I was locked out of the venue about 15 minutes before the show was supposed to start when Justin Cordle called me back. My photographer, Derek, and I were stuck outside Warehouse Live, a left-of-center, underground-friendly music venue in Houston that can accommodate small shows (on their small side) and large shows (on their large side). He knew I’d be here – or at least I assumed he did, otherwise why would he bother calling a random number back – so when I picked up his call back, he apologetically asked us to meet him around the side of the building where the buses were.
“Hey man, dude, I am so sorry,” he said. “Man, that’s awful, man. I’ll come get you, bro.”
This is important to me because Cordle is the lead singer of We As Human, a rock band that’s hurtling towards arena stages near you. (He and his band are playing that larger side of the venue tonight, opening for Red.) He’s supposed to be on stage in less than 15 minutes, and he’s still answering his cell phone, making sure I was taken care of.
He actually talks like that, too. It’s not a guise. He’s a genuinely good dude, and when he uses the excessive terms of endearment, it’s because he’s genuinely endeared. If it weren’t for the fact he’s in a leather jacket and black, skinny jeans, he could be in any frat or good ol’ boys’ club or even play Ron Slater to Jason London’s “Pink” Floyd.
In the Justin Cordle multiple-choice quiz, the answer to the question, “Would Justin dedicate one of their band’s songs to the troops during a set?” is definitely yes. It seems like an obvious extension of his personality, but for some, the whole “troops shout out” reeks of a marketing gimmick. You can’t not like the military, so you say it on stage, and you sell some more merch. The whole bit is tricky because some would argue that huge organizations, like Major League Baseball, abuse it, making their teams wear camo hats and shirts and gloves and bats and jerseys and batting practice jerseys and batting practice hats and then sell them online to make an extra buck off of Memorial Day.
Cordle really believes it, though, and that doesn’t surprise me. He actually spent an eighth of our interview on the subject. He’s passionate about what the troops do for our country, and he inadvertently started speaking in run-on sentences about it.
“I think it gets so twisted by the media and news and fellow Christians about what’s happening, we tend to forget and I think that a lot of us have forgotten that, though it is mixed up in controversy and politics now, it is still someone’s dad and mom or brother and sister and son or daughter that is over in Afghanistan or other parts of the world putting their lives on the line for us so that we can be free, so that we can go to concerts and write music and listen to music.”
Whatever made him this way would probably take another several interviews, but it could be his upbringing in Idaho. Not your typical hot bed of rock music, Cordle admits there’s no scene in Sandport, Idaho. (“They’re still listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn as current music,” he said.) The lack of cultivation did force one good thing: After Cordle and a couple of his buddies got together, started jamming and realized they were serious about it, they started touring much earlier than usual in the lifetime of a band.
You guys started out in Idaho together?
Yeah, in Idaho, man. There was nothing up there. We probably had a guy or two that really wanted to jam at a moment’s notice, but then they would get married or whatever or go to college or would try to kill me.
How do you pay your bills? Then we realized, “Oh, you don’t pay your bills,” and things got a lot easier. You just go out there and do it.
You’ve got to let those guys go. Were you always the singer or did you do something else? Because I know in small town like that a lot of people do basically everything: You are the manager, the guitar player, the singer…
I played guitar for a long time. I have always been the singer, but for a long time I also played guitar.
Was it one of those situations that you found you could just always do both pretty well? You were the songwriter and so you always felt comfortable doing both the guitar work and singing on your own, and then you finally found someone you felt comfortable with who could take over the reins?
Yeah, when we started the band it was just a really natural thing. As the writer in the band, I would write the songs and sing them and, of course, play them as well. I always loved playing the guitar and singing. I started touring in 2008. I was touring and playing guitar and singing. I was like, “You know? I just really don’t like being tied to a microphone stand.” I wanted to put the guitar down and just sing.
At the time, the guitar player quit. The band then thought, let’s just get two guitar players. Our music is written for two guitar players, anyway. (Current guitarists) Jake (Jones) and Justin (Forshaw) both auditioned alongside a bunch of others, and they just outshined the rest. That is when our band really started working. Our tour started to take off. From Sandport, Idaho, all of a sudden we had Justin in Seattle and Jake was in New Mexico. We were spread way, way out. We did that for a while when we all moved to Nashville about a year and a half ago.
