Jars of Clay
Interviewed October 12, 1999
By Steve Stockman 

It is an interesting coincidence that two albums with the name of Dennis Herring on the production credits have appeared around the same time. Both bands have had a similar journey with their art and their public and Mr. Herring seems to have come on board at the proverbial "return to form." The bands are Counting Crows and Jars Of Clay both of whom stormed out of the blocks and sprinted to fame and gold discs before they had time to hear the starter's pistol. As a result, their second albums suffered artistically and commercially. Yet both are now releasing albums that are a lot more like their original selves. 

I cannot speak for the Crows, but Jars Of Clay have certainly had time to refocus and begin to enjoy themselves again, the fruits of which are evident on their new album If I Left The Zoo. By transatlantic phone call (I live in Belfast, Northern Ireland), Charlie Lowell (keyboard player) told me that the band's meteoric rise was hard to deal with it. "It was strange. A lot of it was interpersonally between the four of us in the band. When we came to write the second album there was more pressure. We became too aware of audience. Were we writing for it to be a radio single or to be explicitly Christian? It all clouded us from making the music we wanted to do."

It seems the band's second album, Much Afraid, didn't do so well. "We were humbled when Much Afraid didn't live up to the first album," Lowell said. That has forced a reassessment but what was encouraging from conversing with Lowell was that he didn't seem to feel any pressure by the seemingly commercial failure of that last album to readjust. This came out most clearly when I suggested that the album is a little more explicitly Christian "I don't think so. There was a lot more freedom with less to prove. We were sort of tired with the songs on Much Afraid. We wanted something fresh. We left our home in Nashville and went up to a small town in Iowa, in the winter, so it was snowy. We had a bit of a retreat there that was really renewing and we kind of asked why we started the band and about the music and refocused on the friendship. That helped us in the song writing to be ourselves and enjoy each other and it shows in the music."

I have to agree. There is something riskier with If I Left The Zoo. It is full of wee surprises, whether a swathe of Beach Boys-esque harmony vocal, or a tinkle of keys, or the slightly heavier feel of "Unforgetful You" and "Collide." It is gripping, looser and very consistently strong. Lowell praised Dennis Herring's contribution "We chose Dennis because we loved his work with Innocence Mission. We thought it might take three months, but when we got into the studio with him, he started turning these songs around. We ended up getting to play parts we would never have dared play and in the end it took seven or eight months. Doing it with Dennis made it a lot more interesting than if we'd done it on our own."

On the lyrical side, this is a very strong album. It is a great talent to be up front about faith without dissolving into embarrassing clichés. No red faces here. In the promotional blurb, I see that Frederick Buechner gets a name check and when Lowell tells me that main songwriter Dan Haseltine likes the works of Brennan Manning, I am not at all surprised.

So what do Jars hope that the listener will get from the album? "The overall theme in all our albums fits in with our name and the verse it comes from; the frailty of mankind," says Lowell. "On this album we learned a lot on a study in Galatians about no matter how much we run or get distracted, God is patient with us and continues to pursue us. That's the theme specifically with "Unforgetful You," "I'm Alright," and "No One Loves Me Like You." If there's an underwriting theme, that is probably it, Lowell says. It's a theme we can never be tired of hearing and I could say the same about this new album. Maybe it's from the confidence and security the band have found with God in their studies in Galatians that have given them the confidence to reach out musically. This is riskier, edgier with a rockier attitude if just as melodious sound. Less afraid!"

Steve Stockman is a Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He used to book the bands for Greenbelt, edits Juice magazine, has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster, and a web page at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and 20 month old daughter Caitlin.
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