The music industry does not always make a whole lot of sense. Sometimes you find a band that you know should be the biggest band in the world, because they either write really solid songs, or there’s just something about them that sticks out. However, more often than not, these bands don’t breakthrough and ultimately break up before becoming the biggest band in the world. Other times, bands will breakthrough in their home country and fail to make it big outside of that. We see it all the time, with perhaps one of the most popular examples of this being the band Biffy Clyro: a band that headlines in front of tens of thousands of people back in Scotland and the U.K., but come to the U.S. and play in front of a few hundred people every night on their headlining tours. Another good example of this? Marianas Trench — a Canadian pop band that writes some of the best hooks you’ll hear.
They hit massive markets in their home country, and come to the states and while they aren’t in arenas, Marianas Trench is doing incredibly well and have an incredibly loyal following in the states. From their 2006 debut album, Fix Me, through 2019’s Phantoms, their fans have come along with them on this journey from an alternative/pop-punk band to something much more diverse and special.
When I talk to Marianas Trench drummer Ian Casselman, the band was trekking on their “Suspending Gravity” tour across the U.S., and we highlight the tour, the band’s history, and Phantoms.
The “Suspending Gravity” was particularly impressive for the band, given that this was their first headlining tour in support of Phantoms. It marks their first album release, and naturally first tour, as an independent band here in the states. This makes it all the more impressive when speaking to Casselman, as he talks about the tour not only hitting bigger venues, but selling out a lot of the shows as well.
It’s a new tour and new album, but if you’re familiar with Marianas Trench, you can typically guess at least a few of the songs on their setlist. As with their previous tours, they theme the live show around the album they’re supporting, with the stage setup and their setlist. Casselman points this to what they want to do as creatives, but also to what their fans want from the band. “You know if you look on [Marianas Trench’s] Spotify, ‘The Killing Kind’ (album closer off of the new album, Phantoms) actually gets a lot of plays. We’re not driving that or anything, it’s just what the fans like and what they listen to. It’s really cool to see that, because you know, it’s a quirkier song — it’s different, and not your typical pop radio or rock radio single, you know what I mean? It’s an artsier stab at something,” he begins to explain. “We’re known for that, I guess, doing the whacky intros and the whacky closers, people kind of expect it and they like it.”
When it comes to picking the remainder of their setlist, it’s a process the band goes through that is challenging and rewarding. The challenging part comes from the fact that they take pride in creating full-length albums and not just singles, meaning that even leavings songs off of Phantoms (or whatever new album they are supporting at the time) is hard enough. But you add in the fact that this is their fifth full-length album, and it becomes even more complicated. “People want to hear the singles, right? So it’s a bit of a balancing act, you gotta make sure you have all of your prominent singles, but then a combination of a lot of new songs, too,” Casselman states before continuing to explain that “The one thing that sucks is a lot of people really want to hear older opener and older closers, but then you can’t just keep doing that, because they’re longer songs. Especially the opener and closer, they really stick with that album theme, so we’ve gotta stick with the opener and closer from [Phantoms].”
The band doesn’t need any reaffirmation that what they’re doing is the right thing; in relation to the idea of making concept/themed albums. They look at it as a way to continue to push themselves as artists, for themselves and for the sake of their fans as well. “What that allows it to do — it’s kind of like acting, where it allows you to play a different character, you know? So, if you come up with a theme, it gives you inspiration you might not have otherwise and like, you kind of take chances and do things you might not normally do because you kind of have a back drop to play against,” explains Casselman. In terms of how this benefits the fans, he quips that no one really wants to hear the same album over and over again, even when they think that they do. We go back and forth on discussing thing, coming to the agreement that this is mainly due to the obsession with nostalgia. “You know, when there’s a classic like Nirvana’s Nevermind or whatever it is that someone loves, like an Adele album, you just end up loving that album. But, you know, when someone release the same thing, you go ‘Ah it’s just not quite as good,’ even though the songs might be as good,” he finishes.
As our conversation turns more to Phantoms and what exactly “Phantoms” means to them. The title hit them when the band was in New Orleans, citing the prominent death and voodoo culture in the area. This is where part of the inspiration came from, with other inspiration coming from the fact that Casselman and bassist Mike Ayley used to live in a haunted house themselves that Casselman described as “fairly intense.” Even outside of the actual physical, typical ghost/haunting side of things, there’s a more broad and deep meaning behind it. He explains it as “You can have your own phantoms, that’s not necessarily like a haunted or ghost thing; your own patterns or things that you cannot escape that might not be positive. Like, just a way or thought process that you cannot get away from, or a past love that you can’t let go of, right? So it doesn’t necessarily have to be like a ghost adventures kind of haunted, like a part of yourself you can’t let go of or something from your past that you just can’t escape.”
We have talked a lot about concepts and themes, even specifically what these “phantoms” are for Marianas Trench, and so we discuss the process for putting together this concept album as a whole. As you can imagine, it’s vastly different than writing singles with no larger concept behind them (songs like “Pop 101” or “Here’s to the Zeros“). Casselman explains that for the band, they first third an album is harder to put together, as they are simply getting their feet wet in terms of the sense of direction. “The more you do it, the better you get at it, the more fluid it becomes,” he explains. He goes on to explain that it’s sort of like a movie: writing with a concept in mind frees up your mind, and while he acknowledges that it may seem backwards, it’s more freeing to have something to work towards instead of staring at a blank canvas.
“It gives you a sense of direction, like as strong sense of direction because it allows you to —it’s like when you’re playing as a character, you know what I mean? Like if you’re an actor, I don’t know a prominent actor who’s played many, many roles, and they get a role that allows them to get super into themselves, and do things maybe they don’t normally do because that’s what the role calls for,” Casselman states. “So, it’s freeing in a way, it allows you to bring out your artistic side more.
Surprisingly enough, the most challenging part about Phantoms wasn’t anything other than simply time. While talking, we both agree that deadlines are important for life, in general, especially when you’re an artist and creating. Casselman recalls the band having a deadline, working towards the last possible date, and still barely hitting that deadline.
“We didn’t really hit any big blocks or anything like that,” he begins to explain. “But the way we work, and the way Josh (Ramsey, vocalist) works — and I’m extremely thankful for this — is there’s so many layers to our album. So, recording a Marianas Trench song takes longer because there’s just more put into it, from a production standpoint. The songs themselves aren’t simple, there’s lots of layers, lots of strings, lots of keys, and with any key sounds, there might be many different key sounds.”
Marianas Trench’s new album, ‘Phantoms,’ is out now. You can pick up your copy here.