Friday, September 4, 2009
Unmistakable Fruit: An Interview with Soul-Junk’s Glen Galloway
Soul-Junk’s album 1950 was stuck in my car stereo for an entire year. It was the late 90s, and I had never heard anything like it. Not only was it a collection of rough, trashy and deceptively simple indie rock gems, it was also a full-on worship album. And more importantly, a worship album that I liked. Each song was basically just straight up scripture broken into choruses and verses, but unlike many of its “contemporary Christian” counterparts, there was nothing artificial here. No attempt to make the worship sound beautiful or clean– this was real and messy. It was the sound of someone who felt free to sing his heart out to God. And, unheard of in this genre, it sounded like he didn’t even care if anyone was listening.
The more I let the album repeat, it struck me: Even though frontman Glen Galloway was just singing scripture without adding any words of his own beyond the occasional “Yeah, all right”, I was still somehow getting a sense of his personality. Much more than I did carefully scanning the cryptic lyrics of many other artists that I loved. And beyond that, through his voice the scriptures themselves began to come to light in unexpected ways. I had read the lines “Wherever the spirit of God is, there is freedom” before, but hearing them sung in scratchy, distorted vocals over a strange alternate tuning while the drums were banging away in a joyful, careless spontaneity was something else entirely. The story of the paralytic man on a mat healed by Jesus in a crowded home was familiar to me before, but when Glen ended a song on 1951 by shouting that the paralytic man “walked out IN FULL VIEW OF THEM ALL”, I got goose bumps. Something mysterious was going on.
Over a decade later, Soul-Junk has just released their 11th full-length album, 1960. It’s a frenzy of cello, distortion and cascading drum rolls punctuated by Glen’s ever-exuberant psalm-belting. It’s a perfect introduction to Soul-Junk for new listeners and a nice companion to 1950. I think it might be their most accomplished and complete work to date. Galloway returns to the scripture-as-lyrics approach, this time focusing the entire album on one long Psalm, breaking it’s parts down to examine them through 22 catchy but elusive pop compositions. If Danielson is the church’s experimental artist, and Sufjan its beautiful composer, then Soul-Junk is a combination of both, without forgetting to rock.
I recently had a chance to ask Glen some questions via email. There were a lot of things I wanted to ask him, but I decided to focus on a few areas: Worship music in general, 1950, 1960, and his commercial music company Singing Serpent.
Here’s the interview:
Did you really get kicked off a worship song summit? I need the full story.
Great question - & the answer is no. It’s funny I wrote that song (“3PO Soul”) right before we started going to church where we’ve been plugged in for the last 10 years. Up til that point the concept of me doing worship songs in church was really a stretch. It was probably a preemptive strike mentally. I was thinking, “If most church peoples heard me worship, they’d hit EJECT in a heartbeat.” Turned out not to be the case though…
The pastor called me up to do a song one morning…I just started singing “Good As Dead” from the 1942 EP I’d just recorded with Daniel Smith. I started getting near the ending and I remember thinking, “Well, do I go up and hit those wild raspy high notes and basically sing my guts out, or…” and I just did it. And instead of getting politely ushered off the platform, the pastor asked me to sing more. And more. It was amazing to be in a place where people knew nothing about where I was coming from in terms of musical style, but they totally connected with the passion I had for worshiping God.
I think you are the best worship songwriter of our generation, yet as far as I know, no one sings your songs in church. Is that true? In your mind, are your songs meant for others to use in worship settings?
Well I definitely gave my songwriting completely over to God when I left Trumans Water (my first band) in late 1993. I had a lot to learn about what that all meant, and I don’t claim that every single twist and turn in the road since that point was all God’s idea. But I can say that I’ve followed every time God corrected or re-directed me.
My songs are definitely written out of a place of being hungry and thirsty for reality, honesty, something tangible in terms of interacting with Jesus. I really don’t want to be someone who crafts music, I want to just be moved on and totally inspired by the Holy Spirit. As that happens, anyone who wants that same depth (or deeper) can and should jump in.
