“This is probably one of our darkest albums. But there’s never that sense of giving up. It’s that sometimes we don’t have the answers to how the hope is going to show up. Hope is the thing that we have to hold on to amidst losing everything else.”
It’s no secret that heavy music tends to be the voice of the tension between pain and hope. Certain themes are better expressed through aggressive sounds and emotional lyrics. For 20 years, Project 86 has committed to standing in the midst of that tension, writing honest music that oscillates between objective and subjective but always dedicated to looking life square in the eye. Their newest release, Sheep Among Wolves, proves to be no exception. With ten albums’ distance from their self-titled 1998 debut, frontman and songwriter Andrew Schwab is the band’s only founding member, a steady vein that has guided the music over the past 20 years.
For SAW, Project 86 opted to fund the effort through PledgeMusic. Fans were truly a part of the album process, as each song was written, recorded, and distributed over the span of a year. Finally, in December 2017, the band released the album in celebration of their 20 years making music. Not only did fans get an awesome album from Project 86 this time around, but they got to see it unfold from conception to completion.
My conversation with Schwab was reflective of his songwriting – authentic and direct. He walked me through the experience of evolving as an artist and as a band, explored the role of his faith in his career, and offered honest advice for young bands looking to start their journey. With time in the industry as one of his biggest allies, Schwab is an ocean of experience and wisdom. His intellectual curiosity and creative nature make for excellent music and deep conversation, tethering meaning to every lyric and purpose to every record.
We all know that bands go through changes in their sound. Project 86 has been around the block a couple times. How would you describe your sound on your latest album?
Well, the priority is always to write a diverse record, so this album is no exception. It’s definitely some of our heaviest material in certain moments, but there are other moments that are a bit more moody or haunting and a bit more subtle – not directly as heavy. There are as many rock songs on the record as there are aggressive songs.
I think for Project, for this band, that has added to the longevity of our career. This is album number ten. It’s always been a priority to write records that are different from one another and songs that are diverse within the record so that someone can listen to a Project record from front to back without getting bored or thinking we were trying to recreate something that we’d already done. That’s part of what makes it continue to be something that we’re passionate about because we’re always trying to do something new creatively.
At the end of the day, it’s about songs. Do we write songs that are memorable? Do we write songs that get stuck in your head all day? Or do we produce an emotional reaction in the audience, you know? Hopefully, we did that this time around with Sheep Among Wolves. We feel really good about it.
“At the end of the day, it’s about songs. Do we write songs that are memorable? Do we write songs that get stuck in your head all day? Or do we produce an emotional reaction in the audience? Hopefully we did that this time around.”
Sheep Among Wolves, as an album title, suggests a pretty strong theme. Can you tell me more about the overarching story of this record?
I think the motivation for a lot of the lyrics – but not all the songs – is this idea of sometimes not knowing who your friends are and who your enemies are. For me, personally, I’ve worked with a lot of different people over the years, especially in the context of doing this band. You meet a lot of people – especially if you’re on the faith-based side of things – who talk and say all the right things, but, at the end of the day, they aren’t your friends. Then, you meet a lot of people who may not be from a faith-based background who are genuinely loyal, honest, good people to work with.
That’s not just in the context of Project 86 or the music industry; that’s just life. It’s definitely a commentary on Christianity, especially American Christianity. I find that the further I go, the least trustworthy people are Christians, and that has nothing to do with how I feel about God or my personal relationship with Jesus. But I find that the further I go, it’s very rare to meet someone who professes an outspoken faith who isn’t shady in some way. So it just begs the question and makes you look at the bigger picture: What is it that’s broken about this system of Christianity that produces wolves in sheep’s clothing? Those are some of the questions I try to pose and answer with some of the lyrics and the album title.
Yeah, totally. I always think that the deeper you go into your own faith – or any study that you do – the smaller your world gets.
So is that the central theme of the title track as well? That song is full of really dense imagery.
The title track is actually about a totally different idea. It’s probably the most personal song on the album. I’ve never been a big believer in complete song explanations. I’ve always done it in such a way so that I’m not revealing everything that the song is about. It’s more giving the illusion of vulnerability while not giving everything away because I think the power of lyrics and music, in general, is your imagination, right? How you can attach meaning from your own personal experience, your own story, to whatever story is being told in the song. So even if you may not be going through the exact same thing the songwriter was going through, it’s that connection or the illusion of connection that can forge that relationship between the listener and the author.
