Vito Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon on poetry, their new album, and putting the Heidelberg Catechism to song


Though they started off as the amateur pals of Sufjan Stevens who only recorded a debut because the musical megastar pushed them to as a pet project, Vito and Monique Aiuto have now been playing music together as The Welcome Wagon for going on sixteen years. They're seasoned musicians, and they've grown to take their career as The Welcome Wagon more seriously, even as Monique continues to work as a public school teacher and Vito, a Presbyterian minister, continues to pastor a congregation in their home neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While the duo's first album had Stevens' ornate folk arrangements all over it and their sophomore effort brought in more earthy gospel textures, The Welcome Wagon's newly-released third record, entitled Light Up the Stairs, is their most sonically diverse yet. Monique's downy-soft voice carries the quietly exultant opener "Galatians 2:20", while a surprising indie-rock vibe inflects tracks like the Yo La Tengo-esque "All These Trees".

Spirit You All spoke to Vito over the phone about recording Light Up the Stairs, his other other career as a published poet, and why seeing a series of Caravaggio paintings in Italy might help sanctify your soul:

SYA: Light Up the Stairs has much more of a rock feel than your first two records. Was that something you guys set out to do, or something that emerged as you were making it?

VA: It was both, but more the latter. I write most of these songs on acoustic guitar, and they tend to be pretty quiet, though they kind of got more dressed up in the orchestration that Sufjan provided on the first one. So we were all together at Dan Smith’s studio - Dan Smith of the Danielson Famile - where we recorded the bulk of the album, and our producer Jeremy [McDonald] did two things that sort of changed the complexion or the sonic palette of the record. One was he wouldn't let me play acoustic guitar on almost any of the tracks. He came over just as we were plugging in for the first song and he handed me an electric guitar and he said, "I want you to play this."

The other thing that was different was Anthony LaMarca from The War on Drugs played drums. He also played a ton of guitar - if you hear any good guitar on the record it's him, not me. But we recorded live with him playing drums for a great majority of the record. Both those things made it feel alive to me and vibrant and kinda rocky in a way our stuff hasn't before. I really liked it.

SYA: Your previous albums had covers of everyone from The Velvet Underground to The Cure to David Crowder, but I can't spot any on this album - are there any cover tracks on Light Up the Stairs I'm just not recognizing?

VA: Well, there's really only one, and it's of a song by Sufjan called "The Greatest Gift". We didn't print the lyrics - I can't even remember why, it wasn’t super intentional - but that song's not out yet. It's about to come out in two or three weeks, and it's an outtake from Carrie & Lowell. I had heard the song years and years ago - he played it at a wedding I officiated, and I had always thought about that song. And then I heard a recording that he made of it and I said, "Man, that's a lovely song. I really like it." And he said, "Well, I'm not gonna put it out. I might put it out in some EP or something later, but it doesn't fit with what I'm doing." And I said, "Well, can we do it?"

I'd always wanted to cover one of his songs because we're really close and, you know, I kind of made it a point to cover some of my other musical heroes like Dan Smith - we kinda reworked one of his songs - and we also covered Lou Reed and The Smiths... You know, in some ways it's kind of audacious to cover those folks' songs, but on the other hand... I don't know if "compliment" is the right word, but those people helped us so much, either from a distance or from up close. And Sufjan really helped us up close, so we were really proud to cover that song. And it's just an incredible song so we were super happy that he was gracious enough to loan it to us.

SYA: Speaking of reworking, you hear a lot of artists doing renditions of the Apostles' Creed, but I've never heard a musical version of the Heidelberg Catechism before.

VA: Yeah, that was really fun to write because there's no rhyme or meter to it. I've been rewriting hymns and gospel songs for a while now and, you know, oftentimes they line up and the chords fit in really easily and it can be done without too much trouble. This one was a lot harder to do, but it was good. You know, constraints provide the grounds for creativity, and that song is probably different than a lot of other songs I wrote because it just had to be. I tried to figure out how you could fit those words into something that you could sing.

And I just love that catechism. We sing that song in our church every week now - you know, it's so short. I was in church not long ago and looked over, and there was one of the children of our church who is three or four years old, singing the Heidelberg Catechism. And I thought, "Well, that's tangible proof that my life has not been a complete waste of time at this point. There's one child who has memorized the Heidelberg Catechism first question and it’s inhabited that person's heart a little bit.”

SYA: Has poetry always been a passion of yours? Did your experience writing it translate to songwriting at all? Are there any hopes you have for yourself as a poet in the future?

VA: I always have loved reading and writing, and I wrote some poetry when I was young, in high school and so on. So when I got to college what happened was I fell in with a group of friends who were all writing poems. I find that whatever community I'm in ends up influencing my life a lot. So it wasn't just that I wrote poems because the people around me were - it was something that I'd always kind of loved. But it was being in a community like that one - where somebody would write a poem and you would be excited by it or be moved by it, and then you would want to contribute to it and you'd want to send them a poem. And I was in workshops with lots of different people that I knew, and you'd be turned on by something that they did, or they'd turn you on to a particular poet... that was the fodder for those relationships.

And when I moved to New York, that happened with music. We knew a whole lot of people who were musicians and who had bands and whose lives were stuck together by making music together. I didn't grow up playing music - I grew up listening to a lot of music and really loved it, but I didn't know how to play an instrument. But part of the reason I learned was because I wanted to be part of that community. I wanted to participate. And some of the stuff translates over - you know, writing lyrics for a song is a kind of poetry. It's not exactly the same, but it's certainly similar. I think a desire to say something in a powerful way or in a disturbing way, or just to be heard... You know, I think that anybody who's a musician or a poet or anything like that - anyone who is a performer or an artist - there's something deep inside of them that wants to be heard. And depending on what medium you pick, you find different ways to say it or to be heard and to try to get other people to listen to you. Right now I do it more through music, but I still love to write.

One thing is time. I mean, I write a sermon almost every week, and that takes a lot of time, and I love to write songs and that's part of who Monique and I are as a family, so there's not quite as much time to write poems. But I still think of it as a part of who I am, and reading poetry is important to me.

But it depends. I mean, one thing about music that's - I don't know if you want to say "better" than poetry? - is that it's so much more accessible. It's accessible in that a lot of people can go to a club or you can all sit down in a living room. While poems can be a little bit hard to get into and they can be a little bit hard to share and, for right or wrong, a lot of people feel that there's a special language that you have to speak or a secret knowledge that you have to have in order to understand or like a poem.

And a lot of the poetry I wrote was pretty obscure... So, you know, I have aunts and uncles who bought the book of poetry that I had made and just sort of said, "Hey, I got your book of poems!" "Oh, you did?" "Uh, yeah." *laughs* And that was as far as it went. But when they bought our record... you know, a three-minute pop song is just easier to digest and it's easier to share and it's easier to put on when you're making dinner at night. And I'm not afraid to admit that I like that kind of accessibility, and I love the medium - it's influenced my life a ton and some of the greatest emotional connections I've had with people, or with God, or with myself are because of music. You know, listening to music was a huge coping mechanism for me when I was a kid, and it still is, too. I'm way off the track of what you asked, though. *laughs*

SYA: What’s going on with the album cover?

VA: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, our first two album covers were decidedly... straightforward? They were even a bit campy. And they very much communicated who we were as a band - husband-and-wife, pastor-and-wife... And I love those covers. But for this one, we didn't want be hemmed in by it having to be a picture of Monique and I - you know, smiling into the camera, or perpetuating part of who we are, which is that we are a band and we are a pastor and a wife. That conceit has already been established.

Monique is responsible for all the visual stuff for this record - so for this one as we talked about what some of the themes of the record were or what we wanted to say or how we wanted to be heard, we definitely decided that we wanted to be led by our own lights and by our own intuition rather than, "Well, we need to make it look like the other ones, or we need to communicate something or other..."

Like I said, on the first one there's a lot of text, and it looks like an album cover you would have pulled out of the gospel section of a used vinyl store in the 60s or something. This one, we want to put it in people's hands and let them appreciate it or love it or be confused by it without the constraints of, "Hey, we are this gospel band and this is our third record." I just wanted to give Monique the liberty to have the visuals communicate whatever she wanted to.

SYA: What’s that sort of glass box thingy? 

VA: We love the beach and we spend a lot of time on the beach and Monique started to make these molds for sandcastles, and one of them is on the cover and kind of sprinkled throughout. It's this plastic mold that she made that has the initials of the band and some other imagery that she wanted to include in it. We just started playing with that a lot. We were on the beach in New Jersey and a bunch of kids came and gathered around. Because it’s kind of weird - what we were doing with it was a little odd, and it drew a crowd.

