Lead singer Matt Thiessen and guitarist Matt Hoopes address their divisive new album Collapsible Lung, the stigma of co-writing, and why after 15 years it feels like a rebirth of the band.
So how long have you lived in Nashville now?
Matt Hoopes: I’ve been here about eight years and Matt’s been here about three, maybe coming up on four. Yeah, it’s such a great community here. That’s the main reason we moved here and that’s the main reason we’ve stayed. There’s such a cool community of friends and people to hang out with that are kind of doing the same thing and just want to have fun playing music together.
You’re doing a Midwest tour this month. Will you be doing a more extensive run in the fall?
Hoopes: Yeah, we’re actually working on a few options right now that we’re really excited about. I’m not even sure if I should say, but it’s 99 percent sure and we’re talking about doing a co-headline with Motion City. Maybe it will be confirmed by the time you put this up. I mean, literally, it could get confirmed today. We won’t announce anything until it’s done, but we’ve never toured with them. We’ve always talked about it because we’re friends with them and we love their music.
That’s a perfect match.
Hoopes: Yeah, I think it will be really fun. I think it will be really cool since we’ve never toured with them before. We’re crossing our fingers that that one goes through.
I don’t know if you’ve thought about it at all, but these days it’s all the rage doing 10-year anniversary tours and the 10-year for Mmhmm is coming up at the end of next year. Have you thought about doing anything special for that record?
Hoopes: Yeah, we have thought about it actually. I think why that also happens is that on the business side you get the rights back to it usually. We are planning on rereleasing the record. We have a few ideas in the works, as far as how to do that and make it special, probably repressing vinyl for that. We are planning on doing a tour where we play maybe the whole record front-to-back.
We’ve even talked about getting our drummer who was with us at that point to play with us. He was really stoked on the idea. I think we’ll just make it fun. We’ve even talked about getting our bass player from that era, too, which might be harder to get now. But we’re definitely talking about doing it with our drummer, Dave, who was with us nine years. We’re still friends with him and I think it would be really fun to do that.
I remember seeing you last summer on tour and I think you were playing three songs from Collapsible Lung already, so it seems it’s been an unusually long process to get this record out there and released. Can you talk about what that was like?
Hoopes: Yeah, we actually had most of this record recorded almost a year ago. It just kind of took a while to put the finishing touches and figure out everything about how we were going to release it. I don’t know if there’s a good answer as to why it exactly took as long as it did, but it did and we’re happy to finally be putting it out. We’re excited to see what people think.
Not counting the covers album, this has been the longest gap between albums you’ve ever had. Did it feel that way to you guys?
Hoopes: Yeah, it definitely does feel like that. I think that’s part of the idea of coming at this record from a completely different angle musically, and just across the board really. The gap of time would allow for that in some ways. We can put out a record that is not necessarily in line with the last one or doesn’t necessarily follow any of the rules that we followed before.
Matt Thiessen: I think our age had something to do with it, too. A lot of bands that we came up with are on hiatus. I guess we went on hiatus without making an announcement a little bit. We still toured, we still played, we’re still together, but we were just taking a while to put out the new material. It just allowed us some time to be 30 years old. We’re still the same band. It was just a natural thing for us again.
This album also seems to be more of a quieter release for you guys. It’s basically digital only, with limited physical copies at shows and stuff, and I don’t know if there’s been an official single or video from the album yet. Was that intentional or you just wanted to get it out there and that’s kind of how it happened?
Hoopes: I think there’s two sides to it. We wanted to put it out on our own. We wanted to do it our own way. You start thinking, “When was the last time I went to a store to buy a CD?” If you do want a CD or a vinyl, you can order it from our website or get it at a show, if that’s something that’s important to you as a person, as a fan.
I think also we left things open so that if there was a rerelease or a major label partner down the road, then we could do a physical distribution at that point. But for now, we’re just going to put it out on our own and do the best we can and do our own marketing. Hopefully if it’s good and people like it, they’ll tell their friends. I think that’s all the major labels can count on these days.