A few churches do sing them. For instance last night I started playing a brand new song in our church, and we went for about an hour on it. I was up in Portland in like ’96 or ’97, and there was a church of like 50 people meeting in a house, and they started all singing “Eyes Of The Spirit” off our 1952 album. Daniel Smith is starting a worship label called Great Comfort Records, and there’s a collection of songs coming out that I’ve sung in church over the past 5 years. It’s called Glen Galaxy “Thank You,” and I think it’s due out November.
Is there any other worship music out there that you are into?
It’s so incredibly rare to be able to capture inspired worship music on tape. It doesn’t really matter who wrote the song to me, as long as I can hear and feel the inspiration of God in it and on the person singing it. I’ve heard songs sung in very dry settings and been totally unmoved. Then I’ll hear someone else who’s anointed to worship do that same song, and I’m head over heels lost in worship before I even know what the song is. And there’s nothing better than being blindsided by an on-fire spontaneous worship song.
My friend Todd Fadel does lots of worship up in Portland. His band is called Agents of Future. There’ve been more than a few times I’ve been at his church and really struck by the presence of God when they start worshiping. That’s why I asked him to play Wurlitzer/piano on 1960. When I was in Norway in 2004, we worshiped at a church…and I felt God in a big way there too. I’m sure that’s the reason Emil Nikolaisen (from Serena Maneesh) ended up playing bass on 1960. And I’ve always been able to worship when Daniel Smith sings with Danielson.
I feel like we’ve really hit an amazing place with worship in our church over the past year. Our pastor’s son Joshua Spitsbergen started bringing in a new song just about every church service…and there’s tons of spontaneous worship going on as well. I still do songs, but I’m really happy to flow with and just support what’s been going on. Here’s where they posted highlights from the past few months: click here for link.
Any chance of a Soul-Junk hymnal for guitar?
Well, maybe. I play in a really weird tuning I came up with during the Trumans days (all E’s & B’s). What I should do is sit down with somebody who knows all the music theory stuff, and show them the main chord structures I work off…and have them tell me what to call them - that way people can play the songs in standard tuning. Either that or I’ll convince thousands of people to change their tuning to all E’s & B’s.
Tell me about the guitar sound on 1950. Is that an alternate tuning? It sounds so jangly, trashy, otherworldly and awesome.
I came up with that tuning in Trumans so I could play really jarring harsh triple-octaves. Then when God started telling me to jump off the beautiful but endless tour wagon and begin Soul-Junk…I started exploring all the other chord colors you can get in my tuning besides just octaves. I remember sitting in staircases in Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, etc. with the songs spilling out faster than I could catch them.
I came home and got married to Cathleen, and with what little money I had saved from touring, I bought a nice old student drum set. Before I started recording, I got the guy who owned the studio (Bill Day) to give me the key to the drum room so I could come in and pound away for hours a day. I really didn’t know much about drumming at all, and most of what I was listening to at that point was ‘50s and ‘60s free jazz and caveman rock. So I just made drum noise until I happened to start playing a pattern I could repeat. That’s really how all the beats I used on that album came about. And the trashiness came from about 3 hours a day of beating the tar out of the drums and never ever replacing the heads.
Of course there’s no bass guitar on 1950, so you hear all the bottom end of the drum kit crystal lo-fi clear. And when I started mixing it, Bill pointed out that putting a little reverb on things might help. We’d tracked it all 16-track to 1-inch analog tape with pretty decent mics and pres, so he figured it should have as much studio help as it could stand. But as soon as I heard what tweaking the midrange could do, I just pulled out all the reverb and replaced it with midrange.
Were the long bursts of jamming & sound-making noise on 1950 a conscious decision to clear the worship that followed of any pretention or artifice?
I just had absolutely no contact with mainstream worship music at that time. I had started going to a Vineyard church when I met Cathleen, and their worship songs were a lot freer than anything I’d heard in church before. That really helped. It was all new to me, and I felt like people were more open to free worship than ever before.
On top of that, I’d just fully immersed myself in improvised music with Trumans Water. I was so into bands like Can and the Boredoms and Sonic Youth and the Sun City Girls and Nation Of Ulysses up til that time, and musically I’d really been trying to get to a point where I could improvise so intuitively that it sounded written, or write so out-ly that it sounded improvised. Trumans would do 4 or 5 nights a week of mainly improv. It’s really physically addicting! I couldn’t not improvise at that point. It wasn’t a reaction against anything; it had just gotten to be too much of a thrill to not do it.
