Interview: Nine Lashes – From Water to War

by Sam Robinson

Nine Lashes are an alternative Christian band from Birmingham, Alabama, that create a sound that is mighty hard to narrow to one musical genre. Across their third album From Water to War are sounds ranging from rock to electronic to pop – but the whole thing shows us the challenges we face as Christians on this earth, although nothing that’s not out of God’s control. I talked at length with lead singer Jeremy Dunn to get the inside word on the album.

SAM: Where in the world do we find you today?

JEREMY: Birmingham Alabama. There’s no place like home.

SAM: You’re the lead singer of Nine Lashes. Can you tell me briefly how you formed as a band?

JEREMY: Well I joined right after graduating in 2007. It’s been a crazy ride. Back then we were just a local band that would get together and make the music we loved. We’ve always wanted God to be the very centre of what we do, just sharing his message, his love with people. And so we set out to do that. We prayed about it, we made a very peculiar decision and that was not to send in press kits and demos to labels. We just decided we were going to do what we do and just try our best to honour God and just let things happen how they happen. So, it’s crazy, we were just trying to get another show at a festival and – basically, we sent our album to a festival promoter locally around here, and asked if he could get us on their festival. Just a slot, sometime during the day, we weren’t even asking for much. But he took a big interest in us. He came to one of our shows to see if he could pull it off live. And eventually, what happened – it turns out this guy way back in the day helped Trevor [from Thousand Foot Krutch] when he was trying to move his band into America to try and get shows. So the promoter that we were trying to get a show with just happened to be part of that commitment that Trevor – they needed a certain amount of shows promised in America before they could get the proper documentation to come and tour. So the promoter committed a certain number of shows in Alabama and so he had a relationship with Trevor and sent our album to him. And on top of that, Trevor just happened to be at home resting from a surgery – I mean, thank God he’s OK – but I am thankful he had some time at home to listen to our stuff. From that point he took an interest in us, we met, and now we’re a part of the Tooth & Nail family. It was really crazy just to see how we decided we’re going to do what we do, and we’re going to commit our plans to you Lord, and see what you do with them. And that’s what he decided to do.

SAM: And now this album From Water to War, it seems like an expanded sound for you guys, would you agree with that?

JEREMY: Yes, that was our goal. That pretty accurately describes what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to lose anything from the last record. We really wanted to inject more of ourselves, because we have a very diverse taste in music. We love anything and everything, really. It’d be easier to label all the things we don’t like because it’d be a shorter list. We really wanted to let more of that through. And I really feel like we did it without losing what we had before. We just added to.

SAM: The first track, Break the World, how did it come together?

JEREMY: We wrote this song in direct response to our fans. So many shows we’ve been to where we’ll have somebody come up to us and say, ‘I was on the verge of just ending it all. I was just thinking about how everything would be better if I just ended it right now. And I listened to your song, and it got me through that night.’ It’s crazy because we write what we feel and we write what we love, and to know God takes our music and sends it out into the world to make a real impact on real people that are facing very real trouble, and problems. It’s humbling. So directly in response to that, we set out to write this song because a few guys in the band have had encounters with thoughts of suicide. Just being completely honest, I imagine that it crosses everybody’s mind at one time or another. Not everybody’s going to seriously contemplate it. One person might take it seriously and for another it might be a fleeting thought in a moment that they dismiss. There’s a trouble around every corner sometimes. We just wanted to write this down so they would know that they’re not alone and just to encourage them to choose life.

SAM: The track Where I Belong, is there a hint of dubstep on that track?

JEREMY: Yes! We [laughs] walked away from the last record saying we wanted more of that electronic element in it. Anthem of the Lonely off our World We View album – Aaron Sprinkle was the producer of that and he really added some of those touches to the songs but they were very minute. We didn’t even realise that was a possibility at the time, so we just decided we wanted to set out and learn how to incorporate that more, and I feel like we did.

SAM: And Aaron Sprinkle was one of the producers on this album, right?

JEREMY: Right. He did half of the record, and Jason Rauch – we went to him for the other half. I feel like it turned out great, we got a nice blend of everything. Influences from all sides.

SAM: Yeah! Where did you record the album?

JEREMY: It was all in Tennessee. Most of the Nashville area. Jason Rauch doesn’t live in Nashville but you might as well say it’s Nashville.

