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Interview: Coopertheband fashion glorious ‘Kingdoms’ out of rubble

When David hoisted Goliath’s severed head into the air, for all the weathered and weakened Philistines to see, it was a moment of clarity and stunning demonstration of faith. He relinquished doubt and uncertainty, arming himself with a far more potent and capable weapon than savage metalwork. His dignified and unwavering loyalty to a higher power marked one of the most compelling character studies in the Bible. That day would send him careening down a path of great promise, one marred by sin and corruption. He was the anti-hero. But he also represents the dynamism of human nature, of evil’s cunning, of rediscovering pure truth amid treacherous endeavors. And with that, indie folk-rock group Coopertheband carved their latest record, Kingdoms, out reverence and awe for his story, which would include an inevitable reign over the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah.

The concept uncoiled itself from Leap Over a Wall, a book written by Eugene Peterson, which chronicles David’s entire life and “how human he was,” band frontman Cooper Brown remembers. That was nearly six years ago, on the heels of the band’s 2012 EP, serendipitously titled Kings. “He was a man full of flaws and mistakes, but he tried to strive to be better despite them,” he notes, configuring the album’s cinematic and universal brush strokes. When it was settled to build the album around such a towering historical figure, they poured over the Bible’s pages to gather further insight and detail to guide them on their trek. “I think one of the first things about David’s life that really jumped out to us was when he was in the wilderness, and he came upon a man who basically insulted him. In his fury, David decided he was going to kill this man, but amidst all of his rage, his attention was caught by someone so stunning it immediately placated him and caused him to change his course of action. That person was Abigail,” Brown tells B-Sides & Badlands over a recent email.

The tale is “not literally relatable,” he jokes, “but we do love the concept and felt we had often found that we ourselves have been in situations where we were headed to self-destruction.” Something (or someone) always seemed to come to his rescue, “so beautiful (not just physically) that it changed our course of action, and we chose to be better because of it.”

At the outset, bandmate and vocalist Phoebe Scott began to dissect and reflect upon “the psalms that David wrote,” she says. “While some of them are praising God for His goodness, some of them are literally saying to God, ‘Are you deaf? Can you hear me?’ I’ve always thought that was so incredible. The realization that David could be called a ‘man after God’s own heart’ while simultaneously operating like a regular person was really inspiring to us.”

The pair of “Moon” songs glow between romantic layers of violin strings and one extraordinary melody, Brown’s vocals cutting the arrangement apart as sweetly as a midsummer night’s blustery gusts. “I can’t promise that I’ll be silent anymore / Lasso around the moon and pull it right on down to you,” he avows. Later, “Invisible Man” exhibits a complementary shrewdness and pluck, combed from David’s fleeing “for his life into the wilderness,” Brown explains. “He basically became invisible. Our song loosely touches on this and what it would be like to live and be lost in a wilderness. When we were writing the song, that we found many of us had recently experienced our own sort of wilderness.”

The friction between David’s faith and sudden acts of misconduct depicted “the most accurate representation of a flawed, messy man,” Phoebe notes. “All of us in the band have been through some pretty intense stuff in our lives, and seeing David rise about his challenges and crediting all his victories to the strength and favor God had blessed him with really helped us through some things. We felt that we knew David pretty well.”

In their studies, excavating even the most shameful of foibles, the group ⎯⎯ also featuring Will Kwasigroh, Matt Hammonds and Joseph Kyle ⎯⎯ turned their eyes inward. Brown wrestled with feeling too “self-conscious with my life in thinking that I had made too many mistakes or just had not lived up to the potential,” he says. “Studying through his life really helped me to be okay with failure and encouraged me to not give up and to keep trying.”

Many Biblical teachings rise upward from a sturdy, well-constructef foundation, from which David certainly sprung, a key point in growing to understand one’s own identity. “David was incredibly flawed but he remained so close to God, and God always, always forgave him. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that there’s nothing you could ever do that could make God turn His back on you. Diving really deeply into David’s story for this record was a really great reminder of that,” Scott analyzes, sketching out how David’s story became irrefutably intertwined with theirs.

Below, Scott and Brown explain how this record changed their lives and discuss most hated boardgames, self-doubt and why it took so long between projects.

How did making this album change you?

Brown: I think this has made me into a much more positive person. The band just coming together and exploring this concept in application to my own life has just caused me to open up my eyes and be okay with things that are going on around me. I’ve chosen to see the world through an optimistic lens and hope to help share the joy, hope and love that I have had the ability to experience with those we are able to reach through our music.

Scott: I went through a lot of bullying, etc., that really damaged my self-confidence when I was younger. I had such a desperate hunger to make music, but I was constantly telling myself that I wasn’t good enough and I would just have to find something else. Crowdfunding this album, writing it with some of my best friends and seeing how much people are loving it and connecting with it has been such a positive experience for me.

To what other Biblical figures or stories do you connect?

Brown: I have always had a fascination with Samson. He’s a hero… but probably one of the most flawed heroes in the Bible. I think the prayer he prays at the end of his life is a beautiful moment. He knows he’s messed up, he knows he’s put everyone he loves at risk because of his mistakes. So, he prays that God may “remember me” and grant him strength to avenge himself just before he gives up his life to protect his people.

Scott: Something I’ve realized recently is that most of us (myself included) tend to skim over the story of creation, but there’s a lot there that really shows the love of God. After Adam and Eve eat of the fruit, God lists their consequences, but then he makes them clothes because they’re ashamed of their nakedness. He takes care of His children even when we mess up.

What pain and heartache did you draw from for these songs?

