Q&A with John Mark McMillan
David Kern said it best when he said, “Carolina indie-rocker John Mark McMillan is a bit of an anomaly. You see, he’s a christian musician who creates quality, creative music that is not derivative or repetitive, that boasts well written lyrics that avoid sentimentality yet still are focused on the artist’s faith. Perhaps even more strange is the fact that McMillan has a strong following in both clubs and churches throughout North and South Carolina. But that’s the reward for quality.” I recently had the opportunity to chat with John Mark about upcoming projects, ridiculous religious people, and the act of punching flight attendants in the face. Also, before I forget, I’ve recently captured some footage from his show in Atlanta on November 1, 2009. It can be seen HERE.
Blue Indian (Luke Goddard): Thanks for chatting with The Blue Indian. We really enjoy your work. Do you go by John Mark? John?
John Mark McMillan: I go by either, but my friends and family call me John Mark.
BI: Cool. You seem to get better and better with each record you release. Before we talk about “The Medicine,” let’s not skim over “The Song Inside the Sound of Breaking Down.” This record sort of put you on the map, right? I mean, it definitely caught the attention of not only the press, but some pretty successful artists.
JMM: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. We recorded most of that album in an old woodshop with no heating or AC and when the guy next door decided to mow his grass we had to take a break. Since then, the album has gone around the world. It’s pretty nuts.
BI: No doubt, man. So, you made a huge jump from “Hope Anthology” to “The Song Inside the Sound of Breaking Down.” And quite possibly an even greater jump from “The Song Inside the Sound of Breaking Down” to “The Medicine”– one from the notion of what happens when one falls apart (as seen in “The Song…) to what happens when that fallen body is resurrected. But, back to “The Song Inside…” It seems to be heavily influenced by Springsteen. Were you listening to a lot of him at the time of when you were writing for the record? Or is it just a tag that’s been placed on your music because of your southern roots?
JMM: I was definitely listening to Springsteen during the Medicine recordings but I think more than that I was listening to Dylan and I know he was a huge influence on Springsteen. I think when you mix Dylan with pop rock and “the south” you get something kind of like Springsteen. Springsteen is certainly one of my all time favorites. I just love his way of empowering the average guy.
BI: The record is great from track 1 to track 12. But, “How He Loves” seems to have sort of catapulted your music career. The song seems to be significant on a number of levels. One, the story behind it. Two, I believe the divine creation of this song, alone, will be responsible for the provision for you and your family. Later in your career, I’m sure all of the success will trace itself back to “How He Loves.” Though I’m sure you have to tell this story all the time, would you be so kind to share the story behind the song?
JMM: Several years ago my best friend was killed in a car accident. I learned about it while I was in Jacksonville, Florida, working in the studio. I was pretty devastated as you can imagine. I woke up the next day and wrote that song. I had a couple lines of the song before he died but I felt like the song was supposed to be for him so I sat down that morning and finished it.
The song is basically about dealing with the anger of his death and how I was pretty tempted to believe that God didn’t love us but that even in this death I can see that God does. I guess my question was if God loved him then why did he die, and the answer, I believed, was that he died because God loved him and wanted to be with him. It’s a difficult conclusion to come to and I’m not sure most people who sing the song completely understand where I was coming from when I wrote it, but I’m glad it’s touching people.
In fact I receive messages pretty regularly from kids who have battled with depression and suicide who tell me that the song actually turned them around and saved their lives. So I would never complain, and after all, I think a song can have more than one meaning.
My friend was actually in a prayer meeting the morning before he died where he prayed that if his death would shake people up then he would give his life. I don’t entirely understand the implications of this prayer, but I do believe that the effect this song has had on people is part of a promise that the Lord made when He took my friend’s life.
There are kids who are alive now because they heard that song and that’s the only explanation I have for it. Just the facts. I don’t understand how all that works theologically. I just know that’s the way it is.
BI: Awesome story. Thanks. On another subject, I’m often perplexed and deeply bothered by the condition of the Christian church. Today’s methods of evangelism seem to be suffering from a pretty significant disconnect with the targeted people. And not to make too much of an example of anything, but let’s talk Christian music. CCM, for the most part, is hard to support… at least mainstream CCM. What are your thoughts on their effectiveness, their art, and their overall message?
