Ed Kowalczyk: The Flood and The Mercy

Release Date: October 29, 2013

If you don’t recognize the name Ed Kowalczyk, you’ll surely recognize the voice if you spent any time around rock radio in the 90s. As the lead singer of the band Live, which he co-founded in 1988, Kowalczyk released 7 albums in 20 years. While never reaching the levels of success seen by some of their contemporaries (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana), Live released a solid string of hits throughout the mid-90s. Although “Lightning Crashes” is probably the only single that has  maintained a spot on some radio playlists, during the golden years of alternative rock in any given hour you would easily hear “I Alone”, “All Over You”, or “The Dolphin’s Cry”.

In 2009, the band went on a hiatus that eventually devolved into a break up and Ed set out on his own path releasing 2010’s Alive and The Garden EP (2012). Also in 2012, the other members of Live returned under the same name with new lead singer Chris Shinn (YouTube it if you want, but I don’t recommend it). And now, Kowalczyk returns with his latest solo effort, The Flood and the Mercy.

With the first words of the opening track, “The One”, you feel like you’ve reconnected with an old friend as though no time has passed since you were last together. Ed’s iconic voice has held up better than that of many of his peers. The sound and lyrics are definitely reminiscent of Live. Track 2 (and the album’s first single), the slow-burner “Seven”, incorporates a few more electronic elements, but maintains the same tone. “All that I Wanted” is another excellent mellow effort.

There are a few missteps along the way. “Parasite” is a typical late-90s album track. More aggressive than the rest of the album, it feels a bit out of place. In recent years, Kowalczyk has been open (if not outspoken) about his return to the Christian faith. The album closes with the potentially promising “Cornerstone”, a hymn-like, piano-driven ballad.  The lyrics – referencing Psalm 118:22 – start out strong, but quickly become over- simplified and trite.

I had really hoped to speak with Ed before writing this review, in order to learn more about his writing – specifically. His lyrics have always been rife with analogy and epic, metaphysical language. And for this, we’ve never really slighted him. Consider these

Lightning crashes and a mother dies / her intentions fall to the floor / the angel closes her eyes – Lightning Crashes It’s easier not to be wise /and measure these things by your brains / I sank into Eden with you / alone in the church by and by – I Alone It was an evening I shared with the sun / to find out where we belonged / from the earliest days / we were dancing in the shadows – Lakini’s Juice Love will lead us (alright) / Love will lead us, she will lead us / Can you hear the dolphin’s cry / see the road rise up to meet us – The Dolphin’s Cry

Similar methods are found on The Flood and the Mercy. Honestly, they remind me of early metal (but then, I’m a sucker for Dio). In a lot of cases, I have enough background info on an artist that I can surmise what they are trying to say, or making reference to, but I simply don’t have that with Ed. So, if given the opportunity, I would have to ask him what the message is that he’s trying to send because I find I simply can’t discern it for myself from the lyrics.

You know, around 2001, Alternative as a genre fell off. A lot of bands called it quits and a few have continued to limp along when they should have turned in years ago. There have been a few bright spots along the way – Third Eye Blind’s Ursa Major (2010) comes to mind. But for some reason, the last couple of months have provided a wealth of new releases from the likes of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots (now with Chester from Linkin Park), former Creed frontman Scott Stapp, (his former bandmates now called) Alter Bridge, Dustin Kensrue (of Thrice), and a collaboration between Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones. It seem like there’s still a place for the music of Ed Kowalczyk – even if he’s only reaching a fraction of those he once reached. It seems that he still plays a good portion of Live hits at his concerts, so one can only imagine that the results would be stellar, if not nostalgic.

Interview :: Doug Hamilton

Doug Hamilton is the director of the groundbreaking new documentary Broadway Idiotwhich chronicles the process of bringing Green Day’s American Idiot record to the Broadway stage. The film is available now via Video on Demand, iTunes, and in select theaters. Doug took a few minutes to chat with me about the process of creating his film and the many layers of music, stage, and film intermingling.


