Norwegian progressive pop five-piece Maraton are a well-needed breath of fresh air. Their debut album ‘Meta‘ was released via Indie Recordings in April last year, and it sees the band “pushing the boundaries between progressive rock and pop” by combining “the rhythmic heaviness from bands such as Mars Volta with the pop aesthetics of Muse.”
The group is currently on a tour across Europe as support for Leprous and Klone.
Keyboardist Magnus Johansen talked with Prog Sphere about the album, influences, inspiration, their upcoming performance at the Prognosis Festival, and more.
Describe the musical vision propelling your recent album Meta.
Initially, the only real guiding light for the album was to create something that was both richer and deeper than the music we had previously recorded (Marathon EP). We wanted to discover what Maraton sounded like and find our own unique sound. Before Meta, we sounded more like a mashup of different bands rather than having our own distinct sound.
We wanted to create an album that had a bold and aggressive sound, yet with a wider spectrum of sounds and emotions. Simen listened to a lot of Death Grips at the time, and that certainly influenced certain aspects of the sound.
When the album started to take shape, so did the overall vision as well, which again influenced the material we had previously written, as well as the newer songs. It was an organic process where the theme and vision for the album slowly started to form and guide us along.
What made this the right time to pursue that vision?
At the time, the band was stalling a bit. We didn’t really have any goals we were pursuing other than writing the occasional song and playing a few shows here and there. Simen made the decision that we needed a big project to get us into focus mode, and that’s when we decided we needed to start making the album.
Tell me about what you’re communicating with the album cover.
The album is very much about identity and a conversation with and about the inner self – the brain and the mind. The microchip-ish design is a reflection of that.
What was the creative process for Meta like?
We created a ton of demos! We tried to adopt the agile (from IT/tech) school of trying out stuff, failing fast, and iterating constantly to create the best songs. Sometimes the songs would come to us complete and fully written at once, other times we had to work super hard to create a simple riff or a melody into a full-blown song. Sometimes a song would turn into something completely different by re-arranging and cutting out parts. A good example of this is “Altered State,” which was originally called “The Death Self” and was over 10 minutes long. We took the best parts of that song after we recorded the drums and bass and re-arranged it into a pretty straight forward (for us) pop structure. That change made it into one of the strongest tracks on the album.
We also wanted each song to be totally unique and showcase a different side of the band. Most of the songs are in totally different keys, and we tried to vary the production/sounds of each track. The theme of “identity” tied the songs together into a cohesive whole.
To someone who hasn’t heard the album, what can he or she expect from Meta?
A very intense and emotional album with lyrics that most people can relate to, hopefully!
What were the biggest challenges you faced when working on the album?
Time. Everyone in the band has a full-time day job in addition to playing in Maraton. Finding the time to get the songs written, practicing, recording, editing, mixing and so on was a huge challenge when all members are super busy.
Other than that, writing the lyrics was also a challenge for us, but a fun one. It’s often the case that we don’t know what a song is about until it’s done.
Have you managed to make any new discoveries as the time passed during the creative process? Do you think that at some point of that process your writing approach changed drastically?
The biggest discovery was trusting in your fellow band mates and allowing them to contribute. Meta was largely written by our guitarist Simen, in isolation. We quickly learned that the songs became infinitely better once the other members were allowed to put their own spin on things and add to the music. This is something we’re gonna explore and push more for our next album, which we’re working on as we speak.
Tell me about the complexities of creating this album.
Like we mentioned earlier, time was a big issue. It was also tough to decide once a song was “finished”. In this digital age, it’s almost too easy to try new things and explore alternatives. That’s great for us, but at the same time it can make you doubt your instinct and ultimately your own decisions. After a while we simply had to stop working on certain songs, otherwise the album would have never been finished.
What types of change do you feel this music can initiate?
That’s up the listener, in our opinion. The album deals with the themes of identify and figuring out who you are – what makes you YOU. Hopefully our reflections can inspire others to become more comfortable with themselves.
Did the environment in any way influence the vibe the album transcends?
If you’re talking about the recording/production environment, sure. You’re constantly being influenced, even if you’re not aware of it. We did a lot of work on the album at a Norwegian studio called Ocean Sound Recordings, which is located in Giske at the western-most part of the country. You can literally see the ocean from the control room. It was a beautiful location and we’re hoping we can return there for the next record!
Do you tend to follow any pre-defined patterns when composing a piece?
Yes and no. For us, we have certain phases where we’re into different music or genres, and that of course influences how we’re composing. The biggest part for us is that each song has a strong identity. The music, vocals and lyrics should feel connected and part of the same expression.
What non-musical entities and ideas have an impact on your music?
Everything from movies to books, people and architecture inspires us. We’re even inspired by food, strangely enough. There’s a movement in Scandinavia called the “New Nordic Cuisine” where traditional Norwegian, Swedish and Danish food is used as inspiration to create new dishes. We feel that Maraton is part of a similar new movement in progressive music, along with bands like Leprous, Aming for Enrike and 22. It’s all about finding your own identity.
What kind of gear do you use for recording your music?
Pretty much whatever we can get our hands on. We mainly use Pro Tools and UAD interfaces for home and field recordings like guitar, percussion etc. In the studio we’re at the mercy of whatever gear they have there. The most fun was recording the bass. For certain songs, we had 6 bass tracks recording at once with different synth pedals, fuzzes and effects on each. For guitar we mostly used Simen’s trusty Axe FX, which has now been replaced by a brand new Kemper.
What is your view on technology in music?
It’s both a crutch and a fantastic enabler. It’s almost limitless in terms of allowing you to create any sound, but we also believe that limitations can be beneficial. Like we mentioned earlier, having too many options can be detrimental to the creative process. Sometimes you have to just make a decision and commit to it.
You are scheduled to play at this year’s Prognosis festival in Eindhoven. What can lovers of prog and beyond expect from your set?
We’ll try to play as much as possible from Meta, of course. We’re currently touring with Leprous, and the crowd has a lot of prog fans. We’re getting to know which songs work well with that kind of audience and we’ll create a cool set list based on that. We might also try out a few new tracks we’re currently working on, but no promises.
What advice or philosophy might you impart to other musicians, be it in forms of creativity, technical stuff, the business side of it, or anything else?
Don’t be afraid to fail. Like playing the guitar, writing music and being in a band requires “practice” as well! You have to do stuff to get better at it. Get out there and just do it, even if it’s scary as hell. You’re gonna fail at times (believe us – we’ve failed countless times!) but make sure you fail fast and learn from it. You can sit and plan yourself to death, but the truth is that plans almost always change along the way. Set yourself some goals and figure out what you need to do to reach those goals. If not, you risk not getting anything done. It sounds cliched and simple, but that’s how it works. Einar from Leprous gave us a great piece of advice: Never gamble everything on “the big break”. If it happens, then that’s great, but you have plan on building your success brick by brick. If you don’t do that, then everything you do will seem like failure instead of success.
Also, check out the Instragram account @tofupupper for some great inspirational advice from a very wise dog