Q & A with Nick Brandon: Jars of Clay
For Jars of Clay, it took three minutes and 31 seconds to find success not only in the Christian contemporary music scene, but also in the alternative rock mainstream -- those few moments known as Flood catapulted the Illinois quartet and its self-titled album into one of the genre's biggest success stories ever. And it was warranted. The record, produced by King Crimson frontman Adrian Belew, was one of the most distinct and freshest works to arrive in 1995.
Nine years and three acclaimed albums later, Jars is back with Who We Are Instead, 12 tracks of stripped-down, introspective acoustic rock with trademark spiritual tones. The band, comprising vocalist Dan Haseltine, keyboardist Charlie Lowell, guitarists Stephen Mason and Matthew Odmark, will play at Northridge Church in Plymouth on Friday, May 14.
Go&Do Editor Nick Brandon interviewed Haseltine about Jars' past, present and future.
NB: First off, you guys are back on the road and coming here to the Detroit area next week. How's the tour going so far, and how's it feel to be back on the road?
DH: I have had a great time out on the road these last two years. We have been doing shows that focus a lot more on just connecting with our audience. We don't bring a lot of production. We sing and play and tell some stories. It is about the songs, and about the interaction with the people watching. It is a lot more risky and audience-dependent way to tour, but we like it that way.
NB: Any differences this time around from previous outings?
DH: We feel a lot more confident as a band. We have been touring for about 10 years now. We have this sense that we can walk out on a stage and act naturally. We don't get nervous or anxious. We have a lot more fun.
NB: Let's start with Who We Are Instead. It seems like a more toned-down, even more introspective work than previous records, especially the first couple. Was that the idea, or is that just dumb music critic stuff? I guess what I mean is, with a song like "Crazy Times" (my definite favorite) I could -- and have -- played air guitar to it. This disc seems more like one to calm down to. Any truth to that idea?
DH: Every record we make is a snapshot of a moment, or a season. Our influences change, and what inspires us on different records and in different creative seasons can vary greatly. We have found most of the music we gravitated toward in the last few years has been from artists like the Jayhawks, Patty Griffin, Beck, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, etc. We have found a lot of joy in making music that skirts the more simplistic side of songwriting. We just have no desire to put on the rock 'n' roll jacket and try to make arena records. We want to make records that speak more intimately, subtly about life. And it seems like anyone can make a slick rock 'n' roll record and have the corporate machine push it up the radio charts. We have enjoyed the challenge of stripping everything back to the acoustic root. We started out as a band with a philosophy that if you could not strip a song down to a guitar and a vocal and have it still stand up, then keep trying. Songs need to be great before all the bells and whistles and gimmicks are laid on top. This is a record and a season of exposing our souls and our music to the elements without a shiny jacket. We have grown very fond of imperfection, and the flawed honesty of acoustic music.
NB: The song that jumped out to me most was "Jealous Kind," a very emotional work that to me is the best moment on the album. Can you tell me a little about that track?
DH: "Jealous Kind" actually went through a bit of a transformation. It started out as a Melissa Etheridge-sounding rock 'n' roll tune. But in the end we kept feeling that the depth of the lyric and the ideas of unfaithfulness and the relentless pursuit of genuine love were getting lost in the size and style of the song. When we finally recorded the song for the record, we decided it would be best to focus on the lyric and the content. The gospel element of the song just felt really, really good.
NB: I want to talk about the band's past for a minute. I know you guys probably get sick of talking about "Flood" and stuff, but I think your path has been fascinating, considering the genre that most listeners know you for. What was it like to find mainstream success in the mid-'90s, especially considering everything that was going on with music at that time? I know here in Detroit "Flood" got considerable radio play on alternative rock radio. It must have been cool for a few guys from college to all of a sudden get a lot of respect from the tough world known as pop music mainstream.
DH: It was very exciting to watch "Flood" be a viable part of the music world. We have always held ourselves to a high standard for making music. It felt good to be played on radio stations alongside of the artists that influenced us; the Stings, Sarah McLachlans, the U2s and the Seals of the world all had a huge impact on us while we were formulating what we wanted Jars to sound like.
NB: I have to also ask, what was it like working with Adrian Belew? Would you guys ever work with him again in the future? I thought that was such a cool and unique pairing.
DH: We loved working with Adrian. We were young and stupid, and probably did not really understand the honor that it was to work with such a legendary contributor to music. I was a fan of Bowie and the Talking Heads, so I was familiar enough with who he was, but I think we might have been a little more involved in the creative process and less controlling if we were a bit more mature when that all happened. I would love to work with him again, even if it is just for a song. We consider him a friend, and when we get a chance to be in the same room, we smile and laugh a lot.
NB: I've always wondered if you guys enjoyed, and have any wishes to get back to, success outside of the CCM genre, or if a taste of it in '95 was enough for you -- especially considering how spiritual of an album Who We Are Instead appears to be, and how it differs from how rockin' you guys have been in the past.
DH: Well, I am not sure that "rockin'," is what constitutes connecting with mainstream radio and music as Norah Jones, the Thrills, Jayhawks and most of the AAA format that we listen to and feel like we are akin to don't really play lots of "rockin" stuff. We do have a desire to have our music out on the radio. We still love being a part of the musical conversation going on in the college campuses of the world. We love visiting radio stations and being played alongside of our musical influences and peers. As far as content goes, it seems like the idea that mainstream radio won't play music that is Christian is a bit of a myth. I think passion translates. I think that a good song is unarguable. I think that if we write a great song, no matter what it happens to be about, it has as much of a chance for a life at radio as any. We also don't like to hide the fact that we are Christians. We have never done a very good job at fighting the liberal media's lust for labels. Even though we worked with Adrian Belew, did shows in bars and clubs, had our songs played on mainstream radio, never did altar calls or even talked much during our shows, we still were labeled as Bible-thumpers and holy rollers. So we knew very early on that this was a battle we could never win.
NB: I guess what this album showed me was a real unpredictability with Jars of Clay, the fact that you guys can pull off a lot of different styles and still write songs that mean a lot to listeners. What's next?
DH: Well, I can't really say what the next record will sound like. I don't really know. I just know that we are four guys deeply committed to seeing the Gospel elevated in the arts, and the arts elevated in the Gospel community. We want to make music that is excellent. If we fail at making great music, anything we try to communicate through it will be cheapened and wasted.
NB: Lastly, you have played in this area many times before. How are you looking forward to coming back and playing for a Motor City crowd again?
DH: We are looking forward to Detroit. We have canceled a few shows up there over the past few years. Detroit is a music town, a very unique kind of music town. It has its own energy and the people love concerts. We know we will have a good time.
Contact Go&Do Editor Nick Brandon at 1-734-246-0861 or at Nick@goanddodownriver.com.
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