Way back here, I wrote a post about the Australian-based band the Sons of Korah. They’ve become one of my favorite bands as of late for the creativity and artistry of what they’re doing.
The Sons of Korah take the Psalms and turn them into contemporary music that draws on folk and world music traditions. And they do an excellent job of it. Musically-speaking, the guys are great musicians in their own right, but when it comes to capturing the Psalms in music form, they’re just brilliant.
I’ve heard a lot of Psalms turned into songs, and the Sons of Korah create some of the best. So, if you will, read on for my recent over-email interview with Matt Jacoby, lead singer and guitarist of the group.
The Blah Blah: Who are the Sons of Korah, in as many words as you’d like to use?
Sons of Korah: Sons of Korah is a project-based band really. We have had a few different lineups over the years but basically myself and Rod Gear have been in it from the beginning and we have composed most of the music. But even then Rod had a break for a couple of years. The line-up changes have been more the result of great musicians moving on to do their own thing and since we have a fairly specific focus and have been going now for 14 years that is quite natural. In fact the different band configurations in the past have actually refreshed the sounds and with each new person came a new ingredient. I actually think that this has been a key to our being able to keep going. The line-up at the moment is fantastic – I think now we are doing things I have always aspired to. In addition to myself and Rod Gear who plays five string double bass (He does mostly bowed stuff) guitar and piano, we have Rod Wilson who plays drums and percussion; Mike MCarthy who plays resonator, mandolin, nylon string, and lap steel; and Mike Avery (Spike) who plays bass and does all our soundscape stuff. Spike’s electronic sound design contribution is a subtle new ingredient for us and with the acoustic instruments and occasional ethnic overtones it brings a soundtrack-ish effect.
TBB: How did the Sons of Korah as a band start?
SoK: We started back in 1994 when I and the other two guys were at Theological College together in Geelong, Victoria, Australia. The Psalms seemed like a really interesting artistic project to take on and we were all studying the Bible feeling like we wanted to use our skills to communicate what were learning about.
TBB: Tell me about the Biblical sons of Korah. Why choose that family as a band name?
SoK: The name comes from a family of Levite temple musicians who wrote a bunch of the psalms (see small print titles of the psalms in the 40s and 80s). Evidently they are descended from the infamous Korah of Numbers 16 who rebelled against Moses. In Numbers 16 it sounds like the whole family was swallowed up by the earth but we are told later that there was a survivor of that family and centuries later his descendents were given this prime responsibility in the temple worship. It is a story of grace and redemption that we can identify with.
TBB: Why put music to the Psalms? Why not just write your own words?
SoK: The reason we focus on the psalms is because they are songs and I think they are inviting musical interpretation. I believe the psalms have an important role to play and I think they perform that role as songs. In the Old Testament times (and in fact right up to time of the reformation) singing was a primary way in which the biblical faith was passed on from one generation to another. They used music as a tool for memorisation and reflection on the truths of God’s word. This is what the psalms are.
But more than that, they actually demonstrate what true faith looks like from the inside, because it is the preservation of the faith that the psalms are intended to aid. I think today we need this more than ever. We live in such a busy culture and rarely get time to reflect. But music can help with this and the significance of the psalms is that when we imbibe these songs we are shaping ourselves inwardly according to the time honoured pattern.
I also think that the psalms are important today because we tend to romanticise spirituality alot and these songs present biblical spirituality in its original form, very real and yet present in such stunning poetic form. It is a perfect blend of spiritual realism with aesthetic and artistic integrity. I really could go on and on about this sort of thing but that gives you an idea at least as to why I am so keen to work with the psalms.
And yet this understanding of the importance of the psalms has emerged for me over the years. At first it was just a love for the scriptures and an interest in the artistic challenge that got us going. I love well written lyrics and I really appreciate the poetry that people put into songwriting — but for me working with a set text just brings out the best in me as a musician. It challenges me and makes me go places musically that I might not go if I could just write whatever I wanted.
Overall the thing that drives me is the responses of people who not only listen to our stuff but really use it. I hear story after story of how our psalms are helping people get through life and that is what motivates me more than anything.
TBB: How do you go about writing songs from the Psalms?
