I thought “Stay With Me Jesus” was an interesting one, can you tell me more about that track?
I remember when I wrote that song, that was one of those songs that I kind of wrote in ten minutes from start to finish. Words and music. I remember that specifically being born out of watching coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and watching somebody thanking God for saving, I think it was her child or her house, amidst some of the most destructive powers that have been seen recently. That idea is so… powerful to me, that somebody can be surrounded by wanton destruction and so much death, and say, “thank you for saving this.” I sort of set out to write about that without judgment in the sense that I think that that’s a really ambiguous statement, I think you can view that situation one of two ways. That can either be like “holy crap that’s amazing and life affirming” that you can find meaning in something so horrible, or it could be also be like “you’re crazy, if God really cared about you how could he destroy this many people?” I was just fascinated with that idea and wrote the song with that in mind. The protagonist is someone that’s been surrounded by death their entire life but to the end maintained this faith. And I presented it without commentary for the most part.
You know, it’s funny because when the record came out there was sort of three versions of our religiousity. There was two Christian websites, one that said that I was [against Christianity] and one that said it was very faithful to Christianity. There was also an Atheist website that said "learly, he’s making fun of or pointing out the inconsistencies of certain religious beliefs." like that there’s different interpretations of that song. I left it ambiguous enough to have people read into it whatever they want. I may have my personal beliefs when I wrote it, but it shouldn’t necessarily impact how people read the song. The intentionality of the songwriter in this whole thing almost doesn’t matter in a way. You know, we all have our own associations in all the music that moves us.
You seem drawn to the concept of heaven in your writing, especially on the song “Big White Bed” from the new EP. Why the fascination?
Yeah, you know, it was sort of the same session which was interesting. I was like “alright, I gotta stop writing songs about God, I can’t talk about this anymore.” Then we put out an EP and there’s another one on there, and I was like “I forgot about that one!” I think it’s a similar thing, you know, we wrote a song called “All the Way Up to Heaven” which was sort of playing with the same idea of everybody’s going to die, but it’ll be fine once you’re in heaven. I don’t even know what the intentionality behind that was but it is sort of similar to some other songs in the way of just, this idea of faith and how maybe it could be something that’s really freeing or it could also be something that’s really limiting in some ways. And that song is really ambiguous, I think I always try and put something wry or dark, there’s always some kind of wry or dark humor in the lyrics that I write and I don’t think those songs are any different. You know there’s definitely a twist in there, I hope, on some level, but once again it’s not for me to decide.
So despite the constant references to Judaism and the lyrics, do fans sometimes still think you’re a Christian band?
Oh yeah! I mean, we’re on tour with the band Jack’s Mannequin and even they were saying “yeah we kind of had to look it up” because on first blush there’s some songs about heaven, there’s some songs about God, and so without really delving way into the lyrics and getting a sense of the history of the band and realizing that we all had Bar Mitzvahs it’s sort of like “what is this all about?” Just what I said before, you know, you hear the word “Jesus” or “Heaven” in a song and 9 times out of 10 it means a certain thing. I think this may be that 1 time out of 10 where it doesn’t mean what you think it means, but then again, it could. I’ve read that people have sung “Stay With Me Jesus” in church and stuff and I think that’s awesome. I mean, that a song can be re-appropriated in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended because it’s not up to me to decide what it is. I have my own personal views about a lot of this stuff but it’s not for me to tell people they’re wrong for interpreting it a certain way.
I think some of it comes from the upbeat nature of the music as well.
With those songs did the music come first or the lyrics?
I’d say 95% of the time music comes first. Lyrics are really hard for me, melody has always been a much easier thing for me to wrap my head around. Writing words you want to sing again and again, and have meaning and sing well, I think it’s not just hard for me, I think it’s hard for a lot of people. I don’t think there’s that many artists that are great lyricists when you really get down to it. If you ever listen to classic rock radio, you’ll know every song, I challenge you to think about what those words mean. I mean, they don’t mean anything! Or they mean something stupid so, I’ve always been intimidated by that but some people do it really well. There’s some great lyric writers out there but not that many.