Thursday, December 21, 2006

Derek Webb Interviews Jars of Clay's Dan Haseltine

Derek Webb: First, I'd like to say that I've loved you guys and your music for many years. You have been doing such good work in music for so long, not to mention your various awards for both excellence and sales, the founding of Blood:Water Mission, and being one of Bono's favorite bands. That said, I found Good Monsters to be a very curious seventh record. This doesn't sound like a band easing out a record late in their career. From the first track and relentlessly to the last, Good Monsters comes out kicking and screaming, as if it was Jar's first record. What's behind this inspired season for Jars Of Clay?

Dan Haseltine: There is definitely a feeling among the band that we have found a new energy. I think some of that has come after doing a record like Redemption Songs. It was a side project, our way of cleansing the palette musically. When we got back into the creative process of making a pop record, we found that most of the restrictions we had built up over the years...ie: which instrumental textures were more or less "Jars of Clay-like," we had forgotten most of them. This gave us access to anything we could think up. We were tired of doing acoustic music. Also, our time navigating conversations about injustice, and poverty have fueled a great deal of things to write about. Seeing our friends living in such depressed conditions made us angry, and it made us think long and hard about the things we should be writing about. Anger, determination, and protest seem to sing better when there is a big amp backing it up.

Good Monsters is clearly a deeply personal record. Joni Mitchell talks about the time just after she wrote the song "A Case Of You" for her Blue album, and sharing that song with friend and fellow singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson. Kris' reaction was that Joni had revealed too much, not encrypting the language enough to protect herself and her relationships. How do you walk the line of being professional autobiographers without betraying the trust of those who would find themselves woven into your stories? How might that have been particularly difficult in the writing of Good Monsters?

I don't think I was aware of what the record was communicating until a friend of mine listened to the record and apologized for not being present in my life as much, He said I obviously have been wrestling with a lot, and I must be fairly tortured. Steve and I have been spending a good deal of time with some guys that are trying to break through some relational barriers.. we have been sharing our stories with guys who have been courageous enough to share their own. Stories of abuse, addiction, real affliction, and years of escaping from the responsibilities of being a man, husband, father. Drug addicts and sex addicts... amazing men. Being in that atmosphere made it seem like we were not sharing things that were so potent in our music, and it was only when the record made it's way out of that environment that we were able to see the contrast between what we were talking about, and the level that most conversations people are having exist.

You've spent several years developing the work that you're doing in Africa with Blood:Water Mission, and I know that you would consider this to be some of the most important work of your career. On Good Monsters, you've done something that many artists never dare do; you've infused some of that humanitarian work and language into your day job. Was this an organic move or an intentional one?

If a mission or passion is executed well, than it becomes impossible to separate the passion from the man. It was not an intentional move to infuse the two together. My vocation is one that requires me to make observations about the world. I am an interpreter. Some people think Christian artists have to add some extra filters that fill a specific agenda, but I don't believe that. I simply interpret what I see, the people I know, the relationships I have...both good and bad, I write about these things. When the band started taking trips to Africa, it became obvious to me that the kinds of injustices we experienced and observed were important to communicate. It was a tragic kind of muse. Justice, the human condition...these things were always in the pool of experiences we wrote about, it just became more tangible. We were touching it, tasting it, living with it, and it had to come out eventually in the world of writing songs.

Considering the fundamental difference between your work in music and entertainment and your humanitarian efforts, do you find the two connecting in any surprising or unexpected ways? To what extent do you feel that having a heightened social or global consciousness is a connected part of artistry, especially for followers of Jesus?

There are so many artists who achieve a level of success for the songs that they write, they go through a very prolific stage of their artistic development, mostly this happens in seasons where they are connected to the world, they live in a loft apartment so close to the drama and pain and suffering of the world, that it seeps through the windows, and never escapes their view. Success, brings the opportunity for artists to move out of those places, to separate from the city streets, the inconveniences and social wars.. they move into houses and gated communities...they start to order their world to pad themselves from the suffering and hurt of the world. And in the end, the art suffers. Their connection to real stories, real humanity is lost. We have been very fortunate at this stage of our artistic development, that we have another chance to live on the streets, to touch the suffering... We get to own the stories and the pain and it keeps our writing substantive... and keeps us in the conversation about the real places where life happens.

