In what’s both a blessing and a curse, Josh Ramsay is wired so that restraint isn’t an option.
“I don’t know if you find this, but I find in my own life that everything is always in extremes,” says the immensely quotable frontman for Vancouver hit-makers Marianas Trench, interviewed at Kitsilano’s Calhoun’s café. “Everything is peaks and valleys, and I don’t have a lot of middle ground. It was the same with drugs or cigarettes or whatever—I don’t do anything a little. It’s the same way that I produce music—big sounds, and everything all, all, all, more. It’s the same when I cook, where it’s tons and tons of spices. I’m always like that, and I always have been.”
That life is all about extremes for the 30-year-old singer, platinum-touch songwriter, and ace producer is certainly borne out on Astoria, the epic fourth full-length from Marianas Trench. Forget playing it safe on the album’s 17 tracks, which swing wildly from irresistibly infectious retro funk (“Burning Up”) to ’70s AM-radio gold (“Shut Up and Kiss Me”) to classic-Queen hard rock (“End of an Era”).
Ramsay and his crack bandmates—guitarist Matt Webb, bassist Mike Ayley, and drummer Ian Casselman—tend to operate on the premise that there’s no such thing as too much. Neon-’80s synths flood “Yesterday” and regal strings flare up in the soaring “Wildfire”, such flourishes making Astoria seem like a clinic in the art of going wide-screen.
Like the previous full-lengths Ever After (2011) and Masterpiece Theatre (2009), Astoria goes the concept-album route, drawing heavily on the highs and lows of the past few years. Put another way, Ramsay—who on this day favours basic black as a base colour, from his tuque to his silver-blinged boots—had some serious shit to work out.
There was the implosion of a relationship—after the wedding had been planned and the invitations were ready to be mailed. There was the frustration of being unable—and unwilling—to write after landing a major American record deal. And there was one of the most loving and inspirational people in his life—his mom—waging a war against Lewy body dementia, which combines symptoms of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
For a long time, Ramsay dealt with this by retreating into the darkness and pushing those close to him away. There were plenty of bleak days over the past couple of years, enough of them that the frontman finally realized he had a decision to make. He could wallow in misery or attempt to get himself to a better place.
When he finally decided to pull himself out of his hole with his art, he did it the only way he knew how: by going at the creation of Astoria full on, keeping a relentless schedule until the album was complete.
“The guys in the band were really awesome about giving me space and stuff when I was feeling shit,” Ramsay says gratefully. “But I realized that I needed to do my job and do it well again. I needed to be a leader in the band again. And I needed to do something bold.”
Here are some interesting things about Josh Ramsay. He’s the lone boy and the youngest—by far—of five kids born to musically oriented parents Miles Ramsay and Corlynn Hanney.
His mother was a vocal teacher who once sang backup for Leonard Cohen and hung out with Elvis.
His father was a jingle writer famous for cocreating “Ba-Dum, Ba-Dum”, aka A&W’s tuba-tastic Great Root Bear theme. His dad also founded Vancouver’s legendary Little Mountain Sound Studios, where career-making albums like Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood were recorded.
Long before forming Marianas Trench in the early ’00s, Ramsay was ready for stardom. “I knew exactly what I was going to do and was specifically working at it from the time I was literally five,” he says. “I remember walking to school and working on my singing voice.”
He struggled with drug use, bulimia, anorexia, and depression during his teen years. “I was an addict in high school, and kicked out of high school because of it,” he says candidly. “The first drug I ever did was cocaine—before I’d ever even smoked a joint. I was probably 15. I would have had a sip of alcohol here and there before that—I dunno, a fucking mimosa on Christmas or whatever. But the first time I was getting fucked-up was at 15. And then in treatment by 18. I did it all, really fast.”
He was a self-admitted awful student. “I had no attention for anything outside of art stuff. But when it came to art, I had an infinite attention span.”
He isn’t comfortable being held up as a poster boy for overcoming one’s addictions or showing others it’s possible to beat mental illness: “Now kids come to my shows, and they think that I know how to fix their shit. I don’t, and it’s been irresponsible of me to talk about that [my struggles] in the past.”
As if to soften that statement, he adds: “If you’re talking about a sense of empathy, then sure. But giving an opinion on that stuff and saying that I have some sort of answer on how to fix things… Well, I don’t think that I’m a person with a history of making healthy choices.”
Even when Ramsay gets depressed, he still manages to laugh. “Life is never just one note, so even when I feel like shit, I still have a sense of humour. I did some really fucking ridiculous things during this last time. I impulse-bought a tiny horse, named it Lindsey, and was like, ‘Oh yeah, it can live on my roof, man.’ I had to call Visa a few days later and go, ‘Uhhh, I bought a tiny horse on a website, and I need to cancel that.’ ”
Ramsay’s lyrics draw heavily on his personal life.
He hates not being able to finish a song, to the point where it makes him anxious.
One of his biggest fears is that, one day, the songs will stop coming.
His first serious band was Ramsay Fiction, a lo-fi emo-tinted outfit. By the time he put together Marianas Trench he was fully committed to one thing, and one thing only: making the group work. “We were never doing the band as a hobby: all the guys were like ‘This is what we’re going to do’ right from the beginning. Man, back in the day, before we’d ever put out a record or put on a show, we were rehearsing like it was a full-time job.”
If he has a general philosophy, it’s probably “Hope for the best, but expect the worst.”
