[ exclusive interview with owen thomas ]
A lot can happen in two years, and that is how long it has been since cMusicWeb has talked with Owen Thomas, frontman and songwriter for The Elms. During that time, the boys have been touring, getting in wrecks, touring, playing concerts with Peter Frampton and Jars of Clay, and touring. Owen was supposed to call me at 2 p.m. But time zones could be a tricky thing, so he called at 1. "Can I call you back in an hour?" he said. "Um, sure. That's not a problem." I replied. After I win $324 in Solitaire and whip Ben, Pauline, and Michele at Hearts, Owen calls again. The interview commences…
cMW: When I set up this interview, I was told that you would be on the road. Where are you?
Owen: Well, that is why I couldn't do the interview an hour ago, because we were just rolling into home. It takes a while to kinda get your bearings, get stuff unloaded, get inside, get cleaned up. We just got home, but we've been on the road for the last couple of weeks… It's nice to be home.
cMW: You have been touring a lot. How many shows would you say you've played within the past year or so?
Owen: In the last year, upwards of a couple hundred. We just feel like the breeding ground for a great band is the road. We try to spend as much time in front of critical people as we can, so we can get better and better at the whole thing. It's kinda where we love to hang.
cMW: You've been in front of such critical people as Peter Frampton and Jars of Clay, and playing crazy concerts like that. What has that been like?
Owen: It's been great. I think one of the shocking things about going out with someone like Peter Frampton is, this is a guy who has sold 20 or 30 million records, and has become kind of legend in rock & roll. He heard our record, and just dug it enough to try to track us down, and get us to go tour with him. That's a really exciting thing. We are going to do some more touring with him this summer. Some really, really big shows in Chicago and Atlanta with him, which should be really great rock & roll shows. And we went out with Jars in the fall, and that was also a great experience. I think we found some real, genuine common ground with those guys. We share a lot of the same sentiments regarding music, regarding vision. So it was great to get to know those guys, and I'm sure that we will end up being back out on the road with them sometime soon.
cMW: You just wrapped up a club tour. What was that like, and why did you choose to play some clubs?
Owen: Well, we are actually in the midst of that still. We've got about another three weeks worth of that to do. We are home for a week now, and then we will do a few more clubs, then we'll do GMA [Dove Awards], and then we will go back out for a couple weeks. The whole premise for doing our own shows this spring, was simply… I don't know. We spent the better half of last year opening for bands like Jars, and Peter Frampton, and so we hadn't had a chance to go out and play the full hour and a half, and legitimately take our audience on the ride with us for the length of the full show, or get to play a lot of the songs off the new album. We just really wanted to get back in front of our crowd, get back in front of people, where we could make a night of it. We didn't get to do that all last fall, so we thought it would be fun to do in the spring before we hit the festival season. During the festival season, obviously the sets are shorter, and like I said we are going to be going out with Peter Frampton, so again, we will be playing shorter sets for most of the summer. So that is our premise for this thing, to go out and play some smaller shows, play clubs, take out a couple other bands and just have a laugh.
cMW: So have any seen any fruit from playing clubs? Any new people who haven't heard your music saying, "Hey, this is really great stuff. How do I hear more of you guys?"
Owen: We find that there are a lot of people who are coming to clubs just because they are obviously, just our fans, but there are always, at a lot of places that we've played there are always regulars. People who know that there is music on stage, so they come to hang out and see what's going on. We've definitely spent the last couple of years on the road. That's the way we grow our fan base. I think that is one thing we do OK at. I mean, I don't pretend to know anything about imaging, I don't pretend to know anything about marketing, I don't know anything about radio or all that stuff, but I know what I love to do, and what I love to do is play on a stage in front of people, in front of an audience, and I feel like that is where we pick up a lot of new fans, new supporters. It's always important to be out there. But yeah, we run into those folks who have never heard a stitch of our music and leave with the record, so it's great.
cMW: You had the opportunity to really expand your fan base by working on a soundtrack for a movie with Mandy Moore called "Saved" and you turned it down because you didn't agree with the script.
cMW: Was the script really that bad, that you said "this is something that we really want to distance ourselves from?" Why did you choose to say no?
Owen: First of all, I have no qualms with participating with the mainstream culture. It's where our band operates most of the time. We spend a lot of time doing things that are not solely "Christian" in nature, so that wasn't ever an issue with us. We were really excited about the opportunity to be in a movie. We heard that Michael Stipe was involved. We are big R.E.M. fans, so that was kind of a cool thing, and then it was supposed to be this vibe-y indie picture, and we all love independent films, so we thought that it was going to be a great thing… Some of the bands that we've really grown to love in the past have done appearances like this, so we thought it would be a great idea. But upon reading the script, there were just some things that we… It wasn't a matter of not agreeing with, or feeling like it was something that we would be uncomfortable existing around. We know we live and operate in a world largely contrary to a lot of the things that we believe in. But we felt like there were a lot of things in the movie that weren't just contrary to our beliefs, but they were actually...Not even so much making a mockery of the Church, as they were almost making a mockery of God. Things in the script were just inherent differences in philosophy from where our band stands, and where the people making the movie stood, so for us to have been involved, would have required us to turn away from a lifetime of cultivating certain beliefs and walk into something that we really didn't support, but we would have done it anyway for the sake of a lot of exposure or whatever. It has turned into a really great thing. A lot of folks have been very supportive of the fact that we chose not to do it. It was never intended to be that sort of publicity stunt. We just didn't feel like… I guess the bottom line is, there are certain fundamental beliefs that we all share, the four guys of The Elms. I guess we are just not ready to forfeit our loyalty to those things for the sake of that exposure.
cMW: Well that shows a lot of integrity on your part. That sets you apart from most bands, which is probably why people are making such a big deal out of it.
Owen: Yeah. We take seriously what we do. I genuinely hope that we are still doing this in 15 or 20 years. We want to develop a rapport with people that they can count on us to put out great records, and ask the tough questions. I felt like it would have been damaging to that rapport, had we been involved in the movie.
cMW: Are you sick of playing 'Hey, Hey' yet?
Owen: (laughs) Fortunately, we actually like that song, so no, I'm not sick of playing it.
cMW: Will you be in 15 or 20 years?
Owen: Who knows. Maybe you can ask me that question again in 20 years.
Owen: Yeah, I guess a lot of bands get sick of playing their hits. I'm more than happy to, because we like all the songs that we play. We try not to consciously put anything on a record that we wouldn't want to go out and play live.
cMW: You were in a pretty bad wreck last February, and you wrote "You Saved Me" as a result. Tell me about that.
Owen: Well, it was probably one of the scariest things I've ever gone through. Being in the accident, waking up in a hospital room, not knowing why, and having monitors all around me, and IV's all in my arms, making sure I was still alive, and my vitals were still intact. I'd never been in that situation before, so it was very sobering. Without sounding cliché, it was sobering to the fragility of life, and just showing me "hey look, man, nothing is guaranteed." There are no... I guess the only thing that is guaranteed us is God's faithfulness. So that is what the song is about. One minute you are driving down the road on the way to a show, and the next you are in a hospital bed, and it's an extremely harrowing experience. It was very scary for me. But we all walked away from that experience, and in the moments following it really focused us to the purpose of our band. It kinda broke us down to our very cornerstone, the very essence of what we do, and made us rethink things. So all in all, I would never wish it to happen again, but looking back I'm glad… I wouldn't change anything.
cMW: Your last album is called Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll, and in it you speak a lot about "truth." If you had to describe "truth" in a single sentence, what would you say?
Owen: Well when I say "truth," that's not... When I think about truth, it's not something that was taught me, and it's not something that I've been told was true. It's something that was simply learned. It was something simply, over the course of 24 years of living of life have come to some conclusions, and those conclusions are simply that Rock & Roll has let me down, and my relationships with girls have let me down, and my relationships with churches and my family have let me down, education let me down, and all my hopes and dreams and aspirations have all seen dark days, but the only thing I've come to know as "truth" is God's faithfulness, and the fact that my fears and my worries are His priorities. And that is the only thing I know in this life. I don't claim to know too much. I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed all the time, you know what I mean? But I know that God has been faithful to me over 24 years. They say you write what you know about, and that is what I try to do, and all I know is that God has been very faithful.
cMW: Besides continuing to tour like maniacs, what does the next year hold for you guys?
Owen: We really believe in this album. We love Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll and think that there are some really special, wonderful moments on it. It's been taken in by our fans and taken in by a lot of critics, and helped us cover a lot of ground, and we are just hoping to capitalize on that ground, and on the doors that the album has opened for us, so we will spend the next year touring like maniacs. It's definitely a priority to get in front of as many new people as we can, and letting them know that Rock & Roll is still alive… I would guess that towards the end of the year we'll definitely be thinking about another record, and thinking about putting things into perspective for a third CD, but it is nothing... This next record... Gosh, I don't know how to day this modestly, but I think it is going to be an extremely important album. I feel like it's not going to be something we rush into. We are going to take our time, and make sure that all options for Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll have been exhausted, before we think about immersing ourselves in the next record. I feel that the year following an album is committed to really touring the album, so that is what we are going to do. There are definitely some cool things in the pipeline, and we'll keep you informed (as liberty is given to us), to let people know about them.
cMW: So have you started writing new material yet?
Owen: Yeah, I'm kinda in perpetual writing mode, I just write when I feel inspired to, which fortunately is all the time. There is always something that is either upsetting me or inspiring me, making me laugh or whatever, so I write about it. I'd say there are about 30 or 40 new tunes in the hopper right now. It wouldn't surprise me if, by the time it comes time to start making a new album you're looking at another 20 or 30 anyway. So I would say we are going to have a good 50 or 60 tunes to rummage through before we start the next record, and I'd like to make sure that it's a good long CD.
cMW: Sounds good to me. Do you have anything else to say before we end?
Owen: If you want to let people know about our website, it's theelms.net, that would be awesome. We'll see everyone on the road real soon.
- Melissa Miles
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