How We Got Here (Part 5): California Dreamin’, oh and Dave Grohl

I’ll never forget that flight to LA. It was a 5 hour flight that felt like 20. I had never been to California, never seen the Pacific. A performance more important than any performance in my life awaited me. At last we landed, took a Taxi to our hotel, from which we could see the Hollywood sign from our window. I don’t ever remember feeling like a “big star”. We had too many people in our life keeping our egos in check, and too much uncertainty for that. But this, this was as close as I ever felt.downsized_0921091819.jpg

We headed over to the Warner Brothers building to meet the staff and to meet with Tom Whalley, the CEO. We arrived at the beautiful WB headquarters, which I thought resembled a ski lodge. It was beautiful. I remember seeing a giant Muse banner as we walked in. A lady met us in the offices and gave us a tour. There were multiple floors, a whole area for merchandise design and production, and lots of employees. We had signed our deal with Warner in June of 2008. It was September of 2009, and it had been 8 months since our separation from Cause for Alarm. We had been a Warner Brothers artist for minimum of 8 months, 14 if you count the time with CFA. We were never assigned an A&R person. (A&R is your liaison between the artist and the label), so our only contact with the label was through our manager Jon talking with Tom Whalley.  We met all sorts of staff, many were friendly, but no one, and I mean no one, knew who we were. They were generally shocked when we told them we’d been on the label for 14 months. We were kind of shocked too but we shrugged it off though because we had a meeting with Tom, and if the CEO knew who we were then we’d get through this no problem.

We walked into Tom’s office. It was beautiful. It was large and had artwork and memorabilia from Warner artists. There was a black baby grand piano. Tom was confident, and slightly intimidating. Maybe he wasn’t, I was just intimidated by the weight of the meeting. You see, when you hear the term “big wigs”, this guy is who that is referring to. Except, this was the biggest of all the big wigs. The guy with the most power. The guy with all the superstar’s numbers in his phone. The guy who just sold his house for 18 million and is managing Tupac’s estate. This guy could put us in the best position possible to be a huge success, or failure.

I remember Tom telling us he loved our record. That in and of itself was huge, and gave us some confidence. He told us we had some work to do to get better, but we knew that. He apologized for the delay in our progression with the label and said he’d do everything in his power to make it right. He was genuinely friendly and we left that meeting with a good feeling. That was the first good feeling we had had in a long time. All there was left to do now was play the showcase and get out of there.

We arrived at Center Staging in Burbank and began our setup. These places have multiple small rooms for rehearsals and showcases like this one. Someone told me that one of the guys from New Kids On The Block had just walked by me. The room was similar to the one we had played at in New York, and they even went out of their way to get me a Yamaha CP-70 piano, very similar to the one I owned. We got comfortable and headed out for lunch (where I had some unforgettable mahi tacos). As we pulled back in to the studio, in the parking lot, cigarette in hand, was Dave Grohl. I have a ton of respect for Dave Grohl, but for Jim, Brennan, and Kyle, this was like seeing one of their musical heroes. Dave was at the studio rehearsing for his Them Crooked Vultures project, and Queens of the Stone Age lead singer Josh Homme was in the parking lot with him. IMG_0962.JPGNone of us recognized him. We could hear John Paul Jones’ bass riffs from the parking lot. We got up the courage to walk up and say hello. Dave asked what we were doing there. “Showcasing for Warner Brothers” we said. “Who you playing for? Tom? Tom freaking Whalley”. “Who’s your A&R guy?” he said. “You know what A&R stands for right? Alcohol and restaurants.
You get as much out of them as you can”. Dave was completely authentic and kind, and had a certain vigor for putting down record labels. “Always remember, they need you way more than you need them.” He wished us good luck, posed for a picture, which Josh Homme begrudgingly snapped for us, “I should just do this for a living” he said. Then we went on our way, completely starstruck and amazed at the interaction.

Dave’s words were prophetic. If only we knew then what we know now.

Showcase time arrived, and the room filled up. This was more people than we had playedIMG_0963 for at our previous showcases. There were roughly 30 people there, some of which I recognized from headquarters, others I didn’t. Muscle memory kicked in, and we ran our set, just like we did a thousand times before,
and it went off without a hitch. No messed up lyrics, no tech problems. Nothing. We all felt like we gave a really solid, energetic performance and we were proud of it. Jon gave us a nod of approval. We did our job. Afterwards everyone was really gracious and friendly. Tom Whalley came up to me, told me great job, he enjoyed it and would be in touch. We were on top of the world. Time to go home and get back to working on our craft. For the first time in 14 months we had a path and a purpose, and we were not going to let it slip away.

2 months later we were on our way home from Nashville when Jon called. “Check your emails. Idol is using ‘Something to Hope For’ in their ad campaign for their new season” “Idol as in ‘American Idol?'” “Yes. Buckle up boys.”

