What Kind Of Culture Would We Like To Create?

March 24, 2010 at 8:09 am

The other day, I wondered aloud about the kind of culture many of our churches have created. People feel embarrassed coming because their car isn’t nice enough, and things like that. It seems to be that much of what we do is actually more about American-consumerism than biblical love. But, of course, that begs the question: if that’s the kind of culture that we have created, what kind of culture would we like to create?

Of course, it could be that we have the exact kind of culture we want, that’s why we have it. But, I like to think the best (no, that’s not sarcasm), and I’d like to think that most Christians recognize, somewhere inside of them, that something is not right. We look at statements like John 13:35 (“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”), we look at the life of our local church, and I’m afraid to say that most of us see some sort of disconnect. We are confronted with Paul saying that we should consider others as more significant than ourselves, we should live without rivalry or conceit because this is what Jesus did for us (Philippians 2:1-11), and we see that people, even at church, park as close as they can instead of as far away as they can.

I wonder, what kind of culture we would like to create? One where we bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:1-2), show hospitality (Romans 12:3),  and where we spur one another on to good works (Hebrews 10:24)? If that’s the kind of culture we would like to create but not the kind of culture we have, I wonder, how should we go from here to there?

Songs of Water: An Interview With Stephen Roach

March 23, 2010 at 7:04 am

20041_315166611910_632531910_4120701_842052_nSongs of Water releases their second album “The Sea Has Spoken” today. The band plays largely instrumental music and has played with Ricky Skaggs among others. We recently spoke with band member/percussionist/hammer dulcermist, Stephen Roach, who also has a solo album out called “Closer to the Burning.” Stephen shares his background and his future, along with thoughts on instrumental music.

Were you raised in a musical home

Yes. Both sides of my family are musical, they’re all bluegrass musicians. My Dad is a third generation fiddle player. I definitely grew up around music. I didn’t always follow the same musical path as maybe my Dad and all my cousins did, but I actually did end up doing some bluegrass style music.

How did you first start playing music?

I don’t remember not playing music. I think I asked for my first drum set when I was five, so it’s just always been a part of me.

When did you begin to feel that music might be your life’s calling?

Probably not too long after that. I remember times when I was like eight-years old, I would take every chair in our house and set them up in our dining area like a concert hall and force my family to watch me bang on things. I think I even sold them tickets, so I had a marketing thing going on too.

When did you start writing music?

I started writing pretty seriously at a very young age, maybe around 12. I wrote a lot of lyrics, a lot of poetry and eventually started composing with other people.

How did you pick up the hammer dulcimer?

Percussion instruments are some of the primary things that I play, it just made sense for me. I was an easy leap because I had started doing a lot of drums and percussion work at an early age. Then when I started learning guitar and more things about melody and composition, the dulcimer was kind of the bridge between the two worlds. It is a percussion instrument, but it’s also kind of the great-grandfather of the piano. I just had this feeling, or maybe intuition that if I got this instrument, I would know how to play it. I went out and found one and just started playing it. I didn’t have any lessons or anything.

Were you raised in a Christian home?

I wasn’t raised in church, that’s probably an easier answer. I didn’t go to church growing up and didn’t really want anything to do with it. I did have some spiritual encounters early on in life but my experience of church at that time was just that it was a boring place full of moral codes. There wasn’t a lot of life there.

Would you mind sharing a bit about your salvation experience?

Sure. I don’t know that I can narrow it down to one particular time. Like I said, when I was around ten, I did have a pretty tremendous encounter with the presence of God. I knew that that was real and I pursued that for a while on my own, even at the young age of 10-12. When I really didn’t find any life in the church at that point, I began to search out other spiritual paths. For a lot of my teenage years, I spent a lot of time studying things like Buddhism and New Age philosophy and even occultic stuff, pretty much a smorgasbord of spiritual experience. Something real had been awakened in my heart when I was young, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. After a while, I got pretty heavily into Native American religion and even the drug experiences that go with that.

There came a point much later, after I experimented with all those things when, I didn’t even know to call God “God” at that point, the Native Americans referred to God as “The Great Spirit,” so I just said “Great Spirit, show me who you are and show me if you have a purpose for my life.” When I did that, Jesus was the only one who started talking. I told myself that if I was really as opened minded as I said I was, I owed it to myself to look into this again. Jesus hasn’t stopped talking and that was 12 years ago.

How does your faith influence your music?

Faith influences everything I do. I don’t see Songs of Water as any different than what I do when I lead worship on a Sunday morning. It all comes from the same place in me. It’s just different expressions. I think music in general, whether it’s acknowledged or not, is a powerful spiritual force. For me, my music is just an overflow of the deep things that I experience.