SoK: Hmmm, I don’t know really. There is no pattern and they come together in all different ways. Sometimes I start with a psalm and just try to capture what is happening musically but often I will come up with a musical motif and match it with a psalm and then develop the motif by letting the mood structure and changes of the psalm guide me.
TBB: Is it hard to balance remaining faithful to the Psalms while creating something that’s interesting musically?
SoK: Wow, good question. Ummm – it is certainly a challenge. But the thing is if you don’t come up with something that is musically interesting then you are not going to succeed in communicating the psalm. Faithfulness to the psalm is, I think, as much as anything, being effective in communicating it.
There are many of the most loved psalms that we have tried to write music to but then put aside just because we don’t want to disappoint people with an average musical version of a stunning psalm. I have been working on Psalm 91 for years but I just can’t nail it and it is starting to get me down. Am I ever going to capture this psalm? The problem is that this is one of my personal favourites and I just want to do it justice. Some of the stuff I have written to it is OK but not great, and I need to feel that it is great. Whether other people feel the same way . . . well you can’t help that, but I need to feel like I have done justice to it.
Our new recording has two of my favourite psalms on it: Psalm 139 and Psalm 84 — so I am pretty happy that we finally have those down.
TBB: How many Psalms have the Sons of Korah turned into song? Which of those you haven’t done would be next on your list?
SoK: Over 70 I think, but not all these have been recorded onto CDs. The ones I most want to get down are Psalm 91, 27, sections of 119, 88 and 46. There are some long psalms that would be great to get in a few movements like Psalm 22. But that is going to be a big challenge. I am not sure how we will do ones like Psalm 2 and 110. I have had a go at them but just can’t settle on a musical interpretation.
TBB: Have any of the Psalms been harder than others to add music to?
SoK: Yep — the long ones! You just need to keep the ideas flowing, try not to be boring and keep it dynamic. Its really hard and as a result we have not done many of these. The longer ones we have done are: Psalm 56, 59, 40, 30 and 51. Even then there are many psalms way longer than these.
TBB: What do you do with Psalms like 137 (“happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us; he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”) or 88 (probably the darkest of the Psalms)?
SoK: Generally I try not to soften the more disturbing parts of the psalms but I did with psalm 137. At the end of Psalm 137 I did a theological equivalent. “Blessed is he who destroys your progeny.” That is the idea being expressed there anyway. It is about cutting off the reproduction of evil and curbing the generational momentum of injustice. Still not easy to deal but that’s the idea. Psalm 88 I would love to get down and I would totally go with the mood – I really appreciate the fact that the psalms are so honest in this area.
TBB: Which of the Psalms is your favorite?
SoK: Psalm 73 is my favourite. I have only written music to the end of it though. It reflects the same theses as the book of Job and I find it incredibly profound.
TBB: What’s your goal as a group?
SoK: Our goal is to captivate people with the Word of God and make these expressions of biblical spirituality a part of our listeners psyche. We want to make good art and give good expression to the ancient faith that transcends place and time.
TBB: Can you tell me a little about your spiritual journey, how you came to know God?
SoK: I was not bought up in a Christian family but became a Christian when I was 17 soon after my Mum became a Christian. It was a classic turnaround experience, less to do with me seeking God and everything to do with God interrupting my downward spiral. Following that was a steady growth. I have always been strongly involved with church and first in the area of music and worship and then with preaching and teaching.
I love learning and as a result I spent many years studying right up to doctoral level in theology and philosophy but most of all I love just being a student of the spiritual life. The most exhilarating thing in my life has been allowing God to take me by the hand and lead me through the twists and turns of life. This has involved me being open to how knotted up I am and letting God show me all the rubbish in my life in order to dredge out my heart and untie me. I try to give God time enough to download the stuff that I resist hearing from him and most of all it involves a real experience of communion with God. For me it is not enough to just have God working in the background or even working through me. I am in this for a real relationship with a real God and though I spend alot of time running from God, yet by God’s grace I am bought back, and my greatest moments in life have been moments of sublime simplicity. It is when I feel that I need nothing else but God — a real Psalm 73 experience.
TBB: What do you do when you’re not recording music?
