Celebrating nearly two decades as a band, Jars of Clay remains one of the most vital bands of the alternative rock/alternative folk movement, gaining their following through consistently strong album statements and a close relationship with fans across the globe…and maybe a small 1995 single called “Flood”, which revealed those in the Christian rock “ghetto” could make meaningful art that offered more questions than answers without abandoning a sense of measure hope.
It was a great honor to speak with keyboardist and original member Charlie Lowell about their new record Inland (whose singles debuted as free downloads on rollingstone.com), longevity and occupying “the middle space”.
Chris K. Davidson for You Hear This?: First, let’s talk about the new record. I read Dan’s blog about a year or so ago when he did the song-by-song analysis. He talked about fighting with Steve Mason over putting an electric guitar on Much Afraid because Dan thought it would lose the thing that made Jars of Clay distinctive, but he realized Jars of Clay will like Jars of Clay no matter what instruments are put into a song. If you could, talk about the sonic evolution of the band.
Charlie Lowell: That’s certainly something we’ve relied on, and it continues to be a mystery over the years because we do hit this point of “what’s left to do?”, which was the question going into this record. With almost twenty years and ten records, is there good enough reason to keep working hard at this and having another go at it? We needed to rediscover the “why” of we do, and I think if we step up and do it, it will be another generation of what Jars of Clay really is. The more we try to put expectations around that, the more I think it’s contrived and not as authentic. That was a very intentional part of this record, removing the filters and the walls and the ideas of what is radio play (whether it’s Christian or mainstream radio), what is marketable. We really wanted to strip away the voices and the expectations of what’s going to work. We’ve had a lot of those around from over the years, from early on, so that felt like the biggest work of all, to find a space where we could just write a song in the moment, write what we need to hear most days and having this analytical producer mode where we started picking songs for the record. We tend to a very thematic-based band when we write a record, so our theme was just let’s just let what happens happen, putting that stuff to the side and being as authentic in the moment as we can writing these songs. We gave ourselves so much time during the recording process that most days we were able to achieve that goal.
YHT?: About how many songs did you end up writing for the record?
CL: We wrote close to 50, at least song starts. They’re not all finished. Fifty different pieces and thirty that we could put down a demo of and it sound like music. When we found Tucker, our producer, we trusted him to whittle down it to thirteen songs. We felt that his belief in what we were doing and what the demos represented was so strong that we were really happy to be in a band at that point and trust the producer, which is another thing we haven’t had to practice in a while.
YHT?: What was it like working in Portland?
CL: It was really killer. Not just fun and immersive and culturally fun, but important for us to leave home and familiarity and family to be able to let everything be about the record and the process and our relationship with Tucker. We generally work in Nashville and close to home. We wear the producer hat and produce each other as we’re being the band. We’re home for dinner, do things with our family and kids and go back to the studio. We needed a change from that. In some ways, between leaving home and finding Portland and being openminded and open-handed to where Tucker would take us, that is the spirt of the record. Inland is about leaving the coast and journeying in to discover what might be waiting. We felt like we had to leave home to explore, and we are very fortunate we got to go to such a cool town as Portland, Oregon. It could have Toledo or something. What a drag that would be.
YHT?: What was it like working with Adrian Belew again?
CL: It was cool. We weren’t in the room with him. He sent in his tracks, but he was very happy to oblige, putting his stamp on the tracks. As we were looking for producers, we had previously about a year ago took Adrian out to dinner in Nashville to catch up since it had been a number of years since we had seen him. We secretly were trying to get him to come around full circle and work with us again. It was necessarily super clear for either party that it was going to be the right fit right now, but it was fun to catch up and talk about what’s happened in the last handful of years. We talked about digital music. He’s in four different bands, so it’s always fascinating to hear what he is thinking about next. That paved the road to at least have him play on the record. He is always so easy and kind to work with.
YHT?: You guys rotate through drummers and bassists, which is understandable, but the four of you have been together throughout your entire career. What is the reasons for longevity?
CL: A few years ago, we started this bigger conversation of what is it that Jars offers the music community that is unique? What do we do really well that other artists don’t necessarily do well? What is our strength? Do we still believe in what we do? We have done a lot of amazing things, more than one band normally gets to do in a lifetime. We don’t want to just hang around uninvited. We were wondering if this was our time. Can we look each other in the eye and say “Man, that was amazing. I’m so grateful to have done that with you guys. I wish you well”? We kept coming back to this idea that what we do as a foursome is so much stronger and interesting than what we can do individually. I think it’s that conviction that there’s something special here that we do together. We don’t know what’s next, but let’s at least stick our foot in the water. Write some songs. Make some calls. See where that path takes us. That’s the core of how we started. Steve actually played bass on this record, which was really fun. Fun to watch and fun to be around. I think he really enjoyed it. Tucker brought in Matt Chamberlain, who is a monster drummer who’s worked with a lot of big artists over the years. So Steve had to show up and play bass with Matt Chamberlain, which was intimidating for a lot of bass players, especially Steve because he doesn’t consider himself much of a bass player.
YHT?: You recorded most of these songs live, correct?
CL: A lot of the bare bones of the tracks are, except for “Left Undone”, which is a little more pieced together. Pretty much of them were demoed with loops. We taught Matt the songs. Everyone was tracking live and we just go back and tighten up. We started doing that in Good Monsters and as much as possible, we like to do it.
YHT?: I was wondering if you could expound on “the middle space” that Dan often references.
CL: It goes back to when we were talking about our strengths. The thing that we do well that not every band does well, that term is really helpful to us. We had some stops along the way like Redemption Songs and The Shelter that really were meant for the Church, but if you look at the main arc of what we’ve been doing over the years connecting the first handful of records, then Good Monsters, then Long Fall Back to Earth, then finally this record. It really is songs in the midst of the grayness and the uncertainty of days. Things are mundane 28 days of the month, but then every two or three days, everything lines up and makes sense, but the other days are like a storm and you’re stumbling in the dark. I think that’s when most of our important songs happen.When we like we can write into that space or after that space. Being free to doubt or not give answers. That really helped us. Who do we want to stand with? What kind of venues do people who listen to that music go to? It’s probably not churches; it’s probably more theatres and clubs. That term was just a helpful descriptor of where we want to point our compass and really cultivate those conversations and those issues that we write about.
Jars of Clay will bring their songs and stories to Workplay on Thursday, August 15th. A not-to-miss opener, The Last Bison, kick off the night at 8 p.m. Tickets for the 18-and-up show are available for $15 in advance and $18 the day of the show