Many of us had musical lifelines during the height of the pandemic, songs or albums or mixes that we put on repeat to soothe us for a rough 20-hour day of Internet, or steel us for trips downtown to essential appointments. For me, UK indie act Far Caspian‘s brilliant first two EPs, Between Days and The Heights, became my musical mantras while masked up on the Muni, casting a wary eye at anyone who dared clear their throat.
Those two records had that intimate-epic scale of the best EPs of the late-’80s/early-’90s, wistfully confronting life’s big questions while offering enough catchy melody and occasional shimmery noise-bursts to drown out any intrusive darker thoughts. It was poppy, jangly indie at its best, working a neat trick on depression, a dream of normal times, cute boys dancing wildly in the park wearing Smiths t-shirts.
Far Caspian is in fact singer-songwriter-everything-else Joel Johnston, born in Ireland, based in Leeds. (He and his band play Fri/17 at Rickshaw Stop, SF.) It was a treat to find out that the first track on new album The Last Remaining Light was called “Commuter Repeating,” aiming to “catch those fleeting thoughts you have while moving through the city,” and jibing well with my masked Muni memories.
Yet while the lovely melodies and textures of his songs remains (and were expanded rewardingly into broader musical territory on first album Ways to Get Out), The Last Remaining Light dives into more serious terrain: Here, Johnston is chronicling dealing with his OCD and Crohn’s disease, balanced by building a new relationship and grasping the opportunities, like touring, of “post-pandemic” life.
The new music matches this alternately difficult and hopeful terrain. “I wanted to fuzz things up,” Johnston told me from a bedroom at his parents house in Ireland, where he was pausing before heading to Dublin airport and on to his first proper US tour. (He’d recorded his first album in the shed out back.) “I’m totally in love with dissonance right now. Before, I would try to make the guitars sound as clean as possible. I don’t know why, I just liked that sound, I never used any kind of fuzz. And then the last year, I’ve been just like, why have I never done this before? This is just so fun.”
Other changes come with The Last Remaining Light. “I wanted to try and be a bit more direct with the songs lyrically but also more instrumentally—and time-wise,” he said. “I gave myself a deadline. The first album, I did it in lockdown, and I had so much free time. It just kept snowballing with more and more songs. We ended up with 16 songs for that one, which is rather massive. For The Last Remaining Light, I wanted to do the opposite, write it really quickly. Ten or 11 songs, without all the stacking of so many instrumental layers, just how it would sound if a live band was playing its parts.”
While the recordings sparkle, live they really shine. Just after the first height of the pandemic in 2021, Far Caspian released video Live at the Nave, a full set of songs mostly from Ways to Get Out—a kind of substitute for touring. It was a gorgeous fleshing-out of the songs with a full live ensemble and multiple instruments. The was followed by this year’s Live at the Green Room, with a more stripped-down set-up that reflects the new record’s immediacy—for their appearance at Rickshaw Stop, Johnston says that vibe will continue, augmented with some violin and other instruments. He’s reveling in live appearances, with 26-songs sets. “It seems like a lot but everyone says it’s too short, and goes by really quickly.”
There’s more than just musical connection going on at the shows. A recent single from The Last Remaining Light, “Pet Architect,” directly address Johnston’s recent Crohn’s disease diagnosis, with the chorus How could I keep holding on?/ All the pain that’s felt, ends up in control/ How could I keep holding on? Again I find myself just trying to find out how I’m strong. “I don’t even know if that song started as being about that. A lot of songs I just start with ‘you’ referring to something, it doesn’t need to be a person. That song just started with me addressing something and then gradually I realized I was responding to this chronic illness. Essentially, ‘it’s better when you’re not around.’ It’s essentially a break-up song.
“There wasn’t much catharsis in writing it, but now when I perform it, it seems very important. Before I sing it, I usually say it’s about the Crohn’s or dedicate it to anyone with an autoimmune disease. And I’ve gotten DMs after shows where people say they were struggling at the show with their autoimmune disease, and it was really nice to hear that it could connect on that level. I’d never even heard about Crohn’s before I got it, which happens with a lot of people who come down with these diseases. I said it at a festival in Germany and there was complete silence. And I was like, OK then!”
Now, Johnston is looking forward to bringing Far Caspian for a full US visit, including his first time in San Francisco. “I love coming to America, people have a way of talking there that’s just so emotionally open. Especially in Los Angeles,” he laughs. “It’s something that, when I’ve been stuck, has inspired me to keep going, that there are people in the world that can talk like that.”
FAR CASPIAN Fr/17, 8pm, Rickshaw Stop, SF. More info here.