Matt Odmark of Jars Of Clay
Jars Of Clay have been at this music thing a long time, but it hasn’t changed who they are or their focus on delivering solid, well written songs that keep their fans coming back for album after album. With a hearty collection of accolades on their mantle from Grammys to most recently a handful of DOVE awards, the band has never veered off from the human element of it all whether it be reaching out to their fans for their feedback and ideas or starting humanitarian efforts such as their non-profit organization Blood Water Mission that seeks to bring resources to much needed areas and bridge the gap between continental boundaries.
While it may be May and sunny outside the band is currently working on recording a Christmas album and touring the country and beyond. During their recent stop in Boston, Matt Odmark sat down to fill us in on all things Jars Of Clay…
The band name is from a passage in The Bible. Can you tell me a little about that?
It’s from a passage in 2nd Corinthians 4, verse 7 and the passage is “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” And the right of that passage, was sort of marveling at the idea that God would reach down and inhabit beings that are so easily broken and frail, the idea of praising something very valuable, very common place, very transitory. That struck us as we read that passage, and we thought that would be a cool name for a band. That’s kind of that theme of human frailty, and sort of the need and thirst for the divine. That’s been kind of a common theme behind a lot of our music.
You’ve never liked being called a Christian band. Why is that?
Honestly, there’s a lot of different feelings that come along with being call that. Usually, when somebody calls us a Christian band, it’s not really because their trying to describe who we are as people, but it’s because they are sort of trying to niche our music in a particular way. All artists have a love-hate relationship with whatever niche they fall into. I think we feel the same way about it. In today’s world, Christianity has become socially to mean a lot of things don’t really have anything necessarily to do with whatever it means actually to philosophically be Christian. I think for us it’s more we feel like the terms aren’t fair. If you call us a Christian band, define your terms. What are you really talking about? Are you trying to describe our music? Are you trying to describe us as people? Well, we would much rather talk about the specifics of who we are, rather then what the general idea of what it means to be Christian in 21st century America, or the general idea of what it means to be a musician in the Christian music movement.
How did Jars of Clay get their record deal?
We got our record deal because we were in college, and entered in a battle of the bands competition, which we ended up winning. We had a demo CD, with 9 songs, 8 of which made it onto the first CD of ours. When we won the
New Artist competition, that began to circulate our demo around to a bunch of different labels, and about six months later, in December of 94, we signed our record deal.
Tell me a little about your writing process. Who is the primary songwriter, and how do the songs come together?
We write primarily as a group. There’s four of us, and we collaborate pretty consistently. Our singer is the primary lyricist. We use lyrics as kind of a sounding board for him. For the most part, he really does all the work of writing lyrics. He’s tremendously gifted at that. But then harmonically, musically, and melodically, we all collaborate together.
The band has been working with the “Blood Water Mission” organization. Can you tell me a little about what this project is about?
About four years ago, we started a non-profit organization called the “Blood Water Mission”, it was basically just started out of response to a trip to Africa that several of us had taken. We were trying to figure out a way to sort of tell the story of Africa to our community, such as fans and the people we come into contact with. There’s two primary areas of the Blood Water Mission that it focuses on, and that is conversations about the need for clean blood and clean water quickly in Africa. What we’re doing in our organization is we’re looking for equitable and relational ways that we can sort of partner with people in Africa and build friendships, so we can narrow our understanding of who’s in the world, and how the world works, and also for ways that we can do meaningful development work in communities in Africa that are either resource deprived or other issues that they’re dealing with. We have some partnerships with medical clinics in this country that we’ve brought to Africa, and also we started a campaign called “A Thousand Wells”, which focuses on resource water projects in various rural communities and different parts of Africa. To date, we’ve helped to fund somewhere around two hundred wells in about twenty different countries. We’re hoping to resource another two hundred clean water projects in the coming year. The “Blood Water Mission” has been a huge, very amazing surprise. We’ve seen about a million and a half dollars raised in response to the need for clean water, and eighty-eight percent of all of those donations are from regular people, like you and me, of under one hundred dollars. People are giving what they can and are doing what they can. It’s been a huge blessing to be a part of that.
Your latest album, Good Monsters, which actually came out last September, was the first album that you considered to be “rock”. Why is that that self-proclaimed first “rock” album, after so many before it?
I think the band has sort of always been kind of a song driven band, we weren’t really born in a niche. We weren’t grunge, or we weren’t “this”, we were a band that wrote songs first, and then each album seems to have gone in a different direction. We always had an element of rock in our music, but we never necessarily went at making a record completely with that as our goal. I think for us, it was our seventh or eighth record, and each one we’re looking for sort of a new challenge, or a new kind of fuel for inspiration, and so I think coming into this record, we had made two records previous that were really really amazing experiences, they were both more soulful and contemplative pieces, which when you’re songwriting, that’s the kind of stuff that comes easiest. We were just ready to stretch out in a different direction, and it was right then that our new drummer kind of came into the band, and he really brought a lot of really good input from that direction. So it was initially just a challenge. Usually most of the writing process consists of writing a lot of songs that we love, then going “okay, we need some up tempo ones…” so we try to go back and yank some up tempo material out of ourselves in order to get the record to not be a total downer. So on this record, we were like well what if we just started to write as much up tempo material as we can, and if we don’t have a single ballad, then who cares? That was the attitude we went into it with, and that was the jumping off point. After that, the songs fell together unexpectedly fast and the record took shape in a way that was very enjoyable and inspiring for us.
