As We Ascend's history is already a rollercoaster of struggles, rebirth and redemption--and they're just now releasing their debut album.
As We Ascend is the brainchild of Justin Forshaw and Jake Jones, born following the disbandment of the last group they played in, We As Human. What many would have seen as a setback became a launching pad for As We Ascend, who enlisted veteran producer Robert Venable on drums and set out to build a new kind of rock band from the ground up. The result is Farewell to Midnight, a labor of love with the fingerprints of passion marking every crushing riff and soaring chorus.
I had the chance to sit down with As We Ascend at their album release party and hear more about the band's formation and why they're probably a little different than anything else you've recently heard in Christian music.
If you guys just want to start with the brief history of how you formed this band, As We Ascend, and particularly how you found Robert?
Jake: Justin and I used to be in a band called We As Human. Once that band was no more, we were talking about what we were going to do with our lives and our careers. And Justin was the one that really pushed to say "I think we need to start another band." Initially we were talking about maybe having guest vocalists, guest instrumentalists and kind of putting the record together that way. But then there was a chance meeting with Mark Tremonti.
Justin: We got to hang out. And he's like, you need to be the singer. You need to be the songwriter. Relay that message to Jake, and then do it.
Jake: Well, we might have added that last part! So we both play guitar, but we needed a drummer. We had several prospects, and a lot of people that they were interested. But we knew we wanted to do something really different in terms of band structure, business structure and then the way we wanted to tour, the way we wanted to write songs. And with us being just further along in our lives, having kids, being married, it was hard looking at younger guys that were single that wanted to go on the road and wanted to tour all the time.
We've been friends with Robert for a long time. And I think you sent me a text one time, and you were like "man I've got the itch, I just want to play music." And a lightbulb just kind of went off. I thought huh, you're married, you have kids just like us. You wanna be in our band?
Robert: I'd kind of heard of this project they were starting. I heard who they were prospecting for, and I thought man, I can't compete. Those guys are killer, those are people I look up to! And then one day yeah, I shot Jake a text like "hey man, I've got the itch to play."
I needed an outlet. I wanted to play. I'd been producing and telling others drummers what I want to hear, but I never got to creatively write it. So I was like hey, if you ever want to jam, or if maybe I could have a shot at playing on a song that you guys write, let me know. Like I can't contend, but it'd be fun. So they talked about it, and one night they were like "we'd like to give you a stab at this." They sent me the tracks, and I loaded them up in my studio and hit some drums. I was so nervous.
I don't know what happened on that end of the phone. But I just sat there holding my cell phone like any day now they're going to call me and just be like "let's just be friends." I was waiting for that text.
Justin: We were very humbled, and kind of like "this guy really wants to be with us on our project? Like really?" But it worked out, and we're all stoked.
What do you guys feel are the core aspects of your musical approach that set you apart from most of the music that is out there presently?
Justin: I think we'd all probably have a little bit of a different spin. We took a very internal, holistic approach to what we're doing. In the industry there's a lot of subbing out and writing with other producers, and everybody's got their little chain of command. And we were like, let's just do it ourselves. Let's just bring the fans in, let's keep it in shop and really express ourselves and do all the things that people say you probably shouldn't do. And I'm into that. I'm into making controversy and pushing the envelope.
Robert: For me, coming from a producer background, I have it ingrained in my brain: what it takes to make a song ready for radio, what the industry wants to hear, what labels want to hear that they'll sign off on. But working on the As We Ascend stuff, I pushed pause on it to an extent. We made riffs that we wanted to make, we put solos in when we wanted to put in solos. Any time the line came up, "do you think we should do this?" Every single time, I went "yes." Because that's what came out instinctively. You felt like a solo should be there? A solo needs to be there. You felt like we should sing this riff again? Let's sing this riff again. Because otherwise we're putting rules and restraints on our music.
I think that sets us apart from a lot of other bands, where producers and labels are saying "you can't do that, you need to take that out, radio's never going to play this." And we just said why not? Let's do it, and if no one wants to listen to it, they won't. But we will be happy with what we put out there.
Jake: It's not to say that those rules aren't valid or important.
Robert: Absolutely not. It's what keeps food on my table!
Jake: The great thing is, the three of us have spent the entirety of our musical careers adhering to them. We know those rules very well. And they say that when you know a rule is when you can finally break it.
The truth is too, you can't move the needle in anything until you start to push those sorts of boundaries. Otherwise you just get stuck in an endless loop. Someone eventually has to say "everybody says you shouldn't do this, everybody says it's a bad idea or it's impossible, or it can't be done." But you just do it. And most of the time? It doesn't work. But every once in awhile it does, and you shift the paradigm.
Robert: And the industry has Skillet. The industry has Red. The industry has Disciple, Random Hero--they have all these bands that everybody has clung to. And we're not Red or Skillet or Disciple or Random Hero or fill in the name of any band that you like. We're As We Ascend. So we wanted to push to new ground, make our sound our sound rather than what everybody else already likes.
And we love that stuff. We listen to that stuff, and we reference that stuff, like hey, I love what Disciple did on this song, and I love the way Skillet's harmonies hit there. That's the stuff that we've listened to for years and that we respect. But we're not them. We could've copied that style, and we even brought some of those guys in to help write with us. But we brought those elements together and collectively made our own style.
Your next radio single is "Tell Me." Do you want to give a preview of the writing process of that song, the core message behind it?
Jake: As far as writing goes, we were already working on the record and trying to come up with fresh ideas. We had this list of ideas, and we were starting to exhaust those. I wanted to make sure that if we found ourselves in a pickle and needed a song idea, I would have one. I was in the shower, and I just had this idea.
At the time I lived right next door to my recording studio, and Justin was staying at the studio. As soon as I got out of the shower--well, before I got out of the shower, water still running--I recorded the idea into my phone because I didn't want to forget it. I ran next door after I got dressed and said "OK, I've got this song idea."
And then we sat down with Josiah Prince from Disciple, who also happens to be a Daywind songwriter. We got to talking about our lives and our bands, and we got to sharing stories. The song just asks a series of questions, and then it says "I'm onto you." And then the chorus drops in with "was it worth it in the end? So tell me, are you happy?"
The song sounds maybe like it's asking somebody else a question. But at the end of the day for me personally anyway, as the song began to come to life, I had to say "what is this song really about?" I realized these are questions for myself, and also for anybody. What was it that brought you to where you are now, and was it worth it? If you're in a great place, that's still a good question to ask yourself. But a lot of times, we find ourselves in these tough places and need to ask how we got here, and was it worth it in the end?
And the core message is forgiveness. No matter whether you've wronged someone else or someone else has wronged you, in the end, it doesn't matter. You've got to let it go. You have to understand that we're all going to be there, we've all been there or we all will eventually. It's just part of being human. So that's what "Tell Me" is about. At least, that's my interpretation.
Justin: I mean, it's personal. The thing about Christian rock, it's kind of a weird dichotomy. There's two perspectives. We're supposed to be sharing the gospel and strengthening faith, but then there's this entertainment part of things. And there's egos involved, and we're all guilty, being rockers and rockstars and doing the fanfare and the signing lines and that kind of stuff. There is a huge temptation to start believing those things, to start really thinking "yeah, I'm a rockstar." And for me the song really is rebuking myself, rebuking some of the situations that have happened.
There's obviously external things, and a lot of history is involved with the song. But really it's just being grounded in the reality of what we're doing and being able to see through it, see through the hype and the ego. That's what the song means to me.
So as you guys were writing songs like that, and other songs on the record, you guys are very intentional about writing about things that matter. What are some of the core missional things that you formed as a band while you were doing this, things you want to have thematically a part of anything As We Ascend does?
Justin: We want to spread the gospel. We want people to know the gospel of Jesus Christ. We want to do that in a very original, organic way, and bring art the best that we can. We're humble songwriters and musicians, but we want to bring the best vision and approach and technique to everything that we're doing. And to be relevant. Throughout history, the church has really brought forth some of the best music. It always has. I look back, and there's been movements even like the last big hardcore movement started by Underoath and groups like that. That came out of the church!
Not to put ourselves on that level, but to really dig down deep and to offer something that way, that's pure. And not to be cheesy and to say the things that people expect, but to bring the heartbreak and the sadness and the scenarios and the humility to the table and be able to portray that a little more honestly than just a commercial package. And to express ourselves the way that we want to and take the risks, even knowing that maybe this won't work, maybe this isn't going to sell, maybe this isn't going to be something that's huge. But to take the risk and see what's going to happen anyway.
Robert: I second that. Because there's a lot of people out there who see Christian music, Christian rock, and say "hey, I'm not churchy like that. I don't have a Bible in my back pocket. That's not me, I can't relate to that. That's a totally different breed of person than me." So we as a band are approaching this as a project where we can be ourselves. We already said musically, we can do what we want to. But we're talking about things and singing about things that pertain to us in real life. These are our stories, poured out through lyrics and melodies.
