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Jars Of Clay

While doing late summer 2007 tour dates, Jars Of Clay stopped off at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pennsylvania where sat down with Jars' Dan Haseltine and Matt Odmark to discuss their forthcoming full-length Christmas album, Christmas Songs...
This interview took place on: 8/3/07

  • Jesus freak Hideout (John DiBiase): First off, I really, really like Christmas Songs.
    Dan Haseltine: Thanks! It's one of those records where we just don't have a clue how people will respond to this. Cause number one, it's a holiday record, so there seems like there's a whole different set of criteria. It's just a very different kind of record.

  • JFH: What, after six studio records, kind of lead you to making a Christmas album?
    Dan: We've wanted to for a long time. Ever since we did Drummer Boy, the EP, it seemed like a lot of our fans wanted us to do a full-length Christmas record. They would ask for it year after year. A few different times, we started to begin one and would actually get something going, and we kept getting shut down, either for just reasons of just us not having the time to make it happen or the label saying 'we've got other records we need to focus on for the holidays," so it just kept getting pushed back. Now, since we're not on Essential Records anymore, we felt that maybe the first thing we should do as an independent band is make a Christmas record for our fans.

  • JFH (John): What lead you to starting Gray Matters?
    Matt Odmark: It's kind of out of necessity more than anything. I mean, like Dan said, we did about six records with Essential Records. Y'know, that's been cool. And as we were kind of winding down that contract, we were just sort of really thinking about what we wanted to do in the future and it really became about having as much flexibility in the future as we could. We have a desire to do a lot more music, a lot more collaborating, a lot more different things, rather than just continuing to sort of feed the kind of eighteen-month record cycle. So it seemed like all the label systems that were out there weren't really built in a way to totally be able to do that. It seemed to make the most sense for us to - rather than find a system that wanted to do what we wanted to do, to build a system around what we wanted to do. So that's kind of what lead us to where we are now.

  • JFH (John): Why the name Gray Matters?
    Matt: Cause it does! *laughter*

    Dan: Yeah. For a couple different reasons. We've always appreciated the more cerebral side, the thoughtful side of creating art. From intelligent conversation about issues, about spirituality, and whatnot. So I think that plays into it. And then I think simply the actual stuff between the black and white that we sort of feel we're more in tune to than we are the extremes on both sides. I think it sort of captured quite a bit of what we wanted to be about and what we wanted to perpetuate in art.

  • JFH (John): What do you really hope to do with your own label that you couldn't do with Essential?
    Dan: Um... make money. *laughter* I think we really just hope to have an outlet to create more music, different kinds of music, and just the ability for us to collaborate now is there. So we'll work with a lot of friends. It seems like, after starting it, we already have this Christmas album coming out, we've been working on a movie soundtrack for a documentary film, and then we're helping some of our friends release a record - guys from DBC, Disappointed By Candy. So I think we hope to both encourage and be able to support a lot of our friends who we feel are making really great art. And also allow ourselves the opportunity to kind of diversify a little bit in terms of our genre and creativity.
  • JFH (John): Was it difficult to all agree on which traditional songs you wanted to cover on Christmas Songs? Jars
    Matt: It didn't seem like it was.
    Dan: No, not really.
    Matt: The song selection process was pretty simple. We knew that we were more interested in doing songs that were a little bit off of the beaten path. There are a lot of very popular Christmas songs that are not on our record. There are a lot of kind of lost gems that we sort of dug up. Whenever we do covers, that's sort of been interesting to us more than anything, rather than pick a really familiar song and do another version of it. It's always been more interesting to dig up a forgotten gem and sort of try and give it a new shot. So, in the selection process, those were the songs we ended up getting most excited about. It gives the record enough of a familiar feel but yet at the same time, to us, it sort of feels new and fresh. It doesn't feel a lot like the other Christmas records out there. Which was, again, kind of important to us going into it.