The more connected I get with the Creator, the more creative I become. I used to have this fear that if I quit doing drugs or if I was no longer depressed about life, I was going to lose all of my creativity because that was the source that I drew from. It was a real scary thing for me to undergo some of the transformation that happens when you encounter the Creator, but I found that over time, the closer I got to the Creator, the One who created everything, I began to create things I never imagined I could create prior to that relationship.

How does faith impact my art? It makes me ravenous to get to know God on a much deeper level. Because the deeper I go in that relationship, the more I get shocked at the creativity that comes out of my own life.

What’s the relationship between your solo output and music made as Songs of Water?

The solo stuff that I do is primarily geared toward people of like mind in the Christian faith. Lyrically, I deal a lot with topics about my faith and the journey of faith.

Do you have a typical songwriting process?

For me, I usually sit down and a lot of the personal songs I write, I just sit down and play and a lot of times, things just emerge and then I craft them over time. A lot of times, I’ll add poetic fragments I’ve written along the way. I usually experiment with interpreting songs on different instruments. I have a tenor banjo that I like to write on a lot. With the band though, everyone in the band is a songwriter so one of us will come up with an idea and we’ll experiment with it on different instruments. We love to improvise and just see what comes out of it. A lot of times, it just seems like the music will have a particular way that it wants to go. It’s almost like we spend more time listening than writing. When the piece is finished, we often look back and just say “Wow, this is so much bigger than what we had envisioned!”

Why separate your musical output into these two different expressions?

One is a collaborative effort and one is just strictly my own writing. It’s really just the collaborative effort that makes the difference for me. I love writing with the band. You come up with some pretty interesting things when you get six different heads together from six different perspectives all putting parts together. The music I write on my own is a lot more personal. But then again, the two lyrical songs on the new Songs of Water album are songs I wrote myself.

Is the instrumental music a different experience for you?

I love playing instrumental music. Sometimes, there are just things in the heart, imagination or spirit that you just can’t express with the limitations of words. I love language, I love poetry, word imagery, but there comes a point when you’re limited by the strict definition of the words that you choose. With instrumental music, you’re not inhibited by those limitations. I can express something of the depth of my thought process and experience through instrumental music in a way that can reach out to a broader audience rather than just someone who may understand my dialect.

I see music as another form of language. You understand the words that I’m saying right now because you’ve been taught that certain combinations of sounds mean certain things, so when I say certain things, a certain understanding comes to you but I’m just releasing sound. The same thing is true when I pick up the dulcimer or playing one of my percussion instruments, it’s just another form of communication. It’s another language. The thoughtful listener can really pick up on what’s being communicated even without words.

Do you find that people sometimes expect lyrics but that they’re not disappointed when they’re not there?

Yes, I think there can be a certain expectation for lyrics. Our first album was completely instrumental and for people who were familiar with my own music, that was bizarre but it’s been really well received. The thing I enjoy doing about instrumental music is the cinematic quality. Even though there’s not a lyric there, it still tells a story. It just takes a little switch in mindset but in many ways, once you get there, it can be more liberating than the traditional verse chorus verse lyrical model.

Why include lyrical songs on the new album?

We’re really coming to a place where we’re finding our own sound and we’ve matured a lot as a band. It is a step towards integrated some of the other stuff I’ve done in my solo work with what the band has been doing. I just had these songs that didn’t necessarily fit with the format of my other solo stuff but they weren’t instrumental either so we just began to play with them and add our sound to them. We’ve actually got some other songs with lyrics that we do that aren’t even on the album. Molly and Luke both sing as well.

How does improvisation work for you as a band?

It’s incredible. It’s all based on relationship. Most of us have been playing together so long, we’re starting to learn one another musically. Everybody is so well-versed on so many different instruments, it’s a lot about restraint and listening for us. We prefer one another musically, waiting for someone to step forward and as they do, we support them. When they’re n8709816495_762588_2066done speaking with their instrument, with what they have to say, somebody else will come forward and say something until we’ve said what we have to say and we move on. It’s kind of like live art. We don’t always know where it’s going to end up. It’s risky, it’s adventurous, but it’s fun.

How did the band come together?

The band started back in 2002 with myself, Jason Windsor, who is one of the co-writers, along with Marta, the violinist, the three of us began playing together. Jason and I roomed together for a while. We just wrote a lot of music and I had this idea of wanting to do an instrumental album so we produced the album and then the band sort of formed out of that. We knew we had struck on something different, something that really got our creative attention. I just said “Let’s call the album Songs of Water” and after that, as we began playing shows, the band just sort of became Songs of Water.

Where did that phrase “Songs of Water” come from?

It came from a scrap of poetry that I wrote at some point. I don’t even remember the context now. I just knew the term “Songs of Water” was intriguing. It describes the music on multiple levels. For one, it has a flow and spontaneity but at the same time, from a more scientific perspective, the human body is primarily made of water. Of course, over time, the phrase has come to mean more to us. You can drink a glass of water to survive, or a tsunami can destroy a nation. The music we play can have that same ability. It can be a very soothing classical piece, or it may be a really cataclysmic percussion piece the next moment.

For those not familiar with your music, how might you describe what you do?

Definitely cinematic but it’s more earthy. It’s folky, it’s earthy and we draw influences from all sorts of cultures all over the world. I’ve studied West African music and I’m currently a student of classical Indian music. Luke is an amazing bluegrass musician and Marta has been in the symphony for 25 years. Her and Sarah both are classically trained. It’s really broad and none of us really listen to the same music. So maybe I would say it’s cinematic world folk music.

How would you describe the progression of the band from the first album to the new one?

The first album was released in 2004, so we’ve had quite a few years to develop since then. We’ve also added members to the band in the meantime who also serve as co-writers. They just bring so much to the table as far as the songwriting they’re contributing. We’ve developed over time. The first album was kind of a seed and this one is certainly more mature than the first one. I think it’s just the natural development over the years and a lot of hard work.

You mentioned that early on in life you didn’t feel like there was much life in the church. Has your perception changed?

Yes, in a lot of ways it really has but in all fairness, back then I was 10 years old and I lived in a little tobacco town in the middle of nowhere. There were probably more cows there than people. My worldview on that was probably not the most acute. It just had to become real in my own experience. I remember that, one of the first times I walked back into a church after so many years away, I found myself walking from the back of the church to the front on top of the pews. I just didn’t know the way things worked!

For me now, with music and worship music in particular, being such a thriving part of the church culture, that to me is where I’m finding a lot of life. There is a growing group of young, creative people who are not going to just write or rehash the same sounds and the same things that have been done for so many years prior. They’re wanting to express their personal conviction of God through their art and music and for me, there’s a lot of life in that. Like I said earlier, it’s just another form of communication. I love what I’m seeing but I think that in a lot of ways, the church has a long ways to go creatively. I think that it should be one of , if not the most creative force on earth.

Why is it not?

I would say the primary hindrance is fear. I think that more and more people are realizing that authenticity cannot be replaced by anything. The world is hungry to see something authentic. We’re done with the hype, we’re done with the slick expressions. The world really wants to see something real no matter where that comes from. I think it’s an opportunity for the Church to really become who She’s created to be. Music and art are wonderful vehicles to express that authentic devotion. I could care less about religion, to be honest, but I long for the reality of the presence of God. If I can encounter that presence and that person, then I think the rest kind of falls into place.

What can churches do to help foster communities of creativity?

I think that one thing churches could do would be allow their musicians and artists to create their own work rather than just being bound to playing songs that everyone is familiar with. Music is contextual and congregational music must be treated that way but even in the Bible, even with David, there are hundreds of different sorts of songs and some of them aren’t very pretty and not all of them are uplifting and I think that just having the freedom of creative exploration and not being afraid if something looks really wacky.

What’s next?

I’m really excited to see where the CD with Songs of Water goes. We’ve already had a real exciting reception even though it’s just now being released. We’re always writing new music and for me personally, I’m working on several books of poetry and I’m working on recording some of my own music. We’d really like to start playing out some more and see where it goes. We love playing theaters and this music really comes alive in that setting so we’re shooting for some venues like that. I’m excited. I think there’s a lot of good things coming.

Here is Songs of Water in 2007 performing their song “Tempest:”


  • Visit the Songs of Water official website
  • Visit Stephen Roach’s official website

The Weekly Town Crier

March 19, 2010 at 7:08 am

warehamtowncrierSome weeks there’s more. Some weeks there’s less. This week there is less. Much less.

Be my friend on Facebook.

Follow me on Twitter.

Subscribe to our occasional music/interview podcast The Habañero Hour in iTunes.

Follow the Habañero Hour on Twitter for regular music/arts news updates, podcast and Phoenix house show announcements.

Become a fan of The Habañero Hour on Facebook for even more goodies and to help spread the love and world domination.

Read this post arguing that “Facebook Killed The Church” and read Drew Goodmanson’s response.

Read as Justin Taylor compiles some thoughts on pastors opting out of Social Security.

Browse some interesting research on the church.

See ten workspaces that inspire creativity.

Read a letter from a small-church pastor to a mega-church pastor: “Your people are coming to me for pastoral care.”

R.I.P. Alex Chilton.

Read about Wachovia’s money laundering.

Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck on the same show?

Don’t fear. You no longer have to use pagan clowns.

Read this piece exploring what faith and indie music have in common.

What Kind of Culture Have We Created?

March 18, 2010 at 6:38 am

753264_vanOn the way home last night I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a couple of things. As I was checking out, the clerk said that it was a good night to work. I asked if that was because it was a slow night and he answered: “Yeah, but also because I have church on Wednesday nights and working gets me out of going.”

Now, this was a young man, probably in his early twenties but somehow, his tone betrayed some sense of obligation to be at church and also some relief that work got him out of going. Even if he still lived with his parents, I’m not sure that he was young enough that his parents would force him to go to church. So where did this sense of obligation come from? And what’s more, how have we filled up people’s schedules so much that they would rather go to work than be with other believers worshiping God, celebrating what He is doing in our midst?

Earlier that day, my wife met a woman who said that she really doesn’t feel comfortable going to church because the van that she drives isn’t very nice and she feels like she gets dirty looks when she pulls up. Granted, some of that might just be negative self-perception or an over-sensitivity to the status of her automobile, but how is it that the warm, loving and welcoming reception she gets inside doesn’t overcome her doubts and fears, immediately disarming her?

As a pastor, I talk to people all of the time who say that they are just “burned out” on church. They have served faithfully for years, giving of their time, money and energy but they just never felt appreciated, much less refreshed. Why is it that we don’t serve out of an overflow of joy in who Jesus is and what He has done?

What kind of culture have we created?

The Weekly Town Crier

March 12, 2010 at 7:39 am

mayor-and-town-crier-largeWord up buttercup. I post ‘em you browse ‘em and we all have a good laugh.

Be my friend on Facebook.

Follow me on Twitter.

Subscribe to our occasional music/interview podcast The Habañero Hour in iTunes.

Follow the Habañero Hour on Twitter for regular music/arts news updates, podcast and Phoenix house show announcements.

Become a fan of The Habañero Hour on Facebook for even more goodies and to help spread the love and world domination.

Read about Mike Tyson’s return to boxing.

Read about Microsoft’s entry into the tablet e-reader market.

Preview the new video series from Francis Chan and the Nooma guys.

Meet the “Unhappy Hipsters.”

Read samples from some of the President’s e-mails.

Read about a new comic book series devoted the the bloodline of Jesus. Kind of a Da Vinci Code meets Wonder Woman.

Read/watch about the nudist church.

Watch this 19-minute video in which Alan Hirsch discusses the missional problem of the Western church.

Read about the radio ad promoting politician J.D. Hayworth as a “good Christian.”

Are you a “Christian hipster?”

Read about the “Fundamental Premises” of the Mormon Faith.

See “Stuff Christian Culture Likes.”

See a really weird Lost comic.

Read about the lesbian who got a Mississippi Prom canceled.

Browse some shocking statistics on pornography from Tim Chester.

Read about the sushi chef in trouble for serving endangered whale.

Read as Gizmodo says that record labels must change or die.

Read as Pink Floyd sues EMI over song downloads vs. album downloads.

Read about the U.S. government spiking bread with LSD.

Read the Seattle Times’ profile of Laura Veirs.

Read as Mashable examines Daytrotter’s new paid downloads option for bands.

Read as The Daily Texan profiles Fanfarlo.

Read C.J. Mahaney’s suggestions for how to treat your kids so that they have good and right thoughts about God.

Read as Justin Taylor considers whether or not we are still guilty for sins to which we may be genetically predisposed.

Find out more about The Gospel In Life, a new DVD curriculum from Tim Keller.

Music Friday

March 12, 2010 at 7:39 am

As you may or may not but probably should know, I do an occasional music/interview podcast with a good friend of mine, Mark Whiten. Yesterday as I was working on some things for Church of the Cross, where I pastor, I was also browsing a playlist of old artists who at some level, expressed faith in Jesus without being part of “Contemporary Christian Music.” I was looking for artists to include on future episodes, I was working on some church stuff, so I honestly wasn’t paying attention to many of the songs that came and went. And then one made me stop. And repeat it. Several times. A song I had forgotten about for many years. A song by a band named The Call and a song all the way back from 1986 called “I Still Believe:”

For Better Art, Love God More: An Interview With Ben + Vesper

March 10, 2010 at 8:48 am


Special thanks to Jenelle D’Alessandro for her wonderful transcription help!

Ben and Vesper are a married couple who also happen to record together as Ben + Vesper for Sounds Familyre, you know the Holiday at the Sea/Habañero Hour favorite record label of Daniel Smith. The couple recently recently released an EP called LuvInIdleness, and I recently caught up with them to find out about how their faith affects their art, their relationship with Sufjan Stevens and what’s next:

A question you probably get asked a lot is about being married and being in a band together. Does that present any challenges? Is it great?

B: We love it. It comes really natural to us because that’s sort of the context in which we met. That’s always been the way we worked together.

V: I guess I realized recently that it’s actually been the best thing for our marriage.

How so?

V: It’s brought us together time-wise. We’ve always spent a lot of time together because we work at home, but I think it just created an understanding between us artistically. It added another level to our relationship.

We found that when we had to communicate on an artistic level, it helped our communication on an every-day level. It brought us to a common ground, to a place of being flexible in understanding one-another, but also to really challenge each other and try to bring out the best in each other. It’s really worked both ways, it’s stretched us in our marriage towards a healthy direction, as well. For us, it’s just always been a part of our relationship.

Did you meet through music?

V: We met kind of on a fluke. We were playing at the same music festival which wasn’t really a festival, there were about 5 people in the audience, and most of them were playing that day.

B: It was an outdoor festival. The stage was the size of Woodstock. It was giant, the biggest stage I’ve ever seen, let alone played on.

V: The whole attendance could have sat on the stage, easily. It was very uncomfortable.

B: It was “the stage that was set for our first meeting.”

V: Something went off in me as soon as I saw Ben, and I knew I was going to marry him. But it was another year and a half before we started dating. I think because neither of us were interested in casual dating at all. Yes, it was a long, excruciating year and a half of pining.

But you were both doing music prior to meeting.

B: We were in separate bands.

How was the transition then to doing music together?

V: We’d always played music together, even when we were just friends because we clicked so closely. Ben was doing a folk-duo, Simon and Garfunkel-type duo. I was just doing my own folky thing. It was really kind of easy to sit in on each other’s stuff. We played together a little bit.

When we got married I was mostly doing the most active song-writing and performing. But Ben would accompany me. We’ve always done this together but the difference was that this project–meaning Ben + Vesper–is that it started when I was just about to have our 2nd child and I really wasn’t finding time at all to do our music. So Ben conceived of this project as a way to give me a chance to sing without a whole lot of preparation or intense work. We conceived of this just originally just being Ben playing electric guitar and the both of us just singing in unison. Quite a different sound than it wound up being.

For those who might not have heard you, how would you describe your music?

V: That’s the question every musician hates.

But every interviewer loves to ask.

V: Someday we’re actually going to craft an answer to that question.

B: Well, the closest, in terms of our latest EP, the closest we’ve come in describing it in words is: if you watch the movie Xanadu then right after that watch a video production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

V: An amateur production, you mean?

B: Any. And then you go to sleep. The soundtrack to your dreams, after watching these two movies, will be LuvInIdleness, our latest EP. That’s the best we can do.

V: Or I guess you can call it ‘indie pop.’

Do you have a typical song-writing process?

B: It’s pretty straight forward for this project. I start with the words and then craft the melody, and then the basic guitar or accompaniment around the melody. It’s really always in that order. I just find that any songs that pushes me to create the melody that is “the truest” to the words and the concepts that I want to convey. Then I’ll bring it to Vesper and she’ll write all of her parts, all of her harmonies. And then once we have it at that stage, then it depends on the tour, on who we’re recording with. They will bring their stuff to the table. We really enjoy that part of the process, because depending on who you’re playing with, you give them time and the music will mutate and transform into something completely different. That’s what we love to be surprised about. That‘s sort of been the process for the past 3 albums that we’ve done.

How did the relationship with Daniel Smith and Sounds Familyre come about?

B: That came about probably 10 years ago.

V: It came about through Sufjan because we used to hold a house concert series in our home. And we had a lot of different types of songwriters come through. So I was doing an interview on a radio station about my music, because that’s what I was doing at the time, and the DJ after we were done just handed me a CD and said, “Hey check out this guy, Sufjan Stevens.” It was his self-produced record called “A Sun Came.” It had just come out. So, I really enjoyed it, and I thought he’d be really interesting to have at a house concert. He had never played his music live before. We actually just found the photos of that concert. We have these historic photos. He just showed up with his banjo and just kind of winged it. And, I think it was maybe a year and a half later that “Seven Swans” came out. Through him I think we went to one of the shows and met Daniel. Or maybe he had submitted some stuff from Sounds Familyre for a different project he was doing. But it was all through that that we had this relationship with them and, like I said, when Ben first conceived of this project he really felt like this would be something he wanted to submit to Sounds Familyre. So I think this whole process between–he took a week to write the song, we recorded the demos in a day, I had the baby, and the next week we had a record deal.

Did having children affect your artistic outlook?

B: Definitely. Absolutely. We are always very quick to say that when had our first child that’s when our artistic endeavors really became more focused. There’s sort of a common eye-line that lifted off. We found a completely new inspiration when we had our first child. And then our second child, it just increased. Our children have really blessed our efforts because they really just provided a new framework for us to write and to perform. There are just as typical challenges now as when we didn’t have kids, but in terms of a life-style, we really enjoy doing music and art as a family. So, we’ve really found it to be a symbiotic relationship: parenting and producing art.

Vesper, you do visual art also, right?

V: We both do. We both have degrees in art.

Is the creative process similar for the different mediums? How do they relate to one another, or do they?

V: I think they definitely relate to each other. I think it’s also interesting because Ben and I have very different approaches to our artwork. He’s much more an expressionist kind of painter. I’m an illustrator. So, what I do is a lot more of straight-forward communication. You better get it within the first 10 seconds, or I haven’t done my job. Whereas, his work is much more layered and nuanced, in terms of the communicating meaning aspect. I think that our song-writing is very similar to that, too. My songs are much more straight-forward, trying to tell a story or really craft an image for you that means you should really get it on the first hearing. There’s not much…it’s more in the folk tradition. Ben’s is much more…he really experiments with the way words sound together. It’s a much more experimental style of writing, I think.

B: I think it’s just that I want to, in m y writing, just appeal a little more to the subconscious level, rather than telling the story in a didactic way, but telling it more in a way that draws out the listener. Even if the meaning of the song isn’t apparent on the first listen. I think Vesper’s right in that that’s much more of the way I paint, visually. But they definitely work together. Whenever I am painting, 2617901I’m a better song-writer. When I’m not painting I think my songs suffer. So it’s really important for us to be doing different aspects of art at the same time.

V: I also think that one interesting thing has been how we’ve cross-pollinated. We did much different artwork before we got together. So my work now takes on a lot more expression and Ben can definitely take out the double “o” brush now and add at a lot of detail. We’re actually sitting in front of a painting that Ben did and it is a very literal painting of a horse on a very, very detailed grass. It looks like something I did. Except that the horse is beady pink. That’s a little different. I probably wouldn’t choose that color.

How does your faith influence your art?

B: I think about it in terms of that we’re both Christians and we both in the Word of God as the absolute foundation of our life and everything we do and think and feel. And so, naturally, it comes through anything we try to express, any endeavor that we put our hand to is going to be informed by our deepest convictions. That’s really as simplistic as i can make it. For us it’s not really a conscious decision about a certain genre that we’re aiming towards, artistically. It’s more a matter of how does our beliefs enter into not just our production of art, but our production of everything: every decision we make, every thought process, it has to be informed by our relationship with God. So, it’s never been something we think too much about in terms of coming to a crisis point of “are we Christian artists, or aren’t we?” I think the short answer is: we’re Christians and we’re artists. We can, sort of, let others play with what that means.

V: For me, one of the values I really hold highly is authenticity. And I think that if you really believe that your entire life is under the gaze of God, your entire life and everything you think and everything you do, then you better not try to BS anybody. And you better not try to push people into a paradigm that they aren’t interested in. Does that make sense?

In terms of what a lot of people try to do, they either try to be so completely overt in their music with the gospel message that it ends up just becoming propaganda and people that don’t believe don’t want to spend the time listening to that. It’s not their paradigm. Or it ends up being, “oh, we have to try to infiltrate some sort of ‘culture,’ so let’s just suppress what we believe and intentionally not speak of it. Both of those are lies. I don’t think God thinks kindly to that approach.

B: I think it’s a question of context. It’s knowing your context, knowing the proper context for the creative output. One reason I respect Daniel Smith and why The Danielson Family has always been such an important band to me is that he is always very clear about his context. He’s clear about what he’s trying to do with his music and the people he wants to speak to. He’s created a universe and world where he has certain parameters and his audience is very much in mind. He’s 100% authentic. He can speak about his faith the way he wants to and he doesn’t let anybody dictate the rules. He creates the rules of what he feels comfortable with. But his intention is communication. So his words, lyrics, his song-writing is very specific and very important to his goal of communication to a specific audience. I really, really respect that and that’s something that we also feel very strongly about. So there’s absolutely…it’s wonderful if you feel that your music, your art, if you want to try to communicate the entire gospel message.

Is that possible, though?!

B: I think it’s possible, obviously it depends on…it’ll be an aspect, or a shade, a color, or a face of the gospel.

V: There are so many facets.

B: In other words, whatever the Lord is leading you to do, that’s wonderful as long as you know your context and you do it in the context where it’s appropriate. So to get up and play a worship song at CBGBs…it depends. If you’re going for communication with that audience, there’s going to be a lot that’s wasted, because that’s music that is meant for an intimate with the Lord. So, if those people in that audience have an intimate relationship with the Lord, then maybe it’s appropriate. So, it’s really about knowing your audience. That is I think where a lot of people get hung up.

V: I just want to add one thing, too, in relation to our house concert history. When we were running the house concerts we lived in the parsonage of our church, so there were some questions about what kinds of acts we could bring in. But we really felt very strongly that it was not about–we had run the Christian coffee house circuit for awhile, I had anyway. And, man. Wow. What can you say? There were some instances in which I was treated so poorly as a performer that I remember the point in which I said, “I will never play in another Christian coffee house,” because it was treated as, “Well, you either have to push the whole gospel message…so that these unbelievers might darken the door of your church basement will get saved by the end of the night.” Or, you’re really just merely providing background music to the “evangelical” work that’s going on, which is people trying to evangelize the people at their table. And we just didn’t feel like we wanted to run that kind of concert. We just wanted it to be about music and beauty. We had certain boundaries, certain things that we asked of the artists. By and large, we felt that our job (our ministry, if you could call it that), was to provide hospitality to these musicians. And, whether they were Christians or not. We felt it was our calling at the time to show as much kindness and authenticity and hospitality to the people who may not receive it when they’re on tour, or just in a club. I think that we have a similar approach to our music right now. For us, it’s primarily that relationship…so whether it’s with the people that we’re playing with in a band, or the people in the studio, or the people that we meet after a show, it’s really just about showing true love to people, really.

We’ve talked about the pressure to sometimes explicitly state the entire gospel in every piece of work…how did we move, especially in the Christian subculture, from taking this entire body of work to judging artists by a single piece of work as a propaganda piece?

B: I think part of the problem that I find is that people are so, we need to redouble our commitment to the artist, to really explore beyond sort of the surface of a song, or even a collection of songs…to work hard to follow the artists that we love and support over the long haul, so that we can step back and get a greater perspective of what’s being said. Just as audience-goers, as listeners, we need to make sure that we’re not being lazy. We need to make sure that we’re being fans and supporters who are really committed to understanding what’s being put forward. I just think that’s really important. That‘ something I try to do as a listener, as a fan of the music that I love. I think that in that way, a lot of times artists who are trying to be light and salt and witnesses in this world, if you do look at the larger body of work, you will often find something that’s more encompassing…I think it’s more about stepping back, about not taking things out of context, but really looking at the whole.

V: Artists are human beings., we’re entitled to a few duds. We are entitled to make some mistake along the way. I think it really is about looking at the larger body of work. We’re sitting here right now looking at a Alexander Calder mobile. Some of them are absolute masterpieces (they all are really masterpieces), but some of them are, you know, might not have hit the mark. But you look at the overall body of his work and you know that this man was one of a kind.

B: I think it’s important for an artist to be able to try things and develop, and to do work that is half finished, but maybe discovers something new and pushes the envelope. And challenges the listener and the artist and can take the next piece off in a new direction. It’s important to make sure that there’s room for that. The industry isn’t necessarily geared toward that. But I think it’s the responsibility of the artist to “never mind” the industry and just to be a responsible artist to always be exploring, and to never feel the need to close the circle, to complete and perfect and tidy up their work, or to cross all their T’s and dot all their I’s. I think that’s where art really suffers, it’s where the artist knows exactly what they’re doing, and they know exactly how they’ll execute it. And then the art becomes meaningless and doesn’t really end up taking people very far, because there’s no give and take [buzzing], so that’s really on us as artists. It’s also the listener‘s responsibility, I think that’s where the relationship becomes really important.

On some level, and especially in the “Christian market” doesn’t this mean re-training listeners? How do we do that?

V: Early music education in schools! Absolutely. I’m really serious, by the way.

B: I think, honestly, that, and there needs to be a serious revival of Christian music like Bach. Where it’s music that is from a completely different era and paradigm. It needs to be so removed from the current industry. I think it’s true. We do need to retrain ourselves on our heritage. We need to understand our heritages as Christians and as artists. Because the problem is now, the industry the way it is, the only reference point that any teenage Christian has, or the music that they are looking for, the music that they like is: go to the Christian bookstore, or go online on iTunes and they’ll see a reference that says, “sounds like Nirvana…you’ll like these guys.”

How did we as Christians go from being at the forefront of the arts, to now just being copycats?

V: Fear. I’m just thinking a little bit of the Reformation here, too. I mean, I’d have to sit down and formulate my thoughts about that. When the Reformation happened, so much that was good happened, but it was also really iconoclastic, so it relegated the arts into teaching tools (which they kind of always were in the Church). But I’m thinking of Bach. Most stuff after Bach, what can you say, in terms of the Church’s relationship to the arts. The pendulum just swung too far over. I think it goes back that far. If you go back to the Reformation. And then I think when the Enlightenment happened they were the ones that were triumphing the new developing the new developments and the arts and we just went into hiding. There’s more to it…

B: I think whenever it really happened, we don’t really know, whenever the shift was it’s because we lost our vision for who we’re supposed to be in the world, and how we’re supposed to relate to the world. And how we’re supposed to be in the world, but not of it. It’s just we have a confused relationship with the world, just in general. Never mind the arts. If you talk about being copycats in music or in art, it’s only because we’re copycats in every other aspect of life to the world. The world still has so much draw to us that we end up lusting over things of the world. That really comes back to the fact that our love for God is not strong enough to the point that we don’t understand a relationship with God. We don’t understand how beautiful and lovely and worthy God is so our affections for him aren’t what they should be. Our affections for the world are out of whack and become much stronger. That’s when we begin losing our distinction as Christians. And losing our salt, because we don’t want to be salty, we want to be with the world, we want to be of the same substance of the world. And we forget that the Lord calls us out of the world. But, I really think it does stem from…something is wrong with our knowledge of God. We don’t understand who it is that we worship, we don’t understand who we serve, who we say we love. So we go after these other things. Art is just sort of an obvious fruit of that. It’s really the first commandment.

V: One of my favorite quotes is from M. Staples and she says, “The devil ain’t got no music. All music is God’s music.” And it’s the truth. It’s the devil that’s the one that counterfeits. The quote really echoes from Psalm 16 that says “at the Lord’s right hand are pleasures forevermore.” I think that if we as Christians really really understood the beauty of God, and really understood his pleasure, we would let go of all this…it’s very freeing when you realize that God is the author of life and beauty and truth and everything good. And there’s no conflict there. We’re free to pursue, under God’s gaze (obviously)…we’re really much more free, as Christians, than we think we really are to not only confront the world, but trump it. We have the trump card. We have the Author of all this truth and beauty that everybody really is seeking after. I think, Mike Bickle says, “if we understood just the primary pleasures, the secondary pleasures would have their rightful place.” And the primary pleasure is God himself.

Are there any practical ways where churches can help foster the arts again?

V: Preach the first commandment in the first place.

B: Yeah I really think it comes down to that. I don’t think it needs to be that churches need to open up all of these specialized ministries or outreaches, or try to be cool, or any of that. It needs to be at the root, to really seek as the Church, to become God’s temple again. Where he is worshipped and adored and glorified for who he is. The rest will follow. At the end of the day, music means nothing. Art means nothing, if God is displaced by our idols. Everything else becomes completely worthless. That’s what really what the church can do: to make a commitment to prayer and worship and to the Word. To love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And to love our neighbor as our self. That’s what it comes down to.

What’s next?

B: We are getting ready to go on a short 2 week tour. We begin next week. We’re going to be touring with Danielson and with Ortolan who is another wonderful band on Sounds Familyre. We’re going to be heading down to SXSW and playing several shows along the way. That’s our next endeavor and we’ll be playing all of our songs from the EP and just be promoting that. That’s what’s next. I’m working on some new material for the next recording. We have another full length that’s being mixed right now that we hope will be ready for the summer.

Anything else that you want people to know?

B: Something that I try to live by, creatively, is the idea that as Christians we should be first to be the most experimental and the most engaging and the most inventive in our creative pursuits. Because we have the most reason to be. We have the greatest example before us in Jesus, in the Father, in the Holy Spirit. We have the most reason to be the most daring in our art, the most reckless in our creativity, because there’s nothing more reckless and crazy than what Jesus did for us. So, how can we hold back in our creation? How can we be so conservative and safe, and just sort of boring, when we are sons of the Living God? That’s really what I try to live and work by, what Vesper and I try to order our lives. So just to encourage others that they have freedom, because our Creator is a joyful God and he’s worth celebrating.

  • Visit Ben + Vesper at Sounds Familyre