There might be people not relating to those who tote a Bible around and stand on street corners. But maybe they can relate to us, because there have been problems in our lives. Suicide is part of our families and lives. And not succeeding the first time, being out there and feeling like a failure. Feeling like no one would care if we were gone. That's stuff that applies to us that maybe they can relate to, and say "hey, that's a Christian I can jump on with, and that's a message I share something with." And we can get through to those people. It shows that there are people they look up to that have the same problems they do. Like "no one knows my name, no one knows where I go at night or what I do behind closed doors, but it seems like those guys get it." And we want to be those people. We want to be people who are attainable and reachable and relatable to people who feel unloved and unliked.
What does the rest of this year look like practically? Are you guys touring at all?
Jake: We'll be working the radio singles. We've been getting a few offers for shows. We don't have a booking agent, so what we've gotten in terms of shows are either us reaching out, or people reaching out to us.
We recently got offered a really cool tour that we had to say no to because it was just such short notice. That's something that's going to be a little harder for us, without the infrastructure that We As Human had. We can't just up and jump on a tour like we used to be able to. So we need to figure it out. We're talking to some different bands right now, but nothing for sure. To truly answer the question what does the rest of 2017 look like? We don't know. But we also didn't know that we would, at this point in 2016, have a record coming out by now.
Robert: We don't know what this record's going to do. This record could be really momentous, or it could be nothing. Maybe people don't want us to tour. But we have the itch for people to hear our music, we have the itch to jump around and sweat a little bit. We'll see what happens.
Justin: I've brought them up a few times, but Demon Hunter is kind of a good comparison. I like that they're relevant, and yet they still have their own thing going. They're an enigma. They play some shows, they disappear, they come back, they play some shows. The Christian market is very difficult to make a sustainable living in, with record sales dwindling and honorariums not being that great. So there's the practical, how are we going to afford to do this kind of stuff? But God always makes that work out. I'm super encouraged to see like Disciple. They had some bus issues, and their fans within 24 hours funded the issues and took care of them.
There's just something in my mind that needs to connect, there needs to be something that brings the rock market back together in the Christian world. And I would love to be a part of that. I don't know if I will, but if we could make a difference in that realm. We're not looking to go for broke touring, but we will do what we can, and we'll get out as much as we can, and God will take care of all that stuff.
How can people who read this pray for you guys as you head into the album release, into this next cycle of your lives personally and as a band?
Robert: A big prayer of mine personally, every day, and for this band as a whole--I think that people can pray for us the same way that I pray for us, that God opens doors. Not only that He opens doors, but that He closes other ones. Sometimes there are lots of doors that are open, and He's presented lots of opportunities. And we have to collectively decide what's best for us and best for our families and everybody involved. And sometimes, that decision is hard for us as humans to decide on, so we need somebody higher than us to make those decisions for us or to give us a little insight. So sometimes with all these doors and paths open to us, maybe it's a prayer to close some other ones, to show us the way that we need to go. And that's a prayer that I pray for us every day, and I hope that you can pray for us that way too.
Jake: Something to add to that is peace. We have a lot that we have to do, a lot going on, and we are, for the most part, it. We have a wonderful team at our label that is helping us with some things, but a lot of the day to day things that maybe a manager would do or a booking agent would do, we're trying to handle those things ourselves. And it's easy to miss things, it's easy to get stressed out and worry about it, because we also are producers, we all write music, we all do other things in the industry. So that's something I think we could use, just clarity and peace, and guidance to make sure we're able to get all that stuff done well and not make silly mistakes and get overwhelmed.
Justin: I just really would appreciate prayer to help us to stay the course, to be able to see our ministry through the way it should be and not get distracted by things that are just not worth getting distracted by. And to always see the opportunities to advance the kingdom. We have opportunities to pour into people, and sometimes it's easy to miss that and to not go the way that you should to be able to proclaim the things that need to be proclaimed. But to have that kind of focus and clarity, everything comes out of that. And God blesses ministries that are viable and that are actually working. I'd be humbled to be a part of that.
Associate Editor Mary Nikkel’s love for writing, photography, videography and rock and roll have all been bound together by her love for Jesus, leading to her role with NRT. Her favorite things include theology and Greek language studies, her math grad student husband, obscure Nashville coffee shops, all things related to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and pushing the boundaries enacted by societal norms. She blogs at Threads of Stars.
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