After rumors of controversy and a Twitter-driven treasure hunt, Derek Webb's newest release, Stockholm Syndrome, has finally escaped. (The physical edition hits September 1.) It's full of great beats and gripping lyrics, lyrics that haven't gone over well with just everyone. Today, Derek talks with Patrol music editor John Wofford about making the record and what's happened since.
PATROL: I want to talk about Stockholm Syndrome as a piece of music, but also in terms of its implications for Christianity. First off, the record seems very well ordered, with each track as a supporting argument in your main theme. Was that your intention from the outset, or did the cohesiveness happen in retrospect?
Derek Webb: Honestly, I think the creative process, the writing process, for this record was very different from my other records—the way we made it, the way we wrote it. So it wasn’t intentional. I definitely did not sit down with a thesis and proceed to write songs to fit into it. I started with a general framework, namely the concept that people essentially sympathize and become infatuated with things that can ultimately destroy them. The idea had come up to me a handful of times over the last couple years, and so it became a filter through which I looked at the rest of the project. But beyond that, there wasn’t really any premeditation.
The way it went down was, I didn’t write any songs. When we went into the recording process, all I had was twenty pages, front and back, of patchwork random phrases and things I had written over the last two years. It was really abstract, not put together, and certainly not organized into songs. We started with that—Josh Moore and I basically spent the better part of six months or so just creating music. Creating pieces that we thought were evocative, that were consistent with the ideas we had.
What so much folk music lacks, in my opinion, is that initial feeling that makes you want to get up and move or dance—anything. So much of it isn’t very evocative to me; it’s all so focused on the lyrics or the melody that you forget that music is supposed to make you feel something, and it should do that before you hear the first melody or lyric. Great music does both—it makes you feel something immediately, then it comes up behind that with really powerful [content].
When we felt like we were at a pretty good place, with enough pieces of music, then I slowly kind of spit-balled the phrases that I thought were important: bits of it to accurately communicate how I look at the world, at least over the last two years. Then I kind of built the songs out from whatever stuck. It did come out of the same twenty pages, but other than that, there was less forethought, less premeditation than any record I’ve ever made. For sure.
PATROL: In reference to those twenty pages, and the initial concept, who were the victims and the perpetrators?
Webb: “Everyone” and “everyone.” As I was looking at this content and these issues, I came to see it all over the place. That was the reason that I wound up ultimately titling the record by (and tying it up together) under that general concept. Once I started to look for instances where people fall in love with their captors, with the people and circumstances that destroy them; once I started to think about that as a framework for looking at the love I was trying to write about, I saw it everywhere. If we’re talking about the record, strictly, then from any one song to the next, the whole thing could turn. Everyone is a victim, and [at some point] everyone is a captor.
PATROL: Obviously there’s been the modicum of controversy about this record that may or may not have been warranted. Did you consider potential backlash during the writing process?
Webb: Well, I have to say two things to that. One is that I’m obviously aware of the world I live in, and the world where my art tends to live, and the people who tend to engage with it, and the marketplace. So I am aware. To some extent, my awareness of those things informs how I write and what I write. Ultimately, my job is to look at the world and tell people what I see—and I literally see it as part of my job, to agitate people. I’m good at it. I have certain gifts that equip me well to do that. There are right things to rebel against, and wrong things to rebel against. And I’ve always tried to see what those things are.
Controversy—it’s not something that I’ve intentionally manufactured. I don’t look for opportunities to make it happen. As a communicator, though, I would be stupid to not take advantage of every opportunity. See, I’m not only a creator, but I’m also in the restoration business, I’m also in the business of taking things and re-making them for good, of repurposing things. So I feel like there are words that I can use as tools, to kind of use its own power against itself in order to bring about something constructive. And because I know the market, it means I can better identify good tools. Now, I don’t base songs or albums around the tools themselves, or certain words, but if I can ever employ them to help me do my job better, then I would be stupid not to—just like anyone would be stupid not to, in their own vocation.
Before the 2008 presidential election, Derek Webb argued that Christians aren’t obligated to vote against their conscience on either side. In 2007, Timothy Zila spoke with Webb about the Christian music industry’s past and future. David Sessions critiqued a Sojourners cover story that belatedly recognized Webb’s impact on Christian music. Stewart Lundy reviewed Webb’s previous album, The Ringing Bell. Jon Busch argued against evangelicals’ obsession with sex.
The second thing is that INO Records has done a tremendous job around me. I have never, ever felt like a “Christian artist.” I don’t live like that, I don’t create that way; those categories mean nothing to me. I don’t think they mean anything to anybody. I don’t think they’re real. I don’t think there’s any such thing as Christian art or secular art. I think there are Christian and secular people, who make art, and all art tends to reflect the people who make it, but there’s no such thing as “redeemed art.” And if there is, I can guarantee you, I’m not the guy making it.
