By Levi Macallister
Tell me about the history of ITMOL…? Who came up with the name? Why In The Midst of Lions? How long were you a band before you got signed? That kind of stuff…
Matt Janssen: Uh… it just kind of originated with four of us from all over Missouri. We all moved up to St. Louis, but we didn’t have a drummer. We ended up finding Alex within a week or two, and he’s the one who actually ended up coming up with the name. Alex showed up to practice one day with a list of, like, 5,000 names. Okay, not 5,000, but, like, 20. We all just picked out In The Midst Of Lions. Later on, one of our friends called us and was like, “Hey, I saw this scripture… did you even notice this when you guys chose your name?” We hadn’t, and it ended up being Psalm 57:4, which was really cool.
We were a band for a little over a year before we got signed and Jason contacted us.
Were you in a band before ITMOL?
Uh, yeah. We were – a couple of us. But… we don’t need to talk about that.
No? Did it suck?
Very bad, yeah. Haha.
Okay. Ha. You guys are one of the newer bands on Strikefirst Records – how is it working under Jason Dunn? I’ve heard a lot about the value he holds in good, strong, and personal relationships with his bands…
Jason’s one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever talked to. I talk to him almost every day on the phone. I met him for the first time at Cornerstone, and he is one of the coolest dudes. Super humble. He helps us out a lot – especially since Cornerstone. We got a lot of stuff rolling there and he saw that we wanted to get stuff done. He’s been really helping us out since then. Giving us some hook ups with some companies and stuff like that since then.
I talked to Wrench in the Works before, and Plea, and a couple other Facedown bands before, and they said that he… well… did you guys check out any other labels before this?
Yeah, we showcased for Victory. We drove up to Chicago and hung out with the Victory staff and played a show for them. And they kept in contact with us afterwards, but we didn’t do any touring. So they didn’t want us because we didn’t have the experience.
So you didn’t tour before you got signed?
I don’t know if you talked to any of those A&R guys, or whatever, but the reason I’d mentioned the other Strikefirst/Facedown bands is because those that I’ve talked to have always said that Jason would make sure to call and keep up with his bands and make things super personal – and I guess that’s not really par for the course with a lot of labels. I’m not saying that Victory is like that, or anything, but I’ve just heard great things about Jason really trying to build up a community with his bands, especially in his relationships with his artists.
Oh yeah, man. When we were doing the whole Victory thing, we didn’t even talk to Tony about any of it – it was just some person. We finally talked to Tony on the day of the showcase, but only for a couple minutes or so. He was just there and gone. With Jason… Jason would ask us to call to him every day, or he would call us or email us. He sends us an email almost every single day. Like, we hadn’t talked to him for like a week, so the other day he wrote us and was just like, letting us know that he was checking in on us, and making sure everything’s going good. So that’s cool. He sends emails to me and the band’s myspace and stuff, so…
How has touring been? Good? Bad? Are you indifferent to it? Did actually signing with a label meet your expectations of what it was like to sign to a label?
Um… touring-wise… the very first tour that we did went awesome. I mean, there were a couple of bad dates, but that’s gonna happen – I’m gonna guess – on every tour that we have, you know?
Yeah. What was the first tour you had?
The one you booked.
Oh. Okay – I didn’t really ask that so you’d say that. Maybe that seemed like a weird question. Haha. I had no idea.
No man. Yeah, it went really well. But this last one we did was kind of sloppily booked and we had to drop off a little early for some financial reasons.
Do you like touring? Is it hard? Like, are you happy with it?
I love touring besides the fact that I miss people at home. I get bored at home and I sit around all day and do nothing, so touring makes me feel like I’m actually doing something. And I mean… even if we did hate it, we would find a little bit of joy in it because that’s what we feel called to do, and it’s our ministry, and if we’re sitting around doing nothing at home, well… there’s not a whole lot of ministry. You don’t really feel like there’s much of a purpose to it until you get back out on the road.
So, once you got signed, was it like you’d always thought it would be when you got signed? Had you guys been searching for labels for a while?
Um… we were never really searching to get signed. We were just kind of going with whatever. We wanted to tour, and we felt like being signed would help us in that aspect. Not right off the bat, really – because – I think you were booking that tour before we even announced being signed. And right off the bat, I think that our expectations – well, my personal expectations – weren’t exactly met. It wasn’t the same. Honestly – and I don’t know why – I think I expected a lot more.
