Mark Owen (We Lost the Sea) Answers Seven Questions from CirdecSongs

From the first time I heard them, I made no secret of my love for the music of Australian post-rockers We Lost the Sea. Their 2015 release Departure Songs remains firmly entrenched, along with Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (and other stories), as one of my two favorite albums since 2010. I’ve written about Departure Songs more than once within the confines of this page, both as an unexpected gem of a musical find, and as what I believe to be a perfect album.

Because of my love for that album, I also felt incredibly sorry for We Lost the Sea. Sooner or later, I figured, they were going to have to follow up that incredible album. How on God’s green earth were they going to do that? I fretted over the idea of trying to top what could very well be the very peak of a band and its creative prowess. As it turns out, We Lost the Sea was fretting over it, too! But the band did what any other artist does after churning out a top-tier album: they went into the studio and got back to work. Steven Wilson didn’t stop after Raven, Miles Davis didn’t stop after Kind of Blue, and Stevie Wonder didn’t stop after Innervisions. And like those visionaries, We Lost the Sea emerged with what was next, a new epic called Triumph & Disaster (Translation Lost, out October 25 in the US).

Where Departure Songs focuses on heroism and the occasional failure that can come with it, Triumph & Disaster seems to double down on its thematic pessimism, telling the tale (albeit in the form of a children’s story) of the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a mother and son, who are spending one final day on Earth. “The music is the narrative for the destruction and tragedy,” the band says via the album’s Bandcamp page. “The words tell the story of love, loss, and letting go.”

Triumph & Disaster uses its instrumentation to remind listeners of humanity’s shortcomings where global issues like climate change, isolationism, and rampant overconsumption are concerned. It is a message felt most passionately by the band, as guitarist Mark Owen was eager to put across during our interview. Along with co-guitarists Matt Harvey and Carl Whitbread, keyboardist Mathew Kelly, bassist Kieran Elliott, and drummer Nathaniel D’Ugo, We Lost the Sea tells us Triumph & Disaster is a musical harbinger of things to come, should the multitude of global crises continue to go ignored. Both music and message are very much in the listener’s face and difficult to ignore, which is precisely where the band wants it.

Much like the music itself, Owen’s thought processes and words are presented with little filter. He is open and honest with his statements, making for a deep, meaningful, and almost therapy-like interview session. Most musicians present themselves primarily as vehicles for their latest musical endeavor, and offer little else. Owen showed his humanity on an equal plane with his musical message. And while the journalist’s priority is to remain as objective as possible, one could not help but be moved by what this particular subject had to say.

From his home in Sydney, Australia, Mark Owen was kind enough to field and answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs

CirdecSongs: Departure Songs was positively epic in scope. How did you handle the perceived burden of expectation that comes with creating Triumph & Disaster, which is also geared toward being epic?

Mark Owen: Not very well, if I am being completely honest. Following up Departure Songs was a hard task – we knew this from the outset – and despite our best intentions to not let the doubt creep in, it well and truly came into the group and settled amongst us. We were overly critical, our creativity was stifled and we really had to battle through the writing process. It was not heaps of fun. In retrospect, I think that worked out for us, even though I wouldn’t choose to feel that way again. But something about that push and pull, and the tension between the music and us, really helps the feel of this record. It isn’t a fun album, and it’s emotionally driven in a completely different way to Departure Songs, but at the very core is still a very real human story.

Once it all started to come together and we heard some of our first pre-production recordings come back, we stopped questioning so much and just backed ourselves. We aren’t trying to write a better album than Departure Songs. We are just writing the album that represents us now, who we are in 2019.

Departure Songs also strikes one as an audio “group therapy session,” given the tragedy the band was overcoming (original band vocalist Chris Torpy committed suicide in 2013 — ed). The songs – while about external topics – had a very “internal” feel. How would you describe the band’s methodology toward Triumph & Disaster, as opposed to Departure Songs?

When we started writing Departure Songs, we were in a unique position. Here was a Post-Metal band that really didn’t know the first thing about writing instrumental music or writing an instrumental album. We jammed with a singer once or twice, but it didn’t feel right for either of us. None of us were keen on stopping the band for whatever reason, so we just had to do what we felt was good. And that’s the complete secret to the We Lost The Sea sound: we just write what sounds good to us, what feels honest, and then we essentially put it all together so it makes some sense.

With Departure Songs – because we didn’t feel any real pressure to be good, or great, or do anything that we thought anyone expected of us, and because no one really expected anything – this was fairly easy. Fast-forward a couple of years, and we are writing the new album and feeling all this pressure to write something good, for a multitude of valid and dumb reasons. And it’s the same process! Just more critical, I guess. And also because this time we were trying to loosely guide the direction (the music) went sonically, in terms of the musical palate we had to edit, and trying to control the tone of the record with our choices within the musical composition.