SoK: I am the teaching pastor of a church in Geelong, my hometown in Australia. It is part time but I really feel that everything else flows out of this. I believe in being rooted in the church community. I also have three kids who I enjoy so much. With any time leftover I try to get our for a surf. We live just near some of the world’s best surf breaks and I love to get out there when I can and drop in to some of that great southern ocean ground swell. [Editor's Note: Matt's coolness rating just got even higher by talking about surfing.]
TBB: Who are you listening to currently?
SoK: Sufjan Stevens – I am a huge Sufjan fan. Also been listening to Sigur Ros a fair bit. I bought the soundtrack to Babel the other day – love it. At the same time I bought Alison Krauss And Union Station Live – yeehaa. I just listen to all sorts of stuff – everything.
TBB: What books are you reading?
SoK: Just reading a book by an Australian journalist who spent a few years in Israel and then Iraq – really interesting stuff. I love non-fiction like this. My favourite author is Soren Kierkegaard (I did my Ph.D. mainly on his work and have also published some academic stuff on him) and my favourite novel by far is Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.
TBB: What movies are among your favorites?
SoK: I love City of the Lost Children, Delicatessen, Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. I also love a provocative art film with an unresolved ending — it gives me a refreshing break from the Hollywood formula (French films like Hidden, The Son, Look at Me, The Promise). I loved The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin [Editor's Note: One of my favorite films of all time]. Also Amoros Perros. I also love the big spectaculars – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Lord of the Rings. Comedy . . . I can’t help quoting from Napoleon Dynamite every now and again – otherwise it is all British comedy for me (The Office - British version, Monty Python, etc).
TBB: What do you think of the MP3 downloading revolution? Bad for artists or good?
SoK: Not sure yet . . . we are just looking into that now. It doesn’t have to be bad . . . I have been thinking of where we should go with this and I am unresolved at this stage. But it certainly is a big challenge to current models.
TBB: The Sons of Korah don’t necessarily fit into the typical “Christian Music” genre. What do you make of the term? Love it? Hate it? Don’t care?
SoK: The reason I would listen to Christian Music specifically is to use it to draw my mind back to the things of God and to feed myself spiritually. To be honest I get a bit disappointed by stuff that sounds like it is more concerned with sexing up the Christian faith than it is with either making good art or really offering something substantial for spiritual reflection. But there are great exceptions to this – and many that I hope to yet find. My collection of Christian produced music is pretty tiny in the midst of my huge music collection — maybe I will check out your website and let it lead me to the milk and honey!
TBB: I’ve always wanted to spend some time in Australia. What’s life there like? Why should I visit?
SoK: I love it here because there is so much space, so much beautiful coast line – great surf and great weather. The culture is quite diverse with a high percentage of immigrants which brings so many great things into the one place. We have managed to resist being overly corporatised, so the independent small boutique businesses can still flourish and bring diversity to life. I really dislike big chain restaurants, coffee houses etc — it robs life of surprises and I think Australia still has heaps of surprises. Australia has the most deadly of just about every animal species but don’t let that dissuade you. Overall we have a pretty cruisy way of life which can make us a bit complacent but also helps us to live a little longer (I assume). In my opinion Australia has the best wine in the world — just the right climate and soil. Everytime I fly back into Australia after a tour somewhere I say to myself – “I love this place.” But if you ever get down this way – make sure you get to New Zealand as well. In my opinion it is the most stunning place on earth – almost surreal. So come on over.
TBB: Can you teach us some Aussie phrases?
SoK: My favourite is “she’ll be right.” Captures the laid back attitude. If you want to catch some great Australian expression get the film Kenny (Madman Cinema). Great film.
TBB: Do your toilet bowls really flush “backwards”?
SoK: No no . . . ours flush forwards and yours flush backwards.
TBB: What are your plans for the Sons of Korah in the coming months and years? What are you gonna do after you’ve done all the Psalms? Proverbs?
SoK: We’ll just keep doing what we do until we get sick of it — and that is nowhere on the horizon at the moment. We are just about to put out a new album called RAIN and I think I am happier with this one than with any before. So we love this stuff. There are plenty of Psalms to go and if we runout we’ll maybe do the prophets or something.
There you have it. Thank you, Matt Jacoby! That was one of my favorite interviews to do. And those movie suggestions? Yeah, awesome stuff.
Be sure to check out the Sons of Korah on their website or Facebook. Their MySpace is having problems, so don’t go there.