Manchester, UK's Rivers & Robots isn't just the source of some of the most innovative and artistically sound worship music of the last several years - it's also a group with a rare sense of mission beyond the band itself. Beginning as the bedroom-produced solo project of lead singer Jonathan Ogden, the group has expanded, and now its members live as full-time musical missionaries, raising support from friends and family to cover living costs while all band-generated profit goes directly back toward recordings, performances, and further ministry. Spirit You All spoke to Ogden and bassist Nathan Stirling via Skype about their Kickstarter-funded fourth record The Eternal Son, life outside the worship-industrial complex, and their ideal backstage accommodations as far as tea is concerned:
Spirit You All: There's a bit of an invisible line dividing Rivers & Robots from much of contemporary worship. While most modern praise music is meant to be sung corporately, there is too little repetition and there are too many instrumental digressions in your music to be feasible in that setting. It's bona fide "worship music", but meant to be enjoyed and meditated on instead of sung along with. Was that characteristic part of the Rivers & Robots project from the beginning, or did you evolve toward it?
JO: I guess I knew from the outset that it probably was going to be less congregational. I think the way that we've arrived at that "worship sound" is finding something that's reasonably accessible and singable - there's definitely a talent to writing songs like that, that you can easily pick up...
But for me it was more of a personal thing. I was just going to write what honestly comes out of me because I would naturally write this kind of music and sing these kind of things, but it's still worship. We have found that there are occasional songs that work in a congregational setting, as well - but it tends to be more by accident rather than, "We're going to write the next big church hit." [laughs] We just kind of write what comes out, and it fits where it fits.
Spirit You All: And I'm sure, at concerts, you have fans who sing along with every song because they know them all by heart.
JO: Yeah, there are some gigs where you play live and it feels more like a performance and people are just kind of watching the songs and clapping at the end. But when you play somewhere where everyone knows the songs and they all engage in worship, that's our favorite thing. And I've actually found that people are better singers than a lot of people give credit for, right? I mean, you can go to a gig by anyone, and if people know the words, then people will sing it. It only takes people to know the songs to join in, even if it's not really simple.
Spirit You All: There's an uncommon theological depth to Rivers & Robots' worship music, and you've written some relatively "high-concept" praise songs - the track "In the Family" from All Things New, for example, somehow managed to create a spacey jam about divine adoption. Were there any significant authors or theological ideas or parts of Scripture that played an especially big role in inspiring this album?
JO: I think I tend to be more straight from the Bible, because... I don't read many books. [laughs] It's probably my fault - you read a lot. [gestures to Nathan] A lot of the time it starts with reading a passage that inspires me, and I take that and I find other verses that can tie in with it and build a theme around it, and that becomes a song... That was the kind of thing with "In the Family". I was reading through Romans, and some of the stuff in there, I was thinking, "Yeah, this could be in a song."
I always try to pull out something about Jesus from the Bible. Especially themes about Him that we might not sing about as often - because it's easy to just go to the standards, to use the phrases we use in worship songs. But I'm always trying to find the things that there aren't many songs about, or that people aren't singing.
NS: Especially when we lead worship, we'll sometimes have a Bible verse or something we've been reading, and start singing something spontaneous from it, or a chorus will come out - well, I guess it's always the Bible...
JO: Yeah, it's always the Bible. [laughs]
NS: Well there was one from Tozer.
JO: Oh, there was one from Tozer, yeah, on the Take Everything album. One of the few books that I read. So yeah, I read The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer, and some of the songs were inspired by that stuff... But he got most of it from the Bible, anyway. [laughs]
The verses for this album were primarily verses about joy. The whole theme of The Eternal Son is looking at the temporary nature of Earth and all the stuff that we put so much thought and time into that doesn't matter a lot of the time. You know, the worries of life that are so temporary compared to God being eternal. It ended up being a pretty difficult year through the writing of the album, and I was struggling with all sorts of stuff and feeling a bit low at times, but one of the phrases that came to my mind as I was praying through that was "I Lift Up My Eyes", in Psalm 119. And it talks about turning your eyes away from worthless things and focusing back on Jesus. That kind of sparked the whole theme of the album, in a sense. The songs are about, basically, worshipping your way into joy.
And that's where the sound of the album came, as well, because we we said it was gonna be the sort of album you'd put on for a road trip, you know, driving around in the sun. It was meant to have that joyful sound, but in a sort of chilled, contented way rather than the kind of songs everyone jumps around to.
Spirit You All: Manchester has a thriving music scene, but how do you fit into it? Do you mostly play churches or Christian festivals? Any non-Christian fans who just show up for the music?
JO: We have non-Christian fans, yeah. There's a lot of people who just listen to it for the music, and... try and pretend that it's not about God. [laughs]
But yeah, there is loads of music here. The indie scene's just amazing. I guess in a sense we're a bit separate from that just being a worship band. It doesn't necessarily fit in a secular gig setting. But we do book out gig venues to do worship nights there. We're just exploring what it means to lead worship outside of the church walls. There's people that'll probably never come into a church that still get to hear worship music and hopefully encounter God through it.
Spirit You All: Lots of bands like to be marketed as "indie worship", but Rivers & Robots actually earns the title, producing and releasing all of your own music. You launched a non-profit/record label recently called Set Sail. How is that going, and what do you see coming next for Set Sail?
JO: It's going really well! I think the Kickstarter thing worked really well for us - we really wanted to step up the production side of the album, but still do it ourselves. I started Rivers & Robots when I was already interested in producing music, so it was already something I was doing. The first two albums I just did on my laptop at home. It was really, like, a little bedroom recording project. So yeah, we've always done things ourselves, and then Set Sail just created a way of us putting a bit of structure to that and giving us a model to try and make it sustainable.
NS: I think when the labels started approaching us we suddenly realized we didn't really know half the stuff we were supposed to know. Like, that you're actually supposed publish your songs and register them with different people... we didn't know anything about any of that. So this year's just been sorting all that stuff out.
JO: Yeah, I think the meeting with labels was actually really helpful because we found out all this stuff about the business side of running a band. We were just sort of doing the music and not thinking about it. But a lot of it is really important stuff that you really need to do. So yeah, I feel like this has been more of a preparation year, just setting all that stuff up and getting it in place, having the structure behind what we're doing, and then the following year will be kind of a "going-out" year. We'll be playing more things live, going to more events, and looking for how we can help other bands, as well. Our plan is basically to figure out if we can do it with Rivers & Robots, and if we can find a way to do it then we can help other people do it. We don't fully know what that looks like yet, but that's the long-term vision.
Spirit You All: The production on this album is great - the guitar on "High Priest" has this really nice glassy reverb, and the title track "The Eternal Son" has a sax on it that gives it a more mellow and bluesy vibe than anything you've done before. The two-minute instrumental outro on the same song is refreshingly unhurried, too. Were there any production moments you're especially proud of or you feel pushed beyond what you'd been able to do before?
JO: I think that was one of the things behind wanting to do the Kickstarter project, is having us spend more time on the production side. Because we did All Things New and basically recorded it all in a week, and it was just insane. We just tracked everything how we planned it and didn't have time to play around. But this one, we did it over a month, probably. So we had a lot more time with each instrument to try things out.
So we had a friend of ours named Jonny Bird, who plays guitar for Martin Smith in the UK and is involved in loads of other bands as well - he's basically an electric guitar genius. So we spent two days in his studio, and we had these guitar parts written, but we knew that he could help us with the tone of it, as well. We basically just sat with him for two days and went, "Make this sound cool." So me and David our guitarist were playing the parts and he just sat with a pedal board, moving all these things around... and we'd go, "I don't know what you just did, but this sounds great." [laughs]
The ending of "The Eternal Son", where it goes instrumental, that was actually the very last thing we recorded. We'd already finished tracking the whole album - that wasn't even going to be in it. And then I was listening through the demos before we went down there, and I felt like the album just needed space somewhere, because there's just a lot of tracks going straight into other tracks. So it was probably ten o'clock on the last day and I was just like, "I'm going to try playing something, I don't know what." And we just tracked every part there. Dave got on guitar and played his lead part, and then Jonny jumped on the synth and put that part down and Dan put the bass in - we just kind of did it in half an hour and then we were like, "Yeah, we'll use that!"
Spirit You All: One of the refreshing things about Rivers & Robots is that by and large you eschew the inevitable crescendos that are the bread and butter of so much contemporary worship. But on that final track, "Jesus, Your Blood", you really go for broke with a cathartic storm of electric guitar. Was that sort of moment something you had avoided before? And if so, why did you want to do it now?
NS: With "Jesus, Your Blood", we got asked to lead worship at this really great event down in London, and we started doing it there. And we were just leading worship - it was just normal worship, with quite a few people there - and then as it got to the end of the song, "I will ascend the hill of the Lord," it was amazing how people in the crowd just got ahold of that. And it was just a really amazing moment in worship, and basically we just kept singing it and then people who were running the event came out and started praying for people who maybe felt far away from Jesus and stuff, and praying about people who'd been letting shame get in the way of them and Jesus. It was a really powerful moment, I think it went on for about 20 minutes - it was one of those worship times when you just want to get off the stage and let God do what He's doing.
I think when we saw that, we were like, it would be really great if we could just do something like that on the album where hopefully God can move in people while they're listening to it, that people can feel free to just come into His presence. So I think for me, that's why I was saying that we should probably stretch out the end bit. I don't know if you can hear it in the background, but there's a lot of people praying. When we did the group vocals, we asked them to just sort of pray for people -
JO: Yeah, there's a lot of, like, spontaneous singing and prayers and stuff going on. [speaking to Nathan] I think you probably pushed for the big build-up, which is good, because it's probably not something we'd have done before.
I didn't even think that the guys were going to like it as a song. I wrote it as this really simple acoustic thing. I just played it at practice once, like, "Do you think we should use this?" and they really liked it. The lyric of that end bit is, "I will ascend the hill of the Lord, cause You have rescued me", and it's repeating. So musically we were thinking, let's build that and make it feel like an "ascending" thing. And it's also the last track, so you can go a bit insane, right? [laughs]
Spirit You All: Finally, Rivers & Robots are known tea enthusiasts. Van Halen famously stipulated in their tour contracts that promoters had to provide a bowl of M&Ms with the brown candies removed, and trashed the venue when the agreement was ignored. If you were to create a incredibly specific selection of tea and/or tea paraphernalia to have backstage at every show, what would it be?
JO: That's a great question.
I would go for just a standard Yorkshire tea. We have it in England, it's just a good British brew. But yeah, I definitely miss that, especially if we go abroad. Even America. I spent a long time trying to find, like, a normal English tea in America. And then we went to Czech Republic... I asked for a tea, and I got this thing that was probably more like orange juice, but that's just what they call tea over there, I guess. So I asked for it with milk, and they gave me this weird look of, "You don't have that with milk." And I was just like, "It's tea, I always have tea with milk!" So they gave me this, like, weird orange juice with a bit of milk in it. [laughs]
NS: So Jonathan, he claims to be a tea enthusiast, but he's not a real tea enthusiast. I'm quite a fan of flowering teas. You can get these plant bud things that, you put them in water and they expand out. [he holds a laptop up to the camera to show this picture] If I could be pretentious, that would be my choice.
The Eternal Son is out May 20.