SYA: Your first two albums were both with Asthmatic Kitty, but this one was Kickstarted and now released through Tooth & Nail and Gospel Song Records. What was the reason for the switch?

VA: Asthmatic Kitty was contracting a bit - getting a little bit smaller. It wouldn't surprise me if we did a record with them in the future, we still have such a great relationship with everybody there... But when it came time to do this record, we knew we had to do it a different way. So we did the Kickstarter, and our original intention was just to self-release it. But after we raised all the money - I mean, it was so much work to even just do the Kickstarter. As you know, trying to do a pet project that you care about when you have another job or when you have other things that are going on in your life is really hard to do. Making the record and writing songs and playing and recording - those are all things we have some proficiency in, but I didn't have any idea how I was gonna, you know, sell it.

I mean, we don’t have the stuff for the Kickstarter yet, but when it gets sent to us we’re gonna have to send it all out. And I thought, I can’t do this for the next year. You know, two or three times a night, mail out three or four vinyls or CDs or whatever. *laughs* And I just didn't have the first idea how to do it. So coinciding with this we started talking to the folks at Gospel Song and Tooth & Nail and they were gracious enough to say yeah, they'd come and do this with us. It was a little bit of a different arrangement than in the past because the record was already made, and we'd already put it all together.

So we'll see! It feels funny - and I've said this to the folks at Gospel Song - it feels weird because with the first two records on Asthmatic Kitty, I knew everybody and it was just a bunch of friends doing a project together... I don't think I ever signed a contract with Asthmatic Kitty. I really don't. I may have signed one for the second record, I don't really know. They've certainly been more than kind to us and generous and... I mean, the very fact that I didn't sign a contract and they still sold our record... *laughs*

SYA: Is it a conscious decision for you guys to have no official Welcome Wagon fanpage or social media accounts?

VA: It's been an official decision based on omission. I mean, neither of us are on Facebook, and I suspect we may have shot ourselves in the foot over the years by not having those things. I think if we started doing that when the first record came out, we probably would have built up more, you know, connections with fans and connections with organizations that can help but, you know, we never did that. And a large part of it is that we've both always had full-time jobs and a family, and it's just really hard to do. I know people that do it, but maybe I just don't have as much energy. Or maybe I'm lazier than most people, which is entirely possible.

It just hasn't happened. Like I said, I know people who do it, and the thought of getting on social media and doing these things... the person who did PR for us for the second record told us to do it. You know, "Send something out every two weeks. Do liveblog or, you know, vlog every few weeks and that'll really help you." And she was entirely right, you know. Totally correct. But we are persisting in our strategy of releasing records every five years and then being strangely silent in the interim. That really works well.

SYA: What's the last piece of art you experienced that really captivated you, that hit you like a bolt of lightning?

VA: Oh, I know exactly what it is. So this summer Monique and I and our son were in Italy, and we went to a church that has a side chapel in it that has three Caravaggios in it. And they're all around the life of St. Matthew. And the one on the left - in the chapel, it's over on the left wall - is The Call of St. Matthew, where they're in a pub or some kind of tavern and Jesus has come to the door and he's pointing right at Matthew. And actually I think Caravaggio painted himself into the painting - I think he's behind Matthew. But Jesus is pointing at him and there's a ray of light coming through. And then in the middle - I don't know what the title of the second one is, it's maybe The Inspiration of St. Matthew? - but it's Matthew writing his gospel. And there's an angel above him and he's receiving this inspiration. And then the third one, on the right, is The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. And he's on the ground about to be crucified and there are all these soldiers around him.

And so there we are standing there, and to look at this art you have to drop a euro into this little slot and then a light comes on for ninety seconds. So there’ll be like sixteen, eighteen people standing around - all these tourists, people from Germany and Japan and different places… and then the light would go off, and then someone else would go over and we’d all take turns putting coins in to look at it. And it was just… It was incredible. It’s different than seeing things like I’ve always seen them in art books. Which is fine, but it’s not the same thing as seeing them up close and seeing the craft behind them and also seeing just the visceral power of what the works are communicating.

And, you know, I’m a Christian, and so if you look at those three paintings, that’s the arc of the Christian life: Jesus calls you, and then you have work to do, and then you die. *chuckles* And those three things are actually happening all the time. You know, I’m being called today, and I have work to do that I did yesterday, and I’m dying right now. Trying to die to myself. And there’s death involved in your life all the time, every day. It’s permeating your life.

I wish I could go back. I wish I could see that once a week. I think I’d probably be a better person if I could see that once a week.


Light Up the Stairs is out now on Gospel Song Records and Tooth & Nail

The Collection's David Wimbish talks losing his faith, the poetry of Rumi, and new album Listen to the River

The Collection (David Wimbish at center)

The Collection (David Wimbish at center)

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

Folksinger Seth Martin on protest and the power of roots music in a rootless age

Many experienced the political turmoil of the last year as a nauseating, all-consuming blitz, but for American folk artist Seth Martin, the turmoil was particularly inescapable. Not only was his home country in a state of upheaval, but so too was his adopted home of South Korea, where a stranger-than-fiction scandal led to massive demonstrations that drew over a million protesters and eventually resulted in President Park Geun-hye's removal from power.

Brought up near the mountains of Toledo, Washington, Martin has been recording music for over a decade and performing for even longer, often with a crew of musical comrades dubbed the Menders. Among the Menders's former tour companions are the legendary anarcho-Christian collective Psalters, four members of which can be heard on Martin's most recently released record, This Mountain. The album marks something of a turning point for Martin - not only has his songwriting shifted from a barefoot pastoralism to anxious, Guthrie-like woe-betides, but the newly-married musician has settled in South Korea long-term with his wife, visual artist Nan Young Lee. He's even adopted a parallel moniker (이산 - literally meaning "this mountain") for when he performs in Korean-language settings.

When Spirit You All met with Martin at the couple's home on a recent March evening in Seoul, (Editor's note: Spirit You All is based in Seoul, too, if you're wondering. We don't have the funds for globe-hopping interviews) it was only days since South Korea's highest court had approved President Park Geun-hye's impeachment and formally removed her from power (but weeks before military tensions started to ratchet up on the peninsula thanks to provocations from... people who should know better). We talked with Martin about he and his wife's involvement in the protests that led to the removal, as well as his new record and the enduring relevance of folk music:

SYA: What has your involvement in the recent, nationwide protest movement against (now-former) President Park Geun-hye been like?

SM: The short of it is that almost every weekend for the last several months, Nan Young and I have been at [historic city center] Gwanghwamun together, singing and marching and crying and yelling and laughing. On my personal end, everything I'm learning I'm trying to share through music and through writing. Sometimes actual published articles, but usually through online updates to whoever's reading, whoever's listening to me.

I feel a burden, or a responsibility, to use my voice as a writer and a musician in a different way than I did before. When I was in the States, I focused much more on spiritual and environmental "mending" and seeking peaceable relations. That's still what drives me now - the "mending" concept of seeking whatever brings us closer to home and to each other and to God. But being an American who mostly speaks English in a modernized South Korea, how that plays out is very different. 

I'm trying to learn to listen more. It sounds obvious, but with a long tradition of racism, colonialism and Orientalism, it still needs to be said: Koreans know more about Korea than a Westerner like me. My job is to lend support to whatever seems good, in whatever way I can. I believe there is a communication gap or a communication twist that happens when [information] comes through the pipeline back to the States. So I do have a valuable voice. I don't say so much my own opinion as I validate and say in English that what's going on here isn't what you're hearing in the news. Like any other place, this is an amazing, complicated place full of people who are doing hard work and are trying to make their lives better.

I start with the premise that I know very little. But the majority of my friends being Korean, I try to soak up everything I can, and when I have a chance to express or say something to a non-Korean audience, I try to reflect what they say. And almost always, it's counter to what everyone expects.

SYA: Apart from maybe your first album, The Iraqistan War and Other Stories, this is your most topical collection of songs. What motivated that shift?

SM: Time and place. I feel like the last two years, I've found a much more concentrated voice. It's not necessarily a voice I'll keep for future albums, but it definitely came about during the year before I came back to Korea [permanently] with Nan Young. There were similar things happening in the States and in Korea. One of them was poverty. (laughs) I should say, I am privileged and lucky, but it was always living to the last dollar and uncertain.

