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Interviews

Interview: Marianas Trench Talks “Phantoms”, Stage Design, and Edgar Allan Poe

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Marianas Trench

Marianas Trench

Thanks to Vancouver-based pop-rockers, Marianas Trench, 2019 is about to get real. Known for taking fans on cinematic deep dives through the honesty of love, loss, and real-world relationships via a slew of soaring ballads and catchy guitar riffs, the inspiring multi-platinum and Juno award-winning quartet is back once more with yet another other-worldly offering for hungry fans.

Phantoms, set for release on March 1st via 604 Records, will be the band’s fifth studio album and first new material in four long years. And to add a further layer of excitement, Marianas Trench has revealed a packed lineup of tour dates to follow shortly after the fast-approaching record release.

But before the album drops and the band jets off to cities across North America, we spoke with lead singer and Grammy-nominated songwriter, Josh Ramsay about the inspiration behind Phantoms, the stage design for their new tour, Edgar Allan Poe, and more!

To start, congratulations on your fifth studio album, Phantoms! Besides the single, it’s the first new music fans will hear since Astoria. Four years is a pretty lengthy stretch between records. How do you feel now that you’re so close to the actual release?

Thank you! Just nervous anticipation. I’m very excited!

We did one single between albums. There’re a couple reasons it takes us a little bit longer. Most other artists have a whole team. There’re all these songwriters, all these talented producers and writers for one artist. It’s a whole committee making an album. But we’re just doing it ourselves! It takes a little more time because we’re not outsourcing.

And, I’m real serious about quality control too! (laughs) So, if I write something and I don’t think it’s great, I definitely do not want anyone to hear it. That’s why we don’t release any B sidesor anything like that.

If you have a song that you’re not completely thrilled with at the moment, will you ever come back and refinish it or spruce it up later on?

Oh yeah! That’s definitely happened tons of times, for sure. On our last album, there was a song called “Wildfire”. Initially, I had started it ten years ago and then came back to it.

If a song isn’t working, I don’t throw it out. I just sort of put it away and then wait until a new idea presents itself, whenever that may be.

In the case of Phantoms, how did you boil down all your ideas and say, “these are the ten best songs that I feel should be on the record”?

There weren’t a lot of things that we started and didn’t get finished. Actually, there were only two other songs that I started, didn’t go the way I wanted, and got put away. Also, there was one that was good, but didn’t really feel like this album. It wasn’t in keeping with the theme, so we’ll save that for something else.

On the record, you spoke not only about your own personal ghosts, but the ones that others faced as well. Did the way you view phantoms change over the course of the album?

Yeah. I tried to look at it from any and all perspectives. One concept that I really liked and that I certainly didn’t come up with…I borrowed it from the show, The Haunting of Hill House, was that to some people, a ghost is more about hope and hoping to see someone. I liked that sort of loving look at it.

I know in the past, with Astoria, you decked out your apartment with 80’s posters and recording gear, wore lots of leather pants, and really set the mood for the concept record. Did you switch things up again or do any fun re-decorating for Phantoms?

(laughs) For Phantoms, we didn’t record in that penthouse. Instead, we used an actual recording studio. What I did personally, before heading into the studio every day, and then at the end of the night before going to bed, was read some Edgar Allan Poe for inspiration. It served me well.

The only downside was towards the end of the record, when I was really trying to get in the headspace of losing yourself to madness and trying to be in that theme, I could have taken care of myself a bit better! (laughs) I wasn’t really focused on personal health at all, I just dove into it. I probably didn’t eat as much as I ought to, so I had to put a little weight back on after the recording process!

The only other difficult thing was that because I was reading all this macabre stuff, I started having these really twisted dreams that stuck with me. I used that for the album, but I was thankful when we were done and I could put it all away. (laughs)

Oh my! (laughs) It’s great that you were able to get into character though!

I know! This may sound kind of weird, but when it comes down to writing albums and writing songs, I approach it how I assume a method actor would approach a character or part. I really try to dive in, full force. It’s a way to get inspiration, and I find it a little more moving to completely get inside of a role like that.

So, kind of like performing on stage and getting into an energized lead singer persona then?

