Interviews in this week’s Beat.
You know that bit in Stepbrothers where the family sings Sweet Child O’ Mine in the car on the way to visit Uncle Ferrel? Well, Josh Ramsay is pretty much that boy in the backseat. “Where most families play, I don’t know, ‘I Spy’,” he says, “my mother and father would each sing a note and we would have to guess which chord it was. So that was a sort of game to me, when I was a kid at two or three or four.” As the lead singer and primary songwriter for Canada’s pop punk outfit Marianas Trench, Ramsay is bringing the melodic and meticulously produced sound of third album Ever After live to our shores in September. It’s a style in the vein of dude groups like Blink 182 and Simple Plan (whom Marianas Trench have toured with), and claims the colourful, slapstick, self-deriding videos they’re loved for too. And if you haven’t heard of them now, you’ll be acquainted in a few short weeks.
Ramsay credits his afore-mentioned very musical upbringing with his ability to dexterously produce ideas for harmonies and songs. His parents were both singers and his father owned a studio. “I was learning about engineering and producing and stuff when I was eight years old,” he explains. “I thought everyone was a musician until I was about ten… I guess I was a little more suited to [writing music] than some other people. It’s not like I sit down at a piano and write it, it’s more like I just hear it all in my head. I picture the melodies, and what the chords would be to support the melody, and I just write it all internally.” Confessing himself an equipment nut, he now owns his own studio in which he recently co-wrote and produced Carly Rae Jepsen’s current hit Call Me Maybe. “[It has] a full console, and a guitar collection on the back wall and stuff. I’m in there right now actually, working for a really popular artist but I can’t tell you who because they haven’t approved it yet,” he chuckles with the finger-waggling tone of an uncle telling me I can’t eat a Kit Kat before dinner.
Recently nominated for a Juno award, the band are blessed with an adoring fanbase in Canada. “We’re very fortunate,” says Ramsay. “Our most recent album went gold in the first week which was really exciting to me. Once we get back from Australia [...] we’re going into an arena tour, like a stadium tour, across Canada. So I guess that’s sort of the level we’re at here.” Performing in venues of such a size affords the four piece space to jambon up their theatrical side. “You can do a whole bunch of cool stuff: video walls, explosions, or if you want to fly through the air,” Ramsay laughs. “This show we’ve been starting with a jack-in-the-box: it winds itself up, and then I pop out. I think it’s part of my background from acting, too. I don’t want it just to be a concert; I want it to be more like a show, and actually have a beginning, middle and end: like a play.”
The plan for the music videos was similar, as the idea was to create a story across several clips. Looking for the right actress for the extended role was laborious but the band eventually scooped Darla Taylor, a Vancouver native who responded marvellously to Ramsay’s “improv acting” in the auditions and who embodied “evil, but who also had a bit of a Snow White quality,” Ramsay explains. “Luckily [we] got along really well, because we had to do a lot of intimate scenes together.”
It looks like there are already several thousand fans who’d like to get intimate with Ramsay, and the band’s Facebook page promotes a system of points and rankings for fans depending on how they spread the word. “You have a lot more access to bands that you might like and you can feel like you know every member of the band,” Ramsay muses on social media. “And that’s cool to me… it’s sort of like you support each other, and if the band does well it’s because the fans contributed. It sort of makes every success the band might have, also their success.” However, he also laments the loss of magic familiarity has fostered. “I wish we could have a way where we could have a relationship with bands where some of that fun mystique and stuff could still exist too, but I don’t know if those things can co-exist together.” If the trick is to embrace, these guys are hitting their straps fast.
Marianas Trench play The Corner on Monday September 24. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster.
While Tim Levinson (AKA Urthboy) describes feeling like “a kid in a candy shop” when choosing vocalists to collaborate with on his solo tunes, he admits he never thought he’d get his number one pick into the studio for latest track Naive Bravado. But the stars and rainbows aligned, and he’s so gratified. “Underneath that big Daniel Merriweather hook is the kind of rap tune that I feel personally is one of the more ambitious songs that I’ve written. And I stand behind it fully: I’m so excited about it.”
The single is from his forthcoming fourth solo album Smokey’s Haunt, and while the hiphop veteran won’t be specific about the story behind the rhymes, it’s clearly a jarring personal encounter. “I feel like in society people put a lot of attention on the right and wrong. You’ve either socialised, and you’re one of us, or you’ve become the villain. And all of those things are fine because you do need laws to regulate how we behave, but most of the time they don’t take in context. And facts aren’t really truth unless they include the context.” Levinson apologises for the (truncated here) long explanation, as this is one of the first interviews he’s given on the album. But he’s so instinctively expressive, it’s all meaningful. “I guess we don’t really have that much patience for the truth behind someone’s actions. We don’t have room to allow for that explanation, we just need to be able to punish,” he concludes.
Levinson has worked with Count Bounce (TZU) and Elgusto (Hermitude) separately before, but it was planned that this album would bring the guys together whilst also giving room for writing and production to breathe. “I’m a fairly frenetic worker and I like being busy and I like being occupied,” Levinson says. “This was just about trying to hit the refresh button and do something that allowed us a little bit more time and a little bit more space.” Of course he’s also been busy talking with the acts on his label Elefant Traks. “Lots of blahs going on, but good blahs,” he laughs. “No blasé. Good blahs.” There’s a rhyme for free, kids.
Levinson is super aware of challenging himself and the genre, particularly in Australia. He believes the “indie” approach (guitar and bass, as opposed to emphasis on sub-bass and synths) “comes quite naturally” to Australians. “We found ourselves going back to really song-based compositions. It’s just about getting the drums sounding really tasty and having a strong piano melody. Those parts of music, they don’t change… so much about music is as simple as that. And that’s also problematic because that’s also really hard to do. You can get really busy, you can fill songs up.”
The internal struggle between promoting rhymes over melody is an ongoing theme. “As much as MC’ing is my thing, that’s all I do well, I think.” (Earlier I suggest he’s got a canorous singing voice and he sputters with mirthful scorn: “Whatever, give me a break! I’m not going to inflict that on the poor listening public. I have, at times, been cruel to ants and insects when I was growing up but I’ve grown past that.”) But some force-feeding of Brit pop and Leonard Cohen from his brother ensured Levinson is always attracted to (albeit sometimes unwillingly), melody. “As much as I want to take a purist hiphop approach to [a particular] song, there’s a certain powerlessness that I have where part of me is hearing these melodies: it’s like the little angel and devil on your shoulder,” he says. “I feel like I’ve grown up absolutely nothing less than a hiphop head… In some ways you’re in control when you’re writing and in other ways your unconscious, or subconscious, takes over. I’ve been working on music for long enough to know that I actually don’t have control of my own creative ideas; some of them just creep from beneath the surface and before you know it, there you are. There’s another bloody sung part in a song.”
Urthboy plays The Evelyn on Friday August 31. Smokey’s Haunt is to be released in October 2012.