  • JFH (John): What kind of Christmas music did you grow up with? Which artists were you listening to when you were kids?
    Matt: Me and Dan listened to the same record.
    Dan: Yes we did. The Muppets and John Denver. It was huge in my house. Looking back on Christmas records that influenced me, for us to make our own... It was sort of funny because initially I thought we'd make this super acoustic, beautiful kind of Christmas record. But the more I dug back into my influences, [I found] it's really random. The Christmas records that I gravitated towards: The Muppets' Christmas, The Jackson Five Christmas record, and even this really awful, but really good Moog Christmas record called Switched On Santa by Sy Mann. He's the guy that did it. And it's all these old Christmas songs done on the Moog synthesizer. And I used to listen to that record all the time when I was a kid. And I just found that most of my influences for Christmas music weren't acoustic at all, with the exception of some of the John Denver stuff from the Rocky Mountain Christmas. Most of them are kind of a little bit more weird and eclectic.

  • JFH (John): Yeah, most of the records I listened to were the ones my grandfather handed down to my mom, like Spike Jones, Bing Crosby, The Disney Christmas record, Mitch Miller and the Gang, stuff like that.
    Dan: Yeah, there weren't many substantive, great albums that I listened to. I mean, I loved a lot of the Phil Spector stuff, and Bing Crosby, "White Christmas," and all that stuff was really important...
    Matt: Yeah, I mean those were the things I feel like shaped some of the aesthetic we were going for, though - a little bit of that kind of real classical, whimsical sort of Christmas. There's a little bit of that real sort of melancholy, Vince Guaraldi kind of influence. And then there's The Muppets and the John Denver... And again, there's a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in those things for us, and we felt like what didn't work for us was when we'd buy a new Christmas record and some band takes classic songs and tries to make them sound like the radio. It doesn't really work. You really don't want your Christmas music to sound like commercials or to sound like pop radio. Or at least those aren't the records that we put on year after year. Those aren't really the records that help set the tone for Christmas. So I think that's what drove us to some of those other places - and what really made some of those other classic Christmas records, even some of the more bizarre ones, what made them work. So I think that's a little bit of what we were trying to do with ours. So there's some strange and unusual moments on the record, and I think we were taking our cues from some of those other records.

  • JFH (John): I think it has a good modern and classic mix. I mean, like even "Hibernation Day" has an old classic sound.
    Jars Of Clay, courtesy of Dan: Yeah! And that one's sort of a nod to some of those older Christmas tunes. Even when we were writing it, we were sort of looking at each other going, "Really? Can we do this?" *laughter* But it was so fun. And I think Christmas is the only time that we can get away with that. I can see why a lot of artists might do more than one Christmas record. Cause it's fun, sort of a no-holds-barred process. You can really be creative, and do things you wouldn't do on a normal record.

  • JFH (John): It's also challenging to try to capture the Christmas feeling in music.
    Dan: It's just bells, really. *laughter*
    Matt: Sleigh bells help a lot!
    Dan: I think we put bells on everything!
    Matt: Whenever a track wasn't working. We were like, "What.... oh! Bells!" *laughter*

  • JFH (John): Who does the female vocals on "Hibernation Day?"
    Dan: Christine Dente actually came in. She's been a friend of ours for a long time. She was able to manifest that great, sort of pseudo-sexy Christmas thing that we were looking for. *laughs* She sang on "Hibernation Day," our version of "Christmastime Is Here," she's there in the back, and "Heard The Bells." She was able to capture something we were trying to get. She's a great singer.

  • JFH (John): Was it kind of hard writing original songs?
    Matt: It really wasn't. I think we found ourselves having to restrain some of the original music to get enough familiar things on there. My concern was more to have enough familiar ground. I feel like very rarely does a Christmas record of all original music work. Just because part of what is appealing about the season is some sense of remembering and some sense of repetition, nostalgia. I felt like we had a lot of new music to incorporate but to somehow sort of give that a familiar aesthetic to work in or have enough familiar music moments so people felt like they were getting what they expected out of a Christmas record. I don't know, do you feel like it came easy?
    Dan: Yeah, the original stuff was easy. And for us too, it was a chance to put some instrumental music down and I think that was part of just trying to let the record breathe a little bit, too, was to put these little musical vinettes in there and that was really fun. I think each of us could have written a hundred of those little things. *Matt laughs* And Christmas music is so kind of warm and endearing, to write those sort of things they come easy for most of us. We could have all just sat down and created an entire record of that. So I think we had to restrain ourselves a little bit there. And then I felt like we wanted the record to be fun. Even when we describe some of our motivation for the record, which was to try to capture this idea of peace in a time of chaos, peace in a time of war, I think the deeper we got into making the actual record, it seemed less and less possible to make that the whole theme of the record without making it too overly serious. And that's when we got the idea to write the book. Actually it was to say, "well maybe what we need to do is take some of our ideas and the things we're thinking about Christmas and rather than turning them into songs, let's leave room for some of these traditional pieces and some fun stuff on the record, and let's save those ideas for little reflections or something and put together this book." So we did that, which we're pretty excited about. It's this collection of little reflections, too. But that allowed us to let the record breathe and be a little bit "happier"... As my wife said. It's funny, I brought home the first batch of basic tracks for the record and played four or five songs for my wife, and she just kind of sat there and she looked up and said, "It's really happy!" And she was really kind of confused. *laughter* She wasn't expecting that from us, especially, that we would even go that direction.
    Matt: Yeah. I think we surprised ourselves on that too. Just cause, y'know, that's generally our tendency to... "let's take the fun out of Christmas and make it more serious, cause everybody dumbs it down!" That would be kind of normally our approach. Probably even in a sense, in our digging for something substantive to say, was the way our brains were kind of gravitating, but then the music came out in a sort of totally different way. I think it was kind of a fun surprise.

