Start out by stating your name and what you do in the band.
Joel Yoshonis – lead vocals and rhythm guitar
You just released a new EP, but I want to back up to talk about last year’s full-length record first. You’ve got a pretty elaborate explanation of the first song on your bandcamp that serves to introduce the themes of the album, but could you explain more generally just the basic concept of the record for us?
I’m glad you wanted to start there. I don’t think the EP says the same thing without the full-length as the prologue. And I say prologue very intentionally because to call it “Chapter 1” would be far overstating how much we actually knew about ourselves even less than a year ago when we released it.
All Those Who Wander Are Not Lost was the attempt at an authentic and honest narrative of faith in a context (specifically that of the Christian liberal arts university we all attended at the time) where one seemed to be lacking. But the overall concept of the record was far less prescriptive and more organically discovered, the songs themselves defining and elaborating on the theme as they were written.
Tolstoy said, “If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side?” which beautifully (and at some points quite literally) describes the journey that this record tells. As the title of the album (a semi-rewording of a quote found in one of Tolkien’s books) declares, just because you’re searching or wandering doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause or even that you’re on the wrong path.
I think the four of us needed to hear that the most, and that’s why we had to make a record.
And where did all these ideas come from? What inspired you to write All Those Who Wander Are Not Lost?
The entire album lyrically is a narrative of my journey between the years of 2006 and 2009, during which I attended a Christian liberal arts university. A good handful of the songs were written before I even met the rest of the guys in the band. They were just skeletons of what they are now, of course, but a lot of the lyrics are from the first two years of college and finding myself and trying to make sense of what I’d been brought up to believe and seeing that lived out completely differently in this new college environment and not knowing what to do with that. It’s my wrestling with issues and questions about faith and religion and God, my frustrations with him, my feelings of anger and bitterness toward people who misrepresented him, and a desperate longing for some kind of hope in all of that and an expression of Christianity that looked different than the judgmental and legalistic one I was living in.
I moved to college feeling burned and abused and taken advantage of by people in the Church. I wrote a lot out of that emotion. I think that’s the root of most of the questions I asked and the frustrations I began to have with the school I attended and the faith community there. I couldn’t make any sense of why the very people who were supposed to have my best interest in mind and look after me and take care of me – people who called themselves “Christians” – were the very ones who screwed me over.
Somewhere along the way I decided that I couldn’t just bemoan the hypocrisy. I realized that I was plagued by the exact same problem. Most of the later-written songs were inspired by my journey out of that cynicism, or at least my hope for an exit from it, and for some of them a depressing realization of my own hypocrisy despite my adamant criticism of theirs. I was angry at people who didn’t treat me right, but I was treating them the same way. I created my own legalism and became just as judgmental toward them in response.
It’s so difficult for me to answer that concisely! I suppose that’s because the truth is that each song, each lyric, has a story of its own from those few years of fighting with God. And this is the product that came out.
Now between recordings you ran into a lot of trouble with touring. Tell us about that experience and how it has shaped you as a band.
Our philosophy for that tour was to take as many shows as possible, wherever we could get them, whenever we could get them. Basically, quantity would equal quality. That did not work out though.
Phil (bass guitar) spent days and days calling just about every venue we could find within a reasonable distance. We hadn’t played out much so we had a really hard time making connections and getting into some of the venues and cities we wanted to play. We took everything we got though, and there were a couple of shows that worked out pretty well. But the problems we ran into just came from every angle. Constant van problems, canceled shows, broken contracts, low turnouts, and all of this with ten people crammed in a van for two weeks.
Probably the worst point of that string of shows was driving from Marion to a venue in Detroit, sound checking, walking out to play only to find the room completely empty and having the venue owner come up and tell us the show was canceled. No questions asked, no compensation (we learned to make contracts with venues after that), and some very poor manners. So we sucked it up, loaded up our equipment, and drove straight to Chicago for our next show. I should note that Phil drove the whole trip, which was insane. He was a trooper. Also, before we left Detroit, Alex (lead guitar) weaseled his way into some free Dunkin Donuts for us all which made everything a little bit better. :)
This is probably really normal for most bands our size, and we have serious respect for those bands that stick with it. We’re just not cut out for that. At least not right now. That’s the biggest thing that we learned, I think. And that’s where our thinking began to be shaped.
A year ago we were very systematic and essentially tried to run our band like a “business” to properly and efficiently sell our “product.” Since that tour, I think everything became a lot more about questions than answers. Questions like…
What if we didn’t just play as many shows as possible, but instead put our full heart and soul and creativity into just a small handful of them?
What if music “business” was completely reinvented, something organic that grew purely out of the desire to see people engage with music that was authentic and meaningful and for the sake of itself and not for money or fame?
What if words like “sales” and “money” and “success” as they were now defined all became obsolete and we could completely redefine and reinvent their meanings for Mosquito Fleet’s purpose?
And those are just a few. So that’s where we’re at now. Asking lots of questions. After that tour, we were reminded that this was OUR music and we could do whatever we wanted with it however we wanted. No rules, no agenda, no path already laid out. That has been really important for us.
How do you move from the first record to your new EP, Swings & Cloves?
“Noah” and “Everything’s Different” were both written while we worked on All Those Who Wander… and so those tracks sort of function both as the resolution of the full length’s journey, but also open up the next chapter. The EP is a bit more scattered in thought, no overriding theme necessarily. But it’s very reflective of where we are at individually and as a band right now. We’re all sort of in different stages of life and I think you can hear that reflected in the differences of musical style and lyrical content between each of the tracks. In fact, in an effort to authentically capture the stage of life we were in in the music itself, we each recorded our parts in the studio on our own, no other band members present. So the EP as a whole really represents each of our own individual creativity and contribution. In an effort to start from scratch and avoid the business mindset that drove us previously, we set no original deadline for the EP to be released, no tour to follow up with it, and for the first two weeks made it available for whatever cost people wanted to pay for it, including the option of downloading it for free.
I want to talk about each of the songs on the EP individually. Can you tell us a little behind what went into the ideas, lyrics, music, or recording of these tracks?
Noah is really a song about the problem of evil. It’s a lament to God crying out on behalf of the oppressed, the meek, the broken, unable to reconcile in our minds how God could allow such evil to take place in the world. If God is good, and if God can do anything, how could he and why would he possibly allow some of the things to take place in the world that do? Ironically, it’s one of our most poppy tunes despite the unresolved and depressing nature of the lyrics. But I think it’s a question Christ followers sometimes fail to deal with. Or people of faith in general.
Although the song doesn’t ever answer the question, I think the point is that the God of Christianity actually allows for us to cry out and ask, “Why?!” Maybe the hope for these questions isn’t found in an answer, maybe hope is found in a God who just lets us ask.
Musically, the song came from two places. I had written the melody with the chord structure and kind of a folk-acoustic feel underneath it. Separate from that, Josh (drums) wrote what is now the guitar part that starts the song. One night while he and I were jamming, he played that guitar riff and the Rhodes line that now accompanies it sort of came out. The rest of the arranging of the song was probably one of the most collaborative writing efforts we’ve made. Each one of us wrote different parts of the song, added new ideas, critiqued each other’s parts and helped make them better. It was really a fun song to watch develop.
Recording-wise, and this is true for the whole EP, we tried to make things as raw sounding as possible. Very little additional EQ beyond what came from our instruments through the mics, no autotune whatsoever, limited editing and post-production. In fact, the vocal take we used was the very first take. We tried to capture and keep as many things like that as possible in each song. Our audio engineer and co-producer Justin VanHook (Background Noise Studios, Muskegon, Michigan) really helped us capture this.
We had tried doing a long instrumental movement like the one in this song back when we first demoed Bright Sadness. It didn’t end up working so we were pumped to finally have a song that was fit for it. The song really has two parts. You can hear the break happen somewhere around 2:45 when the band cuts and it’s just vocals and electric guitar – that’s where “part two” begins. Just before that, as the previous section builds, there’s a female vocal harmony part that my fiancée Liz sang after I’d heard her sing it in the car to the demo tracks. It’s such a small part, but there are several things like that throughout the EP that could easily go unnoticed that I think really add to the overall sound and flow of the EP.
This is probably one of our simplest songs. I think it’s one of the few songs that most reflects what’s at the core of our beings musically. The first song we played and co-wrote parts for that really defined us was “Via Salutis” and for me, this song really felt like it recaptured that same core identity in a (hopefully) newer, fresher, and more mature way. My favorite part of the recording process for this was hearing the song after Alex laid his parts down. There’s this magic that happens when he comes in to record an instrumental break like that and has absolutely no idea what he’s going to do until we hit “record.”
Simply put, the song is about change. It’s about new stages and chapters of life that arrive and things from the previous chapter don’t end how you anticipated or continue like you’d hoped. Particularly for me, and as reflected in this song, there were friendships I had that I thought would last a lifetime, but they ended somewhat abruptly and not necessarily on great terms. It was completely different that what I’d pictured it would look like as college ended and real adult life began.
I wrote this song for my now fiancée, Elizabeth, about the night of our first kiss. It’s really a very straightforward narrative of that whole night. The scene was straight out of a movie, incredibly romantic and natural and perfect. Josh and our good friend Kyle can vouch for me that later that evening I told them I was going to marry her. The first line of the song really carries a lot of the meaning of the song and our relationship. Part of the magic of that night and our coming together was that God had somehow picked up all these broken pieces of our pasts and fit them together. That’s the story of God, isn’t it? He takes the most broken things and makes them new and good and whole again.
The acoustic bonus track recording of this was actually the first and only other recording of this song that I did for the purpose of giving it to Liz on our one-year dating anniversary. Phil tracked and mixed it on Garage Band right in our living room where we recorded it with one microphone. (Our living room was actually the very room that Liz and I had met for the first time two years earlier at a party when the house belonged to someone else. So crazy, right?!) We thought it would be cool to add this super raw and not-originally-intended-to-be-heard version of the song as a bonus track on the EP as a window of sorts into the origins of our newer arrangement of it.
The biggest change between that acoustic version and the full band version was changing the time signature from 6/8 to 4/4. We tried it over and over in 6/8 and every time it just felt so cheesy with a full band. That change was a group decision but besides that, everyone wrote their own parts alone in the studio. With each session, we just kept building on each other’s parts and ended up with what we have now. It was kind of fun to watch the song develop and take shape with each new instrument recorded. We sort of fell into this arrangement as we went and had no idea what it would sound like until we had the final product.
Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing:
This arrangement of this eighteenth-century hymn was written by Alex and his hometown friend Trevor McMacken. The chord structure, song layout, and additional melody lines (“Here’s my heart, Lord… prone to wander”) are all a product of their collaborative arrangement. We just took it and played it. The minor chord structure really gives the hymn a different droning feel that the typical major chord pattern. The brilliance of their arrangement is that the whole song drones on and on in what seems to be this nearly hopeless existence as “debtor,” yet there is also this anticipative angst for “grace.” And that angst is finally resolved and grace is finally realized when the third verse is repeated at the very end of the song with the major chords. It’s almost as if the song leading up to that point is the attempt to convince yourself that grace really is what God says it is, but you just can’t quite get there because no matter how many times you say, “Here’s my heart, Lord,” you are miserably reminded that you are “prone to wander.” But grace is given in that exact moment of hopelessness and wandering. It is not dependent upon us.
When the EP first released, you experimented with the “name your price” method of music sales. How did that work out?
So incredibly well. On several fronts. Way more people got their hands on our EP than would have had we charged from the beginning. It ended up being a great marketing tool too. Our downloads dropped drastically (literally overnight) after the name your price period was over. We gave our EP away for free to a lot of people who I don’t think would have checked it out had we not made it available for no cost. So more people got to experience art made with purpose that we invested time and money into than otherwise would have, and hopefully more people were able to experience the reality and the presence of God (from begging for God to fix all of the filth in the world to a several-hundred-year-old hymn) in the music.
Since naming your price shows, at least in some sense, that you are not prioritizing financial gain as the number one reason you are in Mosquito Fleet, why else make music? What is it that you hope to get out of this band, and what do you want the listeners to get out of this band?
I could probably go on and on about this one (we’re still in the discovery process of what this is exactly for us), but I think it all boils down to what I mentioned in the previous question. Music shouldn’t be made for the sake of money or business or fitting the mold. Those things aren’t bad or wrong, but when that supersedes the music as the ultimate purpose, you’ve become a business or a product and no longer an artist. And ultimately for us, as followers of Jesus, we believe that whether we are making music, or running a business, or going to school, or working at a bookstore, our faith will be a natural outflow of our very being and become a part of whatever it is that we do. In this case, that just so happens to be Mosquito Fleet. So as Christians, if music is what we do, we damn well ought to write and play music that reflects the artistry and brilliance of our God and naturally speaks of the faith – the good and the bad and the struggles and the victories – that is so real to us. That being our hope for us in this band, we want listeners to share in that experience and participate in that pursuit with us.
What else can fans expect from Mosquito Fleet in 2011?
We’re really just taking it all one step at a time. Hopefully we’ll have some more music out later on in the year, but what that will look like or exactly when that will be isn’t even on the radar right now. Currently, we have 5 shows between this Friday and mid-April and the best way to keep up to date with all of that is on our Facebook page.
Also, I’ll be getting married in June (to the girl who is the inspiration for “Coastlines,” “Skies” and “Elizabeth,” I might add) and Alex recently got engaged and will be getting married later on in the year, so we’ll have a couple short breaks during those time periods from playing, writing, and recording.
Things are pretty fluid right now and I think we’re just trying to continue to navigate through this self-defining process as a band. We want to enjoy what we do and not make it something stressful or demanding when it doesn’t have to be. That’s why we’re not pursuing any sort of label attention or show quota or anything like that. So I guess what I’m saying is… who knows!!
I think that wraps up my questions for now. Anything else you want to comment on?
Only to add a huge thanks to you and everyone at Indie Vision Music for your time and interest in our music and from me personally, for your patience in this interview process! (I took a really long time to respond!) It has been great to develop this connection with you guys and incredibly humbling to have complete strangers somewhere else in the world randomly come upon the product of your heart’s work and believe in you. That’s pretty unique and we’re very grateful for that.