Picking up drums and learning completely through improv inspired me to pick up instruments I’d kind of half-learned as a kid, like piano and saxophone. My uncle willed me his baritone sax, and I played it a lot. It could make such a powerful racket. And there was a B3 set up through a Leslie speaker in Bill’s studio, and suddenly my endless years of childhood piano lessons paid off. The Leslie made anything I tried sound good to me.
I’d just hit record on the 33-minute 1-inch tapes, and then go wild on the drums till the tape spun out. Then same thing on the B3/Leslie organ. Then same thing on saxophone twice (I think I did one pass with my dad’s alto sax, then with my uncle’s baritone). Then I did a rough mix and just listened over and over til I really knew where the choice parts were.
15 years passed between the albums 1950 and 1960. How different were the recording sessions/recording process for the two albums?
The most obvious difference would be that 1950 was basically a solo album, while 1960 was a real return to recording live as a band. 1950 was recorded over months in my own hometown. I’d just come in whenever I had money, and record what I could. The basic band tracks for 1960 were all recorded in the space of about 60 hours, including sleep-time. Daniel Smith flew me and Brian Cantrell (drums) in from San Diego, Todd Fadel (keys) from Portland, and Emil Nikolaisen (bass) from Norway. We all met in his studio in New Jersey and learned the songs one by one. I told Brian I wanted to capture his first impressions of these songs on the drums, so I basically showed the song to the band (usually took about 10-15 minutes), and then rolled tape. And we usually went with the first or second take.
The guitar parts on 1960 are actually very close to the style I used on 1950. I had really needed to get good at playing standard tuning over the past 8 years, but at a certain point I rediscovered how much I love my own tuning. I feel like I had really pushed myself hard to get out of my comfort zone musically for years, and all of a sudden it felt good to just be who I am musically.
1960 has cellos all over it. I remember being down in Mexico over the summer of 2007, and we found an ELO greatest hits tape laying around in some drawer. I’m a total sucker for good vocal and string harmonies, and good arrangements. I listen to tons of soundtracks these days. I remember coming back to the states and telling some friends in our studio that I wanted to make a record where the band was more brutal than my early Trumans Water stuff, but with cellos and vocal harmonies all over the top. 1950 was definitely not arranged. Junkally brutal…yes. At that point, singing an overmodulated double-tracked lead vocal with an actual melody to it was my big pop concession.
Last but not least, 1950’s lyrics were my favorite verses (paraphrased) from any part of the Bible I chose. 1960 is very focused – it’s word for word all of Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the book of Psalms. I’ve really had to take years learning how to sing word-for-word in a way that flows. I sang the entire Bible on microcassette at one point, and listened to it over and over – and then started singing the Psalms (1-23) verbatim on our 1959 album. So by the time we did 1960 I really felt warmed up. I flew out to New Jersey on a separate trip to track the vocals and cellos. It was an epic experience singing that much scripture.
Would you consider another Soul-junk tour at this stage in your life? How would 1960 translate live?
Very yes. My kids play in the band now. My 13YO Jude is my drummer, and I couldn’t ask for a better one. Most of what he’s seen growing up of live music is high-intensity spontaneous music in church, so he really doesn’t have a problem overthinking anything. We play together almost every day, so he’s gotten really good really quick. My 6YO Milan sings and plays percussion. My brother Jon (who played bass for us as soon as we added bass in like ’95) is back in the band on bass. And my youngest brother Brian is playing electric piano and guitar.
We started out with this line-up playing only 1960 songs. Now we do songs off pretty much every album. We’ll being playing up outside of Portland at X-Fest this weekend. We’re planning on doing as many all-ages and church shows as we can book.
On 1960, the words “statutes” and “precepts” come up a lot. Is this something you’ve been thinking about lately? What’s the difference between a statute and a precept?
