The Abstract Space of Worship: an Interview with Derek Webb, Part 2

[This is a continuation of a conversation I had with Derek Webb about his latest record, Feedback. Click here for part 1 of our interview.]

"Your Will Be Done on Earth as in Heaven" by Scott EricksonJenni Simmons: How did you select Jeremy Cowart and Scott Erickson to create the visuals for Feedback?

Derek Webb: There was a point in which we determined that it was going be instrumental and we wanted to try and make a real statement with a piece of abstract art; we might as well go all the way, because who knows if we would ever be able to revisit a moment like this? So we thought: why not provide some additional art that helps to explain it, to engage people a little bit? I called my friend Scott Erickson in Houston. He’s a painter and we’ve had our eyes peeled for opportunities to work together for a long time. I laid out the idea of what I was working on, sent him the record and some notes I made during all of my reading, and asked if he would consider a commission to make some abstract art that would coincide with the album.

I pushed him pretty hard to make it really, really abstract. He’s an incredible painter and he paints amazing metaphors in his paintings — word pictures. But I wanted to push him even further in terms of the abstraction and he seemed really excited about the idea. He put a sketch together of nine paintings, structured the same way as the record (a painting per line in the Lord’s Prayer). I was immediately blown away by what he had sketched.

With Jeremy Cowart it was a very different situation. I’ve known Jeremy for many years; he’s a great photographer. I follow him on Twitter and at one point, he tweeted a photograph of his television glitching. It was a weird pixilated image and he included a caption, something along the lines of how sometimes random and beautiful things happen. When I saw it, I immediately thought this is another element of Feedback. I had an immediate emotional connection to that picture, and the randomness and spontaneity of how he captured it.

"Hallowed is Your Name" by Jeremy CowartThe way I commissioned Jeremy was very different. It wasn’t so much “Let me send you the record and talk you through all of the ideas and then have you create something based on these songs.” I asked him to essentially recreate the moment when that happened, when his television glitched. He took some old DVDs, scratched them up, and put them in his DVD player and waited for them to skip and glitch. He took several abstract photographs in that exact same style. Then I wanted to share the record and walk him through the idea and have him go back and choose nine photographs that he felt communicated each one of those ideas.

The intention was different because I didn’t want him to communicate something about the ideas so much as I wanted him to make editorial decisions about photographs he had taken in a particular style after the fact. And I love what he chose. After he made those decisions and sent me the images, assigning meaning to each one, the more I found unintentional meaning all over those photographs. It’s a great way to connect yourself to mysterious kinds of spiritual realities and moments, and swing the doors wide open for the Spirit to work because there was no intention on his part to connect this to the content. And yet, the Spirit has very much connected these images to this content specifically for me. It was so liberating to approach the making of the art in this way because I make music. What I typically do is structure is pop music: 3-minute songs with verses, choruses, and bridges. So this was a whole other world of creativity, and it’s a place you can never find your way back from.

I began to think, Why are lyrics really necessary? Do I always put lyrics in songs because I feel like I’m supposed to? It kind of blew the roof off of my typical process and framework. I had already made some plans with Josh for my next record, the follow-up to Stockholm Syndrome. This is already completely disrupting those plans.

But what’s great is that it is liberating me unto something much more potentially creative and interesting — not just in terms of making music that’s instrumental, but deconstructing the entire process in order for it to be what it is. Sometimes it’s better to have no intention. To meditate on a certain idea and just make art to see what happens. I’m really thankful for the process.

JS: I love, love this project — the music, paintings, and the photographs, but of the three, for some reason, I really wrestle with Jeremy’s photographs. I love abstract art, and all kinds of photography. I’m not one of these “traditional art-only” people.

The music resonated with me first, and the more I looked at the paintings I was blown away. I do like Jeremy’s photographs, but there’s something about them I don’t understand. I mean, I know good and well we’re not supposed to try to understand art. But there’s something about the photographs that I just struggle with, which probably means I’ll be super passionate about them in a month.

"For Thine is: A) The Kingdom B) The Power C) The Glory Forever and Ever" by Jeremy CowartDW: But I think what’s good about that is it leaves you somewhere to go. You might not understand or connect with those images this year or next year. But we’re not in a hurry; the Spirit’s not in a hurry. And it might be another moment at another time in a different season of life that something about one of those images really begins to mean something to you. It just takes spending time with it.