Well, I think that’s normal. I like asking people that because… well I feel like, before I knew anything about music, or the music industry, or any of it – whenever I was just a kid going to shows, or playing shows – I was always like, “Dang, it’d be so sick to be that guy up on the stage that all these people know, and that’s popular, and they’ll know my songs…”
Yeah man… it didn’t really change. It’s changing a little bit lately. It seems like kids look up to us a lot more, and confide in us more than they did when we were just local…
As far as the ministry aspect, you mean?
Yeah, the ministry part of it. Like, this kid the other day got my phone number from my girlfriend. My myspace was logged on to her computer and he was like, “Hey, is this Matt from In The Midst Of Lions? I’m just looking to talk to him.” And she gave him my number… so we’ve been talking and he’s been asking for prayer for certain things. Stuff like that. And I feel like the ministry part of it… kids are looking up to us and what we’re doing, and we have the opportunity to offer help.
That’s cool. I think that – when I think about Strikefirst/Facedown, anyway – like, after doing promotions in Albuquerque and stuff, we had probably every one of those bands through. I feel like it’s cool that people are opening up to you, and I think it’s justified, because I feel like Jason has built that reputation up. He seriously picks the right bands, you know? Every band he has is so legit, and he looks towards the ministry of the band before he ever signs anybody.
Right. Yeah man.
So that’s all. No question there, really. Just a thought. What part do you play in the writing process?
Well, I don’t write any of the music – that’s all Ryan, Sam and Alex. But I write the lyrics and put the lyrics to the songs, and the vocal patterns and stuff. And like, Ryan will help out with that sometimes, too. Like, today we were working on a new song and just trying some things. Throwing around suggestions. We each have our own main thing that we do – we all kind of help out with our own part.
Where does your lyrical inspiration come from?
Most of my stuff is just straight Bible stories or, uh… kind of like Herod’s demise. It’s basically just the story of him ignoring God. But other songs – like “Out of Darkness” – is kind of a story about me, and where I came from, down at rock bottom. It was a dark place. But I found some scripture out of 1 Peter that I felt was telling about me – God reaching his hand down and helping me out of – you know – rock bottom. The place I was in.
Herod’s Demise seems to be the song that people are waiting for – the song you end each set with … what’s the story behind that?
It’s a story out of Acts. Basically, Herod is ignoring God and doing whatever he wants and being a total jerk. Beheading disciples of Jesus. And God pretty much has enough and sends down an angel and kills King Herod and (and this is the part where it gets metal) worms come up from the ground and eat his body. I actually wrote the very last line for the song, first: “Now tell me as the worms consume your flesh, do you fear my God now?” So… it was just basically saying, now that you can see his power, do you realize what he’s capable of now?
Is “Out of Darkness” a title that you chose for the album?
That was one of the last songs we wrote for the album, but I suggested that that be the title of it, and we all came to the conclusion that that’d be the best one. Cause it’s not even just a story about me. Like, all five of us have kind of been “there.” Into drugs, or sex addiction, or alcohol. All of us had been there. So we kind of figured that’d be the best title, cause it was like – God pulled us out of all those places.
You have what seems like a pretty intense story from what little you share with fans at shows… Can tell me a little bit about your testimony/background?
Yeah. I guess I’ll just basically say what I say on stage. When I was a kid, I had an awesome family life, but it was never rooted in any sort of religion. I was always told to make up my own mind, to figure out what I want to do with my life. And my mom always told me that Jesus was a good guy, but I don’t really think that he was God. So that’s what was rooted in my head. After time, I kind of just came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a God and I’m here and I’m going to do whatever. So, at age 15 or 16, I got heavily into drugs. I actually started dealing a few different drugs. It got pretty bad. And I was addicted, too. It wasn’t just me selling and not doing – I was definitely using, too. That went on till I was 20. And then I actually started dating a girl that asked me to come to church with her. I kind of laughed at her and was like, “No, I really don’t like the idea of church. I really don’t like the idea of God or anything like that.” And I wasn’t doing the whole “God Free” thing or anything, I just didn’t really care. Like, it doesn’t really matter. But I was like, whatever… I’ll go just to make you happy. And then it took like a year and a half of going there… I was still living the same lifestyle. I wasn’t dealing anymore, but I’d still use and stuff like that. I was talking to the pastor a lot – I really give him a lot of credit. God really used him in my life. He actually asked to have conversations with me, and I got to the point where I ridiculed him at points for doing what he did. Eventually, after him talking to me… well, one day during a really normal, boring sermon. Well, I don’t want to say that it wasn’t important or anything, because anything you’re learning from scripture is going to be important. But it definitely wasn’t incredibly touching or anything, and I was dosing off during a lot of it. And then at the end of it, like… God was like, “Today’s the day for you, Matt.” And God got a hold of my heart, and gave me a big hug. It was really weird – I just felt this huge calm come over me. I just kind of fell down – not a dramatic “fall down” – just kind of sat in my chair and started crying. Just crying and crying. I just walked up front towards the end of the sermon and told the pastor that I wanted to give my life to God and turn it all over to Jesus. So I got baptized that day and… yeah. It’s been good ever since.
