by Sam Robinson
Last week, Atlanta band The Museum released their new album What We Stand For (read our review here). I got the chance to talk at length with The Museum’s lead singer and songwriter Ben Richter, to get the stories behind the new album, and also discover why the band love to use Craigslist.
SAM: Ben, where in the world do I find you today?
BEN: I am home in Atlanta. Actually just moved a little north of Atlanta, my wife and I bought a house in a city called Woodstock and so I’m home today but actually hitting the road tonight. We’ve got a few concerts coming this weekend in Missouri and Kansas. We’re getting ready to head out to the midwest!
SAM: Excellent. And can you tell me very briefly how you became a Christian?
BEN: Yeah, I was really young. I was blessed to be raised in a family that took me to church at a really young age and I remember really clearly I was a five-year-old kid and I’d been going to church on Sundays and starting to have a lot of questions. Especially at that age, I was really interested in this heaven versus hell thing. How do I know that I’m going to heaven when I die? So I’d heard that in a message that morning at church, and I guess I’d been thinking about it all day. So I was getting ready to go to bed that night and asked my dad how I could know for sure that I was going to heaven. My dad walked me through how I could accept Christ in my own life and as a five-year-old boy I made that commitment. And then I went through different periods of life where – it took me up until I was thirteen to really understand what it meant to make that faith my own. To begin to live that out on a daily basis in a relationship with Christ.
SAM: And you’re part of The Museum. You’ve released a few albums and the latest, What We Stand For, is now out. Did you take a different approach to the recording of this album compared to past ones?
BEN: Yeah. We definitely wanted to make a more focussed and targeted worship album for this approach. The first two albums that we did I think I would say they’re very worshipful albums but they’re not necessarily songs that I would lead on a Sunday morning in church a whole lot. For me, I’ve been a worship leader for ten years now. I’ve been at one church in Atlanta for the last five years, and that’s really my heartbeat and an extension of who I am and what I do. It’s leading people in worship. So I really wanted to come and focus this album to be a record that’s really made for the church and for worshippers. So it was a fun process to focus that and try and remain true to really building songs out of Scripture. That was a big focus for me on the songwriting.
SAM: Where did you record the album?
BEN: We did it in the Atlanta area. A good friend of mine has a studio in a city called Griffin, Georgia. Jason Hoard who’s a country guy that loves to fish and all sorts of things like that. We’d call him a river redneck around these parts! He’s been in the band Third Day for the last few years, touring with them, and he’s a really talented producer. We’ve been friends for years and worked together in the past, so this was the first album I’ve been able to do the entire record with him. It was fun to do it all in one place and build that from the ground up together.
SAM: And speaking of rednecks… I mean I only know about them from things on TV like Gator Boys and Turtleman… But the track Always Yes has that knee-slapping. It’s a good time! What’s the story behind Always Yes?
BEN: Yeah, we wanted for that song to be able to bring out the banjos and mandolins and just have a good time. And I think in church, it’s really easy for us to get kind of sombre and serious all the time, but we don’t always know how to really celebrate and have a good time. I think that we should be able to celebrate the fact that Christ has come and set us free from our sin, and he went to the cross that we would have life. There’s so many things that we should be celebrating in worship. So we really wanted to make this a song that had a sound and feel of a celebration. Something that hopefully you can sing and sticks in your head as a daily reminder that even – the chorus says ‘Yes… the enemy is defeated, and we’ll always be standing on the promises of Jesus.’ I hope that’s something that can work its way into people’s lives and be something that we continually remember, even though it’s just a fun song. I think the truth in it is really important and big.
SAM: The album is titled What We Stand For, it’s quite positive, not What We Stand Against. Why did you run with this album title?
