Sorry for missing over a week on The Blah Blah. Between shoveling piles and piles of snow, moving into a new house, and the usual ministry stuff, life has been busy. And, man, do I have a lot to talk about…
So let’s get going. I’ve mentioned artist John Mark McMillan quite a bit on The Blah Blah, and just recently he proved himself to be just the awesome guy I figured he was by answering a few questions over an e-mail interview. Here is part one today, with part two coming tomorrow. Enjoy.
The Blah Blah: Who are you, in as many words and descriptives as you’d like to use?
John Mark McMillan: John Mark is a husband, a dad, a friend, and occasionally an enemy (but usually only with transportation personnel and aggressive sales people). He is a songwriter and a singer of songs. He has, at times, been considered an artist and would like to think of himself as an artist. Though his work is not always entirely original (and whose is?) he wants to expand the boundaries and explore the peripherals of what it means to be both an artist and a person who gives language to a community. John Mark is tall, loud and usually hungry. He adores his wife and baby boy. Loves to play music but loves listening to music even more. Has a strong distaste for pretense yet is occasionally pretentious. He enjoys controversy. He sports a beard because his wife thinks he looks to young without it. Though he doesn’t see what’s wrong with looking young.
TBB: Describe your style of music.
JMM: I would have to classify it as “Alternative”, or just plain “Rock” occasionally bleeding into the arenas of “Folk” , “Americana” or dare I say “Southern”. You may find my music on the rack at the store under the moniker of “Christian” or “Gospel”. Though I do profess to be an imitator of Christ and a purveyor of the Gospel thereof, I don’t think that the word “Christian” describes the sound of the music I write or music in general for that mater. So I personally wouldn’t say it’s “Christian Music,” but I’m not entirely offended by someone who would want to call it Christian music. I understand why they would.
TBB: How did you start doing music?
JMM: I started playing music when I was in my late teens. Mostly because I wasn’t good at sports and because my passion, drawing comic books, didn’t seem to impress the girls. So I started playing music for the shallowest of reasons and the truth was it didn’t really work. I never did impressed anybody. But I did discover that I truly loved playing music and especially writing songs.
When I was about 19 I was asked to play one of my songs at a large church conference. There were about 5000 people there and I was way under-qualified. Even at that time a few hundred people would have been quite intimidating. So, as you can imagine, I was incredibly nervous. I got up on the stage and pretty much froze. The background singers actually had to start the song for me. But I eventually fell in and when I got to the chorus the place erupted. It just about knocked me over. To hear 5000 people screaming lyrics that I wrote in my bedroom one lonely afternoon generated a feeling that I think only a handful of people on earth will ever experience. For just a few seconds I think that I actually stepped into a taste of the destiny that God had called me to. Needless to say I was ruined and I knew that I would spend the rest of my life writing songs, especially the kind that help people say the things that I think they really want to say.
TBB: What do you do when you’re not making music?
JMM: I like listening to and purchasing music, especially on vinyl. I also love going to shows whenever I can (I’m out of town a lot). I like to spend a lot of time with people. I really can’t think of many things that I enjoy more than to sit around and waste time with other human beings. Especially ones that I love or find particularly entertaining. I think it’s a very important thing to enjoy people, so I’ve made it a priority.
I really like gangster movies. I like to read, especially books about sociology and people. I’m really fascinated by the reasons behind why people do what they do. I also enjoy reading theology and apologetics by Lewis or Zacharias. I used to read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy once a year but now I just watch the movie (not quite the same but it works out better with my schedule).
TBB: I’ve definitely worshiped God through a lot of your songs, but only a few come across as “worship songs” per se – do you see yourself as a worship leader?
JMM: Sure, I totally do. But also beyond the Sunday morning choruses I want to write music that people want to sing everyday. I think that also could be considered worship leading, just maybe not in the traditional sense. I think whether you’re Bob Dylan or Lil’ Wayne, if you’re important to anyone as an artist, it’s because you help a group of people articulate something. I think the only real difference is what exactly we’re helping people articulate. The most common place for a worship leader to do this is in a church building on Sunday. I certainly enjoy doing that but I also want to have an effect on people beyond what they do inside of a building, when they’re out living their lives. I think real worship happens at work, at school, in the car or in the shower. It’s not something that stops after a service, though I do consider the service to be important as well. I don’t want to belittle that at all. I just like the idea of creating music that’s more than simply a platform for a message.
TBB: I’ve heard the story of the song “How He Loves” before, but for those who don’t know, how did that song come about?
JMM: Several years ago my best friend was killed in a car accident. I learned about it while I was in Jacksonville, Florida, working in the studio. I was pretty devastated as you can imagine. I woke up the next day and wrote that song. I had a couple lines of the song before he died but I felt like the song was supposed to be for him so I sat down that morning and finished it.
The song is basically about dealing with the anger of his death and how I was pretty tempted to believe that God didn’t love us but that even in this death I can see that God does. I guess my question was if God loved him then why did he die, and the answer, I believed, was that he died because God loved him and wanted to be with him. It’s a difficult conclusion to come to and I’m not sure most people who sing the song completely understand where I was coming from when I wrote it, but I’m glad it’s touching people.
In fact I receive messages pretty regularly from kids who have battled with depression and suicide who tell me that the song actually turned them around and saved their lives. So I would never complain, and after all, I think a song can have more than one meaning.
My friend was actually in a prayer meeting the morning before he died and told the Lord that if his death would shake people up then he would give his life. I don’t entirely understand the implications of this prayer, but I do believe that the effect this song has had on people is part of a promise that the Lord made when He took my friend’s life.
There are kids who are alive now because they heard that song and that’s the only explanation I have for it. Just the facts. I don’t understand how all that works theologically. I just know that’s the way it is.
TBB: One of my favorites of your songs is the song “Closer.” Any interesting stories about that song?
JMM: This is just a really honest song I wrote one afternoon. I wrote a good bit of Song Inside the Sounds in the midst of some pretty serious pain. I’ve done this song in church pretty often.
Theologically I’m not really sure that we’re really supposed to beg God for anything. Sons and daughters don’t beg. I was just in a place of such turmoil that I felt like I needed more than good stories and chicken soup for the soul. I needed a living person. So often we equate Christianity down to good vibes and what I needed was a person. The truth in the song is that Jesus is a person not just a good bedtime story.
TBB: How does your new album The Medicine compare to The Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down?
JMM: Not sure entirely. They seem to be two different animals really. While I was recording The Medicine people would ask me if it sounded like Song Inside The Sounds or if it was much of a departure. I always told people that it was pretty similar, but the truth was I hadn’t listened to Song Inside the Sounds for years until recently. When I did put the old album back on I realized that the two sounded totally different.
Recording can play tricks on you. I remember much more of what things sounded like in the process than the actual final product sometimes and it’s hard to get those things out of my head. When I think about the albums, I tend to think more about the 6 months I spent recording them rather than the 60 minutes that actually reach the general public. As far as I could tell, the process for each seemed similar enough. It was the same group of musicians and the same producer. I just assumed they would turn out similarly. But nope. They sound totally different.
In the three years between them I’m pretty sure I grew a ton as a writer and as a singer and the rest of the band grew as well. I had a more focused idea of what I wanted to accomplish this go around and we focused less on studio production and more on live performance this time.
It’s really funny to me when people say they think The Medicine sounds so much more polished because we purposely let things hang loose from a performance side of things in ways we never would have done before. We certainly had a bigger budget and it’s certainly bigger sonically. But we let it all hang out to the point where we wondered if people would find it a bit too indie.
TBB: Speaking of your new album, I really enjoy the song “Ten Thousand.” What’s the idea behind that song?
JMM: “Ten Thousand“ uses a number as a vehicle to tell a story from the perspective of a kind of old revelator. I incorporated lots of imagery picturing both death (rivers run red) and resurrection (graves yawning). At the time I wrote this, and much of the album, I was somewhat fascinated with the idea of death and resurrection representing two sides of the human experience. In this particular situation it’s not, so much, a Biblical presentation of resurrection but a picture of death and resurrection in everyday life. But that certainly isn’t an unbiblical concept.
TBB: What about the song “The Medicine?” I can venture some guesses, but I’d like to hear the “official” meaning…
JMM: “The Medicine” is a song about how we, as humans, like to self-medicate and how, often, the things we do to avoid pain are the very things that bring us pain.
I remember what it was like when I was young and trying to run from loneliness. I used to have this stone in my chest that I just couldn’t shake and it was the worst at night when I had to be alone with my thoughts. So what you do is keep yourself busy with anything you can find so when you lay down, you’re out cold.
Dealing with heartache is such a painful process, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as we make it. I see people I love and I want to reach out and save them from all the agony they’re experiencing, but sometimes you just have to watch them go through it and its heartbreaking.
TBB: Which of your songs is your favorite to play?
JMM: In church I love to play “Skeleton Bones” because I love to hear people sing the chorus. I think I wrote it with the idea that lots of people would have to sing it together for it to really have the desired effect. Also I love to hear people sing words that you don’t generally hear in church worship.
In a club situation, I like to play “The Medicine” because it’s just such a beautiful greasy ruckus.
… OK, you’re probably overloaded already. Come back tomorrow for part two!