Haa, you’re not the first to point that out! Well, King David wrote all my lyrics for 1960 about 3000 years ago. Psalm 119 is an acrostic. Each of the 22 subchapters starts every line with a specific letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Tradition holds that David taught Solomon to read with this psalm.
I have to admit, I used to breeze through Psalm 119 very quickly. It’s very long, and it’s very repetitive – two things that are very hard on a person who’s attention span is….um, challenged…to say the least. But as I sang it over the course of a week, it started sinking into me the same way books like 1 John have. The repetition became rhythmic, and I found an incredible depth in the simplicity I never imagined was there.
The only way to describe it is how I’ve heard people describe the Grand Canyon. All I’ve seen is pictures, and there’s really no way to communicate that kind of scale without experiencing it firsthand. I came away from a week of singing about statutes and precepts and ordinances and testimonies and laws and commandments and judgments…and I felt like I’d just camped out at the edge of a massive cliff looking out in all directions as far as the eye could see for days. I touched God in a way I never had. This Psalm is about the Word. All those words just mean “THE Word.” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we gazed on his glory.
Picture David reading this psalm to young Solomon, who in a few short years would be the wisest man in the entire known world. The alphabet of wisdom, its very essentials – is the fear of the Lord. God reveals everything in the Word. When he speaks, you can drive a stake in the ground there and it will never move. When he directs you, you can move in that direction and never stumble, never fall, never be ashamed. When he describes the future, it will be exactly as he says.
Precepts are things you take before...words of origination, preparation. In other words, you take every word at the mouth of God to be absolute truth in all circumstances. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the things he speaks will never pass away. A statute is a directive. It is a word spoken with authority, and it has a specific course to it. Isaiah prophesied about us hearing a voice saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Psalm 119 is all about that way, and it’s all about that voice.
You’ve said that you’ve received the call to record the entire Bible into song. 1960 is another step towards that direction. Are you saving Numbers for last, or do you plan to get that out of the way early so you won’t be stuck with it in your old age?
To be honest, the only part of the Bible I’ve really had any success actually singing (for anyone besides my own personal listening) is the Psalms. I’ve dabbled in Proverbs, and I think it’s working to some degree. But I’ve got my work cut out for me with the Psalms. I’ve done 1-23, and now 119. We’ve just written and recorded demo versions for 1961, which will be more of the Psalms. I couldn’t be happier singing the songbook God personally gave his people to sing.
After that, we’ll see where the Holy Spirit takes us. In the mean time, I’ve done some of the more narrative books lo-fi blip hop style. All of Genesis and half of Exodus are posted at souljunk.com.
Will Judges be heavy metal?
It would have to be. How else could Ehud the left-handed deliverer be sung?
I would describe your musical output as prolific. Do you feel prolific?
One thing I know is God’s given me something, and I don’t ever feel good sitting on my hands. As long as there is breath in my mouth I know I’ll be worshiping, and I’m really thankful that I get to be closer and closer to the actual recording process.
I’ve learned a lot about constantly moving forward in God – and that is more important to me than how much I get recorded. That’s really a good thing for me. I’ve needed to get patient, to not always have to have motion. 1960 is the perfect example of something that was worth waiting for. There were so many points where I really wanted to hit fast-forward on the whole process, but I’m glad we did it right.
There are things in my life I worked very hard on that I now look back on and don’t benefit from very much, if at all. There was a lot of motion, but nothing really worth keeping. I thank God that my life hasn’t been like that anymore. I hear things I recorded 2 or 4 or 7 years ago, and I feel the presence of God on them as rich as when I first sang them. Same goes for albums like 1950. I am asking God that he teach me to only move in those things that will last.
Have you ever worried you were doing something musical on your own apart from God? Or do you know always know when it comes from Him?
Well I’ve been at both extremes. In the late-90s I figured hey I was in Christ, so anything I thought of or spoke off the top of my head was divinely inspired. I really blurred the lines between spontaneous thought/speech and the actual inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
God started putting me in situations with men who were moving in the power of God, placing their hands on sick people and seeing them instantaneously healed, speaking words of knowledge that revealed what only God could know, etc. All of a sudden it was obvious when I started talking or singing with an open-mic-night improv kind of approach – and there wasn’t any real power behind it. So much of what I had was all bluster – I talked a good game, but when I was in a situation where we absolutely needed a miracle…or else…I just panicked and looked to someone who actually had the faith for the miracle.