Yeah! That’s definitely a character as well, for sure.

Marianas Trench will release their new album, Phantoms, on March 6.

Marianas Trench will release their new album, Phantoms, on March 1st.

Watching the behind the scenes video for “I Knew You When”, it seems like you guys are always having a great time, whether it’s in front of a crowd or on set. What was one of your favorite memories or funniest things to happen with the video or creating the record?

I think we’re very lucky that after this long together, our band really feels like a family. I’m grateful that the four of us all love making music and just hanging out.

One of the things that comes with that is, if you’re going to work together, the most important thing at the end of the day, is to not have an ego. It has to be that, when you say an idea, it’s not attached to you anymore. We’re just thinking about what will make the song the best, and it doesn’t matter who came up with it.

A lot of bands can get really concerned with, “but I need to have my idea in there”. Then the drummer says, “no, but I need this part to go like this”. They bicker and the end product isn’t the best it can be, it’s just the most of yourself and that’s a stupid way to look at it!

For example, I worked on this song idea for maybe four or five days. It was just a verse and a chord and I emailed it to Matt [Webb]. I said, “hey, what do you think of this one?” His response, and he wasn’t even trying to be a dick (laughs), had no explanation whatsoever, it just said, “5 out of 10”!

Oh no! (laughs)

But I wasn’t offended by it, I just laughed and said, well, back to the drawing board, I guess! And the funny thing, Matt was right! (laughs) I had written an up-tempo song, and it had good lyrics to the chords and a good melody, but it just wasn’t quite landing. So, Matt came back with a 5 out of 10.

I had thought, “that’s weird, because when I sit down at the piano, it sounds good there”. But then I was like, “oh! I’ve made a dance track and it was supposed to be a ballad”.

After that, it turned into “The Death of Me”. But it was originally an up-tempo song which wasn’t working. So, he was right.

Minus “The Killing Kind”, that’s actually my favorite song on the record. So, I’m really glad you made that change! (jokes)

Yeah! The original version was all dancy. (sings) Before you go, before you go, I just wanted you to know! (laughs) It just didn’t work!

(laughs) Well, speaking of collaborating with others, you guys actually had Robert Joseph Manning Jr. from the band Jellyfish as a guest vocalist on “Echoes of You”. What was it like working with him?

It was a really frantic time, but Jellyfish is one of my favorite bands ever! He sent me the tracks because we weren’t physically in the same place. I had written this song and emailed it to him. I asked, “hey man, would you be interested on singing on this?” He agreed and was like “yeah, for sure”. But then he got sick!

We had to start mixing around January 1st and it was over the holidays. He was sick and came back saying, “hey man, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get it done in time. My voice isn’t there”. So, I was like, “ok. I totally understand. We’ll get it another time”.

So, it was going to be that Matt and Mike were going to sing his part. Then, at the last minute, right as we were starting to mix the song, I got the tracks from him. So, it was really at the last second! I was over the moon when I heard it! His voice sounds so rad!

What a trooper! I really enjoyed all the tracks on Phantoms, but I think “The Killing Kind” has got to be one of my personal favorites.

Thank you!

How did the idea to do this mash up of other tracks on the album come about?

I started doing that on our second album, Masterpiece Theatre. It was the first time we started playing around with an idea like that. And we’ve done something similar on every album since. I purposely always try to allude to one of the other albums, because at the end of my career, I want everything to be connected eventually. We’ll see if that works! (laughs) But I’m trying anyway!

With “The Killing Kind”, I really wanted it to feel like a descent into madness. I’d been reading all this Edgar Allan Poe, and madness is a very central theme in a lot of his work. So, I was trying to think how musically that would sound, which is why we have cinematic, almost horror movie sounding parts in there.

“The Killing Kind” was the last song that we recorded for the album. And I mean, very last! We started mixing on January 1st, and I started writing that song on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.It was like, “ok, we’ve got a week to get this done”!

I guess I’ve kind of started to incorporate cinematic elements into what we do, for the last two albums. On our first album we had one song with a string quartet and I was really inspired at that session. Then the second album we had a full string section. And then, with the third album, we started incorporating other symphonic instruments. By Astoria, we had a couple of songs that featured an entire symphony orchestra. I really like the challenge of writing and arranging for that many instruments. It’s such an awesome palate to get to work with.

So, I started to incorporating it into our albums…not necessarily that every song features a symphony, certainly not. That would be way too much. But I like having something big like that. And it makes sense for it to be the climax of the album. By the end, every sound ever is on that song! (laughs)

I love how the cinematics of the song reminded me of a Broadway production or a big movie piece. Is this an area that you’d ever want to venture into?

I would love to score a movie at some point. That would be a really interesting challenge, but time consuming as well. (jokes) I’m a little busy with Marianas Trench, but we’ll see! Writing for a Broadway show, that would be a lot of fun too. I’ve just never really had the time to do anything like that because I’ve been focused on the band and writing songs for other people.

Yeah, I can imagine you guys must be super busy with the new album and upcoming tour! Given that the title of your new album is Phantoms and the tour itself is called Suspending Gravity, can fans expect any atmospheric stage tricks or even the comeback of the flying harness?

Oh yes! We don’t shy away from theatricality in this band! (laughs) We certainly embrace such endeavors. We’re taking our time. I want the show to feel like we’re entering a haunted house and descending into madness… in a fun way, not a spooky, cheesy, way. It’s going to be fun!

How does stage design compare when you’re doing a large arena show in Canada versus something smaller in the United States?

You know, it’s funny. When I came up with the setting for this album, it actually all began with what I wanted the live show to look like. The setting for the album came from visuals. I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if the show took place in a fun looking house, like the Addams Family house? And that’s where it all began. We definitely designed the show around that.

In terms of shows in Canada versus shows in the U.S., I would say we do bigger shows in Canada but we basically try and maintain much of the same elements on either side of the border, as much as possible.

To finish up, I’d love to talk a little about your personal journey in music. With your dad owning Little Mountain Sound Studios and your mom being a singer and vocal teacher, you grew up around a lot of musical stars. Who was your idol as a kid, and has that changed any compared to now?

I think at the base of it, my own parents. They’re both such amazing musicians and amazing singers! You were talking about cinematic arranging earlier. I learned all that from my Dad. He’s fantastic. He was my hero then and my hero now!

In terms of famous people, I don’t know. Singers that I love vary. There’s something awesome about people that are incredible shredders and can do all these fast licks. But to me, at the end, it’s all about the singers who are expressing something. I think that’s more important than having the chops to pull off all the crazy fast runs. It’s about feeling something when a person is singing.

A lot of singers, even though they’re crushing it in terms of their technique and their tone, if I don’t feel it in the heart, then it doesn’t really stay with me.

So, a singer that’s a wicked shredder but can also really emote is great. Jeff Buckley is probably one of my favorites. There’re the obvious ones too. Certainly, you can tell I’m a big fan of Freddie Mercury! (laughs)

For sure! (laughs) Who isn’t, right?

Totally! (laughs) I’m not hiding that one!

As far as advice your parents have given you, is there any tip that’s stuck with you throughout your career?

There’s a couple. I think I really took my work ethic from them. They’re both very much about working really hard on the craft itself as opposed to where some people would say, “I just want to be rich and famous”. That just wasn’t me. I grew up thinking, “I want to write and perform great songs”. That was the goal. Everything else is a byproduct. I took that from my parents and the crazy musical environment that I grew up in. It’s a real work ethic and a sense of perseverance.  

I’d love to wrap up with a few fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a go?

Sure.

My favorite tour snack is…

Coke Zero, caffeine!

The perfect day off would include…

Just being in a good city. Most cities are fun to visit but sometimes the way a tour schedule works, you have a really long drive. Buses can only go a certain amount of hours per day, so if you have a long drive, sometimes that means you have a day off and it’s not even in a city. It’s in a parking lot on the side of the road, and that’s not fun! But, one of the best parts about our job is that we get to see the world. That’s a real treat!

One item I can’t live without is…

Guitar!

Last one. The funniest quirk I discovered about one of my bandmates has been…

We all have weird quirks! Ian sleeps with his eyes open! (laughs) It’s very unsettling!

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