Matt MacDonald has spent nearly a third of his life touring with the same three guys in The Classic Crime. In ten years, they have gone from young adults who met through musician classified ads to adults with families and careers outside of the band. For MacDonald, The Classic Crime is no longer an occupation. The members aren’t business partners who rely on each other for an income. Writing an album isn’t a creative paycheck and touring is no longer a chore assigned by a record label. Instead, The Classic Crime is now a group of four friends who simply want to use their talents to create art. The band recently signed with BC Music (an offshoot of Bad Christian) to release a special retrospective album that looks back at their previous releases in a new light. Welcome to the beginning of the second decade of crime.
The Classic Crime is turning ten years old. How does that feel?
We feel old, but it also feels like an accomplishment in a world where bands come and go pretty quickly and rarely last more than an album cycle or two. We’re honored to still be putting out music as an independent band. We have our fate in our own hands at this point, which we’re feeling pretty good about.
(It has been great) being able to put out music at our own pace and work for as long as we need to on it. We’re not contractually obligated to tour all the time, so we can stay home with our families and still do (The Classic Crime). It’s reimagining how we (function as a band).
How has that changed?
It used to be we’d get signed and then hit the road for 200-plus dates a year. The whole idea at that point was to get the word out about our music. (We’d) take any tour and go anywhere with anyone for any amount or money. We ended up spending a lot of money, but it was really good for our band.
We built bunks in the back of our van (and) slept in Walmart parking lots to save enough money to get to the next show. Everything was about money.
Now, most of our guys work jobs or have side businesses. We do this for fun. It’s not about money, it’s about creating something that’s valuable and that people enjoy. We don’t tour all the time; we pick and choose dates. We can usually go out for about two weeks at a time before someone’s going to get fired from their real job.
That’s what we do: We go out two weeks here, two weeks there and play a few one-off shows. It’s a lot more casual; we’re not riding on this to pay the bills. We’re not in it for all those reasons that make you stressed out and (lose) sleep; we’re in it because we love it. It’s back to the heart of why we did this to begin with: we just like making music. We’re going to try to do it until our backs give out.
Even when your backs give out, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem if you’re not touring around as much.
We will just sit in wheelchairs and rock out (laughs). Come to think of it, that might be fun to watch.
Yeah, forget wheelchair basketball, we’re all about wheelchair rock concerts.
Exactly. It sounds rad.
Moving on, what was it like in The Classic Crime’s first years as a band?
Honestly, it was so long ago at this point; I was maybe 19 or 20 at the time. I barely remember what that was like. I just remember we were nervous. We were a local band so obviously no one had heard of us. We would bring our demo to different places we knew were venues. We played anywhere we could, so a lot of the venues were coffee shops. We also played at this LAN café, which was a computer network gamer café. We practiced five days a week in the house that we all lived in.
Do you remember a point in the band’s history where you realized, “Oh, you know what? This could actually be a career.”
I always wanted to do music. When I moved to Seattle to go to school, I had a roommate who was a pretty good songwriter. He fell in love with a girl that lived far away, so he was always gone. I was left alone going, “I want to do this. I want to do music. I want to write music. I want to be in a band.”
I wanted a drummer (and a) guitar player to play my songs, so I would scour the newspapers looking for ads, like, “Rock vocalist wanted.” This was even before Craigslist. I essentially found my band that way. Sorry, what was the question (laughs)?
At what point did you realized that The Classic Crime was going to be a career?
When I showed up for the audition, they were like, “We’re going to play you some songs we wrote together.” They were just a three piece: Justin, Alan and Skip. I was blown away. I was like, “This is incredible. They’re really tight. These songs have a lot of movement. They’re really catchy. I could totally write lyrics and melodies to these songs.”
It became not about them playing my songs, but me writing to their songs. When we came together to hear what we all put into the songs, it felt like magic. We all looked at each other and said, “This is it. We’re going to make this our life. We’re going to be huge” (laughs).