How We Got Here: (Part 6) “Hurry Up and Wait”

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How We Got Here (Part 4): Small Town Boys in a Big City

How We Got Here (Part 3): Cause for Alarm

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

How We Got Here: (Part 7): It’s Yours, But it’s Not

There’s a strange injustice in the music business. It is a cruel temptress. It doesn’t just break your heart, it builds you up. It gives you a false sense of security. It lets you think that you actually have a shot at being something. It makes you confident, and it feeds your identity. Dangles the carrot until you are starving. Just when you think you can finally take that bite..

It crushes you.

It pulls the rug from under you. It makes you realize how powerless you are. Just a number. A pawn in a game to fill other people’s wallets. You worked and worked and are as good as you can be in that moment, and it’s not enough. Your life’s work. All of your experiences, thoughts, emotions, victories and failures up to that point are put into a project, and instead of being shared with the world, it’s damned to obscurity.

From roughly August 2010 to December 2010 we didn’t know our fate. We had no idea what was happening with us and our label. Honestly, we wanted out, but didn’t know what that meant. It had been 2 1/2 years of struggle and no progress. Writing new material was our solace, but it was difficult knowing it could be years before we could put it out. Then a few days after Christmas we got word. The new CEO had decided to cut ties with The Undeserving. At that point, it was a hallelujah.

Now there are things I understand about the business and how it related to our band. I understand that we weren’t the best thing ever. I understand that our record as a whole was probably only slightly better than average. I understand that the people who signed us and were passionate about us originally were gone and we were somewhat of a redheaded stepchild on the label. I understand those things. What I do not understand now, nor will I ever, is how a CEO, or whoever, can look at the amount of money that we brought back to the label, and think we weren’t at least a viable product. The record label spent roughly $150,000 on The Undeserving. We PAID IT BACK. We never released a record, or went on a big tour. We never played live on national tv. Never once did our songs get national radio play. But thanks to songs that lent themselves to TV placements, and one person at the label who knew what to do with them, we had enough income from roughly 15 TV placements that we paid back $150,000 of advance money. I don’t know this for sure, but it’s an educated guess that what we did is EXTREMELY rare. We recouped a 6 figure deal without ever putting out a product.

Now note the key words there. We “paid it back”. Record deals are not personal debt. But the way they are structured now the artist doesn’t make money until that advance money is paid back. That’s why it’s important to tour and generate income in other areas, which we had great difficulty doing without a record.  So while all this was going on, we never had a steady income, other than our part time jobs. We’d make money at shows every now and then, but the band had expenses. Our van, insurance, investing in merch, saving for more recordings, the list goes on. Paying ourselves was the occasional $50-$100. We were working essentially a near full time job for no money. This took a toll on us and our families. My wife Crystal sacrificed far more than I ever did. She was at home working a full time job and extra jobs on the side while I was galavanting around the US for no money. But she believed in us and our mission.

But now, we were off our label. The chances of us getting another deal was slim to none. There aren’t many second chances in this industry. Warner owned the rights to our record, and wasn’t about to give them up . We got a nice apology email from Kevin Law. It was over, so we thought.  We would put this experience behind us,  We would put the record out on our own and see what we could build. Sometime in March or April of 2011 Jon calls us. “Warner is keeping the record. I’m gonna fight like hell but at this point, it’s theirs, and you can’t legally release it”. I asked Jon about getting our lawyer on the phone to see if he could help in any way. “We can get him on the phone, for about $600”.

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We had no money. No resources. Our friends and family had already bent over backwards to help us. This was our nightmare. We had heard these stories before we signed our deal, and we signed with Warner so what happened wouldn’t happen. I’ll never forget the feeling of despair at a band meeting. We were devastated, helpless, and out of options. I skipped college for this. This.. This was the music business. Not the glitz and glamour, tour busses and catering, private planes and tv performances. Those things were for the select few. This was real, and it was terrible.

To Be continued….

 

How We Got Here: (Part 8): Free at Last

 

How We Got Here: (Part 6) “Hurry Up and Wait”

How We Got Here (Part 5): California Dreamin’, oh and Dave Grohl

How We Got Here (Part 4): “Small Town Boys in a Big City”

Momentum was building. Word was out in our community that we had signed a deal. Our little town of Fremont was behind us, and we had even done some local TV appearances in Toledo and Cleveland. Things looked like they were coming together, and people were excited for us, but behind the scenes, we had a huge question mark. Our record deal was up in the air, and with it being December, the industry had shut down for a month for the holidays. From November 2008-January 2009 we had no idea what the business side of our endeavor was going to look like. I wish the next part of the story was more interesting, but it’s not. Sometime in January 2009, after two months of ambiguity, we found out that Warner Brothers was going to pick up Cause For Alarm’s half of the contract. None of us remember the details all that well, but we found out we were 100% a Warner Brothers recording artist, and after some paperwork, we were clear to send the now completed record on to mixing.

Mixing our record was literally one of the highlights of my life. Only twice did I ever feel like we had the power of a major label behind us. The first was the last few songs we recorded, which was 3 weeks straight in Nashville with a full budget. And the second was mixing. Mixing the record just means you take everything you’ve recorded, and a mixing engineer makes it sound way better than when it was recorded. Kevin Law was technically still involved with us in some executive capacity, and he was friends with Michael Brauer, who is one of the most sought after mixing engineers in the world. Michael works out of Electric Lady Studios in NYC, built by Jimi Hendrix. Michael cut us a great deal because he knew Kevin, and the label was on board, so in March of 2009 we went off to NYC for ten days to work with one of the best in the world.

