The Phantom Tollbooth
Ken Jacobsen of the Metal band  U.P.
April  1998
By Josh Spencer

Mixing personal beliefs with music is a touchy subject for many people. Within the metal genre, the issue becomes even more heated. Most fans fall between two extremes-either insisting that the genre is evil-born and inherently unsuited to anything "good," or else demanding that the music be redeemed by Christian doctrine clearly propagated in the lyrics. So it's refreshing when a band comes along that lives just outside the lines, making their music with skill and singing about their beliefs with subtle tact, and thus attracting the best audience: an appreciative, thoughtful one.

Enter U.P., a band that not many have heard of yet.  Founder Ken Jacobsen has been the driving force behind their two albums, taking on guitar, lyric/songwriting, and production duties, while pulling together top talent from wherever it can be found to help him out (including respected drummer Jorg Michael, formerly of Rage and Mekong Delta). They've gotten numerous reviews in the non-Christian metal underground as a promising speed/thrash/death outfit with progressive tendencies, all the while showcasing intelligent lyrics of a decidedly "non-evil" bent.

Tollbooth - Where is U.P. based?

Ken - I live in New York right now, but I'm relocating next month. The band has seen a lot of changes in the last few years, and I've moved around quite a bit. I lived in Denmark last year. So it's a little hard to determine where the band is based. The new singer lives in Dallas and the bassist in New York. Unfortunately, Jorg had to leave the band to play in another one.

Tollbooth - The name U.P. stands for Unleashed Power. What's the meaning behind that name?

Ken - I did an album in the 80ís in a band called Avalon, and the album was called Unleashed Power. It was a song on that album (we re-recorded it on our first album Quintet of Spheres), and we still play that song live. It's about pollution. If you know how organic pollution works, then the title makes sense. You throw crap in the river or ocean, and the ocean has to break it down; you throw too much crap in it, and it will overcompensate to break it down, leading to lifelessness.

Tollbooth - What changes has U.P. gone through musically, and what direction are you going in now?

Ken - Our first album was more of a power metal album and not so aggressive as Mindfailure, our second album. Our new direction is going to be a little more balanced and dynamic, especially from the guitar aspect of things. I like to try new production techniques and different methods of composing.

The next album will have to be an easier album to produce, as Mindfailure had a really hard birth. The equipment problems cost time and money and ultimately marked the album as well, in some intangible way. I'm very proud of that album. With songwriting in America, pre-production and drums in Germany, vocals in the U.S., and the rest in Denmark, I learned a lot in the process and hope to apply my experience towards the next album. Some of the best stuff comes out of my project studio, and the most important take is the one where the inspiration and the mood is right. If I do something in the songwriting stage that's hot, I'm now able to keep the take all the way through. That'll make a difference. But most importantly is the change of vocalist (Len Larrell).

Tollbooth - How are Len's vocals different from Brian Chaffee's (who sings on Mindfailure)?

Ken - Len Jarrell is a very talented guy just like Brian Chaffee. But I think that Len has more experience, both in front of the microphone and on stage. He's from Texas, which definitely adds a new flavor. Look for our upcoming e.p. where Brian appears on three songs and Len on two. Len's voice is slightly different, but in the same style. His voice is more refined and not quite as raspy, but still very heavy.

Tollbooth - It seems like it would be difficult trying to have a band with members all over the place, but you seem to enjoy that. Why?

Ken - I most definitely do not enjoy having band members all over the place, but the fact remains that talent is distributed all over, and I try to have the best people in the band. It's hard to keep a steady line-up with long periods of drought and little label support. But I seem to be able to get quality people to play the music, and that's important to me. Then the heck with where they live. I hope the line-up will stay somewhat consistent in the future. It takes a lot of time and effort to replace people, work them into the band, and explain the changes all the time to journalists like you.

Tollbooth - Who are the band's musical influences?

Ken - Well, for me personally, I'm from the NWOBHM school of metal from the early eighties. I love Thin Lizzy and Sabbath, Priest, Ozzy, and Rush. I love the guitarists Gary Moore, Steve Morse, Randy Rhoads, and Van Halen. I'm into the newer heavier sounds as long as there's finesse and power involved on the guitar. The Swiss guitarist Tommy Byron is great in that regard. I'm into bands that have no doubt as to what they do and do it well, and who are willing to go all the way musically, such as Meshuggah, Strapping Young Lad, King's X, and Sieges Even.

Tollbooth - I hear similarities in your style to the highly-respected Christian band Believer, as well as some others. Have you heard of them? How about any other Christian metal bands?

Ken - Yeah, I remember that band. What happened to them? Yeah, there are quite a few bands that believe and have faith in Christ that I know of. Most people in bands believe in God but, like us, prefer not to preach. Maybe they don't want to make it an issue. But it's the bands that want to bash and ridicule God that get all the attention in the media. In reality that's just crude anti-establishment, superficial crap, or maybe a cheap attention-getter. Whatever it is, it's getting old and boring.

I have to believe that heavy metal can grow up a bit now. Case in point: I have a serious problem with the black metal scene. It's dominated by morons that are just a different kind of posers than the ones we were opposed to in the 80ís. There is very little skill and a fascination for murderers, narcissism, and greed. What kind of selfish creed is that to promote? A German journalist (Lars Poggel) said it well: It's just "playing-it-safe rebellion". It's really just a cheap way to be provocative. It's all been done before, and their attitudes suck. The stupidity and lack of skill turns me off completely. They are more worried with their makeup than their skill.

