Canadian band Marianas Trench have been around for the best part of twenty years, forming in 2001, releasing five albums since then, and touring extensively, most often around Canada and the USA, but also in Australia, the UK and Europe. At London’s KOKO venue, during their UK tour in May 2017, lead singer Josh Ramsay said how he was humbled at how many people were at the show, especially considering they had never released an album in the UK. The venue was packed solid, made up of fans, the curious, and media. All left impressed and wanting more. This year, Marianas Trench *have* released an album in the UK, the magnificent ‘Phantoms’, written around the theme of being haunted by the memory of people in our past. Lisa had the chance to speak to Josh Ramsay, and asked him about the album, the songwriting process, and just when they were hoping to get back to the UK.
Thanks for talking to us Josh, we’ve done some email interviews with you guys before, but this is the first time we’ve *spoken* to anyone from Marianas Trench, so thank you!
So you’ve released your fifth studio album, ‘Phantoms’, literally just come out hasn’t it?
Yeah, it’s been out for like a month I think?
A month! Oh!
In North America…
Ahh yeah here in the UK it came out at the beginning of April I think.
Yes, yes that’s right.
So it’s a concept album – which is something you guys do all the time anyway isn’t it?
Sort of yeah…
And this time it’s based around a haunted house. How did you come up with that idea?
Well, I mean, I like the idea of being haunted as a nice, fairly simple straight forward metaphor for love lost, and missing someone and stuff like that. That’s really that I’ve been thinking about, because that’s what I’ve been going through. And then when we were touring for our last album, we had a day off New Orleans, and I went walking around in this city that’s *steeped* in voodoo and death culture, and stuff and I really got into it, and lo and behold, the theme presented itself.
So essentially you’re saying that we are houses, haunted by things, loves lost, haunted by memories, overthinking…
Yeah! But to me, one of the things I took away from New Orleans’ culture was that they don’t view that stuff as scary, nor do they view that stuff as negative, they like to look at it as celebrations of life, so to me, the ghost of someone you’re missing, that can be something painful, but it can also be something hopeful, like wanting to see them, or hoping to run into them.
So does having a concept help with the songwriting process? Is it more difficult to keep having to go back on track, or does it help you think of ideas for your songs?
I think, for me, I wouldn’t even necessarily say it was something as lofty as a concept, it’s more like I just write themed records, it’s good to have a setting. The reason I do that is, well, first of all, I think not a lot of other people do that, like maybe it’s something a little different. For me it’s like when I come up with a theme or a setting that we’re going to be putting an album in, it naturally gives you a way to reinvent on every album, because you’re going to have a bit of a different sound, a bit of a different look, and you’re going to be searching for inspirations in areas that you wouldn’t have necessarily gone. Like on this album, I was thinking about what sounds like scary movies, and I was trying to think like what a sonic landscape for that would be, so I was making choices like using weird instruments like harpischords and stuff, because that sounds like a spooky old movie. I never in a million years would have thought, “let’s feature a harpsichord” or something. I only came up with that because we were working with that theme.
Did I read that there’s a theremin on there as well?
Yeah yeah! There’s a theremin in a couple of songs!
I do love a theremin! [both laugh]
So I was listening to ‘Phantoms’ today and I was trying to write a review about it, and I always think, you know if an album’s good when you get too distracted listening that you actually forget to make notes [Josh laughs]. So that’s what happened today…
Well that’s good!
…Yeah I love it! I had to keep going back on songs because I realised, hang on…oh…I’ve listened to that one but not thought about what I was going to write about…so listening to ‘Eleonora’ and it struck me, and I’m sure everyone’s said it, but it just reminded me of the close harmonies that Queen do…
Queen are a big influence of ours, and always have been on every album! You know, it’s funny, I think a lot of people didn’t necessarily put two and two together when the album came out, then a whole bunch of people were like, what? Hang on…wait a minute…but yeah, Queen are a huge influence on me!
