The members of Jars of Clay talk about the good and bad of making two million new friends.
by Frank Chimento
7 Ball Magazine
Issue number 23, pgs. 34-40
We’re in London, England. Aquarium Studios. Jars of Clay is working on final mixes for their sophomore record, due on shelves in September. Lead vocalist/frontman Dan Haseltine and I arrive at the studio just as the band is breaking for lunch. While the staff at the studio prepares steak and omelettes, someone pops This Is Spinal Tap into the VCR-a favorite movie of most bands because of its sharp satire of the music industry. Dan, however, has his mind on something else: He’s just had a phone conversation with their management company, which still expects the new record to be a "modern rock" record.
"They keep asking if it’s like the Smashing Pumpkins or something," he tells the others, "So, I told them again, ‘NO! It is an alternative pop record,’ in the same vein as Sting or Seal or Sarah McLaughlin."
"It’s still very, very acoustic based," lead guitarist Stephen Mason tells me. "Dan is singing incredibly well these days; there will be a difference there, just because he started singing when we first recorded our first song. He’s had a lot more experience under his belt, as the rest of us have, so hopefully, there’s a noticeable musical maturity."
Knowing that the record company is nervous about the name of the new record, I ask Dan if it’s still going to be called Much Afraid. "Yes," he says emphatically. "The record label doesn’t like it. They’re afraid it’s too dark or something and they might have trouble marketing it, but that’s what we want."
It makes sense that everyone involved would be feeling the pressure about now. In some ways, their past two years have been a blur of Cinderella success. Since 7ball featured them in our very first issue and we picked them to play on our stage at Cornerstone ’95, the Jars of Clay phenomenon has found them opening for the likes of Michael W. Smith and Sting, playing both mainstream and Christian festivals, as well as on several major TV programs and recording one song each for two big-deal Hollywood blockbusters and a jingle or two for Coca-Cola.
What amazes me is how humble they remain: The members of Jars of Clay are as down-to-earth as ever. They work very hard to maintain ties with family and friends, and they go to great lengths to stay in touch with their fans. They don’t want any of this to go to their heads.
Still, they keep a pretty hectic schedule, which might explain why, although we all live in the same city-Music City, USA-I had to sweat through getting a passport, and flying several time zones across the ocean (in the largest plane I’ve ever seen) just to catch up with them.
After lunch, we discover that producer Steve Lipson and engineer Heff Moraes were busy putting the final touches on "Overjoyed." As we listen, I’m noticing how fantastic Dan’s vocals sound when guitarist Matt Odmark jokes, "More mojo on the vocals, please!" The rest of the guys laugh (must be some sort of inside joke).
The producer has worked with the likes of Annie Lennox, Sophie B. Hawkins, Simple Minds and even Cher. In a thick British accent Lipson tells me, "I produce a lot of solo artists and I haven’t worked with a band since Simple Minds. But, when I heard these demos, I flipped my lid. This is incredible music."
When I compliment Dan on how well he sounds, he seems humbled by the comment, and breathes easier (as if his body language was screaming, Thank you and you have no idea how hard I’ve worked at singing better). I also noticed how good the harmonies sounded. Based on this song, Dan is right, it does remind me of Sting, but not in a rip-off sort of way. Just the style, mood, and the quality of the sound. "We’re all real excited about the record," Dan says. "We’re in this place of not knowing how people are going to react to it. We’re at a real apprehensive point."
The rest of the band also owns up to worrying about how the album will be received, both critically and commercially. "However many we sell," says Stephen, "we feel like we’ve made the best follow-up we could have dreamed of. Just the opportunity to do another album and record with a great producer has been worth it."
Matt however, is more specific in his concerns. "You can’t really say that if we released the record tomorrow and it sold 100 copies and that was it, we wouldn’t be disappointed. I really hope people like it as much as, if not more than, the last record. It’s the record we wanted to make. In that sense, I think we feel a bit successful already." To which keyboardist Charlie Lowell adds, with a grin, "And I’d like to sell at least 6, 7, 8 million records. I think I would be overjoyed if we did that."
Given the expectations, I ask the band I they’re confident in the material, and what some of their favorite tracks are. "I’m at a loss to name any one song," Matt says. "I really like ‘Much Afraid,’ ‘Portrait Of An Apology,’ and ‘Frail.’ But it’s been exciting to put together a record where I really believe in all 12 of the songs." Stephen feels that at least one of the tracks, "Overjoyed," took on a life of its own, before it was even finished. "There’s something about the song that almost feels like we didn’t write it. Like we’ve watched it and recorded it, and watched it come into being. A producer made the comment when we were close to being finished with that song that, if he could write a song, that was the kind of song he would want to write. Which was an honor." Charlie picks two tracks which Jars have been working with for some time: "’Fade To Grey’ was the first song we ever wrote as a band and it appeared on our demo. We did it several times in the studio for this record until we were happy with it. And ‘The Wish,’ originally called ‘Five Candles,’ which was written for the movie Liar, Liar, and didn’t make it in the movie." Dan says the band struggled with balancing topics it wanted to cover and commercial expectations. "There are elements we could have done better at sealing ourselves off from the commercial side of it. But we feel like this album far exceeds the first in the spiritual content and the issues it deals with," he says.
Many fans will note that the album title, Much Afraid, is the name of one of the main characters in Hannah Hurnard’s classic book, Hind’s Feet On High Places. Dan confirms that novel was, in fact, the inspiration for much of the album. "Her book is an allegory of the journey from fear to faith," Dan explains. "Of moving from a place where we’re motivated by our fears to being motivated by God’s love for us. In the past year, that’s a place where most of us have been." Stephen says the album encourages listeners to confront those things of which they’re most unsure. "Hopefully we show how the Gospel can be relevant in those places as well. We pray there’s an underlying message of hope throughout the record that can also be caught and understood by non-Christians."
Apparently there was something about the song "Flood" to which hundreds of thousands of radio listeners and music viewers related, because it received a ton of airplay this past year, in both formats. So, how will Jars create an album that must be embraced by Christians to be accepted, but must be relevant to non-believers to be a commercial success? Charlie says the band shoots for both: On the one hand, they want to create art that they would want to listen to; on the other, they want it to reflect how the Gospel has affected them. "It doesn’t make much sense to talk about one without the other," he says.
Stephen chimes in agreement. "All things for the glory of God, artistically and spiritually. I think that we have been called to do both. We are a Christian band in that the songs we write are influenced directly by our Christian beliefs. The tough thing is getting past the perception that a lot of people have of Christian music. We want to push the envelope, but we are in no way embarrassed by our Christianity."
Charlie continues, "To be real specific, ‘Overjoyed,’ ‘Much Afraid’ and a hymn we wrote, called ‘Him,’ are pretty much explicit songs speaking about relationships with Christ that I don’t think could be misunderstood for a human relationship. Then there are songs about the different things we struggle with day in and day out."
"And then there are other songs, too," Matt adds, "which deal very specifically with relationships and do not address themselves to God or to Christ. ‘Crazy Times’ is similar to ‘Flood,’ in that it talks of our basic need as humans. I think that’s a song that can invite a non-Christian to really consider Christianity as a place to come as is." It’s also similar to "Flood" in that it’s a song that stands out and rocks.
Over the past two years, Jars of Clay has had opportunities that few Christian artists have had, to take its music before thousands, sometimes millions, of non-believers. How does the band feel it has responded to that challenge? "We understand our call to be witnesses of Christ through our actions, through our concerts, through our interactions with people, just through life in general," Matt says. "In our concerts we try really hard to let the music speak, but hopefully in a way that’s clear. We do understand at the same time that ultimately winning souls is the Lord’s job. And we understand our responsibility on stage, as anywhere else, is to be witnesses of who we understand Christ to be and what He’s done and hopefully to live in a way that reflects that."
"Thank the Lord, He uses us in different ways to reach different kinds of people," Charlie continues. "We really feel confident that this is the way, at least for right now, that the Lord has chosen to use us. We pray that we will be obedient in our actions and in our art and to the ways He wants to use us."
Stephen adds that, "People come up to us at shows and share that, you know, because our record’s on such and such a station, they’ve been able to say, Hey, have you heard that song by Jars of Clay? It’s been awesome to see how kids have been able to use that to minister to their friends who don’t know the Lord."
The virtual overnight success Jars of Clay experienced came with its share of pressures, both in how the band related to each other and its peers. Charlie says there were times their accomplishments made them feel a little guilty.
"When we see bands that have been around for years like King’s X, who we really look up to, and they don’t really have a lot to show for their hard work, there is a tendency to feel kind of weird and a little bit guilty.
But then again, we can’t really take credit for anything that has happened in the last couple of years. We definitely attribute it to the grace of God. We can be grateful we haven’t had eight years of playing in bars."
Dan says another surprise result of Jars’ success was "thinking you’re more than a normal person. I started to distrust people. I stopped being able to relate to people because I thought they wanted something from me," he recalls. "You become real distant, and then it filters down into even those friendships you have that are real. It took me a while to handle that aspect of that fame. Even now I still struggle with it."
The band grew so big so quickly, it robbed them of the chance to grow before they were famous. Stephen says that put a serous strain on their relationships. "Being put out on the road forced us to get to know each other better than I think we really would have cared to. It’s no mystery the deeper that you go into a relationship, the more dirt comes to the surface. We had some unpleasant times, but through that, well, it was one of the first times that I experienced true grace and a friendship that went beyond hanging together. It called me into accountability. God was faithful to strip us of our pride. We’re thankful, because we are that much tighter as a result, and more in tune to how each of us feels."
Even as Jars became better friends, the band faced criticism that it frankly wasn’t a very good live unit. The group feels that criticism has become less and less valid over the past sveral months. "You can only learn that by playing," Matt says. "We just didn’t have the luxury of years of playing in front of small audiences and really learning how to perform. That’s one of the trade-offs for not paying your dues, I suppose. So I think we’ve learned a little bit more of what that is about. Hopefully, it has translated into us becoming a better band."
Dan says none of them were prepared for the demands of touring. "None of us had that experience before. It was my first attempt to be a front man," he says, laughing. "There was a lot of pressure to be natural on stage when I’d never had that position before.
"A lot of it is just getting comfortable on stage," he continues. "We can joke a little bit more and have fun, rather than being so concerned about what we look like. You can just enjoy the time you have there and just have fun with it. I’ve learned to have fun and not take it too seriously."
As much as the guys from Jars of Clay would like having fun to remain in the foreground, the criticisms do hurt and the pressure to top their previous success is very real. That success, Matt concedes, has often made Jars an easy target. "If some people felt like our first record was a joke, it’s hard not to take that personally," he admits. "Part of me would like to say, 1.8 million records, a few people must have liked it, people who didn’t think it was just one good song and a bunch of crappy ones. I believe, for what we set out to do and what we had to work with and who we were, we made a pretty good first record. It’s definitely true that the bigger you get, the more people feel like they have a right to voice their opinion on what you do and be as harsh as they want to about it."
"We cling to the promise that we are just one small part of the body of Christ," Matt continues. "We’re not the saviors of Christian music or the youth or Generation X or anything like that. We’re very aware there are people who won’t like our music. And that’s OK. But we would appreciate it if you give us your prayers nonetheless, as much as we feel called to lift up our brothers and sisters who reach people we’re not going to be able to reach. There are people who the Lord has given us the opportunity to reach that other people won’t reach either. It would be a really neat thing to see fewer lines drawn in general in the church, whether it’s musical lines, lifestyle lines, denomination lines, whatever. It would be a really cool thing if we could learn a little better what it means to be a little less judgmental."
Apparently, after several high pressure days of working side by side on this much anticipated project, the men of Jars of Clay have begun to have an effect on their engineer, Heff Moraes.
"I don’t really care about religion or Christianity very much," admits Moraes. "I don’t have any time for it. But Steve [Lipson] and I have worked with a lot of artists -most of which I haven’t achieved the level of success these guys have- who come in here and use drugs and they’re cocky and rude. These guys are different. They are a pleasure to work with. They say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and they’re not full of themselves. If Christianity gives people the desire to behave like these guys do, then it’s probably worth checking into."
Comments like these make all the difference to Jars of Clay. When I mention to them what the engineer said, they are utterly shocked. They are so happy, they immediately tell me the difficulties they have had with these two guys over the months of recording. "We just gave up about talking about God with them," Dan says. "They were very harsh and we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. You have no idea how happy it makes us to hear that, while our words did very little, our actions left an impression. I think that’s what we’re about as a band, just building relationships and trying to love people."
Additional material was contributed by Chris Well and Bruce A. Brown.