Cornerstone New Band Interview: Merger

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One21music, in our quest to find the best up and coming Christian musicians, is featuring the bands from the Cornerstone 2011 New Band Showcase.  The Cornerstone New Band Showcase has launched many huge careers for Christian musicians including P.O.D., Sixpence None The Richer and Over The Rhine. The Cornerstone 2011 New Band Showcase features sixteen bands who will be performing on the Cornerstone Main Stage from Thursday, June 30th through Sunday, July 3rd.  In the two weeks leading up to Cornerstone 2011, One21music will be featuring interviews with 11 of the showcase bands and a 10 song free music sampler, which will be available, exclusively on One21music.com on Wednesday, June 22.

We continue the Cornerstone 2011 New Band Showcase interview series with Merger, who play an aggressive form of modern rock fusion they call “rock fusion jam”.  As you will see, these guys think deeply and play their music to please God.

Merger

Within a modern rock context, Merger seamlessly blends a number of elements from various genres resulting in a unique brand of music that has been self-described as “Rock Fusion”. Stylistic use of progressive rock expressions (along with their jam band tendencies) makes for a spectrum of sounds that are distinctive and dynamic. Merger truly fulfills their namesake, with each member (Joshua Jones, Billy Fisher, Matt Flex and Damien Eftekhar) bringing the influences of their distinct musical background to the table.

The Merger sound hints of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ groove-laden rock, Muse’s advanced songcraft and demanding instrumental parts, and Switchfoot’s crisp alt-rock.  At moments, Merger’s songs have John Mayer-like swagger or Hendrix-esque wailing guitars.  Merger concerts pulse with the energy of unique rhythms, spicy layered chord progressions, spontaneous jams, and the ever-present Almighty groove.

Merger

Interview with Christian Musicians Merger

O21: Tell us what we need to know about Merger that is not in your bio.

Joshua:  Two things come to mind.  Firstly, we’re friends and brothers in Christ before being bandmates.  For a long time before we were a band, we were in each others’ lives, supporting one another and spurring one another on in Christ.  And that’s still a major aspect of our interactions together, but now we have the added context of doing it within our band-related activities. Secondly, our name, “Merger,” reflects more about us than most people realize.  Each of us has a very different musical background and our songs – especially our newer co-written songs – are truly a merger.  I didn’t really start listening to rock music much until high school – mostly hymns and classical music before that.  I studied classical piano when I was young, then blues and jazz guitar in college.  Billy has this passion and affinity for odd meter and fast, intricate hard rock/metal riffs.  Damien is a Jimmy Page devotee.  Matthew gravitates toward the “chill” of new wave/post-punk/Brit-pop sounds.  And that’s just the start of it.  But we come together, and it all fits.  Merger.

Damien: Making great music aside, being in a band with such incredible people is what fascinates me the most. I gave my life to Christ when I was 25. Previously, I had played in bands full of egos, drugs, drunkenness, fighting…everything I couldn’t stand about being in bands. I thus gave it up for many years to pursue my career as a chef until I joined with these guys and realized how by the power of the Holy Spirit and freedom in Christ we could truly “merge” and even disagree on things with humility and grace. We make sure to thank God and pray before picking up our instruments because our true desire is for God to pour out His spirit on our music so that others who need to hear the good news can receive it.

Matthew:  We all love spruce beer soda! Josh brought back a bottle from his stop at POPS Soda Ranch near Rt. 66 in Oklahoma and shared it during a practice and it just blew my mind. I couldn’t sleep for about 2 weeks the experience was so profound.

O21: How would you describe your sound? What artists influenced you?

