Interview :: Brian McSweeney

The music of Brian McSweeney has been a part of my life for nearly 20 years. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been anything new added to the catalog in quite some time. That was true until a couple of weeks ago when McSweeney quietly released his solo debut, Love Me Down. The record itself is phenomenal, but it’s something that the artist couldn’t possibly have put together back when I was first introduced to him. Time, life experiences, and the advent of new technology finally made it possible for the Brian to put out a piece of work that really taps into his full potential as not just a musician, or one of the best vocalists around, but as a poet and artist.

Brian was kind enough to take some time out of his day to chat with me about the record and how it came into being.

Listen Here

*excerpts below are only a portion of what is contained in the full audio interview*

Ryan: You made this album a while back and you’ve just now released it. Why the delay and what have you been doing in the meantime?

Brian: I made the album in pretty short order after moving to Nashville. I felt like I needed to get some music out of me, and it just came out in a burst. Once I had finished the record, the content was still very fresh in my life and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it and I just wasn’t ready to be that open. But I finally reached a place where I realized that time wasn’t on my side and I was finally ready to put this stuff out there.


Ryan: This music is very artistically different from what you’ve been known for. Was this a passion project to make that type of record?

Brian: I didn’t put a lot of thought into the sound when I went into making the record, but I had been listening to Ray Charles almost exclusively for like a year. I had discovered Ray Charles – of course, I knew who he was – and I had never really realized how brilliant he was. But I maintain now that he may be my favorite artist of my life. He may be one of the most talented people I’ve ever heard, for so many reasons. But I didn’t think “I want to make a soul record.”


Ryan: This record came out of the aftermath of a relationship gone bad?

Brian: Well, there are a few different relationships at play. Leaving the long-term relationship I moved to Nashville and within a year I met someone who was the complete opposite of that relationship. I met someone who I was really able to experience a lot of happiness with and experienced a feeling of being seen and appreciated. So, I was writing new songs or revisiting old ideas in the context of this new relationship. So what ended up happening – and it was almost unintentional – was that every other song sort of “leapfrogs.” One song might be fun in light of the new relationship and the next song might be a good bit darker.

Brian McSweeney: Love Me Down

Release Date: July 20, 2015

I may have a tendency of over-selling records by artists that I’m really committed to – especially when it’s something that I’ve been waiting years to hear. But in the case of Brian McSweeney’s latest release, Love Me Down, I promise you that every word of praise is well-earned.

For the uninitiated, the ever-youthful McSweeney boasts a two-decade-long, critically-acclaimed career. Unfortunately, most of that acclaim came in the first quarter of his career fronting the bands Seven Day Jesus and Matthew. For the last few years, however, McSweeney has spent most of his time behind the scenes, working as road crew for other artists and playing gigs here and there. In the last 5 years, he released an EP and several videos and clips on YouTube – just enough to whet the appetite for something more substantial.

I spoke with Brian a year and a half ago and got a fantastic play by play of the last 15 years of life for him and the promise of something great coming down the pike. He told me of how he had discovered the music of Ray Charles and then gone out and written and recorded a soul record complete with strings and horns – a far cry from the post-alternative rock he had built his career around at the turn of the millenium. The wait for this record has been unreal.. but oh, so worth it.

The album-opener “Black Diamond” sets the stage well by leaning on classic instrumentation – keys, violins, and John Mayer-esque guitar riffs give way to a verse carried simply by the drum and bass. The composition of “Turning Pages”, juxtaposing major/minor chords against one another, makes it perhaps the most reminiscent of the artist’s previous ballads. “Pillowfight” is probably the most upbeat track and calls to mind shades of Stevie Wonder, especially on its super-hooky outro tag of “Something feels like summertime/Children laughing all the time.” While it doesn’t completely drop the soul-vibe, “Wildfire” has the most singer-songwriter feel of the whole album.

In a previous conversation, Brian mentioned his move to Nashville in the aftermath of a long, unhealthy relationship. The stains of those experiences are all over this record. “She Says #1” – which boasts an intro that brings to mind The Temptations’ classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – deals with the after-effects of infidelity. The almost-cinematic “Black Friday” draws the listener into the uncomfortable scene of breakup in-progress as it builds through sweeping vocals without offering a chorus to break the tension. As rough as it is to experience, it is perhaps the best track on the album.

