[ Interview with Todd Olsen of the Waiting: 12-05-01 ]
cMusicWeb.com: The Waiting has been together, unchanged, for how long now?
Todd Olsen (guitarist, songwriter, producer, The Waiting): Since 1992, we've had the same membership; the band started in '91 with a different drummer. The Waiting has been a long-term thing - at the present day, one of the longest running [Christian] bands.
cMW: With that time in mind, particularly the success of Unfazed, what have these last three years meant for the band?
Todd: It's been really cool. Normally when a band at our level records, the longest time spent recording is two months (as we did with Unfazed). This time we've spent over two years! To be able to do that is an artistic and financial step - something we couldn't have done without Unfazed. That record brought us to where we could do something we've always wanted to: as artists, just dig in at the studio and explore the possibilities. Very much technically and in a lot of ways, I feel Wonderfully Made is a cut above anything we've done.
cMW: Legendary for extensive touring (where you play the same set a gazillion times), do the messages in The Waiting's songs still resonate with you?
Todd: [laughs a bit] Yeah, we've done a lot of touring. One thing we do, with regard to playing the same set, is every time we have a new record we completely change up our set. A lot of bands don't - you hear rumors of bands playing the same songs the same way in the same order for ten years! That hasn't been the case with us at all. To be honest, it's a lot more work, but we committed at the very beginning to not be like that. We've always wanted to give the audience something new, something fresh - a new show to see. Now for each tour or whatever, going in the same places, we will have the same set. Basically we're trying to never hit the same city twice with the same thing. Sometimes we'll come through with only a slightly different thing, but to a good extent we've met our goal. Every record has a different thrust, a different artistic purpose; therefore, our songs need a different presentation live. The shows keep it fresh for us because the tools and needs we have differ [from] recording and having the music on CD. When we go in to work on the live show we're being creative during that time as much as in the studio - getting the right flow for what we're trying to say, incorporating the current and past albums to make the whole train go in one direction, etc. Now we've played certain songs a million times. Sometimes we'll rearrange them and what not, and basically the overall show is new. We four love to play, love being up in front of people, coming into town to encourage everybody, and getting them charged up about being a Christian. That feeds back on us - having a positive effect on people makes us happy!
cMW: All this acclaim, and yet your relationship with Sparrow changed shortly afterward?
Todd: It did. Sparrow offered to let us do another record with them, but we declined; they had actually picked up on our [contract's] option. They said, after we told them how we wanted to do this record, "You can do it this way, or leave, whatever you want to do." They were trying to keep us going in the same direction they had been marketing us in - which was like grunge rock - and we're just middle-class suburban boys! We wanted to get down to our roots, who we are, and the music we grew up with (which was pop/rock). I don't think [Sparrow's box] suited us so well. Now we're really excited and happy because Inpop, where we are now, knows us a lot better. Current Newsboys' manager Wes Campbell, one of the main people over there, used to manage us. So Inpop already had relationship with us for years and years - plus we'd been out on tour with Newsboys and knew them well. Going over there was real natural. A little ironic, actually, because the deal they gave us was right up there with the deal Sparrow had given us (and Sparrow gave us a great deal). We were really blessed that way, and felt the Strong Hand of Love leading, like always. And it's not like we're upset with Sparrow or anything: they were doing what they needed for their label, and what they thought was best. I will say that, when you're trying to promote other million-selling artists, we can understand how a band not-quite-that-big would get overlooked. Going in a different direction than theirs, we opted out. Once we left Sparrow, we went into the studio, just the four band members with no engineers, no producers - nothing. We started making Wonderfully Made without knowing what would happen with a label, or even what our options were - we just knew bands make records. About six months into the process is when we signed up with Inpop. Duncan Phillips, our A&R guy, is Newsboys' drummer; his wife works at the label, involved with marketing. We felt their brother- and sister-hood, being so personally involved in the music. At Inpop, The Waiting has everyone's full attention, and we're excited because we get more input and artistic control. That's always nice because it's our future at stake.
cMW: You've been quoted as saying, "In the music industry, you're always one step from quitting." Did that option come up during your searching time?
Todd: (laughs loudly) Where did you get that quote!?
cMW: You know how TBN plays stuff from like two years ago? An old Waiting interview came on, you said that, and I was like, "Gotta use that."
Todd: Man, that's great, I love it. But, no, during the making of this record… It's the indecision that kills you. When we decided what we were going to do, we set our minds to it and went after it - then everything else seemed to fall into place. We are in the business because we feel called, and feel like we have a vision for it. In short, this is what God wants us to do with our lives. I can understand where I was at that point: let's just say I'm at a lot better place now! (laughs) This business is really, really tough - it hits you with a lot of things that make you want to quit. Even very successful artists get into money crunches and different things. Then always being away from friends and family… being gone that much is rough. If anybody gets sick, or (God forbid) you have a death in the family, or your niece is born - whatever - it's hard to miss everything. You're really glad to be out on the road following the purpose for your life, but you're missing some stuff and that can be a tough thing. All the problems along the way are what I was talking about as far as being, "one step from quitting." There are numerous challenges to overcome, to put it in a positive light. At that time, I was struggling a lot more with those than I am now. God has given me grace. Having been through a bunch of problems, I realize that each one is not the end of the world; it tends to make you more mature and less traumatic.
cMW: From there, how did a new producer and new album come together?
Todd: Well, I produced the first half of the record, and our drummer Brandon [Thompson] engineered for that - because, like I told you, we went into the studio without anybody else. I took on that role naturally, and Brandon is a really good engineer. When we went to Inpop, they brought in Bryan Lenox, who's worked with like everybody. He's an incredible musician, and has a great set of ears. I don't kid you, he is hard: he's one who could make you feel like quitting, like I was talking about! He does it for your own good, though, because it does make it better. You play or sing a part ten, a hundred times through, with him pushing you to that better and better take, very critical about stuff like that. He made our record a better one.
cMW: One observation is that Wonderfully Made features a lot of scripture. Was that a conscious decision going in to writing?
Todd: Unfazed said, "Man, we have so many problems, but we're not letting them get us down." There's a strand throughout all our records about struggle and the light at the end of the tunnel: mainly the struggle, and, "Oh, by the way, there's light at the end of this long, dark tunnel." That was the theme of Unfazed. With this record, we made a conscious decision to make a record about the joy of the Lord. I didn't feel like our other records completely represented us, because our whole lives aren't just that struggle. Another part of our lives is that normal, solid, joy of the Lord-type thing that Christians have - a security. Wonderfully Made is about being strong in Christ, about being happy to be one of God's children, about saying, "God made me." We have a song "What Else Can I Say" which tells God, "I love you"; in another part it admits that saying such a thing is a cliché, but I have no other words to use. That one came out of writer's block for my brother. This is the record that I've always wanted to make. As far as direction, The Waiting is a compromise between four people [sic]. I'm the one always pushing to emphasize the positive, the hope - not dwelling too much on the negative because we're commanded not to. Anything that's good, anything that's wholesome: we're commanded to think about those things. That side of us, of my brother Brad (the main writer), isn't seen often. You wouldn't know him from his records. I wanted people to see that side because it's a large part of his life, as well as all our lives.
cMW: If you will, Todd, let me come from a die-hard fan's point of view with some questions:
cMW: Where did the spaced-out [alternative] Waiting tracks like "Big Parade" go?
Todd: (most amused) Where did they go?
cMW: Yeah, where did they head off to?
Todd: (laughs) I don't know! (thinks a bit) Lyrically or musically?
cMW: In both ways. There's polish on these songs that wasn't there before.
Todd: We've always had a quirky side, you could say. The reason for this being a down-the-middle record is the theme, reflecting our stronger, more normal side. We're not afraid of that. That other stuff has not gone away, by any stretch, and you'll see it back on other records we do. When you're an artist, you have to keep covering new territory: if it's not new, it's dead. This was another place that we wanted to explore. The talk around the camp here is that our next record will be The Waiting's Sgt. Pepper, which was a total left turn for The Beatles. Right now we're reserving any nutty, crazy, out-there thing we want to do for the next record. At any rate, on this one, we took the right turn.
cMW: Why only ten songs again?
Todd: That will be something we change on the next record too. We really spent a lot of time writing for Wonderfully Made, having way more than ten songs we could have put on there; but we picked out of all the songs the ten best ones. Instead of, like… A record will have a bunch of album tracks that the songs are ok, you know, but not real gems. We wanted every song on here to be a gem; we feel this is a strong record. We're really happy with it. From a fan's perspective, the song that's been getting a lot of attention is "Sleepless." It's not unlike "Hands In the Air" or things we've done before. Bryan [the producer] and others talked of cutting it, because it doesn't totally fit the theme of the record. It's the moment where our older side is shining through, but I love that song and am glad it made the cut. The treatment that Bryan did really turned out nice.
cMW: Have The Waiting members reached a consensus on the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies?
Todd: What aspect?
cMW: Just, what you guys are looking forward to…
Todd: Are we looking forward to it or not? Or the controversy on whether the movies should have been made or not?
cMW: Oooh, you're that much of a Tolkien fan?
Todd: Are you kidding? I'm reading it right now, actually. There's a part of me that loves this book, and you don't want it to be a visual thing because it ruins the picture you have in your head. That is inevitable. Now, if it's done well enough… like, I have on TV right now The Grapes of Wrath (muted, of course!), a Steinbeck novel that big fans weren't comfortable with it being put into a concrete, visual form. I feel that if it's done well enough, even with minor inaccuracies, it can be it's own really cool thing. I'm very much looking forward to seeing it, and how well done it is. Certain novels, books, and movies, I'm a huge fan of every aspect of them; Les Miserables is one. I've read that twice, in two different translations, plus commentaries on it. I love the movie, and I hear the play is the best way to see it (though I haven't been to one and really want to). Sometimes a story can translate to different medias and still be a great story - Les Miserables is like that, still that powerful theme running through it. It's possible that Lord of the Rings could be wonderful. We'll see.
cMW: What is your favorite vegetable?
Todd: My favorite, hmm… I've been getting into zucchini a lot! I'll make Japanese food, cook it up in a big lock, make fried rice, vegetables, chicken, shrimp - all that stuff.
cMW: Now, Todd, take us back, back, back - to the story of your salvation experience.
Todd: Wow. I was 20 - all I can say is that I grew up in church, but was never really "into it." My friends at school mattered more. After hitting a low point in my life… you know, that day when you walk down an aisle or "pray a prayer" is not the important part. Obviously, that part is important (like your first step when you start to walk is important), but, dude, all the other steps are just as important! Every day I journey more into the transformation of my life: God is bringing me along on that road. He's showing me, and showing you, His wisdom and how He wants us to live. It's in no other way than through your life - He'll bring people and circumstances that shape you in a certain way. That way is more and more like Christ. Then every Bible study you attend, every church you got to, every Christian friend you hang out with - none of that hurts! It's all good. As far as what happened to me on that day, I was having a really bad day; I was a delivery person driving a pickup truck. On this busy, busy road in Atlanta, I pulled off onto the shoulder of this highway with walls around it. It was eight lanes wide. With traffic zooming by, I prayed to God and gave up the fight. God had been knocking on my door a long time, and I said, "Ok, I'll try things Your way - don't let me down!" (laughs a bit) He hasn't let me down; I haven't been perfect, or always done the right thing, but He's always been there for me when I get back up off the floor. He's helped me up. That was my initial salvation, but we have to think in a different way. Not, "Here's what happened on this day way back 15 years ago," but rather, "What does God want for me today?" If you're thinking on that higher level, trying to know from your spirit what God would want in every situation, that is a transformation in and of itself. The Bible says, "Renew your mind. Have the mind of Christ," - and Jesus about a million times said, "I'm praying to My Father, trying to do My Father's will." All of us getting about our Father's business is the most important thing. The first day, which we get preoccupied with, is only a baby step. A lot more dramatic things have happened to me in my spiritual life apart from that.
cMW: Tell me about writing "A Lot of Love" with your brother Brad.
Todd: Brad cracks me up! (laughing again) I love that guy so much, and it was so fun recording that song, for several reasons. He basically wrote the song, and brings it in when I was producing vocals for the record. I produced the whole "A Lot of Love," with Bryan [Lenox, producer] adding a few touches - it was one of the ones he did few things too, except add some keyboards. When I'm producing Brad's vocals… (laughs) Brad and I, we're brothers, been on the road for almost ten years, together about 300 days a year - 24/7 during that time! We grew up side-by-side, had the same jobs, went to the same school - never being apart. Imagine me trying to produce him; I'm the one who has to bring the great performance out of him, to say, "Do it differently, do it better." He got frustrated with me trying to get him to change - there were some hefty arguments! To be blunt, those were some knock-down drag-outs. (both laughing) It doesn't get physical between he and I, maybe when we were 14, but not now that we're adults. Well, during the real tense moments, he's lucky I never lost my temper! Seriously, I played my role as producer, and Brad may have surprised himself on this record. He did some things he didn't think he could do; making records is all about stretching yourself. Another thing was Smalltown Poets' singer Michael Johnston, my best friend for eight years. The music on "A Lot of Love" is so dang happy, I called Mike up for him to hear how great it was. Then he ended up singing a background part - Brad, Brandon, Clark, him and I being in the studio was such a blast! It's one inside joke after the other with us; Mike's band and our band are really close, been on tour together.
cMW: Where did Mac Powell and his influence fit into Wonderfully Made?
Todd: Mac and Brad co-wrote four of the songs. When Mac came over once, I produced him and Brad singing together on one song; but when we went into the studio with Bryan, we decided to take that one at a different tempo - re-recording all the tracks, we weren't able to use his vocal. It was neat, and I wish it would have made it to the record. Man, Third Day and Mac have been great to us; he's very nice to lend some of his talent to us. He inspired Brad, who enjoys writing with him: they understand each other somehow. I don't really understand them… (laughs) I'm the opposite of my brother; Brad and Mac are very similar in personality type. It's funny to be around, 'cause they're so nice to each other. That was when we had an apartment and made a studio out of it, recording some of the overdubs there. Mac didn't mind our humble circumstances, and he was cool to work with.
cMW: Can you reveal any details on The Waiting's future: music video, supporting tour, etc?
Todd: Yeah, we are going to do a tour in the spring. No details about it yet; we'll probably be headlining, taking out a supporting act or two. We have a few options that we're looking at right now. As far as video, if this record takes off like we want it to, then the Inpop people will push for a video for whatever song they think will be good. We're not concerned with that type of thing; The Waiting is not a "video band" per se.
cMW: Todd, what hope does Wonderfully Made hold for these unsettling times America faces?
Todd: The message we're getting out this time is towards younger people, and those who feel a lack of self-esteem (which could be anybody). "Don't worry, God made you just how He wanted you: relax in that," the songs say. "Be happy and know He has a plan for you." That would hold true with everything that's been going on. Catastrophic events happen that shake up your whole life, but God's got you in the palm of His hand. He knows what's going on, even though He takes time answering our prayers and our cries for direction. We have to persevere, knowing we're standing on a solid rock. It's the most natural thing to write about the struggle; it's a lot harder to have victory in Jesus displayed in your life. Artists find that difficult, and I'm not sure why. People have been utterly devastated by these events, but we hope Wonderfully Made reminds everybody that they are "fearfully, wonderfully made" - even if they lost their mate, because that's a crushing blow. Yet they still have God, and those who died went to a better place.
cMW: Any closing comments?
Todd: Just that those were excellent questions. Thanks for digging in so deep.
cMW: Thank you so much for your time.
- Josh M. Shepherd
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