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.

Dustin Kensrue: The Water and the Blood

Release Date: September 30, 2013

I came across Dustin Kensrue and his new album The Water and the Blood in a bit of a strange way – given that it was right under my nose. I was watching some video on YouTube and saw the thumbnail for Dustin’s “It’s Not Enough” as a recommendation. I watched it and was blown away. I made some contacts, got my hands on the record, and even got to chat with Dustin for an interview that will soon be posted.

Dustin is the lead singer of the rock band Thrice, who I knew by name, but had never listened to. The band is currently on hiatus as Kensrue has joined the staff of Mars Hill Church as one of their worship leaders. If you aren’t a part of the church scene, Mars Hill is maybe a new model for you – they have live music at each of their 14 campuses and then project video of the week’s sermon from pastor Mark Driscoll, as though you were in a movie theater. It’s becoming more and more common.

Based in Seattle, Mars Hill has birthed several bands including Citizens and Ghost Ship. Their music is very progressive, indie rock and this album is no exception. I will say, however, that I’ve enjoyed it far more than what I’ve heard from either of the bands listed above.

Kensrue’s album is a good blend of indie and alternative rock that is both melodic and emotive. As in his earlier work with Thrice, the music that he crafts is complex in both its tone and lyrics. In short, it’s not the typical worship record you would find from the Passion crowd.

In my opinion, some songs on the record seem better suited to group participation than do others. For his part, Dustin says that “It’s Not Enough” is the only non-church song in the bunch. The best choices for audience engagement are “Rejoice”, “Rock of Ages”, and “My One Comfort”. A how-to and an acoustic version of “Rejoice” have already been released as a means of bringing it down to the everyday level. While I enjoy the pacing and melody changes on the classic “Rock of Ages” (one of my favorite hymns), I don’t like the idea of adding new lyrics to these songs for the sake of giving them a more modern verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure.

Two tracks rise far above the rest. The aforementioned “It’s Not Enough” is a great listen and a visceral yet simple video. It’s a great transition from the artist persona to the worship leader. It is filled with passion and emotion. The other big winner is “Suffering Servant”, a song with lyrics lifted almost word-for-word from Scripture – that alone is no little feat. Again, the personal conviction shines through the vocal performance. (And I may be alone on this, but the verse reminds me of the Paul Revere & The Raiders classic, “Indian Reservation.”)

The only shortcoming for me on this record is “God is Good.” It begins well and has a great melody, but the chorus comes off a little corny to me (God is good / all of the time / all of the time / God is good). And it’s not so much that it’s a kind of hokey, cultural phrase that bothers me. It’s more the feeling that they just mailed it in on the chorus.

When I listen to music like this, I’m usually looking for that “transferability” factor. Can someone at a church in the middle of nowhere transfer these songs to their situation? The answer here is yes and no. Normally that bothers me, but this album is so good that it really stands alone as not needing to translate into a corporate setting. It’s just a great listen and if it guides the individual listener to look at God afresh, then I think it is a success.