Hearing I was going to interview Kutless for this issue of HM, I had mixed feelings.
Part of me thought, “This is great! They’re an awesome, veteran band, been around for a long time. Tons of stories to tell.” But then I also thought of how much less a fan I had been since they first started making music. For a 27-year old in 2014, Kutless was a youth group band, and I still remember going to the Christian book store across town after hearing “Your Touch” and needing that record. It was a perfect record for that time: a grungy, Linkin Park-style rock sound that hadn’t really been explored too much in Christian music at the time. I remember feeling cheated when Sea of Faces was released. It was a toned down, much less in-your-face record, when I wanted more of the same.
So over the years, as Kutless grew and transformed, I became less and less of a fan. Some of my previous reviews of their records, preserved by the Internet, are scathing reminders the band wasn’t what I wanted out of Kutless.
Interviewing the band’s guitarist, Nick DePartee (who has been part of the band since To Know That You’re Alive), I decided this was my chance, as an original fan, to find out what happened. Why over seven albums, the massive shift from this raw, gritty rock band to worship band? DePartee has been part of the band since before 2006, working as a guitar tech for Kutless when then-guitarist Ryan Shrout left the band to be a father to his new baby. While he hadn’t been around during the early days, I was sure he was around the band long enough to develop a satisfactory answer.
“Those are very valid questions,” DePartee said, laughing as I wondered what was up with the change. “We’ve heard those questions quite a bit over the years. We always have to remind people, bands obviously mature. Moreover, they morph. Sounds develop, tastes change and things like the writing and members change. But more than anything, we still keep the rock present, and we play songs live from Hearts of the Innocent and To Know That You’re Alive. The first record was vastly different from what we’re doing currently.
“Speaking for the guys in Kutless, that record was very much relevant at the time. That’s where their hearts were. There wasn’t a lot of that happening in Christian music. They were just writing some heavy rock songs in the basement of their college dorm.”
The early 2000s were a major time for nu-metal and the mainstream, and Kutless had filed suit with those bands in 2002. They were some of the front runners in Christian music to pull off the hard rock style. One of the gems from DePartee was hearing him talk about how, over the years, the band has reached so many people in so many different generations. “We meet those same fans at our shows, even today. We’ll run into someone and they’ll say, ‘Hey, we grew up seeing you, these are our kids.’” (Laughs.) DePartee admits, “We feel super old when it happens. But it’s interesting, because we meet these people and they tell us about how Strong Tower moved in their lives. How they went through a family tragedy and ‘What Faith Can Do’ spoke to them. The songs became family anthems. Those are a lot of the same fans that grew up liking that first record. We’ve been blown away by the response.”
I’ll talk to God before we go on, and I’ll just admit that this is the last thing I want to be doing right now. But there are people out there who need to hear You.
Admittedly, the band still listens to a lot of rock. “I’m a huge Foo Fighters fan, and you look on any of our iPods, we’re still listening to a ton of rock.”
In fact, shortly after finishing the band’s eighth studio album, Glory, they had been toying with releasing a straight rock EP for fans like me, who’ve been down since the beginning. “We know those fans are still there, even if they don’t listen as much or haven’t really dug what we’ve been doing. But there’s definitely rock on Glory.”
The real reason for the change comes from those stories they hear night after night. “We’ve seen the impact we’ve had through more of the worship stuff and what God’s done through those songs in recent years. I remember when we were getting ready to do It Is Well, we were struggling for months. What if we did another worship record? We felt like it’d be really fun to do, but we fought it forever. We were convinced it wouldn’t be good because that’s not ‘who we were.’”
Worship has always been a part of the set for Kutless. I even remember seeing them on the Hearts of the Innocent Tour when they stopped everything and started up mid-set with “Strong Tower.” I worshiped because it worked in that atmosphere, and those are times I’ll never forget. God knew what I needed to hear, and he worked through the band to make sure I heard what I needed to hear.
“We finally surrendered to God, knowing He clearly put it on our hearts to pursue worship. That’s where the majority of our fans were. We were seeing an impact, and we were seeing life change. We still get emails about the stories from ‘What Faith Can Do.’ Starting with Strong Tower, it just launched us into this season and portion of our career where we are still seeing an impact on a level we never had before. The rock is still in us, but as you’ll see with this new record, it’s very worship-focused, but it’s not branded a worship record. The songs we’re writing now are coming out to be very worship focused, but personally, it’s the freshest sound we’ve had in a long time.”
Asking point blank, I got DePartee to admit time has taken its toll from some of the classics. “There are nights I do not want to play ‘Strong Tower,’” DePartee admits. “That’s the funny thing about those songs, though, even as we write for new records. We think about, if the song happens to do well, do we really want to play this for the next 10 years? And then one of us will say, ‘OK, this chorus could be better, I don’t want to play it this way for 10 years.’”