I was going to say, they’d have to be an influence – I mean, your singing style, for one thing – you do these amazing things – like, there’s falsetto, then there’s high voice, then – you’ve just got this most amazing voice – my notes are all like, “Oh my god this voice” [Josh laughs]…I got to hear you at KOKO a couple of years ago on your last UK tour, and I’m up in the balcony thinking, “how is he singing this LIVE LIKE THAT!??”
I appreciate that! Thank you very much!
And I was also at that concert thinking, “he’s going to lose his trousers really soon” they were just getting lower and lower and lower…[both laugh]
That answered one of my questions, which was, was it deliberate for you to sound like Queen, and clearly it is, because they’re one of your inspirations…
Not only Queen but there’s a lot of bands in the 70s there that did very elaborate vocals. There’s Queen, there’s definitely Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, another huge inspiration for me. Then there was a band in the 90s that came out, who were sort of doing that same thing, they were a combination of Queen, Beach Boys, The Beatles, that had that kind of all that going for them, they were called Jellyfish. But unfortunately they kind of got buried under Grunge, because they came out during that, and it just couldn’t work. But they were a huge influence on me too.
You’ve got a dude from Jellyfish on your album haven’t you – what’s his name?
Roger Joseph Manning Junior.
What do you take from the music of these people who have influenced you, and put into your writing?
I just try and pay attention, I just try and listen. I certainly don’t want to emulate anyone else, I’m never going to be able to better than someone else was at the original, so I just want to be me, but that being said, I certainly think I wear my influences on my sleeve, I mean you called the Queen thing right away, but what I think, what I really take away from artists like that, is the work ethic I think. I mean, to do something like that, imagine how epic a recording session Bohemian Rhapsody would have been [Lisa: Oh my God] given the technology they had at that time, and they still managed to pull that off! For me that means always being willing to go the extra mile, and there’s no such thing as too much.
It’s absolutely brilliant. And it just shows in your album that you’ve gone the extra mile. Like I said, it’s a quality album. So in my notes, when I actually did remember to write something down, I was listening to ‘Don’t Miss Me’, and it occurred to me – and this is before I did any other research – that you draw on literary references for your songwriting. *THEN* I watched your video ‘The Making Of Phantoms’ and I realised, “Oh Edgar Allan Poe, no wonder that sounded so familiar…”
So did you do that with other songs you’ve written?
I do think that if you’re going to write, then you should probably read. I go back to poetry a lot. I always between albums I like to revisit with old Shakespeare stuff, there’s something about how that man put words together, reading some of those words, I feel like I’m looking at a painting, they’re put together so beautifully, and on this album, the reason I was reading Edgar Allan Poe’s stuff, was I was trying to think of haunted places, and the romantic side of it, and the descent into madness, and that’s very him, so in the morning I’d wake up and grabbed a book, which was everything he’d ever written, and I’d read a few of his pieces, and at night I’d read a bit more before I went to bed. And then eventually during the album process I was having some *pretty* weird dreams [both laugh], but that was specifically for this album, because I felt like that would be a good place to look for inspiration. And I loved it…
So how do you decide what goes on an album and what stays off? Is it difficult?
Usually if I’m working on a song and I don’t love it, and I can’t figure out how to fix it, it’s not gone forever, but I’ll put it away until the right idea presents itself, sometimes that might take years, sometimes it might just take a month. But you might have a verse that feel really good about, but you just can’t find the chorus…[Josh laughs] on our last album ‘Astoria’ I actually had a song that I had originally written 13 years previously [wow], but I’d just never found a good chorus, and then suddenly I found one and I went “oh yeah right remember I wrote that song, like a decade ago? That’ll work!” [Oh wow] so I just don’t force anything, I try and let each song take as long as it needs to take, but for this album, there’s no complete songs that didn’t make the cut. Everything made the cut. If it’s not complete then it’s been put away. I did put away a couple of things, but I think it’s usually pretty obvious if it’s working or not.
