Since their humble Ohio beginnings nearly two decades ago, the fine fellas of Relient K — that is, Matt Thiessen and Matt Hoopes — have fascinated the heads and hearts of millions of alternative rock diehards with artful tongue-in-cheek, musical adventurousness and spiritual thoughtfulness. With a grin and a wink, the creative duo, who are not just professional partners but life-long friends, have enlisted the vehicle of music to perpetuate hope even among life’s most gloomy confusions in the lives of legions of listeners.
Frame-working their discography with a tactful teeter-totter between self-deprecation and self-reflection, the prolific pairing continues to earn the trust of Relient’s loyal masses by utilizing the vulnerability of verse and rhyme to wrestle with their own flaws first, before encouraging fans to consider the same.
Now as thirty-something musicians with families and a mortgage, the still-young veterans unleash their, arguably, most experiential track listing to date, Air For Free (Gotee/Mono vs Stereo), examining the troubles common to humanity with creative brains and sensitive hearts. Commemorating the recording’s critical release — and the band’s fifth Billboard chart-topper — Relient K sits down for an astute conversation on the influence of music in culture, in the church, on their listeners and in their own lives.
CCM Magazine: The word that keeps coming up in reference to the new record, Air For Free, is “adventure.” How did this record embody adventure?
Matt Thiessen: We were just joking earlier about how I don’t really get that involved in the social media. I’m not attacking it all the time. Part of our adventure in life is finding things to do that get us out of the house and off the grid a little bit, or maybe disconnected from the devices.
I like to go for a run everyday, somewhere between seven to thirteen miles, no phone, and it’s an adventure every day. Some days I’ll see a guy trying to get across the street in a wheelchair and he needs a little help, so I’ll go help him out. Or I’ll go into a coffee shop and just get a glass of water and be sweaty and gross and say, “I’m sorry. I ’m not buying anything, but thanks for the free water.” It’s an adventure.
All the songs on this album, we’re trying to approach happiness in life from a very organic place. There are a lot of animals. And how I’m a 35-year-old man, and the growing and maturing as a person that I’ve been trying to be, those are all the adventures of life.
Matt Hoopes: There’s actually an entire group of songs on our record that feel like an adventure to me. It feels like, not only a journey, but maybe it’s something that is bold, that’s pushing out of where we’ve been. Maybe it’s something that is important but kind of about our story, about what we’re going through. So even when I was grouping the songs together, there was one section that I said, “These are the adventure songs.” That’s the theme. One section was like, “These are our rock songs.” These are our important songs,” was one of them.
[All of] these songs felt like adventure to me, so that was a kind of weird theme that kept recurring. Even when we did photos for the record, we called this guy Josh, who is a friend of a friend. We knew that he knew where all the cool spots were. It just felt like this adventure. I feel like it added a visual with the music that was already there, and connected it together.
CCM: As a band you are infamous for tongue-in-cheek. Yet sarcasm can be a bit caustic, or critical of others, yet you guys use it to point the finger at yourself first. To say, “OK, what’s going on with me?” before opining about everyone else.
MT: It’s not necessarily good to be preachy in songs. It’s not good to point the finger and say, “You ought to do this, and you ought to do that.” So a way to do that for yourself is to say, “You know, I could be better at this,” or “Man, I made a mistake.” And when a listener relates to the song, they identify with you. Then all of a sudden it becomes this unified sort of thing.
To do it with tongue-in-cheek…it’s fun to put a little wink in your music. It’s cool to do it in a way that can almost be taken seriously. As you say, there’s some truth and realness to it, and then, at the same time, there’s this playful, sunshine-y element to it, too, where hopefully the audience sees that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
CCM: And I think this adds to your listener-love. It feels like they are very connected to you guys, and it feels like you’re very connected to them. I’m wondering if this is one way that you are taking care of your listeners. You’re saying, “Hey, we are the same.”
MT: Matt and I grew up being fans of all these bands. We’d go around to all the shows and meet these bands because they weren’t in this holier-than-thou hierarchy of fame. As a band, we want to be friends with all the kids that are watching the show. We’re all on the same playing field, and we all probably have things in common. It’s supposed to be about having a love between brothers and sisters. [To Hoopes] I don’t know — what do you think?
MH: I think we’ve always been able to connect, not only through our music, but through our personalities. The way we come across. The way we speak to people. I think that’s always been a part of who we are, but also the identity of our band. I feel like that’s a good thing. Life is too complex to come in and be negative and derogatory. You just never know what people are going through. These little glimmers of positivity are very important to us in music and something we’ve always tried to strive for.
CCM: You guys have had a really large faith-based constituency from early on, yet you also maintain significant mainstream access. How has this impacted how you create, how you relate to fans, to not necessarily be tied down to the parameters of the Christian music genre or church culture?
MT: There are benefits to both. Having ties to it, and not having ties to it. Having this — it’s not a gray area — but it’s an all-encompassing sort-of thing. Bands like Five Iron Frenzy, Sixpence None The Richer, and especially Switchfoot, taught us how to do it. How to just embrace the whole thing.
It honestly doesn’t have to influence [the creative process]. You don’t have to think about the audience all the time when you are creating something, you just think about what you want to create. It’s good to know there are people out there who support it and come from different places.
CCM: So when you are creating music, you are not always thinking on this micro level — the audience and how they will receive it, but more of, “What I have to offer.” And what we have to offer through our craft is our story, right?
MT: For sure. There has always been this comfortable place that we have found ourselves in when we are creating our music, our art. It’s an easy thing to do. We just don’t worry about what people have to say about us.
MH: Sometimes we don’t feel like we quite fit in anywhere. That’s the other side of the coin, is not feeling like we quite fit in with all elements of the church or elements of people who aren’t connected with the church even. That’s been something we have dealt with. We try to even embrace that fact. We are here being ourselves, and sometimes it doesn’t always make sense to everyone, but we are trying to be honest and do what we do.
CCM: Feeling that divide, not always feeling like you resonate with this audience or that audience, does that tension provide some kind of creative outlet as well?
MT: Yeah. It gives us an identity. It’s a non-identity identity. We’re just the sandlot kids. We’re out there on the fringes doing our thing. To us, it’s been an Ohio thing. There are parts of our culture, and how we grew up, that defines how we do it.
CCM: It seems to me, music is the greatest medium by which we communicate with God, ourselves, one another.
MH: Music is intrinsically important. It is more important than we often give it credit for. There’s a spirituality to it. There’s a depth to music that is hard to describe. Even in just playing a thing on piano or guitar, there is something important there.
I was having this conversation with a friend awhile back. She’ll post very meaningful and deep things on her social media. I was telling her she should write songs about that. Doesn’t this feel a little bit unfulfilling? You should finish a song about that. This is what music is for. Part of what makes it important is how it helps us to express and connect and all be here together.
CCM: I found this quote of yours, Hoopes, on social media. So see if this feels like you. [Laughs] It was a picture of an old piano with all this character, and you said, “There is something about the imperfection of an old instrument that not only gives it character but tells a story and connects us to its past.” Is this not true of us?
MH: What I was trying to say is it’s almost like this thing has a soul to it. But we are souls. As people, we have souls. We are very complex and also a product of our experiences and the things that we have gone through.
As a musician, there is something to an old instrument. You like to think of the songs that have been played on it or everything it’s gone through. There is something special about picking up an instrument and feeling connected to it. I feel that as a guitar player mainly, but I felt like in the piano I could hear it. I could hear Matt playing differently, I could see him playing it differently, and that felt important to me. I feel like I can hear it on the recording, and in some ways, it helped guide our path.
MT: How old was that piano? Do you remember?
MH: It was early 1900s. I don’t know exactly.
MT: Basically, we rented this AirBNB out on a dairy farm, and they had this piano [inside it]. The woman who owned the place, it was her great-grandmother’s or something, and a lot of hymns were played on it. It was pretty pitchy, but we got it tuned up and that’s how the record was created. It’s a very piano-heavy record.
CCM: Think about all the years that instrument’s been telling stories.
MT: Hopefully some of that trickled its way through, some of those hymns or something.
MH: And ultimately, the piano is not the important part. The song is the important part — the emotion, the feeling — but it’s cool that the piano is in itself, as an inanimate object, a part of the story. I think that’s beautiful to think about.
MT: It’s like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. You’re making the wardrobe out of the tree that grew out of the magic.