We all dropped out of school. We were naïve and ignorant of what it actually takes to be in a band, but that stubborn belief carried us to have the career we have.
What were some of the biggest challenges keeping the band together?
We were friends and roommates for a while. Justin, our guitar player, left to go to nursing school in about 2010. He has a wife and a kid and has his goals. But we never had a member change or swap out. We just became four-piece after that. We didn’t have a clue how to get another member of our band, so)I picked up the guitar and started playing. I was like, “You know what? I’m done jumping around and being an aerobics instructor on stage. I’ll play guitar.”
But yeah, how do you stay together? I think the biggest struggle with a lot of bands is having an ego. It’s natural to struggle with (an ego) because you’re on stage, practically being worshiped. People say a lot of nice things to you.
Also, financially, I think a lot of (songwriters) go, “I wrote the song so I take all the credit, royalties and money.” That’s why it’s hard to stay together: You have your manager or agent in one ear going, “Dude, you wrote the song. It’s just a fact — a drummer is a drummer. He can’t get any royalties on that.” With bands our size, it’s not a lot of money, but I think that mentality can be poisonous.
I’ve always said, “All the money goes back in the band fund,” and we’d figure it out from there. Just because I wrote a song that took me five minutes, doesn’t mean (my bandmates) don’t play it every night on stage and sweat it out as much as I do. We’re all in this together.
I have the mentality of being one of the band leaders. I’m not going to fight over royalties. I don’t care; it’s not about money for me. I want everybody to feel equal in value. Because when you live with someone on the road, there’s always going to be hurt feelings or someone that feels they’re not being valued.
They don’t teach you that stuff in band camp, but those are the things that keep a unit together. It is just communicating through the hard stuff. Then promoting a sense of equality and togetherness. No one person is better than the other just because they hold a microphone or they write songs. It doesn’t matter. We’re all equal. Credit where credit is due. If you do the work, you get the credit. You basically choose your own level of involvement. That’s how our band has always been.
You guys have gone through several different stages of social media. How has adapting to different platforms been difficult?
Well, it hasn’t been difficult. MySpace was it for a while there. It was the only thing that hosted music. But it got really spam-filled and had a lot of bots. Everybody was making the shift over to Facebook. I think our label actually created our Facebook. In 2008, I decided to start running it myself. I felt like there was a big disconnect between us and our fans. We didn’t have a forum or any way to communicate back and forth.
Facebook has essentially been the only reason we can still be a band. It’s been integral to the whole independent process, as far as being able to reach the people that we want to reach.
We kind of see what’s trending as far as where people discover new music. We just want to be where anybody is discovering new music, so they have an opportunity to stumble across our music. I know some bands have PR practitioners running their pages because the artist isn’t as quick at adapting.
It used to be you couldn’t get close to an artist, and that was cool. They were untouchable. But that is less and less cool. Nowadays, people expect to be able to interact with the artist. It doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity or if you’re a business owner – (if) you’re responding to someone’s complaint, people really appreciate that these days. We want to be those kinds of people that are responsive and communicate.
Out of all the social media platforms are there any that stuck out to you as a favorite?
I loved PureVolume because you could spend $150 and get on the pure promos or the pure picks or whatever on the front page.
I remember that.
That would get a lot of plays. Then you could see where you were ranking in the plays. You could also see where you were ranking locally. We met a lot of bands we wouldn’t have otherwise met because we would see them on the local PureVolume rankings. We would go, “Who are they? Let’s reach out to them and see if we can do a show or something.” That was pretty cool about that service. I know it’s not a big thing anymore, but I have fond memories because that was where we went to before MySpace.
Absolutely. PureVolume was probably where I first heard of you guys back in ‘04 or ‘05. That was the best music site for a while.
That’s actually where our management found us. We wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for PureVolume and the pure pick feature.
Tell me about that.
Our manager was scanning for artists on the main page that were either picked or promoted. He heard an early version of “Who Needs Air” and got in contact with us. (He) was just one guy and then he brought in another guy, so we had two managers for a while there. They’re the ones that shopped us around to labels, got us showcases and eventually negotiated our deal with Tooth and Nail. Without them, we wouldn’t have really done anything. I don’t know, someone else might have come along. But as far as how history reads, PureVolume started it.
Let’s move on to the album coming out, What Was Done, Vol. I. Can you tell me about it?
Yeah. It’s all revisited, reimagined songs from the last decade. Some of them are fan favorites or singles and some of them are deep cuts we like. We’ve assembled 12 songs we’ve completely redone, all the way from acoustic and stripped down with cello to full drums and strings to piano and percussion. We’ve layered a lot of these songs.
It became something it wasn’t supposed to become, but we’re happy with it. It sort of got out of hand; we started layering things and writing new parts. Some of the songs are pretty different in a cool way. The whole idea was to be a nod to where we’ve been and then show where we are. (They are) our current interpretation of what those songs are and what they mean to us now.
How long had you guys been rewriting those songs?
A couple of them we’ve done live for acoustic shows. We did an acoustic EP in 2007 that a lot of people liked, so whenever we did acoustic shows, we would do a lot of songs off the EP. We would jam these songs in practice and write a bunch more cool parts and then we would always bum ourselves out, going, “Man, we should have done that on the record,” or, “We should have spent more time and put this version on the EP.” We were able to take those parts and immortalize them on a record, finally.
I wonder if that trend will pick up with other bands.
Yeah, people are doing it. I know a lot of bands are doing acoustic rereleases. I heard that Story of the Year and Yellowcard have both done acoustic albums for their ten-year anniversaries, which is weird to think that we’re right around the same age (laughs).
They’re out playing these songs, but they’re not getting a dime for the master recordings or from selling the CDs or anything. After about five years, you’re able to rerecord the song because you own the publishing on it. You don’t own that recording.
Yeah, I think P.O.D. did that.
I think a lot of bands get out of these contracts that are really limiting and they want to reclaim their songs, so they want to put out versions that they own outright and exclusively. That’s a motivation, too.
Did you have to jump through any hoops to get back the songs you wrote for Tooth and Nail?
No. All the songs (on What Was Done) are out of the three-to-five years range. We left the label in 2010, and it’s 2014 now, so we were able rerecord all the songs that we wanted to rerecord.
I didn’t realize that it had been that long since you were on Tooth and Nail.
Yeah, 2012 was our first independent release. Here we are, two years later, doing another.
Both of them have been overfunded, so that’s a good sign.
Yeah, our first one, Phoenix, met 286 percent of our goal. This one was 330 something percent of our goal. It’s been awesome. We don’t have a label, we don’t have a marketing budget and we don’t have a lot going for us, but what we have is really, really great support from the people who love and listen to our music.
That’s the biggest thing that matters in this whole deal is whether or not people are willing to come along side and help you make music. As long as that’s there, we’ll continue to make new music.
Right. That’s where the transition from signed to independent comes. Being on a label is great for trying to get your name out, but when you are already established and the fans want to get new music, going independent has been the way to go.
Oh, absolutely. The labels did a lot for us, too, as far as establishing our band and forcing us to tour. We got our name out there. Building the brand up was huge. We’re obviously super-indebted to them for that, but, at this point in the game, it’s a lot better to be able to do it independently.
The album is titled What Was Done, Vol. I. Should fans expect a second volume?
Well, we wanted to leave that open. We put out a bunch of records and we have a lot of songs. Inevitably, with every set list or everything that we do, we’re always missing somebody’s favorite song. It’s always disappointing.
The whole idea is that we have enough songs, we can continue to put out these rerecordings in these volumes, done differently, for a while, if we want to. We really enjoyed this process, so it’s highly probable that we will do another one.
I heard rumors of a black metal version of “Four Chords.” Is this true?
(Laughs) Black metal versions of everything have been done in practice at one point or another. Sometimes toward the end of practice, everyone’s energy is poor and we just devolve into really slow, heavy black metal.
