RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Interview with Caspian III

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, leading post rock band Caspian describe how listening to a Stars of the Lid album turned their entire perception of music upside down. Eventually, that epiphany would lead them down a personal path - on which originality works as a compass guiding them through the 'tumultious experience of being alive'.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
People are much more impressionable in their youth as we all know and that crosses over into the realm of emulating others artistically. We are much more malleable and emotionally approachable at a young age. Youth is the moment in which un-bridled inspiration is apprehended by whatever means it is presented, and often in the world of music, that comes in the form of popular, accessible, widely disseminated stuff. For me that was bands like Led Zeppelin, Oasis and Pearl Jam. I’ll always love music like that and be forever thankful that they were there in my youth instead of pop-country or whatnot. The fact that they were presented to me at that formative stage is something I’ll be forever grateful for.

At a certain point, we become increasingly un-happy being defined and boxed in by the formulaic, the older we get. It’s a little bit of that combined with the simple fact that our minds and our experience begin to expand in time, and the increasingly confusing experience of the human condition begins to demand new forms of art to help make sense of it all. Some people go the opposite direction of originality and find security being identified within the confines of a larger collective ideology, under broader and more accessible, simplistic art forms to help alleviate that burden of knowledge, and to construct a safe place for themselves that is kept intact by things that a lot of other people can get behind in simple, approachable ways. Things that have always been there and are impenetrable to change that "stand the test of time" to provide the necessary anchor. I have to clarify here and say that I don’t have anything against this, and don’t judge or fault people thst end up there. I myself am attracted to a lot of these timeless, traditional things. I get it. I would never for a moment judge someone else's personal experience that may lead them to that safe place.

I guess at some point I went a different route though, and wanted to explore self-definition through the prism of individualism and the raw expression of this struggle to find meaning by approaching things that have a bit more of an edge to them. Things that embody a bit more independence than the herd mentality embraces with traditional forms. Maybe that is a result of my own narcissism and sense of self-importance? Maybe it’s a result of a sincere search to cultivate a deeper, richer and more meaningful interior life. I don’t really know. Either way, there is an embedded fear of definition that a lot of people want to try and shrug off the older they get – nobody wants to be identified in specific, narrow terms and that’s a major catalyst in either finding your own independent voice, or assimilating into the objective art forms that have become more institutionalized, for better or for worse.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
I flirted with experimental music all throughout my youth, high school, into university, etc. but it wasn’t really until I heard Stars of the Lid’s The Tired Sounds Of... around 2002 that everything converged in a meaningful way to me on every level imaginable. That record knocked me out and re-shaped the way I experience and relate to sounds and the recording medium. I think a bit of it was knowing that it was a couple of guys like me making the stuff, not some crazed world famous composer ripping his hair out in a salon in Moscow or something. Just a couple guys from West Texas making beautiful, challenging music that resonated with me in the sweet spot, the secret place. Obviously I had never heard anything remotely like it and the originality was paramount to the experience. Of course now I know that it was preceded by folks like Labradford and Brian Eno and such, but at the time that didn’t really matter and still sort of doesn’t.

What's your own definition of originality?
Originality is thinking independently. In conjunction with creativity, this takes the form of art that is not bound by prior conventions that give the art its meaning, but rather moves forward to somewhere new and original because life experience demands that from the individual creating it. The compulsion for originality must come from the genuine struggle to achieve self awareness and through multiple events of alienation, not simply from the desire to do something different for the sake of doing something different. That’s when things start to get pretentious in my opinion. But that’s just me.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
It’s an essential part of the creative path and has become increasingly important to me and hopefully will continue to do so over time. The creative life needs to find a way to co-exist harmoniously with the experience of being alive. That is where the balance is achieved with all of this in my opinion. The experience of being alive is not always sunny and cheery, nor is it constantly bleak and empty. It simply "is". Thinking independently and creatively is the only antidote I have found to making sense of the tumultuous experience of being alive, and in the end it does require that originality to bring it a place of genuine resonance, just within myself. It is paramount not simply on principle but because it has become so enmeshed in the creative process that any other way simply will not do anymore. Of course, chasing after originality requires a skill set that understands that the physical approach to creating music or art involves employing timeless, solidified, objective skills that can’t be denied or ignored. By this I simply mean things like knowing music theory, or learning how to use technology better, or finding new chords and practicing your chops, etc. It’s essential to be constantly understanding those things and dwelling with them as much as possible.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
It’s tough. Sometimes you want to turn off the faucet and isolate yourself from it all in order to approach the process as pure and original as possible. At the same time, a great piece of music still inspires me so, so much. It will make me want to pull out a guitar or a keyboard and start creating immediately, and I can’t deny the impulsive element of that. I guess if hearing a piece of music that inspires me to create is the seminal moment that lights the match, it then becomes my duty to explore that inspiration and begin to imbue whatever I create with a sense of my original voice to to turn it into a full on blaze. Whatever gets the process started doesn’t matter as much as how the process then develops and finds its completion.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
A bit of what I was describing above. There’s that immediate moment of inspiration, whether it’s a song or an experience or a photograph or a specific emotion that you can’t shake or whatever ... Sometimes, I’ll begin to explore something and after awhile it will just sound generic, dull, tired and lifeless. That happens increasingly, the more you stockpile ideas and life experience up. It’s extremely difficult and can be absolutely soul destroying. To be honest, I experience that almost every time I begin creating a song. It is horrible.