A conversation from many years ago about making great records often comes to mind. A producer friend was discussing his desire to make “timeless” records – albums that sound like they could have come out yesterday or thirty years ago and still be relevant. I feel like that is exactly what Brian McSweeney has done here. It’s eclectic in all the right ways pulling in sounds as varied as Sam Cooke, The Beatles, and Richard Marx, yet not a single note feels out of place. Generally speaking, I prefer to hear acoustic versions of songs, but nearly all of these tracks demand full instrumentation as though that is as integral to the piece as the melody and lyrics – that to me is the sign of an album truly transcending music and becoming art.

You can stream Love Me Down on Brian’s site and Spotify, but do yourself a favor and actually purchase it.

Also, stay tuned for a new interview with Brian coming next week.

Interview :: Audio Adrenaline

I know what your thinking: who are those guys? Well, friends, that is the new Audio Adrenaline – (l to r) Brandon Bagby, Adam Agee, Jack Campbell, and Dave Stovall. The group took up the mantle of Audio A about 6 months ago, taking over for the band’s previous incarnation fronted by the great Kevin Max. Oldsters like myself may remember the group’s original lineup anchored by vocalist Mark Stuart who was forced into retirement a decade ago due to vocal issues. Stuart has stayed involved in the life of the band and has offered his ringing endorsement of “Audio Adrenaline 3.0”. I got the chance to speak with new lead singer Adam Agee in the days leading up to the release of the band’s tenth studio album, Sound of the Saints.


conversation has been minimally edited for the sake of clarity

Ryan: First off, congratulations on the success on the new record that’s on it’s way out. It’s a very cool time to be in, I’m sure.

Adam: Thanks. It’s been a crazy six months.

Ryan: I’m fascinated to hear what the call was like when you found out that this was going to happen. Did you know the guys from the band already? Did a manager call and say, “hey, are you interested?” How did that all go down?

Adam: Yeah, I’ve known Mark [Stuart – founding lead singer] and Will [McGuiness – founding bass player] for a long time and I love those guys. It’s pretty well documented that they had a huge influence on my career over the last twelve years in [my former band] Stellar Kart. We were under the same management as Audio A for the last three years and they had been watching us.

So they came to me and said, “hey, we’ve got this thing happening. We need a singer and we’d like you to be the front-man for the band and help write.” Stellar Kart was kind of winding down so I thought about it with my wife and prayed about it a lot. The guys from Audio A came back and said that they wanted to keep things going to continue to raise awareness for the Hands and Feet Project and that ministry. So, my wife felt like I couldn’t just go back out on the road to play music. There had to be a huge ministry aspect involved in order to leave the family. With all of those things adding up, it felt like a good fit.

Ryan: What about the rest of the guys? You are all new to the band. Were they guys that people knew already or was it everyone thrown into a room all at once and, “Hey, good to meet you,”?

Adam: It’s a little strange. We all kind of new each other from other bands or church or mutual acquaintances. I know that Mark and Will had Dave, our bass player, on their label with his old band, Wavorly, so they knew him very well. Then Brandon [guitarist] and I went to church together, and Jack [drummer] I knew because he’s been out with Newsboys helping them out for the last couple of years. So, we all kind of knew each other, but at the first couple of rehearsals it was like “hey, man. How ya doin’?”

One of the freakiest moments – it was our fifth or sixth rehearsal – Mark and Will come in and they are sitting at the soundboard. And I’m thinking: “Well, this isn’t awkward at all,” as we’re about to play “Big House” in front of them. It’s like “What is going on, man?”

Ryan: How different does it feel now when you walk on stage under the name Audio Adrenaline than it did when you going out as Stellar Kart both in terms of purpose and emotion?

Adam: It’s not a whole lot different than what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. It’s still going out there and putting on the best show I can. I think that the added element is making sure that we do justice to the catalog of songs that Audio A has developed over the last 25 years. We want to make sure that we are honoring that and that it is as awesome as it can be. In terms of the new stuff, I was able to write a bunch of it and we formed it as a band. So, all that stuff is coming together great and it seems really easy on stage and it’s just so much fun. I feel like the pressure is less than it would have been, had I not been preparing for the last 15 years to be a frontman in a band.