I can’t speak for Jeremy, but I think the criteria upon which he chose those images probably has to do more with how those images made him feel in relation to what he was hearing than it had to do with what any of it really means.

We tried to build meaning connected to each line in every song as deep as possible. You really could spend weeks and months decoding. The paintings have similar elements. Some people have asked me, “What does it all mean?” But I love that there is something connected to this project for which that question does not have a clear answer. People have asked me about some of the photographs, “What does it mean?” and my response is usually, “What does it mean to you? Why does it have to mean anything? How does it make you feel?” Or, beyond that, why are we so concerned with commodifying art to the point that it has to serve some purpose or have some meaning or use? It doesn’t have to, even if we don’t like it or understand it or even if it can’t be understood. The point is that Jeremy captured the photographs, he assigned meaning to them for him personally, and now you can see them and you can engage with them.

JS: I want to clarify: I don’t dislike the photographs. But I wanted to share my thoughts because my struggle perplexes me. However, that’s one of the many things I like about Feedback. I like art that challenges and stretches me. But it’s odd that the music and paintings make some kind of sense to me, and the photographs are almost foreign even though I don’t hate them. It’s very mysterious.

DW: Again, that’s one of the things I love about this project. Because if nothing else, it causes that struggle and it’s in a position to provoke somebody. I think art is very useful in that regard.

JS: You do that very well — provoke and challenge people. I wish more artists did. So, thank you.

DW: Oh, absolutely. I consider it part of my job to have set some things about this project out of reach in terms of people being able to maybe understand it, apply it, or put meaning to it. I like that there has been something set a little too far out.

JS: That’s very much like the Lord’s Prayer, or any prayer, if you think about it.

DW: Right! Because there are some things about prayer that are just beyond our realm of understanding. So even in a small way, maybe we have created a metaphor for that understanding.

JS: I believe so. I keep thinking about how when we have no words for our prayers "the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."

DW: Yeah. And I really appreciate that Jeremy was willing to play that particular role in this project. To be the one who was willing to possibly be totally misunderstood.

JS: The entire project is brilliant whether it’s readily understood or not. I often listen to it in my car, and I try to make the time to sit down and meditate on the music, paintings, and photographs all together, which is an amazing, challenging, and beautiful experience.

DW: Well, I really appreciate it. It’s kind of odd that it’s simultaneously my most and least explicitly spiritual piece of work. By intention, it is my most explicitly spiritual piece of work, content-wise, ever. But because it’s instrumental and so abstract, it’s also the least spiritual.

I’ve seen a few atheists online react to it and really love it and they are able to engage with it on some level. I am so pleased about that. I hope that Feedback stands up on its own regardless of whether or not anyone understands what it’s about. I hope there’s not a spiritual prerequisite to enjoy the art itself. I hope that people are willing to approach it as it is and just enjoy electronic music or instrumental music. Even if it really means nothing to them. Because sometimes that’s how things start. You engage with something that means nothing to you, and then there’s a mysterious moment afterward in which it means something and maybe everything. That’s how spirituality is, you know?

JS: When you made Feedback, were you hoping fans would understand it? Or did you suspect that they’d have to work at it?

DW: I hoped it would be challenging to people. I even hoped that the idea would be challenging. I was very much looking forward to the inevitable rhetorical questions of whether or not worship music can be devoid of lyrics. I hoped that it would provide a good springboard into some conversations for people, transcending the record itself.

JS: Like, even to create both reactions: “Oh, I love this, I love everything about it,” or, “I don’t get this at all, what is he doing?” Were you hoping you’d get both reactions?

DW: I always assume I’m gonna get both. And I always seem to get both. I mean, no matter what I do, it seems like some people will really resonate with it, and then other people just don’t get it and don’t care, and that’s fine. I don’t make music for everybody. I just make music for some people. And it’s not always the same group of people. Some people come in and out of that group. That’s fine with me and I don’t ever mind if people don’t like my work.

I was actually surprised by the massive positive response after I released Feedback. I assumed there would be more confusion about it. I was surprised how much people seemed to love it. So that’s been a real encouragement.

JS: You’re going to release a short film for Feedback this year called Self-Sabotage, right?

DW: Yes, soon. I don’t know exactly when it’ll be finished, but Scott Brignac, the filmmaker, is working on it as we speak. And it’s really coming along, I tell ya — it’s a really cool piece of work.

JS: The subway clip is beautiful. But how did a film come about, and what is it about this music that stirs up so many visuals for you?

DW: Honestly, it’s been a matter of taking it to people, to friends, who I trust and getting their response. Right after we recorded the “Amen” event in Houston, at the end of that weekend, I wrote a blog about what Feedback was going to be and tried to reveal a little more about it. After I posted that blog, I immediately got a call from Scott Brignac. He’s a good friend and an incredible filmmaker. He basically just said, “Hey man, I want to be part of this. I would love to contribute something.” And I said, “I don’t have any money — there’s not a lot of money in abstract art.” But he was so gracious — he was like, “Man, I just really want to do this. Could we talk about it?”

He was going to New York that next weekend and said, “While I’m there, let me film some stuff, I’ll send you something rough, and you can see what you think.” We talked a lot about how we might structure films for the entire project and into the various movements and what we could do to build some metaphorical significance into the films with actors but no dialogue, and all these interesting elements.

The first thing he sent back to me is the short that’s currently up on my web site. I was completely blown away. This is just his visual response; it’s his visual interpretation of the music and the project. With all of the various visual artists that I worked with on Feedback, once we kind of established a few ground rules and some guard rails around it, then I allowed them to go out there and make whatever they wanted to make. I’m kind of staying out of it.

Feedback [2.1] from Scott Brignac on Vimeo.

I’m letting Scott Brignac make what he wants to make. We’re going to release the film this year as a full-length, 40 minute film. It’s nine short films in three sections, and it will basically be another way to experience the record. Because the only audio on the whole film, other than a few moments so far, are the songs themselves. So it’s almost as though the soundtrack for the film has been recorded first and the film is being made to the soundtrack instead of reversed, the way that most soundtracks and films work. In watching the film, you will hear the entire record, but there will be these additional visual elements that go with it. It’ll kind of be a heightened experience of the record.

Also, the plan is to use these films live — to sync them up to the music as we’re performing and show it on stage next to us as we’re performing. There will be this live film element to the performance along with Scott Erickson, the painter, coming with us and painting live on stage. So there will be three elements — me and probably another musician performing the music in the middle of the stage; Scott will be painting one of his nine pieces on one side right up there with us; and Scott Brignac’s film will be showing on the other side of the stage. There will be all of this abstract art coming at you all at once. It should be a pretty cool live performance.

JS: Will all the paintings be on display at each show as well?

"Lead Us Not Into Temptation but Deliver Us from Evil" by Scott EricksonDW: We do have a pretty ambitious plan on how we want to tour that does involve being in a town maybe even for several days and working with a local gallery — having an installation of the paintings, the originals, going city to city. Leading up to the concert, people can come in and spend some time with the paintings and look at them. It might go well beyond a concert into several days of having me and Scott in town talking about the project and some unstructured time with us in the gallery.

We’re really thinking through how to best tour and really engage people. So there might be very small events, not unlike house shows but in galleries, and then the concert would probably be in a local club or bar with the live painting and the film.

JS: I love everything about that. Would the photographs also be involved in the gallery installations?

DW: I think we could have large prints of the photographs as well. We would want to bring everything possible out with us for this tour.

JS: Wow. You know my vote for Houston, so ...

DW: We will definitely do it in Houston because Scott Erickson and the paintings are in Houston.

JS: You thanked a whole bunch of great people in the liner notes — many people who inspire me. Two jumped out at me in particular: Makoto Fujimura and N.T. Wright. What influence did they have on Feedback?

DW: There were a handful of books that had been given to me by friends as I asked around. I called my friend Kevin Twit and asked him, “What should I be reading? I’m trying to give some diverse thought to the Lord’s Prayer.” He suggested books by N.T. Wright, Hauerwas, Dan Doriani — he gave me a handful of books. He got me going on Jeremy Begbie as well, not so much about the Lord’s Prayer, but about making abstract art. Those books were very influential in terms of the notes I made that really guided the record.