You seem kind of lucky because you say that your band was formed five years ago, but you started touring in 2008. You got kind of lucky that you got an early start for touring in your band.
Yeah, exactly. I think so. We did. For the first years, it was just jamming together, not really doing anything. It was more of a hobby. All of a sudden, when we got serious, we didn’t know how to tour what a tour even looked like. Tour a few days and then come back and work a few days, because how do you pay your bills? Then we realized, “Oh, you don’t pay your bills,” and things got a lot easier. You just go out there and do it.
Garth once said something that really stuck with me: “When people come to my shows, even the guy in the nosebleed section in the back? I want him to know I know he is there.” I want people to know this isn’t another show on another tour for us. This is genuine.
Their live set is truly enjoyable. Having seen a number of live shows and an increasing number of bands rely on backing tracks so they can “perform” for the audience, We As Human relies on almost nothing but what you can actually see them play. (Equally as impressive: When we saw them, their drummer was taking a few days off and their drum tech was filling in; short of him not wearing the “We As Human uniform,” he didn’t miss a beat.)
Turns out, the band spent a lot of time working on this. Whereas a good section of bands in their genre write songs to make sure the pit is as huge as it can be, We As Human focused most of their time on being able to play every note live as it was on the album – the mark of a veteran band. It’s polish. What some call the icing on the cake, they call par for the course.
“My band and I – it’s ridiculous – we rehearse a lot,” he said. “We love to rehearse. We love the live show. When bands don’t play what is on their CD and we find out later that they didn’t play it in the studio? That is a huge problem, man. We didn’t want (our fans) to ever go through that with us. We rehearse our butts off. We write. We try to be genuine. … It’s just the music we make and we are fortunate that people like it.”
For most listeners, a band’s work is simply what they hear on the albums, especially for the casual fan. But for the bands, it’s their actual job. Some treat it as such – a labor – others, they’re thankful – a labor of love – and still others, they just party all the time, que será será. We As Human have always fallen into the middle category. As Cordle said, they love the live show. It’s work, but it’s better than doing literally anything else. As each band member perfects their live show instrumentation, Cordle works on his performance as well, knowing that even though he’s not physically playing the other 80 percent of the song, he’s most likely the thing the audience will remember. He knows it, and he’s done his research on it.
When you guys all got together as a group for the first time, did you guys have a conversation about what the goal of We as Human was going to be? I mean, I have seen you live and you have a connection to the audience. You guys (already) have a big sound; it’s also very palatable – it seemed like you were ready to fill arenas already.
Yeah, absolutely man. I think that I was really influenced – as far as connecting with the crowd – I have been really influenced by Garth Brooks, which is weird, I know.
He was one of the greatest performers of all time.
I watched the way that him and Steven Tyler from Aerosmith — even, like, Elton John — and the way they interacted with the crowd and I really admired them. The way they try to make eye contact with everybody. Garth once said something that really stuck with me: “When people come to my shows, even the guy in the nosebleed section in the back? I want him to know I know he is there.” I want people to know this isn’t another show on another tour for us. This is genuine.
I don’t go out and think I have to make eye contact with everybody or that I have to do X, Y and Z. It is really a natural thing because that is where my passions are. … As far as the music goes, I know a lot of bands and artists that try to form their craft to a certain audience. They shape and mold themselves to where their art meets a certain standard to sell more records. Our music is the way it is. We didn’t plan that. We started jamming in Idaho and this is just the music that started coming out of us and, as the years have gone on, we have tried to just be the best musicians we can.
I said goodbye to Cordle as he signed albums and shirts and the body parts of fans by their merch booth. He pretty much got off stage and went right to hang out with the ones that support his band. He got there so quickly; I thought for sure Derek and I would have had to wait another 20 minutes before the lead singer showed his face.
We love to rehearse. We love the live show. We rehearse our butts off. We write. We try to be genuine. It’s just the music we make and we are fortunate that people like it.
But he was as humble as ever. We shook his hand, told him we enjoyed the show, and he couldn’t be nicer about our exit. “How did the pictures turn out?” he asked. “If you can at all, get them to us! We’ll put them on our Facebook page.” I almost felt bad that he was talking to us, taking time away from the people surrounding him, from the line that had already formed.
