Us Shelter - the Jars of Clay Interview
I had to do it. I had to tell Jars of Clay’s guitarist Matt Odmark how much I hated their first album. I had chosen it as a free record club bonus album and clearly remember standing at the bottom of my stairs, regretting that decision.
Of course, I also had to fill in the picture. I grew to love it as their best release and subsequently got most of the rest of their catalog. What I find surprising is that they never quite matched the quality of that first eponymous disc until the last release, The Long Fall Back to Earth . While it is the début’s equal in songwriting and production, the latter was very ‘80s in places, full of synths and layered textures, a thousand miles away from the ambient acoustic soundscape that catapulted them to fame from the beginning.
I was speaking to the band before their Greenbelt Festival main-stage performance, but after their acoustic venue show the previous day (and, because the festival was getting its money’s worth, after their two-song set in the late night magazine show, which included a tongue-in-cheek cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”).
Although I had to leave their impeccably-performed acoustic act after four songs, I was staggered by the energy and style that they poured into it, especially when a couple of those songs were from their first album. Were they not fed up with them by now?
“We have certainly played those songs a lot,” Odmark observed, “but we have given those songs a break in the last few years. In the States, we’re celebrating fifteen years since our first record, so we’ve come back to some of those songs a little bit, with a nod. We’ll celebrate them this year, we’ll feature them and we may at the end of this year come off them again, so I think I’m enjoying it more just because of that.”
Odmark added that the début’s
landmark acoustic sound was largely due to a restricted budget and that
when the disc was so successful and other bands started copying the style,
it no longer felt right to return to it.
Singer Dan Haseltine gave his backstage view of their musical journey. “We produced the first record ourselves (we did a couple of songs with Adrian Belew). After that, when record labels got involved with all the success, a lot more voices speaking into the process, I think that stripped away some of our confidence in being able to make music on our own, because all of a sudden, everybody seemed to have opinions on what we should do.
“So it took quite a few years after working with a few different producers to jump back in the studio and start recording on our own and getting ourselves back into a really good focus-creative space and I think most of us look back on Good Monsters and go, ’OK, we feel like we found our footing on that record.’
“ The Eleventh Hour is probably the one where we spent the most time just trying to be creative. We would do a song a day just to give ourselves certain challenges: ‘OK, we have to try to incorporate these elements into the music’. Certainly having our own studio space gave us the freedom to create and to chase some wild hares.”
Forming the band at college means that they have had years to develop their musical tastes individually, so keeping them harnessed for a unified band sound must have been hard. I wondered how they have kept their personal sonic preferences together without splits or wild mood swings on the albums.
With new release Jars
of Clay Presents The Shelter in mind, lead guitarist Steve Mason explained,
“We felt for the first time, maybe since the first record, that we all
had a clear vision for what we wanted to do and I think the fact that we
all scatter a bit, and find little pieces and bring them back makes it
Jars of Clay. We can pull a reference from anywhere, creatively, and it
still at the end of the day sounds like something the four of us would
The band’s original concept of working with others was so strong that some tracks were to feature guests without Haseltine even making an appearance. However, the record companies thwarted that plan and he ended up singing on each one, with our without help from others.
The spark for this album concept came from the Irish proverb passed on by poet Padraig O Tuama: ‘It is in the shelter of each other that people live.’ Telling how this fits into their recent conceptual flow, Mason starts with Good Monsters , where “for the first time we were figuring out our relationships in terms of our own self-awareness, how we related to each other and the eggshells, the agreements that we made to try to figure out how to make life work. The Long Fall Back to Earth is purely about moving from the self-awareness into ‘How is this now going to affect how I deal with other people, those I love and those I find it hard to love?’ The Shelter is this conversation of ‘How do we do this authentically? How do we do it in the Church? How do we do it in the world we live in?’”
Before this weekend, despite the musical resurgence, I had wondered about the band: were they riding the spiritual success of previous years? Meeting them completely dispelled my doubts. Their passion for integrity, both with music and with their Blood:Water Mission charity was plain to see. Just as impressive was their united concern to get authentic spiritual depth into the creation of the music, as well as its performance.
In a world suffering from the cult of individualism, here they were, talking about how (Mason again),”we are empowered when we share our weakness with each other... the scary idea of submitting ourselves and our story to someone else, but yet the glory in such an abandonment. Really, I think we are discovering what faith looks like, finding our true selves in how we mirror these things to each other. To see ourselves authentically, we need other people.”
As well as inviting guests into the construction of their own album, they wanted to give the wider Church words to sing that were more biblical.
“One of the things that struck us in the early processes of the record was – and again, we speak from an American evangelical experience of worship – that it’s a ‘me and God’ kind of experience.”
The band’s solutions was to change a lot of the language from ’I’ to ‘we’ so that they could look at fellow Christians as they were singing the songs, realizing, “the people next to me that are probably the hardest to deal with, that I disagree with the most, those are the means to provide a lot of the things that I pray for and hope for, as I engage God in my separate little experience. The answers might be right in front of us, basically, in the form of other people.”