Was it one of those things where you, like… didn’t struggle with doing all the same crap anymore?
Well, I mean, there’s a couple things. Everybody’s going to struggle with certain things. But the drugs I stopped that day, and I haven’t drank alcohol since that day. Haven’t touched any of that stuff. I was an alcoholic back then, too – drank all day every day. But I haven’t touched any heavy drugs or anything like that since that day. It was a complete 180 on all of that stuff. He wiped it clean in that aspect of things, for sure.
That’s cool. What did your pastor say?
He was just like, “Okay.”
Actually he was just really excited. Like, me and him built a really good friendship and a good relationship and… I don’t want to say we really “hung out” with him. No, I guess we did. Me and some friends would go over to his house – him and his wife’s house and hang out. And we wouldn’t even be discussing, you know, the Bible or anything. We’d just watch movies. Roger, the pastor there, was big into movies and stuff like that, so we’d just go watch movies all the time and stuff. He was really just pumped about it.
Is that when you started doing your other band stuff? Or what happened after that?
Yeah, actually. The girl I was dating… her brother was in that band and they asked me to be in it and, well, we won’t go any further than that.
Yeah – so is ITMOL the only other band that you’ve been in?
That’s cool. Talk about a nice jump.
Starting from highest to lowest, which members of your band do you like the best?
Haha… you can’t do that!
Yes I can! We’ll make a joke out of it!
Crap. Well I’d say Ryan is probably my favorite. I pick on him a lot, but he’s my favorite. Then Alex. That might be just because I’ve been in the band with them for so long. Jake and Sam are our two new members, but I don’t like Sam at all!
He looks like a hobbit, and he smarts off to me, but only from long distances. Haha. And then Jake does a lot of the business stuff, so he’s around there on my list, too. Ha.
Who are your musical influences? If you could be any musician, from any band, in any genre, in any era of time, who would it be?
Wow. That’s deep. Uh… well, influences? I guess a lot of people wouldn’t find the first couple surprising just because my vocals do kind of resemble them a little bit: Faceless and Whitechapel kind of stuff. I like a lot of old school death metal stuff. Ryan showed me Iniquity one time, a long, long time ago, and I kind of fell in love with them. So yeah… But any musician? O wow. I think I’d be Gene Simmons, of KISS.
No. Not at all.
I don’t know. Music-wise… freaking Mozart is the man. I’m a huge classical music fan, too. Just to be able to do what he did at the early ages he did stuff was incredible.
If you could only take five albums to a desert island to live and die with, what would they be?
I don’t know. Since I was 13, I’ve been the hugest fan of – he might be one of the people I’d be, if I could go back – Jim Morrison, of The Doors. Not the way he lived his life. Well, at the time I was kind of living my life that way. But I’ve been in love with The Doors forever. So I’d bring The Doors Legacy cause it’s just their greatest hits thing. Um… I’m a huge fan of Coheed and Cambria. Dude, I’d bring all of their albums.
Dude, have you seen that preview for the movie 9?
Oh yeah. With “Welcome Home” on there? Yeah. But I’d bring their album Second Stage Turbine Blade. My favorite song on that is “Delirium Trigger.” So good. But yeah, Coheed. I’d probably bring The Faceless along. There was one other one that I just had in my head. Um… oh – The Glorious Unseen. Have to get my worship on. We just played a show with them, last month, at a big festival thing. Them, Sleeping Giant, Advent, My Epic – those guys are sick, too. Those guys blew my mind.
Do you read books? What kind of books do you read?
Yes, I read books. Aside from Scripture, I’m a huge, huge, huge, huge Lord of the Rings fan. I have read all of them a bunch of times. And I’m a big graphic novel fan. I read a lot of comics. I let a few of the guys read Watchmen, including you, last tour. You guys really liked that, I think.
Yeah, it was great.
Yeah it’s am amazing graphic novel. The movie was good too, but the graphic novel is just… unbelievable. I read a lot of other ones, too. From Hell – which they also made into a movie – which is the story of Jack the Ripper. It’s just really gory and good, a long – long, long, long – with a lot of dialogue.
Longer than Watchmen?
Dude I want to read it!
It’s like 600 pages.
Alright, well then you have to read The Spinal Cord Perception and I’ll read that.
Okay. I will. And I’m a big fan of the Sandman Series. Not the sandman from Spiderman comics, but the Neil Gaiman series.
Dude – that guy is so good.
I know. He’s a good writer in general – even just his novels.
He wrote Coraline and American Gods, right?
Yeah. So I read a lot of his graphic novels too. And then… I don’t know… I’m pretty ticked about what happened with Marvel Comics. I was a big Marvels Comics fan. Disney just purchased Marvel Comics for 10 Billion dollars. Disney now owns over 500 different series of Marvel Comics and they own Marvel Studios and stuff like that. So basically, it’s going to be called “Marvel: A Disney Company.” I’m pissed.
What do you think about the church? I always feel like it’s an interesting question to ask – perhaps especially in your genre of music – because the metal/hardcore kids always seem to have been the outcasts in the traditional sense.
I was never really much of an outcast. I ended up going to a church where it was all metalheads and hardcore kids… and old people. It was a really weird combination. It was a lot of old people and a bunch of young kids that were really into metal and hardcore and stuff. Which actually turned out to be really cool for me, because I just got along with everybody and everybody was really cool there. So I don’t know. Uh… I think that one reason there are a lot of unbelievers is because of their idea of church. It’s very misconceived. My idea of church, like… I consider almost each one of our shows as a… Well, the church is the body of Christ. I consider almost each of our shows as a church service, and a worship service. So in the normal sense of being like, “Oh, I’m going to church this Sunday” – I kind of consider our shows something like that, too. But apart from that, I just think that every believer unity as one is the body of Christ, and that’s the church.
Are you part of a church now?
I am part of the church I was baptized in. That same one – St. Claire Christian Church. But I don’t get to go that often anymore, just because we’re touring and gone.
How do you maintain and fuel your relationship with the Lord while you’re on the road?
All of us take our time in the van, to read and pray. It’s different times. Sometimes we do stuff together, but we find time to read and pray. Which is something that we’ve talked about for upcoming tours. We really want to get more into the word and prayer as a group. I’ve had ideas, you know? I keep a prayer list in my phone of kids that have asked me to pray for them while I’m on the road. I wanted to talk to the guys about that, and get something going with that. Kind of like a band prayer list for kids who ask. Or who don’t ask. If we just see a kid that’s struggling, we still need to pray for them if we see their hearts leaning towards Jesus.
What has been the most difficult thing for you guys to overcome, as a band? How do you get through it?
The most difficult thing was the member change we had back in March. It started off as kind of a messy situation with things. We worked through it. Prayed about it a lot. We added Sam and Jake. They used to be in Awaiting This Desire together. But that was really rocky right off the bat. But ever since then, things have been really working and really clicking with us. Sam and Ryan are two unbelievable guitarists who really click well together in the writing process, so…
But yeah- that’s probably been the most difficult thing that we’ve gone through so far.
Was it your guy’s decision to have the other dudes leave, or did they leave?
Well, like I said, it was a rough situation. Alex actually left. The Alex that’s actually in the band right now had a lot of disagreements with one of the old members, and he basically said I’m not going to be in a band anymore with you. And we couldn’t see losing Alex. We didn’t want to lose him, so me and Ryan talked it over and decided to talk to Alex and keep him. It was the best thing to lose the one member, and we asked the other member to stay, but he’s been best friends with the other guy for a very long time, so he felt a loyalty towards him, and he left to.
But we’re on really good terms with them again, and we’re friends… so things are good now.
To contrast the last question… what has been the most rewarding thing for you guys, as a band?
Um… apart from Jason contacting us and really helping us out and God blessing us with that… Some of the shows we’ve had, we could really feel God there, and really, really feel the spirit moving and see kid’s hearts being changed. Especially the shows, or different festivals where you see kids just handing their lives over to God and completely trusting him. Like, the festival we just played, I think there were like 20 baptisms. And even if it would’ve been just one, it would’ve been worth it, but the fact that it was a bunch of them… That was the fest we played with Sleeping Giant and The Glorious Unseen.
Was Chad Johnson there? Was that the same “water bottle baptism” fest?
Yeah. Chad was there.
Yeah I just talked to The Ember Days and they were talking about it. So what’s the plan for the band now?
Touring. Lots of touring. We started writing what we want to be the new album. But like I said, just touring a lot.
Do you like crappy techno music as much as Alex, or is that just some weird defect your drummer has in his head?
I don’t like it near as much as he does. I have been annoyed to the limit! Haha.
Anything else you’d like to add? Anything I didn’t cover or any random thoughts you feel like are important enough to share with people?
No man, I can’t really think of anything.
Cool. Well, thanks Matt.
Yup, yup. Thank you.
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