Also, I think, getting more involved than I ever had been in solidarity actions here. More direct things, like going on anti-nuclear, anti-militarization peace walks and stands, moving away from the abstract to focusing on concrete controversies and issues right now. And then I also have been studying so much of the art and the legacy of topical songwriters, and learning to hone and change some of my skills to communicate more clearly about specific things. So those things all mixed together.

Then on a personal level, I'm in a different culture and trying to ask questions like What kind of American am I? and What do I identify with? In this historical moment, my own country and my own heritage and my own religious foundation all seem to be in the death throes. Or maybe committing some kind of weird prolonged suicide and taking everyone else down with them. Yet I'm still in love with my homeland. I'm still in love with the people who raised me. I'm still a Christian. And I'm still in love with the legacy of American music and labor. So trying to distinguish those things in my own identity, while being in a different culture and seeing my home from the outside really sharpened my focus and my desire to communicate in a way that linked directly to these specific older traditions.

Every song on the album is not just influenced by but lives directly within the older songs. I intentionally used the old melodies, and that was almost a meditative, therapeutic practice. Like, when I'm walking or taking my commute, I'd listen to these older songs - hymns, labor songs, protest songs - that moved me, reminded me about what I love about home, and also made me nostalgic and touched me and gave me something to be proud of in my own heritage. At some point the concept emerged to make a whole batch of songs that speak to now the way those songs originally spoke to their time.

I tried to match the tone or the voice of the old song, to continue believing that the song is alive, all the culture connected to it is still alive, and then add my voice to it. It's something that's simultaneously humbling and also probably requires a lot of ego because you're putting yourself under a tradition - but also claiming that. So you're simultaneously honoring it, saying, "I'm incomplete without you, tradition." But also, "I'm ready to break and change you because I'm the most current form of you." You know what I mean? (laughs)

SYA: Can you provide some background for the track "Gureombi Norae"?

SM: I tried to tell the narrative as best I understood it from my Korean friends. Gureombi is the name of a volcanic rock formation that was almost completely obliterated - dynamited - in 2012 to lay the groundwork for the Gangjeong Naval Base, which is a joint South Korea-US naval base that docks warships that will be part of the war with China, if needs be. And hundreds of villagers and activists have been arrested trying to stop that base from happening. When one group was arrested, one of the police leaders said to them, "I'm not arresting you - Samsung is." It's a terrible story of local, small, not-very-powerful people getting wiped out by modern business contracts and the war machine.

Gureombi is the name of the main rock which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But it was dynamited, and I tried to tell the story through the eyes of a long-time villager, watching it, wanting to stop it, not knowing what to do. It's connected to the melody of the old American hymn "Farther Along", and that hymn is also referenced by the Woody Guthrie classic "I've Got to Know". So ["Goreombi Norae"] connects that spiritual tradition and that activist tradition together. Legend says "I've Got to Know" was Woody Guthrie's almost-last or last song he wrote before he died. According to Utah Phillips and others in the folk tradition who have updated the lyrics, he was writing mostly about the bombing of Korea. "Farther Along" is a church song that's talking to someone who's depressed and sad, and basically says, "Why do the evil people not suffer? Why do they get on?" And the great spiritual truth that is so powerful for those who are suffering is, "Cheer up, we'll understand it farther along." But Woody Guthrie felt that that sentiment sometimes kept people from fighting back. So his version takes a similar lyrical bent, but he says, "I've got to know now." So I took that, with the history of those two songs, and made it about Gureombi.

This Mountain is available now on Bandcamp

*All photos by Grace Hilton*

I Love You, Jesus Christ: Bersain Beristain talks Even Oxen, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Book of Revelation



Even Oxen's Bersain Beristain (pronounced bear-sane bear-i-stain) isn't quite who you'd expect to be behind Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights, a cornucopia of otherwordly bedroom folk and avant-garde soundscapes that stands as one of the best albums to be released so far this year. Instead of a self-consciously weird artiste, the 22-year-old Beristain is a Houston college student and gas station clerk who fits music in where he can - his demeanor is so friendly it's almost goofy, and void of affect. The morning in June when Spirit You All spoke to Beristain via Skype, he and his Even Oxen bandmates were getting ready for their third-ever live performance, which was also their debut as a three-piece:

Spirit You All: Can you give a bit of background about yourself? Where you're from, how started playing music, what you do these days?

BB: Well, I'm from California originally. A small town called Hemet. I basically circled between California, Nevada, and Idaho, and that's where I spent most of my life growing up. Only recently have I moved over to Texas, and I've been over here for the past three years, just going to school and working. Unfortunately I wasn't into any music scenes - I would catch a show every now and then when I could.

So for what I'm doing now besides school and work, I guess I'm trying to take my music a little bit more seriously. I don't have the best recording process or anything, but at least now there's music for people to listen to, so I feel more comfortable playing shows - we're playing an open mic tonight, so you have to take what you can get. I've been messaging venues, but no reply yet. I even tried messaging some churches to see if they would be okay with doing a free show kind of thing, but no response from them yet. So the open mic is where we're goin'!

Spirit You All: How much have you played live as Even Oxen? Also, how much is this a Bersain Beristain solo project versus being a full band?

BB: Well, for right now, we haven't played very much. There's only really been two shows, and one was in 2015, where we played with a band from New Orleans called Squirrel Queen. They were so kind to look for us and invite us to play with them when they were coming on a tour over to Texas. I just played solo. And the second time around, the same situation happened - a friend connected us with another band, and we were able to play with them in the beginning of this year. This time it was me and my brother.

And that's it. So I guess that's to say that Even Oxen is much more of a solo project, because that's originally how it started. But I've always dreamt that it could be a band, and I can't do everything by myself, you know? I need to have other bandmates. I guess we'll see for the next release. I'm definitely done with recording for a little while - I'd rather focus on performing, anyways. But I'm hoping it will become a band.

Spirit You All: Where did the name "Even Oxen" come from? I assume it had something to do with being "unequally yoked"...?

BB: Yeah, exactly. We were just thinking of band names, and I figured I wanted to have something biblical... Most Christians will already know where that's from, so that's cool.

Spirit You All: Coming off your EP last year, what was the vision for Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights? What did you want to try to do that was different?

BB: I definitely wanted to try to have better recording quality. Because for my EP, I was just 15 and 16. I didn't know what I was doing. All I knew is that I wanted to record some music. I just said, "I'm just going to record a song every year". It wasn't a thought-out process, that's just what ended up happening. And looking back, it's like, man, I just breathed into that microphone. I mean, I didn't hold back. [laughs]

So I thought, "Okay, let's give it one more shot before I try to do anything else." My main aim was to produce something that was a little bit more bearable as far as the vocals go. But ultimately I think that where the EP was a lot quieter and a lot more acoustic, I wanted to balance that out with a lot noisier stuff. I wanted to just show the more abrasive side of my music. And I think that came out all right. So now there's a bit of balance, you know what I mean? And I feel more comfortable with that.

Spirit You All: Can you explain the recording process for the album?

BB: Well, ultimately, I hated it. [laughs] I mean, I don't ever want to do it again. I have this really old Dell laptop, and I downloaded Audacity for it a while back. I can't download any new applications for it because it's so buggy and they don't work. So what I would do is I would hit "record" on Audacity - I could record the first file great. Basically that would just be me, singing with the guitar, or maybe just guitar. And after that I would record from my phone - like, I would press "play" on the computer and I would record on my phone and try playing along with it. And then because it's recorded on my phone I have to email it to myself, but then I have to change the file into a WAV format because that's the kind that Audacity works with. I'd have to go to a website to do that, and it would take a long time. So it was a nightmare, especially for the longer songs on that album. All I can say is I don't ever want to do that again.

The bulk of the album was recorded in two months, and the only song that was recorded earlier was "Kaiah's Connectant Ville" in 2014. Besides that, the whole thing was recorded in February to April of this year.

Spirit You All: Can you talk a bit about how "Kaiah's Connectant Ville" came together?

BB: Kaiah is a great friend who I grew up with in Idaho. We met when I went and visited her church. I love that she allowed me to use her song because, to me, it's my favorite song on the album. She's been playing cello for most of her life, and she made that song originally for a talent show that she was doing in her senior year of high school. But she didn't win! Which sucks because I think she at least should have placed or something. Anyway, she recorded the song, and I asked her if I could use it, and she was more than happy to allow that. I just added piano and some percussion to it - and I only did that the night before I released the album.

