“Matt [Bayles] was again the perfect producer for us,” says Philip Jamieson. “We have a lot of respect for him, so if he says, ‘Jump,’ we say, ‘How high?’’’ Photo by John Hutchings
A lot of guitar players talk about being “in the zone,” that extreme state of hyper-awareness in which focus and concentration take a backseat to instinct and intuition. For guitarists Philip Jamieson and Calvin Joss, founders of the Massachusetts-based post-rock instrumental band Caspian, being in the zone either onstage or in the rehearsal room sometimes goes one step further.
“There’s a bit of a trance thing that happens,” says Jamieson. “It’s really about us trying to bring in that element of sincerity and let our emotions come out. In order for us to get that across, we have to be in our right minds. Not to sound too New Age or spiritual or anything, but we have to be in touch with ourselves. You can’t fake it.”
“When you’re present and in the moment, it’s easy to be expressive,” Joss explains. “I think you’ve got to be vulnerable, and that allows you to be genuine. For us, it’s not about playing every note, but it’s about how you play them. That’s the expressiveness that comes out in your playing. And if it’s true, you don’t have to think about it.”
A sustained state of cosmic consciousness permeates the 10 tracks on Caspian’s recently released fourth studio album, Dust and Disquiet, on which Jamieson and Joss, along with bandmates Erin Burke-Moran and Jonny Ashburn (guitars), Jani Zubkovs (bass), and Joe Vickers (drums) explore the depths of their four-guitar “wall of sound” approach and come up with something that resembles metaphysical mood music. Produced by Matt Bayles (who helmed the group’s previous record, Waking Season), the set includes extreme grinders (“Arcs of Command”), proggy soundscapes (“Echo and Abyss”), and electronic-tinged epics (“Darkfield”), but also throws listeners a curve with Joss’ emotive, Neil Young-like vocals on the delicate acoustic folk ballad “Run Dry.”
“We definitely took some chances on the record,” says Jamieson, who admits to using 11 months to write and demo “Arc of Command” alone. “Matt was again the perfect producer for us. He’s an excellent traffic cop. He helps split up the division of labor and keeps things rolling smoothly. We have a lot of respect for him, so if he says, ‘Jump,’ we say, ‘How high?’’’
Jamieson and Joss both expanded on how high they jumped creatively during their chat with Premier Guitar—a spirited conversation in which they also dissected the ways they sculpt Caspian’s massive guitar sound, how they shed their shredder pasts, and the thought process the band went through following the unexpected death of founding bassist Chris Friedrich in 2013.
Some have described your music as “shoegaze,” although I hardly think that term applies to your live shows, which are energetic and athletic. Do you mind the tag?
Jamieson: No, I don’t mind it at all. A lot of the music that I grew up listening to was shoegaze music. I think you can apply it to us just because of the general murky atmosphere that we go for within the wall of sound. Physically, the show is much more of an in-your-face visceral experience than a real shoegaze thing.
Joss: Shoegazer rock isn’t taboo terminology. There’s definitely a lot of My Bloody Valentine—tons and tons of layered-guitar stuff. Phil’s into a lot of noise stuff. I think our individual influences really shape our playing. We’ve just found a way to all work together.
Guitarist Calvin Joss. Photo by Marc LeMoine
Not to dwell on Chris’ death, but how long did it take you guys to start functioning as a band again after he passed away?
Joss: We played a show that he had set up—it happened to be the same day as his funeral. I think it was a nice ode. For us, it was obviously super-cathartic. Later on, we had some meetings and talked about stuff. I think we all knew that we wanted to keep making music, and that it was the right thing to do.
Jamieson: We didn’t really pull up for air. We had a tour in the pipeline and I had already started demoing ideas for the record, so we kind of kept our heads down. We knew that we were going to press forward. It was almost an unspoken thing. And Chris would have wanted us to keep going.
Was there ever a time during your teens when you wanted to be shredders?
Joss: Oh, for sure. Growing up and learning to play guitar, I was into all the jam bands, and they had amazing virtuoso guitarists. I was into the Allmans and the Dead, Phish, and all that stuff. There was a time when I wanted to play faster and faster, but eventually I went in a different direction.
Jamieson: I was never into the Steve Vai super-shredder stuff. I guess I liked things infused with a bit more of that blues crunch. I picked up a guitar when I was 14. A buddy gave me a VHS copy of Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. I remember popping the video in and seeing Jimmy Page play “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” I was in complete awe—chills down my spine. I was like, “I wanna get a Les Paul.”
Sure enough, the next week I went out and bought a Les Paul Studio. For pretty much all of high school, I wanted to be Jimmy Page. I was playing with super-light strings, and I was doing a lot of bendy stuff, and I was starting to explore blues music.
Which is interesting, because I don’t hear much of a blues influence in Caspian.
Jamieson: Oh, there’s hardly any!
What contributed to that seismic shift, where you went from blues-oriented rock to post-rock noise bands?
Jamieson: That “Eureka!” moment came when I went from Zeppelin to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. That was around 2002, when I randomly picked out one of their records on a blind buy. When I heard that record, it 100 percent changed my life. In terms of my approach to the guitar, it took a while for me to shed some of those frontman desires—the guy with the foot on the monitor. It was an unlearning curve. Then I met Cal, who was sort of already on that train. We started fleshing out guitar ideas together around that time, and in 2004 we started the band.
One thing led to another and I sort of ended up not defacing that part of myself. I was simply exploring new things. Then when we added a third guitarist in 2008, it was about taking a step back even more. It became less about me and more about the greater good.