BEN: Man, there are so many issues that we can always be divided on. And when I say ‘we’, I mean the church. There’s a lot of people that believe different things, and different nuances to our beliefs and our faith. That’s OK and that’s good. But there are always things that we can be against, or things we have a tendency to bicker about and argue about. And ultimately I just think it’s so important for the church that beyond being known for the things that we’re against we can turn that corner and start to be known for what we stand for. One band I really look up to is Switchfoot. I happened to be reading an article three weeks ago. It was well after we had titled the album. I was reading this article from Jon Foreman, the lead singer. He was talking about all these protesters that were coming out and complaining for all the reasons they’re against Switchfoot. And he just said ‘Can’t we ask the bigger question? Can’t we get to the point where we’re not saying “What are we against?” but more importantly, “What do we stand for?”.’ And that we as believers would be people known for grace and that we’re known for mercy, and ultimately that we can begin to really love and serve people the same way that Jesus Christ came to this earth to do. And so I hope beyond anything that my life says that I’m against, I hope ultimately the world would see Christians and see myself and see the church and know that we are for the love of God in their lives and that Christ has come to pursue all of us sinners. I hope that can be something that we convey that message through our songs and our touring and really through everything we do.
SAM: The album talks a lot about the faithfulness of God. Were there certain parts of Scripture that you found yourself uncovering this truth from?
BEN: Yeah. I told you that when we started talking that I wanted the album to be rooted in Scripture. A couple of things that come to mind off the top of my head is – there’s a song called Saved My Soul which is the first single. It’s another song that’s a celebration and a fun, upbeat song. But even in the midst of that, it comes straight out of Psalm 51. I was reading that passage in the day that I wrote that song, on an aeroplane flying back to Atlanta. David, who is the author of the psalm, is coming out of this moment of being in the depth of his sin and despair. He’s crawling out of that and making this prayer to God. And in Psalm 51:12 he says: ‘Restore to me the joy of my salvation, and grant me a willing spirit.’ I thought that was a really cool prayer, and it took me back to that moment of being a five-year-old kid and experiencing salvation in my life. I just had this moment where I said: ‘God, I never want to lose the wonder, I never want to lose the joy of that.’ So that song came out of that moment of reading Psalm 51. There’s a lot of Scripture. Psalm 139 had another big impact on a song – Carry My Heart which I co-wrote with our drummer Josh. Quite frankly the past three years, he and his wife have been in a situation where they’ve been praying that they’d be able to have children. They’ve not been able to get pregnant. So Psalm 139 is this psalm of despair in some ways, from David. We were reading that psalm and ended up writing Carry My Heart out of that situation, trying to capture some of the hope within that hopeless situation, if you will. So certainly a lot of the psalms weighed heavily into the songwriting of this record.
SAM: One of the big tracks for me on the record is a song called Give Me Faith. It seems to acknowledge that God is the giver of all things, including our faith. Is that what the song is about?
BEN: I didn’t write that song myself, but it’s been one of my favourite worship songs for the past couple of years. There’s a church in Charlotte, North Carolina called Elevation Church. There’s some good friends of mine there, I’ve been going and leading worship there for the past five years and that’s a song that came out of that church. It actually came out of a sermon series titled Give Me Faith, and they wrote this song as the prayer of their church through that moment. I love the bridge of that song that says: ‘I may be weak but your Spirit is strong in me / And my flesh may fail but my God, you never will.’ I think for me that’s the promise that I love hanging on to in singing that song, and when we lead that song at camps and conferences it’s been really cool to see people embrace that moment, but that also comes straight out of Scripture where Paul is saying that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. I think there’s something about the vulnerability of that song that opens up ourselves to say: ‘God, I’m weak and I need you to come in, so grow my faith. Give me faith to trust the words that you’re saying to me.’ And it just feels like a really honest confession song to me, even though I’m not the songwriter of it. It’s something I’ve seen a lot of people connect with as I’ve led it.
SAM: We talked briefly already about Saved My Soul, the message behind it, what about the musical arrangement – how did it come together?