SAM: Was it a good time making this one?

JEREMY: Yeah, well compared to the last record, the way I’ve been describing it to people is that it had the highest highs and the lowest lows. I mean, there were moments on this one that were more gruelling than the last record but there were also moments that were way more rewarding. It was more extreme on both ends.

SAM: This might be the first time that readers of Reel Gospel have come across you guys, so could you tell me where the name Nine Lashes comes from?

JEREMY: It actually comes from the cat of nine tails that they used to torture Jesus with before he went to the cross. It’s just a reminder of the stripes and punishment that he took in our place. Those were our stripes – that was our punishment. He pulled us out of it and took our place. The name just serves as a reminder of that.

SAM: It’s such a horrific image, the whip, yet it has that hope to it doesn’t it?

JEREMY: Yeah, it really does. That’s where our emblem – if you see our album artwork it has nine of the chevrons to correspond with the stripes that he took, y’know? I’m super excited to keep that going [on future covers]

SAM: Yeah, and it’s better than having to pose for awkward band photos.

JEREMY: [Laughs] Oh yeah! It really makes the job easier.

SAM: You’ve talked a little about musical influences already, but who are your big musical influences?

JEREMY: Who aren’t our musical influences?! I guess going more personally, I grew up on Linkin Park. I’ve loved everything they did. I listen to Coldplay, and Thrice, I love Thrice’s lyrics. He has a wonderful grasp on the art of writing.

SAM: You’re on the same label as Dustin Kensrue of Thrice, that’s pretty cool.

JEREMY: Oh heck yeah! It’s like we’re related!

SAM: The track Lights We Burn has some synths and some whoa-oa-oas on it. What can you share about it?

JEREMY: Basically on a few of these songs… It’s one of my goals in life to write a book. I don’t know that I ever will because of the level of ADD that I am. So some of these things I take a fictional approach where I create un-named characters and I imagine them in a circumstance. And this was one of those where I literally imagined two people standing on a hill, and in the valley there’s a mass of broken and oppressed people. People that are struggling, and sick, and dying. And the two people on the hill are having a conversation. One is saying to the other: ‘You need to lift your eyes from your own personal life and struggles and see the masses that are going through this, and we need to do something about it. We need to get up and make a difference in the lives of those around us.’ So it was a giant metaphor for spiritual complacency where we just go about our day, worrying about our own life, and not stopping to look around at those around us and how we can have an impact.

SAM: The song Surrender does stand out as a different sound to the rest of the record. Did you intentionally try and create a more radio-friendly song?

JEREMY: Actually, yes. It’s a challenge that has been standing before me – it’s pretty daunting because whenever you write lyrics like that… a lot of times I write things metaphorically and poetically and I use a lot of imagery. But I felt like those things have become a bit of a crutch to where if I wanted to write something straightforward I couldn’t do it in a meaningful and powerful way. That’s really a part of writing that genre and that area, because there’s a fine line between genuine emotion and just cheesy – where there’s no thought in it. Sometimes people if they write it too straightforward it seems like they didn’t think about it. They just kinda wrote it. But on the other hand, there’s definitely an art to being straightforward with something and still have it be powerful and not under-thought. Because really the only thing that I ever felt came from under-thinking a lyric just lost whatever made it feel genuine. I guess that’s what I’m trying to describe here. It’s a real challenge to write something straightforward and still have it feel genuine.

SAM: It’s a great song – but it has substance to it.

JEREMY: Thank you. That’s a great word, I wish I used that in my description!

SAM: I’m keen to know is there a big idea or key message on From Water to War overall?

JEREMY: Actually it’s right in the title. We pulled that from our imagery of baptism, where you go under and come up a new creature, but when you come up you’re introduced to this war where there’s a God trying to save his people and there’s an enemy trying to do the opposite. And so you’re thrust in the middle of this thing. So across the album you’ll see titles like In the Dark, or You Are the Light, or Lights We Burn. There’s just this light versus darkness theme in this.

SAM: Yeah and I guess talking about the baptism and that war, and that battle going on, it’s a comfort knowing that Jesus has won that war.

JEREMY: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s what keeps us going. If we didn’t know the outcome things would be a lot more discouraging.