Ryan: What are you feeling from the fans as you meet them one-on-one? The fans have gone through a phase of acclimating to Kevin [Max – former lead singer] over the last few years. I’m sure that when they walk into the venue, they aren’t sure exactly who they are seeing. How have they received you and what kind of conversations have you had around that?

Adam: The knowledge that the fans have coming into the show is pretty mixed, but the reaction after the show has been overwhelmingly positive. I was almost surprised the first couple of weeks of the tour at how well people responded and how encouraging they were. It was much better than I could have hoped. Of course there are people who really liked the old way, but the response has been great. The younger fans that come up that may not even know about the history of Audio A are really excited about the new stuff and they love it. We’re able to inspire a new generation the way this band inspired us, so it’s very special each night. Then the fans who have been fans for 25 years come up to us and say, “Man, you did a great job on the old stuff and we really like the new stuff.” This band really changed their lives back in the day and they’re glad we’re keeping it going.

Ryan:  Audio Adrenaline’s bloomrecord was really drew me into Christian rock music…

Adam: Same here.

Ryan: I’ve recently shared that record with my 6-year-old son. It’s maybe a bit of nostalgia, but man that record really holds up well. I have to imagine you’re probably getting the same thing – parents who love the old stuff and now they’re bringing the kids out to the show and experiencing something as a family.

Adam: It’s really special and a true honor to get to do that every night.

Ryan: Alright. Rapid fire: What’s your favorite Audio Adrenaline album – can’t say your own?

Adam: (laughs) I would probably say bloom for the same reason you were saying. The way it holds up… it introduced me to Christian rock music. I didn’t even know that that was a thing. I grew up in Arizona and so we didn’t have a lot of the “Bible-Belt” circuit. Hearing bloom, I thought it was pretty awesome.

Ryan: What’s your favorite AudioA song to sing – old or new – and what’s your favorite one to listen to out of the catalog?

Adam: Ok, I’m going to have to go new on the singing one. My favorite one to sing is the first track on the new record, it’s called “Move.” It’s one that just slays every night. It is so much fun. The crowd just goes nuts. I’ll give you one from the old catalog, too. I love singing “Ocean Floor”. That’s one of my favorite moments from the show, 2,000 people worshiping to that song. I love that.

As far as listening, I really like the bloom record. I like the songs from Underdog, too. That’s one of my favorites. Then Worldwide is awesome. All the guys in the band want to work up “Some Kind of Zombie” so we can play that live. There’s just too many good songs, man.

Ryan: I’m sorry, but I’ve got to tell you my “Move” story because we were listening to it in the car the other night on the way to soccer practice with my 6 year old. He was really getting into it and he says, “We’ve got to take this out to the soccer field. This will get everybody moving!”

Adam: (laughs) That is awesome!

Ryan: So, your on tour with Newsboys right now. You’re probably playing mostly new stuff. What are you playing from the old stuff? What does the setlist look like?

Adam: We’ve been playing “Ocean Floor” and “Kings and Queens” and a medley of “Big House” and “Get Down”. Then mostly some new stuff. We’re doing our first headline show at the end of this month so we’ll be getting to play more of the back catalog like “Hands and Feet” – I think we’ve got a couple of others that we’re going to work out for that.

Ryan:  I know back when Kevin came in, Mark was travelling with the band a little bit. Is he still keeping his hands on the project? Is he out with you guys at all?

Adam: He’s not on the road, but he actually co-wrote the title track, “Sound of the Saints” with me and a couple of other guys. So, he’s definitely got a piece of this album. And like I said earlier, he and Will came to the studio for rehearsals and were speaking into the live shows saying, “Here’s what we did on this song back in the day. Here’s something we tried that worked out real well for this.” So, of course, we’re going to do that.

Ryan: So, I’ve been listening to the record and trying to remind myself that this is Audio Adrenaline – TODAY. But beyond changes in sound and personnel, one thing that really stood out to me was the lyrical content. Obviously, the band has never backed down or shied away from the Christian faith, but it felt like the songs on this record were a lot more explicitly evangelical. These songs are very strong in their message, whereas some of the older songs were a little more pedestrian or a little more grounded. Is that an intentional move on your part to write in a certain way? Is it just a matter of the people who were in the room writing? How does that mesh with the history of the band, lyrically?