Lo-fi, low quality black metal. That’s exciting.
I’m expecting a full album.
Of black metal songs?
Oh, yeah. We’ve got plenty of material. I can only imagine what the reaction would be if you post (a metal cover) out of nowhere. It’s worth a shot.
(Laughs) We’ve always dreamed of being in a metalcore band. We toe the line a little bit; we sort-of have breakdowns and sometimes there’s a bit of screaming. We’ve toured with a lot of bands that were super heavy, so we’ve always wanted to be able to do that once or twice. Not every day, but a little bit. The grass is always greener on the metal side. We’ve been tempted, for sure.
If you had to start over and rewrite all of these songs in a different genre, what genre would that be?
I don’t know. I really like Arcade Fire. I like the strings and the tension notes. I like the key of A minor. I like all that a lot. You can hear that a little bit on What Was Done. … I like that vintage ’60s pop, psychedelic, but with lyrics that are actually saying something. I like that vibe.
But I don’t know. If I could go back and do it again, I’d probably do it all the same way, because I like where we’re at right now and I like the journey we’ve been on and how we’ve arrived here. I wouldn’t change anything.
Fair enough. One more question about the album. Can you explain the artwork that has a chair falling?
The album artist sent us four different covers, and everybody said they liked that one because it reminded us of the end of Inception where the top’s spinning. Does the chair fall? Does it stand back up straight? There’s tension. There’s an in-between, in limbo feeling. We felt like when you’re doing a retrospective album, you’re looking back but also looking forward. Here we are in the present, and we felt like that chair really represented the tug between past and future. That’s why we went with it.
The album is being released through BC Music. Can you tell me about them?
Yeah. BC Music is an offshoot of BadChristian.com, which started off as a blog and became a pretty popular podcast.
The whole concept (of Bad Christian) is basically an alternative place outside of the Christian industry and outside of the anti-Christian industry to discuss issues, be real, and not get hung up on things like language or morality when it comes to talking about harsh subject matters. That’s their vibe.
Musically, I’ve come along and helped them build out that division. We want to represent people who are writing music that matters and hopefully do it with a new model. It’s a bit of a co-op in a way. All the deals are handshake deals. It’s mutually beneficial stuff. If you don’t like it, you can walk away. It’s very unlike any other record label.
We set it up because we’ve all been on record labels, and we know how those are run. And we’ve done it independently, and we know how that goes, so we have a perspective of knowing what works and what doesn’t, where to spend money, where not to. We can really reduce the house nut, so to speak, so that the artist can actually make money, which is shocking, crazy and ultimately the ideal.
Yeah. When I started helping (Bad Christian) with that, we developed some processes for releasing music that were better than what I had when I was doing it myself. Signing up our bands to be a part of that team was just a no-brainer.
You mentioned that as far as Bad Christian goes, the guys from Emery have gotten quite a bit of heat from both the Christian side and the non-Christian side for holding less traditional views than the American church. How does your vision for The Classic Crime fit in Bad Christian’s controversial culture?
It’s funny. I’ve had a blog for years where I discussed a lot of issues, and I felt like I was always on an island. You know?
I had friends who agreed with me, but no one was really saying anything. Everyone was living in fear of scrutiny or fear of backlash — especially those who were involved in the Christian industry. They can turn on somebody quickly.
I really admired the bravery and the courage it took for Matt and Toby (of Emery, cofounders of Bad Christian) to come out and say things on a grander scale than I was. To have a pastor on their team who fully agreed with them was even more affirming of our stances on culture, how we should live and what really matters. They are pretty alternative to the mainstream. It’s great to have these ideas and have a team of people that we all seem to pretty much agree on what the action of faith needs to look like.
That’s been cool. It’s been cool to be a part of that team and knowing there really isn’t another place on the Internet I’ve seen like Bad Christian. We have atheists and agnostics that will debate. The whole idea is to have an open space for ideas. An idea is not the enemy. People are not the enemy. We (need to be) able to express and debate topics and back them up with empirical and biblical evidence.