Doug Hamilton Interview

quotes have been minimally edited for clarity

Ryan: I got to watch the film last week and I just want to say, first off, congratulations on bringing it to fruition.

Doug: Thank you. Thank you. I feel very good about that. You know, it’s hard to get a documentary out in the independent world and I feel good that it’s having a life.

Ryan: Absolutely. And I know you came into the project really early on in the creative process. How did you get involved that early – to see where it was going to be – or to see the future and where it might end up?

Doug: Part of what I do professionally is photograph in theater. My main work is in documentary film and public television and that kind of thing. But for at least a decade, I have photographed theater and the development of theater.

I had photographed the show Spring Awakening [writer’s note: music by 90’s recording artist Duncan Sheik] which became a big hit. That was created by many of the same people who did American Idiot – the director, the producers, John Gallagher Jr. [HBO’s The Newsroom], a lot of others were in it. So I knew these people and I knew that American Idiot was coming up. So, when we started talking about it, we all thought: well, if this becomes what we imagine it could become wouldn’t it be great to be able to do a documentary on it. And that requires being in the room early, shooting video. Once Spring Awakening became a hit, you can’t really do a documentary on it. It’s too late. So, there was an opportunity to do a documentary on it this time and we didn’t know quite where it was going to go with certainty. But we were able to get in there with cameras early enough that we had that covered.

Ryan: And it’s been a while since the musical’s premier – and, obviously, it’s gotten a lot of rave reviews. Why wait until now to put the documentary out? Has it just been a post-production issue or is there a specific timing of right now for you?

Doug: It’s pretty much just that’s how long it took. This was not something I did full-time. It’s been really a labor of love for myself and my editor, Rob Tinworth. Our day job is working in public television and we’re fortunate to get to do that. But that’s a demanding job, so we’ve done this in between projects, which is part of it.

But also, it takes time to really understand the material and work with it and create the kind of narrative that an independent film like this needs to have. So it came out now because it was ready to come out now. It’s not really connected to the show in any way, so we weren’t worried about that. We weren’t trying to promote the show in this, we just wanted to do an honest documentary about it. And that led to it coming out the way that it did.

Ryan: But you did have the big premiere this weekend and that was the CBGB festival, right?

Doug: Yeah, it was great. It’s very exciting to have a public event around a film project. It felt a little more like Broadway opening than a documentary opening. I’m not used to that world. I’ve worked in broadcast television all my life so 30 million people may see something I’ve done on 60 Minutes, but I’m watching it at home on the couch with four friends. So, this was a very different experience.

A lot of the creative team and actors came out for this, which is exciting. Michael Mayer, the [musical’s] director was there, and Tom Kitt the musical supervisor and John Gallagher came, Rebecca Naomi Jones was there. So really it was wonderful to be surrounded by these people in watching the film. And then the fact that it’s CBGB just in and of itself is kind of perfect because of the connection to the alternative music scene.

Ryan: And are y’all looking at other festivals? Do you think that there’s a future life for this? Or are you just going to be grateful for having accomplished your vision and whatever happens, happens?

Doug: Well, we’re getting out in the world now. This week we’re rolling out in 35 cities – which, for a documentary, is pretty big. Some of those are one-night stands in some cities where there are hopefully a lot of Green Day fans. And then, most of those are regular runs in good, independent theaters. So we are having a life. We’re out there on iTunes and Video on Demand now, so there are lots of ways to watch it.

There’s a short window that it is available in cinemas. It’s interesting for me to see how this film is different when you see it in a theater versus on your laptop or your iPad. I mean, I watched it on my laptop for years as I was working on it, but it’s really gratifying to see it large.

Ryan: I think, for me, being such a fan of that record that was so groundbreaking, and hearing about the musical (though, down here in Texas we don’t get a lot of stage theater as you can imagine) there was kind of a disconnect. And I think that you were really able to bridge that gap – hopefully for a lot more people than just myself – between what was this iconic record and putting the music that we’ve heard from the soundtrack in a context and telling a cohesive story.