Adam: I think it just happened organically that way. There were over 50 songs written for this record and it just wound up that this is the direction that we wanted to go. It is that unapologetic, “This is what we believe.” And it’s got a couple of moments of that Underdog vibe, where anybody from anywhere – it doesn’t matter if you think you’ve got all the skills or if you’ve got all the answers – anybody can make a difference in the world, and change the world, and tell the world about Jesus. That vibe is what we’re going for. It’s the whole message of Audio, whether they were explicit with it or you had to dig to find it. It’s always been that, “Here’s what we believe and anybody can make it happen and Jesus can use anybody.” So, that’s what it’s all about.

Ryan: You mentioned that you’ve got your first big headline show coming up. What are the plans for the summer after you finish up this tour?

Adam: We’ve got some festivals coming up this summer. We’re working on a headline tour this fall. We’ve got some international shows coming up this fall as well and those are always fun. Just honing in the live show and working on blowing up the show for the fall.

Ryan: “Love was Stronger” is out now. “Move” is available. Is that being pushed as a radio single or is it just available to buy now?

Adam: I don’t have the final clearance on it, but I would certainly hope so. It’s already gotten picked up by NFL network and MLB network. So it is one of those – like you said, your 6 year old knew it needed to be played out on the soccer field. They’re doing that for sure.

Ryan: I head that first song and I thought that it was really listenable and while it may be a little bit of a change of pace for the long-term fan who doesn’t know what they’re getting when they pop it in, it’s such a listenable record. It’s definitely radio-ready and something that’s going to be catchy for whoever listens to it. So, congratulations on putting out a great piece of work and best wishes to you and the rest of the guys throughout the summer and whatever comes next.

Adam: Well, thank you man, I really do appreciate that. We really hope that the songs can not only hold up to the legacy that Audio A has already had, but can continue to push the envelope and get better and better and better and take it to even new levels. That’s the goal.


Check out the review of the new album Sounds of the Saints.

Kevin Max: Broken Temples

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: March 10, 2015

I’ve been a fan of Kevin (Smith) Max since I first heard dcTalk’s Jesus Freak back in high school. His has been one of my favorite voices in all of music for nearly two decades now. For whatever reason, however, I lost track of his work for the better part of those years. When he signed on to helm the re-formed Audio Adrenaline a couple of years ago I was somewhat shocked and took notice of what was going on. The subsequent album that Audio A released (Kings and Queens) was pretty solid and Max’ vocals were on point. I was rather disappointed, when late last year I learned that the band had broken up because I felt that they could have come back with an even better album after having toured together for two years. [“Audio Adrenaline” still exists. No founding members are present. Max was replaced in mid-2014 and the slate was wiped clean earlier this year and re-started with 4 all new members (wha??)]

Broken Temples is Max’ twelfth studio album. The album opener “Good Kings Highway” sounds like the inevitable continuation of the Audio Adrenaline sound that was teased at the end of Kings and Queens. There’s a U2-ness to the guitar riff and Max channels his inner Bono as he did on tracks like “I Climb the Mountain.” The doubled, octave vocals create a fantastic effect and the song has a fantastically catchy melody. It is followed by “Light Me Up” which tends a bit more toward typically CCM rock – that’s not a knock, though. This track is probably more catchy than its predecessor, just not quite as inventive.

Three songs into the record, though, he loses me. “Just as I am” has a very “now” sound, it’s just not a sound that I like. There’s some electronic action going on that I find distracting and there’s something with the syncopated beat that has a ska vibe about it. “Clear” has a very 80’s tone and I think I would like it on its own, but in context it is kind of a downer sonically. But these two songs are only a blip on the radar.

The later tracks on the record return to the mainstream-ready alt-rock style that boosted the first two tracks. “That Was Then This is Now” is a slower ballad that again oozes U2 vibes all over the place. “White Horse” may be my favorite track on the record. It builds well and has a great anthemic feel. The final track “Infinite” feels a little “on the nose” to me. It’s a throwback to Max’ earlier work and has a radio-ready CCM feel – which is fine, but just doesn’t feel like what I expect from this artist.

