by Sam Robinson
John Mark McMillan last week released his fourth studio album Borderland. It’s a stunning release and has been met by critical acclaim from many reviewers (read my five-star review here). Just before the album was released, I sat down for an extended chat with John Mark to talk about the themes of the record, tension as an artist, the production on Borderland, and paying random people to dance to Michael Jackson.
SAM: John Mark, thanks for chatting with me today about this incredible fourth studio album, Borderland. When you put the project on Kickstarter you titled it as ‘John Mark McMillan’s Best Album Ever’. In hindsight do you still believe that’s true?
JOHN MARK: Oh yeah, I actually do. I mean, I always hope that whatever I’m working on at the moment is the best so far. But this one I definitely, 100%, believe it’s my best. No doubt in my mind.
SAM: Can I ask why you’d say that?
JOHN MARK: I’m more satisfied with it than anything I’ve ever done. I feel like it’s really mature. I feel like I didn’t cut any corners, and I did everything the way I wanted to do it. It’s an album that I would want to listen to, y’know?
SAM: What was the process like doing a Kickstarter project and seeing your fans actually get behind the album?
JOHN MARK: It is really cool! I mean, there’s a lot of pressure too because once we got started I realised – oh man, this better be good! People are paying for it. But also there’s a huge energy that comes when you see how many people are really into what you’re doing. So the whole team got really excited with the Kickstarter, not just because the thing got fully funded, but just to see all the people who believed in us.
SAM: And you’ve released this record on your own label, Lionhawk Records, what was it like to create your own label and release an album on it?
JOHN MARK: You know, it’s not entirely unlike what I’ve already done. I was independent for a long time. It’s very similar to what I used to do, only now it’s a lot bigger and there’s a lot more to keep up with. It’s crazy, my manager calls me sometimes and he likes to joke – ‘Hey, the president of your marketing department would like to have a word with you…’ Because I am it! It’s me. So it’s super small – we have three people including myself, and we have a team of people that we’ve hired out seasonally to help. It gets busy but it’s fun. Sometimes it’s a little nerve-wracking because we’re making all the decisions and we don’t always know how things are going to pan out. I like it, I was really involved with everything we’ve done, even on the label. I’ve got a lot to learn but I feel like I have an OK idea as to what we’re doing.
SAM: What’s your plan for the label from here on?
JOHN MARK: You know, when I was younger I always dreamed of having a label to help bands release music. So maybe some day I’ll do that. But I felt I really had to prove it myself because if I can’t do it for me, I don’t know how I’m going to do it for anybody else. I don’t know if I could do this: I have this dream of being able to sign bands and helping them put their music out and not take in any money from it. Just because the profit motive, the capitalist motive wrecks. It ruins a lot of good music. Especially in this world – If you’re a believer and you’re connected somehow in worship or Christian communities and then you want to do other kinds of music – because you want to play music that you like and that you listen to… Most of what I listen to is not Christian music. I want to create music that’s like what I like. I don’t see why I would not create music that I like. That seems hypocritical. So you see this line where people are diving full on into the Christian thing where they very much pursue one particular sound, or you see people walking away from it completely. And a lot of that has to do with marketing and finances. I think it would be a dream to be able to have a label that wasn’t expected to make any money off their artists so they could allow them to do what they wanted to do. That’s probably a pipe dream, but you gotta think about something when you go to sleep!
SAM: Have you felt tension in past between the Christian artist pull and also what you want to do creatively?
JOHN MARK: Yeah there’s always tension. Always, always tension. It’s a fine line when you think – these people are going to buy the album if they hear you’re vocal, and they’re not going to buy it if they can’t. Or, these people are going to like this. I understand those sort of lines. And not that it’s about how many people buy it but we have babies, and I have a band. We have to sell albums in order to make them. I mean, we did this through a Kickstarter but still to keep the whole thing running there has to be an audience. Even more than that, your audience is what you create music for. Pure music is the result of a desire to be known, it’s the same reason we start relationships. It’s the same reason we make music, is we want other people feel the way we feel about things. When we hear music that feels that way we feel like we relate to one another. We feel like we’re not alone. So you have to make music with an audience in mind, there’s no not doing that. Whether it’s a small or large audience, or it’s one person. Or it’s even a type of person and you have no idea who that person is. Or maybe you just hope that these people exist! You do make music for people. So those sort of things go through your head.
But then you start thinking ‘We could do this, if we could get in here. But to get in here, these people want to hear it this way, so let’s try that.’ And then I just get sick of that. But that’s always there. And you kinda deal with it and you’re sorta like: ‘Well a kick drum could be this or that, and who cares?’ You fight all day over a kick drum.
