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The Elms
[ exclusive interview with owen thomas ]


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For all the noble intentions, Christian bands still don't enjoy a very wide audience. Why? Aside from mediocre, sound-alike albums, the songs are often too preachy, too churchy—never hooking listeners with scenes and ideas that tell us, "Man, your life is my life." Enter the Elms, whose choruses are just informal talks, and whose sound brings to mind The Beatles. No one seems to know too much about them—yet. Lead singer Owen Thomas talked with writer Josh Shepherd in February about their bright future…

cMusicWeb.com: To acquaint our readers with you, Owen, could you give a brief bio on the elms?
Owen Thomas: My name's Owen, and I'm in kind of the "frontman" position. My brother Chris plays drums—we're from Buffalo, NY originally, living in Indiana now. Our guitar player, Thom Daugherty, has been my best friend since fourth grade; he's up with us now, but from Southern Missouri. For just about a month, we've had a new bass player, Keith Miller, from Louisville, Kentucky—so that's our geographic background. Initially, Chris and I started playing in a different band about four years ago, and the elms has been in existence for about two years, during which we've been touring pretty heavily.

cMW: Have your experiences on the road been positive or negative?
Owen: It's been totally great. Obviously, you're going to have your ups and downs—you'll go out, and sometimes it's horrible. But it is that one hour of the day when you get to go up there and be on stage, even though the other 23 hours you're really working hard. I will say this: we just spent four weeks on the road, cruising around the West coast—we met good people, and saw them unite. We saw how the different people in the body of Christ, in their own different ways, are all trying to reach out to others. They do what they can to make others see the yearning in their hearts, and offer hope in an innovative way. It's very encouraging to see people like that. On the other hand, the kids who stand before us, you just know they have a need for truth. It's an amazing opportunity to be able to go out there and inform them of the One Truth that you've found in a world where there is no truth. Overall, it's been great.

cMW: So while the elms website lists Radiohead and XTC as musical influences, the band is a ministry?
Owen: We definitely have influences who we know don't have a relationship with Christ, or don't seem to, but that's on the musical side of it. The elms is a ministry; the thing we're not going to do is forsake the musical quality for ministry. We want to be band that has spiritual, lyrical, and musical depth--basically, prove to people that great rock-n-roll music, the Word of God, and the life of Jesus Christ can coexist. To us, it's about motivating the church to find ways to innovate, enabling them to go out and reach the world themselves.

cMW: How did the elms evolve from a worship group to a pop/rock band?
Owen: Worship is still a big part of what we do; though our songs are not "church music," we consider every show we play an act of worship. Sometimes, the band will spend one or two days at a place, which would entail doing a show, then one night just do some praise choruses. It's our own spin on worship, a real pop/rock, power pop approach to it. However, our ministry over the past couple years has become more outreach-oriented, so we try to write songs totally based out of experience, straight from our hearts. Worship is part of who we are and what we love; when it's appropriate, we still do it.

cMW: With that background in mind, what are your thoughts on the recent explosion in praise music?
Owen: God has always wanted to see His people worship, so it's a great movement. The only qualm I have with that whole thing is it shouldn't be something people thing of as a "current trend," or a cool thing to do right now. It's always been cool to worship, and it always will be. People have asked us if we're going to put out a worship album, and it's an idea we would entertain. Only we want to avoid being looked at as a band who put out a worship record when it was trendy to do worship. As individuals and as the elms, we've always been worshipers, and always will be. Worship is a way of life. So even if the music industry side of it, the CD sales or whatever, started to go down, that doesn't change the fact that God wants us to be worshipping Him 24/7.

cMW: Many radio listeners thought of your hit "Lifeboat" as a youth group-type chorus.
Owen: I wrote that song out of desperation, and hope that people can listen and understand that God is interested in every aspect of our lives. So many people get caught up in the sacrifice of being a Christian, rather than the opportunity and privilege it is to know Christ--for lack of a better word, the "perks" and joy that come with it. If we could focus on that, which I've known firsthand, Christianity becomes way more enticing to a lost world. Like, "Hey, guys, this is the truth; not only that, but how about some peace of mind?" There is responsibility, but the One we're serving made the ultimate sacrifice for us. As a chorus, if people find inspiration in "Lifeboat," I'm all for it. It's a tune we'll play at shows until the day this band is done--the song we look at as worship for us.

cMW: What's the overall response been to the five-song EP?
Owen: From the beginning, the whole idea with Sparrow was to print up a limited number of copies, and hopefully get rid of them by the time the album came out, just to raise some awareness of the elms. It wasn't marketed as our first "release," but was there on shelves, and we have it on the road. The full promotional machine will kick into action for the new album. Still, it's amazing to go places, all over the country, and find people who are familiar with the tunes. They found it to be music they can really get into that actually speaks some stuff they know to be truth. We're really down with that. The new record is going to have "Lifeboat" and some other EP songs on it, remixed. I think I'll be able to look back at the EP, and love it.

cMW: Who or what inspired that CD's opening track, "Goodnight Rosa"?
Owen: I get that question a lot. "Rosa" is not a real person; she's an analogy, a fictitious character who embodies anybody that a Christian has ever tried to tell about Jesus, and they just don't buy it. Because of the intangibles--they can't see Jesus, can't smell Him, can't touch Him--there's all these faith issues they don't want to have to deal with. They look at the responsibilities, the limits, never seeing the joy and the promise in a relationship with Christ. At the end of the day, when you've tried to talk to them and convince them this is the only way to live, they just don't want to have anything to do with it. The whole gist of the song is, as I tell everyone at our shows, God is always faithful to those who are faithful to Him. As long as you're planting seeds in peoples' hearts, whoever your "Rosa" is, you can always count on God to be faithful to water the seed, even if you can't be there to see it happen.

cMW: What are we in store for in your new record, The Big Surprise?
Owen: The Big Surprise, man, I'm really, really excited about it. We feel like we've made a stripped-down, genuine rock-and-roll album; the music is really indicative of the emotion that we're trying to convey. It's a picture of where us four dudes stand at this point in time. We're still dealing with a lot of our inadequacies, a lot of our vulnerabilities, still learning that God's grace is always sufficient; understanding that, we're doing our best to press on and to show people, "Hey, we've found a little truth." There's not fifty layers of noise on every track, but it's very well thought-out; we took a lot of time and really immersed ourselves in the process. We wrote about specific instances in our lives that I know a lot of people deal with--there's not a lot of generalities, or really vague things that could apply to this person if they just thought about it enough. I think a lot of people will be able to relate, and see the hope that we all have.

cMW: Why is that the elms were signed to Sparrow Records in June 1999, but your full-length debut has taken two years to release?
Owen: Well, we signed with Sparrow, and started working on the EP the fall following that. We've always been a really hard working band; between time on the road, and the many opportunities to play, we just didn't have the time! We wanted to make sure that, when we released it, it was the absolute best that we had to offer. That's what we got with this album--it was two years in the making, but the plus is that it gave us time to see people hurt, see people love, see people happy, and see people sad. It really inspired us a lot; the majority of the songs on The Big Surprise were written in the last 6-8 months. Had we released an album within a year of signing with Sparrow, I don't think it would have been as mature and focused as this one is. Our vision redefines itself every day as we go out and see people on the road. What people are going to get is a way better record, in general, than had we released it a year ago, basically attributed to the fact that we're playing 150-something dates a year. The product is going to show that we were really serious about it.

cMW: Studio work often gets very tense; what has the chemistry been like between the elms, your producer, and Sparrow during the recording process?
Owen: Sparrow has been very supportive in letting us go into the studio and make a record that is our own, indicative of our hearts and our musical desires. Brent Milligan is an amazingly talented producer and a great player--so he has a lot of original ideas. After being on the road, the studio became therapy for us, just being able to take time, and listen to the tunes put themselves together. You know, we scrapped this one, and put this one back in, and Brent's skills at that really enhanced the album as a whole. It is hard work and long days, but we were able to relax. A couple of the songs got written while we were in the studio, so there's an excited, first-time-you've-ever-played-it vibe there.

cMW: As the band's songwriter, Owen, how did you approach the task of writing for The Big Surprise?
Owen: I approached it much like I did the EP songs, or any of our independent releases, and that is I don't really approach it at all. [laughs] It's funny, 'cos I'm never the guy who sits at a table with notebooks, and pulls out his guitar, with the idea of writing a hit song. The majority of the songs come within minutes of me seeing something that inspires me--it's not uncommon for me to be driving down the road, watching the guy next to me doing something that makes me wonder why they do that. Or seeing someone walking down the street makes me wonder, "What's life like for that guy?" I'll pull over and rummage around my old car for a pen, and an old napkin, or McDonald's bag, and start to write. I've still got little pieces of trash that have lyrics for "Lifeboat" and stuff like that on it. All the songs are written directly after I get the inspiration to write them; none are written in any kind of contrived manner with the idea of just writing smash hit singles. The only thing I have in mind when I write the tunes is, "How can I get my emotion, or how can I get the feelings of this very moment into this song in order that somebody else will be able to identify with it?"

cMW: That's really unique. Will we hear any significant changes in the elms sound?
Owen: Yeah, I definitely think you will. We've had a change in lineup since the EP--my friend Tom, who I mentioned before, brings a whole new guitar texture to the band. He's been playing guitar for years, and The Big Surprise is a lot more stripped-down, yet thought-out than earlier stuff. We've got another 120 shows under our belt, and our chemistry as a band is a lot better. We sound more and more like a rock band, less and less like four guys who just play and love music. We're becoming one cohesive unit. What people will hear mostly is a focused sound, and just the fact that it sounds more mature, more grownup.

cMW: Can you divulge any details like first radio single, supporting tour, or the possibility of a music video?
Owen: The music video thing has been talked about, and it's definitely going to happen; I don't know for which song, yet. We had photo shoots and all that stuff for the album publicity yesterday in Nashville, and ideas were talked about then. Come video time, we're going to try to do something unlike anybody has ever seen, try to put our own spin on it. We want to make it as intimate and interesting as the music--to just better convey whatever song we choose. As far as the first radio single, I don't know that, man. A few songs are in the hat right now, a few that we're really excited about releasing there. We're touring, through May, doing our own headlining shows, 30 or 40 dates before The Big Surprise comes out. This summer, we'll hit a lot of the festivals, and there are tour talks in the works right now for next fall and next spring.

cMW: Any closing comments?
Owen: Just thanks for doing this, and maybe if there's some way to let people know about our website theelms.net, and that The Big Surprise comes out in May.
- Josh M. Shepherd
February 2001
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