As it was almost always happening then, on those nights when he didn’t want to play a song, God used him the most. “I’ll talk to God before we go on, and I’ll just admit that this is the last thing I want to be doing right now. But there are people out there who need to hear You. They need that encounter with You. And then we get out there, and I’ll see the guy in the front row who’s rocking out while a mom in the back is just breaking down. God is working on those people. And those are the best and coolest nights ever.”
Glory is the band’s eighth studio album. For such a veteran band, the typical model is to ditch the record label (you’ve possibly been with this whole time), keep the distribution, self-release. But that’s not how it worked for Kutless. “It’s a relationship. You build friendships and relationships with people,” DePartee said. “You put out a record as an artist, and you’re invested in it. It’s your baby. You breathe and sweat over this thing for months and months. Then you’ve got the team of people at the label, and they’re around you, almost adopting that baby. The people at BEC really not only care about your record, they care about the story behind it. They’re not the type to just throw the marketing plan down and say, ‘Do this.’ It’s more like, ‘What does this record say? What are we trying to communicate with this record?’ They care about the details in a way I don’t think a lot of labels do. These days, especially.”
DePartee mentions the band had the chance to leave BEC before Glory, and they seriously considered doing it. They wanted to choose the right thing for their future, and with a newfound focus in reaching more people, the team at BEC was on board. “They believe in us,” DePartee said. “And they really got behind the branding we were going with, particularly with Glory.” DePartee was so involved, he even did the design work and look himself.
According to DePartee, it’s usual practice for the guys in Kutless to cut it close to deadline when recording an album. Even as we spoke, the rest of the guys were working on some final tweaks, producing the record in Portland, Ore. with Dave Lubben, who had produced It Is Well and some of Believer. The coolest thing about Glory is the place and atmosphere where it was recorded. Lubben’s home studio is near the coast in Oregon – the band is also from the Pacific Northwest – and the band was able to spend two full days in a beach house, writing, praying and working together.
Lubben also had some different exercises to share with the guys. “During the writing and recording process, Dave came up to us with a challenge,” DePartee said. “He said, ‘We’re each going to go into a different room of the house, and in the next hour, you need to read a Psalm. Find a Psalm that inspires you, and then write a song in an hour. It can be terrible. It’s an exercise in writing. So write it, and then sing it for us.’” DePartee laughed, and continued, “That’s super terrifying. (Vocalist) Jon Micah (Sumrall), of course, didn’t mind singing, but despite us all being involved in the creative process, none of us had really sung before. Those exercises continued throughout the weekend, and the creativity kept flowing.”
On previous records, DePartee explained that co-writes were commonplace. But keeping in the spirit of a rebranded Kutless, Glory marks the first time the band has collectively written on a record since the early years. The group teamed up, sometimes just Nick and Jon Micah, sometimes the other guys, but overall, they wrote over 30 songs during the process before ultimately whittling it down to the 12 anthemic tracks on the new album. “The right songs float to the top. You see the ones that make sense automatically,” DePartee said. “One of those was a song I had written with a buddy two years ago, and it happened to resurface. This time, we’ve written together as a band more than ever.” Even crazier, the label was on board. “They really wanted us to get in there and be a band. God has done some cool stuff with us before, and he’s continued to this time. It’s a different approach for us, especially having been here for so long, and it’s refreshing.”
In addition to the rebranding and refreshing aspect, even the artwork and design for Glory is different from previous records. DePartee mentioned he got the chance to really run with the style, and during the time at the beach house, they went and did a photo shoot on the beach. “We hadn’t really done a beach shoot like that before, but it really worked,” DePartee said of the album’s official artwork. “The spot that’s on the cover, it’s called Haystack Rock. You’ve probably seen it; it’s in ‘The Goonies.’ The whole shoot was built around this beach theme, mostly (focusing on) creation (all) around us. This record, we really want to glorify God with it, and what better way than show this huge, massive piece of creation? It made my job easy as a designer.”
Glory is a fresh, new look for the rock band that’s been through a number of stylistic-eras over the past decade. DePartee and the rest of Kutless can go on the record and say this album is about sincerity, and their feelings on the music industry, in general, are similar. “We’re writing the most honest music we’ve ever written,” DePartee said. “These songs are where our hearts are, and they’re just pouring out of us because that’s what God is doing. Whether we sell a million records or not, I can sleep at night because I know we wrote the record we were supposed to, and people are going to be impacted through what God is doing. It has nothing to do with what Kutless is doing.”
Kutless was posted on February 3, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by Justin Mabee.