At this point of its more than 10-year career fans know what to expect from Relient K, and you have come to either love or hate it. On its newest release and sixth full-length studio album, the band displays a songwriting maturity while adding subtle variations to its sound.
After the glossy sheen of 2007’s Howard Benson helmed Five Score And Seven Years Ago, the group has reunited with longtime producer Mark Lee Townsend to continue what was started on last year’s The Tennis EP. The record doesn’t quite have a rockin’ anthem like “I Need You,” although “Sahara” and “If You Believe Me” come close. Instead, much of the time is spent on mid-tempo numbers and piano infused pop-rock, such as the standout “Therapy,” which fits into the record’s more contemplative feel.
Frontman Matt Thiessen is one of the best lyricists in the pop-punk genre and continues to show why here. This is definitely one of his most serious records, as no joke or corny songs made the cut. In its place, he has crafted Relient K’s version of a breakup record, influenced no doubt by his own broken engagement. Yet even this can’t completely extinguish his trademark positivity, as seen on the album’s two-part closer “This Is The End (If You Want It),” one of the disc’s strongest.
In the end, Relient K has turned in one of its strongest overall efforts to date and isn’t afraid to switch things up, like on the breezy “Savannah.” Once again the band has managed to breathe fresh air into the increasingly stagnant pop-punk field, and remains one of the genre’s best.
RIYL: Jack’s Mannequin, Yellowcard, Augustana, John Cusack
“When we were a band starting out in Ohio, I don’t think any of us thought that we’d go past high school,” Relient K guitarist Matt Hoopes admits to me over the phone. “Then we got a record deal right before we went to college… so we made our first record, and then we made a second record and then a third. And it kept going.”
Six albums and almost a decade later, Relient K is still going strong and as busy as ever. The band, which features Hoopes, multitalented frontman Matt Thiessen, bassist John Warne and guitarist John Schneck, has seen their popularity steadily increase in recent years, resulting in three Gold selling albums. 2004’s Mmhmm, led by the hit single “Be My Escape,” sold over 800,000 copies, and their follow-up, Five Score And Seven Years Ago, debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200 back in March.
As if that wasn’t enough, the band recently released a Christmas album, Let It Snow, Baby…Let It Reindeer, which features their take on 10 holiday classics as well as a handful of original material. Ten of the tracks originally saw a limited release in 2003, and both groups of songs reflect the band’s no rules attitude towards the process.
“On the first batch of songs, we mostly tried to keep it… really fast, loud and a little bit off for Christmas songs,” Hoopes explains.
Yet for the newer ones, they chose to incorporate a wider array of influences. Hoopes describes their interpretation of “Sleigh Ride” as having a “jazzy, ‘50s, dancy kind of feel to it,” while other songs “are rock but kind of crazy.”
Currently the band is promoting the album while nearing the end of a co-headlining tour with good friends Switchfoot. The tour, dubbed Appetite For Construction, is significant in that $1 from every ticket sold will be donated to Habitat For Humanity, an organization devoted to building simple, decent and affordable housing.
“I had never had a lot of contact with the organization… but the more we helped out, the more we respected it and thought it was something we wanted to get behind and promote,” Hoopes adds.
Despite their recent success, Relient K has not been without their share of hardships this year. During the summer their tour bus caught on fire, and many of their personal belongings were lost. Hoopes, who among other things lost his wallet, admits the events were “slightly frustrating,” yet credits the band’s positive outlook on life for carrying them through it.
“When you think about it in the grand scheme of things — no one was hurt and there was nothing lost that was irreplaceable — it was just an inconvenience at worst,” Hoopes says.
Then last month drummer Dave Douglas announced he would be leaving the band at the conclusion of the tour. However, this didn’t come as a complete surprise.
Hoopes, who along with Thiessen is the only remaining original member, confesses Douglas had been talking about doing his own project for a while, which he will pursue with his wife Rachel.
“We’ve just been able to talk him out of it until now,” Hoopes jokes.
For the moment, the goal is simply to try and enjoy their remaining time with Douglas, who joined the band in 2000. Hoopes acknowledges there are no hard feelings between any of the members, and “we all wish him the best and hope that he does well.”
Once the tour is finished, the band will begin the task of finding a replacement. Hoopes says they will be trying out a few friends first, and hopes one of them will work out.
“It’d be cool to bring someone on who we already know their character really well,” he admits.
Meanwhile after getting their start in the Christian music scene, Relient K remains hesitant to be placed in any sort of a box this might imply.
“Christian music, as you define it, is a little bit odd in the fact that it’s the only kind of music that’s defined by lyrical content rather than musical content,” Hoopes says. “When you say you’re a Christian band, it automatically puts connotations in people’s heads… and we try to avoid that connotation.”
While the band doesn’t shy away from their Christian roots, they would prefer to let the music itself do the talking.
“We write songs about our lives and the things we experience, and as Christians that’s definitely a part of our life experience,” Hoopes explains. “We’re not angry if someone calls us a Christian band, but we probably wouldn’t introduce ourselves as a Christian band.”
With the New Year quickly approaching, Relient K doesn’t have a set plan for the immediate future, which will likely include either additional touring or starting work on a new record. This reflects the band’s philosophy of taking things as they come and living life as it presents itself, which they’ve followed since day one.
“We’re honestly just thankful for the opportunities that we’ve had, and don’t expect there to be any more necessarily,” Hoopes says. “People seem to like [our music] for the most part, so we’re going to keep doing it as long as people keep coming to the shows.”
Let It Snow, Baby…Let It Reindeer and Five Score And Seven Years Ago are in stores now. For more information, visit www.relientk.com.
This is a phone interview I had the great opportunity to do with Relient K guitarist Matt Hoopes.
So how’s the co-headlining tour with Switchfoot going?
It’s been going great. We’re really good friends with the guys, and it’s been awesome to hang out with them.
I heard part of the proceeds are going to Habitat For Humanity.
Yeah. We kind of decided to work with them after playing a show with Switchfoot earlier in the summer. I had never had a lot of contact with the organization — I had never volunteered or been friends with anyone that did — but the more we helped out the organization, the more we respected it and thought it was something we wanted to get behind and promote.
Now you guys just released a new Christmas album last month too, right?
Yeah, it actually just came out. It’s called Let It Snow, Baby… Let It Reindeer.
And isn’t it kind of an expansion on your first Christmas album?
Our first Christmas album was never technically released as a stand alone thing, and they were just going to release it as is. We were like, “It’s not quite good enough to release as an album,” so we did 6-7 new songs.
You guys covered some pretty classic Christmas songs on there. How were you able to put your own spin on them?
Honestly, we just took a no rules attitude. On the first batch of songs, we mostly tried to keep it to the pop-punk rock side of things. So every song we’d make really fast, loud and maybe a little bit off for a Christmas song. On the newer ones that we did, we just had no rules. We were like, “Well, whatever.” “Sleigh Ride,” for example, has like a jazzy, ‘50s, dancy kind of feel to it. Other songs are slower, while other songs are rock but kind of crazy. We had no rules really. Let’s just have fun with it.
I’ve noticed the band also has a pretty unique sense of humor and personalities. Were you always like that?
I like to think that all the guys in our band are pretty hilarious people, kind of all in their own way. I think we kind of have a brand of humor, and I think it comes out in different ways. Our first few records, we did a lot of really funny lyrics — kind of silly-ish songs. I think the humor tends to come out in different ways now as we get older. But we still don’t take ourselves seriously and just try to have a fun time on the road.
On a more serious note, you guys lost your tour bus to a fire over the summer. Did your optimistic attitudes help you get through that?
It is kind of a bummer to lose your computer and your clothes — it’s just a hassle to have to deal with. I lost my wallet and had to go get new credit cards and a new license. We’re on the road, so it’s hard to deal with all that stuff. But honestly when you think about it in the grand scheme of things — no one was hurt and there was nothing lost that was irreplaceable — it was just an inconvenience at worst. When we look back on it now, it seems kind of trivial, but at the time, it was slightly frustrating.
Five Score And Seven Years Ago was your fifth album, and it debuted at #6 on the Billboard charts back in March. Having grown up in Ohio, did you ever expect something like that would happen?
Oh, never. When we were a band starting out in Ohio, I don’t think any of us thought that we’d go past high school — we were all planning on going to college. Then we got a record deal right before we went to college, so we’re like let’s try it out and make a record. Hopefully try to tour for a year, have fun, and then we can get all up in alarms. So we made our first record, and then we made a second record and then a third, and it kept going. We felt like we were getting better as a band and still having fun making music that we thought was interesting. People seem to like it for the most part, so we’re going to keep doing it as long as people keep coming to the shows.
You also worked with big-time producer Howard Benson on the record. Are you happy with how everything turned out?
Yeah, it was a cool experience. We had only ever worked with Mark Townsend, who’s my father-in-law, who’s done all our records and is actually a great producer. Working with Howard, we realized a lot of stuff isn’t as different as you might think from what we were used to. It was a good experience, and it was cool to work with people on that caliber that have worked on huge records and stuff like that. So it was a good experience overall.
I noticed this record is a little bit poppier than the last one. Did Howard have something to do with that?
I think that’s just where we were at at the time. Howard’s main input was song structure. Making sure all the songs are palpable — you can understand where things are going — and there’s not as many crazy transitions, key changes and all that sort of business. I think it helped push us a little bit further in that direction, but honestly that’s where the problems were at. That’s how it would have turned out with whoever would have produced it.
You have already released two videos from the album. Are there any plans for another one?
Not right now. We have the Christmas record right now, so we’ll just wait and see where that goes into the new year — keep doing what we’re doing and see what happens. I don’t know if they’ll be another video or single off this record. It depends on whether we’ll go into the studio now or keep touring on this record.
