“We have, for this record, spent zero time in a room together.”
— Matt Carter
The guys in Emery have taken honesty to a new level. They’ve made their faults, quirks and everyday personalities accessible through their super-popular Bad Christian podcast. Knowing this in advance made me feel comfortable going on their bus, parked outside the Dirty Dog Bar in downtown Austin, Texas. With their thick Southern drawls and Everyday Joe aura, they made themselves approachable and don’t put up much of a wall of mistrust for media.
I found a comfortable spot on the bus; we engaged in small talk and they offer me a beer. While I stay pretty up to date with their podcast, I should have known founding members of the band Matt Carter and Toby Morrell love their mass market light beer. While most of the United States is enjoying the exploding craft brew market, it’s surprising to find a 30-something touring musician stuck on generic brand lights.
Talking to the multi-instrumentalist Carter on the bus, he told me why the band doesn’t do as well in the Northeast. “We liken it to the culture up there being really tough, and they kind of see us as pussy,” he explains. “Like, we’re heavy, but we’re still sassy. Girlie. They like their metal purely aggressive, and we’re a fruity version of heavy metal.”
One thing that stands out amidst any of the controversy you’ve stirred up is the unwavering and even a dogmatic belief in staying true to Christian community. Why is that so important to you?
Carter: I guess we figured that’s the central thing. I mean, all the other stuff about Christianity is super twisted up — culturally and commercially, even — but the idea of being connected to people is the most important part. Everything else will come out of that. Maybe they’re important, maybe they’re not. But if you have a tight-knit community, people you’re involved with who are open and honest, you would also learn from them. You would also, naturally, gather with them. You could, naturally, pray with them and worship. You don’t necessarily need all the institutionalized stuff.
All the good stuff that’s ever happened in our lives has come from the small community, more so than the thing at large. I don’t know if we preach that or if that just comes out, but that seems like the overlooked thing. We’ve institutionalized community somehow. We’ve almost reduced community to when you’re with somebody for an hour and a half on Wednesday nights. You have “church” and you have “community,” and I think that’s a problem.
Morrell: I think for so long, on both sides, people have thought that the supposed “good guy” does the right thing. Goes to church, believes this, this, this and this. I think that’s not the truth. Christianity, like anything else, is so vastly different from person to person to person, from preacher to preacher to preacher, from church to church to church.
We feel like our demographic is really under-represented in the world. You can be real and have questions and have your real personality, and it can be good and bad. It’s OK to express both of those and not feel condemned or worried that your image is hurt or something like that. We need a savior, so why do we care about our image? I’m showing you why I need Jesus with both the good and the bad.
What do you do about the whole mentality of “being a respectable leader” and the “higher standards” put upon leaders in the Bible? How do you wrestle with that in the grand scheme of things?
Carter: You don’t have to be a leader. If you’re disqualified from leadership biblically, you should make that determination. Or I can hide the things that might disqualify me so I can continue to be a leader, but that don’t make no sense. If you knew everything about everybody, then maybe everybody would be disqualified, and we couldn’t have any leaders then? That doesn’t really make sense.
Morrell: I think most of us would be disqualified. If you really looked at our entire picture and our entire life, it’d be really hard to be qualified as a leader, but, at the same time, I don’t want to think of myself as this. The Christian culture is really big on leadership. There are trainings and DVDs and conferences. We heard one today: How to be a More Effective Leader Quickly. People think, “I’m a leader, so I need to learn some skills.” (Leadership) is something that’s kind of endowed upon you as a gift. If we are leaders, it’s nothing I did.
Carter: From our point of view, what we’re trying to do is not teaching or (being) leaders. We’re thinking of contributing some reality to the stream. Even if there’s no way I’m qualified, biblically, to be an elder, pastor, shepherd, overseer, bishop — I can still talk about whatever I feel like on the podcast and people can listen to it. To me, it’s just talking to Toby and Joey and letting other people listen. I don’t need to count that any more serious than how I just described it.