If you want to know what intimidation feels like, try walking into a studio where there are platinum Coldplay records on the wall. Where the walls themselves wreak of music history and legends. Where you run into big stars in the hallways. A place where movies have been filmed, and the best of the best have recorded. Again we felt in over our heads. All of this money spent on us. Could we deliver? Were our songs actually that good? They say art is found in the overlap of complete narcissism and crippling self doubt. Well, both of those emotions hit us hard that week.

We went into studio 2 where Michael is set up. Michael Brauer is a total New Yorker. He made an art form out of swearing. He was kind and generous, and also yelled at Brennan for bringing that “****ing smelly Subway ****ing sub sandwich back in his studio.” Then he ordered us pizza. We were pulling 2 songs a day to get done, and Michael worked his butt off, even through a day where the console went down, and we didn’t get started till after 9pm, and finished after 2am, then were back at it by 10am. For this we were so thankful. We learned how to be pros during this trip.

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We came home from New York and got ready to get back on the road, this time our biggest tour ever, with a band called Secondhand Serenade. We played 9 shows in 10 days if I remember correctly, all in theaters or large clubs. There was actual catering. People came. It was something. Now these blogs may make it seem like all of this was happening fast, but remember we started recording this album in 2006. By 2009, the record is in post production, but we’d been working on it for 3 YEARS. A few of the earlier songs written for the record, like “There for You”, were 5 years old. For the most part, we were sick of these songs by now, and were still waiting on Warner to give us a release date. So we’re out on the road, playing for $100 a night, which isn’t enough to cover gas, so we rely on merchandise sales to help. The problem was, no one wants a tee shirt from a band when they don’t yet have their music. This was 2009, and people still actually paid for music back then. So not having it to sell was really difficult. We came back from that tour $70 in the red + the work we missed at home. Oddly enough, we spent $70 of band money at Outback steakhouse one night. Figures. We got home from tour in April, and started the waiting game.

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The Undeserving April 2009

3 of the 4 of us kept our regular day jobs during this time. We all had bills to pay, and even while on the label, there’s no consistent income. We all shared in some humbling experiences. There’s something about running into a fan who wants to hear about everything you’re doing while you’re working at Big Lots stocking the feminine products. I remember working at a dog food packaging plant for a short time during all this. We’d hear Tom Petty on the radio and I’d joke “there’s my label mate Tom”. Not sure anyone believed me. I’m not sure I believed me. I also worked for my church of 1500 people. The questions were constant, and though I loved the attention, basically lying to people to keep their interest got old. The truth was we didn’t know what was happening.

The  late spring and summer of 2009 are a somewhat of a mystery to me. I don’t have any journal entries, photos or videos. I know we played some shows and stayed sharp, and wrote some songs. You see, through all of this there was some sort of disagreement between Kevin Law and Warner Brothers. To be honest, I have no idea what it was. Probably money. We stopped hearing from Kevin during this time, and our manager Jon just tried to keep us in the loop. I remember feeling more and more hopeless, like we would never get a release date for our record. We also had little to no contact with anyone from Warner Brothers. Were we still on the label? Technically yes but it sure didn’t feel like it. All we ever heard was we needed to be on the road more. This was going to be difficult without a record to push but we went and met with a big booking agency anyway. They basically told us they wouldn’t help us out until our label made up their mind. So label says play more shows, that will get ball moving, booking agency says, we’ll get you shows when your label makes up it’s mind. We felt handcuffed, unable to do anything with the art that WE MADE. Completely stuck. Until that September, when we got a phone call. “We’re going to LA to showcase for the CEO of Warner Brothers”.

To be continued…

How We Got Here (Part 5): California Dreaming, oh and Dave Grohl

 

How We Got Here (Part 3): Cause for Alarm

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

How We Got Here (Part 3): “Cause for Alarm”

Sitting in Brennan’s living room, all 4 of us around his coffee table with Jon on speakerphone. “We need to know by tomorrow. There’s good and bad to both. Think about the people you want to work with. This would be a good time to ask God for some wisdom”. Two contracts. Both worth over $120,000. We literally had drafts of both sitting on the table in front of us, and we stared. My stomach turned. We literally did not know what to do, and we had to know like right now.  We had played for all the majors. Had dinner with a few, and now had finished negotiations with 2 labels. Warner and Universal.

Let me tell you, without getting too ahead of myself, I don’t have any regrets. I am thankful for the experiences I had, some of which I will share with you. I’m thankful for what my life has turned into. I’m thankful for my wife, and my two little boys, who may not be here if things were different. But I would be flat lying if I didn’t think about what my life would be like had we just chosen the other contract. Every. Single. Day.

Now on with the name dropping.

