A Conversation with Bill Mallonee
Surely you’re familiar with the tale of some unrefined hillbilly purchasing a cheap plot of land, oblivious to the fortune in crude oil sloshing about just beneath the surface. Of course you are. Well, my Jed Clampett moment occurred toward the end of my Junior year of high school when I borrowed a Best Of 1995 compilation CD from a buddy of mine. I happened to be up late doing Algebra homework and figured I’d throw in the borrowed compilation, see if there was anything on it worth listening to while I struggled to chase down this or that x-coordinate. Well, the first few tracks proved mediocre and I skipped each one after the first 15-20 seconds. But then I arrived on a track called Skin, driven initially by a pattern of rhythmic acoustic picking, followed soon after by the pleading sincerity of Bill Mallonee’s vocals. And I was like a fish that, instead of biting the lure and getting hooked unfortunately through the cheek, swallows everything down whole in a single gulp.
Instead of skipping to the next track, I pressed the ‘Repeat 1’ function and promptly fell head-over-heels. The song, Skin, using Vincent Van Gogh’s life as a metaphor, examines true artistic expression, a person with a pen or a paint brush offering nothing short of his very soul to the world, opening a vein, and then bracing himself for the eventual backlash. Bill Mallonee has spent well over a decade doing precisely that, again and again, with each new album. And there have been a lot of albums over the years, 15 or so, each one of them struggling bravely with issues of faith and doubt and fragile humanity.
These were just a few of the issues I looked forward to discussing with Mallonee during a recent phone interview I conducted for The Other Journal.
J: Hey, Bill.
B: Hey, Jason. What’s up, my friend? So where are you living now?
J: I’m still here in Gainesville, been out of school for a little over a year now. I guess you could say I’m currently looking toward the next step.
B: Wow, that’s a big deal, isn’t it? I remember those years. I got out of Georgia—I guess I was 21—and I was engaged at the time. It was strange, I mean, it was such a God thing because I really do believe that had this woman and I gotten married we would’ve been divorced in 4 or 5 years.
J: So this was wasn’t Brenda?
B: No, this wasn’t Brenda, this is another girl. We weren’t living together but we had been boyfriend and girlfriend for a good long time, probably a year and a half. We started making these plans and whatnot, the long range fuzzy plans of going to seminary.
J: Oh, really?
B: Yeah, which is kind of where I was at 3 years later when I met Brenda but none of that ever came to pass. I just got finished playing an InterVarsity conference around Christmastime. Here are people who are postgraduate, doctorate, and even professors. There were about 900 kids at that conference there in Atlanta. And it really struck me that my life could’ve easily taken that sort of hyper-academic approach to Christianity. And I really loved it. There was a time when I couldn’t see myself doing much of anything else. But I’m so glad things have worked out the way they have.
My hands, I think, have gotten dirtier than just sitting in a library for the rest of my life and giving a paper once in a while. And that’s not to eschew it or anything like that, just to simply say that I couldn’t see myself doing that. What kept me out of it was—at that time, this was in the late 70s, early 80s—I just didn’t want to go to seminary and come out with a $15,000-20,000 education debt.
It sort of seemed to me that if people were already doing the ministry thing before going to seminary, if they were going to do it then they were probably already doing it in some shape or form. Instead of just spending another 3 or 4 years thinking about doing it. Does that make sense?
J: Yeah, the money question is weighing heavily into my own decisions about pursuing a post-graduate degree. Is this degree worth the years that I’m going to be slaving away trying to pay it off?
B: I think the seminary thing, for me, had gotten to the place where I was trying to figure out how much of it was just me wanting to read academic books about Christianity versus what was I really going to do with this, and how was I going to make some kind of contribution. And I don’t think I’d really sorted that out in my brain, the contribution part. I think I had these fuzzy ideas about doing inner-city ministry because I’d worked with Boys Clubs of America, stuff like that. And I just wasn’t able to do it. After I met Brenda, it was kind of funny because in the span of about 6 months we were given the chance to be house parents for a halfway house for runaway girls.
We did it for about 6 or 7 months and, I’ll tell you, I just burned out on it. It was amazing because we were still newlyweds—well, we still feel like newlyweds and we’re coming up on 22 in May—but at that point our lives were pretty much open, exposed 6 out of 7 days a week. And I just couldn’t do it. It was just 24/7. I think God was sort of giving me a foretaste: ‘OK, you want to do inner-city ministry? Well, here’s a foretaste of it without having to go to seminary and do the internship, and I’m saving you lots of money. You get your feet wet this way and see what you think about it.’ And he showed me that I literally just did not have what it took to jump into that.
J: How does that type of exertion differ from being on the road 364 days a year, onstage every night?
B: Well, I think that’s a good question. For me it probably falls on two categories. One, I wasn’t playing music then at all. I wasn’t even remotely connected to music so I hadn’t tapped into that whole thing that I think really was me, that gift or expression that needed to come out. I hadn’t really tapped into that so I guess I was trying to figure out exactly where my heart would fall. But I think God was clearly showing me that probably, as much as I would like to have thought that I was the compassionate never-ending reservoir of love and goodwill, it hit a block about 4 or 5 months into it. It was funny because I started to go hang out downtown in Athens and just have coffee, you know, get away from the house for an hour here and there. And that’s how I ended up meeting the guy that asked me to play drums in kind of a punk rock band in Athens. This is back in 1982. So I bought this nasty set of drums and started playing drums again, and that evolved into learning guitar and stuff like that. But it was trying to escape the halfway house for runaway girls where I was a house parent that led me into the music thing. That’s when the light went off and I thought, ‘You know what, I can do this.’
J: That’s great. Now that band wasn’t the Cone Ponies, was it?
B: No, this is even before that. There was a band called Matching Fibers that mutated into a band called Shelf Life. It really did sound a lot like that band Morphine that’s been around for years, and I think their bass player or somebody died a couple years ago in Italy. But it was a really kind of a dark, moody thing. It was definitely a rock band but sort of a minimalist kind of approach. We had a sax player. When Morphine first showed up on the map maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I thought, ‘Man, that’s amazing’ because back then in 1983 and ’84 we were making music like that. It was really doomy-sounding, just with this little bit of lounge jazz overlay in it. It was really weird. That’s kind of what got me back into the music. But the road thing, that’s a good question, because this is the first year that I’ve really thought, just doing the solo thing, that it really has been hard not having the band as community.
This probably doesn’t get written about as much but the Vigilantes, whoever was in it, had always been picked because they were brothers. We were sort of sharing this experience. You know, without hyper-spiritualizing it, it did have an element to it of brothers going out and doing something. And I’m falling shy of the word ‘ministry’ but I think it had that element to it. We felt somewhat subversive and we knew that the band was never going to have a superstructure around it that was going to get us in the right papers. It was always word-of-mouth-driven so it kind of became a ‘critic’s darling band that couldn’t sell records’. And it’s always the second part of that statement, that ‘can’t sell records’ part, that’s just a loaded gun at your temple. At some point it’s going to go off and that’s what happened a year and a half ago, in December of 2001, it was just time to call it quits.
J: Was there any one thing that finally pulled the trigger?
B: Yeah, I think when the record, when Summershine came out on Compass, the clear indication from those guys was that they weren’t going to do anything for the record because they didn’t understand it. It wasn’t a country rock record. It wasn’t even remotely an alt-country record in any shape, form, or fashion. And they just didn’t know what to do with it. They had their own distributor, which was Cox Records at the time, just weeing all over themselves about it. And even their radio guy who worked in-house at Compass Records said that he thought it was the coolest thing they had ever released and had lots of radio potential. Because the record was full of singles, you know, initially I think they were thinking about releasing She is Fading and we were pushing for Putting Out Fires With Gasoline, which clocked in at about 2 minutes. I mean, what’s not to like about that when you’re competing for air space? And nobody knew what to do with it. So when we went to England—the towers were already on the ground, 9/11 had already happened—they pulled the plug on the record.