Morrell: I guess, honestly, I don’t think I am a teacher. I kind of hope I don’t end up being that. I don’t want to teach anybody anything. I’d rather we (learn) together.
Carter: The Bible says not many of you should aspire to teach. (Editor’s Note: James 3:1.)
Morrell: That’s funny. I had a pastor tell me once, “Everything is a sermon. Everything you do is a sermon.” I don’t think I want to believe that. I hope it’s not. If that’s the case, then there are sermons about, “Watch how bad I’m doing at everything.”
I get the point. I agree with you. What do you think? Do people look at you the same way?
Morrell: Well, people watch you. Especially little kids. The point is to be careful, don’t lead somebody astray, but a sermon… We put so much weight into the word “sermon.” Is every action I do supposed to be a five-point hermeneutical exegesis on whatever truth? That’s stretching it a bit far, so I would kind of resist it, too. You can’t attain that. You can’t live by that. You’d go insane, I think.
Carter: And whether or not people listen to you? That’s for them to decide to listen to you as a role model or something. “Leading people astray” is really abused, in my opinion, because it’s license to, in all things, be conservative and careful and not daring, not bold and not yourself. You use “don’t lead people astray” completely as fear. “So, therefore, don’t do this. Just don’t do it.” That’s what it always means. I’ll push back. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I over-push, but that’s what I think.
“Ten or 15 years from now I just might be tired. There’s only so much you can take.”
One thing I love about what you guys are doing with your communication is you’re including people in the conversation. A lot of that reflects youth and the mentality that’s embraced by youth, to dissect controversial subjects by having an open discussion. How do you think all this translates into old age? Do you think something’s going to change 10 or 15 years from now?
Morrell: Like that Ben Folds 5 song, where you turn into the man or something (laughs)?
Carter: Are we a little behind schedule? I mean, maybe I’m a later bloomer and doing things late. We’re pretty middle-aged. I’m 35; Toby is closer to 40. I mean, I’ve still got a lot of fire for trying to resist the system or do something different. As of now, I still feel aggressively anti-the norm. The norm always drives me crazy, so I feel like it always will.
Morrell: I don’t know. That’s a great question because, honestly, right now, yes. But ten or 15 years from now I just might be tired. There’s only so much you can take.
We have conversations with people, and I’m not trying to convince them, not say, “This is what I believe,” but put it out there to think about it, expand my mind a little bit just to see — and you realize they just don’t get it. They’re not going there. I do believe there might be a shelf life on how long I can actually take it and just go, “Well, I’ll just keep my ideas to myself, and I won’t push back as hard,” because it’s just too exhausting sometimes.
We had this conversation the other day. People really don’t want their ideas challenged. It feels good when somebody agrees with you. My whole life, people just told me about Jesus and God and hell up until I was about 15-, 16-, 17-years-old and my grandfather quit preaching. He was a pastor, and I went to his church my whole life. When he retired, my parent’s marriage fell apart, and they quit going to church because they were so exhausted from it.
I think there’s a point where that’s just all you can take. I hope we would do that, but I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see, for sure, to see how much energy we have.
Carter: I’ve always felt different and opposed to the status quo, so I can’t imagine that changing. But how many conversations are you going to have with this person that’s mad that you cuss? You say the word “damn,” and they go, ‘Oh, listen…’ You can’t even get to the meat of what it is because of a word you use!
Are you asking, do you think our views will soften up or that our activity will wane?
Will the flavor change? It’s a very freeing, open environment that you promote. I wonder if you’re still going to have the same mindset. I don’t know the answer.
Carter: I just think I’ll be an equally unique old person. I won’t be the same as I am now. But I’ll just be a weird, old guy. I’m a weird 35-year-old now. I’ll be a weird 65-year-old.
Morrell: So, your awkwardness will be a strength?
Carter: I think it’s permanent.
Morrell: It’s a gift.
Let’s talk about the new album.