The album also includes two remixes, sandwiched in before the final track. The remixes are by none other than Derek Webb and definitely have a feel of his previous work, specifically his Stockholm Syndrome album. Oddly, the two tracks chosen are the two that liked least on this record and the remixes didn’t do much more to endear them to me.

In the end, I think that this is a watershed record for Kevin Max. It shows that he can release a record that is mainstream approachable and still CCM friendly without losing his trademark style and edge. The songs stand on their own and could be toured with a simple acoustic setup or he could recruit any of his numerous old friends from the industry to put together a touring band and make a big production of it and he would succeed.

The Audio Adrenaline experiment brought Max back into the mainstream of “Christian music” – a hyper-selective subculture that had not readily embraced him during his post-dcTalk solo years. Now, without a record contract, Max funded the album through a PledgeMusic campaign. While he was clear about his faith in describing the record,

Lyrically, I wanted to reflect the changes I had experienced
of God working on me throughout the years. Redemption is not a foreign
word to me, it is something I have lived out and at a great cost. God has
met me in the valley of my own temptations, failures, inadequacies and
doubts. I have been tempered by defeat as well as by great success. My
legacy is the story that God is continuing to author and finish in my own
personal journey of the soul.

the Christian music industry is not one to embrace those they haven’t been hand-picked for stardom. With that in mind, it’s exciting to see the trajectory of his career from this point forward

Copeland :: Ixora

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: Oct. 24, 2014

I discovered and fell in love with the band Copeland on their last album, 2008’s You Are My Sunshine. If it had been a cassette tape, I would have worn through that record multiple times over. I started most every morning during the spring of 2009 with a complete listen. It was perfect “start the day” music for me. I reached back into their catalog and listened to some of their previous albums, but they almost felt like a different band. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed hearing of their breakup.

That disappointment was relieved earlier this year when the band made the announcement that they would be releasing a new album, Ixora, after a 6 year hiatus. The first sample song that was released via YouTube showed the band picking up exactly where they left off. “Ordinary”

I would like to say more about this album. I almost feel like I’m phoning it in to say what I’m going to say… but it bears saying. There is some music that just fits in a certain “groove”. It’s so melodic and simple that you can’t lift a single song out of context and dissect it fairly. If you ask me for my top 10 Copeland songs, I’m not going to be able to give them to you. If you ask me about my favorite song on the record, I really can’t tell you. I put the album on and I can take my critical shoes off and just stretch my legs out and relax. And that’s the biggest part of what I love about it. I won’t call it “background music,” because I think that would be a harsh dismissal. It’s more like a well-crafted movie score for life. And there’s a place for that nearly every day.

NEEDTOBREATHE: Rivers in the Wasteland

[Legacy Content]

Growing as an artist is a hard thing. To be true to yourself you have to keep making art from where you are in life. The trick is, however, sometimes where you are in life today is a different place from where you have been in the past. As a fan of the artists, you want the people to have those experiences and have the chance to grow and change. As a fan of the music, though, it is sometimes hard to grow along with that artist.

If you’ve journeyed with NEEDTOBREATHE over the course of their first four albums, you’ve experienced some of that growth. Hitting their stride with 2009’s The Outsiders and solidifying their position on 2011’s The Reckoning, the band claimed their space as the purveyors of solid southern rock. Their previous records had tip-toed around this territory without owning the identity, and their latest effort, Rivers in the Wasteland, seems to return to those origins.

In speaking with the band, it’s clear that they have gone through a tremendous growth period. They have fought through internal strife and professional pressures and have come out on the other side with a renewed sense of purpose. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m glad for them as individuals to be in a better place. However, in my experience, tension makes for more compelling art — maybe that’s just me.

The album opens with great promise on the slow-burn, acoustic track “Wasteland.” Then, we immediately turn west out of South Carolina and start cruising down the 5 along the coast with Brian Wilson on “State I’m In.” To be fair, A) I love the Beach Boys, B) the similarity really stops once the verse starts, and C) it’s a great song; it just doesn’t feel like a NEEDTOBREATHE song.