JMM: Well, first of all there will always be problems with church because church is made up of people, and people are always going to be screwed up. I guess the challenge is how well we’re able to love each other even in all our weirdness. After all, I’ve got my own set of issues that I bring to the table that are probably as equally ridiculous.
With that said, I think what frustrates me the most is the crazy system of values that seem to be so prevalent in Christian art. Like why we’re aloud to say certain things but not others?
For instance, the way people take issue with a lyric being a little too graphic or offensive but then they gather together every Sunday beneath a symbol of a torturous and grizzly murder. I can hardly think of a lyric I could write that could be more
graphic than two pieces of wood that you nail a human body to, in hopes that the man will die of suffocation and be devoured by birds (thats what a cross is). I just think the fact that people have issues with these lyrics but wear a cross around their necks is just proof that Christians may be totally disconnected from the reality of real life Christianity. Christian tradition has so desensitized people to the reality of our words and symbols that I believe our language absolutely has to be re-imagined, or redefined.
We seem to get so bent out of shape about the way we do things, that sometimes I wonder if we pay any attention to what we’re doing?” Is this music actually what Jesus and people want to hear, or is it simply the residual of an old hollow tradition?
BI: Good point. After critical acclaim for your record, “The Song Inside the Sound of Breaking Down,” you go back in the studio and magically whip out a record full of new songs that reminded me of just how great of a songwriter you are. There’s really not a weak point in this new record, “The Medicine.” Fan, Austin Livingood out of Newport, KY, wants to know what inspires such themes as “The Song Inside the Sound of Breaking Down” and “The Medicine”? Do you tie the knot after the completion of the record or do you start with a theme and write the songs around that particular theme?
JMM: I rarely intend to write for a particular theme or idea. I usually just write about whatever is going on with me at the time. I usually find later in the process that there is a common element or story throughout material written within the same time period. Sometimes we’ll work off of this in the finishing stages but it’s usually not intentional.
BI: Fair enough. While your songs definitely have a worshipful feel to them, they are still relevant in many ways to a secular audience. David Kern states, “McMillan has a strong following in both clubs and churches…” and “that’s the reward for quality.” Obviously, as a songwriter, you always want quality to the art you create. But, is it a consistent goal for you to remain relevant to the secular world? Is this even possible?
JMM: Well, the truth is I want my music to be relevant to myself first and, to be honest, I just don’t listen a lot of Christian music. All my influences are general market bands and writers. Actually, In my writing I never really differentiate between Christian and general market material really. I figure that if the music doesn’t touch me, then why would I expect it touch anyone else. So, I just try to write stuff that I enjoy and hope people respond to it. Besides, I want to write about my whole life not just my fake Sunday morning life. I want to present worship music in the context of a real human being who has to change diapers in the middle of the night, bust his tail to make a living, and deal with things like people you love getting divorces. That’s all part of Christian life, and I need some musical dialog for that.
BI: Okay, so down to it. Obviously, some MAJOR record labels are after you. A lot of people don’t know this. Along with your fans I’m sure, we hope you always maintain the indie sound to your music, even if you sign with a major label. You don’t see this being an issue either way, do you?
JMM: Well, when you sign with a label you certainly allow a huge new voice into the conversation, but I pretty much refuse to release anything I’m not personally excited about. It doesn’t mean that the label guys won’t have a say in the process because they certainly will. Still, I don’t think anyone is under the delusion that I’m going to be some big radio star. They get the fact that people like the music because it doesn’t sound like the other stuff, and I think they’re smart enough to know they can capitalize on that. At least they’re willing to try. Other than that we can only pray.
BI: I can’t wait to see who you end up signing with. So, I have a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a concentration in Literature. If I ever plan to go to grad school and earn a Masters or a Ph.D. with the plans of teaching college English, it’d be easy for me to have the class study a handful of your songs. You’ve been said to have the soul of a poet because of your use of rich metaphors and vivid imagery. Do you begin by writing a poem and then putting music over it? You don’t just throw down any word to make it fit. You must labor over these songs (or poems).