I think being in these places has helped me differentiate between what is cultural fluff and what is a true representation of who Jesus is and what he did. I have been able to have a good deal of clarity to see all the useless arguments and wasted time the church has been a part of in the last few years... Christian language is so lazy... it is far less thoughtful than the language of recovery at an AA meeting, or the language of humanitarian aid used in the grip of poverty. Christians speak with phrases that make no sense, they have no meaning outside of the learned church context they are used... and it gets frustrating when we are actually trying to just be followers of Jesus, to love people well, to make music without an evangelical agenda, to reach into communities and provide clean water and health relief without spouting the four spiritual laws...and then the "christian culture mongers" rear their ugly heads... they try to co-opt the good work being done, and fill it with misguided evangelical agendas. So, I think being connected to the poor and being implicated in the stories of injustice around the world are necessary to cut through the religious crap that confuses and paralyzes us into believing that the Republican agenda, and the war against abortion and homosexuality are the most important things to care about.

From a purely sonic standpoint, Good Monsters is more of a pure rock & roll record than anything that Jars has done up to this point, but really it's more than that. It's driving, yet focused. It's experimental, yet commercial. What did everyone bring to this particular musical moment in the band's evolution to produce this sound?

Everyone brought a lot to this record. We are a different band when we play live, I sing differently, Steve and Matt bring dynamic and passion, and Charlie reacts differently to music when he doesnt have the chance to analyze a synth or piano part. Everyone plays music equal parts guts and heart... This is what makes music communicate well. We decided to do the cerebral work ahead of time. We wrote the songs, and re-wrote way ahead of time, we rehearsed as a band, and let the songs evolve in a band setting, rather than building them as a labored overdubing process. We went into the studio and recorded songs looking for full performances. I sang with the band, everyone played together... if someone messed up, we performed the song again, until we felt like we had a great performance. This was exciting to us, and it made for a brilliant creative surge... none of us knew what everyone else would do from take to take.. guitar parts would change, melody lines would change, keyboard textures would move from piano to moog synth, to CP70... it was energizing...and it only took two weeks to record 16 songs.

How do four guys write a song, let alone a whole album together? Is there any independent work - lyrically or melodically - that is done individually then brought to the group? Or does everything happen when you guys get in a room together?

We tend to believe, like a lot of bands that have stayed together for more than a decade, that the sum of the parts is no where near as inspiring as the whole. We work the best feeding off of each other creatively. We get in a room and things happen. Ideas come and songs get written, and we still do not know how it happens. It is one of the greatest gifts of this vocation. We walk into a room with the thoughts of the hour, the baggage of the day, and the headlines in the news running through our heads, and we come out with a song, or a few songs... It is always a suprise. We have all done things on our own. We have all written with other artists, I think after 13 years of writing together, nothing ever feels as natural, or as inspiring to me as writing with Steve, Matt and Charlie.

Being in a band is much like being in a marriage. Over many years you live in close quarters, you clearly see each other's best and worst moments, and you learn a dependence on and a connectedness to one another. But most bands don't survive half of the years that Jars Of Clay have. What do you see as the lessons that you've learned over the years about how to not only survive as a band, but how to continue to make ambitious and honest art?

The first lesson has a lot to do with a concept that Don Miller wrote about in Blue Like Jazz... this idea that we all feel like we are on a lifeboat that is perpetually on the verge of sinking, so we are perpetually being scrutinized to see if we are worthy and necessary to stay on the lifeboat, or be thrown overboard. When we started, we all attached a great deal of our worth to what we brought to the band creatively. We fought for job security. And every time we got into the studio and someone made a comment about a guitar part, or a lyric, or a piano part it was met by a wall of defensiveness... we were about to be throw off the lifeboat... we eventually found our footing, and recognized that the friendships, the relationships were more important to focus on. Our place on the boat was secure, and it had almost nothing to do with how well we contributed musically. And in the end it made us much better musically.

The second lesson is that we did not really know each other. After 13 years we had only let each other into segments of our life. We did not write as honestly, or contribute musically over the years because it posed a threat... rejection hurt more if we let each other in too far. But with this record, we were freed to recognize how we had navigated for years on a superficial level, and that would not work anymore. It was a turning point for the band. Again...relationships mattered and it was allowed us to make the record we made with Good Monsters, and what keeps us engaged on the road.