Actually, most of the album, like, a big chunk of it, was recorded the night before. Because, like I told you, I was sick of recording up to that point - I wanted to get it done immediately. And originally I wasn't even sure I was going to feature that song on the album, because I wanted to do it justice and I didn't know what to put onto it. I had the percussion all planned out, but I was like, do I want to leave it so bare in the beginning? So in a really quick moment I was able to record those piano parts, and got it done the next morning. 

Spirit You All: You finished the final song, "Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights", on the last day, too? 

BB: Yeah, it was the day of. I recorded "Kaiah's Connectant Ville", "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea", "Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights", and "Your Baileys of Water" all in the same day because with school and work and everything, it's just so hard to find time to do other things like that. So yeah, I had to do it inside my truck because there's no way - it's a loud song. I know that it might sound a little subdued in the recording, but I have to get pretty loud for that one. And luckily it was raining outside and I was in my truck, so I don't think anyone could hear me. That was the only option I had. 

Spirit You All: There's a huge variety of sounds on the album. What other artists had an influence on the sound and the direction of the album? 

BB: Definitely Jeff Mangum, from Neutral Milk Hotel. I think he's a big inspiration for everybody. Anyone who hears his music, whether they end up loving it or not, they remember what they heard because it's just so unlike anything else. It's funny because their influence ranges a lot, too, but I can't say there was ever been a band that sounded quite like Neutral Milk Hotel. And I think it's mostly just songwriting. It's just so filled with passion. But not just the songwriting - his allowance for such a variety of sounds to come in really is the biggest influence on me.

I first heard about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from a Pitchfork article about Cold War Kids - it started off saying "hipsters hate Jesus". [laughs] And I thought that was so funny, and I ended up listening to some of the albums they mentioned that were Christian-influenced. I guess In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was included in there. So when I read about them, I checked it out, and at first it was just like, "Okay, this is an acoustic song, this is going to be an acoustic indie album." And then it just transforms into this noisy, "I love you Jesus Christ!", punk-influenced stuff. Up to that point - I mean, we've heard bands like Beatles include a big variety of sounds - but I don't think any of them resonated with me as much as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea up 'til that point. I didn't know that you could take so many influences and put it in the same album and have it work out. I guess after I heard that, I was like, this is what I want to do. 

I think one last artist that's worth mentioning - it's worth mentioning because you mentioned him [on the blog] a few reviews back - is Washington Phillips. Washington Phillips is a crazy story, because no one really knows very much about him, and he grew up in Texas. And he managed to record like 18 tracks and only 16 of them survived. But yeah, his style really influenced me. It's so concentrated and unafraid to be worshipful. That's what I wanted to do, too.

Besides actual artists, 4chan's music board is the biggest influence on me. Have you even been there?

Spirit You All: No, I just know 4chan's reputation... You know, "a wretched hive of scum and villainy"...

BB: [laughs] I stay away from all the other boards, so I keep away from all the evil that's inside there. For the most part, I just stick to the music board - it's a lot more family-friendly than a lot of other places you can end up on that site. [laughs again]

Well, the music board is very volatile. It's not the most welcoming place for artists, but that's the most beautiful thing about them. They take art and elevate it to such a high standard, and they'll include so many different artists in their conversations. They're the biggest influence besides actual artists. They're the ones that pushed me to want to do something good, they made me want to do something different. Without them I would have regressed into some stupid pop thing. Like, you should hear the demos that I had lying around before I started to do Arrayed. It was just awful generic pop stuff. So despite their bad reputation and how terrible they treat the artists sometimes, they are the ones that love music most. There's no one who will push the underground more than they will. Seeing them discuss music inspires me to be better and think that it's always possible.

Spirit You All: How do you see yourself as a Christian and as an artist, and the intersection there?

BB: Honestly, I don't feel as comfortable singing about other stuff as I do my faith and my relationship with Jesus. And that's not because there aren't other things that are worth talking about or anything. It's just that there are so many great artists out there who are already doing that. There are so many great Christian artists who are doing that. I mean, like, Sufjan Stevens, for example, he tackles big issues when it comes to family or personal problems... But we've already had artists do that, and for me, I just feel more comfortable being able to sing about my faith. That's the thing I want to give to the world more than anything. Maybe something that can resonate with other believers.

I want to be a worship artist through and through, but I don't want the musical side of it go in the same direction that most people would think a worship artist would be. The crazy part about it is I've had way more support from a secular audience more than a Christian one. And I don't blame them, it's just, I'm surprised. You wouldn't think music with lyrics as openly religious as mine would connect with a secular audience, but it does!

Spirit You All: Have you always loved Revelation, or was it a surprising new appreciation that you've gained?

BB: I've always had a fascination with it. Even when I was a kid, I would always ask adults at the Baptist church I grew up in - I would ask them what this means. And you would get so many interpretations - you know, some people really did think that everything was meant to be literal, to the point that, "Oh yeah, Jesus has a sword coming out of his mouth. Like, Jesus really has a sword coming out of his mouth!" And some people say that Revelation already happened, that it already took place in the days of the early church. So I've always been fascinated by the amount of interpretations it can draw. I did come back to it recently because the imagery used in it... Whether it's metaphorical or whether it's literal, it's all powerful. It doesn't matter because it's so captivating in its descriptions of heaven and of things happening on earth, that I thought to write about it would be cool.

Spirit You All: Most of the songs on Arrayed are fairly lyrically straightforward, apart from "Your Baileys of Water". What was the inspiration and meaning behind that song?

BB: "Your Baileys of Water" was really inspired by Texas. There's a huge difference between California and Texas, and the biggest difference, I feel, is in the amount of clouds in the sky. They're ridiculous. Every day, these huge mountains of clouds everywhere. And that's where "Your Baileys of Water" comes from. So the clouds are baileys... of water... [laughs]

[For readers still in the dark, a bailey is the outer wall of a castle - implying that the clouds are the outer walls of God's heavenly castle]

We drove around a lot when I first moved here, and Texas is huge, so you spend hours driving just to get to one place. That's why I talk about traveling - there's a line in there that goes, "With the burdens of leaving, I'm thankful to spend it with you." Because no matter where you are, wherever God takes you, he's with you. No matter what, I'll never be without Jesus. So I guess I just tried to combine those two ideas.

Spirit You All: What was the vision for "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea", and how did you get those abrasive sounds?

BB: I wanted it to be a "musical translation", I guess you could call it, of Revelation 12, where the woman gives birth to her child and the dragon comes after them. There are very few things in life that are as terrifying to me as the idea of being hunted down. So my vision was to create something that would be terrifying, that would give you a sense of anxiety, because that's what I imagine that situation being like.

The recording process was pretty simple - I recorded the drum beat using this water jug that I filled with quarters and coins and stuff. And I would put it inside this four-legged stool - I would flip the stool upside down, and I would place the jug inside it so it wouldn't move. And I grabbed a potato masher and I would just hit it and get different sounds as I circled around the stool. So I had a potato masher in one hand and a tambourine in the other - that's just the base of that song. Besides that I added white noise into the song, and I recorded some guitar for it. It's not very much, actually, it's only about four stems because the percussion was all done in one take because I don't get much time at my house to be as loud as that.

Spirit You All: What do you see next for Even Oxen? Where do you hope to see the project go?

BB: I think that I want to do this for my life. If I could do music for my life, I would. I'm obviously still going to go to school and I'm still going to work, but none of those things are going to be as impassioned as my music is. I guess where I see it going right now is I'm just going to work hard playing live shows and getting my music across to people in Texas while I still can. We were supposed to do a mini-tour a couple weeks ago over in Virginia and North Carolina, but there were so many problems that got in the way - we couldn't drive over there because we had issues with our cars. And even then, one of the shows got cancelled because the venue got a court summons for too many noise complaints. It sucks because sometimes you just can't help things. But I'm definitely going to just keep trying, because if I love it I'm just going to keep doing it no matter what.

As far as where I see Even Oxen and what's in store for us, definitely expect shows... and more changes. Even Oxen's not going to stay the same. It's not always going to stay folk-influenced. Recently I've been listening to a lot of dance music - house especially. That seems to be the way the sound is going now, though that's not something that's been reflected in any of the other recent songs. So I definitely do think that Even Oxen is going to change. I think it's good for artists to grow and experiment.

We're also trying to do a music video for "The Dragon on the Shore Beside the Sea". It's going to be a lot like Animal Collective's ODDSAC film. It's a long song, so it's going to have a narrative, but there's going to be a lot of abstract imagery. We're buying a Chinese dragon costume for it, and we're going to play around with that. It's summer right now, so there's no school and we're just trying to stay as productive as possible.

Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights is available on Bandcamp and on cassette via Punch Bowl Records

Kings Kaleidoscope's Chad Gardner on living "Beyond Control"

Chad Gardner (center, with beanie) and the rest of Kings Kaleidoscope

Chad Gardner (center, with beanie) and the rest of Kings Kaleidoscope

Seattle's Kings Kaleidoscope broke out in a big way with their 2014 debut LP Becoming Who We Are, an album that put the band's plenitude of musicians to good use, creating worship on the scale of big collectives like Broken Social Scene that seeths with a mesmerizing tangle of horns, strings, and crisp, syncopated drums. They return this week with their sophomore effort, Beyond Control, which retains that controlled-chaos musical aesthetic while taking the songs in a slightly rawer and more personal direction, with perceptive nods to themes like the loss of both wonder and danger in the modern world. Spirit You All had a conversation via Skype with songwriter and frontman Chad Gardner about self-producing the new album, social media, Kanye West, and virtual reality:

Spirit You All: You've said in the past that you're a big Kanye West fan. How did you feel about Life of Pablo?

CG: I don't even necessarily appreciate Kanye for being a musician anymore. I'm not inspired by him lyrically at all, but just as a culture mover, he's like Muhammad Ali to me. I love that he is one of the biggest artists in the world, and he continuously messes with everybody and says, “I'm going to push on every expectation you have. Everything you expected of me, I'm going to do something different, and I'm going to do it really well.” So in that sense, I love it. I love the whole idea of a record that will never be done, I love the idea that he's going to be updating that record on streaming for the next 10 years or however many... that there will be another track added to it or he'll change the kick drum on something. There are so many of those concepts that are completely futuristic and next-level, and the way he collaborates with stuff... So there are things that I love about it and things that I'm not into. I guess that record kind of solidified to me that I'm not like, 'Oh man, I can't wait to listen to Kanye's next album', but more, wow, I really respect the fierceness and the boldness to do completely new ideas all the time and not worry about it.

Spirit You All: Becoming Who We Are was recorded on a MacBook using a lot of different microphones in a lot of different places, but I heard that you got a home studio for this one?

CG: Yeah, it's not much. I've just got a basement here with all our instruments and whatnot. And it's still my Macbook Pro. My whole thing is I really like to produce music and arrange music and so in the same way as our last record, I got to engineer most of this one and record it all here at home, which is great. With the the last one we had to travel around to various spaces, but this one we were able to dial it in more. So I think, sonically, it's a little more consistent and just a little bit more “pro” sounding, even though it's still a basement. [laughs]

Spirit You All: The first Kings Kaleidoscope album came out on a confusing hybrid of Tooth & Nail and Bad Christian - did you take the same approach this time with Beyond Control?

CG: Yeah, it's the same thing. Bad Christian is doing the whole vinyl side, and Tooth & Nail is kind of the main player doing all the digital and CDs. We really like working with both of them and we just figure, why not bring both teams to the table. It was a very interesting thing because with Tooth & Nail's schedule we were going to have to wait to release our record next January or February most likely, or it was this spring. And we realized that, like, three months ago. [laughs] So we were like, “Oh man, we don't want people to have to wait to get these new ideas that I've had sitting around.” I cranked it out. It was sort of like a challenge, where the label was like, “Well, if you can do it, we'll put it out in June, but it's literally going to be a rush.”

I turned the record in three weeks ago. Which is kinda normal if you're Kanye and you're just going to stream it, but to actually sell CDs and have a whole campaign, it's pretty much impossible. It's been kind of a mad dash, but I actually like working that way, that you've got three months so engineer and record and write. Finish writing all these songs. So three weeks ago I did all the lyrics to “Most Of It”. That was the last song, and we knew we wanted it to be the very simple concept of, “It's going to be okay". That's actually at the core of the gospel, that it's okay because God is sovereign, you're making the most of it till heaven. And we all have little kids now - I have a little boy who's almost one, and that song was for him. Like, how would you teach him a very simple lesson, that's not theologically exhausting? That he can actually understand?

Spirit You All: Following Becoming Who We Are, what was the goal for this album's sonic direction?

CG: I don't really think of it in terms of goals... Actually, I take that back. The only goals we had were, one: no loud builds. And we almost got away with it! There's one song - “Sabatoge” has one build. You know, they're really effective and they're immediately gratifying, and almost all bands do them, but that was my personal challenge: how can we build intensity without being loud and having all the instruments play at once? And I think a great example of that is on the final song, “Trackless Sea”. There's this bridge that bottoms out, and this big cello swell and you think something massive's gonna come in, but it just keeps rolling and it keeps going with this big cello and this weird percussion. And it actually creates so much more emotion than if we had had a big explosion. For me, it just rips my heart out with a feeling of longing. You want there to be more so bad, but the feeling of wanting more is a greater feeling than if you had just got it. So we tried to do that.

And then the other, smaller goal was, we've always done intricate, elaborate arrangements, and we had a goal of, how do we do intricate and elaborate, but quiet? We're always trying to push ourselves. So on our last record we had a song called "Defender", and that song was very intricate and elaborate and loud the whole time. This record, there's the song "Lost", which is intricate and elaborate, but quiet. Or the song "Trackless Sea" - same thing. There's a lot of mellotrons, there's a lot of vocal harmonies, but it's all quiet. So that was the other challenge we had. But as far as greater goals, I just kind of try to be really fearless and just create whatever really gets me hyped or whatever moves me. I mean, that sounds selfish, but I am making music, in a sense, for myself, and if I really love something then I don't really think about, "What are people going to think about this?" 

Spirit You All: Being a ten-piece, do you guys always travel with the same group when you tour?

CG: No, it's completely variable. It's kind of always been that way. I think on the last record, that was something that was part of the marketing story: "They're this ten-piece band!" But in reality, you can't fly ten people to North Carolina to just play a show. It's so expensive. There are ten people who come in and out of the band, there are ten people who'd come here to the studio here at my house, and they're all the "core", but we play with all kinds of different lineups. We've played with as little as six people, our sweet spot for traveling is I think seven and eight. And when we get lucky, when we play somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or we get somebody who wants to fly all of us out to a show, we bring a full string trio and we can get up to ten people. But it's all the same folks. It's kind of a pain, actually, because I need to make a different rider for every show based on what instruments are going.

Spirit You All: About half the Kings Kaleidoscope fanbase is about to have a stroke because Beyond Control's second-to-last song, "A Prayer", has two f-words on it. Can you share the vision behind the song and the meaning?

CG: [laughs] Well, first I would say I think that for people who haven't actually listened to the record, or listened to that song, just listen to those last three songs in a row, and I think that it will be self-explanatory in terms of what is going on there. The short answer is, that song comes from the deepest part of my gut and my being, and the fear that I face throughout my life - I've had really severe anxiety disorder my whole life, and that's been a major part of my struggle and story. That song is about the fear of running from God or that God will turn his back on me and I will end up apart from him in hell. And the actual lyric is something that is from my journal - I don't know how everyone else has conversations with God, but I have very vulnerable conversations, and God already knows how afraid I am. I usually figure it's good for me to pour out my soul to him, and that's what that song is.

The choice to keep that original version, which is straight from off the top of my head, really, as well as the edited one... It took me a long time, and I really sought counsel and had a lot of conversations with pastor friends of mine and family. At the end of the day, that song is not going to impact somebody who has never felt that way anyways. So that song is there for people who have felt like me. And I know fear and Satan and death - the voice of all of that is not poetic, it's not thoughtful, it's not patient. It's aggressive and demanding and terrifying. And that's what came out of my heart because that's what I was hearing, and so that's what I chose to leave it in the song. It was to say, look, this is the reality of how we feel sometimes, and this is the reality of how God responds to that. And I just want people to know that that is life. It is freaking scary, and God talks to that and he speaks to us right where we are.

At the same time, I know other people have different convictions theologically on language - obviously I don't have that conviction, otherwise I wouldn't have released it. [laughs] But I really respect that, and I know some people want to just buy the CD and be able to play it in their car without their kids hearing it. Some people have told me, "I don't care if my kids listen to that song at all" - the unedited version. But because I respect people, I want to have a different version for them, and that song - it's not really about that word, it's about the meaning and the bigger context, and I think if anything I'm trying to be vulnerable and have different types of people be able to engage with that song in a powerful way.