  • JFH (John): Yeah, I think the traditional ones you picked go along with what fans can expect you guys to play.
    Dan: More brooding Christmas songs. *laughter* Yeah, it's funny, cause with "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day," the old head of marketing for Provident, when we were doing Redemption Songs, had actually brought that to us and thought "you guys should try to do this song" for Redemption Songs, because even though it's a Christmas hymn, it's still an old hymn. We just didn't really have room for it on the record. So to reapproach and do it for the actual Christmas record was exciting for us. We've been sitting on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" for a long time - since we were in college. A friend of our's in college had written an arrangement and we started to record that version but it sort of was turning a little bit too acoustic, and it wasn't really fitting on the record. So we had to spend some time and reapproach it and ended up getting what we have for the record. It pretty much was a surprise.

  • JFH (John): Can you recall a Christmas moment when you felt more blessed giving than receiving?
    Matt: *thoughtful pause* No. *laughter*
    Dan: Once when I was a kid... no, never when I was a kid. *pauses thoughtfully* Well, it seems like every Christmas now is like that cause I have kids. And it's so much more fun watching them tear into presents and seeing their eyes light up - sort of the magic and wonder of Christmas coming alive in them. I mean, that's so much more exciting than anything they could actually receive. So I think, for me, every Christmas is probably like that at this point.
    Matt: Yeah, I think I've just learned to appreciate, as it's gotten harder and harder to give good gifts, how fun it is to actually surprise someone with a really thoughtful gift. And a few times when I've been really surprised by someone's gift to me, I think in the gift-giving process, that's the moment when you feel most loved or cared for by someone. I think that's one of the most loving things you can do is to know somebody well enough that you can even surprise them with a really good gift. That doesn't happen very often, usually we just get stuff for each other off of our lists so they can be checked off, y'know? *laughs* Every once in awhile, there are those chances to do something really special.

  • JFH (John): Do you have a favorite Christmas movie or TV movie?
    Dan: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is pretty high up on my list and is just amazing still.
    Matt: Yeah, any of the Christmas With The Kranks...
    Dan: Die Hard! The first Die Hard. *laughter* And I used to really love the old animated stuff - Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and A Year Without Santa Claus. All of those were so much fun. I bought DVD's of all of those a couple years ago and just sat down and watched them all with my kids. My kids were so bored. *laughter* They hated them. *laughs* But I liked them.

  • JFH (John): Is there an update on possibly recording your self-titled debut live?
    Dan: It's still floating around. I think we're trying to find some dates to do it and then just trying to figure out the right configuration - how we're going to pull it off.
    Matt: We're looking at trying to do it in February of this coming year. It's the time frame we're aiming for right now. Exactly how and who we'll pull in is stuff that will come together. But it is on the books, so that's good for something! That's usually the biggest step to getting something done. *laughs*
    Dan: It's been really funny, though. I occasionally get on our fan message boards and try to dispell rumors and whatnot, just get out there and interject where it's necessary.
    Matt: Or feed rumors. *laughs*
    Dan: Yeah! But it's funny because when our fans first heard that we were considering doing this, there were so many of them that were violently opposed. *Matt chuckles* And I think what they thought we were going to do is go into the studio and actually re-record studio versions, like new interpretations of all the songs on our first record. And they just thought that that was a really stupid idea. *Matt laughs* Which I think we would too, because that wasn't really our intention.
    Matt: Yeah, that would be really difficult. We would end up changing them too much. *laughs*
    Dan: We'd find all of the shortcomings in the songs and be like "Well this isn't really a good song! Let's fix it!" (John: That would be a hard pill to swallow.) Yeah, and I think for most of our fans, too, that first record is more than just the music on the CD, it represents part of a soundtrack to what they were experiencing in life at the time. So, to redo it, it just doesn't make sense. But to play it live, to bring in our friends... Even the Christmas record, what was significant is that a lot of the players that played on this Christmas record were some that we worked with on every single Jars record. But, some of them, we hadn't seen since they did the string sessions on that first Jars record. And they came back in and did the strings on this... (John: And they were like, "What the heck?! Why haven't you called?!") *laughter* Yeah, I know! So it was fun doing some of those sessions. People going, "Hey, do you remember me? I played the flutes on your first record." Really?! *laughter* It was just awesome.

  • JFH (John): How did you reconnect with them?
    Matt: It's funny, we hired a guy to do a lot of the string arrangements for this Christmas record and so it was sort of his job to pull together his top players to cut the actual parts he arranged. And so the people he brought in were people that are still some of the best in Nashville. They were at the time, because the guy that arranged the strings on our first record was a really, really great Nashville arranger who used some of the best players. So it was just funny... I mean, it's a small town and those guys are still working and we hadn't seen them since.
    Dan: Most of our records in between, we just didn't choose to use A-list players because because we were going for something really different. The strings on the Christmas record, we needed to be fairly precise mostly. So he had to get players that really knew what they were doing.

  • JFH (John): What made you think of re-recording "Drummer Boy" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen?"
    Dan: I don't know, I think we just wanted to?
    Matt: Yeah, we felt like we were putting together a Christmas record that we knew we would be touring and we knew we would be working with sort of a body of Christmas music that we would have to be performing, and I think we felt like rather than trying to work those old versions of those songs in with what we were doing we could recut them and have a more complete body of Christmas music that would be easy to perform and make more sense together. To me, that's kind of what made sense about it. And those songs continue to be played and people really like that arrangement of "Drummer Boy" and we felt like that maybe if we updated it and did a new version of it, then people would have a version of it that we would actually be proud to hear on the radio. *laughs*
    Dan: Yeah. I'm really happy with the new versions, too. I think, for me more, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." I really think that's a great moment on the record. I love kind of how it evolves. And at the end with all of the different melodies coming together. It was a neat puzzle to put together. I enjoyed that.

  • JFH (John): Are you guys touring for it?
    Dan: We are, we're actually going to do ten or twelve cities where it's going to be us and Third Day, because they put out a Christmas record last year. And, I was going to say this too when we were talking about song selections, when we started talking to Third Day about touring together for Christmas shows, we thought "Oh, how are we going to do this?!" And there's not a single overlapping song on our Christmas records! It's just really funny because they did all the big "O Holy Night"'s and "Joy To The World"'s, they did all those. And then we just didn't. So it's good that it'll be a whole night where we don't have to repeat a single song. *Matt laughs* But the tour's going to be great, I think. We sort of wondered how it was going to work because we were so different in terms of our style. Even now, it seems like our fans are fairly different. So how are we going to come together and not just do two bands playing Christmas songs. Cause we really feel like if we're going to go on tour, this should mean more than just playing Christmas music. There should be a theme, an element to it that carries through - just continuity throughout the night. And they agreed with that, they really wanted to bring elements of that idea of peace in the midst of chaos, and have a real strong sense of social justice element in the show. And just a lot of collaboration, too. So we're going to sit in a woodshed for awhile and spend a few days with them, rehearsing together and putting some songs together where we're all out there together or in different configurations. So it'll be less like Jars playing for an hour and Third Day playing for an hour. It'll be just a combination, a mixture. I'm excited about it. We've got some ideas and things floating around of how we're going to present these songs, and it's just going to be really cool.
    Matt: Yeah! It's going to be a lot of fun!

    Jars Of Clay's latest album Christmas Songs hits streets October 16th!

    Jars Of Clay


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