Doug: Thank you. You know, the layers of this are pretty extraordinary. You have Billie Joe’s experience that then gets translated into his album, which obviously was an extraordinary piece of work and is so important to so many people. And then it becomes a stage show. And then he ends up in it playing a role that sort of is representative of part of him. And then we do a film about that.

And another twist that just happened is that on Friday night when we had our screening in the cinema the latest company of American Idiot – which is the third national touring company just starting its rehearsal process – they actually all came to the theater. The producers thought it was really important that they experienced where this all came from as part of their process. So, we’re documenting the process of theater and now we’re part of that process. It’s a weird twist, but it’s very gratifying to me.

Ryan: I don’t ever mean to question anybody’s art, I was just curious… One of the few things in the film that I felt kind of missed the mark: I would have loved to have heard more from the cast, their response to being involved in such a groundbreaking project, working with an iconic artist such as Green Day. You really took to focusing on Billie Joe and his journey. Was that just for the cohesive story? Or, what made you go that route?

Doug: That’s a fair criticism. When we do interview the cast, early on, there’s one little section where the cast (John Gallagher and Mary Faber, Rebecca Naomi Jones) are all talking about how important that album was to them as people. And they help us, early on, explaining what that album was. So we touch on that and I certainly could have done more with that and followed them. But I think it was the point you make – the cohesiveness of the story.

One of the challenges in the edit was to hone in on what our main story was. You have to have a discipline to keep staying true to that main story. As a filmmaker who’s been in the field getting all this material you fall in love with all of it. I loved everyone in that cast. There were scenes we cut of the process and of the cast that I thought were wonderful, but when you’re putting them all together and you have a 3 hour cut, something’s got to go.

So you have to keep asking yourself: is this scene really supporting my “A” storyline? And if not, I’ve got to be willing to part with it. And so I think that’s where it got focused more on Billie Joe and his experience which, for the audience, becomes a sort of vicarious way to experience what it’s like to be in the theater company like that and make your way to Broadway.

Film Review :: Broadway Idiot

Release Date: October 11, 2013 (in theaters and on demand)

When I first heard about a musical based on Green Day’s Grammy Award winning, magnum opus, American Idiot, I was pretty skeptical. When I finally heard the cast recording soundtrack – I’ll be honest – I was underwhelmed. The album is so iconic that it’s hard for much of anything to measure up. Earlier this summer, however, I found my interest in the musical renewed when I learned that two artists whose work I have followed sporadically were part of the original cast: John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom) and Tony Vincent (recording artist, NBC’s The Voice) playing lead characters “Johnny” and “St. Jimmy” respectively. Earlier this week when I learned of the new behind-the-scenes documentary Broadway Idiot I found my chance to finally get a look at what this whole thing was all about.

In general, I think that stage theater is under-exposed. Down here in Texas, it’s mostly unheard of but for the local high school production of The Music Man. So, for the uninitiated, it should be noted that the pop music theater musical is something that has been growing in popularity. In recent years Mamma Mia (music of ABBA), Jersey Boys (Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons), and We Will Rock You (Queen) have all graced the stage. All that to say, the concept in and of itself wasn’t completely original – thought it may have garnered more public awareness on the back of a Grammy Awards performance featuring Green Day and the cast.

Broadway Idiot takes us not just behind the scenes, but deep into the inner workings of the theater. We hear songs as the arrangements are being written and we learn why certain creative choices are made. We see the actors learning their parts and creating their characters. We sit down with the director, the choreographer, the music director, and the author himself, Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day. While we don’t witness the entire performance of American Idiot, we see enough to understand the story and gain a new found respect for the creative process and the end result.

The high points of the film, in my mind, center on the development of the musical numbers. The stage show contains the entirety of the American Idiot album, as well as a large portion of Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown record. While the cast performs with much gusto, the vocals still lack the brilliance of their source material. The best moments, though, are when songs are brilliantly re-imagined such as the Beach Boys-inspired take on “Last Night on Earth”.