Joshua:  Always a tough question.  We call ourselves a “rock fusion jam band.”  We are a rock band at our core and love the crunchy sounds of the distorted guitar, but we also love the groove.  We jam and have prog-rock tendencies.  We incorporate flavors from all sorts of genres, such as the dissonance of indie-rock or metal, jazz chords, and the story-telling of southern genres.  A couple of artists that we’ve been listening to as a band recently are Porcupine Tree and Oceansize, both British prog-rock outfits.  Artists that have especially influenced me personally are those that have successfully incorporated non-rock elements into a rock format in a seamless fashion such as Cake, Blues Traveler, Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Mayer, and especially Muse (my favorite).  Some other influential/favorite artists in my life have been Switchfoot, Flyleaf, Claude Debussy (impressionistic composer), Bill Evans (jazz piano), Grant Green (jazz guitar), SRV, Chevelle, Phoenix, Mute Math… It’s hard to stop…

Billy:  Well, the blurb that we use on Facebook and MySpace sums it up pretty well.  We’ve grown to like our self-described “rock fusion” term.  Modern rock is the core, but we incorporate many other elements. As far as artists who have influenced me personally, I would say Phish, John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band and even Sade on the lighter side and Dream Theater, Metallica, Tool and Porcupine Tree on the heavier side.  These influences are more in terms of instrumentation than lyrics and vocals. My bass playing has probably been most informed by Victor Wooten, Paul Denman, Mike Gordon, Cliff Burton and Justin Chancellor!

Damien:  My personal sound? Yep, it’s Zeppelin. They’re who I grew up listening to and I am highly influenced by Jimmy Page’s guitar playing. He turned me on to using alternate tunings. I love writing songs on the acoustic with whacky tunings! I also love great 90’s rock like Third Eye Blind and the Smashing Pumpkins. Also a fan of John Mayer’s music like the rest of the guys. Other influences are The Gypsy Kings and Christopher Parkening.

Matthew:  I took classical piano lessons as a kid and though I eventually dropped the instrument I still absolutely love the sound of the piano, so people like Chopin, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Gabriela Montero, and Yann Tierson are constantly playing on my iPod. Later, thanks to my friends and my clock radio, I discovered rock music and my life was literally changed forever. I’ve gone through various phases over the years but my long lasting, steady loves have to be bands like Earthsuit, Project 86, The Listening, The Killers, mewithoutYou, and pre-’Comotose’ Skillet. The stick-men who’ve influenced me most are probably Wuv (P.O.D.), Darren King (Mute Math), Francisco “Paco” Artega (Misty Edwards) and the man who perhaps embodies playing in the ‘pocket’ more than anyone else, Steve Jordan (John Mayer Trio, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, etc).

O21: Tell us about your recordings?  What is your favorite Merger song?

Joshua:  Honestly, the recordings I enjoy listening to the most are the spontaneous jams, even if it’s iffy audio quality (as in our “live bootlegs” included on our Down with Sophomores EP).  I love the energy and the “unknown” of what is going to happen next.  Bill will break into something moody or groovy, Matt will sync up and drive it, Damien will whip out licks like a Kamikaze machine gunner, and my pedalboard turns into a laboratory of sounds and textures – and then all bets are off!  At this moment in time, I’d have to say that my favorite Merger song is a new one, “Asian Pear,” which is yet to be released.  It’s very proggy – almost a rhapsody – with lots of contrasting sections and drama.

Billy:  Being the resident Phish-head of the band, I know the value of capturing the moment so I’ve taken it upon myself to be the acting archivist for the band, and we’ve long been recording our shows and practices.  As far as something more “official,” we are excited to finally be releasing our first EP in 2011.  My favorite Merger song is also “Asian Pear.”  It’s our prog-rock masterpiece that harkens the sounds of Mars Volta, Muse, and Radiohead.

Damien:  My favorite song hasn’t been written yet!! HA!! We’re working on it but it’s not there. I would have to say some of our best stuff is live stuff. I think this will be a trend with us. We really lock when we play live. We’ve had some seriously sick jams out of nowhere.

Matthew:  My favorite song is one I haven’t yet pitched to the guys; it’s called, “If This Song Doesn’t Get You Excited About Calculus Then You Have No Emotion.”  I’m kidding, of course.   I’m sure that I have a favorite, but I’ve always loved “Masquerade” because of the allusions it makes to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (a story I was deeply affected by in high school).

O21: What is the best thing about making music?

Joshua:  Jamming live and feeling the synergy between us while the crowd gets into it – that’s the best.