And this is the story of much of Rivers in the Wasteland: lots of great songs, but they just don’t feel very cohesive and don’t sound like what we’ve come to expect from the band. They hit home runs on tracks like “Oh, Carolina,” perhaps the most similar to the southern rock sound we’ve come to expect. The heartfelt and mellow “Difference Maker” also has the downhome honesty that’s easy to love, but then we’re stuck by the unexpected 80’s flavor of “Where the Money Is.”

It’s worth noting that lyrically this album plays into a greater faith context than their last couple of records, again hearkening back to their earlier days. While the band has never been shy about their faith, this one waves the banner a bit more explicitly than either Outsiders or, especially, The Reckoning did. As one of the few “Christian” bands to achieve mainstream acceptance in recent years, it will be interesting to see the general public’s reception of this album. Certainly, it will endear them to a wider Christian audience who may have been only marginally aware of them up to this point.

As such, Rivers in the Wasteland will serve as a solid introduction for new fans to get to know the band. It will showcase their versatility and will likely make for a great live experience. As the years pass, however, it will be interesting to see the place that the album and its individual songs take in the band’s history and ever-growing catalog.

Film Review :: Rebel Music

[Legacy Content]

Premiere Date: November 18, 2013 (mtvU)

After stumbling across a random tweet several weeks ago referencing a new documentary series entitled Rebel Music, I set off to learn more. I was able to gain access to the first two episodes of the series that will premier on mtvU next Monday.

The series describes itself as “a thought-provoking new documentary series about musicians and artists in areas of conflict” that will consist of six, thirty-minute episodes that will air over the course of five weeks (the first two episodes will premier together). The brain-child of MTV World Sr. Vice President, Nusrat Durrani, Rebel Music boasts the support of acclaimed artist Shepard Fairey (executive producer/art-director), and Academy Award Winner Ross Kaufman (Born into Brothels, consulting producer). A team of directors and cinematographers from around the world have brought Durrani’s vision to reality.

The first two episodes, Egypt and Afghanistan, took me by surprise. I was expecting to see artist profiles, hear music, and touch on a little bit of their social struggle on a personal level. What I experienced, however, were a variety of stories woven together by the contexts in which they occurred. That is to say, the social and political struggles of the countries overshadowed the individual artists. This was neither a good nor bad thing – just different than what I expected.

The Egypt episode was filmed during the height of the 2013 Revolution. Whether this was planned or a fortuitous bit of happenstance, this gave the episode a huge dose of immediacy.  The episode features rapper Karim Adel (aka Rush), singer/songwriter Ramy Essam, and Nariman El Bakry a local music promoter. We follow these protesters between their studios, performance spaces, and protests in Tahrir Square. The two sides at odds are the youth who want a greater voice in the future of their country and the adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood who are cast less as a religious sect and more as political group.

Conversely, in the Afghanistan episode, the sides at odds are more disparate – an aggressive Muslin leadership and those who would challenge their rule (or the rule of Allah). In this episode, our rebels along with their families are threatened with death for their dissent. And yet, in the midst of this, they continue to press forward. We see the heavy metal band District Unknown abandon the masks they had been utilizing to hide their identities. Sosan Firooz, the first female rapper in Afghanistan travels to California to speak at a TEDx event. And a young female documentarian purchases a bicycle (something that is only acceptable for men).

What struck me the most in each of these episodes was the artists love of their respective countries. They were not the beleaguered refugees looking for a chance to escape. They were madly in love with their homelands. In fact, Farooz laments her own homesickness in a hotel room during her visit to the U.S. saying, “I said I would never leave Afghanistan” and “I miss it like I miss my mother.”

These are the profiles that we rarely see at all, and certainly never see on the news. The filmmakers have done an incredible job in finding a connection point between the cultures (music and film) and using it to inform us in a relevant way. If I had one complaint, it would be that the two episodes felt a little formulaic in how similarly they were structured. Also, the advances that I watched had place-holders at the end for “Where are they now” footage. I would have loved to see that, but that’s just the nature of the advance screener.

Tune in to mtvU Monday nights at 9pm ET/PT between Nov. 18 and Dec. 16 to see all 6 episodes. Learn more at


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.