But Mako was amazing. Sandra and I made a trip to New York to play some shows and while we were there, Mako invited us to his studio where he makes art. We saw what he was working on for The Four Holy Gospels King James project. The stuff was beautiful. We were able to talk to him about how he was making them and then we went to dinner with he and his wife right around the corner form the studio. It was like this magic moment because he was one of the few people on the planet who could really give me some guidance on how to do Feedback. I was just about to start the project and he does exactly what I was attempting to do and he does it brilliantly — that is, to make abstract art with a specific content intention. And so I just pelted him with questions. “How do I take something that is a specific line, a rigid idea, and turn it into abstraction? What is the mechanism through which this gets converted into melody and rhythm? I mean, I’m not even gonna be working with lyrics.” And he gave me so much good guidance and really shepherded me through my questions. It was amazing to have a conversation with just the right person at just the right moment, right before I was going to start on the project. It was a huge influence

JS: When I look at Erickson's Feedback paintings, they remind me of Mako’s work somewhat.

DW: Yes, I agree.

JS: I’m a big fan of Mako’s art.

DW: Me, too. I don’t know how much Scott knows of Mako’s work, but I was really intrigued by how much Scott’s art reminded me so much of Mako’s. There were moments in it that were reminiscent of what I would imagine Mako’s ethic being in the making of his art. Then I knew we were on the right track.

JS: Scott himself is a great artist, and to have his work remind you of Mako is, I think, even better.

DW: I was thrilled. That’s a huge compliment to Scott, you know.

JS: I’m glad you were able to meet Mako. When I met him in Houston he was so gracious. My friend, Rob Hays, and I toured the Menil campus with Mako. Those art collections are my favorites in town, and a lot of the art I love, and some of it I’ve never understood. Mako would be really quiet and look at everything thoughtfully and intently. And then he would come over and teach us, give us insight that we’d never noticed about a painting we had studied for like ten years. It was really the greatest thing; he’s a natural, gentle teacher.

DW: Yes, he’s a real shepherd for artists. And that’s what his organization, IAM, does. He’s a remarkable guy doing tremendous work. It was a thrill to get to hang with them just before making Feedback — it was perfect.

JS: I don’t think it was an accident.

DW: No, absolutely not.

JS: Do you think Feedback is your masterpiece so far? I’m a fan of all your records, but for me, Feedback seems like your masterpiece, at least at this point of your life.

DW: Well, here’s what I can tell you. I always hope the thing that I’m working on is my masterpiece. I don’t think it’s wrong for an artist to always think what they’re doing is the best thing they’ve ever done and that it’s important that they do it and that it could potentially change everything. You should always hope that the thing you’re pouring your life into and spending time away from your family to go and make is important.

I felt that way when I was making this record and in terms of how it will stand in relation to my other records, I don’t really know at this point. But here’s what I do know: it definitely feels a bit transcendent in terms of my catalogue. It feels like it sits outside of my other work. Because of what it is, it feels like it will always kind of be its own thing and it will have occupied its own moment. I hope that people who know my records, or who have heard something about my records or me, and maybe something they don’t like, that they would at least give Feedback a chance. It feels like a reverent moment in the span of my discography. I guess my only answer is that it seems to naturally discern itself from my other records. I mean, I can imagine well into the future — because of what it requires technology-wise for me to be able to perform it — when I go to play shows and I perform stuff from this record it’s gonna require I take certain things with me and set up certain things. And I can imagine always doing shows for this record, even years from now still going and performing the Feedback record. I can see it as being something that kind of travels with me and sits outside of my other projects.

Other than that, I think time’s gonna have to tell. But in the scope my my work, I hope that my next record is my best. I would hope it’s a masterpiece. If I didn’t think it was, why would I waste my time doing it? I think it’s right for someone to think that whatever they’re doing is a masterpiece. I think it’s right for a stay-at-home parent to think that their child is a masterpiece. I think it’s right for anybody who’s doing any work to put that kind of weight on it and have that kind of hope for its glory. I don’t think it’s arrogant to hope that what you’re doing has masterful moments. Because if you don’t feel like that’s possible, maybe you have a mastery in some other area. Maybe there’s another gift where you could do something masterful and you should go and pursue that.

Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, assistant editor and staff writer for The Curator, a drummer's wife, caretaker of three cats (Harley, Milo, and Lily Belle), freelance writer, aspiring guitarist, coffee/tea/bourbon-drinker, bookworm, music fanatic, and a bird-watcher.


My Everyday Eucharist