It was January 2008, and we flew to New York twice in two weeks for label showcases. If you aren’t familiar with how these showcases work, let me fill you in. A label pays for you and your band to fly in to their town, usually NYC, Nashville , or LA. They rent a small rehearsal room, rent all your equipment, sometimes even the obscure stuff, and you play a shortened set for a very small number of people. These showcases are UTTERLY TERRIFYING at first, but you’d be amazed how acting confident can actually make you confident. One of the hardest things about these showcases is just reading how to interact with whomever is watching you. You don’t want to treat them like a fan, because they’re there to essentially scrutinize you, and often it’s only 2-3 people. I never quite figured it out. One time in Nashville, we performed for Brad O’Donnell who was with EMI. This particular showcase was at a coffeehouse, and I decided it would be a good idea if I went all out. In our normal shows, I would often partially stand up on my piano and my stool during the last song. Well, this particular stage was small, and when I stepped up on the stool, it tipped forward, my leg smashed between the stool and piano, which drew blood and left a nasty burn, and the stool then fell back and hit my guitar which was on the stand. I didn’t completely hit the floor but it was close. There was a moment of terror, but I’ve heard it said better to crash going 100mph than 10. Brad was gracious and we had a laugh. Lesson learned.

Kevin Law was the former VP of Universal Music Group. He made his name signing Nelly, and had substantial success there. Through some circumstances that I’m not aware of, he left Universal and started his own label called Cause for Alarm Records. Cause for Alarm was just launching, but had substantial financial backing, and a small team of people working. They also had a partnership with Warner Brothers. Showcasing for Kevin was the first time I saw that my personal faith could be a detriment in the music industry. “Are you guys Christians?” he asked. “Well, we are Christians in a band, not a ‘christian band'”. “Good” he said. “If you want to make a Christian record we are not the label for you”.  I appreciated his honesty, especially because I did not want to make a “christian” record. Kevin was charming and made us feel like we could trust him. We really liked the appeal of being their first band and having a group of people work just for us. It was hard to not be impressed.

Universal was also very attractive to us. We liked our A&R guy, and they were welcoming to us. I honestly barely remember playing for them, just that is was in the exact same room that Cause for Alarm had put us in. The contracts were very similar, but there were a few hang ups with CFA/WB. We felt in our gut that they were where we were supposed to be, but our lawyer said don’t sign there unless they change this or that. I don’t even remember what it was at this point. So we gave a verbal commitment to Universal, and upon informing Kevin, CFA budged and went after us hard. It felt great to be pursued like that. We burnt our bridge with Universal and in June 2008, after 6 months of negotiations, we were a Cause for Alarm/Warner Brothers Records recording artist.
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As long as I live I’ll never forget the feeling of holding our record advance in my hand. There were two checks, one from WB, and one from CFA, totaling roughly 120K. We felt so important. We were also lucky to have Jon in our ear, constantly reminding us “you haven’t done crap yet so don’t get too ahead of yourselves.”  We each got to keep around $10k, and the rest was spent on lawyers and record production. I banked my money and didn’t quit my day job.

We spent 3 weeks in Nashville recording songs for the record. We spent some time at Tobymac’s studio in Franklin. Toby was very friendly and would come into studio B every morning to say hello and steal our coffee. One afternoon, we heard what we thought was the rap section of “Jesus Freak”. We ran out into the hall to hear Toby going all out. He had a vocal booth on the other side of a door, and all 4 of us and our producer Allen had our heads up against it like 10 year olds. Toby was doing overdubs for a live DVD and was redoing Jesus Freak. How cool is this? We got out our phones to capture whatever audio we could and when he was done we tiptoed away, all smiling ear to ear. I’ll never forget that.

November 2008. Our record is almost done and the economy has crashed. We were in my parent’s kitchen if I remember correctly. The phone rings, it’s Kevin Law. Getting Kevin on the phone was not completely uncommon, but not normal either. “Sorry to tell you guys this, but the financial backing for Cause for Alarm is pulling out. I’m not sure what this means for you just yet, but it may mean you don’t have a record deal”. I remember thanking Kevin for all his hard work, trying to stay positive, hanging up and wondering what the heck just happened. We had no idea what we were in for.

How We Got Here (Part 4): “Small Town Boys in a Big City”

 

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

 

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

The phone rang. It was our manager Jon. “Just heard from Virgin and Atlantic. They’re both interested. You had better get better, and fast.” Panic set in. We were not ready for this. Our songs were not ready. Our relationships were not ready. Our live show was sure as heck not ready. Jon was/is not one to mince words. “You better get your ass in gear” he said. More on that while I take you a few steps backwards in time.

At age 16 I met Brennan Willis. Brennan was in college and I was taking post secondary classes, so we met there. Brennan was starting to work on his production capabilities, and somewhere around age 18 or 19 we set out to record a little EP of some songs I wrote. Brennan was in another band where he had met producer Allen Salmon in Nashville. He sent Allen my tunes, and we set up a way for me to come record, we just needed the cash. I had a man I did not know come up to me after church one morning and ask me how much I needed to record. I said $3,000. He wrote me a check, and away we went. We went to Nashville and had a spot at Blackbird studios. I wore my yellow “Nashville” tee shirt and sat down at a piano that Vince Guaraldi had played the week before. I barely knew how to play the piano, but I banged out my chords, and we finished the 3 songs.