Having said that, INO has always made me feel comfortable to trust my instincts completely, if there’s anything I felt was necessary or important to do. And I’ve thrown some tough stuff at them over the years, some pretty difficult issues and some complicated subject matter, and they’ve never pushed back, actually. My deal with them is that I turn in records, finished, and they kind of have no say. And they’re okay with that, because they trust me and I trust them. They know how to talk to people about it and how to be a good ambassador for me, how to sell it.
So part of me was not surprised at all that there was trouble from somebody, but the surprise came from the fact that it wasn’t with who it usually is, like retail. I’ve had a handful of records that don’t get carried in Christian retail. That’s no problem to me. But I was surprised that this time my trouble was with the label. But the fact that I was surprised at all is a testament to how well they’ve created an environment for me where I feel like I can say and do anything.
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PATROL: You’re very critical of the church’s mistreatment of the gay community and other minority groups. You say in one track: “oppression is always oppression … by stares or by fists, it’s the same.” On the flip side of that, can you point out some of the ways in which you feel we as a religious culture have gotten it right in our interaction with those groups?
Webb: I would never want to say one thing at the expense of the other. Obviously, there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians who do great work with those groups. My main problem was, well, for example: a study done over the last few years identified a pretty outrageous statistic, with 15- to 35-year-olds who were asked, “What’s the main thing that comes to mind when you think of the word ‘Christian’?” 90-some-odd percent said, “Somebody who hates gay people.”
I have talked to a handful of people who, like you said, have told me “I’m a Christian, and I don’t hate gay people, and I think you’re exaggerating.” That all may be true, and I don’t doubt it—I know a lot of sensitive and nuanced, well meaning work that’s being done. What I’m concerned about is that perception about Christianity. In the world we live in, perception is as good as reality to some degree. So I think we need to work on that.
I know that none of that really answers your question, but I’m just saying that my main concern through this has been how, even those of us who have more nuanced or less-judgmental approaches concerning these issues, need to realize how our theology is coming out of our mouths. Which means for some people it’s just a matter of having better words. And for other people, it should be an examination of how their theology does turn itself into ethics—how they treat their neighbors, etc. Because, you know, that statistic? I don’t necessarily disagree with it, unfortunately.
PATROL: Outside of the Christian blogosphere, which tends to cannibalize any issue or artist it can in order to generate a readership, and onto a more private level, have you felt any personal backlash for recording this album? Is there a marked hostility on your social front, because of the stance you’ve taken?
Webb: Not too much. There’s been a little bit. I’ve been pushed back by some people who are trying to say they don’t fit that description or statistic, who don’t want to be lumped in. And I’m not trying to lump anybody in. I make statements, so if something I’ve said resonates, then maybe that topic is something you need to address. I’m not in the conviction business, even if I’m not saying that it won’t happen by way of something I’ve said.
Honestly, I’m more than willing to take criticism, because on a personal level, I’ve gotten much more of the opposite. I’ve said before that this was a fiercely personal record, and the reason is because… well, I knew this moment was always coming, that I would eventually deal with these issues on behalf of my friends, on behalf of these people who I love in my life who are wrapped up in these issues, and the way the church deals with these people. I got to the point where I was tired of making apologies for my so-called community.
Stockholm Syndrome is the sound of me using the resources I have to create a barricade between my own community and the people I love more than anybody else in my life, who don’t understand (nor do I) the major disconnect between the way that Jesus loved people, and the way that Jesus’ followers love people. People have no problem with Jesus, this man who loved others so radically that he was killed for it. But many who now follow Jesus love others so poorly, and they seem more like those in the Biblical account who Jesus reserved the harshest language for. I’m as confused about that as my friends are. But it was time for me, personally, to draw a line and try to absorb for them, to join them on the line, absorbing this hatred that seems directed at them. I just couldn’t go another year in my personal life and not make some of these statements, simply because some of my best friends have been on the receiving end of that hatred.
So, in short, the negatives don’t outweigh what I feel like is being accomplished.
PATROL: Have you already set your sights on further topics for discussion in later projects or on tour?
Webb: That’s a good question. I can never see beyond the work that’s right in front of me. I don’t typically make specific plans. I’ve said this a little bit, but I think it’s important for me to keeping saying it because of a certain perception—I’m not a crusader. I’m not always looking to go after yet another issue. All I can say is that I keep my eyes open, and I trust my instincts—and that’s served me pretty well in the past. I’m not trying to lead anybody to anything; I’m not a leader. I’m not trying to prove anything. On my best day, I’m just looking at the world and telling listeners what I see. And I may be looking at a totally different world this time next year.
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