You guys seem to be constantly evolving as a band, never making the same album twice, to the point where it's almost impossible to pigeonhole the band or easily define the "Jars Of Clay" sound. How much of that is conscious on your part? Or is it simply an organic part of your development as writers and musicians?

We have never liked functioning as a band with too many restraints. We all have a need to buck authority, and to question leadership, and when the boundaries are set for the kinds of songs we can write, or the kinds of musical textures we can use...especially those that are used to define a bands, "sound," we tend to fight. We are also music lovers. We are influenced by bands that inspire us. We have no desire to emulate, but to be inspired by another band means that they give us permission to do things musically...they push the envelop and then we see where we had been confined artistically... new doors are opened, and we have more creative energy. I think bands like The Killers, and Arcade Fire gave us the permission to embrace our inner Duran Duran and our Inner New Order. A lot of the independent music started using textures from 80's music...even listening to some of Imogen Heap's record and recognizing the Thomas Dolby influence...it gave us freedom to step out of the acoustic box we found ourselves in.

Do you feel that it's useful - or even accurate - to be called a "Christian" band these days? How might your feelings have changed over the years regarding a band being considered a 'ministry' verses a band making excellent and engaging art that simply represents their view of the world? Or are these categories really necessary at all?

This is a giant can of worms for me because this is an issue that has become increasingly confusing and frustrating to me. The "Christian" label is a tag that is completely arbitrary and completely uncharacteristic of genre labels because other genre labels are used to describe a musical style... Gospel, Rock, Latin, Bluegrass, Blues, New Wave, etc. We have an idea of what instruments are used, what musical textures we might traditionally hear. "Christian" is actually a label that has no musical basis... it describes something completely different, and yet it seems to carry with it a certain perception of musical quality... one that is unwarranted if we dig into the criteria and see which bands actually fall into this "Christian" category. IF the criteria is that a band writes songs that have a "Christian" worldview...or use Religious metaphor, then bands like U2, MuteMath, Nickel Creek, the Fray, Coldplay, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jeff Buckley, Wilco would all fall under this "genre" label. Because all of them have songs that describe a Christian worldview, but somehow the "Christian" tag does not apply... Why? Who decides that they are free of the label? It is arbitrary... and yet it has real power to end a bands career, or at the very least it allows people to be dismissive about the art those bands are creating. A lot of Jars of Clay reviews say very little or even nothing about OUR record, but mostly end as some pontification by a critic about the general state of the Christian music community. There is no other genre that seems to be handled this way. It is if critics said, Death Cab for Cutie sucks because Dashboard Confessional sucks... It does not make any sense. Even with the disproportionate number of gloriously crappy bands in the Alt-rock/Emo music genre, each band gets to live or die by its own musical merit. They do not carry the drudge of an entire "genre" on their shoulders every time someone listens to their music. Lastly, there is an assumption that has been perpetuated by the media and critics who want to use the label, "Christian." It is that people should only listen to music by artists that share their worldview.

If this were true it would be a tragedy for all musical artists. I love Bob Marley, but I am not a Rastafarian, I love Duncan Sheik, but I am not a Buddhist... Why make a 'genre" descriptor based on a worldview? is it to protect listeners from being duped by an artists agenda? Face it, Bob Dylan had an agenda and it was up to the listener to weigh out the truth and lies within the songs...Every artist is trying to communicate something... it's all truth mixed in with lies... even Jars of Clay music... music is made by passionate people who care about the way the world is and the way they think the world should be... we don't need to be sheltered from other opinions, or given a "heads up." It is offensive to me and any intelligent music lover when a critic tries to assume control of our music listening and processing experience.

The typical language of calling has to do with finding ways that your gifts and resources meet the needs of people. Over a long career, an artist's focus or calling can change and evolve. What do you see as Jars Of Clay's specific role in Kingdom building at this point in the band's story?

With the development of Blood:Water Mission, we are getting more opportunities to contribute in the conversations about how the Gospel effects the choices we make to be implicated in the greater story of our world. We love provoking people to think about why they should care about what goes on in Africa, or in India or China... Does the Gospel we believe provoke us to engage the world outside of our backyards? And what does it mean to be empowered to move from simple awareness to deeper investment in the stories of suffering and injustice around the world.

-courtesy of Essential Records-

Are the G8 leaders keeping their promises to Africa? The DATA Report 2007-Debt AIDS Trade Africa

FCA 2007