Back in the Mid-90’s there was a certain sense of innocence in the alternative Christian music scene. After grunge had toppled the pomp and circumstance of hair metal, the floodgates of “anything goes” opened wide – both in a fashion sense and musically. There was a certain festival in the Northwest called “Tom” that embodied this attitude. I remember being handed a 2-song cassette with the words Project 86 written on it. The music inside that plastic shell conveyed an urgency and a new style called “Rapcore.”

It wasn’t like this band had re-invented the wheel, but their will to succeed was matched by a natural musical aggression that was undeniable even back in that trendy phase the band has happily evolved out of. Frontman Andrew Schwab remembers those times when all the band’s marketing was done by the members themselves.

Instead of today’s electronic social networking, the band hustled with flyers, shows, phone calls, and more shows. They were able to actually grown and develop as artists and now, some six albums later, Project 86 shows its maturity and focus with Picket Fence Cartel.

“We have always believed in the fact that if you make music that is compelling enough, people will come to you on their own. Good music should market itself. But the more the marketplace is cluttered, the shorter people’s attention spans get, the more you have to ‘fight’ for people’s ears. So, you have to do more and more just to keep people’s attention. People want to feel like they are a part of what you do now – not just passive enjoyers of music. I have never related to that mentality as a music fan (I really don’t want to know what my favorite bands are doing at all hours of the day). I have always liked … the ‘distance’ between the artist and the listener – it leaves room for the imagination. But that mystique is gone in the world of Twitter, YouTube, etc. Don’t get me wrong, though. We have embraced the evils of social networks and Youtube, and we actually have fun using them! When we first started, none of this was necessary. You would just play shows and people would come to see you because there wasn’t 800 other bands playing on the same night in the same town.”

If Schwab sounds irritated and bitter, you might be right. But if you compared his kinder, gentler attitude now than that of the major label frontman believing they were about to traverse the same waters of success that their neighbors from Southtown had navigated before them; you would be wrong. To understand the transformation of Schwab from bristling vocalist to approachable and grateful frontman of a more-than-a-decade-old metal band, one would just need to read his book.

What were the specific challenges that writing and recording this album presented to you?
Each time we enter the studio it is a new chapter, we have new goals, and take with us wisdom gained from previous efforts. As experience mounts with time (along with trial and error), you learn more and more about your identity as a band, and how to more effectively navigate each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the process. As a band, we have really honed our ability to complement one another–the three of us realize what makes us Project 86 is Steve, Randy, and Andrew writing the music, together.

The biggest obstacle is always the same when you make a record: Can we make something special? Can we make it memorable? Can we make people feel the emotion tangibly? Can we make them connect and sing along, passionately? This is the obstacle you face no matter who you are, no matter what point you are at in your career. It’s the same obstacle Dr. Dre and U2 and Kanye West face every time they enter the studio. And the answer always comes in the form of the same question: Can I trust the process?

This isn’t industryspeak, it’s reality. You put your all (and I mean your ALL) and try with all your might to write music that people are going to cling to, and treat like the sacred soundtrack to their lives. And you want every single song to bear that label in the end. But the reality is that you can’t force those moments. You can’t force a hit single and you can’t force a great record. And even the most special of bands usually only have a couple memorable songs–and that’s if the stars align for them!

Usually those songs are the ones that come out of nowhere. And they usually happen when you are having fun, enjoying just being a band together. That’s what we have become better at doing through trial and error. I think we have some moments on this record that are special, that people will remember. And that’s all we could ever ask for.

Project 86’s catalog is a strong statement of consistently bring high quality rock. Many fans have their favorite album, etc, and there is popular sentiment that Drawing Black Lines was that point. How do you deal with that kind of sentiment? How strong of a consideration is measuring up to that album?
I really love the music we made on our second album. It had a certain energy to it, and the production quality was exciting. For its time, I think it was a highly underrated record that stood out among everything else that was going on in heavy music. But I am also proud of every record we have made along the way for different reasons. And each record has accomplished something unique, in a deeply personal way for us. I like the self-titled record because it represented the beginning of a dream. Truthless Heroes has three of my favorite songs we have ever written. Songs to Burn Your Bridges By has some of my favorite lyrics. …And The Rest Will Follow and Rival Factions were both huge accomplishments, in that we were able to demonstrate the melodic side of our collective personality. We have always desired to have a relationship with the people who follow us that transcends a single or a video or one particular chorus…and we are thankful that many of these relationships have lasted throughout the span of our career.

What does this album sound like?
Exactly like Drawing Black Lines! I keed, I keed. I think it sounds like Project 86. But Project 86 very miffed and yelling at terrible monsters, triumphing over foes, and thwarting evil forces. It also kind of sounds like huge, warring, metal beasts with chainsaw talons and bayonet teeth, clashing over the fate of crumbling civilization.

(We chatted about this in our phone conversations about this article that was planned for this last issue…I want to ask about it now) What personnel changes have taken place in Project 86? How has that affected the band?
There have not been any changes to our lineup as a band since the previous release. Myself, Steve, and Randy wrote all the songs on this record, and we have been the songwriters since the beginning of this band. I don’t see this changing anytime soon. From a touring standpoint, we may look into adding another role-player to the picture, much like a “designated hitter.” As far as the “members” of Project 86, this has not changed, and we do not desire it to.

How has distance played (or not played) a part in your band’s creative process? What about the day-to-day functions of a band?
Distance is a very important part of our creative process, mine especially. If Steve is standing too close to me I always move to the other side of the room so I can concentrate better. And I really don’t like it when people close-talk, because then I can smell their insides. I guess all of this is due to being raised as an only child.