BEN: Yeah, I mentioned I was on an aeroplane when I started writing that song, and it was actually with my good redneck friend Jason Hoard who produced the album. He had this idea for a loop that was basically this drum loop that he programmed on his iPad. It was really funny to me that he made this little thing on his iPad in five minutes and it sounded so cool! It was the original hook of the sound of the song. So he sent this to me and it was looping the whole time for three minutes. So I sat with that playing in my head and I started humming this [sings] ‘May I never lose the wonder, never lose the joy,’ and started coming into this idea of writing that into the song. So I went straight back into the studio and I was like ‘I got an idea for that loop you sent me, let’s turn it into a song!’ And so I sang him the chorus, and he immediately said ‘Yeah, let’s go with it.’ So, we spent a couple of hours on a computer just programming the heck out of this song. It was fun because everything we make is with guitars and pianos and stuff, and this was purely an electronic song. We ended up with 92 tracks in that one song on the album, and only one of them was a guitar! It was fun, we had a good time.
SAM: As people hear the album, including that track, what are you hoping they’ll take away from it?
BEN: I really just hope that people are able to connect with songs that kind of become part of the story of their life, and there’s eleven songs on the album. Not every song is going to reach every person, but there may be songs for some people that you might be able to latch on to – like Give Me Faith. You know, we don’t have any goals of saying that we want to sell a hundred thousand records or we want to sell a million records or anything. I just hope that there’s somebody somewhere that hears a song in the right moment and God uses that to impact their life in some way. It’s always so encouraging to me as a songwriter anytime that I’m able to hear stories of people who have heard one of our songs, that’s had some sort of impact on their life. That’s been what’s kinda kept me going writing music – hearing people’s stories – how a song has had an influence on their life. I just hope there’s more of those to come. That God would use these songs to encourage people, to draw people to the hope that’s found in his Word. Especially for people that may not be churchgoers or what we would call Christians. I hope they have the chance to hear a song and maybe hear something that they might be missing.
SAM: Is there a big idea or key message to this album as a whole?
BEN: Well certainly with the title being What We Stand For I did want to very clearly want to come out and say that this is who we are, this is what we’re for. I think if I had to boil that down to one statement it’d be out of Micah 6:8 – ‘What does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’ That’s a big part of the theme of the song that’s the title track, but I think ultimately spills into the rest of the record as well, that we would truly love mercy and seek after justice for the poor and the oppressed.
SAM: And the band has been getting behind a few organisations that are working towards that?
BEN: Yeah, for a long time – since the beginning – we’ve been involved with an organisation called Not For Sale Campaign. They’re based out of California but they’re doing work all across the world, helping to shine a light on slavery and with the whole goal of seeing modern day slavery and human trafficking come to an end in our lifetime. They’re a great organisation, and they’ve become somewhat of friends and family to us. And we’ve also been really involved the last two years with Compassion International. It’s a really neat organisation that’s helping to sponsor kids throughout the world, and right now they’re in 26 countries. We had a chance to go over to the Philippines and see what they’re doing there firsthand. Man, it was just incredible. You go into some places of the deepest levels of poverty in the world and Compassion is partnering with people like myself to be able to support a child, and make a difference to that one kid who lives on the complete other side of the globe. It’s a really cool concept, and we’ve loved getting to be a part of what Compassion is doing and the fact that they’re working in 26 countries is pretty sweet to me, to be a small part of that.
SAM: The track Stronger has some interesting timings on it – what can you tell me about that song and the message behind it?
BEN: Well being from Australia, you may be familiar with that song, from Hillsong Church. That song is probably seven or eight years old now, as a worship song. I just feel like everytime I sing that song live there’s such power in the message of it. I don’t know what it is, other than saying God’s got his hand on that song and the message of it. So it’s a song that I felt like it made it over to America and it’s been a song that a lot of churches sing, but with Hillsong putting out so many songs, it seemed like that one maybe got lost in the shuffle a little bit in the shadow of some other songs. So I wasn’t really aware of a studio version necessarily of this song, and it was something I wanted to be able to continue to sing that song live – because I think it’s such a powerful message of the resurrection of Christ and it’s really rooted in Scripture so everytime we sing that song I see the power in it and I wanted to have a chance to do that more. So we put it on the record as a way of people to hopefully use it as a vehicle for worship, and that we can continue to sing live as well. We led it at my home church on Easter Sunday and it was awesome. Such a powerful song. But for me, I hope that we can not just share that message on Easter but actually live it year round. I’m glad it’s on the record.