We need to be able to create a space where we can discuss things and not be offended or angry because there’s so much vitriol on the Internet already. It’s pretty cool to have a neutral zone for that. We’re stumbling through and making a lot of mistakes as we go, but I think overall, it’s been a really, really cool thing to be a part of.
Yeah, I definitely agree. If you’re in the US and have a view of Christianity that isn’t politically conservative, it gets isolating real quick.
What we’re seeing is a lot of guys like Dan Haseltine (Jars of Clay vocalist) who have felt a certain way for a long time who are finally given Twitter or blogs to speak up. They’re given a voice. It’s not just what the brand team at the label is trying to project or what the publicist is trying to project. Individuals are now given a voice. They’re voicing their hearts, and it’s causing outrage or it’s causing community. One or the other.
Usually, yeah. I appreciate that. I feel in community with Dan because I feel like I really agree with where his heart is at. If you haven’t heard his interview (available now on BadChristian.com), you should definitely listen to it. He really expands on what he reads in the Bible and how it differs from how Christians respond to people they disagree with.
What would you say are the challenges of mixing any level of faith and music?
The challenge is that you should never be mixing anything with your music. You should be making music from your heart. When you’re using music as a vehicle for information, it becomes less good; it becomes less creative. It becomes less like art and more like propaganda.
I think very sincere Christians have written very sincere songs from their hearts to God, and I’m not talking about that. But when you’re starting to blur the lines between rock music and whether or not it’s Christian, you’re missing the point.
I’ve never written a Christian song. I don’t even know what that is. But I’ve written from my heart, and I happen to be a Christian, and so if that’s where my heart’s at, that’s going to be evidenced in my lyrics, right?
Not purposefully and not with intent, but it is there. So is a lot of doubt, a lot of anger and a lot of regret. A lot of sad things. That’s all there, too. It’s a lot more dynamic. It’s not about blending your faith with your music, it’s about being who you are. If your faith is real, it’s going to leak through.
But, oftentimes, we find Christianity sounds forced into music, and I, frankly, don’t want any part in that. That’s why we’ve fought the label. We’ve fought the industry or the label of “Christian band” or “Christian music” for so long because it just seems like propaganda.
How does that feel different with Bad Christian?
There’s nobody filtering anything we do, for one. We’re not even trying to get in Christian bookstores (laughs).
There are few Christian bookstores I can see accepting Bad Christian. That’s a good thing.
Exactly. There’s really no pressure to appeal to any demographic, especially when it comes to a business or an industry. We’re going to try to ship our records everywhere, but if they don’t like us, we’re not going to change anything. We’re not going to compromise.
There’s no pressure to change.
Yeah. We’re not going to compromise the heart of what we’re doing to make a dollar. That’s not what this is about anymore. Being an independent band is good. It’s different in a lot of ways; I definitely feel freedom to write from my heart. I’m excited about that.
Basically, you’re saying you are now in a place where you don’t feel the pressure to tour all the time, you don’t feel pressure to say what the label wants you to say and you have musical freedom. Weird.
(Laughs) And we’re actually able to make money off selling records. Crazy! I don’t want to take anything away from Tooth and Nail. They never, ever tried to stifle us creatively. They were always super encouraging of whatever we do, and they always loved our music.
People (interpret) us dropping Tooth and Nail (as), “Oh, the label was restrictive!” That’s not the case. It was a business transaction. When you’re locked into a business contract, you have obligations and feel pressures that are inescapable, regardless of how good that contract or company is. We had pressure to tour.
Which was necessary.
Yeah. Most of the pressure we felt was from the industry itself, not from the label. It was more, “You need to sound like this. You need to behave like this, and you need to believe these tenets. Or else.”
Right. Don’t get caught drinking, don’t get caught using any type of profanity…
Yeah, which is why we’re really happy to be out from under the industry. Obviously, our fans are still fans of that industry, but we’re trying not to pander at all.
The Classic Crime was posted on November 21, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by Sean Huncherick.