Tenth Avenue North's third studio album The Struggle was released in August to critical acclaim, number one status on Christian music charts and number nine on Billboard. Cortney Warner of JesusfreakHideout.com interviewed Jeff Owen, guitarist of Tenth Avenue North, about the album and current 35+ city tour...
This interview took place on: 9/14/12.
JFH (Cortney DiBiase): For an introduction, what do you play and what is your position in the band?
I play the electric guitar, and I guess my position would be, stage right and house left. *laughs* It just switched; actually, last night was the first night I played that position.
JFH (Cortney): Does it feel weird to you, having switched positions?
Yeah it's a little weird, but I'm just trying to push myself. *laughs*
JFH (Cortney): Yeah, gotta push your boundaries. *laughs* So, how's the tour going so far for you guys?
Good! We've got one show under our belt thus far, and we have another one tonight. Yeah, just working out all of the kinks; we're pretty stoked about it. There were no train wrecks last night, so that's a good indicator of a great start to a tour. [JFH (Cortney): Yeah, for sure.] We're looking forward to many more.
JFH (Cortney): From what I've been hearing, a lot of people have been really excited about the tour. What were the reactions from the fans last night?
Um, I don't want to give too much away, but there were some definite highlights in the set, that were surprising, yet didn't really surprise us, I guess. We thought people would like it, but we didn't think they would "absolutely love it."
JFH (Cortney): Well, that's good!
So yeah, we think that we're on the right track thus far.
JFH (Cortney): Nice. That's always exciting when people are really receptive to what you're doing.
Yeah, people are really responsive. We try to change it up from tour to tour and from season to season, so I think we still have elements from our festival shows that we whipped together two years ago, and a lot of new elements that are distinctive to this tour that we've worked on. We hope that people receive them well, and it seemed like last night, they did, so that's good.
JFH (Cortney): That's great. What was your reaction to seeing The Struggle debut at number nine on the Billboard Charts? I mean, that's pretty incredible.
Did it? You know, I don't even know if I looked at that chart! Everyone was stoked that it appeared on the main iTunes chart. But, you know, it was encouraging. I think we were all just like, "Wow!" You know, in one week we're here, and a few years ago, we were just selling 20 CDs a night out of our van. It's humbling, and just an honor to where we've come.
JFH (Cortney): It was really cool, because I checked the charts periodically, to see how things are going in the music world, and it was really cool to see you guys at number nine overall for the week.
Yeah, I think TobyMac has since then smashed that peak of ours. *laughs* But it's really cool people are still buying music, and Christian music is still being heard, and people still want Christian music. It's really encouraging.
JFH (Cortney): Yeah it is, and Toby smashed it last week. It was crazy.
Yeah, that's great. We love Toby; he's an awesome guy. If he wants to smash our week on the charts, it's A-OK. *laughs*
JFH (Cortney): The Struggle has a different sound than your previous albums. Was that intentional, and who inspired the musical direction of the album?
We really didn't want to make the same record a second and third time. We want to keep expanding and stretching ourselves with each record. But we also don't want to make something too far out there that people don't connect with. We worked hard on this record, and we really just wanted to say things that were on our hearts, like we always do, but a lot of those things were things we've heard from fans, friends, and family. A lot of those songs were written from those situations, while past records were more like an open journal, with our hearts and what was going on, so the songs kind of had a different approach. But also, musically, all last year we toured with Third Day, and we had some time on the road, and we said "Well, let's just start working on this record now, so we don't get caught in the studio without really approaching the songs and really analyzing them." So, we just demoed and wrote; we wrote in locker rooms and miscellaneous green rooms, wherever we were on the Third Day tour. We had all these songs that we had sorted out, so by the time we got into the studio, we had our heads wrapped around these songs and knew them. It was awesome to be more creative once we started recording.
JFH (Cortney): It must have been great to have that foundation set, and you were able to branch off of that once you guys got into the studio.
Yeah, it was way easier. Before, it was like "here's the melody, the words, and there's the chords" and we had to come in as a band and almost start over because we would sometimes want to change the "feel" of the song, and you kind of get stuck in what's called "demo fever," where you've heard the song a certain way, it's hard to re-approach it. So we really tried to change it up this time around.