So I came to my label and said, "Okay, I think that I want to release a version of a song with an f-bomb in it. I want to do it in the most respectful way possible." [laughs] They were like, "What in the world?" Because most artists are trying to do shock jock or something, but there's none of that vibe for me. I'd say, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about it or convince anyone of anything. I'm just trying to be honest and vulnerable. I think that's important in art, and important as a Christian. If there's any place that I can share my story and my testimony for what it really is, it should be the church at large. And that's what I'm doing.

Spirit You All: What was the idea behind the interlude track "Friendship"? I think I hear someone in the background singing Soulja Boy and "Whip/Nae Nae".

CG: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. That was just something that happened. Blake is my really close buddy - he's the trombone player, and I think he's the longest-standing member of the band. ... Anyway he was going to do a solo for the end of "In This Ocean, Part 2". And I was like, "Alright, man. Here's what we're gonna do. I'm gonna put a mike on you and a mike on me, and we're just gonna go back and forth making up melodies." And we did that for a while, and it just got so funny that I basically looped a beat from that song and was like, "Okay, okay, okay, let's just do this for fun." That's just us having fun in the studio, and, you know, ultimately it will be the track that people skip a whole bunch, probably. But I think it's really important to include that stuff every once in a while, because it totally shows that we don't take ourselves too seriously, we like to have fun.

And I just loved calling it "Friendship" because that has been such a theme for me this past year. In the wake of releasing our first record - you know, that album is so storied with being birthed out of a lot of pain and personal struggle in my life. And I spent the last two years honestly just recovering from that. Still dealing with a lot of residual anxiety and, "Wow, how does my world even work now?" And a big part of that for me has just been in community and friendship, and people around me who make me laugh, continually tell me that it's gonna be okay, even when it doesn't feel like it. So even in a weird thematic way, I'm glad that it's on there. And people can kind of see who we are... we're pretty goofy. So it tells that story well.

Spirit You All: A lot of the album, especially "Enchanted", the first single, is about how technology today increasingly allows us to curate our own realities, living as what David Foster Wallace called "lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms". What was the experience in your own life that inspired that concept?

CG: Dude, that quote is insane. You gotta send me that, I'm gonna use that in all my other interviews. So yeah, the whole album was inspired first by a sermon that I heard at my church on a Sunday where the idea was brought up of choosing, in a sense, to live enchanted with the actual reality that we are in. Knowing that the world is a wild and dangerous place and our existence is completely beyond our control. You know, that scares the crap out of us all the time, and most of my energy goes to creating a perceived safety of some kind. Whether that's a safety with my identity by accomplishing things... Everything so much of the time for me is trying to control my world, to control what I know in order to control how I feel. And especially in the information age, with social media, I feel a huge strain on my being. There's so much pressure to maximize my life and to experience so many things. Yelp is a great example of that. I will never be satisfied getting a sandwich somewhere again, because I have to find the best sandwich shop. You know? So what is it about that? Because I need to maximize my experience. I need to have the best thing. And I'm not saying everything about that is bad - I love that it's pushing people to make good art, there's a lot of beauty that's being created. But at the same time, there's also a lot of unsatisfaction with life that's constantly stirred.

So basically the record goes between these two worlds - trying to buffer ourselves from pain and suffering and danger and the reality of the world, and we end up creating a very cold and isolated and lonely existence. And it's actually pretty miserable, and we might feel like we're safe because we've kind of cordoned things off the way that we understand them, but the reality is nothing's actually changed - we're just locked in our heads when we think we've sorted things out. And the flipside of that is choosing to live beyond perceived control, where life is enchanted and it actually is perilous and we're afraid to open ourselves up to God because he might actually break our hearts and he might not give us what we think we want. We might get hurt, but it is a beautiful adventure with him, and there is actually a deeper joy and a richness to be found there. Tolkien says it, when he talks about a world like that: "A place where joy and sorrow are sharp as swords." I want to live that way, not dulling myself to reality.

Spirit You All: Do you feel the tension of being in a band that you want to be successful, yet also being part of a modern music industry is so relentlessly social media-driven?

CG: Yeah, I think to some extent it comes in waves. So, you have to give people information, you have to get your music out there. And you always want to do it in a way that's exciting and beautiful, but at the same time... So this week, I called one of the guys at our label, and I said, "Okay, here's my idea. The day our record comes out - not like the Radiohead thing, but I'm actually going to delete all of our social media accounts. [laughs] It'll be like, the record's out, you can listen to it, but we won't hype it up or anything like that. It's just out, it's available. And we could actually do an experiment. Everyone always says grassroots marketing is the best - well, how many people would tell other people about the record without us doing it? It would still be on Twitter, just we wouldn't be doing it. I love that idea! And we would keep it off for like a year until we turn it all on again to announce the next thing.

So just toying with that notion... Even with Instagram, when we announced the record we posted nothing but blank, black pictures for a month, with just lyrics. And every day it was like we were interrupting people's feeds: "Okay, there's nothing to look at here that I can covet, it's just the thought from our lyrics. Just one thing to think about." I like messing with stuff like that, and I guess that means in the future we'll have to be creative with how we market and stuff like that.

Spirit You All: Along that same topic of escaping into fantasy worlds: 2016 is supposed to be the year when consumer virtual reality headsets start to really reshape society. Do you have any thoughts about that, and have you tried VR?

CG: I haven't, but I want to. Kings Kaleidoscope needs to make a video game, is what it sounds like. [laughs] We actually were trying to make an Apple TV app for a while to be interactive and stuff, but... No, that's a really good question. I hadn't really thought about that. I think... It's just like everything. I feel like all of that stuff can be so incredibly creative and amazing and beautiful and meaningful, but the other side is that it can be completely distracting and, you know, just dominate our time. So I just think that it depends on how people go about using it.

Spirit You All: Are there any spiritual practices or just basic way-of-life things that you've found are useful for living "beyond control", as it were? That might be as simple as switching off your phone at certain hours or fasting from the internet...

CG: Definitely for me, personally, it's deleting social media apps from my phone for periods of time. So this is almost always the thing for me: put Twitter on my phone, and then I check it all the time, and the more and more and more I do it, I'll go, "Oh my gosh!" And I literally just delete the app. And I go two weeks, and then I have to put it back on my phone to announce something for Kings. And then the same thing happens, and I delete it again. It's the same thing with Instagram - I deleted my Facebook a long time ago. I guess you could call that a spiritual practice. I don't know if I always fill my time with better things - like, maybe then I'll watch Netflix or something... But you know, being really aware of focus and time and distraction. I think being aware of that is important because at the end most of it is vanity and all of it is fleeting. So, it can be entertaining - there's nothing wrong with laughing and being entertained. If it fosters real relationship, that's awesome. But if it's just distracting, then it's kind of a waste.

Beyond Control is out now on Gospel Song Records and Tooth & Nail

Starflyer 59's Jason Martin takes it SLOW

On hearing "Wrongtime", the Cure-influenced first single from Starflyer 59's new album SLOW, listeners might be inclined to believe that songwriter Jason Martin is a Stanley Kubrick fan - the line "I love you.../Wrongtime" seems to twist an iconic line from Full Metal Jacket. But when asked about it, he says he's never seen the movie: "That was very unintentional."

With thirteen albums under its belt already, Starflyer has had a number of distinct epochs. But since becoming a studio-only project about ten years ago (touring became unfeasible with the demands of raising three kids and full-time management of his trucking company in Riverside, California), Martin has forged a unique style of dense, glassy indie rock. SLOW continues to evolve the sound slightly, with New Order-esque, synth-tinged post-punk as the dominant aesthetic; it's a record is as sleek, dark, and enigmatic as those monoliths in another Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spirit You All spoke to Martin over the phone about returning to his home label Tooth & Nail, his new project Lo-Tom (a collaboration with Starflyer and former Pedro the Lion members), and what keeps him making music after all these years:

Spirit You All: Tooth & Nail has put out everything of yours apart from 2013's IAMACEO, which you self-released after your contract was finished. Now for SLOW, you're back on Tooth & Nail. Was it a surprise how difficult it is to release a record without the infrastructure of a label?

JM: Yeah, it was a lot more than I'd ever done before. I mean, it was fine, but you work on the things for a long time and after that, you've got to set up somebody to print them up, and somebody to ship them out. You know, try to advertise a little bit here and there... I just like making the records, I don't want to sell them when they're done. So it was a bit more than I intended to bite off.