That was actually one of my questions, is there a graveyard on your computer filled with songs that never were…
I wouldn’t call it a graveyard, but there’s a “to be continued” file, yeah!
So you can bring them back from the dead…
What’s your favourite track on Phantoms, and why? Do you have a favourite track?
Not really! I’m very happy with it as a collective work of songs. I don’t know if I have a specific favourite, I do think I’m pretty happy with the ending, I do feel like it’s a nice ending, but I don’t have anything specific, that to me is like the best song or something, it’s up to each person listening, it’s very subjective.
So what was the easiest one to write? And what was the most difficult?
You know what – you’re going to laugh – I think the easiest one and the most fun one was doing ‘The Killing Kind’, doing the last song [Oh wow] – but it’s not because the song was simple or something, but basically every album that we do, usually the first couple of songs are always the hardest because I’m still playing around with the theme, and figuring out what the sound of the album’s going to be, and maybe I haven’t written a song in like a year or something because we’ve been on the road, so usually the first couple of songs are really difficult and slow, and then eventually a creative momentum comes in and I get on a roll and songs become easier and easier, and then I get to, “Okay now it’s time to do something crazy” [both laugh]. By the time I’m there, usually there’s enough creative momentum that it’s sort of easy and fun. So that song, I remember, we started mixing on January 3rd, and I remember it had been Christmas Day and I hadn’t thought of anything for that song yet, and we still had to do an album closing song. So on Boxing Day I went into the studio and started to do freeform writing, and a week and a half later we were mixing it! So it was super fun! It was zany! It was definitely zany times, but it was really fun!
I like that there’s so many styles in that! You’ve got the a cappella, you’ve got the full on power chords kind of thing, and it’s just a really FULL song!
It’s *very* full! It’s a very full song!
But I do like that it comes full circle, you bring back elements of the whole album basically is summed up in that last song.
Yeah! That’s what we were trying for!
Well you did very well then! [thank you!]
You’re about to take off across the US for a couple of months touring – so when are you coming back here to the UK?
Oh My God! It’s all happening but it’s not announced yet [you’re not allowed to announce it yet are you] but we are coming! It’s already booked, we’re coming soon [YAYY] and I think we’re announcing in the next couple of days, I just can’t say.
Alright no scoop here!
We definitely are coming! You can say that we’re coming!
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given (that you want to share) and what’s the worst?
Oh gosh! I have no idea! I don’t know!
Who would you most like to write for that you haven’t written for already?
OH! I don’t know? Ummm – maybe I think it would be quite fun to do something with Kesha [yeah!], because I like that stylistically she’s a bit all over the place, which is kind of like me but in her own way, I think that might be fun.
Well there’s some Kesha-sounding elements in this album as well! [do you think so?] Yeah! I was listening and thinking, gee it’s clear that you’ve written for Carly-Rae, that bit’s obvious there, and then I was thinking, gee that bit sounds a bit like Kesha as well – so maybe we can get this happening – that would be really nice! Kesha if you’re listening…
I’ve got one more question! What question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview but nobody ever does?
Oh! You know, I’m not really sure! I feel like I get asked a lot of questions! So I’m good!
Do you get asked the same questions over and over? And does that get annoying?
Some of them! Some I get asked all the time. *You* haven’t hit any of them yet, but there are some you get all the time…
Oh that’s good! It’s really hard, I was preparing for this today, and at the last minute I was looking at some old interviews and I was thinking NO I can’t ask that question, it’s already been asked!
Thank you for talking to us Josh! Have a lovely rest of your day, and we’ll see you when you come over here, whenever that might be!
We will see you very soon!
‘Phantoms’ is out now and can be bought on CD, streamed, and downloaded here. Find Marianas Trench online on their official website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and VEVO. Stay tuned for details about upcoming touring dates.
Listen to Lisa’s interview with Josh on our SoundCloud channel: