"He can't do the same thing twice — it drives him nuts," raves Ian Casselman, drummer for Canadian pop polymaths Marianas Trench, when asked about band leader Josh Ramsay's seemingly boundless creativity.
Astoria, the group's fourth full-length, takes Ramsay's penchant for broad-ranging, conceptual pop and drops it dead-center in the buoyant Day-Glo swirl of the mid-'80s. The playful pastiche swipes grooves and sounds ranging from across that era: The bubble-funk of Off the Wall Michael Jackson, the bleating saxophone of Springsteen at his commercial peak, and dark-sparkle synths of flashes-in-the-pan like Corey Hart all get their due, constituent parts all disassembled and recombined in unexpected ways. The result is a nostalgia-laced love letter to a period of bright colors and broad shoulder pads that avoids succumbing to mere imitation.
"If you listen to 'Yesterday,' there's horns from Huey Lewis, there's the keyboard sounds from [Van Halen's] 'Jump,'?" notes Casselman. "There's about five different songs that are being referenced there. Maybe a lot of people don't hear it, but there's a lot of complexity, of layers, going on. If you have a broader taste in music, you can listen to it and find more enjoyment in it than someone who doesn't." It's all par for the course for Casselman; a burgeoning metalhead in those years, he now professes to "throw on Cyndi Lauper and Metallica back to back and like each album the same."
That embrace of the broad spectrum of the '80s makes for an exceptionally fun listen, one that belies Astoria's surprisingly dark genesis. The album is a product of two hellish years for vocalist/songwriter Ramsay following his mother's diagnosis of a debilitating neurological disorder — years that sapped Ramsay's artistic motivation, cost him his relationship, and ultimately led to his own brief hospitalization.
Ramsay professes to have, for a period, given up on music entirely, but in Casselman's mind, there was never any doubt Ramsay would turn the corner. "I knew he would come out of it and that he would just have to deal with it." For his part, Casselman took the break as an opportunity to relax and re-center himself. "I live on a place with five acres, so I just did lots of yard work, tried to thin out lots of trees and stuff. My dad bought me a chainsaw for Christmas, which is hilarious. I just made sure I occupied my time."
Rebooted, recharged, and with a new album in tow, Casselman seems especially excited for what Marianas Trench has dubbed the Hey You Guys!! tour, a months-long trek across the United States that stops in Fort Lauderdale this week. While the band has reached its highest level of success in its native Canada — two platinum albums, 12 gold-selling singles, and a 2013 Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) for Group of the Year top a seemingly endless bevy of accolades — a stateside breakthrough has remained elusive.
"We're trying to come in and put on a really good show and put down roots in the U.S., so to speak," he says. "We do arenas up here in Canada. What's fun about being in the States again is we're playing club shows. The crowds are smaller, but when you're in an arena, there's a weird displacement. You're farther away from the crowd. A 1,000- to 2,000-person club is big, but you can still see everybody."
Even when elements need to be pared down to fit a club-sized stage, the band is compromising as little as possible. "If you do a video wall, you just kind of make it smaller, I guess. It's barely financially feasible. We come home not making anything, but we put on a really, really good tour... We're pulling out all the stops, and we're trying to encourage our fans to do the same."