Spirit You All: There are so few obvious references to your faith on most Starflyer releases that most people could listen to your music and have no idea you are a Christian. Yet because you're on an explicitly Christian label, every secular outlet that covers you makes prominent mention of your faith. Have you ever considered how your career might have been different had Starflyer been on a secular label?

JM: I used to think about that stuff a long time ago, but I just kind of think it is what it is. I don't even know if we would still be going if we were on a secular label. The fanbase that we got in the mid-90s, they're still pretty loyal, and some of them are still actually supporting the new stuff. I can't really complain, I think we've got a really loyal base still left, and I don't know if that would have happened if we were just on some label that would have dropped us after three records and we stopped selling that much. We might not still be doing it if we weren't in the Christian market, to be honest. I had no intention in '94 that we'd be putting out a record in 2016, so that's pretty awesome.

Spirit You All: When [label head] Brandon Ebel signed you back in 1993, was the fact that Tooth & Nail was a Christian label pivotal, or only incidental to you?

JM: Oh, it was incidental. I think he was the first guy who heard our demo, and he wanted to put it out. I'm a pretty simple guy, so that sounded good to me, and that was it.

Spirit You All: Will you ever release music with your side project Bon Voyage [with wife Julie Martin] again? Presumably you still see your main bandmate fairly often.

JM: Yes, I see her very often. [laughs] I doubt it. I mean, we've got three kids. Heck, I barely have enough time to get Starflyer out, you know, I'm kind of a weekend warrior these days. So most likely I would say no.

Spirit You All: At the beginning, Starflyer's lyrics were opaque and rather loose - they weren't an afterthought, but they weren't quite in the spotlight. But there's been an evolution in your songwriting, and beginning somewhere around Dial M, your lyrics have acquired a narrative element, as well as becoming more conceptually dense. How do you explain that shift, and has it been intentional?

JM: I don't know how to explain that shift. It wasn't intentional. I think it's just getting a little bit older, perspective on stuff changes a little bit, and just writing songs for 20 years.. I didn't really know they did change, but I can see how that makes sense.

Spirit You All: The second disc of 2000's Easy Come Easy Go box set collected live snippets, leftovers, and rarities. Have you considered a similar release to collect some of those post-2000 rarities? 

JM: I don't know, to be honest we haven't played enough. I mean, we stopped playing live shows officially - man, I think it's been almost ten years now, so there really wouldn't be a lot to grab from. And even the touring after that - I think after maybe '04, we didn't really tour that much, so I don't have audio of a lot of that stuff. Back in the earlier days, there was always someone sending us mixes off the board, it was before everybody had the phones and all that stuff, so there's a lot of access to that kind of material I just don't have right now anyways.

Spirit You All: You're working on an album now with David Bazan, TW Walsh, and Trey Many. Is there a name for that project? What is it going to sound like?

JM: As of right now, I think we're calling it "Lo-Tom". We have eight songs done, and hopefully it'll be out maybe the end of this year or maybe early next year.

It's just really stripped-down, you know, it's just rock-n-roll tunes. We're tracking it live, which is something I usually don't do - there's not really any overdubs. So I'm the guitar in the left speaker, TW Walsh is the guitar in the right speaker, there'll be drums, and Dave is singing and playing bass. Just stripped-down tunes, I think they're good songs, so we'll see what people think of it when it comes out.

Spirit You All: You've been saying for a while that you think you suspect every recent album will be your last, but then you get inspired and find yourself making another record. SLOW is a heavily nostalgic album, but on the last song you ask "Was it really better back then/Were there really less problems/Or was it really that because then you weren't so numb". Is music a way for you to keep those "nerve endings" awake that might otherwise be going to sleep?

JM: That sounds about right. It's just kind of an escape, and it's kind of the last vestige of what I liked doing as a kid - or 18, 20, whatever you want to call that. Every time I say I'm not gonna make a record because I'm working or doing 43-year-old dad stuff, or you-name-it I just like the idea of being in a room and playing guitar and putting chords together... and so every time I say I'm not gonna do it, I'll write a couple licks and go, "Oh, this is pretty cool. Maybe if I do the drums like this it'll sound like this." It's just this fake quest to get something, it's just basically something to do - you've gotta fill your time. Some guys like building tables, I like making records. It's the same idea.

SLOW is out June 17 on Tooth & Nail.

Indie worship outfit Rivers & Robots on their new album The Eternal Son

from left: Nathan Stirling, Kelani Koyejo, Jonathan Ogden, and David Hailes

from left: Nathan Stirling, Kelani Koyejo, Jonathan Ogden, and David Hailes

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.

Page CXVI's Latifah Phillips on her new solo record as Moda Spira

The last decade has seen a minor renaissance in Christian sacred music, with countless artists and bands rediscovering the rich heritage found within common church hymnals (and beyond). At the forefront of this recent hymn-revival movement has been a Colorado trio composed of Latifah Phillips, Reid Phillips, and Dann Stockton, whose indie rock outfit The Autumn Film spawned an alter ego called Page CXVI to perform and release their hymnal-plumbing worship music.

Now, on top of those two bands and producing for other artists, Latifah is launching a new project called Moda Spira with a self-titled debut which mashes up genres ranging from epic, string-laden dirges to throwback R&B, to effervescent pop. Spirit You All spoke to her via Skype about her hero Imogen Heap, as well as Lord Byron and Lord of the Rings:

Spirit You All: Your first release as Moda Spira was a cover of The National's "Terrible Love" that was featured in a Lifetime movie. How did that come about? Did the producers approach you to cover the song initially, or were you already sitting on the recorded track (or maybe somewhere in between)?

LP: I was actually approached by the director/writer of the movie, and she was actually using some Autumn Film music in the movie already and they had actually asked to use Birdy's version. But for some reason it didn't work for them to use hers, and then she approached me about covering it, because she liked my voice from Autumn Film, and so I did it. But what was crazy is that The National had to approve it. Which is really scary. So when the director asked me to do it, I just sent her a voice memo, me on the piano real fast throwing it down and she said, "Yes! Let's do it" and then she was like "Okay, the only way it will work is if The National listens to it." And so I had to do the whole song and I paid a friend of mine to mix it and I was all in with the gamble of if they say yes or no. And it took them a long time because I think they were on tour in Australia, and they were just really busy, and my guess is their manager didn't even give it to them until it was a good time or something. So we were finished and we were waiting for almost three weeks and it was right before the film was supposed to go out. And then they said yes and it was like "yay!", and they used it. 

It wasn't even supposed to be my first release as Moda Spira, but I knew that I was working on the record, and I wanted to do that project, and I didn't want to do something under Latifah Phillips, because that would be even more names and I already have so many band names. And it didn't make sense for Page or Autumn Film, so I thought, "I'll just put it under Moda Spira and that is that". So it was kind of haphazard, but incredible!

Spirit You All: Are you a big National fan?

LP: I wouldn't say big... you know, I am a National fan, but the only reason I don't say "big" is because I don't know all of their records, and I feel like to say "big" I have to be able to tell you every song from every record that I love. I have two of their records and I love them. The reason I know about The National is because of Dave from A Boy & His Kite - we worked together on Page CXVI and a bunch of other stuff, and he is like a mega National fan.

Spirit You All: The record is a musical grab bag - I hear vocoder vocals reminiscent of Imogen Heap (on the second single "In the Fight"), anthemic Top 40 pop ("Shaking the Walls", "We Belong"), and modern R&B (the closer, "Thread the Needle"). There are even some Motown-inflected vocal moments (the outro of "What You Need"). Was there a guiding aesthetic you wanted to inform Moda Spira at the outset, or did that emerge more during the writing and recording process? 

LP: It kind of evolved... I will say this fast, since it's important to me: I am a huge Imogen Heap fan - mega. Like, obsessed with her. So when she did Speak For Yourself - that was kind of her big breakaway from Frou Frou - I loved that she mixed it herself, and she did it herself and she, you know, produced it herself. So that's when I thought (that was about eight years ago at this point), I have to teach myself Logic, I have to learn. I was already producing, but I wanted to do more, I wanted to engineer. So, huge shout-out to Imogen...

The voices on "In the Fight", actually, they're not vocoded. I sang all of them, and...

Spirit You All: Really?

LP: Yes! And I really wanted to do that, and I was obviously inspired by "Hide and Seek" - which is vocoded, Imogen does it beautifully - but I wanted to in a sense appropriate that skill and change it a little so I could make it mine. So I literally sang all of those vocals and edited them all, I massaged them all to have a certain feel. Some of them feel a little electronic or robotic because I'm singing them in that way. The lead is a clean lead and then there's like all these layers and I sang the low ends, I sang the high ones. My friend Jason who produced [The Autumn Film album] Ship and the Sea was texting me just a few weeks ago and didn't believe me. He was like, "Well, how'd you get them all so tight?" and I was like, "I just sang it that way!" [laughs] So I went, "Next time you're in town we can open up the session and I'll show you!"

