For many, the parable of Jars Of Clay begins and ends with its 1995 hit "Flood," the moody acoustic folk tune that crossed over from contemporary Christian radio to mainstream rock stations. The story is far less simple, as keyboardist Charlie Lowell explains. Jars Of Clay performs tonight at the Old Rock House.
Ryan Wasoba: I didn't realize until I was researching the band for this interview, but Jars Of Clay goes through drummers like Spinal Tap.
Charlie Lowell: Oh yeah. We have had a few over the years. Right now we are touring as a five piece which is the four of us and a cellist. We have two guitars, I play keys, our singer is doing some percussion and light drums kind of work. So we don't have a traditional drummer in that sense. This is more of a fun thing, doing quirky arrangements of the songs. We love having a cellist with us, it's a fun dynamic.
How did this setup come about?
It's something we've done for acoustic shows or anything intimate and scaled down, we'll just go up as the four of us. And as we've done it over the years we've heard people lean in and say that this brings something different. It's kind of how we write the songs, the four of us in a room, very vocal heavy and organic in nature. I think maybe there's something that we take for granted in that setting that we miss when we throw bass and drums on it.
As long as Jars of Clay has been a band, is that familiarity comforting or is it a challenge to keep things fresh?
We've grown up together so there's good trust there and there's that good family sort of feel. We've got each other's backs. At the same time songwriting is still, you just show up and hope something lands. There are still days of sitting around staring at each other going, "Is that it? Have we said it all?" Some days you feel like you are back in college and you're rediscovering melody and how a band works so it's still a mysterious thing. You don't quite figure it out and get to a formula.
I think the most interesting aspect of Jars Of Clay is your relationship with Christian music. When "Flood" came out and was a hit on the secular circuit, the contemporary Christian circle seemed stuck between feeling happy for you and feeling betrayed.
It's been a funny dance for us. There's always tension. I guess one of the things we've named recently is that we thrive the most and enjoy the most living in and cultivating the living space between the church and the world. It's not just playing rock songs about girls and cars and it's not writing church songs either. It's that middle ground of trying to find faith and community, but it's choppy and it's clumsy and that's where most people live is sort of those fringe places. Most days I have as much doubt as I do faith and I keep running back to it, but it doesn't make it easy. It's a struggle. That's where we find ourselves and that's who we write for, so that's made it tricky to totally say we're just a Christian rock band and just play in churches or swing that wide to the other side.
So over the years we've done some records that are focused more towards the church with that kind of message and some about just being human and having relationships. We call it a dance because it depends on the season and it changes over the years and it's something we've become really comfortable with. We don't feel like we have to explain it to people. If they don't get it or they think it's unclear, there are plenty of bands who do things cleaner and differently than we do. I think there have been seasons over the years where the church didn't understand that or felt threatened by that. They wanted to have their own version that was cut and dry and labeled and boxed and put over here where they felt really unintimidated by it. I think that's faded over the years, things have opened up in an exciting kind of way.
It seems like there's more acceptance towards spirituality in music in the non-Christian circuit these days.
I think the lines and the boxes and the labels are fading, sort of disintegrating. Some of that is because an independent artist can do it the way they want to and a major label has to pick a marketing system and a message and a language and ride it. That was the means of getting the product to the people and now there are so many creative ways to be unique and not be manipulative or heavy handed. Do you think people assume you have a specific agenda because of the times where you were marketed as a Christian rock band?
Probably from some of the marketing, but hopefully if they've stuck with us or come to a show they've figured out quickly that we don't. That's one of the few things at the end of the day that's important to us, that people know they can come as they are and bring whatever baggage you have from your day or your life and just enjoy music, have it be an escape or an encouragement or some sort of salve. We do fund raising for Blood:Water Mission, which is our non-profit, try to connect people with suffering in Africa and be part of a bigger story there. So if anything we can be more heavy handed with that than we do about anything religious.
Going back to that space between the church and the world, did you go out of your way to play neutral venues on this tour, like the Old Rock House?
It really was a conscious decision. Just along the lines of an agenda, we feel the tension when we do play in a church. People associate churches with different kind of things. For us, it may feel more like a venue, but the people that step into it may feel an inherent sense of agenda that they might find very familiar or extremely uncomfortable. This tour is a very pro-active way of playing in venues where music is supposed to be enjoyed. There's very little agenda when you go into a music venue. There probably will be people that may have seen us in a church that are kind of going, "Where is this place I'm going to?" But we're happy to bring them there and we hope they will enjoy it. We all need to be taken out of our comfort zone from time to time.
Do you feel a local connection because the band started in Greenville, Illinois?
In a sense, St. Louis is sort of a hometown play for us because at Greenville College, our weekend getaway was St. Louis. We saw Jellyfish and Tears For Fears at the American Theater. We saw the Sundays at Mississippi Nights which was amazing. And we went to a couple of raves. That was 1994, and we were really into raves.
It's funny, I guess on that first record it is a mix of acoustic guitars and techno loops that we totally took out of the rave stuff we were listening to. But we were also into this organic songwriter-y stuff and kind of mashed those two worlds together. We're still pretty heavy into electronic music these days. It's all over the map.
It's so crazy that Adrian Belew produced your first two singles. How was that experience?
We were so young and not prepared for what was about to happen to us. His niece or his wife's niece was a buddy of ours who interned at a label in Nashville. He had moved into Nashville not too long before and he was finding his groove. He's this down to earth family guy and I think personality-wise we were expecting him to be more like his music, just really out there. But he was so unassuming. So by name and reputation and stuff he'd worked on, holy crap. I mean, the Talking Heads stuff he did and touring with Belly and stuff like that, we couldn't believe we got to work with this guy. I think his name on the "Flood" single is a big part of why we got played by DJs at rock stations. There's a modern rock remix of "Flood" where he played some crazy backwards guitar but he wasn't in any hurry to get himself on the track. He took on a very collaborative helpful role that pushed us further than we could have gone on our own.