I’ve had many people tell me that they feel like they know me through my lyrics. And they certainly know a part of me, but they don’t know me completely. But that’s what you want to create as a songwriter! You want to create an emotional connection. I don’t think that’s possible if you give away everything. If all the lyrics are completely clear and easy to understand without imagination involved, people can invent their own interpretation or attach their own set of meanings to it.
I always say that as a precursor to explaining songs…
That particular song you asked about is extremely personal, but there’s a metaphor there. The most obvious interpretation of the lyrics is that it’s about a guy who becomes a werewolf or some creature of the night who lives this more-than-human existence and then loses the power to do it. He’s lamenting that. He’s thinking back through these memories.
It’s not an evil song in any way, it’s just likening it to the question, what if you could become some sort of creature or beast that normal humans couldn’t and then you lost that power? How would you feel? It would feel weird. I liken it to the idea that there are a select few people who are pioneers and get to do something extraordinary. You think of it in the context of say, an NFL football player. For a very short time in their lives, they are in peak physical condition enough to be able to play a game at such a level that they transcend and go to the highest level of that sport. They experience things that normal people don’t. They’re gladiators, right? They play a sport in front of not just 60,000-70,000 people who watch them in a stadium, but also millions that watch them on television. That feeling and the way it must make you feel more-than-human must be amazing.
But life after football must be the hardest thing that any human being could ever go through. You have to live with your body not being able to do these things that it was once able to do. You go from being in the complete limelight to being in the background. That’s got to be so difficult. I’ve experienced things like that in music. Those are some of the emotions that I’m reflecting on in that particular song.
You say it’s the most personal song. Would you consider it your favorite song on the record?
I would say it’s top three. I ascribe a lot of meaning to lyrics, obviously, because I’m writing them. So that tends to cloud my judgment on how I view the song. Is it the best song on the album? I don’t know, but it’s one of my favorites personally.
I read that your lyrics are inspired by a lot of literature. Is there any of that in this record?
You know, I’m always reading something that gives me an angle or a piece of inspiration that makes it way onto the record. I would say the most obvious literary reference that I pulled from directly was The Divine Comedy by Dante. There’s a song on the album called “My Constantine,” and the principle in that song is really simple. The idea that sometimes in order to get to a better or healthier place – in this life or the next – you have to go through something really hard to get there.
The lyric in the song is, “The path to paradise begins in this hell.” In Dante’s Inferno, he has to get through hell before he gets to paradise. We go through those seasons in our lives, and it’s supposed to be encouraging to the listener. It’s to say that you might feel like you’re in hell right now, you’re going through something that is so insurmountable – that’s a huge theme in our music. I write a lot of songs for people who are going through something really hard. And it’s meant to say there’s something better coming if you just hang in there, you know? That’s what that particular song is about. It’s the idea that to get to heaven, you have to go through hell first. Sometimes in this life, you have to go through a valley before you experience a blessing.
Does that mean that typically your lyrics come first in the writing process?
No, usually the lyrics are last. I’ll have a general idea on certain songs about what I want to say or what kind of theme I want to touch on. Maybe there will be one little chorus line or a rhythm or something that is a foundation for writing. I know that was the case for “MHS.” I didn’t really have lyrics per say, but I had a vocal rhythm that I wanted to make as a bold part of the song. So we formed the instrumentation around the vocal rhythm.
But a lot of times the music comes first. It’s more of a sonic landscape, and then I try to put myself into the music first, the instruments, and be honest with myself about how it makes me feel. From there, words come. There’s always something going on in my life or something I’ve read or listened to that I’ll make a connection with for a song.
Who are some of your biggest influences, lyrically or vocally?
Really, it changes from album to album. The previous album, Knives to the Future, musically speaking, I was listening to only classic film scores for movies I like. So that’s what dictated the ebb and flow of the material. We put some strings on it, and the album was about self-discovery and destiny and this idea that we might not know what the future holds, but sometimes the key to our future is found in our past. It tells a story, it’s a concept.
This album, I mentioned Dante, and really there’s just a lot of personal experience on this album. And that’s true for every album for every band. Like I said before, the concept is about the idea that sometimes the people you think are your best buddies are the opposite and the people you want to label as ‘not on your team’ actually are. I feel like God always puts people in your life to help you, no matter where you’re at in your life, what season or what challenges you’re facing. And it’s interesting when help comes from unlikely sources in the midst of dealing with things that are difficult.
Did any of that change or influence the recording process for you at all?