SAM: Have you actually fought all day over a kick drum?
JOHN MARK: Oh yeah. Not fight, but you talk all day. More of this. Or do this. Or this should go here. Some of that’s fun and some of it’s stupid. My goal is to have as few of those conversations as possible.
SAM: Speaking of the recording process, where did you record Borderland?
JOHN MARK: I recorded about forty minutes outside of town. There’s a studio in a nature preserve that my buddy who produced it – Elijah Mosely – he owns this studio which is a hundred-year old… it used to be an office or a general store for a mill that burned down fifty years ago. Now it’s the only standing building in a nature preserve. We did the whole album there, it was really great. Of the four albums that I’ve done – I did some before that – three of them were done there.
SAM: The first taste we heard of Borderland – Future / Past – it’s an incredible song. Such a sing-along as seen in that live video you put together. What’s the message behind it?
JOHN MARK: You know, I don’t know if there’s a “message” but the vibe that I’m sort of pursuing has to do with friendship. It has to do with this idea of identity and who I am. Everyone identifies themselves in different ways. People identify themselves by their jobs, or who they know, by what they do. Or are you a mom? Are you a dad? Struggling with who I am and trying to figure out who I am. So that song sort of comes out of that conversation that I have with others and myself.
SAM: I love that line – ‘You asked me to be your friend.’
JOHN MARK: Oh yeah. I don’t know if I’m ever trying to present any sort of message in the music. I think if your life has some sort of message and you make pure music it will bleed through. So that’s the way I approach it. So you can find messages in the music but I don’t think of it that way when I’m making it.
SAM: The album cover for Borderland has a very sleek looking panther on the front. Why go with that?
JOHN MARK: Well, part of me wants to just let people figure it out once they hear the album. Connect all the dots. But the theme of the album is basically this idea of: there are times when you have to survive, and if you choose survival at the cost of loving another person or people then, what have you chosen to survive for? If we have to live without love, if we have to live without people, then are we really living? Springsteen has a song called Devils and Dust and he says ‘If what you do to survive kills the things you love then fear is a powerful thing.‘ So the panther has this idea of law of the jungle, look after yourself. And not to go too deep, but he’s kind of a loner. He’s dark and ominous, and it looks really cool. But also, the fact that it’s a toy and it would think itself strong, but actually it’s not at all. I think that’s the way we think of ourselves: I’m going to look after myself, I’m going to take care of myself, but you’re not. You’re not really going to. Trusting yourself is still trusting a person and you’re still going to let yourself down, so you might as well trust people and love people, even if it hurts, you know? That’s the idea behind the panther. Also, we used to have cougars and mountain lions in North Carolina at one time. And I think in the mountains that you might still find one but they’re pretty rare. And our football team is the Carolina Panthers. We throw these very, very subtle North Carolina messages into all our album covers.
SAM: And would you say that as well as needing other people, does that also include God? If we’re so small and insignificant…
JOHN MARK: Yeah, of course. I consider Jesus a person. He is God and person at the same time. But also, you know the message of Jesus is ‘love one another’. You can’t love Jesus and not love people. You can’t value Jesus and not value who he values, y’know? And that’s the flip side of the whole thing: Christian in ministry and empire building within the church world. How often do we forget that we’re building our empire on the backs of the people we’re serving. It’s such an upside-down picture of what we’re really called into. So that’s the flip side or the more personal part of the message in the album. [Shouts] I used the word message! [Laughs]
SAM: [Laughs] Well that actually was my next question, John Mark! Most interviews I like to ask if there is a big idea or message to the album, and you’ve talked about the survival thing. You’ve talked about community and time, is there anything else to mention? Other than great music!
JOHN MARK: No, there’s a lot. There’s a lot of my history and me dealing with who I am. There’s a lot of introspective stuff. Me dealing with where I came from. That’s the whole concept of Borderland. Coming from somewhere and going to somewhere else but neither fully having left this place, but neither having entered the next place. Standing between two places. And I think most of the songs speak to that. At the same time, in the past I’ve used common language to speak about spiritual things. On this one I use a lot of spiritual language that can be used to speak about common things. And the truth is often you can use both at the same time. Sort of the whole borderland kind of concept. They are one and the same, but could go either way.
