‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ — 2 Corinthians 4:7
It should come as no surprise that a Christian rock band would take its name from a verse from the Bible. What may surprise many is that the group Jars of Clay has been going strong for 20 years.
The band, who released the popular song “Flood” back in 1995, is set to release their new album “Inland” in the coming months.
Until then, lead singer Dan Haseltine, pianist Charlie Lowell, and guitarists Matthew Odmark and Stephen Mason will be performing live on Wednesday, July 17 at the Birchmere in Alexandria.
A&E spoke with Mason about the upcoming album, life with the band and their faith in God.
A&E: Jars of Clay has a new album coming out, what can you tell me about it?
MASON: Goodness. I think that the main points of it, from our standpoint, we worked with Adrian Belew, Stephen Lipson, Dennis Herring, what I would consider to be some pretty formidable producers over our career … lately we’ve gotten into, basically, doing records ourselves. There was a certain manner to it that was easier. We learned a lot about making records from a lot of those folks. So we’ve been doing it ourselves and I think we realized with this record we needed to submit these songs to someone and watch where the process took us. That’s when we were blown away by the interest of Tucker Martine, who did a My Morning Jacket record, Neko Case, Beth Orton, The Decemberists, I believe, as well. He’s a super, super talented producer who is interested in music. He’s one of those who observes and notices things because he’s paying attention. We were blown away by his interest in us, excitement for the songs in which we spent two years writing. So yeah, we worked with Tucker in Portland, Oregon. Matt Chamberlain, a session drummer to all that is awesome – Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten,’ he played drums on it. I think it’s some of Dan’s finest lyric work in the almost 20 years I’ve written songs with him. We’re continuing to ask questions of ourselves and the people around us. The vehicle for a lot of that is the relationships in the community we live in. I think those are the main points of how we ended up here with this record.
A&E: You guys have been together since the early ’90s – did you even think 20 years down the road you’d be where you are today?
MASON: Had no idea. I think one of the things about rock ‘n’ roll is that these aren’t careers that are meant to last. Managers, labels, they’re supposed to wring the rag and get as much as they can out of an artist in that short window of time that they have in relevance and leave the carcass by the road! [Laughs] Maybe that’s a bit harsh but it really does seem that it’s not meant for longevity. So if you would have asked 18-year-old me ‘What do you see yourself doing in 20 years?’ It’s not this. In that manner, we are completely thankful to get to do it. I’m thankful that I have these three friends that started this band all these years ago. We’re still together, we’re still friends. It’s certainly hard at times. Any creative venture is, if we’re going to be really honest. But we’re still together. We’re still enjoying it. There’s still something compelling us to write and record. I have a lot of gratitude for such longevity.
A&E: If you don’t mind, could you talk a little about how your faith plays a role in, not only your music, but everyday life?
MASON: We’ve said for some time that our faith is kind of our window into the world we live in. It’s kind of how we see the world. It bears mentioning that our writer friend David Dark has said so eloquently, we believe that there is no secular molecule in the universe. We’ve come to be able to articulate in our journey that everything, everything truly matters. I think some people’s criteria for how faith affects art is different and maybe it is for us, but we find in our own way that the everyday living, in relationship with other people, is our way to view and experience the hand of God. That doesn’t necessarily look like an outrageously evangelical sort of experience, but it’s just one of telling honest and true stories of the human experience – our hopes, our brokenness, how we hope to see it all are reconciled for good.
A&E: When you’re not touring or recording or whatever the case is, what’s a typical day like for you?
MASON: Oh, man. Well, today … [Laughs] For me, I go to this amazing Hungarian lady’s class at the YMCA and she beats me up for an hour as well as a lot of other lovely people. [Laughs] At 6 a.m.! Yeah, I go get beat up at 6 a.m. for awhile. … Today, I’m actually doing some remixes for a band called League. So I do a little of that. I’m also in barber school – that’s kinda funny. It’s the life in the arts – there are a lot of bizarre twists and turns and I think, having done it this long, we realized there’s more to life than just a record cycle and then trying to have functional family relationships. Yeah, that’s an average day. I have one teenager, so yeah, life is always unexpected. [Laughs]
A&E: Putting you on the spot here, if you had to pick just one of your albums, which one would be your favorite?
MASON: Wow. Hum … [Laughs] Of course I’m going to say the new baby because it’s the cutest. Every record seems to be a triumph of will and a triumph of grace. So to say that we made it again is kind of thrilling. So for us, that means ‘Wow, we made another record and we’re really excited about it.’ I would certainly say that, first and foremost, I’m blown away at this point in our career we made a record like ‘Inland,’ with Tucker Martine, tackling some of what we’re tackling. If I wasn’t pimping the new record, I would have to say ‘Good Monsters’ was a really transformative experience for us and I would say a transformation point in the life of the band. That record marks a movement away from and a movement towards some really provocative things. I think ‘Good Monsters,’ and not just because we got to wear furry suits for part of the time. I love those songs. It bristles a lot with – it’s our first articulation of wrestling with the human heart and trying to find wholeness and realizing in our human economy, we have certain perspectives on what we think God can handle and what we think we have to hide in our humanity. I think ‘Good Monsters’ kind of illustrates that weakness truly is the greatest strength and the more we can articulate our brokenness we can find reconciliation with ourselves and then bring the full weight of who we are into our relationships, into our communities, into our vocations. Boy, I think that was a really long explanation for ‘Good Monsters!’ [Laughs]
A&E: I was sent some publicity photos for the new stuff. They look like they were taken in a cabin in the 1970s, with the handlebar mustache and everything else. What can you tell me about those pictures?
MASON: [Laughs] Oh my. The record’s called ‘Inland.’ So we danced with a lot of imagery and the idea of going to foreign places, you know, some exploration. Odysseus, you know, that story of walking until he found someone who didn’t know what an oar was. I think we like just the juxtaposition. The inspiration behind that was ‘So, what if we bring the outdoors in for this photo shoot?’ [Laughs] So we have the photo shoot with the outdoors – there’s some tree stumps and foliage and stuff like that. Yeah, we had fun with it. It’s us making decisions on our own terms. We’re doing this independently with an independent distributor. Creatively, this is all to do with Jars of Clay. This isn’t a partnership with a record label and a creative team. This is really a division of the four of us, really, for the first time. Everything to this point had been a partnership with a record label that leaned in to some degree or another. Well, this and our Christmas record, we also did independently. So we are particularly excited for this album because there’s a lot of our own heart represented by the ownership of it.
A&E: Other than being entertained, what do you hope your fans take away from your music?
MASON: Man, you know, I think all along we hoped and I’d say we’ve gotten good feedback from the questions that we wrestle with. Lyrically [they] have given people permission to wonder at the mystery of life and the mystery of the Heavenlies. Trying to make sense of relationships and where their soul is in the universe and the glory and the pain that goes along with living this life. The already and the not yet. Those sorts of feelings are being stuck in a moment. I think Dan lyrically has articulated that in a beautiful way over these years and I think our fans and friends have come to value that expression. I hope we continue to provoke people into that space of wonder, of gratitude because I think really at the end of the day that is the answer to a lot of what ails humanity. Holding tightly to the wonder aspects of life and gratitude because I think living an entitled life is absolutely miserable. It would ruin us and it would ruin our relationships. I think a lot of what we want people to come away with [from] the ‘Inland’ record is the challenge to continue to explore, continue to learn. We will never stop learning or we will start dying. It’s a really important, crucial piece to the best of what life has to offer. We must continue to learn. So yeah, I think that’s it. Go! Go! See! Do! Don’t be so afraid! I think that’s the story of ‘Inland’ especially when it comes to thinking about our relationships with others and our community.