proof of their refusal to stick to the rules. “We’re open to whatever the song demands. We don’t go in there saying, ‘We will never have vocals, we will never use lyrics because we’re dogmatically opposed to it.’ We’re open to whatever the process feels like it needs.”
While Jamieson admits that there has been some objection to this deviation from the usual instrumental-only Caspian sound, this disapproval doesn’t faze him. “One person was like, ‘This is absolute shit and you’ve got to stop singing, this is terrible!’ But it didn’t bother me as much as it would have 10 years ago. When you start out and you’re really getting bearings with being in a band and releasing music, you’re really possessive of the stuff you put out, you want everyone to love it. You take all the criticism and all the praise extremely personally. I think that’s natural and healthy. This time around, we’re a little more confident in what we like about the material, what we feel we’ve done well. It’s not like we’re immune to criticism, but I think that we have a better grip on what we’re going for.”
It seems that most of Caspian’s fans are being open-minded, though, and have given positive feedback on that song and the other new material in On Circles. “We’ve grown as people, we’ve tried to expand our palette over the years, and when you see your fans growing alongside you together, it’s really a beautiful union. It was really nice to see people receive that song and respect that we were going for something different.”
Still, Jamieson is quick to point out that On Circles isn’t some radical sonic departure, but rather reflects a refinement of the band’s familiar strengths. “It’s definitely a Caspian record, but it’s a little bit leaner and meaner than stuff we’ve done in the past. We really tried to consolidate ideas and make them a little bit sharper and not just go for a sprawling conceptual record. We wanted to do something that was less precious and felt more human. We feel like we accomplished that. We’re proud of it, and at the end of the day, that’s really all you can ask for.”
Jamieson is especially pleased to release On Circles, because it represents the end of a somewhat difficult period for the band. Caspian’s last studio album, Dust and Disquiet, came out five years ago. After touring for that release, the band members felt burned out, and decided it was time to go on hiatus. “I think every band reaches that point where it’s like, ‘We’ve been doing this for 12 years nonstop and we just need to take a break and collect ourselves and do some reassembling, do some normal human things.’”
Even though taking time off seemed necessary, Jamieson says that it became an unsettled period for him, and he seems relieved that it’s behind him. “I didn’t really pick up a guitar for six or seven months. I just let it collect dust. I watched a lot of movies and played a lot of pool. It was a strange phase for me. I felt anchorless. But after that year, we got back together. We didn’t have a big conversation about it, but we all knew that we had more to say, and we wanted to keep working on music. We spent most of 2018 with writing sessions, and by the end of that year we had [On Circles] good to go, and recorded it last year, and here we are.”
Now that the band members are feeling re-energized, and the band is firmly back on track with releasing new material and touring, Jamieson is optimistic that they will be able to continue making music that resonates with the members themselves, and with listeners, for a long time. “No one wants to make something that’s disposable, ‘one and done,’” he says. “It seems like our albums have a long shelf life for people, and I hope that [fans] continue to enjoy it and receive something from it for a while. We’re committed to what we’re doing, and I hope that comes across to the audience. I think it does.”
Photo by David Goldman.