JMM: Honestly, I usually just sit down and try to figure out what I want to say, play some chords, and mumble a few sounds until I find some words that make feel like what I’m trying t say. I don’t know that I try to be poetic as much as I just have such a hard time finding words that really express what I’m feeling. Words lose potency over time and I’m always trying to think of new ways to say things that will breath life back into whatever story I’m trying to tell.
BI: I’m assuming the “single” off of “The Medicine” is “Skeleton Bones.” The song is just flat-out stellar. The lines, “Peel back our ribs again / And stand inside of our chest. . . / Peel back the veil of time / And let us see You with our naked eyes” are pretty powerful requests. What do you feel would happen if this was every Christian believer’s innermost entreaty?
JMM: I think the world would look a lot different.
BI: In one of my personal favorites, “Carbon Ribs,” you speak a lot about gravity. In the lines, “I’ve got resurrection down inside my skin / But for all my revelating / I just can’t make sense / Of this gravity we’re in,” what are you referring to when you speak of gravity?
JMM: Gravity represents the limitations, and struggles of my humanity. I wrote that song late at night at the Culver City Hotel, just outside of Los Angeles. It’s actually the hotel that all the munchkins stayed in when they filmed the Wizard of Oz. We had the window open and I could hear the traffic all night. It was actually kind of pleasant, kind of like waves against the shore, but it also made me feel very small. It just got me thinking about an immortal spirit inside of a mortal body and how awkward it is.
BI: You wrote an interesting article, entitled, “Art and Propaganda… Some Thoughts.” You state, “Aside from Jesus himself, there is probably no such thing as a 100% pure motive. It’s always a mixed bag.” Regarding “The Medicine,” what’s the mixed bag of motives there? Are the ones that were present at the beginning of the writing process for that record still with you, or have they been shaped?
JMM: I think there is probably a selfish motive to almost everything we do. If you look deep enough into your soul, you’ll always find something you don’t like. And even if we could divide those things we’re probably incapable of fixing them. I just try to be honest and do what I know is right and not be so self focused. I guess what I’m saying is that all my motives, good bad and ugly are still there. I just try to focus on telling the story and not so much on why I’m telling it.
What I was trying to say in the propaganda blog was that I think often when people focus to much on the message, rather than ju
st telling their story, it kind of defeats the purpose. It comes across plastic, and, though they may do a better job of presenting a clear message, they also turn off the listener with a lack sincerity.
[To the lighter portion of the interview…]
BI: I have several bars, clubs, and venues in mind that would welcome a JMM show here in Macon, GA. You think we could work something out?
JMM: We probably could.
BI: Cool. John Mark, if there is one particular artist that you’d really like to collaborate with on a new record, who would it be?
JMM: Emmylou Harris
BI: Who are you wearing out on your iPod right now?
JMM: Sun Bears!, Nick Drake, Springsteen, Amy Winehouse, Bob Marley, Bon Iver, Mazzy Star….
BI: A fan of yours, Brandon Farmer of Perry, GA, wants to know if you could punch anyone in the face, who would it be? And why?
JMM: I speak for all musicians when I say: flight Attendants who won’t let me carry my guitar on the plane. Why? Because they charge me $75 to let them break it, and then they refuse to pay for it.
BI: [Laughs] Random: Do you have a secret? If so, what is it?
JMM: Unfortunately, I have very few secrets anymore.
BI: What is your favorite drink?
JMM: Diet Coke from the machine with a spritz of Dr. Pepper.
BI: What are you reading?
JMM: Malcolm Gladwell, Flannery O’connor, RollingStone Interviews
BI: Finally, do you have any news for your fans? Let us in on something.
JMM: We’re Currently in the studio working on bonus material for the rerelease of The Medicine and Song Inside the Sounds and we’re finishing up a couple of film projects that we hope to release early next year. Also it looks like we’ll be releasing several different collectors edition vinyl eps next year as well.
BI: Thanks for hanging out.