Photo: Eric Evans

Return to the Deep Time: Candy Claws discuss 10 years of Ceres & Calypso

Ten years ago, humanity received a strange broadcast from the far away past: 12 songs of psychedelic bubblegum pop decorated with cotton-candy guitar gloss, that told the story of Ceres – the white seal made of snow – and the girl Calypso who time-travel through the prehistoric period the Mesozoic era.

Candy Claws‘ strange, elaborate concept album told a vague story of soulmate friendship and archeological splendor, all while producing a new and exciting breed of shoegaze, that functioned as a cross of Belle & Sebastian’s twee gentility with The Jesus & Mary Chain’s wall of sound. Wholly original, Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time gathered muted critical praise and slowly slid into the same deep time its characters inhabited…

Actually, no: it gathered a small cult following which would gradually grow with each coming year, thanks to online communities on 4Chan, Reddit and RateYourMusic, and find new audience support. Like so often in the shoegaze genre, it was only canonised in hindsight, further opening up its mythology thanks to obtuse fragments hidden within the album’s liner notes and intricate artwork. Characteristic for the 2010s, it showcases an alternative history of how the decade could have shaped up if guitar music hadn’t been declared ‘dead’ early on, and joins a contemporary psychedelic pop canon that also includes Merriweather Post Pavillion, Halcyon Digest and the self titled Melody’s Echo Chamber as distinct siblings.

The narrative depth of Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time has its roots in a symbolist approach to storytelling. A collaboration with poet Jenn Moreau, who provided the intricate poems that make up the record’s lyrics, Ceres and Calypso are stand ins for Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, whose lifelong friendship and love story is documented through their correspondence.

But even with this reveal, there are many small bits and pieces that remain obtuse and have kept up internet sleuths for a long time.

So, for its 10th anniversary, BPM has sat down with Ryan and Karen Hover – two thirds of the now defunct group – to discuss the album’s lasting impact, genesis of its fragmentary beauty and the trio’s new song “Distortion Spear”, which appears on the new expanded edition of the album.

Let’s start at the beginning – Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time is somewhat of a collaborative effort, with the lyrics being provided by Jenn Moreau…

Ryan: Jenn was a fan of our first album, which was based on Rachel Carson, and she’s very influenced by her as well. So she’s got in touch and we checked out some of her poetry and we though it was a great match for our music. So when it was time to do lyrics for this one… lyrics are always kind of hard for us. We like to express with sound and using the vocals more as an instrument. Trying to find actual words with meaning to fit into the way we want it to sound is always a little tricky. So we decided to have Jenn write the lyrics, and then it would be our own little puzzle to fit the lyrics into the melodies we had already written.

Did you guys have the concept figured out? Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman…

Ryan: Yeah, Rachel Carson the marine biologist. I think the theme of Ceres and Calypso – the girl and the seal that travel through the Mesozoic era – came up independently of Jen’s interest. But it really fits perfectly: two people meeting and becoming closer in kind of a wider environment, possibly hostile world…

Karen: We told her it was taking place over three time periods, so she knew that it was about this time travel experiment, and that it would go through three periods. She was able to use that framework when writing her lyrics.

Ryan: But that’s all we discussed with her. She didn’t hear any of the music before writing the lyrics. Like I said, it was a fun puzzle to take what she had written and fit it into the melodies we had made independent of the lyrics.

So how did concept of the girl and seal made of snow come up? It’s such a specific narrative… A little Studio Ghibli.

Ryan: I forgot where it all came from specifically, but the previous two albums were about the ocean and the forest, respectively, and I wanted to do something a little more adventurous with the environment with this one. So I started writing about dinosaur times… (laughter) We just like to throw in really specific, weird things without really fleshing them out and just have the listener’s imagination figure it out. I was playing a lot of Dwarf Fortress, do you know about that?

Yeah, I’ve seen visuals and people say they totally lost themselves in it!

Ryan: The coolest thing about it is it procedurally generates an entire world, including thousands of years of history, with mythical creatures and everything. That’s kind of where the idea of Ceres came from, this mythical creature from before time. And I really liked the Elton John song “Grey Seal”. I haven’t looked into what he means by that – to me it’s just a cool sounding lyrics that his writing partner created. That was always a mythical creature in my mind, this grey seal. So I thought: let’s make a white seal! (laughter)

But like I said: naming specific details but keeping the narrative vague is a cool way of making listeners feel there is a really specific and interesting thing going on but let them figure that out as they go on.

Have you guys a shared perception of this narrative, or do you all have your unique interpretation of what’s going on here?

Ryan: We probably all have our own ideas.

Karen: Well, I feel like us all having our own interpretation of it is what I really like about the concept. It’s the same for the audience and listener, that because it’s both very specific and open-ended at the same time, it gives you enough information to latch on to these creatures and feel something through them, but really have it take on any form you wish, and have it relate however to your life that you like it to. I kind of like when things are somehow both very specific and very open ended at the same time.

Ryan: Jenn kept the lyrics very intimate in exploring the interpersonal relationship between these two characters, which I really like. I think many concept records get caught up in the concept instead of the emotional relationships that are going on. I like that Jenn kept it to feelings and connections in this kind of bizarre framework.

It’s interesting, because the images that the music brings to the concept are very vast. Looking into how listeners responded has always interested me – one person thinks it might sound claustrophobic, another person says it reminds them of Japanese anime… And then you have the lyrics which, abstractly and directly, describe these large, open landscapes. It’s dichotomies that work at the same time.

Ryan: I think a lot of people associate this record with shoegaze, which… I can see that. But the cool thing about that genre to me is how it marries huge sounds with really quiet, intimate vocals. That interplay of danger – the world of dinosaurs… it would be weird to suddenly be transported there, we probably wouldn’t last very long. So being surrounded by that danger, that storm of sounds, but then finding that connection within all that, that quietness with the vocals and lyrics – it’s a cool contrast. Even our bandname reflects that: Candy Claws…

Speaking of shoegaze: it’s interesting how the record uses samples to create this monumental sound. It’s a very unique approach to having this noisy and abstract background, so I was wondering about the creation process of this sound that it both fragile, yet in a way obtrusive.

Ryan: It’s very smashed! It was mostly recorded like a normal album, in my bedroom. This was always a bedroom recording experiment – just normal bass drums, guitar, keyboards… but then when that was all tracked, we added an extra layer of just power chords on guitars to really flush out that huge sound.

I think what gives it its really crushed, blown out sound is that I mastered it on my own in the bedroom, before sending it to a remaster. I sent the left and right channels independently through a Boss guitar compression pedal. And probably overdoing it with the controls – if you look at the waveform, it’s just a massive block of sound, which is just not how you’re supposed to do that! (laughter) Maybe it’s just the pedal I used, but it does smash all the sounds together. If you listen to the tracks before they got through the pedal, it sounds a lot more ordered, quieter, more controlled, like a bedroom pop album. But we really cranked the dials on that pedal! (laughter)

Since we did the left and the right independently, they were each compressing on their own, rather than having a similar compressor for the entire mix. Whatever is in the centre – which is mainly vocals – starts drifting, because there’s a few different things happening on the left and right. For example, the centre information might get a little more compressed on the right because there’s a drum fill, and start drifting because it gets compressed away. All the cool drifty back and forth stuff is happening because of that.

I think the sound is mostly me realising what you’re supposed not to do (laughter) sending it to a real mastering engineer… but also just feeling a little like it’s the right way to treat these songs, to give them this massive and smashed sound. We justify it by saying the sound was buried under millions of layers of earth, cause it’s from the Mesozoic era, so you have all these layers of strata that smash the sound, and that’s what you’re hearing! (laughter)

This does make a lot of sense, because it gives you this unique feeling. And each member is representing a different aspect of the journey – how was the process of finding the voices, for each of you?

Karen: It’s interesting, because my character – I did the seal – ended up translating into our current project, Sound of Ceres, so we brought in that element of Ceres and Calypso, that character, into the new project. I think it’s fun to embody different characters, especially when singing. To me the vocal is where the character comes out, imagining that this is the voice of this creature… which is interesting for Ryan, because his character was just called ‘The Deep Time’, I like that!

Ryan: My vocals were just doubling what Karen and Hank were singing, an octave down, so it felt like it was a character that was further in the background. It was the only words left from the album title, so it was just cool to say I was ‘The Deep Time’. (laughter)

Speaking of the presentation of the album: there’s a few things to the liner notes I found quite compelling. These bits that are presented as fragments; one is the Blood Ark, the other is an additional leftover poem. So let’s maybe talk about the Blood Ark first, what the hell is that?

Ryan: (laughter) Doing the album art, I woke up one morning after having this dream of what is described in the title of this story: a boat being tossed around in this crazy storm, and I woke up with that image and the words “Blood Ark” in my mind. I usually don’t remember my dreams, so it was just this vivid, imaginary little thing. But it was an interesting idea that a fragment of this story was buried in the same strata as a dinosaur fossil. Because the only way that this could happy was if it was actually around the same time as the dinosaur, it threw away all the concepts of our perception of what humans and writing was, if they were around by the time of dinosaurs. For people who actually dig into the concept and read the liner notes, it’s a nice little mystery to include. And as for the dinosaur, I was working at a school and that school’s mascot was a zephyrosaurus, that’s why it’s this specific fossil.

There’s also a hint of a leftover track: “Bridge Climber (You Can Hardly See Me)”. Was that a 13th song?

Ryan: No, there’s nothing left off the album that could be that. I think it’s the idea that we’re seeing one of Calypso’s pieces, if she had written something while trapped back in dinosaur times. On our previous album we talk about a bridge [Ryan is referring to the song “On the Bridge”], and there’s “The Fallen Tree Bridge” on this album. This image of a bridge in a forrest is really cool to me, so we just like mentioning them whenever possible!

Seeing as how the story of Ceres and Calypso remains fragmentary, and the rule to history is that we can only know the things we discover in bits and pieces: have you had any broadcasts from Ceres or Calypso recently? Will there be a continuation to their story?

Ryan: I don’t know… (ruminates on the question)

Karen: I think that when we made the recent song, “Distortion Spear”, it was definitely channeling that entire record and those characters again. It was definitely meant to feel like it was a part of this story. Kind of the idea behind it was that it was, potentially… I guess this was my idea behind it, like we mentioned before, how we all had different meanings for the album, but to me the song existed within the realm of The Deep Time that Ceres and Calypso were in, so a song that they would have heard. While the album Ceres & Calypso is a series of songs transcribing their adventure together, the newest song, to me, was meant to be a song they heard while they were there.

I’m very curious how, for you guys, the project has evolved through time. I think you toured it a little and then the project evolved into Sound of Ceres. But then over time, there must have been a moment when you realised that there was something going on with Ceres & Calypso, how it garnered a cult following.

Ryan: We actually didn’t tour the album at all!

Karen: Well, we did in a way, we played them live before the record came out, as a band. But you know, it’s always strange when you go and see a band on tour and they’re playing material that you’ve never heard before. In a way, it was kind of… not so exciting for fans at the time, because if you go to a show, you want to hear familiar songs. It was just kind of a weird experiment, to play these new songs that we had been working on and were so excited about. It felt like where we were going – and I’m glad we did, because otherwise we would never had played them live. By the time the record came out, the band was on hiatus and we were all pretty removed from the Candy Claws world at that point in time. It was very strange.

Ryan: And in terms of realising the record had caught on in some way, maybe it’s just been the past few years?