They sent us to England and we had been told that the record was over there and that they were going to push it and that they had failed to hire a press person. The press person and the radio person, because England is such a small island, usually you’ll have one person to do both. Because radio’s not that pervasive over there; there aren’t that many radio stations. But they had failed to re-hire the woman that had been doing that so we had absolutely no cover. So I’m taking the band to England on the eve of [Summershine’s] release, thinking they’re going to get all this sort of fanfare, and it was just nonexistent. And I think that was the first installment and then by the end of that very tour we were robbed in Scotland, had about $3,000 worth of gear stolen. And I had to credit card about $1,500 of that just to keep the band on the road. And that was the end of it. We just knew that there was no support from the label. And I would not say that normally. I think a lot of people think I have this axe to grind with record labels. I really don’t, but in this case I think those guys were negligent to a fault in terms of taking care of us.
J: Now didn’t somebody hold up Drew or Jake with a hypodermic needle?
B: Somebody came up to Drew in Dublin—it had been like 3 days before—and basically two guys shouldered him on the street, put a sharp object in his back, and told him it was a hypodermic needle full of contaminated blood, that they were going to inject him unless he threw his bag and his wallet on the ground. You know, Drew never saw a hypodermic needle—it could’ve been a ballpoint pen—but you don’t mess around with that sort of stuff. He lost a whole bunch of money there and I think everybody was just thinking, ‘Man, what is going on here?’
J: How many times do you have to get kicked while you’re on the ground?
B: Yeah, but that was the end of the band. We got back in December, we sat in this kitchen and looked at each other and thought, ‘Let’s meet back here in January but I don’t think we’re going to find a reason to get back in that van and kill ourselves anymore.’ And, sure enough, when we came back about three weeks later after Christmas, I think we all sort of thought, ‘There’s just no real reason to keep this thing up with no support around it.’ Our management was failing and the label certainly didn’t seem to be tenderhearted toward any of our problems. The guy at Compass Records told me to run along and go build a following with my acoustic guitar. I thought, ‘You know, we just sold like 22,000 records on Audible Sigh and most of that was done without your help. And we have a fan base out there. We asked you to go capitalize on it with this next record, which you showed either you were woefully inept at doing or downright decided not to do it.’ It felt like an insult.
I called our manager at the time, this guy Tim White, and I just said, ‘Get us off that label, just get us off there as fast as possible.’ And it took 6 months of peeing and moaning about it. I actually used the [Internet Discussion List] as sort of a forum, which for some reason the label hated because, you know, word gets around. And it was sort of stooping to the bad-mouthing, he-said/she-said sort of thing, but I don’t regret it. My experience in this whole thing is that musicians, especially where we’re at, don’t really have a whole lot of court of appeals. On most days, though, I’m just really glad to have the gig. The touring has become, like I suggested a little while ago, a bit harder to keep going with just one or two people, when I really do miss the bigger thing. But I think in the last year and a half I’ve kind of learned how to play that solo thing, just stand up in a room full of people and deliver, and that’s been a good thing for me.
J: Does it feel like a return to the early days?
B: It feels like going back to the old Downstairs Café, and saying, ‘Well, you know, it always started with a guitar and some lyrics and a room full of people. And here we are again. Oh yeah, this does feel familiar, in a good way.’
J: On the new album Locket Full of Moonlight there seem to be a lot of songs about failed romance.
B: Yeah, there are probably 6 or 7 songs like that on there. I used that theme as kind of a springboard for the whole record.
J: Did you find yourself fleshing out a metaphor for the band breaking apart?
B: No, I guess in this day and age you’re sort of looking for something solid in the world. And I know from a faith standpoint the Lord is the same yesterday and forever—and you can go there and take great comfort in that—but I think in our lives we’ve always looked for the sacramental embodiment of that in space and time. Marriage has definitely been one of those things. And people would come up to shows and start talking about how they were friends with some couple who’d been married 20 or 25 years—and I’m not exaggerating the number of years—but the couple was calling it quits, they were bailing out, throwing in the towel. And it just started to read like a repeating chapter in a book after a while. So I started writing songs like ‘Table for Two’ as if it were a first-person sort of experience, and put myself in that and see what it would feel like.
I must admit that some of those songs felt like they were a little too close comfort, some days they were just hard to sing and think about even. They were painful to think about but I figured that’s what made a strong record. See, Brenda doesn’t like the record, she doesn’t like those themes on it. Some of that stuff kind of frightens her, I think.
J: I’ve heard similar stories about Kate Bazan struggling with Pedro the Lion’s new record Control, because of its themes of infidelity.
B: Yeah, I only read that one little blurb in Paste magazine, I think. Have you read other things about that?
J: I went to see Pedro in Orlando a little while back and someone screamed out a request for ‘Rapture’, but Dave declined. He mentioned that he’d been asked not to play that one, and it didn’t sound like it was the record company asking. Seemed like a similar deal, digging into those darker corners without unsettling everyone close to you.
B: I guess some bands, due to their level of success, can build in all kinds of precautions against things like infidelity. But I do think that sometimes if you’re standing on stage with a guitar, and you’re singing your heart out, you’re a target for some people. And it’s a weird place to be, I think, in music. I mean, I’ve been really fortunate over the years. We all sort of look out for each other but you’re definitely running in a different circle where people are hungry for connection. They’re hungry for some kind of affirmation, whether it’s a connection of soul, mind, or body. And I’m sure you and I both know of numerous people and musicians who have fallen prey to that sort of stuff, Christians and non-Christians alike. But those are the themes inside some of those songs that I was trying to put across. ‘Shellshocked’, I think, is one of the coolest songs I’ve ever written.
Somebody had suggested to me that the sound of that was sort of Dream Rock. I don’t know who it was that suggested that but somebody had listened to the record, songs like ‘Table for Two’ and ‘Shellshocked’ and ‘Dirty Job’, and he said it sounded like Dream Rock. I thought that’s a pretty cool term for that because it does have an edge in the lyrics but the music that surrounds it feels a little surreal almost.
B: Washy, exactly. Not quite washy like Pink Floyd because we don’t do the big guitar solo.
J: I don’t think you’ve written a 10-minute song yet. Or maybe you’ve written one but that was only because there were 15 verses in it.
B: That would be interesting in Locket Full of Moonlight, to have the 10-minute song in there somewhere. Like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
J: I don’t even know how long the drum solo was in that song, 30-minutes or something.
B: Yeah, thirty minutes of Rock Drumming 101.
J: Thirty minutes of drug-induced mania.
B: [laughter] I don’t know if Locket registered with a lot of our audience. I’d say it was a dark record, I even gave people a preliminary on it, but I haven’t really played much of it live because you have to put a band around it before you go out and do it. I think one of the things with the singer/songwriter thing is that you’re trading on intimacy factor. You can’t really pull that sort of distanced, whatever you want to call it, that slacker disconnected kind of ambience that a lot of singers do, they do the song and it’s almost like it’s a chore for them to do the song for their audience. I think it’s a joke after a while. I can kind of appreciate the approach but it’s like 10-years-old now so now it just seems like a studied movement when I see singers do that. And I go, ‘God, spare me, just either commit or get off the pot. Say what you’re going to say like it’s the last thing you were ever going to say or you don’t have anything to say. You’re just saying it through somebody else’s lips and you might as well just remove yourself.’
I realize we all have our heroes that we imitate but, you know what I’m talking about, that sort of disconnected slacker approach. I just don’t like to do that with the singer/songwriter approach. When I went out on this last run in particular, I was really trading on a very heart-on-the-sleeve intimacy factor, not a jovial kind of intimacy factor, but a risk-taking intimacy factor. Where people can say, ‘Good gracious, I can’t handle this, I’m out of here.’ I’d rather see that kind of response, or somebody really getting connected with it, than just sort of a lukewarm, like it’s wallpaper sort of music.
