With all of the aggression and angst within the rock genre, Relient K
has never felt a need to apologize for showing its softer side. When the band began to replace its original punk sound with mellower, piano-driven melodies some years back, vocalist/guitarist Matt Thiessen
didn't worry too much about a possible backlash from fans. It's obvious that he knows his fans well. Relient K
has maintained a fairly consistent fan base for its 10 years, and Thiessen's positive approach to songwriting recently helped the charity Habitat For Humanity
raise over $100,000.
But if there was ever a year when Thiessen's good-natured attitude might be tested, 2007 was the one. After a tour bus fire (which almost destroyed a laptop filled with songs in the making) and the departure of drummer Dave Douglas
, it marked one of the roughest patches in the band's history. You might expect someone to feel disdain toward such events, but Thiessen
was friendlier than ever when he talked with Ultimate-Guitar
. Rather than dwelling on what he lost, Thiessen instead chose to talk about his work with Habitat For Humanity and the band's latest Christmas album Let It Snow, BabyLet It Reindeer
- two projects that re-emphasize Thiessen's cherubic and just plain likeable nature.
UG: Is it a little bizarre to think you've been in the business about a decade now?
Yeah! Isn't that crazy? December 30 will be the 10th anniversary of our 1st ever. Isn't that nuts?
How has your approach to songwriting changed since you first formed the band?
Oh, my gosh. There is a long way to go about talking about that, and there's a short way. I'll try to make it quick! When we started out, we were really into punk bands and stuff. We basically were 16 year-old kids that wanted to be like blink-182, which I think is cool. We liked bands like that, and that's just what we wanted to be.
Over the years, you realize it's going to be a little bit different. My influences became more like The Beach Boys, Ben Folds, and Rufus Wainwright. There are some other bands like The Thrills, stuff that wasn't even close to the genre that we had been doing for the first 2 records. Every record has had different influences and different ideas, and you try and change it up a little bit. At the same time, you're not going too far into obscurity that you lose everybody that you had been bringing along with you.
When you originally started going toward more of a Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds sound, did fans immediately embrace it?
Our second record had 2 piano, sort of chill
songs, and that was 2001. So for the last 6 or 7 years, people have been kind of expecting us to kind of take that lighter side of things. Most of the fans that know us pretty well now expect that from us. As far as my vocals go, I'd much rather sing something kind of chilled than sound all aggressive. I don't really have that aggressive of a voice! I really am kind of drawn towards some of the more chilled stuff that we do. Although, I'm still a rock and roll kid.
When you do a Christmas album like Let It Snow, BabyLet It Reindeer, do you approach it in the same way you do any other studio album?
There are 2 new originals that are my favorites - Merry Christmas, Here's To Many More and then one of the later tracks called Boxing Day - both of those I wrote in July of this year. I was just kind of sitting out on the deck in Indianapolis in the 90-degree weather! It really is simple, though. All you have to do it close your eyes and think about last year or the year before, and then try and gather those feelings. Fortunately, I think I did an okay job just because now it is that time of year. So whenever somebody else is playing the music or something like that, I'm like, Yeah, that's a cool vibe for writing it in July!
Your version of Auld Lang Syne sounds eerily like the Beach Boys. How much of an influence were they on you?
|"I really am kind of drawn towards some of the more chilled stuff that we do."|
We ripped it off! We tried our hardest to! We wanted to pay to use that arrangement, but we couldn't find it anywhere. We kind of tried to do a similar arrangement as the Beach Boys' version. Of course, ours is different. We changed it up a little bit in certain ways, but you can tell. I mean, the Beach Boys had the spoken word thing at the end of their version, and we did the exact same spoken word. We actually tried to do the spoken word on the Beach Boys' album verbatim the first time we did Auld Lang Syne. The Beach Boys are one of my favorite bands of all time.
How did the departure of Dave (Douglas, drums) back in October affect the band?
It actually started about a year before we told anybody. Dave just kind of came to us and said, Listen, guys. I've been with you for some years. I love it and I love being with you guys
- but he loves writing music. That's what he did before he was in our band. I don't know if he necessarily wanted to write Relient K things, so that was kind of the crossroads that he was at. He was like, I'm going to turn 29 next year, and I think me and my wife would like to go and do some other band. I don't know if I would have the time.
So we had like 9 or 10 months to kind of talk to him about it. He's been awesome and he's such a good buddy. He's been really pro about just making sure that he'd stick around for as long as we needed him to. He's just an awesome guy.
At the same time, a rock and roll band is kind of a silly thing when you look at it. We're stoked that we get to do it, but at the same time, respecting somebody's choice to do something that they really want to do with their life and purse their goals is way more important.