What music have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to the lastest Shins record, the new Arcade Fire. I really appreciate those guys. I think what they’re doing is really neat, I just get this feeling from them that their music is for everybody? I don’t know where I get that from, but I just feel it, there’s this unspoken thing with them, and I just really appreciate that. They’re a cool band.
In March of this year, the band announced that you would no longer be a part of Essential Records. Why was this step taken? Do you feel you’ve benefited from it?
When we handed in Good Monsters we delivered the last record in the seven record contract that we signed, and contract was up. Honestly, for a long time, we weren’t really sure what we were gonna do. The decision not to resign had a lot less to do with our feelings about Essential Records, and had to do with more where we were in our career, and we felt the way this record business has changed in the last ten years. Its in a sort of Wild West mentality right now. We have a lot of people with big ideas, tons of people are trying new things. So based on that, it seemed silly to sign another ten year record contract. Nobody really knows what to do anymore. For us it was a lot more about the opportunities we wanted to have in the future. So much has changed. Obviously if we knew what we knew now, we wouldn’t have signed the record contract we did sign. Any contract that changes in the business as much as ours, and that lasts that long, just doesn’t make a lot of sense. So we just are going forward. We’re still goinh yo have a distribution relationship with the same partners we have had through most of our career, so it’s not really a parting ways, we just sort of changed our relationship with those people. For us, we’re in a season where we feel like we’re anxious to get out of the record cycle that contracts keep you locked into. We want to be putting a lot more music out, we want to be spending more and more of our career actually making music and delivering it to our fans, as opposed to making a record every two and a half years and then touring. So for us, it just made the most sense to think more like an independent artist, more like a band that’s just beginning. In a lot of ways, a label relationship is not really what we need to make that happen.
Chelsa from your messageboard would like to know, what is one place you’ve never been and would like to visit?
The only state we’ve never played in is Wyoming. I’ve always wanted to go to Wyoming! It’s supposed to be an amazing place. This is a good question! But as far as just destinations worldwide, I’d love to go to Fiji. That’d be cool.
It’s also been said that you are working on a Christmas album to be released for the holidays this year. How is that going?
That is going terrifyingly well. Starting May 1st, we’ll jump into the studio to work on that Christmas record. The terrifying part is we’ve been juggling a lot of different things the past few months, and we’re excited about the material we have kind of roughed in, but it definitely is creeping up quickly on us.
The opening band Needtobreathe for this current tour happens to be one of my favorites. What made you pick them as an opener, if you were part of that decision process?
Oh that’s cool! We were really excited to have Needtobreathe out on this tour. Picking opening bands is always a really exhausting process for all of us. We are really picky about the folks we tour with. We want to enjoy the music, we want to enjoy the people, we want to feel like we are out with people who have a similar mind set, and vision for who they are, what they are trying to do and why they do what they do. So when Needtobreathe’s music came into the mix, they were somebody that obviously we were interested in making part of the tour. For a while we didn’t know if we were gonna get them or not. We were excited when we found out that they were available and wanted to do the tour. It’s been good.
They definitely seem like they fit in with you guys!
What is the coolest thing a fan has ever done for you guys?
This is going to sound cheesy, but the coolest thing at this stage of the game that a fan does for us is when they share our music with people that haven’t heard it, and win over new fans. We’ve been doing this for a very long time, so the fans and their passion for our music is what even enables us to still be doing it. If we didn’t have such great fans that get out there and are passionate about it, we would be working at Starbucks or the Home Depot. I mean, those aren’t necessarily bad places to be working, but we’re thankful to be playing shows and not mixing paint for somebody.
Oh gosh. Lets see… you have to be careful! I don’t want to hurt anyones feelings!
They can take notes so they know not to do it again!
I wont say it’s the worst thing, but definitely the most disturbing thing, and I know that these fans have a sense of humor about it so I know I can say it, but the most disturbing thing that they’ve ever done is they made these little quarter sized dolls of us with our faces screen printed on the head of the dolls and our outfits looked similar to what we might wear. They would bring them to the show and ask us to speak into little microphones, so you could squeeze their hand and it would say something in our own voice. They said it was all for charity. It was to benefit Blood Water, which was why we went along with it, but it was definitely a pretty bizarre experience.
What’s next for the band?
Next is the Christmas record on the horizon, and then we’re looking at a tour for that record in December. And we’re gonna be on the road playing about a dozen and a half major festivals this summer, which we are really excited about that, to take the Good Monsters material out into the festival crowd, which is fun. We sort of know what’s up until January of 2008, so we’ll just kinda get that nailed down enough so we can begin to look beyond that. Like I said, we’re anxious to move into a season where we are producing and releasing a lot more music then we have been in the past. We have a bunch of interesting ideas. One of the things that we are passionate about doing, which may come up in the next year or so, is doing a re-recording of the first album. We think that would be fun to do. We want to re-record the first album front to back as sort of a thank you to the fans, the people that are still playing that record. It sold three million copies, and people still love the music on that first record. It would be a good way to give back to those people and maybe give them a little modern twist on some of those songs. Stuff like that; we’re looking at new and sort of inventive things in the future.
Any parting last words for the fans?
Thanks everybody who has supported our Good Monsters tour and came out to see the shows. We look forward to seeing you guys soon on the road. Check out the tour journal on our website. That’s the best way to get in contact with us. If you have any ideas for feedback for the band, we’d love to hear it. That’s the best way for us to first hear whats important to you guys out there. So thanks for buying the records and listening!
Find out more about Blood Water Mission: