Red Jumpsuit Apparatus is having a resurgence. “On Becoming Willing,” their most recent single, has spent weeks at No. 1 on Christian Rock Billboard charts. Although they’ve crowned the charts many times in the past with songs still in the rotation of emo-kids-turned-adults, their surprising revival resonates differently for them today.
Founding member and vocalist Ronnie Winter – also the band’s manager – spoke with us about how their current single is not just a great song but an autobiographical story about giving up everything he knew to surrender to God’s plan for his life. A family man who started our conversation at a playground, Winter-Defoe is a different person than when he stepped into his career 15 years ago as a 20-year-old punk kid. The comparison is clear not just in his music but in the way he’s organized his life’s priorities. Even more interesting was how making one decision seven years ago transformed his life and his band in ways that he never saw coming.
HM: Tell me a little bit about the new album. It’s different from what you guys have done in the past.
Ronnie Winter: Yes, it’s definitely different. It’s a concept album, for starters.
Can you walk me through the concept and where it came from?
It’s three movements. There are two different types of moods to the concept: one is the lyrical message, the other is the sonic direction. If you listen to the record, we designed it to go from beginning to end. It’s kind of old school; nobody really does that anymore.
In the beginning, you hear a lot of post-hardcore or metal overtones. The guitar is very distorted, and there’s a lot of cool digital effects and extra gloss on some of the harmonies and computer-generated effects. It’s along the lines of a more modern sound. That’s something we’ve also had in some of our other albums, but we’ve never stacked three of them in a row. We did that on purpose. So if you make it through the first three tracks, that’s the end of movement one. If you look at the album art, they’re actually grouped like that. I just didn’t put it in words, because I thought it would be fun to leave some guessing out there for the people who care. I don’t want people to notice it right away.
Movement two begins with almost the exact opposite. It’s real acoustic, just one guitar doubled, which is also rare. The only thing else we have is piano and the strings, which is the opposite of movement one. The next song adds drums and bass guitar, and then the next song brings it back to full production – not right away, but by the end of the song. So you can see how there’s some pretty dramatic shifts between movement one and movement two.
Then movement three kicks in, which is what I like to call the old school sound. It’s very reminiscent of our albums before. So that’s the explanation of the song concept; the lyrical concept is completely different.
OK, tell me about that.
Believe it or not, I tend to tell people that they have to read the lyrics. I really want people to read them. If you put them back to back from one act to the next, it reads like a story, and I encourage everyone to do that. I promise you if you do it, you’ll get it.
On “Saul to Paul,” who did the female vocals?
That is my co-producer and wife, Angela.
I was so hoping that would be the answer!
Right, nobody does that! She’s fantastic. Her artist name is Defoe. She’s been an artist for a really long time. She actually scored a film that came out earlier this year and co-produced this album. She’s also releasing an album later this year.
A lot of times, when you’re making a record – especially a concept album – you need a female vocal and you call one of your producer friends or find a professional singer. But my wife is a professional singer. So there you go: She’s already in the room.
When I heard it I suspected it may be your wife, because I’d heard in an interview that you’d done co-production together. But there was also a vocal chemistry there. It reminded me of a side project from the lead singer of Coheed. Are you familiar with Chonny and Clyde that Claudio Sanchez did with his wife?
I am not familiar with that, but I know him. We’re not like best buds or anything, but way back on Warped Tour ’07 or ’08, I cornered him one day and confessed my undying love of Coheed. He actually took it really well because, at the time, his sister (or somebody younger) was a huge Jumpsuit fan. Not only did he know who we were, but he asked me if I could take a picture with her! I was like, “Yeah, as long as you take a picture with me…”
What a cool experience.
Yeah, so that actually turned out to be pretty funny. But no, I’m not familiar with that project, and I need to check it out immediately because I’m a huge fan of his work.
It’s so different. It’s nothing like Coheed. I don’t want to put you guys in a box. I know that musicians absolutely hate to be boxed in one genre or another, but would you say there’s more of a faith-based influence on this album?
