How the group overcame internal discord and lineup changes to emerge with its majestic new album
Tension and release are essential elements for post-rock band the End of the Ocean.
Songs will sometimes build slowly over the course of two or three minutes — guitars cutting winding, circular paths, drums rumbling gradually to life as if shaken from hibernation, keyboards stepping softly amid the mix so as not to upset equilibrium — before the bandmates lock in, the music surging forward with tsunami force.
On “Homesick,” a seven-plus-minute atmospheric centerpiece off the group's long-in-the-works new album, -aire (Equal Vision Records), instruments gather like fluffy, sun-kissed clouds for more than three minutes before everything abruptly turns dark, the players unleashing a musical deluge that mirrors an emotional purge.
“When we wrote the main riff [in ‘Homesick'], we were all kind of frustrated with each other without saying it, because we didn't know where the band was going at the time and … there seemed to be a lethargic feeling among all of us,” said keyboardist Tara Mayer, seated in a Downtown coffee shop in early January. “We've had times that we started to practice, or started writing a song, and you can feel those tensions and emotions rising. … I mean, that is so much of life, though. That's conflict. That's relationships. That's sex. It's very common to every little facet of life — that buildup and the release.”
It shouldn't surprise then that this trend has exhibited itself in the relationship between the band members during a challenging, sometimes tense couple of years both personally and professionally.
“My [younger] sister got breast cancer and leukemia, and then was told she had to get a bone marrow transplant, so she was facing her own possible death at a very, very young age,” Mayer said, adding that her sister received the needed transplant and is now in remission and doing well. “It was like, ‘Oh, my god. Is it going to take her this time?' Because she'd already had cancer before. So I was thinking about my own mortality, torn between: ‘What is the point of anything?' or ‘Should I give it everything?'”
Around the same time, Mayer was also starting to grapple with the end of her nearly 11-year marriage to bandmate Bryan Yost. And the keyboardist wasn't alone in her struggles. Guitarist Trish Chisholm said she started seeing a therapist to deal with her depression, in addition to coming to terms with her own sexuality and trying to figure out what the next life step might be. “I finished school (at Oakland Community College in Michigan) and I was like, ‘OK, now what?'” Chisholm said in a phone interview from her home north of Detroit. “It was a never-ending cycle, like, ‘How do I get out of this?'”
“I think all that pain and all that chaos actually forced us to stop being so private with each other,” Mayer said. “We finally had to say, ‘This happened,' and, ‘This is why I can't do this right now.' … It forced down those walls in the band, and forced us to be honest with each other. It ripped open everything.”***
These candid conversations carried into recording sessions for -aire, which took place over three weeks in early April 2018 at producer Mike Watts' Vu Du Studios in Port Jefferson, New York.
“We had a session one night, and there was a lot of tension with everybody, and this was when we still had more than two and a half weeks of recording left, so it was like, ‘If there's stuff going on just say it,'” said Yost, who parted with the band following recording sessions, replaced by bassist Jason Han (guitarist Kevin Shannon and drummer Wes Jackson complete the End of the Ocean's current lineup, which will be on display during an album release show at Ace of Cups on Friday, Jan. 18). “We had a very therapeutic night of everybody talking. … It was: ‘Say what you have to say, regardless of hurt feelings or whatever. Let's just get it out.' … And it was great. I feel like everybody became closer.”
“It sucks, but when you're going through shit, it can help the writing,” Chisholm said. “And, I think, it helps make better art. The music becomes your release.”
Even setting aside interpersonal struggles, -aire, the first End of the Ocean full-length since Pacific-Atlantic surfaced in 2011, almost didn't happen.
In October 2013, following a disastrous couple of tours, Yost and Mayer moved to Seattle to be closer to the keyboardist's family. The prolonged hiatus that followed might have been permanent were it not for an unexpected boost from Spotify, which added the Pacific-Atlantic track “Worth Everything Ever Wished For” to a pair of company-curated playlists in June 2014.
In the months that followed, the song jumped from roughly 10,000 plays to 2.8 million, generating more than $10,000 in income, which the band used to launch a long-hoped-for European tour (“Worth Everything Ever Wished For” has accumulated more than 16.5 million plays as of early January). The streaming numbers also rekindled the band's desire to record a new album, as well as stoking outside interest in the group. Dan Sandshaw, an A&R rep with Equal Vision, said the Spotify statistics were one factor in the label's decision to sign the band to a record contract in the fall of 2017.
“I don't think this band would even still be a band without that boost, honestly,” Chisholm said.
“It's definitely like a random lottery ticket we found,” Yost said in a March 2015 interview with Alive, just weeks after he and Mayer moved back to Columbus from Seattle. “Literally we uploaded the music [to Spotify], forgot it was there and then it was like, ‘Oh, here's the check.'”
Nobody in the band could have predicted this digital boost during a six-week summer 2013 tour of the South and West, which the band undertook in a van that lacked air conditioning and that was equipped with temperature-boosting vinyl seats. When the group performed in Tempe, Arizona, temperatures soared to nearly 120 degrees, causing one member to have a heat-induced panic attack.
