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Up: The Rise and Fall, and Rise Again of Sisera Fell
by Bruce L. Thiessen, Ph.D.
Sisera Fell co-frontman Benjamin Winter is all about being a solid role model. He's about being guided by the spirit and grounded in the word. He's all about being sincere. He's all about getting up again after falling down. On Within, Sisera rises to the occasion with a sound as full as Jars of Clay and a flame of passion that borders on the fire in Barry McGuire.
Tollbooth: How how do you feel about being regarded as a role model?
Winter: My only hope is to find common ground with our listeners, as humans. We want to communicate God's love with our audience on their level so that they can come to grips with the truth that life is spiritual, that there is a God. We want them to take a closer look at their lives. There's so much going on with the media and the whole idea of Christian music right now with all the new ground it's breaking. I just hope that the line between Christian and secular music can be erased and people can just start looking at music for what it is. My hope is to communicate what's been given to me. The biggest mistake people make about Christians in music is that we're up there preaching about something. The way I see it is that I'm just telling you about something that I found. If you find something, you want to share it.
Tollbooth: As I listen to your music, the possibility that you guys could become famous crosses my mind. As a role model, how would you handle that?
Winter: From what I can see, it's a miserable thing to be famous, but if that is our calling, then that is a different story. I would have to increase my prayer time to about two hours a day. I would hope and pray for humility and understanding. I value my privacy. I would never want to walk down the street and have everybody know who I am. On the other hand, if being famous is something that's given to us as a tool to tell the truth about this life and about what you see, that's different. It doesn't sound very fun, but it's God who gives us our lot in life. It's not something I have to worry about yet.
Tollbooth: Which artists do you admire and which ones have had the most influence on you as a band?
Winter: I'd have to say P.O.D.; I'm just looking at the band and what they stand for, what they're doing. These guys are refusing to compromise. In the process, they're turning the music industry upside down. I just admire that they've done something nobody else has ever done, just being true to themselves and true to God and not worrying about what people in the music industry will think, or anybody else for that matter.
Tollbooth: P.O.D.’s music is charged with energy. You can tell they really mean every word they sing. They put their heart and soul into it.
Winter: Yeah, their heart and soul are the Lord's. I really admire them for how they've affected kids. I've talked to a lot of junior high and high schoolers and basically everybody has heard of them.
Another band I admire is Switchfoot. We had an opportunity to meet and play with them just last year and it was cool because I've always liked their music and admired John Forman's writing. It really speaks to me. They're making a lot of good music right now and becoming more and more popular and I'm happy for them.
I'm also into U2 and Ben Harper, and I've really been into the music John Mayer. He's a new kid on the scene and he's really talented. Pete Yorn is another one I admire. I also grew up with and I've been influenced by a lot of country music like Marty Robbins for example. I'm also influenced by Toad the Wet Sprocket. I remember having every album that they ever put out and being really sad when they broke up.
Tollbooth: That's what good music is all about. It creates good memories. Speaking of memories, when did you first realize that you had a strong connection to music?
Winter: I've been listening to music since I was a child. I believe I was in Junior High when I first realized that I wanted to play music. I started making raps. I loved D.O.C., Public Enemy; old rap. As far as what goes through my head, 80s rap is definitely an influence of mine.
Tollbooth: How about Run D.M.C.?
Winter: Absolutely. That was my first tape. My mom got that one for me.
Tollbooth: O.K. let’s focus on some of the lyrics on Within. The apocalyptic references in “Hannah's Prayer” reminded me of a symposium recently held in New York City in which fictional writers were matched with psychoanalysts who interpreted their work in terms of apocalyptic themes.
I noticed an apocalyptic reference in which the song states, "Adversaries of the Lord are broken/Out of Heaven shall he thunder/He will judge the ends of the earth/by strength shall no man prevail." Later, the song proclaims, "The Lord kills and makes alive." In this apocalyptic statement, how do you reconcile God as a loving God, and God who plays an actively aggressive role in bringing down the forces of evil?
