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The band Downhere on politics, the economy, and music August 19, 2009

Posted by markgeil in Music.
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Allow me once again to recommend the perpetually-underrated band Downhere. They’re a talented, insightful quartet of Canadians who consistently make outstanding music. Plus, they have one of those cool two-lead-vocalists lineups that worked so well for the Beatles (and Air Supply!).

I interviewed the band during GMA week for my article on the impact of the recession on the music industry. We had lunch in their record label’s suite, during which I quite enjoyed hearing Marc Martel perform his Michael W. Smith vocal impersonation. Later, I asked the band how the economy was affecting them personally and music in general. Their responses were absorbing. Here are a few of the quotes that didn’t quite make the article, plus some that did so you have some context:

(Jason Germain) I think about the recession a little less than I think about deeper issues: the entitlement of a generation that would get themselves into debt, the entitlement of a government that would get itself into debt. We’ve been talking about this for years, the idea of how everyone believes that they deserve this big thing – or anything – and to be truthful, the whole economic downturn for us was not even the beginning of a surprise. We kinda wrote a record for it beforehand. Anyone with their ear to the ground a little bit, artistically, our poets and musicians who think are for a large part our prophets, not to say they tell the future but, Jesus said when you see the sky at night and it’s red, you can tell what’s coming. Actually when Marc and I we were writing for the record in 2007, we had a conversation – we need to write a record for whatever season is ahead, which is likely going to be a tough one. I don’t think we’ve reached the bottom by any sense. Maybe economically, but there are deeper issues at stake here.  I think we’re headed to a bit of scatter mode. Pre-persecution. Not in the sense of the sky is falling, but a season in the church in which things degrade and the new ideas didn’t work, and people return to a sense of orthodoxy, and people realize that I’m part of this problem. There’s a little more ownership. Right now everybody’s pointing fingers, and everybody’s angry. People are pointing their fingers at government, or their state, and not many are pointing at themselves. “Why did I buy this house with money I did not have.”

(MDG) Does your message become a message to encourage or a message to this entitled generation?

(Jason) Both. We have a song called Hope is Rising, and it does the encouraging thing, in a backward way.

Then, another song – Cathedral Made of People – similar vein. Hey, things are falling apart, but we are a cathedral made of people, we’re the church. The gates of hell won’t prevail against what Christ is building. We’ve got a different economy.

But then also, Marc wrote a song called The Problem, and he takes a quote from G.K. Chesterton who responded to an article back in the day asking, “What is the problem with the world?” by saying to the editor, “In response to your question, the problem with the world is me.” That’s the subtle way of including ourselves. We are the problem. We can’t just point fingers here. We need to be pointing at ourselves.

(Glenn Lavender) The economic downturn hit our band at a time that coincided with a time when we had to shift around how we do our business. Business is an important part of how music happens, and I think we haven’t focused on that enough. As of the beginning of this new year, we’ve made serious changes. It’s been a tough beginning of the year.

It is much tougher to keep a band afloat than it is a solo artist. You think of an honorarium for a show, and a lot of times it’s the same for a solo artist or a band, and we’ve got five guys to fly across the country. The economic stuff has hit us, but we’ve tried to stay close to the ground. We don’t have a ton of overhead. We never bought ourselves a bus, we haven’t done some things that other people think of as necessary. We wanted to be flexible enough to not hamstring ourselves.

(Jeremy Thiessen) I think it works to our advantage that we’re not an A-level, big ticket, selling-out-arenas band. That then becomes your expectation, you think that will happen every year, you build your lifestyle up to that, and you budget accordingly. When you’re suddenly selling half the tickets, your overhead is still expensive because of the expectation your fans have of what your show is going to be like. In that sense, I feel like we’re in a really good place to handle this.  

There’s not a lack of people needing bands. There’s work out there. You have to be willing to get creative about how it happens. March was our best month we’ve ever had.

(Glenn) January through February, we had 4 gigs in two months. The economic crisis is the fall guy for everything, but you could say that we didn’t plan well enough in the fall for those two months. The problem is us. We’ve got to get on top of things.

(Jason) We’ve talked from the stage about how hard times have become our songs. My wife is putting plants from the inside, outside. They’re spending the day outside. Hardening off before we plant them. That’s been our life. We carve just to get out there and get planted, but we’ve been in this season of being hardened. Like Glenn was saying, it got to a time to say, we’ve got to make some changes. We’re no longer boys, we’ve got to be men about what we’re going here.

(Jeremy) We did. We got through that. I feel like we’re in a great place.

(MDG) Do you wish you were one of those A-list acts?

(Jeremy) I don’t care, honestly. If I can pay my bills, and I’m in the place where God wants me to be, and I have the privilege of playing with great friends and great musicians, I’m not going to crave the next big thing.

(Jason) If you choose to be a beat poet, why would feel entitled to something different? If you choose to be the vineyard that’s putting out $100 bottles of wine, not everybody’s going to buy that, and that’s okay. We do what we do really well ,and what God’s gifted us to do, and when He provides the venues for us to play, we share our gifts and tell our story.

(Marc) Let’s be honest, would you rather play for 50 people in a 600-person room for $50, or would you want to play for 600 people in a 600-person room for $3,000? Of course you want to do that. But you have to say, okay, there are 50 people here. It’s going to be a whole lot more work. We’re going to have to suck up the flesh part tonight. They paid to be here, we’re still going to give them what we feel we’re called to give them.

(Glenn) It’s almost like it’s gut check time for the Christian music industry. The church is going to be around. There will always be people who need to be ministered to and who need to hear songs and have the prophets and poets as part of it. It’s not like the audience is disappearing. It’s just that the machine is having to figure out how what that looks like. To change their expectations.

(Jason) I think the industry as a whole is a little self-important. There are a lot of people who make money on artists. And that’s fine, they’re necessary things. There’s a community that needs to surround and support artists. We’re not good at marketing, we’re horrible at distribution and all those necessary things done by people who love and support music who are not musicians, But like many industries, it’s a little top-heavy. There were heydays there for a bit, a lot to go around. Now, people are thinking cutback time, and that’s appropriate. I think you’ll see people who have a valid voice finding it in a better place. People that didn’t have a valid voice might find new careers in different industries, that maybe they were meant for. And artists that had nothing to say going away. I think it can be over-spiritualized too.

(Marc) There’s a significant danger of that. There’s an easy way to explain what happened. Put it on God, no personal responsibility.

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