I saw you guys at Radio City with MercyMe. One thing that strikes you right away is that you're not really a Christian rocker. Your songs are different--it's more worship music. Your songs come across almost more like hymns--sort of addressing God directly, as opposed to singing about God.
That's a very fair assessment.
Do you see your concerts differently?I don't know that I do. We're really trying to write songs that articulate [faith] for a specific group of people here in Waco, in a way that functions in a corporate worship setting. They're just a little bit outside church culture to begin with, and they usually find their way to us due to their disenchantment with what they've experienced thus far within the church.
It gives us the freedom to explore things that perhaps a really well-established act doesn't have the ability to do, just due to the fact that they've established their sound.
Tell me a little bit about the genesis of the [Waco] church and music for the church.I was still an undergrad when a friend of mine, who was actually the first pastor--we were just chatting on the balcony one night on my apartment about church. He was currently a pastor of a little country church outside of town. He was still an undergrad as well. Somehow the conversation drifts to our peers and Baylor [University] and the environment [at] a Christian university. I had a lot of issues with the establishment of church. I start[ed] talking about ministry and what if ministry came from relationship and was just an extension of life lived? It started stirring things in me and before long, we got our hands on some survey [Baylor] had done with their student population. [They'd] come up with this number that there were about 8,000 students that never set foot in church their entire stay at school, which was very surprising to me, because it's a Christian university. But I knew that you would have people from our apartment complex, they get up on Sunday morning and realize they had woken up late and would dress as if they had gone to church before they would go eat in the cafeteria. That gives us some insight as to the environment.
So before we knew it, we had a band and decided to carve out a space where maybe some of these folks could sort through a lot of the things...
It was probably the front end of the modern worship music. It was these praise choruses, but real simplistic, repetitively-composed lines that didn't really go anywhere.
Like headache music.
Yeah. And there we were rocking it.
Had you been writing your own songs at all before then?
No, not really. Just things you would never let anyone hear.
What was your musical background at that point?I had been playing piano for a really long time, since I was a kid plunking around. My mom thought I needed lessons because all of a sudden, things I was plunking started turning into melodies that she recognized. Then when I came to Baylor, I actually was studying music, and piano was my instrument of emphasis.
I picked up guitar the year the church started, and I just couldn't really put it down. It was really a sickness. It started cutting into class time, etc., so it was no good. I couldn't sever myself from it.
How did you get to the place you are with your look?(Laughs) I don't even remember when the beard thing happened and I don't understand it really. It's the shaving of the upper lip that confuses me. I don't know how that progression-the upper lip gets shaved and then hair just pours from the chin. On top, actually I had really long, shoulder-length hair for a good while. And then it was in 2000, New Year's Eve, I went into the back room and just wanted to turn over a new leaf. So I had this little spiritual cleansing moment and came back out of the bathroom and I had shaved my head and chin. My wife was quite distraught. One of those things I might should have talked over first.
It's a little easier than the long hair.
I plead ignorance. Songwriting to me is just a bizarre, an elusive thing for me. I tend to write in spurts. A lot of my pals, they can sit down, they're really disciplined and can sit down every day and turn something out, whether it's good or bad, I don't know; they can spit a song out quickly.
I've kind of taken a different slant on it and I feel like, most of my job as a songwriter's done when I don't have guitar or pen and paper in hand. I read a lot.
What do you read?Oh gosh, everything, from the classics. I started being fairly intentional and going, if I'm going to write, I'm going to need words. I should pay really close attention to how they've been used effectively to move folks. I just started with just a lot of classical literature. Recently stumbled onto just a group of newer writers that, I guess the Dave Eggers route, McSweeneys and all those jokers. I wasn't a reader growing up, at all. So initially it was intentionality; now, I've just fallen in love with words and just think the craft is such a brilliant one.
And as well, just paying attention to life-the sad thing, a lot of folks aren't watching or paying attention to a lot of moments that are common and universal to our experience. As an artist, part of your goal or responsibility is to be aware of those moments and let them bang around inside of you for a little bit so whenever that moment of inspiration hits, you have a place to write from as well as words that can capture it. So I've spent a lot efforts on those things rather than what I feel like I can't control, which is the moment when something starts to flow.Do you look at old hymns? For instance, on the new album, with the song "O Praise Him"--when the lyrics [say written by] Crowder, you think, really? And not in a bad way. Yeah. I do have a number of hymnals and it's another thing I do--throughout the years, I've just found myself reading [them]. That song was written on a plane from Dallas to Atlanta. There's a few songs that you're going, Wow, that came from someplace else. That's one of the ones that I feel very little responsibility for. I agree [it] sounds very hymnlike or the words are words you don't typically see in a modern worship song. I don't feel like these songs are my "breathing" as much to begin with. It feels like there was purpose in their birth, initially for these [Waco] folks--it was like, cool, there's something these guys can cling to and it will help them voice things they feel and believe. As the songs started leaking out and being sung in other communities, it was obvious that there was a platform outside of what we were experiencing in Waco. It was really a sense of responsibility. For a long while I neglected [it].
I had a great friend sit across the table from me and go, "Dude, these aren't your songs to begin with, and you need to carry them in a way that is responsible, follow that responsibility."