Karen: Yeah, it didn’t feel like that at the time, and I don’t think it was back then. It has only grown in popularity over the years – which is really interesting, because, as a musician and trying to be in this industry that just tells you to constantly have new music and you need to be constantly out there and touring and having content. (laughter) And if you want to succeed, you have to do all those things, so people try to keep up with this machine.

But I think this project is really just a testament that you don’t have to do all that! When we totally stopped, and just kind of ignored the project, that was when people really started catching on and listening to it, and – obviously – I didn’t even have an idea how people were hearing about it! We didn’t have social media, we didn’t make posts to tell people to “hey, check it out!”… None of that was a thing, so it really was this natural spread of online internet culture: of people tweeting things and talking about it on 4Chan and Reddit, and that really ended up helping it to make its way around. It’s really fascinating to me and kind of gives me hope about the future of musical projects and future songs and albums, where maybe you really don’t have to morph into what the music industry tells you to do in order to be successful. Maybe it can be enough to make something that you’re proud of, putting it out there and waiting for people to find and connect with it, feel that it’s special to them and let that be enough. Clearly Ceres & Calypso is proof that this can be a sustainable way of doing this.

Ryan: Like I mentioned before, Candy Claws was meant as a bedroom recording experiment, primarily. All of us were together in other bands, in various forms, usually whoever would write the songs would lead an individual band, and we would just play the instruments. It was a very vibrant local music scene, back in Colorado. This started out as my chance to do this – it was the first time I had gotten a computer that was powerful enough to record music. It was just to see what we could do on our own, with no budget, using a computer. Before this we only used four-track. It was just a cool world, seeing how we could sample our own instruments and arranging them into sound structures.

The point of all of it was to make these small albums that felt like these special little artefacts; records you could come across at a thrift store and not be able to tell what era of music it was from. The artwork is very inspired by 50s and 60s nature books, that kind of thing. Maybe that’s why it has kind of endured without us posting about it or touring it; you can probably tell by listening to it and looking at it that we put a lot of love into creating this little, weird thing.

There’s a lot of fun in there too. Back then, I was just listening to The Beatles on repeat, they just have this sense of joy in every song they do, this sense of excitement about music and making the song. This sense of fun maybe comes through, a little bit, with this album.

Concept records sometimes blossom into other works of art – Yoshimi battles the Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips has been adapted into a stage musical. Could you imagine this becoming a more fleshed out project, even with its ontological character of fossilised artefact being so inherent to its form?

Ryan: I mean… all of us moved on in our lives. A huge, overblown stage production wouldn’t happen – but as a concept… I don’t know… any attempt to actually tell a discernible story with this might ruin it a little bit. I think it’s better to hear the sounds and whatever lyrics you might understand coming through the music and kind of piece it together in your mind…

Bowie kind of worked that was as well, he would leave concepts very vague both with Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, and then even further distorted his stories with Outside. The images of listeners and the images they create – even directly as fan art – tends to be more expansive than the initial ideas. It would be interesting to have another conversation in 10 years, and see how listeners and fans have evolved the project through their lens. Could you, sort of, imagine letting this outside perspective in, and making it part of the project?

Ryan: Yeah, for sure. On this album, we collaborated with Jenn on the lyrics, and the point of Sound of Ceres was to collaborate more with a bunch of different people. We love collaborating, I think the best part about it is to be surprised by what the other person is doing. We have our ways of creating, and we’ve done it for quite a while now, so that we have these routines of how we approach the creative process, so having a collaborator that comes in and approaches this differently is great. It leads to results that neither of the two parties could have made on their own. And maybe even the two, together again, couldn’t make it quite the same, because it was about a certain moment in time. In the future, yeah that would be cool, to expand this world with outside input. You mentioned Studio Ghibli… I think that’s kind of the world where this is in, so maybe there could be some kind of animation in the future. Who knows.

The 10th anniversary vinyl reissue of Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time is out now via Twosyllable Records.

You can find Ryan and Karen’s current project Sound of Ceres and Instagram and Candy Claws on Twitter and Facebook.