by Sam Robinson
Earlier this week Ohio-based post-hardcore band Wolves at the Gate released their raucous second studio album, VxV (pronounced ‘five by five’). Read our review here. Last week I got to speak at length with WATG vocalist and guitarist Steve Cobucci about the new album, the gospel, reaching fans of heavy music, and how WATG songs come together.
SAM: Steve, where in the world do I find you today?
STEVE: You have found me in Lewisberg, Ohio. This is a stop before tour, I’m at our bassist’s house, his name is Ben Summers. All of us are getting together for a couple of days before tour to practice and rehearse. So that’s why we’re meeting here in Lewisberg.
SAM: And how long will this tour run for, and how far are you travelling?
STEVE: The tour is a little over a week. I think it’s ten days. We’re starting in Chicago and making our way to the east coast and then down to Georgia.
SAM: And the new album is here – it’s VxV but I assume that’s spoken ‘five by five’. Is that correct?
STEVE: Yes, five by five.
SAM: How long did the album take to come together?
STEVE: Um… As soon as we finished [previous album] Captors, and even when we were in the studio for Captors, I started writing the first song on VxV which actually ended up becoming Dust to Dust. That was the first song I wrote. So as soon as we started recording Captors I started writing for VxV and it’s been over the course of two years. The vast majority of it was written in September of last year as we were off the road for a bit and I was home for about a month-and-a-half and I spent that time writing. We started in the studio at the end of last year and we finished in February of this year.
SAM: So you bunkered down for the winter to record an album?
STEVE: Yeah it was the perfect plan because we hate touring during the winter months because our vehicle isn’t insulated well, nor does it have any heat. It usually means driving in a cold vehicle and sleeping in a cold vehicle.
SAM: And I saw even from here in Australia how bad your last winter was with all the snowstorms…
STEVE: Yeah so it was a relief to be in the comfort of my house and the warm studio.
SAM: For sure. Did you record this in your house?
STEVE: No, that’s where all of us stayed – at my house. We would just work on stuff amongst ourselves at our little home studio. But we did all the real recording at the Machine Shop with Will and Randy.
SAM: Had you recorded there before?
STEVE: No this was our first time and we were really excited. I’d always wanted to record at the Machine Shop. They’ve been in New Jersey for a good while now, so I’ve always been familiar with the work that comes out of that studio. I’ve been really impressed by it.
SAM: Now the new album has so much depth to it, and dynamics. The first track, the title track VxV talks about the gospel and it’s got soundbytes which appear across the album too. Where did these soundbytes come from?
STEVE: There were two different preachers in that first clip. The first voice that comes on is a preacher that is a friend of mine whose name is Anthony Zurlo. He’s a wonderful man who loves the Lord. I’ve been so impressed by his preaching. He’s just somebody who has a very clear understanding of what the gospel is and is very good at communicating the gospel. I’d listened to his sermons quite a bit and I heard something in a sermon that he said that was a clear representation of what the gospel was so I wanted that in there. And the other clip is John Piper. His clip was from a sermon where John the Baptist is declaring that Jesus is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. I felt that sermon best explained what we wanted to communicate to people. Those are the only two preachers that you’ll hear on the record.
SAM: And there are glimpses of soundbytes throughout the album. What was the intention behind scattering them throughout the music?
STEVE: It was just something that when I was writing the songs, and I was done and I would listen to the songs, I just felt like it needed it. That’s what helped shape the whole theme of the album – radio sorts of sounds and soundbytes – because I could just hear it going there. We do this a lot in our live shows where we would have soundbytes played in between songs or to introduce songs. The main thing is we want people to have an understanding of what the gospel is. If they’re Christians we want them to understand this gospel that saved them, this God that loves them. But also people who don’t know Christ, we want them to know clearly what it is – what salvation truly is – who God truly is, and however we can administer that, if we can get people to hear more about the goodness of the Lord and what Christ has done in providing salvation for sinners we’ll do it. We just want it to be so very clear that it is by Christ and Christ alone that anyone can achieve salvation from their sins and be accepted unto the Lord.
SAM: And is that what you want to make clear first-up on that first track? Explain the gospel, then get into the album that explores more of that?
STEVE: Yeah, indeed.
SAM: Now can you please tell me what the album title means because I find it very cryptic!
STEVE: Sure. VxV is an old military code. The number five is actually a rating. Five is the highest and one is the lowest. Back in the day when they would hear a message they would rate it. The first five was in reference to the strength of the actual message and the second five was the clarity of the signal. So if the message was very strong and it was very clear it was rated a five by five. That was the code: VxV. We believe that the gospel is the strongest and clearest message that we have to give people and we want to present it as strong as possible and as clear as possible. So that’s where the theme comes from.
SAM: Nice – makes sense. Now your music is quite heavy, and that’s what your fans love. Do you find that this style of music helps explore some of the more emotionally-heavy content that is across this album? The cross, the sin, the weight of it all?
STEVE: Yeah, it’s funny with the heavy music it does convey a lot of emotion. That’s why I decided to play this sort of music because there is this sort of raw emotion that you can’t find in other music. Just because of the style, not because people aren’t communicating emotion, but I feel like it can be communicated in a unique way and it’s normally listened to by teenagers because they normally don’t know what to do with their emotions. It’s sometimes helpful when they see other people emoting. It helps them understand what’s ok and what’s not ok. We’re very passionate about the gospel and very passionate about the fact that God at all loves people like us, and us in particular. We have very grateful hearts and very passionate hearts towards the fact that God loves us. So playing heavy music, we can communicate some heavy emotion in doing that. I guess that’s what plays into the music and the emotion.
SAM: We talked about this briefly earlier, but with the style of music… Sometimes it can be hard to hear the words, but also you have the opportunity to reach out with the gospel who aren’t Christian but who love this style of music. How do you tread that line?
STEVE: Yeah, that is something that people have asked me before: How can people understand the screaming and what you’re saying? It’s interesting because our ears and our senses become trained to hear… basically what we’re exposed to we’re able to hear and understand very easily. I talked to my dad about this. He loves listening to talk radio. There’s a specific way that they communicate, and to some kids, if you made them listen to talk radio they wouldn’t catch a single thing that was said. But they’ll listen to a hardcore record and they’ll remember those lyrics because their ears are tuned and trained to it. And that’s why we’re not appealing to pastors or churches to say, ‘Hey, you guys should be playing our music in church.’ Not at all. Our music is for a very specific and particular demographic of people that we believe are unreached by the gospel. We want to bring it to them because no-one is speaking the gospel to them in their language, or in a way that they’ll even listen. There’s other styles of music that we all love too. I would be completely content playing just rock music or indie rock music. But this is something that the Lord has put on my heart to do and I do love heavy music and so we want to communicate the gospel to a people the church is not reaching.
SAM: Yeah, if God’s gifted you with those musical abilities then it’s great you’re making the most of the opportunity. Have you ever sung any of these songs in a church congregational setting?
STEVE: No, not in a church congregation. A lot of the songs I’ve written acoustic renditions of, and I’ve played them at other events or things like that but not a church setting. It’s something I have considered and I am interested in. I’d love to have versions of the songs that are available for the Christian church to sing, but to write it in a way that is catered to congregational singing. That’s something in the future that I hope to do but yeah, we do play acoustic versions quite often.
SAM: Now back to the album – one of the songs that hits me hard is East to West. Am I right that it’s a reflection of Psalm 103?
STEVE: Yeah. Basically for me it’s how Psalm 103 and Philippians 3 work together. Because Philippians 3 talks about that the joy of life is knowing Christ. Paul says it’s the surpassing value of knowing Christ, knowing him, joining him in his sufferings. That’s why the song walks through everything that Christ did and what that means for me as a believer. ‘Living he loved me, though I fought / Dying he saved me, my soul bought. / Buried he carried my sins away…’ Explaining what Christ did, what that means for me, and that it’s to look upon his character and his work. And the joy is to know that what Christ did is actually for me. Carrying my sins as far as the east is stretched from the west – if you are a Christian Christ did that for you. That’s not just a concept of salvation it’s something he actually did for you. That is a reality in your life, and you’re no longer condemnable. The judge now comes to your defence and says ‘I’ve cast your iniquities into the depths of the sea, you’re not condemnable anymore.’ That’s the joy – knowing the God that says, ‘Yes, you’re a sinner. Yes, you’ve fought against me. Yes, you’re a rebel. But I have forgiven you and I have removed your sins from you and I remember them no more.’ That’s the real beauty of the gospel.
So many people think that the gospel is only for the lost. Now that we’re Christian, let’s move on to bigger things and deeper things. I couldn’t more strongly disagree. The gospel is the one thing that every believer and every person on this earth needs every single day of their life. If you know Christ, you need that every day. Christ is forever interceding for us, forever being our intercessor for us on our behalf because of what he did on the cross. The reason why the Lord looks upon us with delight is because Christ stands for us forever. The gospel is going to forever have an affect on my life all throughout eternity. That to me is just incredible. To me, it’s a shame that people think that there’s something better to talk about than what Christ has done. That’s to say, ‘Oh yeah, I understand that God would die for his enemy, and that he would forget my sins, and that he would forgive them, and he would make me a son and he would seat me in the heavenly places…’ None of us really understand any of that, the weight of that. We don’t even understand the weight of the existence of God, let alone God loving people that hate him. That song is a resolution that I’ve resolved to know one thing – Christ – for the rest of my life. That’s what Paul said, and it’s in the Bible, so I’m now going to live my life by it as well.
SAM: I’ve been reading a bit of Galatians lately and I’ve been struck by Paul stating that there is no other gospel, and we can’t move away from it or add to it. We need to keep coming back to it and not grow tired, because there’s such a danger in that.
STEVE: Yeah. That’s a great point.
SAM: Now the track The Father’s Bargain, again it’s reflective of the cross, and there’s a whole lot of dynamic changes throughout the track. How did that song come together?
STEVE: The Father’s Bargain is a short story that’s written by an old puritan named John Flavel. I read the short story – it’s barely a page long – about two years ago. And when I read it I just wept because it was such an incredible picture of what it was that Christ resolved to come and to provide salvation for sinners. Because The Father’s Bargain is a supposed conversation between God the Father and God the Son. They’re both recognising that man sins and they deny the creator, they trade the worship of the creator for the worship of created things – they suppress the truth of righteousness – and that justice must be served, these sinners must pay for their sins, but they’re discussing… Jesus says ‘Such is my love and pity for them, rather than they pay the punishment for their own sin, I will bear it for them.’ The story is a conversation, so I really wanted to write a song about this piece by John Flavel and make it feel like a conversation, to feel the ebbs and flows of the questions that would have to be asked. How could the wicked ever find their peace when they’ve broken every single law? How can they be right with God when they’ve broken every single law against him?
There’s this tension in the gospel that’s so incredible: how can people who are pure and strict enemies of the Lord become sons and daughters? That’s what this supposed conversation is about: how the Lord resolved to bring about salvation for a people who could never earn it or deserve it. I wanted the song to just flow almost like a conversation and build to the end where it’s saying, ‘If only you knew of the grace and love that our God has for all / You turn and look into the face of Jesus the Saviour who calls.’ I wanted to make it clear. Ok, this work of redemption has been done for sinners, people like me, people like you, people like everyone. He’s done it for sinners and it’s available. That’s where it came from. You can look it up online, I’d encourage you to read it. It was really helpful for me to understand the gospel better and just to see God’s love for me in such a deep way. He knew that I would not be able to live by the law, to uphold what the law demands, but he still went and he paid for my sin anyway.
SAM: The album cover, it’s a great design and it really fits the sound of the album. Who designed it?
STEVE: Jordan Butcher. He pretty much nailed it on his first try. We just gave him a couple of pictures of old radio pictures and he pretty much nailed it.
SAM: I’m keen to know how you guys go about writing a song. You’ve talked about how it can start with a piece of Scripture, or a short story. Do you usually start with something like that and work from there?
STEVE: Yeah it’s always different. A song like The Father’s Bargain and The Bird and the Snake – those are songs where the content was done. Almost all the lyrics too. And then the song was written because I knew exactly what I wanted to communicate. The thing is that both those songs are stories and I wanted to get the story right so I could get the music right to the story. So that whatever was being played or whatever was being sung makes sense together. But then there’s other songs like Relief – I wrote that song and all the music was done and I had no idea what to write about. I loved the music, I loved the vocal melodies I had come up with, but I was like, ‘Lord, I have no idea what this song should be about, I want this to be a song that will be impactful to people,’ and the content came much later and it hit me like a tonne of bricks. It’s always different. The song Wild Heart, I was sitting down to talk with Nick who’s our vocalist and I was like, ‘There’s going to be a lot of screaming on this song, what should we write about?’ I came to the conclusion that I wanted the song to be about his salvation experience and to be pretty particular about what the Lord saved Nick from. If you ask Nick to tell you his testimony, and then you listen to the song, you’ll be able to see how particular it is to what the Lord saved him from. So it is different. We have no set formula. All sorts of things work. All the guys have different input and different ideas. Sometimes they’ll say one thing to me, I’ll say, ‘Ben, what kind of song should we write?’ and he’ll say, ‘Give me an idea,’ and sometimes that’s all it takes. We don’t have a formula. Maybe we should?
SAM: If it’s working… If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
STEVE: Exactly, exactly.
SAM: When you put an album together, say for this one VxV, is there a logic to the way you put the tracks together? In the way that they flow?
STEVE: Yeah there is some logic to that. It’s funny – sometimes that’s the most difficult thing to do, how to order them. But you know where you want certain songs to hit people as they’re listening to the record. You know what the first thing you want people to hear, and the last thing. The first thing we wanted people to hear is the song Wake Up. For as many fans that we have that are unbelievers, we also have a lot of fans who are Christians and we wrote that song to address one similar problem that both Christians and people who aren’t Christians can recognise: there’s a lot of people who are saying the gospel is one thing, and a lot of people who are saying the gospel is another. Not as if we’re the smartest or wisest people but we wanted to say, ‘OK Christians, no more of this soft gospel; where we preach the gospel but don’t use words!’ That doesn’t make any sense. Hebrews says faith comes by hearing. People need to hear the gospel preached to them! But the verse in that song is really clear. It’s just because Christians don’t actually want to do what they’re called to do, and it’s because they don’t have real strong affections for the Lord. The Father’s Bargain is the last thing we wanted people to hear because we felt that was one of the purest forms of the gospel on the record and if that’s the last thing they hear then we’re glad. It’s our best representation of the gospel on that record…
SAM: Is there a big idea or key message to VxV?
STEVE: Obviously it’s all tied to the gospel, but I’d say particularly that the gospel affects everything. Everything we do and it affects everyone, whether they’re Christian or not because God is a sovereign God. He is Lord over all things. He’s Lord over the Christians and those who are not Christians. What Christ did at the cross affects everyone because it’s salvation for those who come to know him, and it is not salvation for those who don’t come to know him. Salvation affects how we live, what happens when we die, it affects how we treat others, it affects our joy, everything. Your lack of joy is because you’re lacking in the gospel, you’re lacking in the realisation of God’s love for you. That’s what the album addresses.
SAM: Now that the album is here, what does the rest of the year hold for Wolves at the Gate?
STEVE: We’re going to do some touring over summer. We’ve got a music video coming out next week. We’ll see what happens with touring. I’m getting married in August so I don’t want to be hearing any complaints from Wolves at the Gate fans asking why we’re not touring in August. It’s because I want to get married and they’ll just have to wait. Once I get married, get my life settled a little bit, then we’ll consider what’s next.
SAM: Congratulations! Now you mentioned the music video, what can you tell me about it?
STEVE: It’s going to be for the song Relief. The video is awesome. We filmed it with the same guy we’ve done almost all of our videos with, Nathan Lundquist. I’m really excited – we filmed all the narrative in the same prison that they used to film Shawshank Redemption. It was an incredible thing. Really creepy, but really cool. The concept of the song is relief – and the question is, relief from what? Is it just from pain? Is it just from struggle? Or is there something more than the things that we feel and the things that we see? Because as much as the Lord offers relief to people from these worldly struggles and these worldly toils, he offers us the truest relief which is salvation from this imminent judgement that we deserve and that’s coming for us when we die. That’s the real relief and what the song is about. So to me I just think about how awesome it is when the Scriptures say we were dead in our sins, but made alive in Christ. We were slaves to sin, but now slaves to Christ.
The narrative is about someone who is in prison and is trying to escape by their own means. You see this girl who is trying to draw up a plan of how she can escape. She’s all filthy and she’s dirty and she tries to go clean herself up but it’s prison water so it’s gross. And she tries to use her strength to move the bars but it looks foolish. All these things are pictures of what we try to do with God as we try to achieve our own salvation by… I’ll just be self-righteous and clean myself up, and he’ll accept me because of my good deeds. No! He says all of your righteous deeds are like filthy rags before me. Maybe somebody thinks they can be smart enough and figure out their own way to get around God. No, Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom and understanding. Man doesn’t have any wisdom apart from the Lord. Or maybe you think that you’re strong enough. That by your strength you can make it through this life. Again, we’re told in Jeremiah, ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. If he is to glory, glory in this: that he knows that I am the Lord.’ That’s really what the song is speaking to. We know that many people are hurting, we know that you want relief, you cannot get it by your own means. It’ll come by the means of another, and Christ is your only hope. We’re hoping that can be communicated. It’s hard with music videos! We don’t want it to be, ‘Look how cool we look playing our songs with special effects,’ we want people to see the gospel. We trust the Lord will do that.
SAM: Thanks so much for the chat Steve.
STEVE: Thanks. This has been an encouraging interview so I appreciate that.