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Most bands start out playing cover tunes at bars. Then they write a little. They hone their live show, and their songwriting, and over a period of time they become prepared for some amount of success or notoriety. We did it backwards. Brennan and I had played about 3 coffee house acoustic sets together when record labels started calling. One of the songs that we had recorded, “There for You”, had major pop/radio hit potential, and labels wanted in. At first it was Word records, a subsidiary of Warner on the Christian side. One of their higher ups flew up to Ohio to see us play. We were in so far over our heads, and had no idea. We had no business playing for any record label, let alone one as big as Word. We went out to Applebee’s after the show, and talked about a developmental deal and a few other options. I got the hint. We weren’t ready. So Brennan and I set out to complete our lineup. We added my brother Kyle on drums, and a few months later Jim stepped in on bass.

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The Undeserving at The Underground in Cincinnati November 2005 (Kyle’s first show)

We went to Nashville as a complete lineup for the first time sometime in 2006. We were scheduled to meet with Jon, the man who was kind of evolving into our manager, although we hadn’t officially met in person yet. At the time, he was just giving us some advice, but he was managing some other successful acts and we knew we were gonna need help navigating our way through the business. Jon is one of my favorite people, but your first impression of him can be intimidating, especially at the time. His strong, 6’4″ frame walked in wearing some sort of designer jeans, a dress shirt with sport coat, haircut and beard that looked like Sawyer’s from LOST, and some good old fashioned Nashville boots, specifically designed to leave their imprints on the butts of musicians. We sat down to eat and the fun began. “I usually tell bands that there is someone who is better than you at what you do within a hundred mile radius, but hell, we’re in Nashville, there’s probably several people in this restaurant who are better than you at what you do”. The fun continued: “You have to fake it till you make it. Look the part. Look like a band. Jim over here looks like he is wearing a tablecloth.” It sounds harsh, but at the time I was smart enough to know that it was exactly what we needed. This was our guy. He would make us better.

We went home and we practiced. Practiced. And then practiced some more. Virgin and Atlantic called. Our lives were consumed by the band. Our family was understanding because we had what looked like a clear path to success. So for a year or so our life was 3-4 band practices a week. We’d run our full set, watch the tape, and then run it again. 3-4 hours a night, then basketball to stay in shape, after we’d been at work all day. We started recording more songs with Allen, and our first album started to take shape. Looking back, I don’t know how we functioned through that. Brennan and I were both about to get married, and the workload was really heavy, but we were young. We played as many shows as we could afford to play. If we got paid, that was a bonus.

Then in 2007 it was time. Time to see if we had it in us. Time to do some record label showcases, and start learning some hard lessons. We drove our van to New York city to play at a little venue called Pianos. We paid for the trip out of our pocket, and did our best to cut costs wherever we could. There were some folks from Glassnote records supposed to be there. We set up our gear and were ready to roll. Sound checks are a foreign phenomenon at clubs like this. You show up. Wait your turn. Get your stuff on stage and play. That was cool and all, but apparently the sound man had never worked with backing tracks. Most bands today use backing tracks for everything. You can’t always have a 20 piece orchestra with you on a stage the size of a kitchen table. The sound man could not quite figure out how to get the click track to my in ears and out of the house. Jon had flown in for this and he was fired up. You could cut the tension with a knife. We were standing on stage and we felt naked. Just waiting. After what felt like an hour but was probably more like 20 minutes, we played our set sans in ears and tracks. We played our hearts out, and hoped for the best.

The next day we got an email from the Glassnote people. They had sent a lower level staffer, and he didn’t stay for our set.

Welcome to the music business. Get ready for more.

 

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The Undeserving at Pianos November 2007

 

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

How We Got Here (Part 3): Cause for Alarm

 

How We Got Here (Part 1): “Far From Home”

 

FAR FROM HOME

There we were, sitting in the office of one of the most powerful people in the entire music industry. Tom Whalley. The CEO of Warner Brothers. The freaking CEO. We were in our early twenties and ready to take on the world. We were four small-town boys from Ohio that had no business being there but we didn’t care. We had been through “adversity”. We had the songs. We were prepared. We had worked our butts off. And the CEO of Warner brothers was on our side. The world was about to be our oyster and we were going to savor every second.

But then, everything turned on it’s head.

Before I tell you the rest of that story, we should start at the beginning. This is my story. It’s a tale of struggle, battle, victory and loss in the music business and in life, and I hope it’s also one of love and redemption.