Director Doug Hamilton also takes us back in time to learn more about Billy Joe’s history with theater and singing lessons as a child. We’re also able to experience a certain sense of catharsis as Armstrong hears his own material afresh and realizes how much more there is to it. In a pivotal moment, he states that the best thing about the musical is that is a source of affirmation and validation of his songwriting – something that isn’t talked about a whole lot in rock music.

If the film is lacking in anything, it is its engagement with the cast. While actors names do flash on screen and several one or two sentence statements are made by the actors, they are surprisingly silent in the story-telling element. This was particularly disappointing to me given the fact that there is so much fertile ground including actors making their Broadway debuts, or the simple fact of working with an artist like Green Day. In the director’s defense, he does present the movie as “following Billy Joe Armstrong’s journey from punk rock to Broadway.” That goal is certainly accomplished.

Interview :: Martin Smith

I recently got to do a really quick Q & A with Martin Smith (former lead singer of the band Delirious) for the folks over at FaithVillage.com. Martin has released two great records this year, God’s Great Dance Floor: Step 01 and Step 02.


Ryan: You spent many years in the band Delirious and had a lot of success – and if that’s not the appropriate word, we could say “worldwide impact.” Since the band broke up, you’ve embarked on a solo career. What have been some of the biggest surprises about this stage of your career vs. your years in the band?

Martin: I think the greatest thing about this season has been not being so busy and being home more, and being part of a growing family. We’re also part of a new church plant in Brighton called St Peter’s, and we feel really privileged to be there and part of that. It’s been a surprise to me that I’ve been able to release so much music and I’m amazed that these songs have made an impact on people!

Ryan: I’ve heard songwriters talk about the importance of writing with other artists. Collaboration has been a key component of both Step 01 and Step 02. How have those writing opportunities come about and what have you learned from working with such noted and respected artists?

Martin: It’s always great to write with people that are better than you – it stretches you, it brings things to the table that you couldn’t have imagined and you learn a lot in the process. Usually if you invite someone into the writing process who you trust, 9 times out of 10 they will always make it better. The aim is always to make something as good as it can be.

Ryan: I know that mentoring the next generation is something that’s very close to your heart. How has that played a part in your life, your ministry and these recent records?

Martin: Well I think mentoring always starts at home and mentoring is just another word for being a good dad, or a good parent, and wanting people around you to win and be successful, fulfill their potential. So we all play our part in helping people around us to move onwards and upwards. It’s been great for me being at St Peter’s with so many young students and I’m just happy to be a part of them growing into the next phase of their life.

Ryan: I’ve noticed on twitter that you mention your daughters a lot. How has your family life influenced your writing and how does your writing style now differ from those earliest Delirious records?

Martin: When I was younger, before being married and having children, it seemed like I had all the time in the world to be creative. And you would think that’s when the best songs come. But, I’ve found that the greatest creativity can come out of community, being part of something. Being part of Church, you never ever dry up with ideas and things to write about good and bad. I’d say now, even with all the responsibilities I have less time to be creative, but I’m far more focused. It’s just where I’m at right now.

Ryan: You’re heading out on tour throughout the UK with Matt Redman this fall. Will you be bringing the Dance Floor to the US sometime next year?

Martin: Yes, I’d like to do a couple of tours in the US next year – watch MartinSmith.tv!

Interview :: Dustin Kensrue

Some may know Dustin Kensrue from his 14 years fronting the alternative rock band, Thrice. In 2012, the band took an extended hiatus and Dustin left to do something a bit different, becoming a worship pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He’s just released his first solo record from this new journey, The Water and The Blood. (He released a couple of solo albums several years ago, but they are wholly unrelated to his new material.) Dustin took the time to answer a few questions about his journey to the church and its effect on his music.


answers have been minimally edited for the sake of clarity
Ryan: How do you go from being the lead singer of a well known rock band to being a worship leader? I know that probably didn’t happen overnight. So, it’s probably a long story, but what were some of the key moments along the way of that journey?