SAM: Now I imagine there may have been some funny moments in the studio, or on the road, as The Museum? Got any stories to share?
BEN: You know, we are constantly living out pranks on the road. So I think the studio becomes the more focussed working environment. But I can’t give away too many of our secrets, but I must say that some of our guys have gotten really good at creating Craigslist accounts for things – do you have Craigslist in Australia?
SAM: I know what it is.
BEN: OK. So, when we just want to mess with somebody, we’ll do something like create an email address with a phone number saying to call – let’s say it was me. Let’s say they were doing it to me. They would create it looking like I had set up an account and say something on Craigslist like: ‘I’ve got two Taylor Swift tickets to tonight’s concert in Atlanta that I would love to get rid of cheap. They’re third row seats and I’ll sell them to you for $20 a ticket.’ So they put my actual cell phone number as the contact, so that way all day I’m getting calls and texts and emails from people saying, ‘Hey I’m calling in about the Taylor Swift tickets!’ and I’d have no idea what they’re talking about. We’ve done that a time or two, just to mess with them and pass the time on the road. But we have a good time with it. And try not to take it too far!
SAM: That’s a good prank!
BEN: There was one point where we were really close to putting another band’s tour bus up on Craigslist so they would start getting calls but we thought that might be a little too mean, so we didn’t do that to them.
SAM: Maybe that’s for the next tour?
BEN: Yeah! [Laughs]
SAM: Now the album is called What We Stand For. It made me think of waiting for something. So I’m keen to know, if you had to stand in line for tickets to the concert of any musician or band, living or dead, who would you line up for?
BEN: I’d say right now, it would be Coldplay. I saw them once and they were incredible. It was probably the best show I’ve ever been to. So I would happily stand in whatever length of line that I needed to. Especially if it was a small, acoustic show. I’d love seeing them play for 100 people. That would be worth waiting in line for. A concert like that would be really cool because Coldplay – when I saw them play last it was in Philips Arena in Atlanta which seats about 16,000 people. And so it would be incredible to see a band like that in a really small environment with just acoustic guitars and piano, with a handful of people.
SAM: It’s amazing when you hear stories of bands like that and them playing small venues in their early days. You wish you were there!
BEN: You know, John Mayer – he’s been big for a while. When I was nineteen years old he was on his first tour and was playing in Dallas, Texas, which was about an hour from me. And so I went to see him play one night, I’d just heard of him and had this demo recording, and I got to see him play in front of about a hundred people. That was pretty sweet, that was the one time I’ve seen somebody who got big play. He had this girl on piano called Norah Jones who opened up for him!
SAM: Wow. There’s a sweet thing you can claim!
BEN: Yeah! The one thing I got!
SAM: So now what’s next for you guys? The album’s just come out, what have you got planned for the next little while?
BEN: We’ve got a really busy summer coming up. The months of June and July will pretty much be on the road. We get to do a lot of camps here. There’s a few different organisations that put on camps for high school students – mainly teenagers here in the US. We get to go and spend an entire four days each at those camps, which I really enjoy because we’re leading worship everyday but it’s a chance for us to get offstage and hang out with people, and be in the same city for a few days. We’ll go to different colleges and universities where they host these camps or some are in the mountains of North Carolina – beautiful country, beautiful area. So we’ll go spend a few days out there. We’ve got eight straight weeks of that in June and July. Then we’ll come home and take a breath and figure out what’s next for the fall.
SAM: Thanks so much for your time Ben. All the best with the album!
BEN: Thank you so much.
What We Stand For by The Museum is available now on iTunes.