Strategically, I guess using different sounds and instruments to convey the same thing I would on more familiar approaches (a, electric guitar with a delay pedal, for example) has helped a lot and really opened up the writing process for me. Finding new voices to communicate the same impression and whatever it is I’m chasing down.

There are times now that (as a musician operating in this world of "post-rock") I’ll hear a song that starts with a clean electric guitar playing a twinkly melody with just a reverb pedal and delay, and I just want to throw up all over myself and quit all together since I’ve heard it so many times and that language has become corrupted. It holds zero emotional value now. A lot of my ideas may have to start there, just to get the melody or the idea out, and then I’ll come back and re-explore that melodic idea with different, fresher instrumentation that just feels more interesting. I did this with songs like "Waking Season" and "Gone In Bloom and Bough". Those recognizable melodies all came from cute little twinkly guitar parts that simply would not do, so I replaced them with pianos and harps and reverse pianos and vocal drones and such. All of they sudden they felt more "original" and ambitious and from there, with the proper foundation layed, I felt more inspired to chase down the rest of the composition.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
I’d say see the above two responses again. I do remember when things would come more effortlessly and just sort of "appear" out of nowhere. That was great! Now it takes much more intentionality and straight up work. I have to sit down even if I’m not inspired or in the mood or whatever and just see what happens. The more I sit down and just see what ends up happening, the better the chances of finding something resonant appear. It’s a philosophy of availability, making myself present as much as possible. When we get together to write as a band, we’ll sit around for hours, days, even months, and stare at the wall. It’s depressing as fuck as you can imagine, but the more we make ourselves available, the more chances there are for something magical to appear. Once we grab it, and it feels right, we’ll hunt it down by whatever means necessary until it feels done and then move on to something else.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I made a foray into the world of samplers with the last record that remains a bit of an obsession, simply because they allow me to take natural instruments and manipulate them to suit my own purposes, my own vision, as opposed to the barriers and limitations that come into play when getting only one sound out of an instrument. It’s not rocket science, but for me it really opened up my imagination and expanded the possibilities to a degree that gave me the motivation to explore an original voice, or a voice that at least sounded distinctive and unique since it maintains the strident independent thought process that defines originality. Often that sound is something we’ve all heard a million times and simply doesn’t sound "original" or interesting. It’s the same regurgitated sound that has been used over and over and starts to align itself with the objective aspects of art that I spoke of earlier.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
Great question. Like you mentioned, it seems like everyday more and more music is becoming available to people in so many different mediums and formats. Kids can write a song in their bedroom and someone on the other side of the planet can hear it within minutes via the Internet. I can’t tell if this increased dissemination encourages originality or, conversely, imitation. One would hope that the only way to really rise above the mess and stick out is to pursue something unique and original. Though, a good song is simply a good song and one of the many mysterious qualities of music is that it’s pretty easy to spot something that’s inspired or un-inspired. It’s a simple gut check and music does not need to necessarily be original for it to pass that gut check. So I guess the Internet, being this superhighway of exposing new music constantly and immediately, allows us better odds at uncovering something that sounds inspired. If this inspiration is motivated by originality, then that’s wonderful. Then there’s the presence of the media and taste makers like critics and the entire arm of the music industry that either encourages originality or shuns it. Stuff like American Idol obviously doesn’t give a flying fuck about originality, just how well that sincerity or inspiration and plain raw talent gets exposed. So if people want to chase after that stuff, which it seems like the vast majority of musicians on planet Earth still do, then that’s going to be there and it’s going to prize raw talent and the ability to be marketable and accessible as paramount, not the reach of originality. But that’s just how it goes and always has and always will. Programs like that massage the objective, herd mentality stuff that I was talking about earlier and make people feel safe. The vast majority of people will always gravitate towards towards the lesser challenging option when it comes to art since that’s what is on most display, get’s the most attention, and ultimately glues our collective consciousness together so the entire thing doesn’t fall apart.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I would love to do an opera but I simply don’t know the right people, or have the right connections, or have the finances to enlist people of the highest caliber to be involved.

Caspian Interview by Tobias Fischer
Caspian image by Evan Tetreault

Homepage: Caspian
Homepage: Makemyday Records
Homepage: The Mylene Sheath Records