SAM: One of those tracks you just mentioned – You Are the Light – it seems like there’s a bit of self-questioning on it but still dependent on Jesus. What’s the story behind this song?

JEREMY: It’s another one of those fictional imagination things where I get this visual in my mind of someone just on their knees and terrified in this dark place. They’re trying to journey through this dark place and find their way out. And then I get another visual of Jesus in the distance. And he’s so far away, and if you could just cross this darkness – and this song really focusses on the fear. If you could just brave the darkness that’s in front of you and just cross over to Jesus then everything would be fine. But we as people can’t do that. Life is too big, our problems are too heavy for us to carry. And Christ saw that. Our sin was too much to bear. And so Christ saw that and he came and compassion on us. And he crossed that great gulf between us and he rescued us and brought us to himself, and reconciled us. So that’s literally what this is.

SAM: Jeremy, it’s time for the FAST FIVE. Five quick questions. Here we go! When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JEREMY: As far back as I remember I wanted to be important. It’s crazy, as a kid I just wanted to be important. I grew up without a father, and so a lot of times I had some self esteem issues growing up and I was kinda the kid in the corner a lot of times. But also, my best friend at the time in the eighth grade, gave me my first guitar and that was before I found Christ but I found a part of myself in that too. So, it’s led to this and once I gave my life to Christ he showed me to be important you have to be the least.

SAM: Great answer – real encouraging to hear that. Question two – what was the last movie you saw, and was it any good?

JEREMY: Actually it was right before you called me. I’m halfway through Captain Phillips. It’s based on a true story about pirates that took over this barge. It seems great so far! It’s not filthy or anything. I hate that – when you get a movie you think is going to be amazing and it’s just filled with terrible language and stuff you shouldn’t watch. So I just turn that off. But this has great acting and I’ll see how it turns out after the interview!

SAM: I’m sorry to interrupt the middle of the movie! I have seen it and I think it gets intense, but I think you’ll like the way it finishes. No spoilers! OK – question three – if you could collaborate with any musician in the world on a track for your next album, who would you pick?

JEREMY: Oh man! I would actually love to track Dustin down from Thrice. That would be awesome just to write a song. And if it never made it on a record, I would just take it home and listen to it, because I would make him sing on it.

SAM: I was wondering if you might say Jay Z because I know Linkin Park did that collaboration…

JEREMY: [Laughs] Oh man… That’s one of those look-the-other-way moments. I’m gonna pretend they didn’t do that.

SAM: Fair enough! What’s your favourite book of the Bible, if you have one?

JEREMY: Oooh. I’m gonna say what first pops into my mind. Just now, Ecclesiastes. It’s great. Solomon’s a super wise dude. He puts things in perspective of what happens.

SAM: I love reading the Psalms and thinking – wow, he’s wise because he trusts in God.

JEREMY: Oh yeah.

SAM: And – what album can’t you get enough of at the moment, other than your own?

JEREMY: [Laughs] I’ve got plenty enough of my own – trust me. Between having to practice, and writing it, and having to listen to it a hundred thousand times… Anyway – I’ve been listening to some Hillsong lately. Their new album is great, I really enjoy it. I feel like they have kinda – I don’t wanna say this against anybody but sometimes worship songs pull so many lyrics from each other that it starts to seem a little less than genuine. But Hillsong really impressed me with the lyrics of this album. They’re just straight from the heart. I feel like if they had written these thousands of years ago they would be in the psalms.

SAM: Well, you’ve passed the FAST FIVE. Nicely done. I’ve got another question for you. How important is it to you as a band to share Jesus in your music?

JEREMY: It’s pivotal. It’s the hinge that the door swings on. It’s everything. If it wasn’t for that, there are a lot of hardships that come with being a touring band. You’re away from home a lot, and honestly in Christian rock, if you’re not the largest thing that’s happening in America, you’re not making tonnes of money. So there’s financial sacrifices too. None of it would be worth it if it wasn’t for what we’re doing. If it wasn’t for that – sharing Christ with the kids. And not just kids – adults, everybody.

SAM: That’s really good to hear! The track Light it Up has a killer riff on it. Who’s responsible for writing that riff?

JEREMY: It was actually a collaborative effort. I brought the skeleton of the riff to the table, just picked up the guitar and strummed something out. And Jason Rauch was like: ‘I like that, let’s try this here, let’s try this there.’ And John was in the room. The rest of the guys were off recording some drums but John was there making suggestions. Us three put our heads together and came up with that bad boy so, it was exciting.

SAM: The track Love Me Now – I love how you remind us that Jesus knows and takes on our pain. Is that something that has hit you before and that you wanted to share?

JEREMY: Yeah actually, this song is kinda my story. I mentioned earlier that growing up I had some self-esteem issues, that I was usually the kid you’d find in the corner away from the activity. And this is really that story, in that I felt like I was alone in this dark place on my own, but it never felt natural, y’know? There are people who push people away and it’s natural for them to be cold but I really felt it was the Spirit – he wouldn’t let me be cold. I wanted to push people away because I felt awkward, I didn’t know what to say in social settings, but I couldn’t truly isolate myself. That’s where that lyric comes from that says ‘Lost at home feels strange to me’. I’m at home, but I also feel lost, I don’t know where I belong.

You see, I grew up without a father. And the first eight years of my life I grew up with my grandmother’s sister, my great aunt. And my mom had given me up for adoption because she didn’t have the money to take care of me at the time, and then at eight years old I found out that my mom is not my mom because I thought my mother was my great aunt at the time. And so, I find out who my birth mother is, and I end up moving in with her. Then there’s all these questions of ‘where’s Dad?’ and I just felt lost. So this song is about how God brought me to this realisation where it was kinda like news. It was news to me! ‘I hear your still voice calling but how could you love me now? / I’d ripped my world down to follow the sound, could you love me now?’ Are you out there? It’s this realisation – could you really love me? Could you be out there waiting for me to come to you? Is it true? I went through that realisation when the Lord brought me to himself. He rescued me. And I wanted to put that down on paper and really put it out there for other people that are in moments leading up to this. Where they feel like they’re alone in their own little place where nobody else can find them where they are. No-one else can understand them. No-one else can come to that place with them. And I just wanted to write it for other people that might have felt that same way that I felt.

SAM: Wow. Thanks for sharing that. It’s really encouraging to hear that story and the way God’s worked in your life.

JEREMY: God’s amazing. It’s crazy what he’ll do just to save one person.

SAM: Thinking about the album – it’s been released in January. What’s the rest of the year hold for you guys?

JEREMY: Currently we’re working on our plans for music videos. We’re trying to carry them out right now. We’re wanting to take it a little step higher than the last record. So hopefully we’ll do more music videos this time and have them be just as good. But after that we’re going to have some tours in the works. I can’t say too much about it because the details are subject to change – but we will be out and about soon, and hopefully in Australia not too long after that.

SAM: It’d be good to see you down under!

JEREMY: We got contacted by a festival last year, so we almost made it out there! I’m not really sure what happened to it.

SAM: We’d love to have you down here, for sure. Jeremy the last track, Cover Your Own, what can you tell us about it?

JEREMY: This actually – it’s right in the same vein as Love Me Now in that it’s very personal. Like I said, I grew up without a dad and I didn’t discover who my birth mother was until I was eight years old. So I’m a kid with lots of questions, you can imagine. And I wanted to be bitter. I wanted to blame somebody for how I felt. I felt like I was in my own little place that nobody could get to or understand me. In a way I felt trapped there. I wanted to blame that on something, so on the inside I wanted to be bitter but – when you’ve found God and you’ve found that forgiveness and you’ve found that love – God will transform you. He brought me to a place where I could forgive a man I had never met for not being there. And now to this day, I’ve gotten to meet my father. We have a great relationship. And if I had become bitter, I might have sabotaged the chance to have a great relationship with my father today, just by holding on to those feelings. Unforgiveness only entraps the person who’s unforgiving. The person who originally hurt someone, they’re not affected, they’ve moved on. And I realised that. My trying to be angry at my father did not affect my father at all. It only affected me and the state of my heart. So God taught me that and pulled me out of that and he showed me how to forgive. Man, he’s so amazing.

SAM: Jeremy, it’s been so encouraging to hear your story and also the new album. Thanks for joining me and all the best for the year ahead!

JEREMY: Thanks so much. Thank you for taking your time out too!

From Water to War by Nine Lashes is available now digitally on iTunes and physical copies can be ordered here. Listen to the whole album through Spotify, below.

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