Dustin: I guess a key moment, initially, would be that I had told my wife that I would never be a worship leader – I don’t remember that, but she does. I had a really negative attitude towards corporate worship music in general. There were a lot of things I thought were unbiblical or just not helpful about it. I just didn’t want to be a part of it. So, God started convicting me of that attitude and really just giving me an understanding that I was seeing a problem that I had been (in a certain sense) trained to do differently or do better and I was just sitting on the sidelines complaining about it.

He started changing my heart toward it and giving me a vision to try to be a part of something larger that would effect change on a much greater level than just me. To try to cast vision for what could be different about it and have people respond with that vision. Not that I would be some lone wolf in that, but part of something to change it.

Ryan: And how did you get connected with Mars Hill [Church]?

Dustin: I can never really figure out the exact timeline, but the biggest connection for a while was [that] one of my best friends was Pastor Mark [Driscoll]’s executive assistant for a long time. So we had a connection there. Pastor Mark had known of my music and he blogged about it once or twice. We ended up meeting and, ironically enough, he told me I was going to be a pastor and I was going to come work for him. Those have both come true.

So, at the time I was like, “Man I don’t think I’m ever moving up to Seattle.” But then it was funny when we planted Mars Hill in Orange County. I was like “well, I guess I am kind of working for him now.” But I didn’t have to move. And then God had different plans for that. So that was the next benchmark. We ended up, after I had known a bunch of people at Mars Hill at that point, some good friends, we felt called to plant a church in Orange County. Then it ended up being that we were planting Mars Hill Church.

Then, a year later, Pastor Mark asked me to pray about moving up to Bellevue and serving with him here. The idea was for me to take more of a leadership role over Mars Hill Music. I ended up realizing that I was called to that role, but I couldn’t do it from Orange County.

Ryan:  So, how does the songwriting process differ for what you did on this record from what you’ve done before – not just in the content, which obviously is a little different, but also in the whole process? Are you writing alone? Are you writing in a group?

Dustin: I try to describe that the main difference is really the purpose in what the song is for. Like if I was writing with Thrice, the song really doesn’t have a purpose outside of itself. It is kind of the end. But for writing music for corporate worship – for people to sing together in church – the end is that it would actually foster that singing together and that it would do that well. So, it creates different parameters and restraints. And restraints aren’t a bad thing. Creativity is really hard without any restraints. So, whatever the medium is that you work in, it’s always good to give yourself different restraints to work with and it fosters creativity. So, I enjoy that aspect of it, trying to write in a different way. And some of the ways that I think are important when writing that way I already kind of naturally do, whether it’s consistency of metered melody or whatever.

So, that’s different. And then, I’m not writing with a band. I wrote a lot of songs in a very short period of time, trying to get ready for the record. I realized that I can’t really finish songs without having a deadline – I’m just so used to writing for records. I’ve managed to do a couple of other songs without writing for a record, but they still had a deadline whether it was like my wife’s birthday or we’re starting some new series and I’m writing a song for it. I have to have a set deadline to make me finish it.

I wrote the record and then we recorded it with a couple of musicians that we knew or the producer knew. So the recording process was pretty different, where we would take my song and do a full arrangement of it within a day and have 70% of the song tracked. A lot of spontaneity. A lot of cool things captured in that process. And I did co-write a song with Stuart Townend who wrote some great modern hymns – “In Christ Alone”, “How Deep the Father’s Love” – so that was awesome.

Ryan: The sound, musically, is a lot different from what you’ve done in the past – whether with the band or even your solo work. How much of the musical tone is influenced by the community you’re a part of there, or just where you’re at personally?

Dustin: I think a lot of it is that it’s a totally different thing. Thrice is a completely different animal. The way we write is very very collaborative and because it’s collaborative, you’ve got 4 minds that are smushing all together. I mean, even Thrice’s sound was changing all the time.

On this, you see a lot of my influence into Thrice songs – where my job was primarily pulling things together into a cohesive whole – to care about song structure and melody in general. So, I think that’s the reason it’s very melodic and also, just the fact of asking “what is the purpose of the song?” And so this is something that I’ve carried over of learning through the years of Thrice is that you really want the song to match the lyric well – the actual music and the melody. So there’s still that interplay as I was writing this record. A song, “Come Lord Jesus”, had a different chord [progression] and a different melody, but what I was trying to tackle was just too large for one song. Do I narrowed it down and it really changed the tone of what was going on so it got a bit darker as a result.