The last song on the record is an 11-minute song entitled “Deathbed,” which not only features a wide array of instruments but also tells a very powerful story through the lyrics. What was the inspiration behind the song?
It kind of portrays this idea of what grace is — this idea of forgiveness and entering heaven that’s not something earned by doing everything right your whole life, as far as what we believe. It’s just an interesting way of portraying that in that it’s not like a preachy, sermony kind of thing. It’s more like this is real life, and a picture of how we believe it can happen. It’s not a transient, all encompassing thing for sure. As far as music, it kept going on and on, adding verses, ideas, instrumentation and whatnot. It was a fun song to do, and I think it’s the best song we’ve ever done as far as a group.
Jon from Switchfoot also sings on the song. Have you been performing it on the tour at all?
No. We actually had talked about that, but it just came down to performing an 11-minute song means that we can’t do 3-4 other songs. [Laughs] So we decided to be able to play more songs. Also, pulling off the instrumentation might be a little bit tricky. We thought it might be better served for when we’re doing a headlining tour on our own when we don’t have a time limit, and can fill the stage with random useless instruments and have people help us play it. But yeah, it does seem like it would work out well when we are on tour with Switchfoot. [Laughs] It just didn’t come together before the tour started.
Last month, Dave announced he would be leaving the band at the end of the tour. Did that come as a bit of a surprise?
Honestly, no. He’s been talking about doing his own project, and we’ve just been able to talk him out of it until now. [Laughs] We’re all on really good terms with him, and we’re all just trying to enjoy our last tour together and have a fun time hanging out with each other. Dave’s going to pursue his own musical project with his wife, and we all wish him the best with that and hope that he does well.
The band has also seen a couple of other members come and go throughout its existence. Has it been hard to readjust and keep on going?
Yeah, in a way. I still talk to Brain, our old bass player, and I definitely miss him. We’re still friends and we still hang out when I’m at home — it’s that sort of thing. In a way, it brings a new light to the band. We’re very careful to bring someone on who would be an uplifting person to be around, and someone that would bring the whole group up as a band. We brought someone on who was a really good friend and a solid person. I think in a way it’s just a growing process. It’s the same with the drummer. We’re hoping to try out friends first, and I really hope that one of them works out. It’d be cool to bring someone on who we already know their character really well.
You guys are frequently labeled as a Christian band, and it seems that you’re always having to answer that whole Christian music question. Does that ever grow old?
Honestly, no. I understand there is a Christian industry, Christian bookstores and people who are concerned with whether music is Christian or labeled Christian or not. I understand that, and I’m not angry about it. We choose not to label music in that way, and we’re people who don’t think it’s that important what the label is on the music. It’s more of a non issue to us than an issue of contempt — it’s not like we have anger towards it. We just explain that we write songs about our lives and things we experience, and as Christians that’s definitely a part of our life experience. It’s really whatever you want to call us. We’re not angry if someone calls us a Christian band, but we probably wouldn’t introduce ourselves as a Christian band. That’s my philosophy on the whole thing.
You kind of just want to let the music to speak for itself.
Yeah. I mean Christian music as you define it is a little bit odd in the fact that it’s the only kind of music that’s defined by lyrical content rather than musical content. I think when you bring that up to someone when you say you’re a Christian band, it automatically puts connotations in people’s heads — whether it’s good or bad and whether they’re a Christian or a non Christian. It puts a certain idea of what the music is, and we try to avoid that connotation.
Outside of yourselves and Switchfoot, lately it seems there’s been an influx of bands into the mainstream who are Christians but don’t fall under the Christian label. Have you witnessed any reason for this at all?
I don’t know. We feel like we have our philosophy, and I think that as Christians we believe that there are different Christians called to different things. Some are called to be pastors and teachers, some are called to be lawyers, doctors and park rangers. We feel like this is our place as far as Christianity goes, and we’re secure in that. I don’t really know if there’s a reason for a large group of bands feeling the same way or not, so I can’t really speak to that.
You guys are going to be celebrating your 10th anniversary next year, right?
Lets see… Yeah, I guess so. [Laughs] That’s kind of funny. I didn’t even think about that.
That’s a pretty phenomenal accomplishment in and of itself.
Yeah. We feel lucky to do this as long as we have. It’s almost funny because you think of the band starting in 2000 when our first record came out, but we had actually started at the end of ’98. It’s pretty crazy to think about where we were then and where we are now.
After having released all those records and having been around for that long, what do you think is the next step for the band?
Honestly, I don’t know. We’ve always just kind of taken life as it comes and taken the opportunities that are there. We’re honestly just thankful for the opportunities that we’ve had and don’t expect there to be any more necessarily. [Laughs] We have fun with what we’re given — have fun touring and making records. We don’t really have a set plan, like a project or goal or anything like that — just living life as it comes.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Just to say that we’re thankful for the fans that have appreciated our music, and thankful that we’ve been able to do what we’ve done so far. It’s a blessing to us personally.