Tell me about the Scream the Prayer tour… What are your expectations for it? What might your set list look like? Will the set list change from night to night? Why or why not?
I expect there to be lots of black, lots of screaming, and lots of prayer. I expect we will be one of the bands that stands out a bit on the tour, as there are quite a few metalcore bands in the lineup. It will be great to get in front of some new people and play some of the new music, though. I am interested to see how hardcore kids take to a band that doesn’t have a breakdown in every song. Don’t get me wrong though…we love our breakdowns, we just play them our own way. I imagine we will play a good deal of new material from Picket Fence Cartel. Did I mention we have a new record called Picket Fence Cartel? It sounds EXACTLY like Drawing Black Lines!

If the band has reached a new status or place in its history (in relation to question #4), how does this impact the future of the band and live touring?
We have reached a new status in that we are even more awesome now than you could ever imagine…

With Rival Factions and …And the Rest Will Follow you seemed to be experimenting a bit with different textures and sonics. You have evolved quite a bit from your earlier material. Does this continue on Picket Fence Cartel?
I would say this is a more guitar-driven record, where a majority of the songs are a bit darker and heavier sonically than the previous two releases. But the lyrics are a bit more spiritual this time around, as well. We have always believed in varying songs tempos and feels and instrumentation to try to make the records exciting from front to back. I think this is another diverse record, but it leans more aggressive. Overall, it’s heavier than our previous two releases.

Many of your fans seem to connect with the lyrics you write. In fact, you have won favorite lyricist in HM for many years running! Talk about the lyrics on the new record. Was there one concept/theme or many?
There wasn’t necessarily one theme, but there are some consistent “elements” that recur throughout. One element is escape. I tend to think of my life from this perspective of what might have been–as in, without the blessings I have received from above I could have become this completely bizarro version of myself, a truly empty person. Thank God he is calling the shots and I am not. So the life that might have been I was able to elude like escaping from a burning building. Another theme is possession, or ownership. We tend to think of our lives as belonging to no one but ourselves, but in reality every human being is “owned” by something–the thing that takes the throne of our hearts. For many in this line of work, that throne is occupied by fame or acceptance. In the context of our record, I talk about what happens to us when we allow things other than God to be our treasure. My favorite lyrics on the record are on the last song “To Sand We Return”: Who do I belong to? Not earth, Not world, Not evils, Not mortals, Not wretches, not horrors. Who do I belong to? Unchanging, unbreaking, unfailing, creator, immortal, eternal.

As you have gone further into your career, you have been able to do your own thing every step of the way, not bowing to trends and having your own distinct sound. Anyone who is familiar with Project 86 knows that you sound like no one else. Was this always intentional?
Good question, Doug. When we first started as a band we definitely wore our influences on our sleeve. It’s funny, when you first start out you just want to do it, to make that first record, that first demo, that first recording. The very act of hearing yourself on a recording is a milestone in and of itself. It’s like saying to yourself, “This is not an impossible dream.” But you never really know what you are doing when you first begin. You really don’t know much about how to write songs, and you are very much clueless about the business side as well. And you have stumble a lot along the way to really figure things out…who you are as a band musically, especially. We have been fortunate enough to stay together long enough to really learn how to write music together that we can feel proud of. And for us, having our own sound was important very early on, right after we heard our first recordings and said “we have some work to do.” The bands we have always loved as music fans are the ones that have paved their own paths, the ones that have not catered their sound to fleeting fashion. We’ve tried to do the same.

Random question: How has marketing your own band evolved since the band started?
We have always believed in the fact that if you make music that is compelling enough, people will come to you on their own. Good music should market itself. But the more the marketplace is cluttered, the shorter people’s attention spans get, the more you have to “fight” for people’s ears. So, you have to do more and more just to keep people’s attention. People want to feel like they are a part of what you do now–not just passive enjoyers of music. I have never related to that mentality as a music fan (I really don’t want to know what my favorite bands are doing at all hours of the day). I have always liked that but of distance between the artist and the listener–it leaves room for the imagination. But that mystique is gone in the world of Twitter, YouTube, etc. Don’t get me wrong, though. We have embraced the evils of social networks and Youtube, and we actually have fun using them! When we first started, none of this was necessary. You would just play shows and people would come to see you because there wasn’t 800 other bands playing on the same night in the same town.

Do you have any regrets to this point? What would you change about the path you guys have traveled, if anything?
It’s so easy to second guess things when you are looking back, but I have learned not to. It takes the stars aligning in many different areas for a band to have success. A great song or album is not enough. You need the right timing, the right politics at the label, the right team of people working for you, and even then your chances are slim for anything beyond moderate success. I have come to truly believe that we are not in control of what happens to us in this industry or life in general–it is God is who is pulling the strings. He really is. What happens is according to his purpose. And you know what? I am so thankful for that. Because then, we cannot take credit for anything. It negates pride. And it forces you to deal in a different currency completely–because true “success” in life is not about album sales or who can out-cool everyone else. Success is about trying to love in all that we do for the sake of the one who first loved us. And success is about giving Him glory. Every gift we have been given is from God anyway, so there is no way we can take credit for our songs, or even our own abilities. It’s easy to lose sight of that when people are placing you on a pedestal, or when you achieve any sort of notoriety. At one point I may have said I regretted not having a gold record…that is until I learned that it would not make me happier about my life in any way. I can say I am pretty content with what we have done as a band, and I have learned to be thankful for every memory and every single opportunity.