Joel Johnston on the evolving sound of Far Caspian and pulling listeners into the room with latest LP The Last Remaining Light
Ask several fans about Far Caspian and their descriptions are all likely to differ.
For some, the project fronted by Enniskillen-born multi-instrumentalist Joel Johnston is summed up by the early EPs and string of synthy bedroom pop songs that earnt him a strong following on YouTube. For others, it’s the sound of Johnston’s debut album, 2021’s Ways To Get Out, that had a winning combination of Bombay Bicycle Club-like catharsis and Elliot Smith melancholia. His latest full-length, The Last Remaining Light, is less bedroom-meets-festival and instead, invites us into an intimate space to hear his bittersweet craft in a more natural setting.
The through-line of the project has been Johnston’s attention to detail in his own production, which has always enhanced and fuelled his emotive power. Ahead of a UK and European tour kicking off in September, Johnston guides us through some of the creative choices behind The Last Remaining Light, and how he’s learning to appreciate the earlier chapters of Far Caspian.
A word you’ve used to describe the making of The Last Remaining Light is “streamlined”. Why do you think there was the need for a streamlining process after the last album?
The first album was done through lockdown. It essentially took two years so naturally, that’s just going to get a bit blurry. I didn’t really have a defined deadline. I was just always writing new songs and replacing stuff, so the end product was a bit all over the place, in my opinion. I think also, I was really focusing on the idea that a debut album has to be an array of different styles. Reflecting on that afterwards, I think it’s probably actually better to just focus on trying to build a certain sound with each album, do more albums, and do a different sound for each one. Before the first one, I think I only wanted to do maybe three albums in my career, and now I’d love to be able to do 15 or 20.
For me, it makes more sense now to do fewer tracks. I’ll do the Bowie thing with shorter albums, and more of them. I was talking to a friend and he’s already released five albums. I was like, “how do you write so much, so consistently?” He was saying that he thinks of it like world-building. I really liked that idea and I’d like to do that going forward; just hyper-focus on a certain feeling that evolves throughout the album, rather than doing a lot of different things.
Why did you set out to only make three albums over your career? That surprises me…
It surprises me as well, I don’t know why I was thinking like that. I think it was before I got the first one done. It’s like pulling the plaster off – you have to do it eventually. It’s a daunting thing to do the first time, so I think I was probably thinking at that point that I’ll only be able to write three albums. After the first one, I wasn’t sure if I was cut out to do this longterm, because it was such a stressful experience for me. But then I did the second one and I felt so much better, and I feel like the third one is going to be even more enjoyable. I’m constantly learning lessons [by] doing them.
You mentioned world-building there, how did you find the focal point for the world you built on The Last Remaining Light? There’s a much more roomy, natural sound to it than on previous releases, like you’re hearing it being played live in the studio, almost reminiscent of Radiohead’s Basement sessions…
Before I started writing, I definitely knew that I wanted it to be more roomy, and the drums especially. For the EPs, I was really focused on trying to get a really fat kick and snare sound. It’s really hard when you’re starting out recording to get a good drum sound, so once I figured out how to get a dry capture of the kit, I was obsessed with it for a good few years. For this album, I just wanted to be as minimal as possible. I just had two room mics set up, and then a kick and a snare mic, and that was pretty much it for a lot of it. I was also listening to stuff from the late 90s and early 00s. It’s just more natural when you’re listening to those kinds of mixes because, as you said, it feels like you’re in a room. I wanted it all to feel more natural.
I really enjoyed the melodies of your debut, but with this one, it’s like you’ve added a rougher, almost Midwest emo sensibility to them?
Yeah, definitely. I hadn’t really listened to that sort of music up until about a year or two ago, probably when I was writing the first album. I was starting to listen to more of that stuff, but at that point I didn’t really understand it so I didn’t know how to write it. Then in the last year I’ve been writing with a more Midwest sensibility, in drop tuning and stuff like that. Just finding different ways to incorporate that feeling without necessarily being derivative, because obviously you don’t want to just turn into a rip-off.
When it comes to putting a setlist together now, I imagine you might have gotten to a point where you’re struggling to fit some of the different chapters together? The breakout track, ‘Let’s Go Outside’, for example, is very different from something such as ‘Choice’ or ‘Own’.
Yeah, it’s hard because obviously the first EP is sort of what’s put me in the position I’m in now, where I can do this for a living. So I’m aware that when people come to the gigs they’re probably wanting to hear ‘Blue’ or ‘Let’s Go Outside’. On the last last tour, when we went to America in March, it was pretty heavily the Ways To Get Out songs. I think the next tour will be pretty much all just the two albums. But that’s scary in itself, because I’m worried that people are only there to hear the old songs, but obviously I have to keep pushing forward and I don’t particularly want to be singing those songs for another ten years.
I suppose those older songs do also lend themselves quite well to renovation in a way, to help fit with the new textures and sound?
Yeah, I mean I released the first EP in 2018, so pretty much ever since then, with each live iteration and with each tour, they’ve changed sounds. They were almost like new songs on the last American tour. So yeah, I do feel like I don’t mind playing them as much now because we’ve kind of brought some new life into them, which is cool. We did ‘A Dream Of You’, from the second EP, when I was trying to be synthy and 80s, which I cringe at now, but we just turned that into a slowcore song and it was actually very enjoyable. It was the first time I’ve ever played it live.
Do those different musical phases reflect different chapters of your life personally, do you think?
Definitely. It’s easy to look back and be like, oh that’s cringy. But I also have to remind myself that it was five or six years ago when I was a completely different person, creatively. Those first three EPs especially were me sort of figuring out songwriting for the first time. I quite like the idea that those songs were pretty much the first songs that I fully wrote and recorded and produced, so it’s out in the world for people to see my progression of songwriting, production and all that. It’s important to acknowledge different chapters, because I don’t think I’d ever make music like that again.
You’ve been quite honest about suffering from OCD, while ‘Pet Architect’ deals with your Crohn’s disease, and if you look through the comments on YouTube you’ll find loads of listeners detailing how your music helped their own suffering. That must earn more respect for those different chapters we’re talking about?
My mum always reads the YouTube comments and then sends them to me saying, “Do you realise all these people are saying this?!” I try my best not to read a lot of comments, just in case there’s one negative one and I then beat myself up over it. But yeah, I mean, the first EP literally went from me just randomly releasing a song on SoundCloud in 2017 to me writing an EP and getting signed. Someone reposted the Between Days on YouTube, and it started getting loads of views. That’s when I started to see those comments.
I never set out to write music purposely trying to cater to someone who’s depressed, but I suppose that’s probably why I was speaking to people. As long as I’m being honest with myself in my songwriting then I think whatever way it sounds it’s still gonna resonate with at least one person, and to me, that’s enough.
You’ve always done everything yourself as Far Caspian. Do you ever feel cabin fever when you’re creating these songs, or do you think you need a bit of that to fuel your work?
I think I definitely do need a bit of that. I did record some stuff on this album with other people, which I really enjoyed. But then I took it back to the house, and did a lot of it by myself. It’s good and bad. There are days where I’m literally just sitting on the sofa and I can’t get myself motivated to do anything. Especially at the moment, when I’ve got my studio in the house. The lines are all very crossed between relaxing at home and needing to get to work. But it does give me freedom to just zone out. It’s a really enjoyable process because I can just put my headphones on and get lost in the creative process.
In title and in tone, The Last Remaining Light is pretty bittersweet. Do you think it’s more hopeful than not?
I think if you ask me in a year I’ll probably say something different, but at the moment what I’m taking from it is, as long as you’re honest and willing to deal with things and feel emotions, then it’s a positive thing. I think all the stuff I’ve written about can be taken as deep or sad or whatever. But it’s good to have that emotional awareness and navigate life in that way, rather than being closed off and unable to express yourself.
The Last Remaining Light is out now.