So as far as the musical genre-bending on the record - I love how you identified them all... You know, I was with Jordan, and we were doing "Bet on Me", and that's super R&B - I think it's the fifth track - and Jordan stopped me and was like, "Um, I just want to make sure that you're aware that this song is really R&B and you're not going to wake up tomorrow and freak out that 'this is not the direction of the record! What are you doing?'" And, you know, I told her that this record is about guilty pleasure sounds with really earnest content and I wanted to give nods to all the things that I love and reappropriate them in a way that made sense for me. So I listen to Motown, I listen to 90s R&B all the time, I listen to neo-soul, I listen to, obviously, indie pop, I listen to indie cinematic rock, I listen to classical music, I listen to jazz, I listen to Brazilian jazz... I love all that stuff, you know? It's funny, sometimes I get worried, will people think the record's too all over the place, but it kind of makes sense to me, it has a fluidity that I'm really proud of. And I think for the next Moda Spira record, I'm going to push deeper into the R&B vibe. We'll see. But I feel like I have to take some jazz piano lessons before I commit to that. [laughs]

Spirit You All: After co-producing The Autumn Film and Page CXVI's albums with Dave Wilton (of Loud Harp and A Boy & His Kite) for the last 10 years, how was collaborating with (Nashville producer) Jordan Brooke Hamlin on Moda Spira a different experience? How did you two get connected, and what unique qualities did she bring to the project? 

LP: Jordan has toured with an artist named Katie Herzig for a number of years, as her kind of multi-instrumentalist. And she produced the latest Indigo Girls record... but I had heard about Jordan through Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken because Page did some touring with Derek, and I did that electronica record with him called Sola-Mi. They'd been singing Jordan's praises to me for a while, and then when Katie came to town, she said to me, "Oh, you should come down to the green room after the show and hang". So I went down and Jordan was there, and I in the back of my mind already knew that I really wanted to work with her. But I was just like, I should see if I really like her, I should see if she likes me, and so we poured some whiskey and talked for five hours. [laughs] And by the end of the day we were putting her on the calendar to work with me for a day to see if we like working together. So she was in town two months later, and we worked on "We Belong", and it went really well and I kind of fell in love with her work style. And she's awesome because she's just an amazing, amazing guitar player. And then she plays french horn, trumpet, clarinet, bass clarinet, and she plays accordion, and she's really good. And like me, she also builds beats. And I've never gotten to work with another female before! So that was just a blast.

Spirit You All: Can you talk about the inspiration for the name Moda Spira? I read that it was partially related to asthma you had as a little girl.

LP: Yeah, so when I knew I wanted to have another project, I got some advice from friends who have their name, their personal name, as their artist name, and they both were like, "Don't do that!" And so I knew I wanted a different name, and I wanted the name to be meaningful, and I found that moda spira, in Latin, means the mode of or the continual act of breathing - inspiration. So I was talking with my husband about it, thinking about the name, and thinking that it's really rad that as a child - you know, I was a really sick kid, and I was on a breathing machine at night because I just had such horrible asthma (and I had asthma up until I was about 17, which was much more manageable than when I was a little girl). I think it has to do with the idea that I used to have really weak lungs, and now I have really strong lungs. And, you know, the story of something getting redeemed, I love stories like that... Ultimately, I believe that peace and shalom will come to the earth at some point and it will redeem all things, and so I like the idea of that being my artist name.

Spirit You All: Your last Autumn Film release was four years ago, and Page CXVI's mission to give fresh exposure to classic hymns naturally involves a high level of reinterpretation. Without the "scaffolding" of preexisting music/lyrics or even the clear purpose of devotional music, was it strange or unfamiliar to return to original songwriting?

LP: [sighs] No, it was really life-giving. I really missed it. I mean, I love what I do with Page, and I actually have another Page project on slate for later this summer, early fall, and I'm excited to get back to that. But it's just exercising different muscles, different parts of your brain, and they develop different areas of your artistry, and I want to have balanced muscles, so, you know, it just felt really good, man. And it felt really good to just be able to write something out of my personal experience and not having to temper it with the fact that this could potentially be used in an environment that involves many people and many ideas. And it was really fun to be able to make whatever kind of sounds I want and not think about, is this going to be something easy for people to sing, you know? I could just sing whatever I wanted.

Spirit You All: Speaking on the theme of the album, you say it's about "what it truly means to be in relationship to somebody else", and how despite our best intentions for our loved ones, "what people really need is love, patience, and space... if you suffocate that space, it does the opposite of what you hope for." Your husband Reid is an integral member of both The Autumn Film and Page CXVI, but he's absent from the credits on Moda Spira. Is that part of the "space" you're talking about, or maybe just another effort to step outside of your comfort zone, like the change of producers?

LP: [laughs]  It's so funny, I never even connected that... But Moda Spira, for me, it's my love letter to Reid. You know? And so I didn't want him to be on it! [laughs] It's like making something for somebody and then being like, hey, can you help me make it for you? So that wasn't an emotional decision. I just wanted to make something by myself - you know, I didn't even bring Jordan in on the project til a year in. My goal was to make the whole thing totally by myself (like Imogen Heap because she's so cool) but then I realized I'm extroverted and so I got super lonely and I just needed people around and somebody else to care about it as much as me. 

Spirit You All: The 6-minute track "Remember Love" has some really epic sweep to it, and feels like the album's emotional centerpiece. Can you talk about the inspiration for it and how it came together musically?

LP: Absolutely. So, I wrote that piano progression, and I wrote that melody - I had it for a year before I had lyrics for it - and I loved it, it was so moody and so cinematic, like, I already knew what it was going to be in my mind when I wrote that first lick. I knew it was gonna be tons of strings, and, like, timpanis and the whole deal... But I liked it so much I needed to wait for the lyrical content to be just as meaningful to me, if that makes sense.

So I co-wrote about half the record with Jordan, and I had just finished - Reid and I watch the whole Lord of the Rings Extended Edition twice a year. It's, one of my most favorite stories ever told. And I love those movies, love the books, and I had just finished watching the series, and Jordan came the next day to do some work. I was telling her that I was listening to the score for those movies, which I also love, and feeling like the music for the song "Remember Love” (which didn’t have the title at the time) stirred those same kind of epic feelings. I told her that one of my favorite scenes is in the third movie where, basically, they march upon Sauron’s Gate and you see them surrounded by these men and, you know, Aragorn turns around and says, "For Frodo.” And we were like, “Ahhhhh!” But he gives that speech where he talks about how, “Today is not the day where we lay down our courage! We need to fight for what’s right, even if it means we are forging into imminent death!" I love that idea of courage. I think that we need courage in our life. I think that we need courage in marriage. I think we need courage in loving ourselves and loving our neighbor. Even if it doesn’t mean that we will get love back, that is still, in my opinion, our creed. We need to do those things. I just love that idea.

So then Jordan and I were talking about how do we transpose that idea into this song. We were Googling lyrics about despair, and lyrics about hope, poems, just to get inspired. I don’t know who found it first - it might have been Jordan, because she was an English major in college - but she found a poem by Lord Byron that’s called "Darkness". He basically writes - we read the whole thing, and it’s horribly depressing and sad... This is a real historic event in 1816, or something. A volcano erupted in Indonesia, and it blacked out the sun in Europe, so the sun didn’t shine for a year. Because they didn’t have, satellites and all the technology that we have, they thought that it was the apocalypse. The world’s ending. So he’s describing real events - men were just giving up on living, people started burning their homes for warmth. They had no hope that they were going to live.

So I wanted to juxtapose that kind of despair with the kind of courage that you see in Lord of the Rings. Then, in essence, lay that over the concept, the foundation of what that looks like in regards to loving someone deeply. Because I think that we have similar feelings in difference circumstances - despair, and hope… And do we move forward when things feel really dark and hopeless, or do we give up? You know, the record starts with "She Whispers", which is a song based out of fear. The idea of laying in bed, for me, at night and in the morning and having those dark thoughts and feeling like, “I’m just going to surrender to the darkness because it feels too hard.” So that was like our anthem. It’s like, “I’m not going to give up! We’re going to go for it!” 

Moda Spira is out May 13.