Caspian's Joe Vickers on Band Vocabulary and the Landscape of Post-Rock

Establishing a genre is a lot like founding a new town. A group of pioneers trek into uncharted territory, onlookers from civilization guffaw and say they’re doomed to fail, but after a while, a new town crops up and everyone rushes in to buy a plot of land. Fifteen years ago, post-rock was a fringe genre with pockets of fans listening to Explosions In the Sky and Mogwai. Now, you can’t throw a reverb pedal without hitting a guitarist looking to start his own no-vocals outfit.

If Explosions founded the town of Post-Rockland, Caspian made it a place everyone wanted to live. Founded in 2004, the band’s 12-year existence has been one of hard, methodical work. Using a wheelhouse of emotion and texture, Caspian’s music careens from crushing to exultant, delicate to devastating, all within the expanse of one song. And one man’s sitting in the center of the maelstrom beating out a steady tattoo: Joe Vickers.

As one of the original members, Joe’s drumming has informed and shaped Caspian’s sound since the band’s inception. We caught up with Joe to talk about playing through the years, developing a vocabulary with bandmates, and when EDM was just techno.

How long have you guys been off the road since your most recent tour?

Man, it's been a couple weeks. A couple good weeks, too. We've been on the road forever.

Yeah, I’m used to you guys constantly being on the road. The last tour was with Underoath, right?

Yeah.

How did that come about?

We were wicked excited to get that tour because they're just humongous and their rebirth was this huge, y’know, surprise. There’s a huge number of bands that would probably give their left nut to be on that tour so when we got on the tour, we asked them, “So what are we doing here, really?” They were like, “Well, we actually like your music; a whole bunch of bands submitted for the tour and we weren't really jiving with [them], and someone suggested Caspian and everybody was like, ‘Well yeah we could ask them.’”

When they asked, it didn't take too long for us to say yes unanimously. I guess we're just blessed that some people who were doing real shit out there listen to our music, you know?

How many weeks out of the year do you guys spend on the road?

It really depends. Ever since Dust and Disquiet came out, it seems like it's been a month on the road, then a week off, then a month on, then a week off. We get little breaks where we're at home for five to 10 days, so it's been pretty heavy lately. We get in between time for writing when we’re home for a few months.

Segueing into the writing process, what are the challenges or benefits of constructing songs with six people involved?

The first benefit would be that everybody has different ideas. We try a whole bunch of things to see what works and what doesn't. As long as people come back with fresh ideas, we can just throw them against the wall and see what sticks.

A challenge would be if not everybody is jiving with a certain part. We might just nix it and, you know, the more people you have involved in the writing process, the higher the odds of one person deciding, “Hey, I don't really think this is that great.”

Other than that, I think it's just great to involve more people.

When you're starting a song, does one person come in with an idea and then just a few people start playing along at first or does everyone kind of dive in?

We can all jam; say we're playing a certain key, everybody kind of just plays something. Not everything clicks right away, and for me as a drummer, I don't know what to play all the time, so certain parts definitely evolve. But I think a lot of times we all react to what's happening right in the moment and we’ll be like, “Oh hey, what did you do right there? That was cool.”

On this last album, we did a lot of demoing, so in our spare time we were constantly listening to these demos and someone's part one practice might be completely different. They may come in the next practice and be like, “I don't really like that, so I'm just going to do this now.”

And everybody will be like, “Yeah that's pretty cool,” or sometimes go, “Well actually, I like the old part better.” You talk about it for a while, play on it, sit on it, maybe move on from that song to grabbing another one and plan on coming back to it.

It's interesting to hear how fluid you guys can be now with parts and letting them sit or running with them. From your perspective, how has the writing process changed since Caspian's inception 12 years ago?

The process is always changing for sure. Someone might be a little more headstrong here and there, then lighten up. I know that early on, there wasn't a clear vision like there is now, so now when I go into writing, I know exactly what we're trying to do. Back then, we were just kind of making music that came out of us.

I think we all are figuring out how to make the music that we want to make in our head and present it as a complete unit together."

Now I think we all are figuring out how to make the music that we want to make in our head and present it as a complete unit together, whereas back then, we didn't have the communication or the language. We were developing this language of how we write for 10, 11, 12 years. An example of this is Phil [Jamieson, guitar] trying to tell me how to play a certain beat that he's got in his head.