Thiessen: It would be cool to make a video eventually, or something, and do a marketing push. It’s hard to decide what the right song is. I don’t know. We’re just letting the album come out and then figuring that stuff out afterwards, which is what we did with our fourth record, the Mmhmm record. We kind of put it out and then I think five or six months later Capital ended up doing the marketing push. It ended up working out pretty well.
So after hearing this album my take was it seems to be you were experimenting on making a Top 40-sounding record as Relient K. Was that the initial idea for the record?
Thiessen: Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of co-writing lately, a lot of trying to write for Top 40, like, Let’s try and write a song for Britney Spears today. That sort of silly activity. I thought, “Why not do the same thing for Relient K?” I contend we’re the hardest, which we are [laughs], and write with some other people who do similar writing for Top 40 people.
It’s fun. You get to be a different person, like a different character. It definitely allowed us to be a little more unpredictable, even to ourselves, not really knowing what we were going to come up with when we were writing a song. It was really fun.
Hoopes: The main thing we wanted to do was push ourselves out of the boundaries that we had done, where it’s like you come in and put two guitars, and then drums and bass and maybe piano, and call it good. We wanted to take each song for what it was. We wanted to push ourselves from what we normally would just sit down and come up with, just to try and create music that we felt had life and energy and that we would be excited to play, excited to record and excited to perform. I think in that way we succeeded.
There tends to be this huge stigma when bands end up doing co-writes. What all does that entail and how much does it differ from when you do a song in-house with just the band members?
Thiessen: In the past, when it came time to do a Relient K record I would normally try to get a lot of it done on my own. I’d find a house somewhere and spend weeks thinking about what songs Relient K fans would want to hear, what do I want to do, and then I would bring that to the band and we would make it our own.
This time it was just me and Matt. We went to Los Angeles to start the record and ended up getting together with Tim Pagnotta from Sugarcult and this guy Evan Bogart. I don’t know. We were just seeing what would happen if Matt and I started the songs with other people, so it was completely different. Five hours into writing a song we would kind of have a song done, which was never the case before. It was pretty cool.
Hoopes: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Kind of in a similar way that Matt was talking about, we just got in a room with the other guys and tried to figure out how to do it. I think more so on this record, though, a lot of that stuff was figured out while we were actually recording it, even as far as like, How are we going to approach guitars on this song? How are we going to approach every element of the song? I think we had a lot of fun, all of us, doing it.
Vocally, this is definitely a different record, and there’s a couple songs that don’t even sound like the Matt Thiessen we’ve heard in the past. What went into the vocal work on this record?
Thiessen: I’ve been trying to figure out, I guess in my opinion, how to become a better singer and also just a different singer. A lot of that has to do with lyrics and how personal they are and sometimes how personal they aren’t. On this record, a lot of it wasn’t super personal. It’s kind of like performing more than singing from I got to get this out, you know, it’s just my angst. This record was more like these are the stories and these are little poems we have to capture these melodies, that sort of thing.
I’ve been singing a lot of demos for other people, songs that I’m writing for other people, so it’s weird to consider myself to be a singer rather than just some hired guy playing guitar in a band. I approached this record by letting Matt Hoopes take control of a lot of the production. I wanted to just come in, sing the song, and deliver it the best I can. It was really fun to focus on just being a good singer.
Hoopes: Honestly, I just want to add one thing. I’m really proud of Matt’s vocal performance on this thing. I do think it sounds really different on some songs. You’re probably talking about “Boomerang.” I’m trying to think of another one like that, but especially the songs we did with Paul Moak we went in there and tried to bring in a live element to it. A lot of those songs have at least live drums and bass and guitar on that, and then when Matt went in to do the vocals we tried to have that same energy as was with the tracks.
Thiessen: I used to try and have everything be perfect, but on these vocals if it wasn’t exactly in pitch or whatever, I would let it go a little bit more. I think that was something I was looking forward to doing, too, being more relaxed with how things turned out. What were you saying Matt?
Hoopes: I was going to talk about even on a song like “Sweeter,” a later track that’s on the record. That’s completely just a live take of all of us playing together and Matt singing together. We’re all in the same room. You can’t really mix it because everything’s bleeding into everything. That’s something we’ve never tried before and I’m really proud of what we were able to record on that song.
I know you guys are pretty active online, so you’ve probably noticed the initial Internet reaction to the album hasn’t been as positive as your past work has been. Being that this record is such a break with what you’ve done in the past, was that something you anticipated?
Hoopes: Oh, yeah [laughs]. Have you read much of that Matt?
Thiessen: No, but my mom did. She wrote me an email the other day. It was funny. She’s like, “People either love it or they hate.” I’m like, “Well, that’s kind of what we were going for.”
Hoopes: It’s kind of like when you get to this point in your career, I’d rather people love it or hate it than not care. I actually read a ton of posts on Absolute Punk yesterday, just seeing what people are saying about it and stuff. Some people are violently opposed to the direction we are going, which is something we knew would happen.
Honestly, I’d like to see what they think about it later, because a lot of them were saying that about our last record. I remember when that came out a lot of people hated it, like Why is it so negative? So, I don’t know. I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens with it. Maybe it’s not some people’s thing, and that’s OK, but we’ll keep making music and doing what we do.
A lot of people have been asking if this is the direction the band will continue heading in or something more of an anomaly. Where do you see yourselves progressing from here?
Thiessen: I would like to make another record pretty soon, and probably in a similar vein. When you listen to the individual songs on this album, they’re a little bit all over the map, too. It’s not like there’s a certain thing that we did, so we can’t really repeat a certain thing.
The next one will be different, and the same, and all that. I would like to make another rock record at some point, too. The beauty of it is it doesn’t matter what we do. We have as much time as we want to make as many records as we want from here on out. We’ll just keep doing it.
Hoopes: It kind of feels like starting over in some ways, with our drummer Ethan leaving. The last tour we did with Hellogoodbye, it felt really cool. It felt like a new thing. It felt fresh to go out on the road and play songs with our friends. I’m excited to make more records.
I kind of feel the same way as Matt. I don’t have a preconceived idea of where the next one goes. Once we start putting some songs together and deciding a direction, we won’t repeat ourselves, because we really can’t. We’ll just keep doing what we do and see what comes of it.
Do you want to do more co-writing or stick with more originals?
Hoopes: I don’t know.
Thiessen: I love the co-writing aspect of when you get together with somebody you can’t really not finish the song. You have to finish, or otherwise it will never see the light of day. You have somebody else that’s involved, so you want to make sure you do a good job. To a certain degree, you just have to do it, so I really like having other people involved. Matt and I can sit and probably write four songs on our own every day, so there’s always time to do that, too.
Hoopes: Yeah, I think we’ll probably just try a bunch of things and assemble the best songs. We’ll figure out how we want to do it when that time comes, which will probably be soon.
How many tracks did you end up writing for this Collapsible Lung process?
Thiessen: I think we had two or three leftover afterwards, so maybe 14.
Hoopes: We had a lot of starts, though.
Thiessen: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of things that I definitely want to finish. I counted the other day and we probably have seven songs that we could finish for the new record already in place.
I want to ask about a couple songs off the record real quick. The first is “Don’t Blink,” which is also the first track on the record and among my favorite openers that you guys have had. How did that song come about?
Thiessen: Matt Hoopes started that song. Lyrically, I was really into that song because it is a personal, introspective thing that Matt came up with about his life. It was cool to be able to sing lyrics that Matt wrote that I didn’t start.
That song makes me more emotional than the rest of the songs on the record. Matt and I are pretty good buddies, and I can put myself in your shoes when I sing it. I really love performing that song live. I love hearing it back because it makes me happy.
Hoopes: Aww, thanks. That song from the beginning always had like a little bit of a 90s feel to it. For a while after we tracked it, I did not think it was going to come together at all. I think the main way it came together was taking elements out. There was organ throughout the song, and we kept taking it out of more and more sections until it was out of the entire song. I think it comes in at one break, and then there were acoustics through the whole song. It just made it feel cluttery and not as rock.
After we were done tracking, I was like, Man, I don’t even know if this song should go on the record. When it got mixed, our manager was like, “What is that song? I’ve never heard it before.” We were like, “Yeah, you have, but it turned out better in the mix.” That was something where stripping away a few elements of it really made it come together.
Was that “Ooh-oh-ooh-oh” part always in the song from the beginning?
Hoopes: Yeah, I had written that little guitar part in the beginning and kind of sang over it, so that was always from the beginning.
The other track I wanted to mention is the title track, “Collapsible Lung,” which seems to be another personal song and also probably the most similar musically to what you’ve done in the past. Can you talk about what it was like coming up that one?
Thiessen: Yeah, that was the first song I started for the record. I was almost writing about how I didn’t know how to start writing for the record in a way. It’s kind of stream of consciousness in the lyrics, and then the chorus ended up coming around way later than the rest of the song. I remember not knowing how to write a chorus to that song and Matt ended up helping me figure it out.
Yeah, that song is cool. We titled the record after that song based on the way it summarizes where we are, a little bit of looking back and in retrospect of our career, all the fun and the touring and all that stuff that we’ve done.
Thiessen, I saw you at the final Jack’s Mannequin show where you did a little solo performance. You mentioned you were working on a little folk project and played a song called “Pot of Gold” that was part of that. Is that still in the works?
Thiessen: Well, no. I wrote about 12 songs with the girl I was dating, and then we broke up. I don’t really know where those songs are, but I’m glad that I wrote them. It was a good process of writing something with more of a folkier, more country idea. It feels good to write those kinds of songs in Nashville.
I liked playing that song. I could maybe see putting that on a Relient K record in the future, that sort of thing. I don’t know. Writing those kinds of songs probably helped me get better at playing acoustic and the stripped-down stuff, but it was more duet-based so I don’t know exactly what’s going to come of it.
I know you’ve flirted with doing a solo album in the past. Is that something you’d still like to do at some point?
Thiessen: Yeah, for sure. It’s one of those things where when you do a solo record, you kind of have to do another genre. I’ve been trying to think of what that genre would be. Lately I’ve been fidgeting around with a bunch of stuff that sounds like that Shawn Mullins “Lullaby” song, where it’s kind of like rap, but it sounds so lame and it’s fun to do. I’ve been messing around a little bit with that.
Hoopes: [Laughs] I love it.
Thiessen: It’s fun to sit down at the piano and write songs where there’s not going to be a whole lot more instrumentation, there’s not going to necessarily be a band or anything like that. So yeah, I’ve been thinking of doing a solo record. I’m not sure it would be before the next Relient K record or after, but it’s also in the works.
Going along with the solo record, I know you’re good friend Andrew McMahon is doing a solo thing now. Have you talked about writing more with him?
Thiessen: Yeah, he and I really enjoy writing together. It’s just one of those things that really revolves around scheduling. It depends on what he’s up to, what I’m up to, and what we’re going to write for. I would love to write with him for our stuff because I don’t think we’ve done that yet. I’ve only been able to write with him for some Jack’s stuff.
It’s one of those things where once you start writing with another person, you start a relationship and it’s kind of like you’re in your own band for a minute. Even though he and I aren’t in a project together, whenever we need to write a song together it’s like our own project, and then we just have to figure out where to plug in those songs.
Same thing with some of the other people we’ve co-written with. You know for sure you want to do more. The more you write with somebody, the better you get and the faster you get. It’s a really cool element to the whole co-writing thing.
A saw a video on YouTube from a couple months back where you guys performed “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which I thought was unexpected and you did a really cool take on that song. How did you end up picking that song to play?
Thiessen: Whenever I can’t go to church, at my house I’ll just sit and play a group of hymns on my piano. I call it church at home. Especially on Sundays when we’re on tour, I love just having church. That’s kind of how that came about. But yeah, it’s really good to be able to do that stuff and get out of your artist moment for a little bit and more into a universal, life is bigger than us sort of thing.
Hoopes: That song’s always been really important to me, too. I remember we did that when my grandma passed away. It’s a song my family would always sing before dinner on Sunday at my grandparent’s house. We were at the funeral and singing that song and it was so meaningful to me.
It was around that same time Matt was like, “Hey, why aren’t we singing that song?” We were literally talking about how it was so meaningful. I think that’s part of the idea, too, so when we play it live and perform it, it’s never a forced thing. It’s not something we have to do. It’s more of something that was personally important to us and something that we wanted to do.
I read somewhere online, Thiessen, that one of your earliest musical influences was the soundtrack to The Sting. Is that true?
Thiessen: I grew up taking piano lessons, and whenever I got to pick my own songs to play I would always pick ragtime and stuff like that. That never really influenced the direction of the band, but that stuff’s so fun and I can still remember a lot of it on the piano. Especially when you have an out-of-tune piano at a theater or at a venue or something, it’s really fun to play old timey ragtime stuff.
Hoopes, do you remember if you had any quirky early musical influences?
Hoopes: Oh, my goodness. We luckily didn’t go ahead with this, but some of the first songs I learned on guitar were the entire Hootie & the Blowfish record. We kept joking around on the last tour about playing some of the songs, but that’s a horrible idea to do because that music is painful. Yeah, I started on that mainly.
My mom taught me how to play guitar. I remember learning Jars of Clay and stuff like that, which is what I was really into when I started. I think also because I only had an acoustic guitar, I thought that I just had to learn only acoustic songs. I didn’t figure out distortion or anything. I think Matt was the first person that showed me. He was like, “Check out this pedal. You turn it on and it goes all crazy. You can play 311 songs.” I was like, “Wooaahh.” That was pretty fun.
So I’ll close it off with one last question here. Obviously, Ethan’s left the band now and the Jon’s aren’t touring full time anymore. What are the state of things with the band members right now and going forward where do you see things heading?
Hoopes: Honestly, Jon and John aren’t able to tour as much, and we just haven’t toured as much over the last couple years. They both have jobs where they have really great opportunities and don’t really allow them to tour.
I know that Jon Schneck really wanted to play the Nashville show with us tomorrow, and I think he might still come up and play a few songs. We’re trying to work out the details on that. He’s in school and working full time and has two kids, so his life got kind of crazy at the last minute. He’s doing finals right now, but I’d love to bring those guys on whenever they can. Ethan definitely felt like it was time to move on to something more steady as well, and we wish him the best in that.
You two are the heart and soul of Relient K and the only two constants the band has had through these 15 years or so. What’s it been like having all these people come and go over the years?
Thiessen: It’s a little sad sometimes, especially thinking about our first bass player, Brian, who started the band with us. We’re still such great friends with him. We just miss having him around and hanging out with him like we used to be able to. It’s also really cool watching our friends become adults, just like we’re becoming adults, and figuring out where your path in life takes you. Not everyone’s path can be in the same pop-punk rock Christian band we started in 1998. Sometimes you have to do something else.
I feel like everybody that’s been in the band has gone on to do other things that are cool, and Matt and I have just been sticking it out. The guy who’s playing drums with us right now, Tom Breyfogle, has been a great friend of mine for the last six or seven years. I’m really stoked to have him playing with us and it’s really cool to see him be able to come into this situation.
I don’t know. It’s cool that there hasn’t been a lot of drama with people leaving the band and coming into the band, it’s just felt natural. But it’s one of those where we haven’t had the same original band members since day one except Matt and I, and that’s just the way it is.
Hoopes: Yeah, this kind of goes along with before, talking about the last tour that we did, but it kind of feels like more than ever there’s a rebirth. We’re just going out on the road, having fun and playing songs with our friends. All the guys playing with us right now are from Canton, Ohio, and it’s kind of a cool thing. We’re having fun with it.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk