It’s common for a bit of winnowing to happen in the time between a band’s first and second album, but in the three years since its debut LP Ars Moriendi, Greensboro, North Carolina’s The Collection has been through an extraordinary amount of change. Born from an intentional community partly inspired by Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution, the collective originally featured a dozen-plus members who joined bandleader and songwriter David Wimbish onstage to perform motley, raucous folk anthems brimming with gang vocals, woodwinds, brass, and strings. While The Collection's debut was defined by an all-hands-on-deck, kitchen-sink aesthetic, sophomore record Listen to the River finds the group almost halved in size, displaying tighter songcraft and more confident musicianship burnished by the intervening years on the road - tracks like the kinetic pop gem “You Taste Like Wine” outclass anything to be heard on Ars Moriendi.
Still, those sonic changes are small in comparison to the other shifts the band has undergone. David Wimbish and his wife Mira Joy’s divorce featured heavily on his 2015 solo EP On Separation, but Listen to the River’s lyrics are primarily concerned with a different separation, namely Wimbish’s departure from Christianity. While Ars Moriendi's expressions of faith were mingled with more than a little questioning, Listen to the River represents a definite break for the “domestic missionary kid” who grew up with Wycliffe Bible translator parents and served as worship director at a local church for five years. Like other Collection releases, it’s still replete with biblical language and imagery, but Wimbish now laces in references to a number of other religious works such as Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and the Tao Te Ching.
Spirit You All spoke to Wimbish via Skype about the the spiritual crossroads that Listen to the River chronicles, the temptation to continue catering to an audience still made up largely of believers (“If you look at our related artists on Spotify, it’s all worship bands”), and where Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou steals all of his lyrics from:
SYA: How does The Collection look different as a band than it did three years ago when Ars Moriendi came out?
DW: It's really different. The Collection started when I moved to Greensboro and met all these really amazing people, and I'd written this record and was trying to find people to play all the stuff I'd put on it. All these people ended up moving into the same neighborhood together, living in the same houses and the houses next door. We were doing a lot of stuff together - potlucks once or twice a week, and people were going through the Book of Common Prayer together in the mornings... The band kind of came out of that. Since we were having a lot of meals together, we just thought, let's play music together too. Whoever was available would just get together and play.
That's how Ars Moriendi came together. I'd written most of the songs and a lot of the parts, and we just tried to get all these people on the record - I think it was upwards of twenty. Trying to coordinate that many people to come in and lay down thirteen songs is really absurd - it took us two full months of recording, whereas a lot of times you can do it in two to three weeks.
So that's how the band looked at that time, which was super fun and totally unsustainable. Just because, when you're first growing your thing, you go out and play a show and you feel lucky to get a hundred bucks. And then you're like, "Well, there's thirteen people, plus gas, plus food..." - that hundred bucks does not go very far. So I and my ex-wife decided we wanted to start touring a lot and moving around the country. We pitched to the band that we wanted to put together a touring version of the band because we knew not everyone could do it. We thought it might just be the two of us, but it ended up being this great group of seven people. That's mostly how the band has looked for the last three years since then, and we wrote and recorded the new record with that group.
SYA: What was Listen to the River’s songwriting process like, especially compared with the previous album?
DW: I write very visually, so if I know who's going to be playing different parts in a song, I can write the structures based on the mental image of who's in the room, who's playing it. With Ars Moriendi it was like we could have any instrument played by anybody and bring them in for it.
But with Listen to the River, we'd been touring as this solid group of people for a while, and there's something about touring together where you begin to trust each other a lot. I really wanted to do something more as a group, and that was very different. So rather than saying, "Does this song need a string section?”, it was like, "We have this song, so what is the clarinet going to do? And what is the trombone going to do?" It was more about how do we fit these instruments into the songs. I'd never written a record like that, so it was really fun - fun and also pretty tough, because I think I'm a bit of a control freak.
SYA: What kind of sound were you aiming for with Listen to the River?
DW: The big thing for me was melody. I was listening to a ton of pop music, actually - especially these really powerful women like Adele and Sia and Beyoncé. And I started to get to this place where I was just like, I want to feel like the melodies that I write are really singable so that, if I take away the music and just have the melody, would I still want to sing it? That kind of thing. That was a big focus for me. And it was good to be able to focus on that because the rest of the band was kind of able to do their own thing. Whereas in the past I was, you know, jack of all trades, master of none. On this I felt like I got to focus just on vocal melody a lot.
And then we started listening to sounds that are in pop music - we don't want that specific sound, but how can we create the same effect with a different instrument? So this song "The Older One" that's on there - there are these big horn swells, and we thought, we want to figure out how to make the horn section sound like a synthesizer. So how do we do that? We ended up going, "Okay, you try playing this trombone like a synthesizer, and you play this clarinet part like a violin", and we'd see if we could make these instruments sound like other things, or make the music accomplish something different. That was definitely a big difference.
SYA: You mentioned “The Older One”. Is there a connection between that song and “The Younger One”, “The Middle One”, and “The Doubtful One” from Ars Moriendi?
DW: Yeah, all those songs - well, except for "The Doubtful One" - all those songs are written about my siblings. I have three siblings. They were kind of snapshots or interpretations of where each of my siblings were at a certain point in their life. My plan was that Ars Moriendi would have all three songs, but when we got to it it turned out that "The Older One" was not very strong, and the other ones were a lot stronger. So then I felt determined that I had to write an "Older One" song for the next record and put it on there.