JFH (Cortney): What are some of the ways you try to re-approach different things, like how you mentioned working with demos and such. How do you work it out to make it different?
I know there was a song or two that we wrote the music for, before the melody came along, which we hadn't done before. And with some of the songs, we always do songs in 4/4, but sometimes we do them in 3/4 under certain conditions. Just little things like that. We have our song "Losing" -- we were writing it to a track, we're kind of building a track on the computer while we're writing the song, and Mike is ad-libbing and singing over it, just trying to come up with the melody and the word structure, and the track ended, and he went into that rap part that you hear. Our bass player was like, "Just modulate it to a minor key!" And we're like, "Hey, that's awesome, keep it!" So it's little things like that. As a musician, we're all kind of nerdy in that way.
JFH (Cortney): Yeah I noticed that while listening to "Losing," it switched up keys a bit. That's cool how you guys were able to switch that up.
Yeah, it's cool because it changed from an interesting situation. A radio station had asked us to write a song based on fans submitting stories. It was kind of like "Submit your story and Tenth Ave will write a song about it." And we got all these stories, and they were all pretty much about the same thing, about people having a hard time forgiving someone, something, or a situation that had happened to them, and letting go of that. So we wrote the song "Losing" about that. About how you're being offended twice, almost, but that doesn't necessarily let us off the hook. In writing that song, we were like, "This isn't going to go on the record, it's just going to go to this one radio station for a spell and then it'll be done, so let's just have fun." So we were like, "What have we always wanted? A big gospel choir." *laughs* "You just modulated that rap into a minor key, let's keep it!" We weren't necessarily like, "This should come in here, and radio's gonna want this, and radio's gonna want that. Let's just have fun." And I guess it turned out for the better, because we got to keep it on the record, and everyone wanted it as a single, so that was pretty encouraging.
JFH (Cortney): Man, that's really cool. I didn't know that about the song. So, aside from "Losing," any other songs on the record that sticks out as a personal favorite?
Yeah, I think "Don't Stop The Madness" is a band favorite. That was actually the first song we had all written together, and I guess it was last year in January. I think musically, sonically, the way it turned out on the record, and what the song says, it just feels like the perfect storm to everyone's personal preference in the band. It's basically a prayer, "God, whatever it takes, bring me closer to you." Because, I guess, so many people will expect God to work in certain ways, and when things aren't going well, they're like, "It's not in God's will and something's wrong with your faith, and you need to try harder, and do this and do that, and God will bless you." But sometimes, how do you explain when a strong believer gets cancer, you know? Or when someone in your congregation's faith goes through a trial? I mean, look at Job, it's all over that God works to His glory. Although we may not understand those things, the point is that we have an alternate ending in Christ. And as you sanctify in His workings, it may not all make sense, but in the end, it will. So if it draws us closer to the Lord, then that's what He's going to do. He's going to strip us of our idols. So anyway, that song's just important to the band, and we just love it, and we're playing it live on the tour, and it's going over really well, so we're just stoked about that one.
JFH (Cortney): Man, it's a great song and has a great message for sure. Now, this is kind of a nerdy question, but what is some of the gear you used on The Struggle?
Ooh, good question! Um, I have my Duesenberg that I'm using, and I had two PRS (Paul Reed Smith) guitars that I used a little bit, but when we were in the studio, you know, you want that one guitar part, you want that "sound," and nobody can explain what "that" is, but everyone knows that they want the same thing, and so, I guess we were like, "Man, I wish we had a Gibson 335." And the studio engineer, actually the studio assistant, went into the studio's vault and pulled out this, I think it was a 90s Gibson 335, this red one. And we were like, "Those are amazing!" But then it started having intonation problems; it was in tune, but then we'd play it in a different spot, and it was out of tune. So we were just like, "We can't really use this," and so the guy leaves and magically reappears with, I think it was a 1965 Gibson 335, and it just sounded ten times better. And so, I think I used that on the song "Grace," at the very beginning. And at the end of "The Struggle," there was a point where everyone that was in that studio room was singing through the pickups of the guitar, into the amp, with the delay and overdrive, and so it had this really haunting sound. At the end of the chorus, where everyone is singing along, we stacked it ten, twelve times with whoever was in the room. So, just stuff like that. And I have my Orange AD-30 head and my 4x10 reissue (cabinets). There were also a couple of amps at the studio too; I used a couple Mesa heads, and Brendon's got this old 90s Fender, and it actually sounded pretty good under a microphone, so I used that as well. Ha ha, I could go on about this kind of stuff for hours. *laughs*
JFH (Cortney): That's really cool, especially about the Gibson. I'm a PRS girl myself, but Gibsons are beautiful.