Billy:  The best thing about making music is creativity itself, which is the stamp of our Maker.  I once heard Carlos Santana explain that the music is like water; the band is the hose; and the listener is the dry earth that gets refreshed.  One of the things I “live for” is jamming and improvisation… the spontaneous creation when flowing together and the electricity that happens when everyone goes along for the ride (whether it’s a crowd at a bar or a church congregation).  Creative flowing music is one of the first things that drew me to my church, where they do prophetic music.  Incidentally, the four of us in Merger also serve on our church’s worship team.  So whether it’s these settings or two friends playing acoustic guitars at the local forest preserve, nothing can touch those moments of creativity.  They are so life-giving!

Damien:  The best thing about making music?… Making music itself!… The sheer creativity of it. I love playing live in front of a large crowd too. It’s so much fun.

Matthew:  It’s got to be the ‘in-the moment’ intensity where we’re all ‘feeling it’ and together on what we’re playing, whether it’s something we’ve previously arranged or an impromptu moment of creativity. That’s what separates being a maker of music from being simply a listener. No comparison.

O21: How does your faith influence you musically and lyrically?

Joshua:  I don’t think believers can (or ‘ought to’, perhaps I should say) segregate their faith from anything they do.  Faith in Christ causes you to be a new creation, and from that point on faith should be intrinsic to whatever you do.  That being said, having faith doesn’t change the fact that we still live in both the spiritual AND natural halves of reality.  So our lyrics reflect both sides.  You’ll see songs about spiritual issues side-by-side with love songs and funny stories.   We may have more songs about natural-realm topics than other “Christian bands,” but since God is the creator of all things both spiritual and natural, I think both types please Him.   We certainly don’t see those natural-realm lyrics as “secular,” though.

Matthew:  The guys have already touched on this in their responses so I would just like to add this, my favorite quote from A.W. Tozer in his book, The Pursuit of God: “Let every man abide in the calling wherein he is called and his work will be as sacred as the work of the ministry. It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular; it is why he does it. The motive is everything. Let a man sanctify the Lord God in his heart and he can thereafter do no common act. All he does is good and acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For such a man, living itself will be sacramental and the whole world a sanctuary. His entire life will be a priestly ministration. As he performs his never so simple task he will hear the voice of the seraphim saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” Much, much better than I could have said it, and yet it feels like those words could have come out of my mouth, as they so perfectly sum up how I feel about the matter.

O21: What is your view of Christian music?

Joshua:  I think the term “Christian music” is problematic because it means so many different things to different people (Elvis singing a hymn? Fernando Ortega singing a love song for his wife? MC Hammer: “gotta pray just to make it today”?  A Phil Keaggy instrumental?  Martina McBride singing “God Bless America”?  Lifehouse’s “Broken”?  Switchfoot’s “Chem 6a? U2’s [Psalm] “40″? Your church singing U2’s 40?…). “Christian music” really should just mean music made by Christians and have no more nuance than saying someone is a Christian plumber or a Christian CEO.  But if you allow for Christians compartmentalizing their faith, then you need a term like “Christian music” to distinguish music made by Christians “for Christ and his kingdom” (to quote Wheaton College’s motto) from music made by Christians for other purposes.  Do you suppose Paul would have ever marketed his tents as Christian tents?  Did Jesus make Jewish chairs?  It sounds silly, right?  Does a Christian plumber use a Christian monkey wrench?  I think all believers, regardless of vocation, are called to do whatever they do with all their heart as unto the Lord and not unto man (Col 3:23), to make the most of every opportunity (Eph. 5:16), and to live in the world while not being of the world.  If you’re pursuing the things of the Kingdom of God, it can’t help but come out through your vocation.  But I think we should get away from thinking of being a “Christian _______” as some sort of different occupation altogether.

Billy:  I agree that so-called “Christian music” can be a troublesome term.  But for all intents and purposes, this phrase is used, and we usually know what people mean when using it.  That said, I think Christian music has really come a long way.  I think for decades, there was disdain from both Christians and non-Christians alike as to Christian music lacking relevancy and potency – again, not so much as pertains to lyrics, but in the music itself.  Although many have expressed the notion that Christian music was often “behind the times,” there have always been forerunners and pioneers on the cutting edge.  But in today’s landscape, I think there is plenty of Christian music and artists out there who are hip/cutting edge/dope, etc.  We’ve seen a progression too in the praise and worship music “scene” where the campier tones of yesteryear have morphed into some of the most unique and fresh relevant sounding music out there.  But as long as it comes from clean hands and a pure heart, God delights in it all – regardless of our tastes, opinions and preferences.  As the boundaries and barriers between the so-called sacred and the so-called secular break down, the temptation to compromise values and ethics is greater than ever for today’s Christian artist.  So we need the same perspective that Toby Mac had when DC Talk was contemplating crossing over into the mainstream side of the industry when he famously said, “If we cross-over, we’re going to take the cross over!”

Damien:  When I first got saved, Billy asked me if I owned any Christian music and I said “No. Christian music stinks…” Not more than two weeks later, Billy had made me three or four mix CD’s (this is pre iPod days) that I couldn’t get enough of. I think musically, it’s as good as anything out there if not better. I mean…Phil Keaggy…do they get better than him? I do agree with the other guys that the term “Christian Music” has a strange connotation. Even K-LOVE (the nationally syndicated radio station) refers to their music as “positive and encouraging,” not Christian. To be honest, I’ve never really thought about how I view Christian music. There’s just so many types.

Matthew:  I pretty much agree with what the fellas already said. But to answer the question directly: some of it’s just fantastic while some of it is simply horrible. I judge music based on its listen-ability factors, not on the professed faith of its makers. I’m talking about the general category of music I listen to for enjoyment, not the stuff I prefer for praising and worshipping God. To me, there’s a distinction between the two.

O21: How do you think the general public and the mainstream music industry view faith based music?

JoshuaMerger sometimes plays in bars and clubs, and we get asked back because they like our music (or so it seems!).  The truth-perspectives in our lyrics have the opportunity to be shared because our art is being received by “the world” on its artistic merit, not the other way around.  If you take what is essentially a sermon and try to “song-ify” it, artistic patrons will know it and probably reject it on artistic grounds.  This seems to happen a lot in various Christian artistic endeavors (music/film/novels/etc).  But Christian artists who are making excellent, top-notch art that does not need to be marketed to just Christian consumers in order to succeed – such as Switchfoot, Flyleaf, P.O.D., and Lifehouse to name a few – have no problem being received (Christian lyrics and all) by the world.

Billy:  These days, more non-Christian music fans are seeing the impact and relevancy of Christian artists and their music being a viable and vital part of the overall music industry – thanks to the P.O.D.’s, Switchfoots, The Frays, and TobyMacs of the world.  So I think the public is generally warmer and more open to faith based music.  God’s spirit is being poured out on all flesh in these last days.  Listen carefully to the so-called secular mainstream artists… They too (albeit unwittingly perhaps) are speaking the oracles of God… seeking for truth… even preaching and praying in their lyrics.  Thanks to the likes of Bono, people recognize when a song has that spiritual current.  So I think faith based music is bound to resonate with listeners more and more.  The music industry however too often has dollar signs in their eyes and is looking to cash in on the hot trends in a niche market.  But God is using all this to get His Word and His Spirit to those who may never have set foot in a church.

Damien:  The music industry like any other business is out to make money. Let’s face it: if they think they can sell the name of Jesus, they will. I don’t think that the general public cares if a band is Christian or not as long as the music is good. When I tell people that P.O.D is Christian, they think I’m nuts. I heard Anberlin’s “Feel Good Drag” on the radio, and the DJ made some comment about how the song was awesome because it was about “hooking up with someone else’s girlfriend.” Little did this DJ realize that the song is more of a repentance about him falling into sexual sin. He wasn’t boasting about his sin.

Matthew:  It’s weird to me that the Grammy’s have a separate category called “Gospel Rock” or any of the other “Gospel” categories. ‘Gospel’ is the only category in the Grammy’s that is not a musical genre but a spiritual one. I hope someday we’ll see artists like RED, Kirk Franklin and Third Day competing amongst their peers in the ‘real’ Grammy categories.

O21: How do you think that will impact your career?

Joshua:  I hope that we’re able to follow in the footsteps of some of those artists I mentioned and be true to who we are as believers while making excellent art.

Billy:  Time will tell!

Damien:  Like Billy said. Time will tell.

Matthew:  Well, eventually I won’t be able to hit as hard and then I’ll start saving money on sticks. And yes, I plan to be playing that long.

O21: What responsibility do you think an artist/performer has to its listeners?

Billy:  Honesty is the best policy.  Like Geddy Lee said: “All this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted… it’s really just a question of your honesty.”  But while I tend to gravitate towards perfectionism, I ultimately prefer the realism and urgency of emotion and soulfulness.  And the honest vulnerability of humanity is sometimes not perfect, but it’s real.  The artists I tend to like and respect the most are those that can strike a balance between these two ends of the spectrum.  One caveat with all this is when you’re in the studio environment, because there you’re creating your own reality (just like the production design of a movie).  But even so, many artists will prefer more energetic and live takes with the raw energy, in spite of any flaws or imperfections.

Damien:  If you believe in God, you should both spread the good news and entertain.

Matthew:  The artists I follow the closest and most passionately are the ones that I’ve seen to be real people – either through in person interaction, by their conduct on stage or through their blogs, Facebook, videos, etc. They are comfortable enough in their own skin to let you know that they’re not always all that comfortable in their own skin. They don’t parade around as if they’re perfect and have it all together. Their actions and lyrics tell me that just like me, they’re still seeking the deep answers. They say, “I’m just a dude, like you.” I love that.

O21: In today’s music scene, with the demise of record companies and MySpace, how does an artist develop a large enough following to sustain a career?

Billy:  Network, network, network!  My “day job” for the last 7 years has been as a corporate recruiter, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this.  More often than not, it boils down to who you know.  When you put your resume on one of the main job boards, you are a tiny fish in a massive sea.  Sure, job seekers can still find a job that way, but it’s rare because the landscape and mechanisms of business have changed drastically.  Same thing with being a band.  Other than networking, it seems to come down to timing.  I’ve seen the first to apply get the job, and I’ve seen the last to apply get the job.  There aren’t necessarily iron-clad, concrete formulas.  Often it comes down to being in the right place at the right time. We might not prefer to use a word like “luck” within the setting of our faith based band, but we ask the Lord for favor and grace in opening the right doors at the right times for the right reasons… His!

Damien:  You thank God for people like Billy. We’d be nowhere without him. He has a dual role of bassist and manager.

Matthew:  As I sorta mentioned for the question above, based on my own experience as a fan, I think it’s key to cultivate a sense of real relationship with your fans. I know some pretty personal stuff about some individuals from my favorite bands and that’s why they are my favorite. They’ve allowed me into their lives and let me see their journeys and I will always respect them for that. Incidentally I continue to buy their albums and go to their shows too, so it works on me. One other thing that needs to be realized is that you don’t have to be a globetrotting phenomenon to make a decent living at making music.

O21:What is your best memory of your career so far?

Joshua:  Our first 2 shows with Damien were pretty magical.  He didn’t really know the songs and we just had a good ‘ole time anyway.  There were some really fun jams at those shows.

Billy:  Well, Merger just recently had our first official photo shoot together, and that was some of the most fun I remember having in a long time.

Damien:  At those first shows I remember asking “How does this one go?…” and Josh would just smile and say “It’s in the key of A…” and then start the song. It worked. I also think that even better memories are to come!

Matthew:  Spruce beer soda! No, but seriously…

O21: What do you love about music?

Joshua:  I love how it can capture and evoke emotion better than words.

Billy:  “To begin with… everything!” — Russell from Stillwater… Seriously, I would agree with Joshua that the special thing about music is that it expresses the inexpressible.  I have always thought that music is the most powerful of all the art forms.  The way it can resonate with one’s soul… on one hand, it challenges you to open yourself to receive what is being presented… on the other hand, it can act as a psychic amplifier – sympathizing with and reinforcing your already inherent emotions.