As a kid, I never had dreams of playing music. I wanted to race cars. (Still do). Around age 13 I had an experience that changed all of that. You see, my childhood was focused around my church. My dad worked for a church, and we had to adhere to certain rules. Music was one of them. I went through all the stereotypical “rock and roll is evil” sermons and drums are bad and don’t even think about dancing lest ye endeth up in hell. I always wondered why my church had an electric guitar and a bass but no drums. It’s as if we left out certain verses in Psalms. At age 13, my dad took another job and things loosened up, and for the first time I was exposed to this thing called “Contemporary Christian Music”.. or CCM for short. My friend exposed me to this band called FFH (Far From Home), and I was hooked. I remember listening to it on the way to school and feeling like I was pushing the envelope. There were drums. Hooks. A freaking guitar solo. But they were singing about Jesus so I was a little confused. The only other “Christian Rock” band I had heard of was Jars of Clay and they were way too risqué. I borrowed the CD from my friend and showed it to my dad, not sure what he would say. At the time my dad’s musical interests mostly were made up by Christian acapela groups (I didn’t yet know of his love for Cat Stevens and the Beatles).  To my surprise, he enjoyed it, and my path towards fanboy began. We went to see FFH, and again, and again. One time after a show, when I was probably 14 or 15, they got their guitars back out and we sat around in a circle and sang their songs. I cried afterwards. I loved their songs, their accessibility, but I was really drawn to their live show. They were pros, and they used their platform to point to Jesus, and I could see that it had a massive impact. I couldn’t help but think that someday I wanted to do the same.

I picked up my dad’s old guitar and took some lessons. I practiced non stop. My mom would get on my case for playing FFH songs way more than I practiced from my guitar book.I spent a summer mowing lawns and bought my first decent guitar. A Tacoma, with the sound hole in the upper right hand corner that looked kind of like FFH’s. Then, at age 16, I had my first big opportunity. FFH was having a contest. They were at the peak of their popularity at the time. They had hits on the radio and sold a few hundred thousand records, and made a decent following for themselves, and had a fan club, and you can bet I was in it. The contest? Record yourself singing one of their songs and send it in. Winner gets to fly to Orlando to hang with them and go to Universal Studios. This was right in my wheelhouse. My future father in law set up an appointment with a producer he knew and we went to a little garage in Toledo to record it. (We talk all the time about how we both lost the audio file). This saved me from sending in a demo made on a 4 track cassette recorder in my basement that sounded like the air being let out of a balloon. We recorded a medley of their songs, put it on a disc, mailed it in, and waited.

Later that summer, while at church camp, you know, one of the ones telling us rock and roll drum beats lead down a dark path, a message was relayed to me that I had won. My friend Jerod had checked my email from my home computer and called my dad at this camp. I got home to a voicemail from Jeromy, the lead singer of FFH. I don’t think I was coherent enough to really remember what he said, but it included, “can’t wait to see you in florida”, and “bring your guitar, you’re playing on stage with us”. That originally wasn’t part of the prize, but for some reason they wanted me to join them on stage. What I didn’t know was that this was a youth conference, with about 3000 teenagers in attendance. Up to that point the biggest crowd I’d played for was 40 in my school’s chapel services. We flew to Orlando in December of 2001, just after Christmas. As a 16 year old I picked my hippest outfit, put some gel in my hair, made sure there was nothing caught in my braces, put my cool Uncle Sam guitar strap on my guitar, tried to fake calm, and walked on stage near the end of their show and played my guitar and sang my nasally voice out.

Had I known before that this performance would be the catalyst for what shaped the arc of my life, I would have had second and third and fourth thoughts about doing it. It could’ve saved me a lot of suffering and heartache. But I walked off that stage, and I was hooked. 3,000 of my peers cheering for me? Are you kidding? And you can get PAID FOR THIS??? Are you serious? Naive, I know.

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The next two years I was an average student. I skirted through math and algebra and physics and history because I had one thing on my mind. Music. I knew school didn’t really matter because my future was set in stone.  I started playing church youth groups and selling burned copies of a demo I made for $5. I played anywhere and everywhere I could chasing what I thought would be my future….

Funny how things play out.

(To Be Continued…)

How We Got Here (Part 2): “Tablecloth”

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Christ the Metaphor

 

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“Metaphor is the only language we have to talk of God”.

As a songwriter, I have become increasingly harder on myself when I’m in the lyric writing stage of my process. Most of that, is that I realize that my daily experience is in some ways unique, and in other ways not at all unique. So I have to take my experience and put it into language that is interesting and compelling. It can be a tall task sometimes. The method most commonly used is that of metaphor. Metaphor is different than simile. Simile uses “like” or “as” to make a comparison. “God is like the wind“. Metaphor just makes the comparison. “God is the wind beneath me”.  Both can be incredibly powerful tools in language to paint a picture that moves people. Both can also be overused and overstated, and therein lies the battle.

The Bible has many metaphors for God. He is the potter, a fountain, a bread, a light, a rock, the beginning and end, a vine, physician, a door, and I could go on. This is how we begin to understand God. Through comparison. We realize that the human institution of language fails at describing God. It doesn’t do it justice, so even Biblical authors compared God to inanimate objects.

So then what about Jesus? 

All sects of the Christian church that I know of hold to a “trinitarian theology”.  Meaning that God is 3 beings, equally. Father. Spirit. Son. Look at that, more metaphors. Libraries of books have been written on this and continue to be.  We think of Jesus as the literal incarnation of God and spirit, who was both fully human and fully God, and who walked with us in human form. We’ve developed sermons, books, talks, and ministries devoted to this literal Jesus, trying to prove his actual existence, and the occurrences of his life as told by the Bible. We can talk about the original manuscripts and who wrote what to whom and why and how old they were and it all adds up to a very compelling case. We call this “apologetics”.  I should first state, that I am all for removing intellectual roadblocks to people so they can see the bigger picture, as long as it’s done with grace, respect, and vulnerability. Apologetics has had a huge impact on me. It gave me something tangible and real. Literal. True. The problem was, that was all that mattered.