There’s a song called Holy Ghost, and the whole idea of ‘I need a Holy Ghost’ could be a metaphor for the fact that you need somebody other than yourself, the benevolence of another. In the secular sense of the song it could even be the help of a person: your wife, your father, your friend. It’s realising you need more than what you can offer yourself. That’s the basic idea of the song – needing more than you can offer yourself. But being a believer, I can also bring that in. It’s not just a metaphor, it also is in itself the actual thing. So the song literally works in both ways. I’ve got a song called Tongues of Fire. ‘At nights we spoke with tongues of fire, days we walked out on the wire.’ This idea of tongues of fire could be speaking in tongues or praying, but it could also be talking with my friends and dreaming out loud. It could be kissing my wife. All those things. But they all relate to each other. They’re about passion and I’ve experienced all of those things in my life. It’s not one, I’m singing about all those things and you can pick which one works for you. I’m talking about all of them at the same time. That’s the idea of a borderland, singing about spiritual and common things at the same time when they literally relate to both things. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Which is life! It’s not either/or. You don’t have church life and real life. You just have life. You don’t have spiritual life and practical life, you just have life. When we try and separate those things, when you try and make things holy and things unholy, it doesn’t work. The whole earth is full of the glory but it’s also a pretty rough place to live. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. It’s the world we live in. The more you try and separate those things – the sacred and the profane – then the weirder Christianity gets and the less and less it makes sense. But the truth is they all exist in the same world, so I was trying to write songs that speak about both things at the same time. That’s the overall theme of the record.
SAM: I’ve been following you on Twitter and you’ve posed some interesting questions. One which I’d like to turn back and ask you: Who would win in a fight between a polar bear and a tiger?
JOHN MARK: I’m pretty sure a tiger would. Everyone says a polar bear because they’re bigger, but tigers are incredibly fast and incredibly powerful. I would go with the tiger.
SAM: See, part of me thinks that the polar bear would knock the tiger out with just one swipe, but I think the tiger would be too fast for it.
JOHN MARK: I feel like tigers – their teeth and claws are bigger. I feel like bears… tigers sneak up on their prey and they stalk their prey, but bears just go for it. I think a tiger would be smarter and quicker. More agile.
SAM: Here in Australia we don’t have bears, or tigers, or polar bears, so it’s hard to tell. Now one of the singles, Love at the End, is an incredible song. I think it’s the best song of the year so far. The sounds on it are amazing. What can you tell me about it?
JOHN MARK: It’s one of those funny songs. It’s one of the first songs I started and I wasn’t even going to finish it because it wasn’t coming out. The lyrics weren’t making sense and I wrote it four or five times. But then after a while I decided to write something I wanted to write that I enjoyed the sound of. So there’s a lot of lyrics that don’t make any literal sense, like: ‘My rabbit’s running on the street hot heels of Rome’. Street hot heels just sounds cool, y’know? It’s the aesthetic. I mean there’s definitely the idea of a rabbit representing fear, and Rome representing an empire, but this whole idea of these two sort of things. I tied in these words that were aesthetically pleasing that you could draw meaning from, because there’s definite meaning there. But I feel like my audience likes to have an idea of what I’m saying most of the time, so I fought it. Finally I went with what I enjoyed and it’s funny because people really love that song. I should give people more credit than I do. People are more open to different kinds of songwriting ideas.
But really – it’s the last song I sang. I thought maybe we could finish it up later and make it a bonus track, but then we thought ‘let’s push it through and put it on the album’, so we did and after we got it mixed and mastered I was like, ‘Man, this is my favourite one!’ I spent a year writing that song, I spent a year writing Guns / Napoleon, some of the [other] songs on the album I spent the whole year writing. It’s funny, at the end of the year they sounded a lot like they did at the beginning, but they changed a lot in the middle [Laughs].
SAM: As far as production goes on Love at the End, the sound you’ve created that is such an 80s synthy vibe – how did you go about creating that?
JOHN MARK: For that song, we found an old Yamaha DX7. It’s the keyboard everyone used in the 80s. So we realised that if you want authentic sounds you have to get them. You can spend a lot of time trying to reproduce them or finding a keyboard that sounds like an old keyboard, or a drum patch that sounds like this, or find a reverb that sounds like a room. But we realised if you really want it to sound that way then you just have to do it. So we found a DX7 at a pawn shop for $100. And actually you can’t use it live, at least not this one because it’s one of the first digital keyboards ever created. So it goes out of tune! You turn it on and you don’t know what key it’s going to be in. It’s like going terribly wrong, you know? You can’t fix it. The chips and things don’t exist and you wouldn’t want to pay the money [to find them] – we paid $100 for it, so… A lot of the sounds had to be tuned a little bit because they are going out. So we used that and Elijah spent a lot of time crafting that sound. So when you hear the ‘ba-nanananana’ it’s not a delay pedal. He actually played it and then placed it. We built it with real instruments. There’s a lot of real instruments there and you have this thing built on top of it. It’s not like a sawtooth synth. A lot of people compare it to M83 but I don’t think it sounds anything like M83.