Matthew:  That’s kinda like asking, “What do you like about breathing?” I know that’s a pretty cliché comparison, but hey, if the boot fits…

O21: What is your favorite song?

Joshua:  Today I will say “Claire de Lune” by Debussy.

Billy:  Just one?!? I’d say “Reba” by Phish.

Damien:  I can’t even answer this…

Matthew:  Oh, wow…um…”Hosea in C minor” by The Listening.

O21: What is the best live show you have ever seen?

Joshua:  Top 3: Some unknown jazz combo at a bar in Stowe, Vermont; Switchfoot at the Metro in Chicago (Beautiful Letdown tour); Keith Urban at Country Thunder in Wisconsin.

Billy:  Here’s another question that will show our disparate tastes!  Well I’ve been to hundreds of concerts in my life… But I would say in terms of putting on a show, seeing Roger Waters and his band perform The Wall in its entirety was one of the best.  In terms of personally having a great experience, I would say Jamiroquai. The vibe and energy was unbelievable… the whole place was electric… everyone was singing along, dancing, high-fiving their neighbor… the place was just on fire.  And the band’s performance was seemingly flawless.

Damien:  Christopher Parkening live in Denver.

Matthew Fiction Family (a side project of Jon Foreman from Switchfoot and Sean Watkins of Nicklecreek) with Sara Watkins guesting on vocals and violin. They were playing in this little old church building turned venue that held maybe 150 people. They played like it was the last show they were ever going to play and I remember sorta standing around after the show thinking “OK, what do I do now?” It was that good.

O21: What is one thing people don’t understand about your music?

Joshua:  Perhaps the veiled literary references? Ha!

Billy:  Sometimes, some Christians will frown upon music that does not contain blatantly “Hallelujah Glory to Jesus” type lyrics. Merger has a song with a funny story about our friend surviving getting run over by a tractor – coming away with only minor injuries all things considered. Ultimately, amid the humor, there is hope and it is suggestive of giving thanks to God for keeping us safe in life’s scary moments. Now, is singing a song like this at a local tavern any more or any less God-honoring than singing a psalm of David at a church service on a Sunday morning? In either scenario, God is being honored, and He delights in it all. The notion that lyrics replete with Scripture-verse Bible quotes and praise-isms are somehow holier or more worshipful than lyrics telling life stories seems to me to be a false one. Story telling was one of Jesus’ primary methods of speaking to non-Believers. And this is the main people group Merger is called to reach. As noted in Matthew’s quote of A.W.Tozer above, worship is ultimately the fulfillment of purpose. When Jesus was fulfilling His purpose, not everyone understood and supported what He was doing. Even those closest to Him (family, friends, religious leaders) disagreed with how he was doing it. Though our perspectives may differ, we need to remind each other that as Christians, we are in the same ball park and on the same team. If I’m seeing Jesus at home plate from out in left field, and you’re seeing Jesus at home plate from out in right field, if we keep pursuing Him, we’ll eventually meet up at home base and see eye to eye!”

Damien:  Probably why our songs all sound so different. There are times you would hear us and we will sound like two different bands in one show. It’s awesome! I for one, embrace this diversity though some might not get it J

Matthew: I think anytime you take a risk and express yourself in a public way, you open yourself up to criticism. Thankfully I haven’t experienced too much of that at this point but I know there are people who don’t like our songs, the way we play and/or even us as people. Our goal is to be true to ourselves–as humans in relationship with God–while connecting and sharing ourselves with others.

Thank you Joshua, Billy,Damien and Matthew.  That was a interesting, thoughtful interview.  If your music is this intense then I cannot wait to see you at Cornerstone 2011.

If you just want a taste of Merger check out “Daniela de los Caballos” from the One21music Cornerstone 2011 New Band Showcase sampler that will be released on One21music on June 22nd.

Merger will be playing the Cornerstone 2011 New Band Showcase on Sunday, July 3rd at 1:45 p.m. See you there!

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