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Silver Linings in the Dark: A Chat with Octavian Winters

27 November 2023

As San Francisco’s Octavian Winters gear up to release their new album The Line or The Curve’, I spoke to Randy Gzebb (drums), Ria Aursjoen (vocals, keyboards), and Stephan Salit (guitar) about past, present and future plans.

Can we begin by talking about some of your influences? There is obviously a post-punk vibe, some darker gothic tones, and an almost operatic scale to the music, but are there any specific inspirations, both musically and otherwise?

Stephan: Iconic guitarists from the late 60s and early 70s, like Jimmy Page and Robin Trower strongly influenced my playing. The album Bridge of Sighs had a huge impact on me. These were a generation of unbound rock players; there was a kind of incredible energy and experimentalism at that time that took the instrument to a higher level.

The post-punk years blew open what would drive my playing forward. The rules were gone, and everything was wide open. I still remember the first time I heard “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” I’ve never had a pop sensibility, either in music or art (film, fashion, etc). As a child I was a bit… hmm, what’s the word… maudlin, maybe? The types of things that inspired me were definitely moody and haunted, like Morticia Addams!

Ria: As a kid, I had The Beatles’ and ABBA’s catalogs pretty much memorized, and at night, I’d go to sleep listening to musicals like Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, The King & I etc. on my little cassette player. That formed my bedrock as a composer. Vocal-wise, I studied opera and loved neoclassical metal vocalists like Ian Gillan and Graham Bonnet for their power of delivery and technical skill.

Two vocal performances that inspired me are Ted Neely and Barry Dennen in Jesus Christ Superstar; amazing stuff. If I were dropped onto a desert island, the three albums I’d take with me are Jesus Christ Superstar (the movie soundtrack version), Script of the Bridge by the Chameleons and Clutching at Straws by Marillion.

What did the musical journey that got everyone to Octavian Winters look like?

Ria: I had a residency at a venue in San Francisco playing “Gothic Torch,” a moody piano/vocal cabaret. Out of that, I ended up doing some project work where I met Randy Gzebb, and a few months later, he called and asked if I would be interested in coming over for a jam session with him and Stephan Salit, his former bandmate from Thrill of the Pull.

Stephan: At that time, Thrill of the Pull had just been offered a film/television publishing deal for our catalog, and so I met with Randy to discuss the contract. We ended up jamming, and the old chemistry was definitely still there – we came up with several musical ideas on the spot and decided they were worth pursuing, so Randy called in Ria. She was into it from the first listen, and when we played together, we could all tell we had a shared vibe.

Randy: It came together naturally; we didn’t set out from the beginning to emulate any particular band or sound. When we started playing, the songs for the record just emerged really organically. At a certain point, I reached out to bassist Jay Denton, whom I played with on a previous project, to complete the lineup. And Octavian Winters was born.

Both “Ondine” and “Undertow” rework mythological ideas and themes from classic fairy tales; what do you like so much about such source material?

Ria: Fairy tales are timeless and hit us all at that fundamental human level. Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth explores how the motifs in these kinds of stories are powerful and transcend culture. They bypass the shells we build around ourselves and go straight to the heart. When I was seventeen, I found a copy of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough in the Aberdeen University library, and it ignited something in me. I wrote an entire cycle of songs drawn from it. Later, I worked with film composer Victor Spiegel, who introduced me to a compendium called Technicians of the Sacred, an archive of ceremonial songs from all over the world. The same themes as in fairytales all show up. Considering how polarized the world is right now, we need something to remind us we are connected.

For those coming to you via these two singles, what else does your debut EP, The Line or The Curve, offer the discerning listener?

Stephan: Every song on the record has its own flavor; there truly are no “filler” tracks. I believe those either coming to us having heard “Ondine” and “Undertow” (two pretty distinct flavors in themselves!) or for the first time will all enjoy many little unexpected treats. You can expect to get a vast sonic palette – everything from grit and drive to floating layers and spacious harmonies… the one thing that unites all the tracks musically is that they all have many harmonic layers.

Ria: Although this record is not a concept album, I do see themes of disconnection and reconnection going through it. It starts on the human level – the separation of lovers in “Ondine” – and ends on a sort of cosmic level, with “Nebula,” a song that describes everything we know coming to an end, then beginning again.

What was it like to work with someone as experienced and iconic as William Faith as a producer?

Randy: Working with William Faith was an absolute joy from start to finish. William has a sixth sense regarding the sound we are after and knows how to make that happen as a producer. In the industry,y producers have a tendency to try to push their ideas forward rather than the artists, but this was never the case here. We sent William the stems after we recorded the songs, and it was the perfect match. There was no push and pull, and the songs came back basically perfect. We were on the same wavelength; it was almost telepathic. Having William be not only in tune with our vision for the project but also working hard to bring that to fruition for us was such an emotional experience. Not to mention, he is one of the nicest human beings you could ever hope to meet.

Stephan: It was such a pleasure. William knows exactly where I am coming from, artistically, and I believe that is because we have a lot of shared threads in our musical history.

What has the reaction to your album been like so far? Are you working with a manager, booker, radio plugger, or publicist to help get the word out about your music?

Stephan: It has been amazing, really. The momentum started as soon as the release of “Ondine” and has only increased since we have been working with our publicist Shauna McLarnon of Shameless Promotions PR. We are fortunate to have been able to connect with an incredible team of people, including William Faith, at the perfect moment.

You have a sound that European audiences would particularly lap up. Any plans to tour? And what does the next year hold for Octavian Winters?

Randy: Right now, we are lining up some West Coast dates through the winter, and that should expand in the spring. Hopefully, the spring or summer of 2024 will see us across the waters, most likely the UK and Germany.

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