Spoken's ninth studio album is full of all the things we love about them: blistering rock riffs, searing vocals and lyrics that point unabashedly toward hope in Jesus Christ.
IX marks a unique moment in Spoken's history: they've achieved longevity as a band after over two decades of being a Christian rock mainstay. Lead singer Matt Baird is currently the only permanent member, as guitarist Matthew "Scoop" Roberts moved on to other ventures after the album was recorded. And on top of it all, they've joined the ranks of independent rock bands who are releasing music through fostering a direct connection with fans.
While touring as support for Skillet on the Canadian leg of their Unleashed Tour, Spoken's Matt Baird took the time to talk with me about the new album, evolving as a band and why the mission is still the same as it's always been.
To start this out, you have a new record out. The first and most pressing question: is the titled pronounced "nine" or "I X?"
You know, I've called it both. It is "nine," because it's our ninth record. But a lot of people have called it IX. I'm fine with that.
Is there anything particular significant about marking this stage in Spoken's history that led you to choose that title?
It takes so much to keep a band going. We've been a band for 21 years. And even with me being the last original member, each person who has come in and been a part of it has been a part of a chapter of the Spoken history. Spoken is lucky enough to still exist in a world of how hard it is to be in a band, how hard it is to find shows, how hard it is to get on tours and how hard it is to be away from family.
I think that when we did our self-titled, it was kind of time to name one self-titled because we hadn't. But with this one, it was like "let's not worry about naming it something from the record." I thought about it in the beginning, that "Pages of the Past" would be cool because it's one of the song titles. But someone a lot smarter than me was like "don't focus so much on the past, but on what's going on now." So this is album number nine, and it's not the end of a chapter, but a continuation.
You kind of alluded to this, that you are pretty much Spoken at this point. It's your thing, and you've had different people playing with you. But that can't really be the case in the studio. What did the team around you look like when you were recording this?
Before Scoop had made the decision that he was going to move on and focus on other things, we had decided "let's just write this record, we'll figure out who is doing what as we go." Kellen McGregor (Memphis May Fire) produced all the music, and Scoop recorded all the guitars. But there was a whole lot of "let's program as much as possible, and let's come back in and layer everything with the guitars."
That way when I came back into the studio with Cameron Mizell back in Phoenix in February, I had complete music beds to write and record to. And it was something that turned out really cool, because it was almost like a finished product when I walked into the studio.
We had several different people who wrote music with Scoop. That was an extension, bringing people into the band almost like they were a member for the day. So Scoop would go in and write music with people, like Josiah from Disciple, a guy named Dane Allen from Nashville who's in a band called LOYALS, Dathon who used to be in a band called Burning Yesterday--he wrote one of the songs on the record. It's really cool, because it's music that came together with a bunch of dudes who wanted to write some heavy music, and then we were able to just expand on that.
When you're creating those lyrics to go over those tracks, do you have a specific target audience in mind?
I think it's something where, like if it's a pretty aggressive song already musically, then it kind of leans more towards those tunes where it deals with confusion or frustration. I think we each have those times. Honestly, I feel like I've had two and a half years of those times where I'm chasing after Jesus and I'm trying not to get in the way of what it is He wants me to do, trying to maintain relationships, and not only maintain but grow relationships. And that's really hard sometimes, because of the disconnect. Whether it be just being gone all the time, or conversations with people are kind of short and never really get to the heart of what we're actually talking about. I think sometimes the frustration of surface relationships is something where those are the songs that are more aggressive.
Do you plan to eventually add more permanent members?
I think that would be great. There's a lot of really good players out there, really good performers. The band started with five Christian guys, and we looked at it like "Jesus is number six." He's the sixth member. And we all had the same goal to make Jesus known through playing music and conversations and whatever it takes to speak hope into peoples' lives. Throughout the years it gets hard at times to find people who are all completely like-minded when it comes to their life and the Biblical principles they choose to live their lives by. I feel like with a lot of the people that we know from Nashville and different areas, there's just a really solid group of Christian dudes who love to play rock and roll. So it's cool to kind of pull from that.
I would love to have three guys that would be in the band and would be members, where people could start to get to know them and know their interests and their hobbies, what they're doing in life, get to know their families. And honestly I think I might be close to that. It's hard sometimes though because life is already hard enough to juggle, and then you add "oh you know what? We're also going to throw in the dynamic of being gone a lot and see how that works out."
So I think the end goal is yes, I'd love to get new band members. But at the same time, I don't want to miss opportunities for tours because I don't have full time guys. There's a great batch of guys who can't tour full time but they love to go on tour, and they can make a certain tour work but maybe not another. So even if it's something where I was using hired guns from now on? That's fine, because I'm going to bring people out on the road who love Jesus first of all, and then they are great players and performers and love hanging out with people.
Some of that flexibility speaks to the fact I think that you've seen the landscape of music change massively since you started this thing. What are some of the things that you have learned along the way through surviving so many massive shifts?
I think the most important thing? Other than trying to be obedient to Jesus with this band, I honestly feel like listening to my wife has been the most important thing that I've learned, because she has an amazing gift of discernment with situations and with people. Plus, she worked in Christian retail for 15 years, so she knows how things go, and she knows people. She has a much better read on it than I do. But I believe that listening to my wife has really made it so I can make smarter choices. I've always said that she's my voice of reason. I just wish God was a little louder sometimes in speaking to me! But I really believe that He uses my wife as a conduit to be like "hey, here's kind of what's going on, help him sort through this and do the right thing."
I've learned some lessons over the years when she was like "well I don't really get a good feeling about this person, but do what you want" and I was like "OK." And I did what I already had in motion, and I regretted it.
So that's one thing, but another is surrounding myself with players who are so much better than me. Whatever it is and whoever is in Spoken or if it's called that, as long as we can stay relevant, not miss opportunities on the road and still keep the same foundation that was started 21 years ago: play rock and roll, and tell people that Jesus loves them and has a plan for their life.
This relevancy thing-- is that an intentional choice where you change your sound? Spoken has evolved through so many subgenres of rock, and the core messages are still there, like you said. But there's been a lot of evolution. Has that been an intentional thing, to look at what's resonating with people and adapt accordingly?
I think it's that. I also think it's having newer, younger guys. I'm not that young anymore, you know! But I love music, I love every style of music. There's not been anybody my age ever that's been on the road with Spoken, that I can remember anyway. But having guys who are more relevant when it comes to music that is going on right now. A lot of times, guys that are out on the road with me, maybe they grew up listening to Spoken.
There's a guy right now, he's 21 years old, and he's playing drums with us on this tour. His dad was a fan, and he was at Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois when he was 2 weeks old. So I hear him tell stories about the 16 years that he went to Cornerstone, and he's like "Matt Baird, I remember one year you guys were playing, and you had ahold of one of the support beams, and you were holding onto it leaning over. And you pointed at me! I'll never forget it." And I'm like, what in the world. He's a kid, you know!
So I think having people who are current in the music industry and current with music and what's relevant is one thing. But also, not doing the same record twice. Not doing what has always been done. Because if I can't change, and I'm stuck with whatever--imagine if we were stuck with our first record ever. Everyone would still think "wow, you guys sound like Rage Against the Machine." And I'd be like no! Rage Against the Machine was so much better!
But we did evolve. A lot of that was about band members who came in and were listening to different types of music. But yeah, I think being intentional about doing something that wasn't already done before is one of the things that has been a priority.
To go back to the record, "Stronger" has been the latest single that came out. Do you want to talk about where those lyrics for that song come from?
My wife and I help out at our church quite a bit. There's a program there that is basically Celebrate Recovery for teens. It's called The Landing. A lot of times these students, they're so stuck in where they're at in life and their situation, they let it define them. Or maybe it's not even them they're dealing with, but it's family. And even if they're moving out of that, if they're out of that situation, so often they look back. They look back to what it was that their life was, and they're kind of hung up by it instead of making a conscious decision of moving forward.
Judah Smith has a sermon series right now, Face Forward. Don't look back. It's not going to do you any good to look back. Yeah, you learned a lot of lessons. But face forward. And that's one of the things that my wife and I have talked about a lot lately: let's face forward, we gotta face forward. So "Stronger" is about not being stuck in your situation, realizing that you can move forward, Jesus can help you through it. And don't be one of those people who doesn't realize "wow, I don't even deal with this anymore, but I was so used to being stuck there that I haven't embraced that freedom." And that's what "Stronger" is about.
Are there any other songs on the record that stand out to you personally as being really special?
"In My Sight," the last song on the record. It's also the last one that was written. Often, I feel like I'm in this valley, and I'm not sure which way is the way out. But I have the confidence of knowing that on each side of me is a mountain. I can climb that mountain and get up to where I can see where I'm going and where I've been.
It is a straight-up worship song about hope and keeping Jesus in my sight, because that's the only thing that's going to matter.
So what do you have on the horizon after the Skillet tour as you continue to support this record?
We have a tour, I'm not sure when they're announcing it, but it will be almost all of October into November. It's a couple bands that I've never heard of before, and it will be all a general market tour. I think it's going to be really cool. Then we are doing City Rockfest coming up in the spring. We'll do all three months of that. We'll be touring a lot on this record.
Are you intentionally pursuing the mainstream market then?
We've just always been a band that's like "let's just play wherever we can." Some of Spoken's first shows ever were at people's' garages during high school when they were having parties. We'd just set up and play in their garage. We hadn't even named the band yet, and we were playing these places. Basically all of those people were not believers at all.
And then we've played with several different bands that are not Christian bands over the years, and it's gone really well. I feel like we're not annoying. We're not an annoying band, we're not threatening with our faith. When I say something about Jesus from stage, it's normally right before the last song. We've kind of already given them a shot to decide if they like our band or not, so then it's almost like they've already made a decision if they like it, so when you mention Jesus it's not that big of a deal as far as a negative way. They're like "wait, what? I had no clue!" They realize they had been enjoying a Christian band for the last six songs.
So we just want to be able to play wherever we can, with whatever bands we can. Whether we see eye to eye about Jesus or not, that's fine. We're still going to be who we are. The band is still going to do what Spoken has always done, and that is hang out, and if any opportunity arises to have an in-depth conversation about Jesus, we're going to do it. No matter what, we're going to proclaim Jesus from stage.
How we can be praying for you in this specific season of your ministry and your music?
Always pray for my family, my wife and my two boys, while I'm away. And selfishly, that I can be the man I'm supposed to be for my wife, for my children, that I can lead them towards Jesus with every step. With the guys that are coming into the band, whether they're fill-ins or permanent members, that I can be better than I have been in the past with leading. Not just being like "yeah cool, that's fine." I want to give people a voice in the band, I want them to be able to voice their opinion and have their dreams and their goals met. But at the same time, I need to be more intentional about leading and growing people while they're on the road with me. So I think selfishly, it'd be that, that I can just be a good example for these guys on the road.
Spoken's IX is available now. You can find it on iTunes by clicking here.
Associate Editor Mary Nikkelís 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, 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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