For his interview with the Straight, Ramsay arrives at Calhoun’s—a homey cross between a Yaletown warehouse space and a Whistler ski lodge—clutching a Coke Zero but buys an Earl Grey tea so the folks behind the counter don’t get upset. Over the course of an hour-plus conversation, he answers all questions thoughtfully and openly. Consider, for example, where he was at after his recent breakup. Recalling that Marianas Trench had a full summer of shows to do before he was supposed to start writing what would become Astoria, he says, “I was having trouble being on-stage. A lot of trouble being on-stage. I was really emotionally connected to songs that suddenly I had a very different connotation of. It’s really hard to sing a heartfelt love song when that person isn’t there anymore. That’s difficult.”
That Ramsay was having problems coping wasn’t lost on his bandmates.
“They knew right away,” the singer says bluntly. “Right after my ex and I split—like, days later—we were playing a Canada Day show on Parliament Hill for 200,000 people. I was like, ‘Fuck, man—talk about a day where you don’t feel like going to work.’ ” Ironically enough, it was alone in a Vancouver hospital after being kicked in the ass by life in general—and pancreatitis, specifically—that Ramsay would finally find himself inspired enough to begin working on Astoria.
“I hit a moment where I was like, ‘Three things are hanging over me. I’ve got this expected album that I haven’t done, and I’ve got this stuff with my mom and this stuff with my ex. I can’t fix the two latter things, but it is in my power to do a fucking album. That’s the only thing I can do right now.’ So I started writing in the hospital.”
And then he got out and dove headfirst into Astoria. “I sort of came home and relaxed for half a day, and then I went straight to work,” he remembers. “And I worked every day until it was done.”
If you need a starting point for describing Astoria, “bold” will certainly do—not just musically but lyrically. Ramsay loves records where artists weren’t afraid to get shoot-for-the-moon ambitious, citing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Pink Floyd’s The Wall as examples of albums that create a self-contained mini universe for listeners.
While the singer is loath to compare himself to such legends, Astoria indeed showcases Ramsay as a talent obsessed with details. With ’80s adventure movies being an inspiration for Astoria, he cleverly insisted that nothing but vintage gear be used for the scene-setting title track. Hell-bent on creating a cinematic feel for the record, he wrote string-swept classical interludes like “Hollywood Renaissance” and then brought in members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to play them.
The lyrics on Astoria aren’t always of the relentlessly feel-good variety, but they are straight from Ramsay’s beat-up heart. To know a little about his past couple of years is to understand “Astoria” lines like “I’ll see whatever doesn’t make me stronger kills me/But it’s gonna be a long year till the hospital can find hope in me.”
These are counterbalanced by moments of poignancy. Given what’s happening with Ramsay’s mother, it’s hard not to get chills from “Forget Me Not” lyrics such as “And I’m here to remind you/What’s lost is never gone” and “But I will watch you sleeping/And make sure you’re all right.”
What makes Astoria powerful is that, looking back, the past few years should have been among the greatest of Ramsay’s three decades on the planet.
After starting out as a scrappy post-pop-punk band building fans one show at a time in places like Trail, B.C., and Hanna, Alberta, Marianas Trench graduated to rooms like Vancouver’s Orpheum. That earned the group a shot at America. Following the release of Ever After, Marianas Trench—which records for 604 Records in Vancouver—signed with Interscope-affiliated Cherrytree Records.
Ramsay was a hot commodity, not just for the endless stream of Canadian hit singles spawned by Ever After, but also for cowriting Carly Rae Jepsen’s global smash “Call Me Maybe”.
But with the Cherrytree deal came big pressure, most of which the songwriter placed on himself, to the point where he finally walked away from his first attempt to write a fourth album.
“We’d been working forever and finally had this big U.S. deal,” he recalls. “I also had a lot of expectations because it was the first thing that I’d worked on after being nominated for a Grammy [for “Call Me Maybe”]. It was external expectations and, more so, internal ones—like ‘Fuck, you better do something good.’
“That made me second-guess a lot of my ideas, you know what I mean? I was like, ‘Is this good enough? Is this not good enough?’ As stuff with my mom got harder, it became more difficult for me to keep focused. I’d have trouble writing, and then I’d come home having not done much in the studio and in a shit mood. That entered into my relationship. And I blew it.”
Eventually, there was some good to be pulled from all the trauma. Once he began working on Astoria, Ramsay found himself with a wealth of new experiences to draw on. And if some of those experiences were painful, so be it.
“I don’t write from fiction,” he states. “And you know what, man? For better or for worse, if you’re going to go out on-stage every night and tour a record, you better fucking mean it.”
That says all one needs to know about songs like “Dearly Departed”, where, over soft ukulele and sombre strings, Ramsay sings lines such as, “We never sent the cards, they’re all still on the table/Want to throw them out but I’m just not able.” Astoria was recorded largely at the Gastown penthouse he was living in. And when you’re at home, it’s hard to escape bits of your life, including, evidently, the wedding that never was.
“They [the wedding invitations] sat on the table, and I looked at them every fucking day,” he admits. Consider that one example of how Astoria isn’t just a major musical accomplishment but also something of an exorcism.
“The record is from a very real place,” Ramsay offers. “I’m proud of it, but I still don’t really like to listen to it because I go through it all again.”
Now that he’s in a better place—Marianas Trench will embark on a Canadian arena tour later this month—the last thing he needs to do is think about where he was not long ago. Yes, the lows were extreme. But the good thing about being Josh Ramsay is that so are the highs.
“I definitely made a lot of mistakes, but I feel like however fucked-up I was at the time, that all those things led into this album,” he says. “And I’m proud of the album. So I think that everything was the way that it had to be.”