J: It feels like too many people are trying to bring Kurt Cobain back to life.
B: Yeah, or trade on his legacy. I heard something on 99X, which is our modern rock station in Atlanta, the other day and you could clearly tell that the kid’s voice was so studied after Nirvana’s records, the nuances. It’s like, ‘You’re not really singing your songs. You’re using Kurt Cobain’s voice to sing your second-rate lyrics on the fumes of a Seattle sound that’s 12-years-old now.’ For crying out-loud now, come on.
J: How long did it take you to find your own voice?
B: Well, I obviously found it through Dylan and Neil Young. You’re looking at character voices. I think what I do with it is really, really good, and I’m real comfortable with it. I don’t know that you’d go calling it a great voice. It’s not ever going to be a pure voice. If you can buy into the Neil Youngs and the Tom Pettys and the Dylans, and people like that, then you’ve got some appreciation. Or even—who’s that guy that sings for Sparklehorse that I think is pretty cool?—ah, Mark Linkous. There’s that kind of thing going on there. It makes it that much more real to me that you’ve got that personality going on. I think it’s funny. We were talking about that in the van, and I mentioned this to a couple people at shows, because it just seems like 70-80% of the crowd are mostly guys. The question was, ‘How come Vigilantes of Love don’t ever draw women?’ And my answer was that I think it’s because women don’t really like the voice. It sounds kind of whiny, it’s just not a pretty voice.
I’m always shocked and amazed whenever I get an e-mail from a woman who likes the band. I’m always thinking, ‘What are you hearing?’ Because most of the time it just seems to be a guy thing.
J: That’s interesting. I know I’ve heard stories of guys whose wives appreciated the heart of what you were doing but didn’t want it played in the car on long trips.
B: [laughter] Yeah, I hear that. I hear that a lot actually. That’s kind of funny. I’ll tell you a funny little sidebar story with Kevin from about four years ago. Kevin told me early on, ‘Yeah, I don’t know about joining up with Vigilantes of Love. You guys never have any girls that come to your concerts.’ [laughter] And I thought that was just hilarious. I didn’t really think about it too much, but I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s kind of like 30-something guys with computers, really, is what it is.’
J: Yeah, and they’re doing a real-time download while you’re playing the new song.
B: [laughter] That’s exactly right. But, anyway, that was part of the deal when Summershine came out on the block, we were sort of like, ‘Man, we need to find a new audience, not lose the one we’ve got, but we really would like to find a new audience.’ We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think it was bigger. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the posts on the list but I attended a small Presbyterian house church. I mean, I’ve been in the Catholic church for 5 years but in some ways never left it because I was a cradle catholic. I didn’t really examine the reasons why I left anyway. I had just ‘become a Christian’ in a semi-charismatic Bible study and thought, ‘Well, I’m not going back there, to the Catholic church.’ But anyway, for years I think Vigilantes was sort of perceived in a certain way. I used to joke and say, ‘You know, we’re not the reformed Presbyterian house band.’ It irritated the snot out of me that we could never get outside those boundaries. I really feel like the band should’ve always been showing up in the same paragraph as, like, Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado. I just don’t understand how we haven’t been in that court, that clique. But I really like that there’s sort of a cooler-than-thou, a hipper-than-thou vibe around those guys. But we can’t really get in that club and I don’t really want to be in it if that’s the reason. There’s no doubt that those guys have traded pretty heavily on that kind of hip factor.
J: How much of that is age? I mean, you’re not 25 anymore.
B: Yeah, but those guys aren’t 25 either. Those guys are older than that. And the funny thing is that the amount of time I’ve been playing guitar is about the same amount of time that those guys have been playing; it really is almost identical. And I know that Damien and David were both huge VoL fans. There really is just about a 10 or 11-year difference between us. It’s just not that much. As far as the music goes, it’s just not that big a deal. And the thing that’s sort of been an issue for me is trying to maintain that between-the-fences position. I mean, we’re not playing for the CCM crowd but 60-70% of our audience would probably call themselves evangelical Christians. The problem with all of that is there’s a tendency for them to lump us in with bands like The 77’s and The Choir, and that just makes me irate. You know what? And this is just my opinion, but I don’t think either one of those bands has been making visceral, organic music for a long, long time. And I don’t know that they ever made it consistently for a secular world either. But I just hate getting tossed into that kind of category because I think that with any band, after a length of time, all the older guys go into one category and all the younger up-and-coming guys go into another.
I remember having a conversation with the guy that booked us for a while who booked Pedro and booked some of Damien’s shows. I had been bucking to try and play a tour with Pedro and Damien but we just never could get in. He finally leveled with us and said it was because of what he perceived as ‘the hip factor’. So, you know, I was really irritated with that. I said, ‘Let me just say this about Athens, GA. There is no city on the planet that trades more heavily in that sort of hipper-than-thou mentality.’ See, we were kings of the mountain for about 6 seconds because that’s the way it works on the flavor-of-the-month club. I told the band, ‘You be ready for the backlash because when it happens it’s going to hurt. Because the whole thing is a complete illusion. You either make music and you don’t care for who your audience is or you don’t make music at all.’ And I really do believe that. I think you just make it and go out there and it finds its watermark, its waterlevel, so to speak.
But I really do think that those guys [Pedro and Damien], if they’re guilty of anything, they’re guilty of a kind of a cliqueishness in the way they’ve pulled it off. You know, it works to get you in Magnet magazine and that kind of stuff, but at some point it ends up just becoming smaller and smaller and smaller. There are reasons why bands that have been around—for me, it’s great hearing Guided By Voices still making records. Because I think they make really strong albums. And Rob Pollard—I mean, there’s a whole lot of drinking and basic old indie-rock college partying going on—but they make some great music. And he’s still making some great music. Stephen Malkmus with Pavement. You know, Pavement was always sort of a sketchy band for me. I liked maybe 30% or 40% of the songs on the record but I just never could buy the whole ticket. But his solo record a couple of years ago was just consistently excellent.
J: Speaking of solo projects, have you gotten a chance to hear David Eugene Edwards’ new disc?
B: I’ve heard some of the Woven Hand stuff, about a year ago, and I really liked it. I know he’s working with Dan, isn’t he, from the Danielson Famile? Dan Smith?
J: I believe so.
B: There’s no doubt some great stuff out there. I think part of the problem with Vigilantes is that we’ve not really had a press machine that’s running. It’s also indie, it’s been completely under the radar. Even indie bands have press agents. We haven’t really had anything since Audible Sigh. Compass didn’t do anything on Summershine so whenever Audible Sigh came out on Compass, which I think was maybe ’99, we had really been off the map for a long time. And before that we were off the map pretty much since Capricorn. It was all word of mouth. I mean, you might see it in a Christian magazine here and there or something, but we just weren’t soliciting those magazines and journalistic oracles. So I think part of it’s our own fault, but part of it too is that to employ a full time PR person or even somebody sparingly for 3 or 4 months while you’re doing a tour, we just couldn’t afford it. It was so low to the ground. There was just no way to pay somebody that $1000/month or $1500/month to get the press done in the right way. We’ve always been kind of dependent on people’s goodwill and word of mouth, and we’ve been the recipients of a great deal of that. No complaints, but at the same time—when I look through Magnet Magazine’s Top-20 and I see Control and I Break Chairs in there—I think Fetal Position or Locket Full of Moonlight could’ve registered had it been more than just an internet release with a word-of-mouth push. And I think Summershine could’ve easily been in there 2 years ago when it showed up. We’re still trying to rescue that record. My long-term goal is to buy that record back, give it a proper release, because it didn’t really have a birthday, the plug was still pulled on it after 9/11 and they refused to release it again. I’m trying to think of a record that came out around that time. What’s his name, I think he’s really good? Oh, Ben Folds.
J: Rockin’ the Suburbs?
B: Yeah, Rockin’ the Suburbs. It came out on 9/11 and I think they pulled it for about 3 months and released it again around Christmastime, and it ended up doing pretty well. You know, that’s a label with some vision and they’re a little bit more artist-oriented. I think, for Compass, they either couldn’t find the money or they couldn’t find the inspiration to see beyond a record that was way different than most of their other stuff.
J: So it’s really an issue of not fitting into their stable of artists.
B: I think that’s really it. Yeah, I think they really want those sort of Pierce Pettis, Kate Campbell kind of artists. I think that’s what they look for. They look for that stuff with just a nuance of the traditional and a nuance of the David Wilcox-y sort of thing. And as much as I respect all those artists, I just don’t do that.
J: Did they ask you for an acoustic record?
B: They did. And I just refused. I just said, ‘Nah, I’m not really ready to give you that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have any reason to believe that you could do any better with an acoustic record than you’ve done with [Summershine].’ We definitely went to war. There were some pretty disturbing e-mails exchanged between the president and myself. And I’ve been down that route before. You know, I’ve done too many records and I’m too old to listen that same old record company speech: You just need to build your fan base with your acoustic guitar and blah, blah, blah…. Look, this is an Athens, GA band, get used to it. There are certain dynamics that come out of that music scene sort of approach. Even though the band, as a band, is non-existent, the making of the record still has that kind of spirit about it—of just going in and seeing where that thing is going to fall. Locket Full of Moonlight, that’s a departure only because we had Mark Smith play drums on it and Mike Steel play bass. That really was a new chapter, if you will, of doing things. And the record was made in, like, 6 or 7 days. I mean, it was such a quick album. Nick and those guys—have you met those guys over at Paste Music, by the way?
J: Yeah, I’ve done some writing for Paste.
B: OK. Well, they had called up and said, ‘We need a record before you go to England.’ And I had, like, 10 days. I guess they wanted it ready for Christmas season. So we put it in and I think the record came out really well, considering that there just wasn’t a lot of time to work on it. The songs were there, but the real story—the really fun thing—was having two new guys in a rhythm section that I had never played with before, kind of giving and taking. And it was really super. That’s what the energy was. We just said, ‘We’ve got these 10 songs and we’re not going to do any more outside the lines.’ And, lo and behold, the record started to take on a bit of a concept as certain songs went and other songs got laid aside. So I felt great about it.
A lot of times, things you do in the studio become happy accidents. This was kind of like one long happy accident. The tape was rolling and we got it there, and it’s like the only thing we had to do then was mix it and master it. So we got Nick what he wanted and, at the same time, I thought, ‘You know, I can do this thing. I can walk into a room with complete strangers, musically-speaking, and we can make it work.’ The whole thing kind of felt like a gift after it was over.
J: So who’s been supporting you on the road?
B: Jake Bradley’s been playing bass and 6-string bass—well, it’s actually a baritone bass. But he’s really, really great at it because he can sort of walk in between nuancing toward a legitimate guitar part, or playing bass on it. And it’s a great place to be so, even though we haven’t had the drums, Jake is just a monster rhythm player. What you’re seeing when I go do the solo thing, you’re seeing/hearing an audiological version of downsizing. So there’s no way to take 3 or 4 guys out on the road right now, given the marquis value of the band and what we’re worth.
It was such a stretch last year when I had 4 guys out. As you know, the biggest enemy to a band is demoralization. When you get into that place when you just can’t find a reason to give a happy State of the Union address, it’s time to go away, and that’s kind of what we’re doing now. It’s a little easier to go out and live to tell about the road. You’re not using as many variables out there. But it’s a little bit lonelier too, I must admit. I do miss the camaraderie of having Kevin there, and Drew. Because that felt like a big old—well, it was a community.
J: You were out there in the trenches together.
B: Yeah, and I think we romanticize that a whole lot. I think maybe we overly romanticize that. To me, when I hear To the Roof of the Sky, Across the Big Pond, Audible Sigh, Electromeo, and all those little snippets we did, culminating in the live thing we did over in England—Resplendent: Audibly Live. I hear that as one big chapter, one big book. And really it was like, ‘We don’t have a superstructure around us, we don’t have a safety net underneath it but, you know what, God is here and in and among all of us. And we’re loving it.’ I think we got to the point where we kept telling ourselves that every time we had a step back or an obstacle—it was like getting sucker-punched in a boxing match. And we kept telling ourselves, ‘Oh, I didn’t feel that. That didn’t hurt.’
I think we just got to the point where we were sort of lying to ourselves. It was killing us and we didn’t really—we had just soldiered on for as long as we could until the whole thing imploded. I guess in some ways that’s a beautiful story, but it’s not so beautiful for the 3 or 4 of us that have to look at each other at the end of that long haul and say, ‘You know what? We need to break this thing up now or we’re going to start being angry at each other, we’re going to lose friendships over this.’ There’s always a tendency to sort of finger-point and blame. In December of 2000, or whenever that was, I just said, ‘Hey, I can’t give you a positive State of the Union address. You know, the ship’s on the rocks and it’s taking on water, and it’s time to go away.’ But that was a very hard place to be because the emotions around it made the whole thing feel like a grieving process. It really was. We still had the friendships but the context for enjoying those friendships had always been playing together.
J: How do you go back and re-define that relationship?
B: It was really hard. I mean, Jake is pretty reclusive. I don’t see Jake very much but Kevin and I kept in pretty solid touch for a long time. And then for a year he came out and played with me; we just did the guitar and drums thing. But even that got to the place where he needed more stability so he’s got, like, 40 drum students between Greenville, SC and Atlanta.
J: That’s great.
B: Yeah, and that’s great for him. Me, you know, I’ve always got the songs and hopefully the wherewithal to get in the truck and go out and sing them. You know, I think our fans have been kind of funny about those changes. I think maybe they sort of scratch their heads and go, How come Bill’s not out with the band? I liked it so much better when it was a band. Doesn’t he know I liked it better when it was a band? Why wouldn’t he bring people out if he knew I liked it? I think there’s that kind of reasoning.
It’s like, if you guys want to pony up a couple thousand dollars a tour, I’d be glad to call up Kenny Hutson, call up Drew and all those guys, and put them all back in the truck. But when you’re walking out of a room every night on the road with maybe $150-200 and you’ve already spent about $150 of that on hotels and gasoline, and you’re trying to support a family of 4, people just need to understand the raw economics of why it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. It’s not an accusation. It’s just an observation of the kind of dynamic that was eventually going to end it anyway.
J: People seem to have an overly simplistic view of what goes into the whole process.
B: I’ll tell you one thing I’ve really loved, and I’d like to do more of it—in fact, I think there’s a website devoted to it—is just the notion of a house concert. Just going in with a couple of acoustic guitars and maybe not even have to plug in anywhere, but just play in front of 30, 50, 100 people in living rooms and stuff like that. I’ve done some of those and they’ve always been just great, wildly successful. You know, you see the show early and we’d usually ask people for the bare minimum—a room and a meal. And it worked. I think it’s really great. People come and I’m a little more inclined to play requests in the house concert setting as opposed to being in a rock club setting. But that’s something I’m looking into to string things together. But it’s interesting because my music seems to have taken a turn toward more of the pop stuff. I’m almost feeling like it needs to be two different kind of bands; one with a stand-up bass and a pedal steel to do the more Americana country-flavored stuff, and then another one that’s basically just your bass, guitar, and drums college rock band.
J: Shifting gears slightly, one reason why The Other Journal was really interested in talking to you is because of the fact that you’re a performer who’s engaging the topic of depravity from an artistic perspective, rather than from behind a pulpit.
B: I think David Bazan does that real well too, though it’s a pretty black world that he paints on most days. My attitude has always been—and I’ve used this phrase a hundred times—to just talk about what grace looks like on the good days and the bad days. I think that’s one of the reasons why Frederick Buechner continues to be one of my favorite writers. [Buechner] really wrestles with that question: how you know God is there? I went to mass this morning over at the Catholic center and that’s one of the issues: how do you see and sense God in a world that looks like it doesn’t want to hear. And he seems to have taken the world up on that notion, you know? And I think that’s the key to the answer. The passage that was read this morning out of Isaiah was God saying, ‘This is the kind of fast that I want.’ You know, it’s loosening the bonds of the slaves, it’s being equitous and bringing justice to bear in the world and things like that. That’s how you know he’s there. And you see it in the people who are doing it. It shows up in the Mother Theresas and folks like that. That’s how you see God in the world.
To me, those are stunning because it’s almost like you have these people affirming all that we, at our gut level and in our better moments, believe—that sort of nurture. You see these people affirming it in the face of constant suffering and evil, even evil of a diabolical nature when you get the morons like Muammar Gaddafis and Saddam Husseins of the world. Considering the genocidal techniques that have been used on their own people and things like that and you think, ‘Golly, this is not just evil. This is diabolical. This has sort of a Satanic kind of resonance inside of it.’ But you see people standing up in the face of that for some reason. And I think it’s just because God’s bigger that all of that. As Christians we know He has the last word. I think that’s what’s huge about the resurrection and I’m not just saying that because it’s my doctrinal position. I’m saying that because in my heart-of-hearts, gut-level, open-a-vein-and-bleed-it, that’s where I’m at. I think you can put that kind of stuff in a song without quoting—I mean, you may come around to having tunes that start sounding like John 3:16 but it won’t be because you’re standing at the pulpit, like you said. It’ll be because you got down in the trenches and you bled and wept with everybody else in their humanity and their fallenness and their brokenness. And there you go.
For me, when I first started writing, I used the songs as a sort of therapy for stuff that had been in my life since I was 7-years-old. And it just started coming. I think in those initial records from Jugular on through parts of Killing Floor, it just got to the point where I thought, you know, I don’t have to the spokesperson for a worldview. I can just talk about the stuff from the inside-out and see where it goes. I always felt like I had to write the song and put the evangelical tag on it to a certain extent, or at least write it a little bit larger than it needed to be written. But I think every artist that starts out wants to do that. It’s that zealousness you have of wanting to make sure that you’re understood, make sure there’s nothing that’s misunderstood by your audience. I think those early records, especially Driving the Nails, feel to me like they have that sort of folk-punk kind of passion to it. But there are definitely songs in there that are so overt in some ways; it’s so in code but it’s an easy code to break. I think I just moved away from that, thinking that sometimes the unresolved question or the tension is just part of the journey. You see some Psalms like that, I think, when you read through scripture. You see things breaking off like with the question being, ‘Lord, how long? How long? And when will you relent from your anger?’ You see the nation of Israel feeling like it’s under God’s wrath or disdain, and there’s no conclusion. You’re just left to live in the paradox. You have a God who fathers this nation and committed to it covenantally and yet the nation of Israel was never able to walk straight on its own for very long. Still, you find the people crying out because they recognize this absence of God—they recognize this hunger. So they cry out to him through songs and the shepherds who were leading the people. You see in the lamentations of Jeremiah that he’s owning the sin of the nation but, at the same time you realize they’re hoping God hasn’t gone that far away and that it’s not forever. But they don’t know. They’re not completely sure that he’s not set his face against them for a long, long time. And that’s the kind of tension I think we deal with in this world.
To me, there are inconclusive sort of things. We deal with it in our skin. We have recourse, obviously, because of the doctrine of God’s nearness and His love for us consummated in Christ. But I think, experientially, we’d all be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit that sometimes we feel inside that love in a very big way and sometimes we feel passed over, or we don’t feel his nearness. When I first became a believer I really used my feelings as a barometer, and ever since that time—even though I know that’s a dangerous way to assess my relationship with God; that’s just how I’m wired, call it artistic temperament—it’s very hard for me not to go there and live inside that dynamic in my life where I’m sussing everything out by how it feels. You know, it’s made for some great songs but it’s probably made for some selfish moments too, self-pity that didn’t need to be examined in that sort of lolling in self. What I really need to be doing was something a little more proactive for the Kingdom.
J: I know you’ve talked in the past about your tendencies toward depression. When you’re getting inside those fairly bleak emotions and really rooting around in the guts, do you find that it drags you further down? Why do artists, rather than seeking comfort by fleeing from difficult issues, instead choose to plunge their hands into matters?
B: I think sitting down and writing [the songs] at least allows me to put a period at the end of a sentence, so to speak, in dealing with a particular issue. And sometimes the songs are just vehicles; they become a confession or a prayer, or maybe become tears, so to speak, over some issue that’s going on. It’s just sort of an outpouring and it’s almost like when you get to that place where you’re just completely transparent and dependant before God, then things happen. And I can’t tell you why, but it’s just one of those things that I strive for when I’m writing. Then there are other songs that just feel good to write: She’s So Liquid, those sort of pop things, Life On Other Planets. There are some places in [Life On Other Planets] where, as pop as it is, if you listen to it at the right time you’ll get a little lump in your throat. You know, there are some moments in there, and that’s the kind of artist I want to be. I really want people to be able to step back at some point when they’re hearing and just have that lyric that’s disarming; it still disarms me sometimes. On any given night there’ll be some random line that I’ll sing, Jason, that’ll show up and I realize that I’m on the verge of either a lump in the throat or a tear, and I think that’s a great place to let the songs become bigger than yourself. And I can’t tell you why. People have asked me, ‘How do you write songs?’ and, you know what, I have no idea how they come up. I really don’t know how. I mean, I can tell you what happens, like lyrics first or music first, but I can’t tell you why they fit together in that thing where the lyrics and the music and the delivery all work. It really does become a matter of trusting your gut, and I love it. Whatever it is, if it’s a gift, I hope I never lose it. Now, it’s something that can be developed, I think, by continuing to do it, by just going with it.
J: Have you ever encountered a period where you just couldn’t write, where you felt blocked?
B: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, it was just recently, and I think I just sort of broke the spell last week. I’ve always written, just all the time, even when I was on the road I was always keeping a journal. But there was period of about three months just after Christmastime—December, January, and February—where I just was not writing at all. You know, I’d have chord progressions and things like that, but I think I was really tired. And this is interesting since we were talking about depression because I think I was so depressed that I couldn’t write. And it’s never really been that way before.
I’m sure a lot of it is due to coming up on a record that’s due out in July, there’s no real band to tour behind that record, and yet that record already has a specific kind of sound and nuance about it. All this sort of—you know, just pressure. There are family pressures and things like that, and I just sort of shut down. I just couldn’t get anything out of the guitar where I felt like, ‘Oh here’s something new and exciting.’ Then this past week, what I ended up doing—I’ve been writing off the acoustic guitar for years now—I put the Rickenbackers back on a little bit and all of a sudden stuff just started coming. And I thought, Well, I’m gonna chase that idea. And then 20 minutes later I was chasing another song. So I think last week I ended up writing 4 or 5 songs. To answer your question, though, up until recently I’ve never had writer’s block for any long period of time. Brenda says to me, ‘For someone who’s got as many records out as you do, and as many lost songs that are never going to get heard, I really wouldn’t worry too much about not writing for a little while. If you didn’t write for 6 months, I don’t think you’d be any worse off for it.’
J: I can hear Brenda saying that.
B: Yeah, she’s pretty funny about it. She’s the ultimate pragmatist. Whereas, me, I get out of bed and think, I haven’t written for a week. Oh, God, I’ve lost it. [laughter] You know, and that’s just really not true.
J: I’ve heard legends about this trash bag full of thousands and thousands of old beat-up cassette tapes. Is there any truth to that?
B: Cassette tapes and DAT tapes. I’ve got tons and tons of them. I’ll probably never go back—well, I will go back and listen to the DAT tapes but it’s really hard to go back and listen to the cassettes, other than just for fun. But it makes me nervous; I don’t get any joy out of it. Well, I hear something and I keep thinking, Gosh, that was really good. I don’t even know how to play that anymore. And it’s just lost forever. With my recording—I don’t own a studio. A lot of people my age, by this time, have pretty nice studios in their backyards and stuff like that. We’ve always put our money into our kids, and one of them is in college now.
J: How’s Josh liking it?
B: He’s loving it, you know, but he’s having some trouble. The nickels and dimes are bigger nickels and dimes than they used to be so it’s kind of killing us right now. It’s all good, but it’s been a weird transition having a college guy. He’s a good student, he’s got a 3.3 average and he’s working really hard. Joseph is 15 and he’s our little jock, but also a really, really gifted student also. So we’re really busy. There’s just no doubt about it, we’re busy, but we’re also coming to the end of where we’re seeing, ‘Well, you know, he’s 15 and in another 3 or 4 years he’ll be in school, and then the house is going to get kind of quiet.’ So we’re coming up on that chapter as a couple and realizing that we’ve done as much as we can do now. Obviously they never stop being your kids, or your little ones, or your loved ones, but there’s a different thing going on there. They make that transition out of the nest and into the world. I mean, [Brenda and I] are both ready for it but we’re realizing that all this energy, emotion and prayer that we’ve invested in their life—to a certain extent it’s kind of like they’re on their own. They really are. Now it’s just them and whatever God and the Holy Spirit puts in front of them.
J: Let me steer the conversation in another direction. The Other Journal was interested in getting your thoughts on how you view the Christian artist’s role in reconciling an obviously broken world with belief in a good creator?
B: I think all comes down to the whole issue of faith. All it boils down to is faith coming through a human vessel, through the artist. And that’s the point of contact for struggling and wrestling with all that kind of stuff. There’s a place in art where I think it’s an outpouring of how that looks and feels and tastes and smells, and if one can do that and not—I’m trying to sort of think about where art crosses over and becomes propaganda. That’s the whole issue for me. When Julie Miller does a gospel song and pours her heart into it, it doesn’t feel propagandistic to me. It feels like the conclusions that she has come to after struggle and it’s what she’s basing a great deal of her whole existence on. And she’s kind of put her heart on the line. There’s a lot of music in the [Contemporary Christian Music] industry that just sort of feels propagandistic to me. It seems like it’s not really the artist talking about himself or herself but talking about—and usually in very clichéd sort of language—a message that has to be slanted toward a particular demographic, easily understood and never really challenging or confusing on any level, I suppose.
I’m sure there’s a place for that, but I remember after I first became a Christian, because I thought I was supposed to buy Christian records and like Christian music, I did it for a while—this was before I was ever playing music personally—and I just always found the stuff kind of milk-toast. I can’t even tell you why. I got to the point where I was sorry that I sold Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones and I was sorry that I sold my Deep Purple records because I thought I should have. Because those records just kind of rocked and there was something about them that was pretty organic, even though I’m sure they were diabolical in their own way. But I think, for me, the whole notion of the artist who believes in God and who’s trying to make sense of Him, you make sense of your own life first, in terms of your own pain and your own inconsistencies and what does your brokenness look like, and how does God interface with that? I mean, what are you dealing with that he’s been your savior today? What are you dealing with that he’s been your Lord? And how does that work, how can you put that into a 3 or 4-minute song and make it something that’s not just a mere exercise in selfish contemplation but make it something that’s accessible and organic and bears repeated listening. Maybe it doesn’t even open itself up the first time but repeated listening sort of brings different nuances to it. I think those are really beautiful songs.
People have always asked me, and I love answering this question, somebody asked me a couple years ago: if you could’ve written one song that you didn’t write—and it be yours—what would it be and why would it be that? And I have always answered, and I would still answer that question, Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead. To me, [Fake Plastic Trees] is a bit of a collage but it does such a great job of touching all these different aspects of post-modern emptiness, while still wanting to affirm this thing called love that transforms and affirms and makes us better than we are. But there’s that element of melancholy, of not really being sure that love is a valid thing, that it might just be illusionary. That’s modern man, that’s post-modern man, and I think they do it eloquently. It almost has that hymn-like quality at the end of the song. I think it’s just brilliant. But that’s the kind of stuff, without any buzz language, without anything but this naked little thing of what it feels like. And obviously, in the last verse, the singer and the delivery are all the same. A pretty amazing piece of work and delivered in such a symphonic fashion that it’s hard not to say, ‘Wow, that thing went somewhere.’
J: That song builds almost to a fever, especially at the very end when you’ve got guitars layered over guitars over guitars, that whole sea of distortion.
B: There’s a song on the new record that will be out in July called Shirts and Skins, and it kind of has a song like that as its reference point to a certain extent. The song actually started with a photograph of Josh and Brenda, but I just sort of used that as a starting point and then the song kind of grew from there. But it has a huge, huge ending that’s very symphonic, just with guitars and stuff. I love playing that kind of thing. I was the only guitar player on the record so it was really a lot of fun to just layer and push in that kind of symphonic fashion.
That’s one of those things. Is [Fake Plastic Trees] a Christian song? Well, yeah, I think Fake Plastic Trees is a Christian song because, as George McDonald said, ‘All truth is God’s truth.’ And that song seems to resonate in such way. It’s a positive thing because it means that the non-believer is experiencing those same kind of feelings—lostness and alienation and confusion—that believers experience but it’s just that we have a vocabulary to describe that experience. We know why the world’s broken and fragile and inconsistent. We know why we’re broken and fragile and inconsistent and sinful, and that’s the beauty of Christian truth is that it’s the same thing all those guys like Francis Schaeffer and Lewis and all the great apologists were saying, that it resonates with what is, it makes sense out of what is, it’s the key that fits the lock of human experience. But, for the artist, that’s a huge risk to be able to say, ‘I know it looks like this but what really is going on here in the last word is going to be something else.
So, in spite of the AIDS plight in Africa and the broken marriages and the cancer that your friend has got and small children dying of terminal illness in hospitals, God has the last word and that’s going to be a beautiful last word. That’s a huge thing to say and, in some ways, even now, have a gut-level feeling that God’s going to wipe away every tear. And, the older you get, the less it feels like a childhood fantasy. It feels like something that’s in the bank, so to speak.
J: While I firmly believe that we have a life-giving message to offer the world, I feel like much of the Christian evangelical community has decided that it has nothing, in turn, to learn from the non-believing world. What are your thoughts on that?
B: Well, I think, yeah, absolutely we can. I don’t know that you put it in quite the same category as revelation or something like that but, at the same time, I think that’s one of the reasons why the Jewish rabbis left the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. You know, why is that there? What a dour book; you know, it’s pretty bleak, almost existential in some places. You can’t just write it off as the guy having a bad day because it’s the collected wisdom of Solomon, or at least some of the scribes who put this stuff down. [Ecclesiastes] seems to round out the biblical picture, it’s the corrective to the life of victory and the heaven on earth thing, because it’s not. It’s a hope, and it’s a hope that’s unseen, but it’s a hope that’s already been grasped by the saints before us, and already made sure of by Christ who walked out of the tomb.
To me, as a Catholic, the existence of the Church is a huge thing, just the fact that it’s there as opposed to not there. In all the arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, and all of those resonate true, but I still think just the fact that the Church has existed for as long as it’s existed and the gates of hell haven’t prevailed against it is a huge testimony. That Church has obviously been less than ideal, it’s been corrupted different times, occasionally there’s seemed to be no life left in it at all, but still for some reason it seems to be the place where God has chosen to manifest Himself and to speak His truth and His gospel to us, and people gravitate. All kinds of people gravitate—the rich, the poor, the smart and the stupid. We all go there. We come out of these backgrounds but I don’t think God wastes anything in our lives.
I mean, we can remember a time in our lives when we were, quote, ‘not believers,’ but we didn’t feel any less like the information we were getting out of the world was valid, the conclusions we were drawing. You get writers who express these things in films and songs and stuff like that, yeah, absolutely we can learn from it. It’s very, very valid. Some of those conclusions that they draw are very biblical conclusions.
J: Give me an example of that, if you don’t mind.
B: The one that comes to mind real quick, although Spielberg is Jewish, would have to be Saving Private Ryan. I think that whole movie was about atonement. At the very end when that officer, the guy that they basically all died for, walks up to the grave in the cemetery and says something like, ‘I just hope I’m worth it.’
J: Right. Because Tom Hanks’ character had said, ‘Earn this,’ requesting that his sacrifice be taken seriously.
B: That right there is the notion of atonement, of sacrificing for somebody else. That’s not a worldly concept; that’s something that’s just knit into the very heart of the universe. But that’s an example of someone who’s not, quote, ‘an evangelical Christian,’ taking that theme and playing it up huge. He kind of touched on it in Schindler’s List.
J: I tend to gravitate toward art that’s really digging into the human condition, a place where things get dark and even obscene at times. How does a Christian go about determining when consuming a select piece of art is no longer beneficial?
B: One of my friends who’s a really bright guy theologically and a great artist told me, ‘You don’t have to step in shit to know what it is,’ and I think he’s right. There’s a tendency among younger Christians who are so quick to not appear legalistic or fundamentalist, that they just sort of embrace it all. They’re going to do everything from see movies that are basically pornographic to listen to records that aren’t uplifting or edifying on any level. If you make a steady diet of that, you kill yourself. I think that’s what happens. I think there are clearly commands in scripture that talk about keeping ourselves pure and that’s a battle for the mind. That really is a struggle that we’re challenged to engage in.
At the same time, I guess there are a lot of Christian websites that read books for you and watch movies for you, offering their two cents—I’m a little leery of that sort of thing. Even the Catholic church that I’m in has a list of things that shouldn’t be looked at, they have books that they’ve banned or censored because they don’t feel like they’re edifying. I don’t know how seriously people take those lists anymore but they’re probably good road markers. Some people can probably read [certain books] and not be affected by them. And other people would read them or look at them and be completely shaken in their faith. I think to a certain extent you have to be familiar with the weak links in your armor. There are just certain things in movies that will always bother me. Watching infidelity on the screen will always upset me. Even though it might be part of a great movie, I’ll probably just get up and leave. And I’m never really sure why those scenes are in movies. A lot of times I just so appreciate a producer or director who can suggest it without graphically depicting it.
The older I get, the more I think guys—we just have a tendency for being really visually stimulated and visually oriented. I don’t think it’s quite the same way for women but maybe it’s just American media, but I kind of think that’s true. I think there are just some things we don’t need to jump inside for very long. If you make a steady diet of them, I think, spiritually, you just start cauterizing certain parts of your heart.
J: Has having kids caused that to be more of an issue?
B: We’ve always taught our kids to be discerning. We’ve never forbidden them to see anything, although recently when our kids were able to start downloading music, I’d kind of go through the files once in a while and say, ‘You know, you don’t need to be a dozen songs by Ludacris. I don’t want the first thing you do when you wake up is pump Snoop Dogg in the room.’ It’s like, sorry, it’s not going to happen. But they’re usually pretty good about it. I’ll tell you this: about 3 years ago Brenda and I had MTV blocked—I still have it blocked from our television—and their grades went up, like, a whole letter grade. I’m serious, and I noticed it in their personalities. There was less defiance toward any sort of authoritative overtures that we might make. Because that whole stinking show is based on creating and fashioning a new hip, cool teenager. And it’s kind of like, I’m sorry but I’m not going to buy into that because it seems really patently obvious that there’s a huge agenda here and it’s not about music anymore.
They pissed and moaned about it for about 3 months and then they saw that their grades were better and they were having more time on the phone with their friends, as opposed to sitting in front of MTV. And I hated to do that but it’s like, you know what, I’m sorry. Rolling Stone, the magazine, is the same way. It’s a completely worthless magazine, in my opinion. I have a friend who writes for it, but it’s so in bed with corporate rock. It’s only worth looking at objectively to say, ‘Yep, they’re still doing it but is it worth anything?’ But kids don’t have that same kind of filter that you’ve got by being someone who reads with a critical eye. Kids don’t have that sort of filter; they can’t read something and say, ‘Oh, The New Republic, that’s a conservative magazine, that’s sort of a right-wing kind of magazine.’ They can’t read First Things or something like that and say, ‘Oh, that magazine seems to have kind of a Catholic bent to it.’ But they just don’t have that. They just read at face value and they absorb it, and almost become it.
We don’t really teach how to critique anymore. Maybe they do at the college level but I haven’t noticed it at the high school level very much. That’s been the kind of thing we’ve done with our kids: give them the tools to be discerning so then when they see something come at them through a screen, we can sit there and talk about it. I’m sure they’re sick of hearing dad talk about, ‘What was the agenda of that movie?’ They say, ‘Why can’t you just enjoy the movie?’ I mean, I do enjoy the movie but I enjoy it on a certain level. I don’t write a song unless it’s trying to say something, and I bet you that guy didn’t put together those frames just to entertain you. I mean, he might have, but there was probably something else he was saying there too.
J: Tell me a little bit about how your fan base has reacted to news of you returning to your Catholic roots. Has that been a point of contention at all?
B: I think there’s actually a discussion on the [Vigilantes of Love E-mail List] right now because it came out in a Phantom Tollbooth interview about 3 months ago. For some reason it seemed like it was a surprise to some people. I mean, I was raised in the Catholic Church. It was no secret to a lot of people. I worshiped in a small house church for a while, and I tell people that my walk back into the Catholic church came in a very linear fashion because I needed all the answers to all these little sticky issues like Maryan theology and purgatory and things like that. I went back and just started basically looking at that whole sort of notion of tradition standing alongside biblical revelation, and I think it was there from Day 1.
I think it was back in Judaism you had the scholars and scribes interpreting the word of God, and they were supposed to be shepherding people. And I think Christ really did create something there when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom and said that the gates of Hell weren’t going to prevail against it. There was something going on there that eventually grew into this superstructure called the Catholic church—a church riddled with sin, a church riddled with scandal, no doubt about it, but still God’s church. Now, that doesn’t mean God has left himself without witness in other places.
I’m grateful for the upbringing and nurture I got in the reformed faith. It’s not diminishing anybody else’s faith because the Holy Spirit is free; he goes where He wants. But, for me, I needed that consistency of liturgy and the centrality of the sacraments. I think sometimes evangelicals have had a tendency to sort of take the Word and intellectualize it and academize it, and it almost becomes a gnostic kind of thing, it becomes a knowledge that you have to continue to get more of and unfold, as opposed to the original idea in the church which was the centrality of the communion, the Eucharist.
It’s like, here’s God taking a very physical piece of himself—and that’s the transubstantiation of human communion—and saying, if you receive this in faith, this is My Son given for you. It’s God taking a little bit of himself and placing it in me so that I might become more like Christ. That is, to me, a huge you-come-bringing-nothing reception of the Son of God, and it requires nothing but childlike faith. To me, it’s actually in some ways a more evangelical doctrine than the way evangelicals view communion sometimes. But I wanted that centrality of the sacrament, and I wanted the liturgy because you’re using the prayers of the saints for hundreds and hundreds of years that have stood the test of time, as opposed to where I feel like the American church is often victimized by every changing wind of doctrine. It’s like, with every new trend, just go into a Christian bookstore and take a look at what’s on the Top-10 shelf, and get an idea of what people are reading. You realize that, one, there’s nothing new under the sun, there are just different nuances.
We’ve gotten to the point now with the whole sort of Protestant reformation splinter-and-subdivide, splinter-and-subdivide kind of dynamic, where anybody with an English Bible and a year of Bible College can start, quote, ‘a church.’ And it’s like, I don’t really think that’s what was supposed to be going on. With 55,000 denominations and counting, who’s right? You know, Catholics don’t have that problem. They have this idea of authority, Christ-ordained, to the apostles, to the bishops, to the early church fathers, and on down the line. Clearly some of those people abused it and not all of them were Christians—God does the house-cleaning—but it’s there in what they call the Church’s Magisterium. It’s the church teaching over century, and it’s represented, obviously, with the figurehead, the Pope.
It’s interesting; a lot of people think the Popes are like presidents, where you can draw a line back from Bush to Clinton on down the line until you get back to George Washington. That’s not the way it works. The Pope actually stands in the place of Peter, always Peter to whoever’s on the throne next, Jesus to Peter to whoever’s on the throne next. That’s why they take that comment seriously about the Spirit leading and guiding in all things. The Pope cannot speak against the tradition of 2,000 years of the church. When he makes a pronouncement, it cannot go against any of that. Plus, he has a college of hundreds and hundreds of scholars, known as Cardinals, keeping him in check with church canon and church law. He cannot, as some people erroneously think, color outside the lines very much. He can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Oh, you know, I think I’ll make a new doctrine today. I’m the Pope.’ He can’t do that.
J: Is that what the doctrine of papal infallibility is speaking to?
B: The doctrine of papal infallibility, as I understand it, speaks to a doctrine that has been in the church, spoken but not officialized. So when he speaks to it, it becomes official. And the Pope has only spoken twice ex-cathedra in, I think, the last 175-180 years.
J: What does that mean exactly? Ex-cathedra?
B: When he speaks ex-cathedra, that means it becomes church law. When the Pope says, ‘Jesus Christ is the Son of God’ and then they work out all the details of that, that’s law, irreversible, can’t change it, no mistakes, guided by the Holy Spirit, looked at by the College of Cardinals. It’s no different than a Presbyterian saying, ‘The Westminster Confession of Faith is a very important document,’ although, obviously, it has a stronger standing with Catholics. There are certain levels of stuff that we adhere to. There are obviously things that the Pope speaks to, there’s dogma, but then there are other things that Catholics are free to use their conscience and their own conclusions on.
There’s freedom inside it, though obviously not on some things. But it’s like I’ve always told people on the [E-mail Discussion List], I think if they picked up a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic church and read it, they would find it to be, quote, ‘a very evangelical document.’ The problem in the American Catholic church, and I’ve said this on the [E-mail Discussion List], is that the American Catholic church has so bought into the American notion of plurality and autonomy when it comes to religious matters, that they really have been, in America, kind of making it up as they go.
That’s why you get these things like the scandals in Boston. You know, they have so completely not attached themselves to what Rome has taught for so many years, since Vatican II, really. You get these guys who should’ve been disciplined from the get-go but instead—what do they do?—they leave these pedophilic priests around and nobody knows about it. So when John Paul found about it when the story first broke he brought all those guys over to Rome and basically gave them the third-degree, Jason. He said, ‘Look, you guys have dishonored the name of Christ and you are going to pay the price for it. You have dishonored the Lord.’ He read them the riot act, so it didn’t surprise me that after a few short months the Cardinal law resigned and all these guys are paying the price. It might bankrupt the Church, but so be it. People have been wounded. Again, God has the last word but the house-cleaning needed to be done.
The great thing, I think, that’s going on in the American Catholic church now is that the laity—from the ground-level up, as opposed from the top down—is starting to say, ‘Look, we’re tired of this kind of stuff. We want shepherds who will lead, shepherds who will lead in holiness and in clarity. We need this.’ And that’s coming from the bottom up. I think that is a huge movement of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church. Anyway, you know, it’s not an agenda for me. I have reasons why I love the Church but it’s not an agenda in my music. We’re on this [E-mail List] where everybody, like I said earlier, thought I was the Presbyterian Church house band for a while. And I almost don’t even want to talk about it because I’m not an apologist for the Church. I can give you some answers up to a point but after a while I’m in the deep end and should back off. I love it, I love where I’m at, and Brenda’s there with me. The boys, at this point—Josh is coming, Joseph comes with me some days. But they haven’t joined, they’re not in, and I’ve told them, you know, it’s the same Jesus.
That’s the primary thing: you love your Lord and serve him. And the context for me in the Catholic Church has just been nothing but a joy. There’s a huge structure there that I feel great about it—I’m using ‘structure’ figuratively, not physically. But it’s hard to find American Catholics who know their head from a hole in the ground because so many of us were catechized in the 50s and 60s. My generation was catechized at a time when it was pretty lovey-dovey. You’ve got to find the really knowledgeable Catholics, like Thomas Howard; I keep alluding to his book on the [E-mail Discussion List].
J: Which book in particular?
B: It’s called On Being Catholic. He’d been a Catholic for about 10 or 12 years when he wrote that book. It’s a great book, just a phenomenal book. You can find it at any Borders bookstore or Barnes & Noble. On Being Catholic, by Thomas Howard. He’s a convert but it seems to be the converts who can explain it to the natives, and that’s just something I’ve noticed in my whole experience in the Catholic Church. It’s always the converts who seem to have the better understanding of what’s going on, and they can also speak to their evangelical peers about what the hang-ups are. There are a lot of misconceptions. Nine times out of ten, four times out of five, most of the time I’m hitting people, when they do talk about this stuff, it’s usually misconceptions about the Church. And I understand how they got those because, you know, for 27 years I had the same misconceptions.
J: Bill, thanks for your time. I’ve enjoyed talking to you so much.
B: Well, I’ve given you nothing but a transcriptionist’s nightmare. It’s very, very humbling to have this kind of fan base, to be able to do what I do, speak to these issues, and live it out in such a transparent way. Obviously, it’s not going make everyone happy all the time.
And with the Catholic thing, I may post to the [E-mail Discussion List] one more time and say, ‘This whole thing is not about Catholicism. It really isn’t. That’s not why I pick up a guitar in the morning.’ It’s really about something else that’s more bedrock to why we’re all here, as opposed to this sort of denominational divisiveness. Everyone has a hill to die on and they have a threshold for when it’s time to go up that hill. The bottom line is that some of these people probably do feel a little betrayed, but if you actually talk to them and ask them about their own spiritual journey, there are very few of them who have stayed in one place for very long. They’ve all been on some kind of journey and there are a large majority of them who’ve been on a journey from low-church to high-church. They may be in the Anglican Church, or the Episcopal Church, or the Lutheran Church, and some of those are more Catholic than the Catholic Church—I mean, Catholic in the sense of the liturgy that they use, which is full of trappings and ornamentalism and all that stuff. I’ll tell you, the whole word for me is just respect and restraint. It comes down to that. People have their hill to die on and they have their threshold for when it’s time to charge up that hill. And you’ve got to respect where they’re at, and I really, really do. Like I said, I think God is much, much bigger than any four walls of a church or a denomination. These things have to come up on the [E-mail Discussion List] from time to time, and then maybe they’ll go away and it’ll all get back to the music again.
I’ve been a little discouraged that there hasn’t been a lot of discussion on Locket Full of Moonlight. I think maybe people are waiting for me to spell out the Cliff’s Notes version of the songs, and I’m not going to do that. But there seems to be limited discussion about the songs themselves, and I’m not really sure why that is. Maybe it’s because, with the things that touch us at our deepest places, we find it hard and awkward to talk about that sort of stuff.
Jason Killingsworth lives in Atlanta, GA and serves as the Music Editor for Paste, a bi-monthly music and film magazine (www.pastemagazine.com). When he is not listening to music, he can be found playing guitar, or video games, or house—the latter gets his wife's hearty endorsement.