Winter: The Bible reconciles itself in the most intricate and clever ways. God sees the whole picture. Our silly little minds can't seem to do that. That's why when we write songs, Derek sometimes simply pulls passages out of scripture and puts them into a song. That's what took place in this song.
Tollbooth : By the way, the purpose of that symposium I mentioned, as stated by Dr. Sandra Leong, was to attempt to understand, "the complicated relationship between trauma, fear and mastery at the heart of all creative endeavors." That relationship is clearly revealed in “Rise Up,” the second song on Within. There is a subtle reference to trauma in the line, "The darkness I hold on to is my own." The song speaks of fear when it refers to the fear of man being strong, and mastery is referred to in the phrase, "We will rise up."
Winter: Essentially the line
"We will rise up," is kind of a sarcastic remark about man thinking that
he can rise up on his own.
Winter: That's right, the futility of our self-sufficiency and the frailty of man. We try and try but only with God's help is it possible to rise up. We've experienced this as a band. We've never been able to find the right manager or a manager at all. And then there's the struggle to find a label. Sometimes I've just had to give up and get down on my knees. Sometimes that's the time when things begin to happen.
Tollbooth: Do you feel that “Rise Up” has any special significance in light of the events of 9/11?
Winter: At least four different people called me shortly after September 11 and said, "Who can you submit that to as a theme song?" I think it would have fit well. There were a lot of parallels between what the song meant to us, what it meant to everyone who heard it, and what was going on at the time. What we were trying to communicate was what people were looking for at the time. It would have been great if more people could have heard it because they would have been blessed by it.
Bruce: Now I'd like to move on to something a little different. As a psychologist, I always try to listen to music from both a psychological and a spiritual perspective. And recently I came across an old essay that Freud wrote. It was called “Creative Writers and Daydreamers.” In that essay he makes the distinction between daydreamers who hide their fantasies from the world and creative writers who disguise them and turn them into stories. That essay prompted me to come up with my next question. In your own work and in Derek's work as co-songwriters, do you think that you hide your daydreams, do you reveal them directly, or do you disguise them and turn them into stories?
Winter: One of my favorite compliments was something someone came up and told us after one of our shows. They said, "You know, you guys are very transparent." I always remember that, and Derek did too. We talked about that. That was a great compliment. It's not a goal of ours to be transparent, but we really want to be real about what we experience as Christian men. I'm not one to get up there and tell people what they need in their lives, but what we can do is tell people about our experiences. I guess my goal is just to be naked, to be real and honest with people.
We've got a new song. It's called “What to Do.” Hopefully it will be recorded soon. It's about simply not knowing what to do next. It's about where we live and being this age, graduating from college and having dreams:
I wish the answers were like life in CaliforniaI wrote it the night that Justin, our bassist quit. He said, “I want to be here, to start my business, and be married.”
I was at a bit of a loss. I could have never said, "Oh, I've got this idea. Let's write this song about what not to do next.” But that's not what happened. I was just sitting there not knowing what to do next and the song just had to come. I'm not sure what the technical terms are to describe it.
Tollbooth: A person doesn't have to work too hard to get to the core of what you're trying to say. You put it out there.
Winter: Yeah! And, you know, sometimes I have people come up to me and say, "How do you do it? How do you go about writing your songs." At times, when I consider some of the stuff that's out there, I don't even consider myself worthy to be called a songwriter. The only answer I can really give them is, "It just comes." There's no process. It's usually when I'm half-asleep that the best stuff comes. Sometimes I'm too tired to get up and write it down and it goes away. Somewhere between the unconscious and the conscious, it just comes. I don't say, "Oh, that diminished chord would go great followed up by an accented 5th." I've got a music minor but I'm nowhere close to being able to assemble a song like that. Some people work well that way, but for Derek and I, with are personalities, it just doesn't work that way. Actually I could just be walking down the street and something will explode in my head like some type of visitor and say, "Here, you've got to right me down." Then I take that idea and show Derek, or he will show me an idea he got in the same way and we'll take it from there. Then we'll figure out, arrangement-wise what would be the most dynamic.
Tollbooth: There seems to be a special chemistry between you and Derek. How are your personalities similar and different from one another?
Winter: Personality-wise, I think I'm becoming more like him all the time and he's becoming more like me. He'll avoid a crowd. I like a crowd. That’s where I feel comfortable. Maybe that's why we work well together because we can coax each other into doing what the other person doesn't want to do. He's quiet and shy. I'm not exactly quiet. He's a very private guy. I'm also busier.
Tollbooth: Now in terms of the four of you, how well have your personalities worked together? Are there times when they haven't worked so well together?
Winter: Oh definitely. A band goes through all kinds of times of just driving each other nuts or making each other laugh until your side splits. The dynamic of making four people's lives fit together into one unit is bound to be really tough.
Bruce: It can get pretty complicated, can't it?
Benjamin: Yeah, as far as what everybody wants, what everybody's vision is. I think that's why communication is so important in a band, and we failed really bad over the last couple of years. We did. We failed. But it's O.K. All things work out together for good. We're all good, tight friends. Even though our drummer's not with us anymore, he's a major drummer, and he'll do great things, and it is good that we're not together. But it was also good that we were together for four years. We recognized that it was time to split and that's O.K.
Tollbooth: Now, from what I understand, you and Derek will continue to work together as a band. And that's a bond that's probably more enduring than the bond that has existed between the four of you. Will you continue to go under the name Sisera Fell?
Winter: Yeah, we'll be Sisera Fell.
Tollbooth: When you have a strong, passionate songwriting team, a couple of people who really work well together over time, great things can continue to grow from that.
Going back to your lyrics. As I study the music of Sisera Fell, I'm continually seeing things in your songs that are reflective of my training as a psychologist. In “Rise Up,” you say, "On seeing inside/only desperate despair/we seek filling while falling/and never get there." That line reflects a theme of desperate loneliness and emptiness, a common theme that's referred to in a school of psychological and philosophical thought known as Existentialism. And while your songs acknowledge that there is that aspect to being human of being alone and empty, they also seem to point the way out of that state. So the answer seems to be provided along with the question. What process do you go through when seek for answers? When you go through a questioning process, what ultimately brings you to the answer?
Winter: Good questions. I'm
glad your questions are not like those of most interviews I've read. Real
When someone asks me why I believe what I believe, I want to be able to provide an answer.
Tollbooth: In terms of answers
that you provide clues for in your songs, and in some cases, come right
out and give the answers to, do you feel that the answers you have found
are definitive ones, or is your experience like that reflected in the U2
song, “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For?”
Tollbooth: If you had to boil down the one thing that Sisera Fell stood for, would it be that? Would that be the basic message that you wanted to deliver to people?
Winter: I can say that my desire is to communicate that we're spiritual beings, to recognize that. And so, what are you going to do about it? Look at the truth, don't be stupid! There's another song that we hope to record soon, it's called “War.” I was angry one day that we walk around like we're in a daze, not knowing that we're in a spiritual warfare, a war: "In the skies/ these forces are colliding/." Whether you like it or not, it's a reality and that's a song that I'm so passionate about.
I'm a skeptic by nature. Jesus has proven himself to be true. Nothing could go together so well as the Bible. It's perfect. The Bible says that there's spiritual warfare going on.
Tollbooth: Well, there's no neutrality in war. You have to choose sides.
Winter: That's right, and that's the basis of the song. "Swords drawn/the battle is on/the cry of sides/with blazing eyes/so choose this day/the king/ whom you will serve or get what you deserve." So, we need to choose sides. The job of the songwriter is to translate the things of life into words and into music so people can be blessed, and so that they can be closer in touch with reality.
This succinct, poetic job description marked the beginning of the end of our enlightening chat. Unlike the woman depicted in the real-life story revealed in “Stand For What” the last song on Within who was unable to stand up for herself, or to stand for anything, who eventually turned to heroin and finally to suicide, Sisera Fell stands upon the promises of the almighty God. They dare not lean on their own strength, but wholly lean on the everlasting arms. While they may be down a couple of key players at the moment, nothing can stand in their way.
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