SAM: Anything with some kind of sonic soundscape… M83!
JOHN MARK: I know! So I play guitar – ‘Oh, it’s U2!’ Maybe it is. But… I just don’t hear it.
SAM: And you’ve released a clip which has horses, snakes and interesting dancing. Whose concept was it?
JOHN MARK: It was my buddy Eric Hurtgen. He and Jared Hogan were the guys who created it. Jared’s a phenomenal film guy. And Eric’s a really good friend. He’s an artist and he’s multi-talented. The two of them created this concept. They actually drove around my hometown and they paid random people $25 to dance. So they just found people and they’re blaring Michael Jackson out of their car and giving $25 to dance, and they signed a form saying we could do it! So it’s literally gas stations. There are a couple of actors but most of the people are just random people on the side of the road. They filmed that while I was in New Zealand [at Parachute Music Festival 2014] so I just trust them. I was like ‘I wanna release Love at the End man, I wish we had a video,’ and Eric’s like ‘I love that track man, I wish we had time to do one.’ And he called me back an hour later and asked ‘Do you have any budget?’ and I was like ‘I might.’ He said ‘If you have any budget, tell me what you got and let’s see if we can do anything.’ So we worked something out and he said he had an idea. He never told me his idea. They just went and did it. [Laughs] They sent me the preview and I went in one night and spent an hour doing my part and that was that. But it was really cool, a lot of my friends were involved in that video. A lot of my buddies. Hometown stuff is awesome too.
SAM: Did they give you $25 to dance?
JOHN MARK: [Laughs] No! I don’t even remember dancing. They got me doing these weird motions. They made me look like I was dancing, that’s awesome. They never said ‘Hey, dance!’ – they said ‘Look like you’re trying to smash some ants.’
SAM: Do you know what Michael Jackson song was played as the people were dancing? I mean, any Michael Jackson song could be danceable.
JOHN MARK: I can’t remember. It’s probably the Thriller album. I’m sure they didn’t play the same song over and over.
SAM: Hey here’s a link. Isn’t there a panther in the clip for Billie Jean, walking through the street?
JOHN MARK: Oh wow!
[NOTE: Since the interview I've discovered it's actually a tiger in the Billie Jean clip. However, a panther appears in the extended clip to Michael Jackson's Black or White].
SAM: In the clip, and others too, you’re singing into two SM57 microphones. Is that just something you did for the videos, or did you also do it on the record, and why?
JOHN MARK: We did it on the record, for sure. It sort of goes back to doing something for real, it always sounds better than trying to imitate it. So we took the two 57s and ran them both through really high-end analogue preamps. It doesn’t make sense if you run through digital preamps because you might as well do one. But we ran them through two really high analogue preamps and one through a really, really expensive analogue compressor. We squashed the absolute snot out of one of the mics, and the other one was very clean. So you have the two. So instead of compressing the one, you just mix the two together. And it creates this really punchy, old-school… You know the old Johnny Cash recordings where he’s like clipping the microphone, clipping the preamps and it sounds amazing. Old-school distortion. But it’s not an effect, it’s just the way the gear works. It’s a really amazing way to achieve that sound but be able to control. It actually – while we were doing it, it looked so cool. I was like ‘Man, we need to just always do this.’ But it sounded amazing. A brand new SM57 costs like $99. So we used those two mics, and the only other mic we used for a main vocal was a Manley which is like a $10,000 mic. So, it’s funny. We did several of the songs with the two SM57s. It’s not just for looks, it really does work but you’ve got to have the right gear or it’s a waste of time.
SAM: And it’s intriguing because people do notice it.
JOHN MARK: For real! People keep asking: ‘Why are you doing that?’
SAM: Now people know. Before you go, what have you got planned for the rest of the year?
JOHN MARK: We’ll be touring the US throughout the spring. We’re talking about maybe going to Europe in the summer. And then we’ll do more US in the fall. Then I don’t know what the winter looks like. I’d like to go down to Australia in the winter next year.
SAM: Good! Because it will be nice and warm!
JOHN MARK: Exactly.
SAM: Thanks so much for the chat!
JOHN MARK: Yeah, thank you!