No, not really. The recording process this time around was done gradually. As a part of our PledgeMusic campaign, we made a deal with the fans that if they get involved and help support the record, we would give them one song a month. We would actually write and record one song at a time for the album, and they’d be able to listen to it as we made it. My other guys are in Nashville so we collaborated online, back and forth. I would record vocals (etc.) on my end and the instruments would be tracked in Nashville. There were a couple sessions where I flew out there for a week at a time and worked together in the studio.
But it was interesting this time around because it was such a long process. It took over a year to do the record because we were so focused on one song at a time. Does that make for a better record? I’m not sure. People will have to listen to it, but I feel like the songs that we came up with are strong. This is an album about the chorus (from a song perspective). There are a lot of really strong choruses on this album. So I feel like we did something right because the songs are strong.
What is your favorite part of the album cycle?
I really like when the album is finished. The excitement of the eleventh hour of finishing the album is really cool. That’s the “fruits of the labor” moment. You get to do press and you get the first copies, see the artwork for the first time. You hear the album in its mixed form. When all those things are happening that are the first fruits of your labor, that’s a really exciting time. It’s almost like birthing the album into the world. It’s not difficult because we’ve already done the hard part of writing and recording. It’s more of a celebration. You get to reconnect with folks you haven’t talked to in a while, and there’s an excitement in the air when something new is released. I’d say that’s probably my favorite moment.
“What most people don’t understand is that when you stream music – you use Apple Music or Spotify or something – the artists don’t make money off of those album streams. So if you’re choosing to stream the album versus buying it, and enough people do that, that band won’t exist anymore.”
After making so many albums, what would you say to bands who are trying to get started?
I mean, music is so different now, especially for a brand new artist. When I started, the primary medium for music was CDs, and people still bought them. There was no digital world of music when I first began doing music. People still went to shows. People still bought records in their entirety and paid full price for them. Record labels were still record labels. They signed bands and spent money on them. You got an advance, and there was still a hope of building a career. Now it’s like, in order to have a full-time music career, you have to be in the 1% of the 1%. For everybody else, it’s either a hobby or a supplemental thing because nobody buys music anymore. So I don’t know.
The advice from me would be not to put all your eggs in one basket. You have to devote everything you have to do music, but it’s not a viable career option anymore unless you’re Taylor Swift or one of the few select bands that make good money touring. You have to really think of it in terms of, “I probably will not be able to do this for a living,” and then you plan accordingly (laughs). Then, if something crazy happens and your band explodes, you’ll have a nice surprise.
One of the things I’ve been saying to our fans or people who are interested in the band is that it is almost impossible for artists to make a living doing music anymore because people don’t buy music. What most people don’t understand is that when you stream music – you use Apple Music or Spotify or something – the artists don’t make money off of those album streams. So if you’re choosing to stream the album versus buying it, and enough people do that, that band won’t exist anymore. It’s still a job. You have to put countless hours into doing music. It requires way more work than anyone would ever assume.
Our fans have been pretty supportive and understanding when I say things like this. Essentially, if you like a band, buy the record. Buy a t-shirt. Vote with a few bucks that you would like this band to continue to exist and make music by just purchasing an album. Then go stream it. You can visit us at Project86.com and we have lots of options. We have a digital store there, and we also have CDs and merchandise. And that’s not just a plug, it’s practical. In a time that’s so lean for artists, I’m saying to be intentional about the bands you support. Not just Project 86. If you want a band to continue to exist, you have to buy the record because there are so few people that do. Think about it – if you spend $10 on a CD, the band sees a good chunk of that and it buys groceries for families. That is literally what it comes down to. So support the artists, support us if you like what we do. Please buy the record directly from the band if you can because there’s a middleman involved with iTunes and other sites. That’s just something I’ve been asking people to consider.
Last, I’d like to ask what you hope people take away from this album, other than the theme you’ve already hit on. What do you hope people gain from having this piece of art?
The idea that life can be really brutal sometimes, but it doesn’t have to consume you. When you’re at the lowest moment that life has to offer you or you’re going through your worst fears or if you can see no way out, there is still always hope, even though the light may be very dim – if you’re willing to believe. I think this was a darker record, even for Project; this is probably one of our darkest albums. But there’s never that sense of giving up. It’s that sometimes we don’t have the answers to how the hope is going to show up. Hope is the thing that we have to hold on to amidst losing everything else. For me, that hope is in a higher power, a life after this one. That’s the ultimate message of my band, as people know. I don’t think that message is totally overt on this album, but it’s there nonetheless.
Project 86 was posted on March 5, 2018 for HM Magazine and authored by Nao Lewandowski.