Interview: Relient K

Relient K’s recent release Five Score and Seven Years Ago debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard charts and has spawned an infectious radio single (that just happens to be this week’s featured video at RELEVANT.tv). A few weeks back, we got the chance to talk to frontman Matt Thiessen about the album, songwriting and balancing a career as a crossover artist.

What has some of the older fans’ reaction been like to the new album?

It seems like people are into it—especially some people that have been with us for a while. You know it’s funny; I’ve heard some people say it’s a bit of a departure; I’ve heard other people say it feels kind of like a continuation, sort of picking up where we left off.

Well I noticed some of the big noticeable differences were these cool instrumental builds—like the production value on the intro—and it feels very much like an album, as opposed to a collection of songs. Was that an intentional direction?

No, you know, we do write song by song, and you kind of assemble the album later—you know, you cut songs away and try to keep some continuity in it. I was talking to somebody else today about the album, and she said it was weird how—she said it’s almost awkward how it goes from like a serious song that’s, like, heavy to a cheesy, sort of saccharine, sugary love song. But I guess it’s cool how you both have those different opinions.

I know one song you probably got a lot of attention for is “Deathbed.” It’s a little bit different from some of the stuff you’ve done in the past. As far as like the actual narrative of it, where did that come from?

It was an off-the-top-of-the-head sort of thing. The song started—I had the chorus where the line is “I can smell the death on the sheets covering me.” You know that sort of thing, talking about the deathbed. And I didn’t really know where I was going with it; I just randomly made it up, and then I was trying to think, “You know this is kind of interesting.”

Originally I was going to write the song about myself and try to picture what I would be like lying on my deathbed, you know 70-some, 80-some-years-old and then go through my life. And I’m like, “You know what? That’s a bad idea to try to predict my own future and write it into a song.” So I decided, I’m just going to invent this fictional character and go through step-by-step and touch on his life. And most of it is lows—I kind of interpreted the song as being somewhat of a tragedy, but the huge resolution at the end of the song where he’s dying but, yet, at some point in his life he did find Jesus, and he ends up in heaven at the end of the song. So obviously it takes a big positive bent.

Did you set out to write a big, epic song or did it just kind of come?

No, no, I mean, I had no idea it was going to be that long. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing a song, just cause it was really easy, and it was like writing a story instead of writing a song. And we’d never done that before; we’d never really written a story/song before, so yeah it was a blast. We just kept going, and I was like, “You know, it’s kind of cool to just almost get specific about some moments in a person’s life.”

Is that Jon Forman on the last verse?

Yeah, I really wanted him to sing on the record, and I didn’t know where it was going to be. I was writing that song, and all of a sudden, that end of the song was kind of a last minute thing; it wasn’t really supposed to be there. Those last, like three minutes of the song I wrote while we were recording it. And I was like, “I should have Jon play the part of Jesus at the end of the song and basically sing that part.” He did a great job, and I’m really excited to have him on it.

You guys have been getting—even with the last album—a lot of mainstream attention, with videos on MTV and songs on the radio. Did you feel any pressure from either side, as far as lyrically, when you were writing the album?

No, and I know this might be a little unconventional and ignorant of us, but we’ve been trying really hard over the last couple of years to basically, in our minds, merge Christian music and the general market and try to ignore the fact that there is this Christian music thing and just let it be.

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And I like writing about my faith; I’m going to write about my faith. If I want this to be very obviously about what I believe in, it’s going to be that way. And I look at bands like Thrice and even Switchfoot—you know people don’t always know that those bands—the writers—are as strong believers as they are, and they find it that important to write about that stuff. It can be very undefined as far as the divisions between Christian music and the general market. So we just kind of try to blur it, you know?

Yeah, when you were writing the album was there anything in particular that you were listening to that you kind of drew inspiration from?

There were a couple of things. I’m always listening to Beach Boys—I mean I can’t write like that (wish I could), but it’s always a source of inspiration. Ben Folds probably was a source. Actually Switchfoot; it’s kind of embarrassing, because they’re friends of ours but, Jon—I just feel like he’s terrific. His heart, the way that he can just make things come out of his heart and his mind in the song is really inspiring to me, and I just really appreciate him and his lyrics. Jack’s Mannequin, I like that record a lot. He does a lot of piano stuff and rock ’n roll just like we do. So I guess those were some of the influences.

I saw recently that you guys played a benefit show for Invisible Children. How did you connect with them?

You know what, it’s funny. I had nothing to do with the whole thing. And I was just randomly in Nashville when they were doing it last night so I jumped on stage, and I got to sing Weezer’s “Surf Wax America.” But our guitarist Jon Schneck, I think his church set up the whole thing. But it was really awesome. I think they raised a little under $10,000 last night. It was just a really cool thing. They had a viewing of the documentary and that sort of thing.

This interview originally aired on the Jan. 26 edition of the RELEVANT Podcast.

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