A lot of people shy away from the spiritual aspect of this band, and we’ve never really understood why – other than the fact that for a while we were known as kind of a party band, which is true; it’s all part of our story.
There are a lot of versions of our songs that were put out before we signed our record deal. The reason that’s important is that those songs are still us as a band. One of those songs was called “The Grim Goodbye,” and, in the background, you could actually hear us doing a spoken word version of Ezekiel. That’s literally pre-album. Then there are other songs talking about the antichrist, like the song “Justify,” which is on a very unique sampler that we only handed out at the 30 Seconds to Mars tour, and that was before the album came out. So there’s spirituality all the way back to the beginning.
The only difference between us and what you would call a mainstream Christian band is that, at the time, our label didn’t want to market us that way. That was a little bit of a headbutt situation, but we wound up giving in because we agreed that more people would hear the message if we played ball. I still think that was the right decision because the only people who really knew about our band were the hardcore scene kids from Atlanta, Jacksonville, and maybe a little bit into Alabama. So in the Southeast corner – since that’s where we could tour on weekends – those kids knew we were spiritual from the beginning. Our songs had – I don’t want to say Christian lyrics because that’s a different type of vibe – biblical references of a spiritual nature. That’s more accurate.
Now, fast forward to The Awakening. About five to six years ago, I definitely did openly rededicate my life to the Lord, and it shifted the whole band. It’s actually been seven years now that we left our label, we left our management company, I let some guys go and changed the whole direction of the band because I wanted to focus more on the message. Literally, I made the opposite decision from what we made in the beginning because we felt that we had gotten as big as you could get and a lot of people would agree with that. You can’t get much bigger than we were with “Face Down.”
Eventually, we lost a bit of our spiritual nature. We got caught up in all (the hype) – just like every other band you’ve ever heard of – and with a lot of that came late night drinking parties because the managers and label want you to be there. It turns into something you become used to very slowly and gradually, even though it wasn’t the vibe at the beginning. It takes a toll over the years.
So, like I said, six to seven years ago now, we walked away from that, and we’ve been slowly pursuing the Christian rock genre independently. We’ve had seven Billboard No. 1s after leaving – we only had three with Virgin – and all of them are what I like to call Christian rock. With The Awakening, now that that transition has been made, time after time we can still hit No. 1s – because that’s what a lot of people care about – but in our genre, which is where we feel comfortable. The Awakening is definitely a Christian rock album, and if that bothers you, you probably won’t like it. We should definitely throw that disclaimer out there.
I guess I was a little surprised to find that this was a Christian rock album. But going back into your discography, as you said, I realized you have always had songs that pointed in that direction.
Correct. What are the lyrics from “Guardian Angel,” right? “Even if saving you sends me to Heaven.” I mean, that’s kind of direct.
This new album is a new chapter. Has it opened up new conversations with your audience because it is openly a Christian album?
Sure. Right now, in this very moment and space in time with you (we are having that conversation). I don’t know if you would have necessarily considered yourself a fan before this interview or not, but, either way, just by discussing it, that’s happening at this moment. I see it every single time. I see it every day when we play shows.
There’s a pretty big split in our crowd now. It’s really great because half of the crowd tends to be older people who still listen to Red Jumpsuit, which is awesome. I still listen to all the bands that I listened to when Red Jumpsuit came out: My Chemical Romance, the old Fall Out Boy stuff, Coheed. Everything that came around at that time I still listen to. So it’s not weird to me that people come to our shows and only want to hear the old songs. But that’s one half of the crowd. An even smaller part of that is what we call the “Face Downers,” which is people who are like 50 and up, wearing biker stuff, totally drunk, and they just say, “Face Down!” all night long.
Pretty much like people screaming, “Free Bird!”
Exactly! And you know what? They usually shout out “Free Bird!” as well.
That’s the smaller niche part of the show. Then there’s the other side of the crowd that’s younger kids – I’m talking 25 and under – and they only know the new, Christian stuff. A lot of times, when we finally get to “Face Down” in the set, they’re kind of surprised. They’re like, Oh you’re that band! But they have a more positive look at it, like, Oh wow! You’d be shocked how many people at our shows don’t realize it because, like a lot of bands, we play our more current hits and then later in the set we get to the old school hits. So, by the end of the show, the old school people see how the rest of the crowd knew all the music they didn’t and then they check out the new music. We’ve seen a steady growth and even a joining of the two crowds. It’s been really interesting to watch. It definitely keeps us going, you know?
We’re getting pretty old. I’m 35. I don’t have to put another record out. Nobody’s pointing a gun at my head and saying, “You must continue Red Jumpsuit’s records” or whatever. I have a two-year-old son, a wife, a house, and a mortgage like everybody else. We don’t make millions of dollars in this band. We’ve been independent for almost ten years; you don’t make a lot of money when you do it on your own. But God provides every time, and we survive comfortably. He makes sure that all of our bills are paid. We seem to always have enough money for supplies, merch, and gear to make a new record. We just don’t worry about it and keep making records. He keeps providing for us financially through our fans, and we leave it at that. We haven’t seen a need to push it any further than that and, so far, we’ve been okay.
At this point, you’re living in the moment. You’re not looking ahead saying, What’s next? You’re having faith that God will provide, and He’ll take you in the direction you’re meant to go.
Yeah, isn’t that crazy to hear from the manager of a band? That is not how it normally goes! They want the next six months to a year planned – at least – for optimum sales. But you gotta remember that we don’t care about that, so we have the ability to just relax and enjoy right where we are, which we did not in the beginning.
A lot of people don’t know this but Randy (Winter, guitarist) was actually on the first record. He’s been in the band now almost eight years. If you look at the credits from Don’t You Fake It, he’s on them. He was in the studio with the band and, at one point he was going to tour with us and do keyboard, but he had another band that was doing well, and he just wound up joining like a year and a half later. But Randy, I, and Joey (Westwood, bassist) are considered the old-school guys, and we were just reflecting on how when it happened for us, we were young and dumb and we were not able to take it in. There was so much pressure. Sometimes, we would have four shows in a day.
“Are we on the front of every magazine? Has anyone really mentioned it other than us? Nope. And that’s okay with us because the people who need to hear it, hear it.”
Now, we’re older and most of us are married with kids or in long-term relationships. Our new single right now, “On Becoming Willing?” You can’t listen to that song and not know that we’re giving the glory to God. I don’t care who you are: When you hear that song, it pulls at your heart. Everybody’s been there. Everybody has been at that point, even non-spiritual Christian people, a lot of times during their darkest times, they’ll reach out. But literally every person you know can relate to this song, and it gives the glory to God.
Are we on the front of every magazine? Has anyone really mentioned it other than us? Nope. And that’s okay with us because the kids love it. People who need to hear it, hear it. We’ve been able to kick back and actually really enjoy all the success we’ve been having with the album and the song and be thankful because it’s awesome to still be putting out a song these days and have anybody care, much less a No. 1 on Christian Billboard for four weeks.
Why do you think that – now that you’re independent – you’re still finding this level of success? Do you think it’s your approach of having faith and following it? Or do you think it’s a combination of that and your experience in the industry? It’s just so unusual to be independent and have that many No. 1s and continue building on that without a label.
I agree, and it is strange. But we’ve always been that strange band. I also really honestly believe that bands don’t give God enough credit. We do this because God wants us to do it. I just can’t think of any other reason any other band would even keep going at this point, because it’s not for the money. It’s not for the fame. What is it for then? I don’t know. For us, it’s for God. I’m convinced that’s why people still like us. I’m convinced that’s why we still have success, and I think that it’s probably the only reason why I’m even still alive. All of those are because of God.
Our generation, specifically, is in this weird place with their faith. (It is) deconstruction and reconstruction. Re-identifying where they are with the church and re-establishing their relationship with God. It seems to be something that’s emerged in a big way, and it’s had an interesting impact on the music industry.
I don’t like it, I’m just going to be honest. God has given you everything you could ever want, and any opportunity that you miss is because you’ve separated yourself from Him somehow, some way. I’ve learned this through my mistakes. I have been the monk on the mountaintop, and I’ve been the bum on the streets on Skidrow in L.A. I’ve literally been on the streets.
“I’ve heard some bands in interviews say they’re getting tired of playing their old music. We don’t. I cherish every part of the ride.”
I discovered that for me, it’s because I was causing separation. For me, in particular – and everybody’s different – it was because of alcohol, which is something that happened over a slow, gradual time (that we talked about earlier), but I didn’t realize it. But all of a sudden, next thing you know, it’s been two weeks and you haven’t even prayed. It’s been a month, and you haven’t even really communed or connected. It’s been three months, and you haven’t been to church once, which isn’t that big of a deal; nobody died, you’re not cheating the taxes, you didn’t hurt anybody. But you’re just slowly, slowly drifting. And then, a year later, you barely even think about God anymore.
Because I got so miserable, so depressed, so suicidal and ready to just end everything, I was able to become willing, which is what this song is about. I completely changed back to not only who I was, but to a stronger, better person than I’ve ever been, and the only thing different is that every single day when I wake up in the morning, I invite God into my heart and into my life to walk with me and guide my decisions. But that’s it. That’s the only change I made, and it completely turned around.
So these people that are deconstructing and are self-searching so hard because they want to blame the church… Who’s the church? It’s humans; of course there are mistakes in the church. It’s run by us! How could there ever be a perfect church if it’s run by man? There can’t be a perfect anything that’s run by man. That’s why we have to trust that God has us where he has us for that day.
The only way we can trust that is if we can connect with him and ask him to guide us. That’s how it works. You gotta bring Him in. Those people who are going through the stage of what I will call “misunderstanding,” I believe if they truly speak their heart and they truly seek counsel from some elders who have rocks of spirituality built up into mountains, they will discover that they have created a separation somehow. Who knows what it is for them. Maybe it’s alcohol or drugs, boys or girls, codependency, the Internet or pornography, maybe it’s video games. There’s something that they’re putting in the place of God, and, when they remove that, all of these problems they have with everybody else go away instantly because they’re realigned with God. The only thing that they’ll really care about – instead of whining all day long about how this person did that to them – the only thing they’ll care about is being useful to others, doing something good for someone else. That’s what Jesus wants us to do.
I have one last question for you because you’re the only artist I’ve spoken to who’s had this experience. Two years ago, Don’t You Fake It went platinum. What was that like?
Well, a lot of emotions. I’ve heard some bands in interviews say they’re getting tired of playing their old music. We don’t. I cherish every part of the ride. It was very nice to finally get recognized. A lot of insider industry people knew that it was platinum a long time ago, but we pushed, and I was able to make the right connections and get the right people on the phone to finally get them to recognize it. I was able to give all the old guys the record because they haven’t been with us in a long time. We’re still family. Just because they don’t tour with me anymore doesn’t mean anything. We’re still friends, and I wish all of them well and they wish me well. It’s all good.
So I was able to see some old friends, give them their plaques, pass out our plaques to the guys who have given their whole lives to this band for the past three to four years they’ve been around or longer. It was a time of reflection and gratitude, and it was also, I think, an ending to that chapter, finally. It was, like, ten years later, it hits platinum, people still dig it. Right on, man! Who’d have thunk that?
What am I going to say? The same boring thing I say to everybody about that stuff: It was God. Some people say it’s a cop-out, but I say it’s the truth. I believe God gave me that certification because I have rededicated my life and straightened myself out and become humble and started asking for direction instead of doing things on my own. And boom, it went platinum. Does that sound like a coincidence to you? Because it doesn’t to me.
Red Jumpsuit Apparatus was posted on September 12, 2018 for HM Magazine and authored by Danielle McCallister.