Carter: I’ll talk about the crowdfunding part of it. That is so exciting. It’s so good to put ourselves out there. We didn’t want it to be a cash-in thing, where we just got a bunch of money and said, “Oh cool, now we don’t have to worry about the record,” which crowd-funding can be. With all the other stuff we’ve been doing with Bad Christian and BC Music, we’re operating more closely to how a real label operates. There’s not just an independent band that puts a CD out and puts it on iTunes. We’re going to be in stores. We’re going to have a distributor. We’re working it. We have advertising, marketing budgets and all those kinds of stuff and publicity and we’ll be functioning like a full label.
That’s what’s been really exciting to me, on the business side, is that we were able to fund it independently. We’re going to use that money to leverage ourselves and put us in a position where we can act like a real label. I’m really looking forward to working the release and really trying to not just cash in on our 2,000 best fans, but still push the music out to new people.
Morrell: This time, it was different because we all live all over the place, so we’re doing things a lot over the Internet. I work at a church. I have a family — three kids, a wife. And so to fly and stay in Seattle for a month? I just can’t do it. I don’t even have the time possible to do it, and we knew that going in.
What’s been different and kind of cool is that I’m recording all the vocals in Charleston, South Carolina, while Matt’s in Seattle, Washington. Dave’s in Indiana.
The frustrating part is I work hard on something and then we all listen to it together and people go, “Here’s my input.” I spent hours on that part, so how do we go back? Then I know I allotted this amount of time in my schedule to do this, so if something changes, that means my schedule changes for when I get back home.
At the same time, it’s been really cool because I believe I’ve really pushed myself (lyrically and vocally) because it’s just me, and I want to try and do something really cool. So, “What does Toby think is really cool right here?” and “What do I think the guys will think is really cool?”
Carter: It’s really adventurous. Yeah, there are songs where you’re just like, “Ah, classic Emery! This is so cool!” And there are songs where you’re like, Man, I’m going to listen this one a few times and figure out what the hell this is.
Dave Powell (drummer): It’s been fun for me, because we tracked this album months ago. When we tracked it, I didn’t know how the lyrics were going to go. … It’s like listening to a new band for the first time. It’s kind of cool. It makes me think.
Carter: We developed a thing where we don’t, at any point, really play together or rehearse. That’s not really a part of the process. People ask a lot about songwriting process. Ours is almost entirely digital, as far as working independently and putting it together when we track drums. We have, for this record, spent zero time in a room together. At no point have we played the song together. Not even once.
What else about the album?
Carter: It’s taken a lot longer than I thought because we are doing it without a label. We’re doing it ourselves. We are doing everything ourselves, so Matt is needing to get a guitar track recorded, but at the same time he has to talk to a distributor to help us distribute the CD. And then he has to talk to magazines to try to get the thing promoted. With that being said, we’re also doing our daily jobs. We’re doing the podcast. We have families and all that stuff.
“It’s really adventurous. Yeah, there are songs where you’re just like, ‘Ah, classic Emery! This is so cool!’ And there are songs where you’re like, Man, I’m going to listen this one a few times and figure out what the hell this is.”
Morrell: I was talking to Matt about this the other day. It would be so fun to go back and just have a month to be in the studio and record. We did that. With The Question, we wrote the record in one month and, the next month, recorded it. It was very fast, but I would kill to have that much time now. … But now, with kids and my life and everything, everything is on us, so we have to make all of the decisions.
At the same time, we get to make the decisions. Nobody’s going to tell us, “Hey, you really need this song to go first on the record,” or, “This is your first single.” Whatever we say is what we get to do.”
If you knew then what you know now, how would your career be different and why?
Morrell: I don’t know if this will be cred or cool, but I wish I could switch our record, In Shallow Seas We Sail, with I’m Only a Man. I don’t think people were ready for that record. If those would have switched, it would have been a better transition to get to that record. When that record came out, they thought, Emery’s changed everything! What are they trying to do? I think that would’ve been a smoother transition.
I have to understand a little bit more where people are at and meet them where they are and not just try to force what I think. They can’t even understand it. They can’t even speak the language I’m speaking, like, even when we’re talking about the church or whatever. They need a transition to move them there.
Carter: I wonder if we would have made it different in that order? Like, if we had made In Shallow Seas next, and then wrote Only A Man and recorded it, I wonder if we would have approached the recording and the arrangements differently? What if we wrote those songs now? They would still come out differently again — even the same songs.
Morrell: That’s true.
Carter: I would be interested in seeing that, too.
Morrell: At the time, we thought it was really neat and creative. I think we might have left some people: “I don’t know if this is the band I’ve loved for the last two albums? Is this Emery?” And maybe it was too much for them in the moment.
I really love that record. I love that time. I love everything that went into that. That whole time was great. Honestly, when I go back and listen to all of our records, occasionally I’ll pop in The Weak’s End — or whatever record it might be — I’ll play all of them, and when I hear that record, I go, man, this is really neat. I love what we did on this record. Even with this record right now, that’s what I was kind of thinking. One of my favorite bands, if not favorite, is Weezer. I would love it if they wrote another Pinkerton. They’re probably not going to, but that’s what I know about Weezer, and I want that to be Weezer. They could each go to write different records, but when I hear a new Weezer record, I want it to be Weezer. I understand that. When they listen to Emery, they want it to be Emery. Maybe, in retrospect, it would have been nice to say, “Let’s meet our fans a little bit where they’re at so they can move along with us.” Some bands are great at doing that. Some bands are able to change their sound and people are just (snaps fingers) — they get it immediately.
Carter: I don’t know if somebody could accuse us of being self-indulgent. Yeah, we like it, but what does that have to do with other people liking it? Sometimes people do like I’m Only A Man. The same with Pinkerton: maybe it’s a failure, but there’s tens of thousands of people who think it’s the best record possible.
It was a pivotal time for us, making that record and it not doing as well as we thought it would. That had an impact on us. I don’t know if we would necessarily change anything.
Nobody owes us anything. We thought at that time that people like what we do. I thought, “What people like is what Matt does.” And then I was betrayed to find out they liked something that I did, not whatever I do, which is a mistake. I thought whatever I make, they will like, and it’s attached to me. But it really wasn’t attached to me. The stuff I happened to be doing at the time, a lot of people happened to like. But they didn’t owe me anything. When I made something they didn’t like, they didn’t care.
How did that affect you?
Carter: Well, we didn’t get rich. It prevented us from getting rich. It hurt my feelings a little bit. It gives you a little bit of anxiety. “Wait, you mean I’m not in control of this? What if we sell less? What if I can’t do this anymore? What are we going to do? Do we have to break up? Do I need to get a whole other job?” You thought you were in control of something and you weren’t. It’s more existential. We still had a band. We still had fans. It was nothing to complain about, but it felt weird.
Morrell: That’s still part of that: It still sold great.
Carter: I’ll be glad if our new album sells as much as that one did.
I have one more detail that I hadn’t really thought of that plays into this. We were at our height right before that record came out. Everything was the most promising it could be. We were on a big tour. It was when Red Jumpsuit (Apparatus) was big. We were big and they were really big and the tour was going super well. We had written only two songs for Only A Man, and we played them on that tour and they went over really well. But that was because it was at our best possible shows at our biggest possible time and it was super exciting. I think it gave us extra fuel to think that album would be big. We were like, “Man, we’re playing the new songs and people are already going crazy. This new album is going to be huge.”
We spoke about each album at length, but towards the end. Carter began to reflect on his sentiments of middle age.
Carter: We never thought about being here. I never thought I’d be a dad, late 30s, doing that on stage. That never occurred to me. We’ll play a show soon and Toby will be 40. It’ll happen. It’s inevitable, but that’s not something we foresaw or ever even thought about.
I tell people all the time. They say, “What do you do?” and I say, “Play in a band.” I’ll say, “I’m in the music business,” and they’ll say, “What do you do?” And I say, “I play guitar.” They’ll say, “What band?” And I’ll say, “I play in a band called Emery,” and they’ll either go, “Ah. There was an old band called Emery that I used to listen to when I was younger.” And I go, “Same one!”
Morrell: Still going!
Carter: Or they’ll say, “What kind of music is it?” And I’m sitting there with this business man or somebody old — my age — and I’m just like, “Um, it’s heavy music.” I’m thinking they don’t know the genre. “It’s like punk?” I can’t just tell them it’s screamo or something. They won’t even know what that is. I’ll say, “It’s like punk, kind of hard. It’s kind of heavy.” They’ll go, “OK, cool.” It’s singing, screaming. It’s really awkward to be this old. I always go, “We started this band when I was 20, but we’re still going,” as if that’s an excuse. It just seems embarrassing that a dad in his ’30s would be pursuing screamo. It feels super weird to say that to people when I’m explaining it to them.
Powell: I work with a lot of indie rock bands at home. Some of them know our band. A lot of them don’t. I just gave up trying to describe it.
Carter: It feels like saying, “ska.” It’s a label that’s old, too.
Powell: But now it’s actually becoming popular again. It’s like a revival of music now.
Carter: A screamo revival!
Powell: It’s less embarrassing, but, I feel like, if you just tell them what you are and you’re confident about it, they’ll just accept it or not.
Morrell: I say “really hard rock.”
Powell: I used to say that, but we’re an emo band. We thought we were an emo band when we started and then screamo came around. Now that’s 13 years old. I guess we called it “screamo” for awhile. I liked emo music. I still like emo music, so I don’t mind saying it.
Now that you’ve made yourselves vulnerable with the podcast and doing living room shows, your fans probably feel like they know a little more about you. How has that effected your career?
Morrell: I think it’s helped. I think a lot of people only get very brief interactions with bands that they like. Now, there’s a little bit of cool celebrity or mystique where their hero is onstage and you can’t get to them.
We’re just like regular dudes with regular families and all that stuff. I think people really relate to it, because they’re like me. That’s kind of cool.
The thing I dislike the most is the idea of someone thinking highly of me because of this thing I did on stage. That doesn’t feel real. I don’t want to talk to somebody just because they think they should talk to me, because I’m famous. I think now it’s more like they think they can make a joke at my expense instead of just being in awe. They heard me make a joke on the podcast about poop or something.
Carter: It’s completely relieving. That’s one of the things about the podcast; that’s really the main goal. I don’t want this to sound arrogant, but I want to be known by more people. But known, not known about. A lot of people know about me, and that’s uncomfortable. There’s a barrier there, and I don’t know who they are.
Now it’s just relieving. People know what I’m really like. You express yourself through a song with some poetic, vague lyrics and that’s supposed to be who you are? That’s what most people know about me? And I didn’t even write the lyrics.
It feels way better for people to know stuff I think or stuff I say or if I’m annoying or not. That feels way better. It’s relieving to know that more people understand about me. It makes it more comfortable.
Powell: I think with social media, it’s almost natural for you to know more about people. We started with MySpace. I remember when we started our Facebook and you had to go and add people. This was before you could be a band. I had to go through and add hundreds of people a day. “Yes, accept!” That’s how it started. You could just accept these fans, and it’s this cool interaction you can have. I remember when I could have conversations with hundreds of people that you met at a show the day before. It’s kind of exploded beyond that, but social media has allowed it to where you can create a community with your band or your brand or you. That’s real.
There is something to be said for a “rock star,” that you can’t know this person. That air they have attracts people to them, but aside from that, and especially for us, being real with people and our fans is really cool. We like to wear stupid costumes on stage and be dumb and not try to be really cool. We’ve toured with other bands that could never do that. They’d feel so uncomfortable or they have to have a certain look or something. We tried that before, but it’s always backfired on us. We’ve tried to all dress a certain way or look a certain way, but that’s just not our personality. We don’t care that much about it.
We’re individuals in this band. We’re not just a sum or an entity they can’t know or grasp. I’ve always liked the bands like that. The bands we’ve toured with and gotten along with are the same. Most people are just real, regular people. It probably goes as far up as Kanye West.
Emery was posted on May 11, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by Doug Van Pelt.