"The Doubtful One" is kind of an autobiographical interpretation, as well. So they're all connected in that way.
SYA: What’s the background for the spiritual crisis that this album documents?
DW: Well, I think I got very burnt out. We were doing The Collection, and I was working at a church, and within that community we basically had a house church going that I was leading a lot of. So, you know, I was doing like four or five things where I was leading these huge groups of people... At the same time, I started really questioning certain foundations of things. Like, you know, you just start reading any science textbook and go, "I don't know if there actually was a giant flood that covered the whole earth a few thousand years ago..."
The big one for me was that I just started meeting a lot of gay friends. And I just started being like, I cannot understand how a God who calls himself love - not just that he is loving, but that he is the epitome of the thing we call "love" - would be less loving than I could. Like, I would never take one of these people and, like, let them burn for eternity because of this thing that doesn't feel or seem destructive. But this God of love could do that? That feels really ridiculous.
And that started happening around the time when my ex-wife's dad also died very suddenly. While we were going through that process - which was part of writing Ars Moriendi, too - that was the big question people asked: "Was he saved? Was he a Christian?" And in a typical sense, no. He wasn't a Christian. So I started being like, "What? What kind of loving God would do that kind of thing?"
I think that through all that, I hit a pretty destructive, tough place in my life. I have this specific memory of being in my car and just crying and praying, and halfway through that prayer being like, "I'm not talking to anybody. I'm just talking to myself in this car." So I just stopped halfway through, and I think the next couple years I didn't do anything else. I was very depressed. I got very into astronomy, too, and the more that I read those kind of things, I think that that also wasn't healthy - it made life feel very pointless.
But yeah, somebody had given me this book of Rumi poetry and my family was on this trip at the beach and I was just like, okay, I'm gonna see what this is all about. And I opened to the first poem - actually, there's a mewithoutYou line that's taken directly from it. If you start reading Rumi, you'll be like, "Oh, every Aaron Weiss line is, like, word for word." It's either John Donne or Rumi. *laughs*
But there's this one poem where he’s talking about the world, and he says, "How did I end up in this brothel for drunks?" This is a paraphrase, but he basically says "I don't know where I came from, and I don't know where I'll end up when I die. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home." And I was just on the beach crying. Because I was like, "Oh my God, this guy from the 1200s is saying all this stuff that I've been wondering.” It just felt so sad and desperate but also so hopeful. So I soaked in that book - I mean, I was just flying through that book - and then started diving into some other Sufi stuff. And I went on this big journey. I was like okay, if I'm having trouble knowing what I believe, I don't want to just sit around. I don't wanna be the kind of person that says, I don't know what I believe, so that's it, and now I guess I'll be depressed and bummed-out my whole life. It's like, okay, then do something about it. So I started buying every religious book that I could and going through them. So you know, I was reading the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching and Thích Nhất Hạnh and Gandhi and Yogananda and all this stuff. And I think through that I started to feel this kind of revival of... not the literal meanings, but I guess of the essence of the things that I grew up with.
And I started to realize that the essence of these things Jesus said still meant so much to me, and to some degree I stopped caring about if I could prove Noah's ark. It doesn't matter... I mean, what are those stories communicating? There’s some kind of hopeful thing that we’ve called God...
The Kaballah - which is like the mystic sect of Judaism - their word for God is the Ein Sof. And it basically means “nothing” with a capital N. It’s this idea that everything in our world, whether it’s an emotion or a house or a table, is something that’s tangible and something you can touch or feel. Even the emotion of something like sadness is something that you can wrap your brain around. And then we have this thing we call God, which is... the stuff that’s not that. *laughs*
So yeah, all this stuff just started to shape this understanding of religion being these beautiful stories of trying to explain this unexplainable thing we call God - you know, the Ein Sof... But it's still changing all the time, you know, and hopefully it always will be. I hope I'm always learning and changing.
SYA: Since it came out in 2009, David Bazan's Curse Your Branches has become kind of the touchstone "breaking-up-with-God" album. Do you see Listen to the River as that type of record, or something different?
DW: That's a good question... I hope I never have to make a breaking-up-with-God album. The hard thing about writing lyrics about spirituality is that, hopefully, spirituality is always changing - changing and growing. But the thing that makes that hard is that every record is gonna feel like it's talking about something new that may kind of disregard the past records. I think what I was trying to do with Listen to the River was be as honest as I could be about where I was at, but also respect and acknowledge where I have been - not discounting the fact that other people who listen may be identifying with places I no longer am but could mean something to them.
So it doesn't feel like a breakup album to me, but to be honest I felt a lot of second album pressure. A lot of bands talk about how after you put out your first album you have a little momentum, and so for the second one you're like, what are people going to think? I felt like I had to take steps into new territory - the new territory that I was moving into in my spiritual life. I had to take steps toward being honest because I was feeling a lot of the pressure of, "Oh, I need to use certain language that our fans will like. What if we lose all the people that listen to us?" It was pretty tough to get to that place of being honest. Some of the lines are probably more breakup-y sounding - the opening song is probably the biggest one - but I think statements like that were important for me to kind of publicly move into new territory.
So yeah, I would say it's not a breakup album. But it is a reconstituting album. Something like that.
Listen to the River is out now on CD and LP via Burnt Toast Vinyl