Brown: When we started working on these songs I had recently gone through a very rough patch in my life. My parents divorced, I myself went through a divorce, I got very sick for a few months, and also had a persisting injury that kept me on crutches for several more months. It was a tough time, but I don’t regret it. It made me and has been continuing to make me into who I am now… and I am very happy with that.

Scott: When we were writing for this album, I was going through a really difficult period of self-discovery. I lost some loved ones, and I was in a very complicated relationship with a guy (which turned out really well, actually). I really tried to redirect that and make something beautiful out all the frustration and dissatisfaction I was feeling. It was quite the challenge, because I just wanted to write about how sad I was, but Cooper always encouraged me to go deeper than that.

Were you able to find that cathartic release?

Brown: Yes, very much so. In looking at the life of David, I found one very important thing that I’ve clung to. There is joy even in the midst of pain. I found this to be true in the stories I was reading. I found it to be true in the life I was experiencing. And most importantly, I found it to be true in the friends who surrounded me.

Scott: Every time I sing the songs that I really emotionally connect with (“Home” and “Collarbones,” especially), it’s like letting it go all over again. There’s something so peace-bringing about knowing that anyone, anywhere can listen to these songs and feel whatever they want. That turmoil, so to speak, is not just mine anymore. There is catharsis in sharing.

In production and instrumentation, how do you know what a song needs?

Brown: As the song begins to form, it’s almost like I can hear it nearly fully produced in my head. So, even if we aren’t playing on a certain instrument during the writing process my brain is able to insert what sound might work in the extra space. Although, I have to give most of the credit to our producer, Kyle Schonewill. He was able to take my often incoherent descriptions of sounds and turn them into reality, then go over the top and add even more.

Now that the album has been out a minute, is there one song in particular that resonates more now than it did before? Why?

Brown: I think “Undignified.” We were ecstatic about “Rebels” and feeling like we had a single. It was fun to play and jam to and just roll down the windows, but “Undignified” just feels like us. From the lyrics to the instrumentation to the super odd time signatures, everything about it feels like it’s our sound, and so, we absolutely love playing it live.

Scott: “Home” is such a different story to me now than it was when I wrote it. I wrote it as a love song about a person that I really, really care about, and about the way that I wanted to know them. Now that some things have changed and I do get to know and love them the way that I wanted to when I wrote that song, it means so much more to me.

How does your faith connect to your approach to music?

Brown: Even though we don’t consider ourselves a “Christian” band, our faith is very important to us. We often relate ourselves to other bands such as Switchfoot or Needtobreathe, in that we are Christians and that often spills over into our music and writing, but for our career in music, we don’t want to feel like we’re isolating anyone just because they may see the world differently or have different beliefs. Our mission as a band is to share love, joy and hope with anyone we may encounter along the way. If someone who comes to a show leaves experiencing just one of those things then we feel it’s been a success.

Scott: There are so many things that I wouldn’t have done if not for faith, including saying “yes” to joining this band. Writing from a place of hope and vulnerability is an angle that many writers of the Bible exemplify. I feel like striving to live like Christ and writing about what life is like because of that goal is really something that I enjoy doing.

Does a song tell you who should sing lead?

Brown: It does actually. Usually, we’ll start working on a song thinking, “This will be a Cooper song”  or “This will be a Phoebe song, or a duet.” But as the song takes shape, we can really begin to hear who would sound best taking lead on it.

During the crowdfunding campaign, was there a moment of uncertainty when you had doubts you’d even be able to make this record? How did you pull through?

Brown: I think every single day was a mix of anxiety, uncertainty, confidence, excitement, then back to doubt. [laughs] The way we made it work was we played nearly every single day on every street corner, in front of every shop and restaurant or bar that would have us. Our hometown of Jackson really pulled through in a bigger way than we could ever imagine.

Why did it take 5 years between your Kings EP and Kingdoms?

Scott: Good things take time. We all needed each other and the relationships we formed during those five years are as important (if not more so) than the record itself.

In your “Rebels” music video, you draw upon your obsession of boardgames, which have been known to end friendships. What has been the most heated game/session for you?

Brown: [laughs] I personally love being an instigator. I stir everyone up, build and break alliances, and look super innocent throughout the whole process. As for most heated, I would say that, ironically, our games of Cards Against Humanity have become pretty intense. It often ends up being hilarious shouting matches of why someone’s card was funnier and should be chosen.

Scott: I don’t think anyone at all would want to be in the room with us when we play Cards Against Humanity. Joe always screams. Always.

Is there a boardgame you absolutely loathe?

Brown: It’s not a board game, but I just have never been able to get into poker… I know, I know… millions of poker fans everywhere have just lost interest in us as a band. [laughs] I think it’s mainly just because I have a terrible poker face, and I’m terrible at reading everyone else’s poker face. Otherwise, I’m a huge fan of Spades and Blackjack.

Scott: Miss me with Trivial Pursuit. Absolutely not. I know nothing.

If you could invent a boardgame, what would it be?

Brown: I personally love Risk & Catan but have recently stumbled upon a hilariously fun game called Munchkin. If there was a cool way to combine the three of those, I would probably play every day.

Scott: Monopoly but instead of streets and train stations, you can buy and evict celebrities from their homes and move in yourself.

As a group, have become intertwined as human beings?

Absolutely. We often refer to ourselves as a “bramily,” which is a word we made up that stands for band+friends+family. There’s no other group of people I would rather spend so much of my time with. I would go to the moon and back for each and every one of the guys (and girl) in this band.

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.

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