At the end of the day, it was always going to sound like a We Lost The Sea record. We aren’t governed by other bands or trends, because we don’t listen to a lot of “post-rock,” and just do our thing. Matt’s guitar ideas sound distinctly like the way he plays, and Kieran’s bass lines have the trademarks of typical Kieran playing. So if we just trusted ourselves, we knew we’d get there in the end.

The sound of the new music is different as well. It sounds a bit “tighter” and “claustrophobic” in its mix than with Departure Songs. It’s an interesting take. How did you approach the recording process that differed from last time?

Two things governed this: Firstly, the music. The songs were darker, riffier, busier, and we wanted it to be slightly more in your face. It made sense to have a different sound that helped drive this home. We wanted to double down on the fact that this isn’t Departure Songs and it sounds different (because) it is different.

Secondly, it came down to who we wanted to work with. We love Tim Carr, who produced the last two We Lost The Sea albums and remixed Crimea (2010). I’ve worked with him in other bands, and I consider him a close personal friend. He is amazing to work with and the results speak for themselves. He’s great!

With this album, however, we knew we wanted it to be sonically different and to have its own tonal qualities, so it made sense to find someone else to work with. It also helped us keep pushing and to not make the same record again. We went through and looked up who made a bunch of our favorite records to see if we felt any of them were in the same world as Triumph & Disaster. We came across Greg Norman, who worked with Russian Circles, This Town Needs Guns, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Pelican and a bunch of other great bands.

The concept behind Triumph & Disaster could be viewed as rather bleak. What led to this particular line of thinking?

I think it’s a universal theme with a universal narrative that we are all seeing and ignoring. The planet is dying and we are responsible. The fact that my children will see and deal with real life results of corrupt and ignorant leaders is horrifying! I live in a country where our leader carried a lump of coal into Parliament, who still views fossil fuels as the way of the future! And the prime minister before him called wind farms “dark, satanic mills.” This is still the dark ages. Despite warnings, humanity is going to burn. And we deserve it. That’s bleak.

More than one rock-based musician has told me the “three guitar” approach does not — or should not — work. How do you, Matt, and Carl work out your parts to avoid musically tripping over one another? And how does this affect the rest of the band’s approach?

How does anyone compose using similar instruments? Do these people tell you that Beethoven used too many violins? What a bizarre notion! Iron Maiden proved it works (laughs)! Somewhere Along the Highway, by Cult of Luna, has three guitars. GODSPEED YOU! Black Emperor has three guitars. I would suggest that if you take the time, and have the patience to listen to the song – to listen to what the song needs and not be fueled by ego – three guitars works! It’s also important to remember that Carl, Matt and I all have very different sounds, playing styles, and ideas. So in terms of creating content, we have no issues.

Curating this content into something that works and is useable does take some time, but no one is particularly precious and – most of the time – we take criticism well. The old adage of “choose your battles wisely” is important. If there is something you believe in, something you believe this song needs or doesn’t need, then fight for it! And when we need to, we do. It is not always pretty, and it can get pretty heated. This tension, this push and pull, definitely helps shape the music. And in the end it’s beneficial to the overall album, even if at the time it’s infuriating, or seems to be such a waste of time. It’s not always clear what someone’s vision is, and sometimes it takes trust in the other people, in your band mates.

What did you enjoy most about making this album?

(Laughs) None of it? All of it? I don’t know … It was really a tough, stressful experience. I’d say the moments where you are able to retrospectively look back on an idea and see how far it has developed, and to hear your hard work paying off. Probably I enjoyed those moments the most. Like hearing my “Mother’s Hymn” idea come together with the help of the amazingly talented Louise (Nutting, who wrote the song’s lyrics and sang the vocal melodies). We literally wrote that song in about five hours, and then scrapped it the night before recording and rewrote it in the studio in about an hour. I’m so happy we were brave enough to say it wasn’t good enough (at first), because now it’s amazing! Moments like that are the best. Also, working with Greg. He was very funny, and is definitely our people.

Is it too soon to think about the future? If not, where do you see the band going from here?

No it’s not too soon. This album was a long time coming, and I’d like to think that we can follow up this one quicker next time. We are a bunch of ambitious guys, and we are always looking forward, looking to be better, to go bigger, to do things on a grander scale.

I believe we have one more massive epic album in us — the third in the trilogy I guess — before we’ll most likely sense it’s time for a shift in mood, tone, and narrative. What it will be about is anyone’s guess right now. I’m guessing it’s not going to be happy (laughs), but that’s not because we are a morose bunch of dudes who have no joy in our lives. Well … mostly.

I love storytelling, and I love telling stories through music and art. I think whatever happens next, if people love this record and we can do the band full-time, or see some more of the world for cheaper — nothing’s free – then that’s amazing and a win for us. If it falls flat and doesn’t resonate with people, then that’s ok too, we’ll keep making music that we feel is honest and genuine.


We Lost the Sea

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