Literalism, if we’re not careful, can lead us into dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinking is just our brains saying “this is good, this is bad, he’s in, she’s out, this is right, this is wrong, etc”. Dualistic thinking is attractive to our brains, like chocolate (that’s a simile). It’s easy for our brains to digest and process. It tastes good. It gives us confirmation bias. Frees us from worry. Dualistic thinking is everywhere. It’s in our stories, our sports, our pop culture. It tells us we are safe. It tells us we are not the problem. It tells us we have arrived. The problem is, this thinking often causes us to miss the big picture. It did me.

So then what about Jesus?

Jesus Christ is so much bigger than that. He transcends human thought, emotion. He even transcends our historical records. He gave us a gift, the gift of metaphor. A real one.  Literal and analogical. He is both myth and legend. Story and fact. Tangible and untouchable. Graspable and beyond mysterious. Not just true, but truer than true.

In his birth he taught us that we must be spiritually reborn and find humility. In his life he taught us how to grow, to learn, to love. He taught us how to include, how to be angry, and how to stand up for the least of these.  In his suffering he taught us how to love through suffering, and how to forgive. And in his death he taught us that we too, must die to ourselves. And through that death and resurrection and ascension into His full divinity, we too must be resurrected to reach our full humanity.

And it. Is. Beautiful.  Now we are the body of Christ. We are co-creators with God. The temple. The salt. The caretakers of creation, and the light to the world. And we must let Him live in us and through us. We must love as He did, because love is how we truly experience God, because God is love. Our intellect will always fail us. We must stop letting this Gospel be only transactional and make it transformational. So it is my hope that we would do all of these things, be all of these things, and be a force for good in this world. And we can, if we’d just stop missing the metaphor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the Dust

creation EP.jpg(This is blog #3 about songs featured on my new project “Creation EP”.)

By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

We’ve all been there. That moment when you know you’ve blown it. You screwed up and now you have to deal with it. You saw something you wanted, and you took it. A thing, a feeling, a position. You wanted it and you made it happen, and in your mind ignoring what the consequences may or may not be. You said it and now you can’t take it back. You ate the fruit. For a few moments, it was sweet. It was a rush, a wave of adrenaline, but in your gut you knew it wouldn’t last. You may have proved a point, but it wasn’t the point you wanted to prove.

“To the Dust” is about that moment. It’s about that feeling of disconnection when you hurt someone you care for. Adam is in the garden, and he and Eve swayed from the path, and it interrupted their communion with the divine. What they wanted, they got, and it turns out that what they wanted wasn’t good for them.

“Sin” is a funny thing. For a long long time we’ve used the Scriptures as a rulebook. Do this, don’t do that. Say this, believe this, don’t believe that. Love these people, exclude those people. Obviously, the Scriptures give us great insight on how to avoid hurting ourselves and the people around us. Most of these principles found in Scripture are there for our own protection, and for good reason. Every day we see the results of actions that hinder human flourishing.

But I think, it goes deeper than that. Deeper than set of rules and regulations. I like to think of it as a flow. We all make mistakes. All of us, all the time. And I don’t think it’s healthy to beat ourselves up over it. Move on, make it right, and try to do better. But the flow, that’s in the heart. When we separate ourselves from this divine flow, that’s what I think sin truly is, and sometimes it takes us a while to even recognize the separation. We cut our communion with God and deep down we long for restoration. We long for the divine breath to “breathe us back to life”. I think this is why men like David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, was called a man after God’s own heart. He was in that flow.

People like to hypothesize about Adam and Eve. What if they never did this or that?Honestly, those questions aren’t that interesting to me. What is interesting to me is how we overcome our shortcomings. How we love each other through it. How we forgive, and restore. How we make things right. How we have community even though we’re diverse in appearance, beliefs, and culture. David paid the price for his actions, and so did Adam. They caused much pain, suffering, and grief. But it wasn’t too much to be overcome by the divine. What would our concept of restoration be if we had never experienced separation?   They are inseparable, at least here on this planet, and I think there is a grand lesson to be learned there. Richard Rohr states “God refuses to be known intellectually. God can only be loved and known in the act of love; God can only be experienced in communion.” I love stories of forgiveness, love, and reconciliation, and I am hopeful that I can make my own life one of those stories. That is what “To the Dust” is all about.

At Last

 

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(This is blog #2 about the songs featured on my new release, the “Creation EP”. 

AT LAST

Genesis 2:22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
    because she was taken out of Man.”

The Genesis creation story is something I’ve been fairly obsessed with for a few years. I’ve studied it inside and out and every which way. I’ve taken a college course on it, I’ve studied the original language and even had conversations with translators. My life has been incredibly enriched by the beauty of this passage, but the point of this blog is not to give you an exposition on it. That’s been done a thousand times before and done better than I could ever do it. What I want you to concentrate on, is the story. I want you to put yourself in it.  Try not to concern yourself with it’s literalism, for that isn’t the point. Richard Rohr puts it: “Literalism is the lowest form of meaning.” Meaning, when you’re only concerned about something’s historical authenticity, you miss it’s spiritual lesson.

So here we have Adam, alone in the garden, for who knows how long. He’s been hard at work tending to it, when God gives him the task of naming the animals. He gives him this task for the purpose of finding a “helper”. Now, these verses here may feel a bit quick, but naming things in jewish culture was serious business. In fact the Hebrew word there can be  defined “to study and know”. So the story here is not about naming our animal friends, but about a great search for companionship.

Can you imagine the loneliness? In the story Adam is presumably the only person. God was there to talk with him, but there was no human interaction. The garden is described as a beautiful place, and as the story goes it kept him occupied, but deep down he still had a need to be known by another human. He had a need for intimacy, and community.

Well inevitably , the animals were not what he needed. So God intervenes, puts Adam to sleep and performs the surgery that trumps all surgeries. Out of Adam he creates the pinnacle of beauty of all His creation, the woman.

When I wrote “At Last” I tried to keep the idea in mind that this was more than just a dude finally finding his girl. This was a man, seeing a woman, for the first time. Ever. What must that have been like? I was continually moved by that thought, and challenged to try to encapsulate it. “This at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh”. Adam feels such relief, and such beauty. He finally found his partner. His companion. His Ally. His wife.

They are one.

There are so many parallels to be drawn. To marriage, to the church, to Christ. But the parallel I’m most drawn to is that of all humanity. Adam and Eve are fundamentally different, yet they are the same. They are human. I, as a middle aged caucasian male am fundamentally different from many people around me. From the color of our skin, our worldview, belief systems, to our favorite sports teams. We are different, and yet we are the same. We all desire to be loved, to be wanted. We need to feel respected and cared for. We are all searching for answers. We need nourishment and shelter. None of us know what lies in the next life, or if there is one. We share in these things. We share in hope, and in an eternal one.

My hope, my belief, is that someday, in this life or the next, the chaos, the hate, and the tension between us will subside, and we will see ourselves for what we are:

one.

Human.

Made for each other.

And in that moment our overwhelming feeling will be  At Last.

The whole cross, but only half the story.

When I was a kid, I was entrenched in church life. I went to a Christian school, Wednesday night services, and twice on Sunday. Images of the cross were all over the place. We saw them everywhere. In our buildings, on our walls, on our Bibles and around our necks. The cross stood for love, for sacrifice, and for power over death. It represented the gift of salvation for all.

There was something unique about this symbol in my American Evangelical world though. In every instance I can remember, the cross was empty. There seemed to be a thought in the Baptist church that a cross symbol or crucifix with Christ on the cross somehow represented weakness, and maybe not the good kind. In our minds “Our Christ conquered death.. the cross couldn’t hold Him.”  We viewed these other representations of Christ as something the mainstreamers or the Catholics did. Not necessarily bad, but something stemming from “religious ritual”, not necessarily the “relationship” concepts of our evangelicalism. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s what it felt like to me.  I never really gave it much thought.

Until I did.

You see, somehow in my submersion in the image of the empty cross, I missed half the story. I got the God half of the story. The part where God comes down as a man, and pays a debt we can’t pay, and offers us this thing we call salvation. I understood the power over death part. I understood that Jesus represented this unstoppable, all powerful and sacrificial character, who loved me. And I was humbled by that, and this half of the story shouldn’t be marginalized.

JBM_16651.jpgWhat I missed though, was the human half.

I missed the part where Jesus sweat blood. I missed the part where he was mocked in front of a crowd. I missed the part where he carried the weight of a burden that would eventually kill him. I missed the part where Jesus is thirsty, and cannot drink. I missed the part where he is stripped naked for all to see. I missed his vulnerability. I missed his weakness.  I didn’t miss these things in the sense that Christ did them for me. I missed them in the sense that he does them with me.

If you are anxious, He is with you.

If you have been abused, He is with you.

If you are desperate for answers you cannot satisfy, He is with you.

If you have been taken advantage of, cheated, abandoned or betrayed, He is with you.

If you are a victim of bigotry, sexism, racism, and hate, He is with you.

If you have a burden you can no longer carry, He is with you.

If you are completely and utterly hopeless, He is with you.

If you are just hurt, deep in your soul, and have nowhere to go,

He is with you.

He is with you.

I don’t pretend to know what real suffering is. I’m a white guy in America in 2016. But whatever struggles, injustices, or pain I’ve experienced, I’ve taken great solace in this image of Christ on the cross. I know that I don’t have to marginalize my own suffering, because I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who has felt this way. I’ve realized that this idea of salvation is far more grand than just a gift. For it is not just a status, but a mindset; a worldview. One that helps us love and heal the world. And while I still may not have an answer for why suffering is allowed to exist, or why Christ had to die in the first place, there is still great comfort, relief, solace, and refuge, and it’s at the foot of the cross.