Releasing the Reins

Deep Sea Diver

Brian Ahnmark
The energy of the road should come with a warning label: Side effects may include hyperactivity and questionable decision-making.

Just ask Deep Sea Diver, a Seattle-based band venturing for the first time into the Midwest. On a brief summer jaunt opening for The Shins, Deep Sea Diver was playing to its biggest crowds (ever, by far) and connecting with totally fresh sets of ears. So it made sense that, after a particularly sharp performance three dates into the tour in St. Louis, the band felt like celebrating.

Unable to sleep or settle, they loaded up the van and drove through the night to Columbus, battling sweltering heat and ferocious storms for the reward of an overcast, strangely autumn-esque June evening in the Ohio capital.

A peculiar way of celebrating, no?

“On tour, there's a whirlwind of energy,” explained percussionist Peter Mansen. “We're constantly up until two in the morning on the road. I wish I had the same energy at home – there, I'm fading at 11!”

Deep Sea Diver – lead vocalist/guitarist Jessica Dobson, Mansen, bassist John Raines and guitarist Michael Duggan – are touring in support of debut LP History Speaks. Dobson said it's been rewarding touring the record through the Midwest. While the band has an established fan base on the coasts, most folks in middle America have never heard of Deep Sea Diver.

“We get to introduce people to the new record, and they're responding really well,” she said.

“It's a good challenge,” Mansen said. “You have to prove that you're worth being watched, that you're worth being taken seriously. Not to put a lot of pressure on us, because we just go out and have fun. There's also a sense of having no expectations; we don't know these people, they don't know us, we don't know what the outcome is going to be or what the response is going to be. All we can do is play as well as we can play and try to engage people.”

While the band is more accustomed to intimate club shows, they've had no trouble adapting to midsize venues – or to the thousands of people packed within to hear a nationally-renowned band such as The Shins.

“It's almost less intimidating,” Mansen said. “There are so many more people, but you can't really pick out individuals. It's far more stressful playing in front of a small group, like a home show where only your friends are there.”

“It's much easier to play away from home,” Raines agreed. “Fifty of your friends are way more intimidating than 2,000 people.”

Asked to describe themselves as a live act, the fingers point to Mansen as the most animalistic (an accurate assessment).

“We have a good tension between stoic and animated,” Mansen said. “We try to push a lot of extremes in the songs to see what we can get away with. There are a lot of dual tensions; a lot of really quiets, really louds, fast and slow. If I'm being really crazy, it accentuates that John can be locked in place and un-emotional, and vice versa.”

At the same time, the band members pride themselves on being accessible to their listeners.

“The show is a very small aspect of what we do,” Mansen said. “We enjoy being off stage at the merchandise booth, meeting people afterward, having interactions. We want to crush any false notion that if you are a musician respected for your craft, you are entitled to some sort of attitude that separates you from the listener. When someone comes up and is really excited about our music, we want to point it back: 'Who are you? What do you do? I want to get to know you and not have this be a one-time interaction.' It's really about the relationships that you build.”

“We're not a wall, and we don't play like that,” Dobson added. “We hope it translates to the crowd.”

Dobson has been writing songs since she was a teen, and Deep Sea Diver originated as a solo project. Her first recorded output under the Deep Sea Diver moniker, the New Caves EP in 2009, featured compositions written solely by Dobson on guitar and piano.

“I had very strong ideas for drums, bass guitar, keys and vocals. And I dictated that out, not really knowing how to release the reins,” she explained. Mansen and Raines joined the ranks after the recording of New Caves. Asked to open for a Spoon show, the trio found the spark of inspiration during rehearsal and began writing the material that would form History Speaks. Their first collaborative effort: “Weekend Wars,” a menacing march in the two-slot on the record.

“It's been a fight ever since for me to continue to release the reins,” Dobson acknowledged. “I am an independent person. There's a longing inside of me – a craving – of wanting to bring strong ideas to the band. I think that's just because I'd been doing it for so long by myself. It's a pride issue.”

The rest of the band concurs – particularly Mansen, who is married to Dobson.

“I think this is the only marriage in which one of the two spouses will end up sleeping on the couch because there's a hearty disagreement on a major seventh chord,” he said.

Despite the occasional butting of heads, the collaborative spirit of the songcraft birthed a fascinating monster of an album. History Speaks is an intriguing listen, with an arresting range of material. “You Go Running” flat-out moves, a buoyant blast; “Why Must A Man Change” haunts with Dobson's spine-tingling vocal; “Ships” and “NWO” sizzle along on stuttering rhythmic patterns, courtesy Raines and Mansen (“Hip-hop central,” joked Dobson). Without question, these are compositions that required simultaneous input from all involved.

“It's a very co-dependent thing,” Mansen explained. “We really rely on each other. I can't do anything by myself. I can't do anything just with Raines or just with Jessica. Any of these combinations don't really work unless it's us coming together in a room and figuring it out. That's where the fullness of our sound comes from.”

In addition to her Deep Sea Diver duties, Dobson has a pleasant little side gig as a touring guitarist with The Shins. And just to keep things interesting, Deep Sea Diver continued writing while on the road, even debuting a new untitled song in Columbus. Dobson sang and played keyboard, but also had her guitar at the ready, switching effortlessly from keys to electric fuzz squall with exhilarating ease.

Difficult to release the reins, indeed.

“It's really hard to be touring this much and writing a record at the same time. But we're going to do it,” Dobson said. “I promised myself, this is the year that we will be more prolific.” Dobson was not fond of the three-year gap between EP and LP. “I want to speed up the pace, not just to put something out, but because we're capable.”

History Speaks was originally released on February 24 on vinyl and digital download. A remastered edition came out on June 1 and is now available on CD.