I started noticing that older Soul-Junk songs that were pure scripture held up better over time than the ones where I was ad-libbing. There were lyrics I wished I could take back. So then I got really humble, and so intimidated (realizing I was speaking on God’s behalf) it was hard to speak up at all.
I thank God he really got to sort me out. I told him I didn’t want to ever speak or sing outside of him. I told him I didn’t need to be heard, that I didn’t need a name or a band. I told him I’d go talk to people one-on-one if that was better, or sing on beaches or street-corners if he wanted me to.
God is so good to have given me the opportunity to continue with Soul-Junk. I really had walked away from it. Then as soon as he saw I didn’t have to be anything or anybody, he allowed me to enter in to worship musically in a way I never had before. I love that there’s no tug-of-war anymore. God knows I’ll let go of my end at the slightest suggestion from him.
I love the year-based naming conventions of your albums. It’s very satisfying to know what the next album name will be. Has there ever been an album title in your mind that made you want to break that rule?
Nah…I get the most naming enjoyment out of song titles anyway.
What is the location of your ideal dream gig? Rules of time and space do not apply.
I would love playing for a nice big room full of people at the exact place where I was when I started recording 1950 – stepping completely out of everything they’d been told music and culture meant – and diving headfirst into the infinite possibilities of the expressions and unmistakable fruit of the kingdom of God. Somewhere on planet earth.
I’d like it to be NOW.
I imagine that people have strong reactions when you perform live in non-church settings. Or even in church settings. Do you have any harrowing or crazy, or miraculous stories about that?
Yes. Most of our touring was done a good while ago, so I’ll tell one that’s er, fairly recent…as in, this millennium.
When we were doing the out-hop 2 DJs + guitar stuff about 8 or 9 years ago, we got flown over to Norway to headline at the DP Festival, then play several weeks of shows around the Netherlands and Germany. At the festival in Oslo we were supposed to play 2 sets – one at like 2am on Friday night, and the other at 8pm Sunday night. Our Norwegian promoter friends told us the Friday night set was on the experimental stage, so just go crazy.
What we didn’t realize was how many people were coming out to see us for the first time with very big expectations…and we also didn’t realize that our 2 DJ improv concept wasn’t completely ironed out. Sometimes that makes for the best improv. Not in this case. SloRo was dropping some amazing glitched-out beat he just made that afternoon, and 3rd Rail was spinning a nice weird hee haw breaks vinyl thing at a totally different BPM – and I was jetlagged out of my mind trying to figure out which beat to blow saxophone shrapnel or ring modulated guitar over. Or which key to sing fragments of songs over. It was as bad as Sunday night’s set ended up being good. Only the Norwegians hadn’t seen Sunday night’s set yet. And you could just see major disappointment written all over everybody’s face – like, “These guys are headlining the festival??..” I’m sure someone who was there can correct me, and say it was brilliant, but it felt like having my spleen and gall bladder slowly and painfully and publically siphoned out.
We played the full set and then started cleaning up all the ragtag electronics and percussion with our tails between our legs. Meanwhile Sufjan Stevens set up and quietly started doing songs off his as yet unrecorded “7 Swans” EP as the sun started to rise at 3a.m. It was really humble and beautiful. I was equal parts completely thrilled and totally embarrassed.
What is the one instrument you own that’s closest to your heart and why?
I really like my ’67 Danelectro guitar – Christian Wargo (used to play drums for Danielson Famile and Pedro the Lion, now in Crystal Skulls) gave it to me like 11 years ago, and it’s still my favorite guitar. I think at some point I’ll get an old Gibson hollow body electric too, but the Danelectro combines hollow with lipstick-pickup wiry…really perfect for what we’re doing.
Wurlitzers make me happy too. Truth be told, my wurly sounds come out of a Nord Electro these days. And I have a couple stomp boxes I really stick close to – a Generation Next distortion, an Ibanez AD-80 analog delay, and an old Mutron phaser.
What are your favorite bands right now?
Hmmm….I guess stuff like Os Mutantes, ELO, The Boredoms, Hunky Dory-era Bowie, Blanketship, Madlib, Major Stars, glitch, ‘60s/‘70s movie soundtracks, Indonesian gamelan. 20 years ago I was a huge Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. fan, and it’s good to see they both put out really solid albums this year. But I can’t really say I follow specific bands that closely anymore. There is so much music available on-line, so many great old records gathering dust in thrift stores, and such a gigantic handful of high quality internet radio shows - I do way more scanning there than I do reading individual album reviews. I’m really looking for the unintentional masterpieces.
I started posting my mixtapes at the souljunk.com site so people could hear how I like to listen to music – just look for anything titled “Tape Junk.” Bits and pieces, mostly instrumental…huge style mismatches.
Who are your favorite saints of old? And I guess by that I mean historical Christians that you like to read or look to for inspiration?
The Apostle Paul, King David, John (the disciple), and Isaiah. I love going through the entire Bible constantly, and I feel like the more I think about it, the more names I could add. But those are the ones that come to mind first.
I love to study church history, but I don’t put a lot of weight on it. So much philosophy crept in even as early as the 3rd century; and it really started coloring people’s understanding of the church and the kingdom of God. The whole reason I jumped out of touring constantly with Trumans Water in ’93 was because God had me read the book of Luke and Acts right back to back in 2 days of cross-country driving. The question the Holy Spirit asked me very clearly was: “How would you like your life to look like what you’re reading about?” I wanted that so badly I told God I’d give anything to have it. I still feel that way.
If someone’s life looks like you could put them in one of the four Gospels or the book of Acts and they’d fit right in - I’m inspired.
You are one of the few songwriting Christian dudes that I know that also makes a living by being in advertising. How do you justify dabbling in the devil’s work? Do you ever have a hard time connecting the two worlds?
Haa! If I really thought it was the devil’s work there’s no way I’d touch it. I won’t work on any product I have moral/ethical issues with. It’s really ideal for me, because I like working hard; and I like helping people get what they’re hearing in their heads out onto their commercials. Besides that, I don’t have to lay awake at night dreaming up ways to make Soul-Junk a platinum record-selling act, and I don’t have to live on the road to feed my kids. I don’t need any income out of Soul-Junk, so it gets to be exactly what it’s supposed to be spiritually and aesthetically.
I honestly have far less problems with advertising music than I do with most popular music, because in advertising the equation is very simple and upfront: you get to be as creative as the client allows you to be. And there are smart effective ways to push that, to a point. What’s refreshing is that advertising music can’t really pretend to be something it’s not. It’s clearly not my ego or identity I’m going after. I don’t have to build up a following, I just need to get behind someone else’s vision for a specific project. And I really enjoy method-acting in musical terms. It lets me get crazy new musical experiences and perspectives I’d never force myself into otherwise, and then I get to come back to my own music with renewed energy.
And you get to learn great recording tricks by accident. For instance I’ve been in big high pressure string sessions, and while we were sweeping the EQs, we hit a setting that sounded totally amazing. Of course it wouldn’t work in that setting AT ALL…it totally made us laugh just thinking of presenting the track with the strings mixed that way. But I made a nice big mental note for future Soul-Junk string parts.
Is the name Singing Serpent a nod to the evilness of advertising or am I just projecting?
Nah, just projecting.
We came up with the name in ’99. “Singing Serpent” got thrown out while we were thumbing through a picture dictionary looking for the spelling on another name. There was this picture of a snake jumping up in the air to catch a bird, but the bird was out of frame. So the snake looked like it was singing. It was a great visual, and I immediately started thinking of all the possible graphics/logos we could do with it. My wife and brother Jon kind of scratched their heads at the “serpent” part, but I just had the literal dictionary picture in my head…not even close to the Garden of Eden serpent. So we scribbled it down and moved on to others we were more excited about.
We ended up with about 25 possible names, and were surprised to find most of the domains taken already. Surprisingly enough, the domain for singingserpent.com was wide open…
Get 1960 and other Soul-Junk albums at the Sounds Familyre website by clicking here.