He'd just be going, “Boom, chick, boom, boom, boom chick,” which kind of gets the idea across, but now, we have a word for that kind of beat, so he can be like, “Hey, play that beat,” and I'm like, “Right on, cool.” [Laughs]

Oh man, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I play drums myself and I get that disconnect with what a guitarist hears in his head and trying to tell you about it. I totally feel that.

But also on the other side of that, I tend to anticipate now what they want to hear when I hear a guitar part that they've got and play something right off the bat that catches their ear. It's not always just them making drumbeat mouth noises anymore [laughs].

You guys are one of the larger fixtures in the post-rock community. How have you seen mainstream perception of the genre change?

It's not oversaturated, but it's more saturated than it was back when we were first getting together. There was only a handful of bands doing this, so now there’s more opportunity for people to know bands in the genre.

Russian Circles is doing really well and more and more people who haven't even heard of us you will be like, “Oh, you guys sound like Russian Circles,” whereas it used to be, “You guys sound like Explosions in the Sky,” even though we never really thought that we did. That was the only reference point [people had] with post-rock.

No one even really knew who Godspeed [You!] Black Emperor was. Barely anybody knew Mogwai, it was always, “Oh, you sound like Explosions in the Sky.” But now, I guess sometimes people get compared to us which is really strange, too.

How did you develop your current set-up, like playing without a rack tom? Was this an instance of form following function or did you just realize one day you didn't really use the tom and get rid of it?

Well actually, it's funny. For the first eight years of this band, I had no toms. I didn't even have a floor tom. So I would show up and sound engineers would be like, “What? No toms?” At every show. I would just be like, “Yeah, ha-ha, I don't like to carry them around, it's too much set up, blah, blah, blah.”

But before Caspian, I was in a band with some high school buddies, and we were just really into electronic music before EDM and stuff. It was really just techno, stuff like Chemical Brothers and Dust Brothers. We wanted to do that in a live setting, so I didn't need any tom drums. I would just play beats on a kick, snare, and a hi-hat. I had, you know, maybe one cymbal that I would crash on when we wanted to get more. I was like, “Well, if it works for my old high school buddies, it works for these guys. I'll stick with it.”

You need to expand on your sound and the more music we were writing, the more boring just playing on a kick and snare was."

But you can't do that forever. You need to expand on your sound and the more music we were writing, the more boring just playing on a kick and snare was. We introduced the floor toms to get low end, and we have that other little drum I threw on there instead of a rack drum. It will just get bigger and bigger until I decide, “Oh hey, this is too much.” Probably pare it down again, you know?

Yeah and that's always been a very distinguishing feature of Caspian to me is the electronic element in stuff like “Halls of the Summer.” Was that your influence putting those electronic aspects in there or was it something everyone kind of gravitated towards?

No, well, I've always been telling the guys I want to do more beat-driven electronic type stuff, but I never thought we would. I think after we had kind of explored rock as extensively as we thought we could, we needed to incorporate some new elements and new sounds. [Electronic music] was readily available and something that I immediately connected with. The other guys did too, so those things here and there would pop up.

We'd be like, “Let's go electronic, dude that's cool, let's throw that in there and see what we can come up with rock-wise around it,” and it definitely started to set us apart from the Explosions of the Sky thing.

Yeah, the electronic elements add this enormity to a lot of the tracks. On the other side of the coin, a song like “Hymn for the Greatest Generation,” with that string section, sounded so big. How did you guys work out incorporating strings in that song?

That's definitely something we always wanted to do and it worked out for that song. We got an old friend who is a multi-instrumentalist who played violin. He plays that really high part and nailed it. It's actually really challenging to hit some of those notes on the violin; getting him to do that was great.

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Oh and I have to ask, in that I've argued about this with my band mates for as long as I've known the song: How did you get the drum sound in the beginning of “Halls of the Summer”?

Actually, Phil came to practice with that sample sound. You're talking about banging on the pots and pans stuff, in the kitchen you mean?

Yeah.

That was him banging on pots and pans in the kitchen and we kind of mixed that in with like a big distorted drum beat that he had to program.

That's amazing.

Yeah, he brought that to practice and I ended up playing on live drums based on that beat that he had already had there.

So you guys have got a few weeks off. I saw that you're going to be touring through Europe for a lot of this summer and then what else does the future hold for Caspian?

I think the next tour after this one in the summer in Europe is going to be one in the fall in the U.S. We don't know where or what the actual dates are going to be but that's sort of the tentative plan at this point.

Oh, awesome. Well hey, thanks for talking to me and for making the music you do.

Yeah, thanks man, we're all super excited.


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