Jeff: Yeah, for sure. We looked up on eBay, and it was like a $12,000 guitar, so we definitely made sure to put it back in its case when we were done tracking.
JFH (Cortney): Yeah, I'm sure you didn't want anything to happen to it while you had it. *laughter* Now, was there a pivotal moment in your life when you realized music was the route you wanted to take?
Jeff: Hmm, yes. When I joined the band. I was doing music for several years before, and I was in college trying to do the "solo artist" thing. I did that for a few months, but all I wanted was for people to like me and like what I was doing, and love my music, and love me. And I felt like this was empty and void, so I stopped doing it. And I started playing around with some other musicians and other acts, and just tried to find my way for a few years. And then a few years later I joined the band. Well, I'll go into the story: I moved to Florida to try to go back to school, and that's where I met the band, and I started volunteering at the church that they were working at, and filled in a couple times on bass guitar. And then, after a year of living in Florida and not getting back into school, and wanting to do music, I moved back to Indiana, so I could do that closer to home. I toured with my friend, Jon McLaughlin, he's a solo artist, and I went on the road with him for a little bit. Then Tenth Ave asked me to join and play bass, and I said "Sure!" But then, two weeks later I accepted this gig to play with Joy Williams, who's with the Civil Wars now, but she was a Christian solo artist. So I called Tenth Ave and told them, "Sorry, but I have an opportunity to do music closer to home, so I'm going to do that." So I did that for about a year and a half, and then she stopped being a solo artist, and I was like, "Well, things are winding down with Joy," and then the band called again and said "Hey, do you want to play guitar in our band? We need a guitar player now." And I said, "Well, I guess God really wants me to be in this band." And I think that's when I realized I should do I guess what is Christian music, specifically. Because I tried to do it on my own, and it just didn't work out. When I wasn't trying, God opened this door to be in the band. And just my whole situation of moving to Florida, trying to go back to school, working at Starbucks, while volunteering at this church, and eventually moving back home with nothing. And I mean, I would have never met the band, and there's just this sea of alternate endings, of possibilities, you know, that could have emerged. But I'm here now, and I still don't really realize how I got here exactly. So, I guess that was the moment, if that makes any sense. I know it was a long story.
JFH (Cortney): Ha ha, it's all good. It's really cool to hear different musician's stories on how they come to find their calling, and what the defining moment was in their life when they realized this. OK, to wrap things up, what has God been teaching you lately?
Jeff: It's been patience, for sure. My wife and I have a little boy, and he's 20 months old. And we describe it as, "unique joys and unique sorrows," having a little child. And so, I never thought I'd see the day when I wake up at 7AM, on a daily basis. *laughs* And I mean, that's what happens, and you know, he's running around and we're like, "Don't go over here! Don't go over there! Come over here!" And at the end of the day, we're just both exhausted. Some people just thrive off of that, but we're both like, "Man, we need a break." *more laughs* So, I think God is teaching me that I need to work at this, and that I've got to have patience at times, I've got to have strength, I've got to "man up" and honor my family, and a whole slew of things that comes with fatherhood.
JFH (Cortney): Man, being a parent is a whole different animal, from what I understand.
Jeff: Oh yeah, that's the truth, sister!
JFH (Cortney): *laughs* Any last words you want to leave us with?
Jeff: I feel like I've been divulging quite a bit, so I'm think I'm just gonna let it simmer.
JFH (Cortney): All right, sounds good. Thanks so much for your time today.
Jeff: Hey, thank you. It was nice chatting with you.
Tenth Avenue North's The Struggle is available now wherever music is sold.