He’s enjoying it for sure, his super-nice attitude making every fan feel like they’re the first fan he’s ever met. The roots that were planted back in Idaho are now starting to sprout, and tonight’s a good night to be We As Human. The style of music they started playing five years ago is still selling, and that section of fan is still going to shows and buying the band’s things. In the corporate world, they call this ROI, “return on investment.” It’s just a little weirder for these guys, because for them, that investment was in doing something they truly loved, and almost no one really gets to do what they love for a living.
If you started touring five-to-six years ago, when do you think you finally saw success? Some bands never make it. But you guys seem to be making at least some money off of it, because you are doing a pretty good job and seem to like what you’re doing. I’ve seen you guys, and it is a lot of fun.
The return part is always a little hard to throw a meter on because we have never been in a professional band that does big things. Some of the returns are like when we heard our song on the radio for the first time. That was insane. It kind of gave validity to who we are, because you don’t get played on the radio just because you are a band – you get played on the radio because you are, hopefully, a good band. You get played on the radio because you know there are other people that like you, which say, “Hey, this band needs to be heard.”
Another early milestone where we saw something come back to us is when we got chosen out of a ton of bands to be on this Xbox commercial for a new game that they were coming out with. It was little things like that, man. Being played on a radio. Going back to a city that we toured and seeing more people show up. Watching our merch sales goes up. Somebody wore our T-shirt. Seeing a dude’s Facebook profile pic and he is wearing our shirt — that kind of stuff means a lot to us — people writing us and telling us how much our music means to them.
Then, to kind of take it to an entirely new level, there was when people in the music industry started paying attention to us. We started getting professional feedback from guys who work at labels or from other bands or people that work in bands that they were fans of ours. Artists that we have known and loved, all of a sudden we are getting feedback from them. That is huge, man. We would hear back from guys like Scott Stapp, from Casting Crowns. Then, of course, John Cooper from Skillet.
We rehearse a lot. We love to rehearse. We love the live show. When bands don’t play what is on their CD and we find out later that they didn’t play it in the studio? That is a huge problem, man. We try really hard just to make sure that our people feel cared about and that they believe what we are saying.
That was the ultimate feedback: “Hey, we will sign you to a deal.”
I know. Exactly, man. That was kind of the ultimate feedback.
A lot of people reading this, they may not know of you yet, and we tend to lean towards the metal side of music. If you met them in the street, what would you say to those guys to make them feel like you were worth the time to check out?
This is a hard question to answer: “What is different about us and what sets us apart in the industry?” When I look at my band – which I can’t do objectively now, only subjectively – when I look at my band, one thing that I notice is when people show up to our concerts or the place we are playing, they feel like we genuinely care about the music we are playing and we genuinely care about the people we are playing it for. That, unfortunately, seems like it is rare. I mean, we fight the burn-out. We try really hard just to make sure that our people feel cared about and that they believe what we are saying.
I get that those statements are from more of a relational aspect, but musically speaking, we have fast guitar solos (laughs). I try to write big, pop hooks. I try to write pop hooks into huge, metal songs. That is what I do; write a melodic hook in a vocal line. All of a sudden you get this combination of a really hooky lyric line with a big heavy guitar riff and it seems to be really magical.
As a musician you seem to find, if you overcomplicate things, it is less memorable. Sometimes you’re like, “I wrote that and it took me two seconds and that is what everyone knows me for?” You think, “Why do I even spend my time writing these beautiful lyrics?”
Some of my favorite songs that I have written are really poetic and really thought through and the wording and terminology are really unique and really different, and they will never see the light of day, dude. It is too artsy, too heavy. It is too much. Even though the meaning is deep, people want simple.
People want to go to your concerts for relief, especially with the type of music you play. It isn’t always anger they want to express, but sometimes they just want physical activity, that closeness with people. They don’t want anything too heavy. They just want to chant, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall” over and over and over again.
That’s right. Absolutely. One thing I do think about when I am writing a song is that I want them to be tribal. I want them to display this connection between the band and our listeners. The fans. I will write a lot of lines they have to sing this with us. I’ll go back to the “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” lyric: It is supposed to be sung with a great crowd. Really, when they come to the shows, I think about that: “What do I want to sing with them together?” You really have to be in the moment with the band and sing these great, almost war cries. It is a relief.
We As Human was posted on June 3, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by David Stagg.