It sounds like there's quite a lot of camaraderie within the band.
Yeah. It's been great over the years. It's just a good situation. We kind of give everybody space and we have a lot of respect for each other. It's cool.
Back in June you also had to deal with a fire in your tour bus. Is it true that it destroyed a laptop that contained several songs on it?
At the time when we did the press release, the laptop was completely broken, and it still is. But I was able to take it somebody who extracted the hard drive, so all is right! I wasn't even worried about it. People were asking, What is the one thing that you can't replace that you lost?
I was like, Well, I had some song ideas.
There were a lot of them, but at the same time they were probably all just kind of scraps sitting around. So I wasn't that bummed. I can make more scraps! I am stoked to have that stuff back, though, because I probably will end up using a lot of it.
Do you always store your song ideas on a laptop?
The computer is just so easy. Yesterday I was writing a song like at 2 in the morning. All I had was the first chorus, but I wanted to go to bed and didn't want to finish it. So I turned on my computer, and 5 minutes later I had everything done and it sounded cool. I hit save and went to bed. It's pretty easy.
Are most of the songs originally written on the piano or the guitar?
It depends. A lot of times it's so much easy to have a jam on the piano because for the most part it is going to be in tune. When a guitar gets out of tune, it really bugs me and it's not inspiring. Tuning the whole time while you're trying to write gets frustrating. A lot of times I'll do it on piano, but I love writing little riffs and stuff on the guitar. Sometimes that is how a song will start, with just a little guitar riff or something.
At this point in your career, do you consider yourself more of a vocalist, pianist, or guitarist?
|"A rock and roll band is kind of a silly thing when you look at it."|
I love it all. I think it's just 3 equal parts. That's what my role is in the band, and I love it. Our guitarist is an amazing guitar player and he loves tones and he loves working with pedals. He builds his own pedals and loves amps and stuff. So he takes care of it when we want to do some cool guitar stuff.
With the addition of Jon, you now have 3 guitarists in the band. Has that opened up a lot more options in the studio and playing live?
Yeah, especially live. We can play stuff that has 2 guitars and a piano on it, and we're not having to skip anything that was on the record.
What equipment have you been using lately?
I actually have an old upright piano that is hollowed out, and I just put my keyboards in there. So it's a little deceptive onstage. A lot of people think I'm playing a real piano, but there is no way I would want to have to tune that everyday. I use Roland keyboards, and for the guitars I just got a new FatCat amp. I love it! It's the best thing I've ever played. I used to play Mesa Boogie dual rectifiers all the time, but the FatCat makes it even easier to just get a great sound out of it. It was recommended to me by a lot of producers and stuff. They said, You will never want another amp again.
I love it.
You've been doing some great work with Habitat For Humanity. First you wrote Rebuild with Switchfoot (all proceeds from the single went to the cause) and your last tour donated a percentage of the tickets to the charity as well.
Yeah. A dollar from every ticket went to it, and we ended up raising a little bit over $100,000 for Habitat. For us, it was like the cherry on top of the tour because it was something that was so much more consequential than just playing shows and selling T-shirts. It was something that made us feel really good every night. Then we would go up and sing that Rebuild song that we wrote. Honestly we just did the song to drive kids to the Habitat site and get them interested.
How long have you been working with Habitat For Humanity?
We played a benefit show for them this summer. It was actually a part of that movie Evan Almighty. They did a premiere event in L.A., and Switchfoot, our band, and a couple others went out there and played a benefit for Habitat. That's right when we were talking about the tour. It just kind of made sense to work with them on the tour, and it was something that both bands really wanted to do. We ended up being able to go to a couple sites during the tour, wake up at the butt-crack of dawn, and go put some siding on a house. It was awesome. We had a really good time.
During the decade you've been a band, there have been discussions about where you fit in among the Christian music scene. Have you noticed that the pressure to be a certain way has eased up over the years?
There was never any pressure because we don't really listen to anybody expect ourselves! We do what we do because it's what we love to do. When we write songs about what we believe in or something of spiritual consequence, that's because that is what I'm going through as a person. I'm not trying to force my beliefs on anybody. I'm just writing from my perspective in my life. If you're in the audience or if you're me onstage, if you're singing about something that is really important to you, then it will hopefully come across. That has always been our angle with the whole thing. Yeah, we're a bunch of goofballs and we cover The Office theme song live and we do Tears For Fears' covers! We play a bunch of cheesy songs, but at the same time we also get up there and sing some stuff that we feel is really important. The balance is a really weird, but that's who we are. We're just being who we are.