Ryan: I think every church environment is different and probably when a worship leader goes out and picks up a record off the shelf, they’re listening to it with (at least a little bit) the lens of “Could we bring this to our church?” So, question about this record: How much of the songs on there are songs that y’all sing corporately at Mars Hill and was there any thought given to the transferability for someone else to come in, pick up this record and transfer these songs to their environment?

Dustin: Yeah, those are great questions. 10 of 11 of those songs are meant to be sung in corporate worship. “It’s Not Enough” is the exception to that. And, definitely, thought is given to how they transfer. What we’re trying to do is to make the record a really, really great record – a record that people are going to want to listen to over and over. And that’s really helpful… because music that you listen to over and over is forming us and transforming us for good or bad. If the lyrics are not great, you’re actually harming people as you reinforce false ideas or false emphasis. So, it’s really important that at the foundation of the songs that the lyrics are solid, but then that the songs are really great and the record is really great so that people want to listen to it.

And then, what we’ve done to try to show people that they do work in a broader context, we have “how-to” videos that we do for the songs online, just going through “here’s the structure,” “here’s the basic chords.” And then, also, this time we’re doing 8 of the songs with a stripped-down, acoustic band: acoustic guitar, bass, drums, piano and that’s it. Just showing, here’s a way that you can break it down and build it back up from there. Just trying to strip away the idea that if it might sound intimidating on the song – say there’s 3 keyboard parts or something – showing that it’s really not that complicated.

Ryan: And you’re doing all of those as videos? I know I saw “Rejoice” the acoustic video this week.

Dustin: Yeah, so we’ll be releasing those kind of staggered every week.

Ryan: Is there anybody that you look to, or artists that you pick up songs from and incorporate into what you guys are doing?

Dustin: We do mostly hymns, or hymn re-writes, or originals in our services. Not at all saying “hey, we don’t like everyone else’s music,” it’s just developed that way over time and it’s kind of become part of the culture of the church. There’s a song here or there that we’ll pull in. Stuart Townend stuff is some of our staples. “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep” are some modern ones we do all the time. “Before the Throne” which is an old song but with a new melody from Vikki Cook. Those are still very hymn-esque.

Every now and then there’s a song that we’ll pull in. But I think, more and more, as we have the label and we’re writing together as a church we’ll be pulling more and more from what we’re doing here. And I think there’s a lot of reasons that is good for us. I think, theologically, there’s not a lot of stuff out there that we’re going to land – at least in as far as how things are emphasized in the songs. Or there are songs that you think are really good songs, but the vibe of this [may not be able to transfer to where we’re at].

And then on top of that, we’re really trying to manage the pace at which we’re writing new songs and recording so it’s not like a firehose as we try to incorporate these new songs. Like, I had a lot of originals on this. I won’t have nearly as many on the next one. I’ll try to share some of those that we’ve done in the church before that maybe weren’t featured on a larger recording, do some more hymns.

Ryan: I’m sure that the transition has created a lot of interesting opportunities for conversations with people both inside and outside the church regarding stereotypes and expectations. Are there any of those conversations that stand out in your mind?

Dustin: I’ve been encouraged – and this is what I hoped would be the case – I’ve been encouraged that there are a lot of people who have listened to my work in the past and have respect for me who have good things to say about this, even though they don’t agree. There’s a fair amount of people who seem to be able to distinguish between someone’s beliefs and them as a person or artist. And I think that’s been good and I hope that there’s fruit from that in the same way that there has been from the Thrice music where there’s relationship and interaction that gets fostered over time between the artist and the listener. I know a fair amount of people who have gotten used to the music that I’ve made to bring them the knowledge of Jesus. So, I hope that this would do it for those who are willing to see it. And it’s also going to be interesting for some of those people in that I’m really writing about the same stuff, it’s just a lot more exposed and polished.