INTERVIEW: Onward, Christian Soldiers!
"Jars of Clay Fight the Good Fight To Produce Meaningful Music"
It's interesting how in the music consuming public, the term "Christian" is often a dirty word. Many popular bands with a religious bent go to great lengths to divide the secular from the spiritual, hoping to hover deftly above some imaginary line in between. But for popular Christian pop rockers Jars of Clay, the need to blend the two worlds might as well read like the Eleventh Commandment. "We're Christians and faith is a huge part of who we are, so we simply try to write songs from our perspective," singer, Dan Haseltine, said. "We don't sit down and try to write a Christian song; we just try to write music that could stand up in any genre."
"And from a musical perspective," he added, "I don't think there are that many Christian bands that influence us."
Haseltine cites such staples as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as the true hallmark of invention and influence, but more contemporary pop sounds have filled up the Jars' sonic page of footnotes. While the group (including multi-instrumentalists Stephen Mason, Matt Odmark, and Charlie Lowell) was working on last year's critically acclaimed "If I Left the Zoo," the influence of many Americana artists added a rustic element to the band's signature pretty pop.
"I was a fan of that kind of music for a while," Haseltine said. "Bands like the Jayhawks and Wilco -- these are some artists we've liked for a long time. Plus, doing the record in Oxford, Mississippi contributed a lot. That genre of music seems to fill that whole atmosphere of that town."
Listening to the record's lush textures recalls the warm, organic pop sounds of recent R.E.M. or Wilco's 1999 release "Summerteeth," musical comparisons that Haseltine dotes on. "Zoo" features pretty acoustic guitars juxtaposed with junk shop throwaways, and found-sound percussion often buttresses the sugary vocal melodies. Such unorthodox instrumentation was more or less a product of the recording sessions, which Haseltine described as a richly different experience from past endeavors.
"It was a lot longer process, which we can attribute to [producer] Dennis Herring," he said. "He had just come off of recording Counting Crows album `This Desert Life,' and they're famous for taking a year and a half to do a record, where we usually only go for a few months. We weren't used to it, so this really gave us time to breathe -- to let the good ideas float to the surface and do things differently."
One of the largest changes for Jars of Clay came with the large expanses of space and time they had to create the album. Aside from altering the recording process, the act of writing endured a significant metamorphosis as well.
"The four of us always sit down and write together, and we usually come into the studio with five or six songs finished," Haseltine said. "Then, songs will just develop. When you get in the heart of that creative process its easy to get going. But Dennis really challenged us to write outside of our main style. We went in directions that were pretty uncomfortable, which pushed us to limits we weren't used to. But, we came out with better songs because of it."
Apparently Haseltine isn't the only one who thinks so. Released nearly a year ago, "If I Left the Zoo" debuted at number one on Billboard's Top Internet Album Sales chart, helping push the band past the 4 million sales marker in only five years. To date, Jars of Clay has netted 18 Dove awards (the equivalent of a Grammy in the Contemporary Christian genre), a Grammy for best Pop/Contemporary Gospel, and numerous other accolades from both the Christian and secular musical communities.
Nevertheless, splitting hairs of "Christian" and "secular" music often does a disservice to truly understanding the intent, the appeal or the perceived image of an artist. While categories can often help point it the right direction, Jars of Clay have easily broken out of their stagnant containers and enjoyed mainstream success, especially with the left field success of 1997's hit song "Flood".
"The term `Christian music' becomes more confining to people outside the scene," Haseltine said. "I think just for us, being Christian artists is not really confining only as far as the stereotype will prevent it from being that way.
"A lot of people might not listen to our music because they feel like we have an agenda. When they enter our music world, they feel they have to have their guard up. That's tough, because for us, these are just songs about life from our perspective.
And for Haseltine, the fact that fans, writers and companies persist in categorization only helps feed some popular misconceptions about his band and their purpose.
"We know that Christian music in the past has been synonymous with substandard music, like the art never reached a good level. But we feel that we've done a pretty good job of making music. People might say `Oh, Jars of Clay is a Christian band, so their music must be horrible.' I think those are the things that people are comfortable with saying."
"So, I guess every genre has its own stereotypes," Haseltine laughs with unassuming humility, "even if ours seem to be a bit more destructive."
Concert: Jars of Clay (with Jennifer Knapp and Luna Halo)
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