“It was the sweatiest tour of my life,” Mayer said, and laughed. “At that point, Wes, our drummer, had just joined the band. And Trish was super young at the time. I think she was like 18 or 19.”
During one show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, venue management wouldn't even let Chisholm set foot in the venue because she wasn't of legal drinking age, leading to a comical scene where the guitarist set up and played just outside the club, a single cable running from the stage, out the door and to her instrument.
A subsequent fall tour nearly proved the band's final undoing, though. With finances already a struggle, the musicians found themselves playing to small, often indifferent crowds, making them question the value of continuing onward.
“It was so horribly attended that I think what was going through our minds was, ‘Is this how it's going to be for the rest of the time we're in this band?'” Mayer said. “Not that you do this to have sold-out shows every night, but it does get really discouraging when this is the focal point of your life and there just doesn't seem to be any response.”***
Nearly three years and 16-plus million streams later, the band regrouped to begin work on -aire, hashing out rough demos early in 2017. Band manager and BravoArtist cofounder Cory Hajde then passed the demos along to his connections at Equal Vision. (Hajde started working as an artist manager for Royal Division, a management company within Equal Vision, in September 2015.) Based on the strength of the demo, Equal Vision signed the band to a single-album deal, with a label option for a second record. While the band's Spotify success played into the equation, Sandshaw said it wasn't the overriding factor in the decision, pointing to the strength of the songwriting and musicianship while downplaying the digital streaming effect.
“Sometimes when you're plugged into those playlists the numbers can kind of look inflated,” he said. “I try to look at not only the traction each song has, but the monthly listeners. I look at the followers. I think a blend of all that information can give you a sense of where the band is. What we've learned with the streaming world is that getting streaming activity to translate to ticket or album sales, there's still a little bit of a disconnect.”
As things were finally coming together for the band, however, they were starting to unravel for Mayer and Yost. The couple finalized its divorce in December 2017 — two months after the band inked with Equal Vision — though the two continued to make music together in the End of the Ocean right up until Yost's April 2018 departure.
According to Mayer, ending the band was never an option. “Even with the divorce happening, it was amicable,” she said. “We wanted Bryan to stay in the band, but … sometimes life just throws you curve balls and you can't maintain what you had before.”
“Even though we're all still friends, I definitely needed some space from it, and I think it became a question of, ‘Am I really committed? Do I really want to do this?' And at the time it was, ‘I don't know,'” said Yost, who struggled with depression, increased anxiety and occasional panic attacks following the divorce, which coincided with a lengthy stretch of unemployment that further fueled his feelings of detachment. “It was a pretty weird, rough transition, because the only identity I had left at that point was the band.”
Though Yost has yet to pick up his bass guitar since recording his parts on -aire, he said he's finally begun to regain his footing following a turbulent year. “Once everything came to a head, it was like, ‘All right, I can figure out who I am again.' I'm not sure if it's what I wanted or needed, but here I am,” he said. “I'm starting to get back into feeling like me.”
Yost termed his feelings about his split from the band “bittersweet.” Regardless, he remains friends with all the members, and said he is planning to attend the release show with Alive film critic Brad Keefe. The two have even half-jokingly discussed showing up at Ace of Cups wearing matching the End of the Ocean T-shirts. “Brad said something to me about holding each other and crying,” Yost said. “And that probably will happen.”***
Lineup changes are nothing new within the End of the Ocean, which Yost and guitarist Kevin Shannon founded as an ambient project nearly 10 years ago, and each personnel shift slightly alters the band's musical DNA. “To me, it doesn't matter who is in the band as long as the music reflects the people who are in it,” Yost said of the evolving lineup.
When Mayer joined the band just prior to recording Pacific-Atlantic, she had never played an instrument, save for a brief first grade flirtation with the recorder. But on subsequent recordings, keyboards have taken on a more defined role, shading and adding texture to the band's epic, instrumental anthems — a trend that carried over onto the new album.
With -aire, Chisholm also took on a larger role in the songwriting, overcoming confidence issues that previously led her to stash away any ideas she conceived. “I've written songs and never told anyone, and I'd put them aside and never touch them, or even listen to them,” she said.
Moving forward, Mayer said she could see new bassist Jason Han's more-metal-oriented approach to his instrument introducing another steady tectonic sonic shift within the band, which she envisioned emerging naturally as the players begin writing for a new record. In discussing the songwriting process, Mayer compared it with advice she received from her grandmother, a potter, who cautioned that “the clay tells you what it wants to be.”
“I know it sounds hippy-dippy,” Mayer said, “but it's the same with music, where the song kind of tells you what it wants to be, and it comes out how it wants to and when it wants to.”
Following an eight-year gap between albums, a lengthy musical hiatus and a broken marriage that led to unexpected lineup changes, Mayer can actually see a future for the band, finite though it might be.
“We're planning to write another record,” Mayer said. “But none of us have to do this, and if someone wants to quit, they can. This band is not going to last forever. We all know that. But right now we're all willingly and joyfully writing what we can, when we can.”