Tollbooth - What do you think about the state of metal today?

Ken - It's on the rise. But it will shoot itself in the foot if the better bands don't get the opportunities. There also seems to be a trend towards a lower standard in production. Too many "demo-tape" albums get released. There is too much sampling as well, and it kills the feel of the instrument it's emulating or replacing. But like in the past, there is too much emphasis on the superficial aspects. The theory of developing a band through several albums is a thing of the past, and labels want an immediate turnaround on their investments.

I believe that there has to be a growing period for a band to establish itself and prove its worth. I think the newfound underground for metal is rising. And it's primarily coming from the Internet. It reminds me of the 80ís in the sense that there is a lot of individual communication between Bands, fanzines, and webzines. There is the ability to hear the sound files and look at a band's images and so forth. The network is evolving.

Tollbooth - The lyrics on Mindfailure are intelligent and intriguing, and seem to speak of spiritual things. Where do you get your ideas from when writing lyrics?

Ken - Thanks for the compliments. I was hoping to make people think a little when I wrote the lyrics. The inspiration depends on the song. The lyrical subject usually takes place inside my mind through introspection. We have an element of faith and a certain anti-trend thing going, in that we distance ourselves from selfishness and self-indulgent misery, and instead promote self-improvement--"what can I do to improve things"-as opposed to self-advancement at the expense of others, or criticizing the government or society.

Here is a brief run down of some of the songs and their meanings: "Gateway" is about sin, greed, lust, jealousy, and rage; "What They Don't Know" is about ignorance towards creativity and putting things down one doesn't understand. "Mindfailure" deals with nervous breakdowns and stress. "Thou Shalt Live" covers faith and courage. "Cataclysm" is a story about a man going mad, with a metaphor in the fury of nature (especially the weather, storms, and tornadoes). "Nefarious" talks about the evil that men do and the consequences.

Tollbooth - I think I remember reading once that you consider "Gateway to Deadly Sins" to be the pinnacle of lyric-writing for you so far. Could you flesh that out a bit, and explain the inspiration and meaning behind the song?

Ken - I meant that the entire composition is the pinnacle of my songwriting at the time. I wanted to write a riff that represented the Gateway part of it. It starts out with the Gateway riff, and it appears every time it changes into another chapter. The song consists of three parts. A few of the deadly sins are covered. I wanted to originally cover all seven sins, but the song would have been too long; it's already eight minutes. Part one is greed, part two is envy and jealousy, part three is rage and wrath. It's a highly intense song and is difficult to play. The lyrics fit a very tough rhythmic pattern, and there are very few repetitions. All this at a blazing tempo of 192 beats per minute. It builds itself up as it starts, with very progressive sections in the first part. Part two is more groovy and contains the main solo, and finally part three builds up to a crescendo at the end. Obviously, I love playing off-beats. The song challenges most aspects of our playing, stamina, skill, and concentration.

Tollbooth - What is the band's stance on Jesus Christ? Who in the band believes in him, and what exactly does that belief entail?

Ken - I believe in Christ. Our former singer was a Christian and our new one is as well. I don't see why it should be so unusual. I mean it's strange to me when someone is an atheist. I believe God gave me talent and has a plan for me. He reminds me to keep going by giving me a blast of inspiration, especially under the most taxing circumstances. As a matter of fact, I started playing guitar in a Christian youth center at the age of nine. I grew up in Denmark, which is a very unspiritual place (and a scene which had bands like Mercyful Fate. Not a fertile ground for Christians into metal, as mocking believers is not uncommon. However, God gave me the abilities and talent to use. I want to keep my message in the music and lyrics accessible without coming across preaching, complaining, or acting like a jerk. The last thing metal fans need is another person to tell them what to do or who to be. But being intelligent about your point and keeping it deep is important as well. The most difficult thing to do is to look at yourself and realize who you really are. Changing yourself is very difficult. The message of Christ is to look inside yourself.

Tollbooth - Some Christians will hear you say that and think about how Christ taught us to "deny ourselves" or "die to ourselves," and look to him as the source of strength in changing our lives. Could you clarify what exactly you mean when you say looking inside yourself for improvement is what Christ is all about?

Ken - That's correct. But the inner spirit is where one must find the strength and search for your beliefs and faith. Look into your heart for compassion and forgiveness. Christ will be your guide. I don't want to preach, but having faith in God is so important. I want to keep things subtle, and I don't want to be perceived as a white metal band, as I think labeling tends to squash things. But I want to push the belief that one must look inside oneself for improvement instead of trying to have the environment do it for you. That is what Christianity is all about. Look inside your self for improvements. Christ makes sense!

Tollbooth - What difference has that faith made, if any, with regards to U.P.'s place in the mainstream (non-Christian) metal scene, which is dominated by bands with attitudes hostile to Christianity?

Ken - I don't believe the scene can influence me that way. I have been asked questions like: "Why do you thank God on the thank list?" As if that would be an unusual thing! God is who gave me the abilities and inspiration. I just think that in Europe in particular, being a metal musician and a Christian can't be the same to some people. Strange how your beliefs in God can turn someone off, but talking about Satan is cool.