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The Normals
[ EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW OSENGA ]

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cMW: Looking back on The Normals' debut and your first years, what rewards or regrets stand out?
Andrew Osenga: We had a good time then; we learned how to tour and learned what it was to be a band. The biggest regret is that we hadn't ever toured before--that record came out, and it was just songs I wrote that some producers took, cleaned up, made sound nice. It wasn't the personalities of the band, the way that we play. We didn't even know what it was we had to say.

cMW: So you had to grow before the new project was born?
Andrew: Yeah, totally. The new record is a total band record, since now one of our big strengths is playing live. To capture that on tape was cool, because it was the opportunity to express something we hadn't been, but now are.

cMW: What events created the need for changes in the Normals' lineup?
Andrew: The lineup change looks a lot different than it actually is. Our drummer Mike [Taquino] had played with us on Better Than This. He pretty much toured that whole first period of the band, when piano player Cason [Cooley] was our road manager and sound guy, an old friend of mine from college. So the only actual change was bass player, which was Clayton Lafton and is now B.J. [Aberle]. B.J. and I played in a band back home in Illinois, while B.J. and Mike played in a band together in Michigan--we were already good friends, so it was a natural thing. He wanted to be a part of what he saw, and we knew we loved the way he played. So it never really felt like a 'new band.'

cMW: As you wrote the album Coming to Life, was your intent to shock listeners, inspire them, or something else?
Andrew: The intent for that record was never really for the listener. It was just for me to 'get it out'--a lot of things I'd gone through, and was working through in my own life. I took the things I'd bottled up inside, and got rid of them. By working all that out, I was hoping somebody would think it was worthwhile for whatever reason.

cMW: Certainly, I think it came out very poetic, very driven--goodness, it's a great album. How did the writings of Bob Briner and others influence your songwriting?
Andrew: Thanks for the comment. Bob Briner, Charlie Peacock, Francis Schaeffer--they look at art and Christianity, and say, 'Just because you're Christian doesn't mean all you can write about is the Cross.' Or, 'The only option you have is to encourage and evangelize.' You can talk about other things: about temptation, about nature, about a girl, about your own feelings. You can throw all of them in a song, you can throw none of them in a song. The very act of creating, in and of itself, is an act of worship, of obedience. It totally opens up the realm of art. To be a Christian artist, you have to understand you have the ability to write about everything. Otherwise, your art isn't art. You're not creating--you're just connecting dots. Those writings were a whole new 'Kingdom Worldview' (as Charlie puts it) that I was not aware of.

cMW: What recording artists do you guys look up to?
Andrew: There are so many. Friends of ours say, 'Man, you guys are really music fans; like, some people get into music, and do it as a living, but you guys really know the new records, and listen to so much.' I'm into Bruce Springsteen; as a band, it's The Samples, some old U2, this techno guy Kid Loco, Emmy Lou Harris' new album--Josh, we're just constantly discovering new things.

cMW: To what extent did producer Malcolm Burn shape the record? Were melodies or lyrics re-written in the studio?
Andrew: For the most part, no. The actual songs, melodies and lyrics, were kept intact. What changed was the approach to playing. He got us to stop trying to come up with 'cool' parts, or get a lick in we think is 'cool.' He knocked down a bunch of walls on how we thought you had to make a record, and that allowed us to put our hearts on tape. There were a million different ways he went about it, but the end result is what he's so good at: people playing the songs they care about. Malcolm inspired in us a love of creating music, of playing together--the realizations that we don't need such and such gear, or even the knowledge of how to play the instrument to make something beautiful with it, to have fun, and to create. If you're a musician, you can just pick up an instrument and play the song! It gave us a lot of confidence. You know, he's a legend--Malcolm produced with Bob Dylan, Bono, and Peter Gabriel. For a guy like that to look at you and say, 'What you're doing is stupid, and I can tell you this because you have something good in you. You're not playing as good as you can. You're better than this,' that's inspiring.

cMW: There are so many layers to Coming to Life; is it an album you can still do live?
Andrew: We're a five-piece band. At our shows, Mark [Lockett] and I both play guitar, and we try to pull it off live. For us, it's not about necessarily doing the record; it's just to play the song. Arrangements can be radically different, even when we're recording a song twice in a day; so, a lot of times live, the arrangements change. Rather than a lot of rhythm guitar or pads, Coming to Life has everybody doing something interesting, everybody playing melodies. It is actually much easier for us to play this record live than the first one.

cMW: How is the tour with Caedmon's Call progressing?
Andrew: We're having a great time; it's fun for us to play in front of a crowd. We've been getting to know the Caedmon's guys for over a year now, and it's been really nice to spend a lot of time together and have a close friendship with them. There's definitely plans for both bands to be involved in the future, but I can't give those away yet. Got to keep my sources locked down. But we've been having a lot of fun. Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb's wife, is the opening act, and we've all been singing, hanging out, getting to know each other. They challenge us as a band, and I know we challenge them as a band--it's cool to see the ways that we're all growing from hearing each other play every night.

cMW: On tour last year, you guys were the victim of a theft, is that right?
Andrew: Yeah, at our bass player B.J.'s apartment, we had our trailer stolen. It had all our gear in it, except for like maybe four of my guitars. Everything that we owned: shirts, Cds, drums, cases, guitars, amps, keyboards, a friend's suitcase, and the trailer itself was just gone. It was hard, we lost a ton of money that we had put into that gear. Life-long collections of rare models, vintage stuff, custom-made gear, Mark's handmade percussion instruments: all gone. It was cool because we got to see people cared about us. Our fans sent us money; stores were calling us and saying, 'Hey, anything you want, you can have at cost.' To see that people desired to see us continue making music was pretty amazing. Also, in the tour right after that happened, we'd go to shows with basically nothing, scrounge up whatever gear was there and play. We became better, more versatile musicians because we never knew what we had to play on. The ability to not rely on this pedal here, or that cymbal there--to pick up any instrument and perform on it--has been kind of cool.

cMW: So you guard your stuff closer now?
Andrew: Yes. We definitely take care of where we park things.

cMW: What is your favorite vegetable?
Andrew: Uhhhhh... potato?

cMW: Me too. Back to the album [both laugh], what led you to write "The Best I Can"?
Andrew: It came from what I'm doing right now: just sitting in a van with a lot of time to think. Driving around the country, missing home, knowing I'm not all that I could be and my life isn't all that it could be, wanting things, and--at the time I didn't have a girlfriend--wanting somebody. All these desires had almost gotten the best of me; I got really depressed thinking, 'I'm not what I want to be.' Then I realized that nothing happens without a reason. God is sovereign. God is in control of all things. Where I am is exactly where I'm supposed to be, and there's no other place that i could be. Paul says, 'I am content in every situation, in a lot or a little.' "The Best I Can" is just reflections on that from the back seat of a van.

cMW: Did any certain scriptures stick out to you during the process of recording?
Andrew: One that I had read throughout the course of Coming to Life was I John 4:12, 'No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us.' We shaped the record a lot around that; God shows us Himself through the people that He puts around us. We're given relationships as a model of the relationship between Him and us. Most of the songs, if not all, are conversations or relationship-driven reflections. In a spiritual sense, the last two years, I've come to understand the Gospel in a whole new way, in its truth and, hopefully, in its entirety. During the writing and recording of this record, I learned the Gospel again, the depth of grace.

cMW: Who is the "she" referred to often on Coming to Life, including the title track?
Andrew: There's a couple different people that refers to throughout the record. A girl I dated in high school, different people in my life; sometimes they're imaginary characters for the song, sometimes they're real. It kind of varies. [slightly nervous silence] Yeah, I don't want go any more into that...

cMW: Ok! [both chuckling a bit] Regarding "Black Dress," what have you heard from people about its blatant lyrics?
Andrew: We've gotten a lot of feedback both ways--some people who were really ticked off, or who 'didn't get it,' really meaning they got it too much and were scared of it because it told the truth . But then a lot of pastors and, like, older men in the church--up to my dad's age (my dad included)--have come to me and said, 'That was a brave song that needed to be written. I'm glad somebody's addressing that topic because the church is shying away from it.' It's such a sexually driven culture we live in. The church can't ignore the fact that everything around us is covered in sex and that that is one area where Christians are called to be absolutely, completely, 100% different from the world. We all screw up in that area, whether in our minds or individually, especially men in this culture. It's not impossible to beat, but it's impossible not to struggle with it. I think it needs to be addressed, and men need to understand that they're not the only ones that feel this way. Through the history of time, they're not the only ones who have struggled with these things. "Black Dress" is a very important song; those unhappy with it just don't understand grace, forgiveness, or redemption.

cMW: What vision do you have for The Normals' future?
Andrew: Man, we really don't know. We're just taking it a day at a time. Our main goals are to continue to encourage each other toward Christ, to continue to be friends whether or not the band lasts--before the music, it's important to us that our relationships grow--and to create, try new things, and press into new areas musically (like where we're playing, or who we're playing to). It's about stretching, discovering--doing things different.
- Josh M. Shepherd
November 2000
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