Relient K’s sound often walks the tight rope of being in the CCM market and still being hip for high schoolers and college kids. Sometimes it’s hard to know what audience they’re trying to reach with their Blink 182ish style of pop-punk, which occasionally gets mixed with a touch of emo.

So when I interviewed the band’s singer/guitarist Matt Thiessen on the first of June at Blitz Fest in White Lake, Michigan, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that some of my pre-conceptions of their band were wrong and I also found out about a lot of things that any curious person would want to know about their band. Hopefully this interview will provide answers to lots of questions for fans and critics of the band.

Matt M: So you’re Canadian, eh?

Matt Thiessen: Yeah.

MM: Do you get teased about that at all?

Thiessen: Not so much. Once in awhile you’ll hear a little Canadian crack. Mostly the boys in the band will just make some sort of joke like how I’m incapable of doing something because I’m Canadian. But for the most part nobody even knows, you did some research.

MM: Well, I think you said it in…

Thiessen: In a song, yeah. That’s research I guess.

MM: Where in Ontario?

Thiessen: Really southern Ontario like by Niagara Falls pretty much. Twenty minutes away is a town called St. Catherines.

MM: So you’re almost in New York?

Thiessen: Yeah, pretty much like 45 minutes from Buffalo I think.

MM: And then you just moved down to Ohio?

Thiessen: Yeah my folks split when I was young and my mom remarried some guy from the states and we moved to Ohio. I have four brothers and sisters and we all just booked it down here and started getting used to it and it was cool.

MM: Can you briefly give me your take on the whole Abercrombie and Fitch thing?

Thiessen: Oh, ok. Yeah, Abercrombie… I don’t know if you know the background on it, but Abercrombie talked to our record label said: “We’ve never really worked with a band exclusively. We play music in our stores, but never worked with a band. We like Relient K, we want to work with them.” Then, our record label was flattered, because we didn’t know anyone had ever heard of us. So we thought it would be a really cool ministry opportunity and we were so excited about it that our record label sent out a big e-mail to all these people in the industry just saying: “Hey check this out, it’s a really cool opportunity you know, pray for us,” and stuff like that. And some Christian publications found out about it and instead of viewing it as Abercrombie just using our music. They used it as us endorsing Abercrombie, which wasn’t the case. Basically they called for a boycott of not only our band but our record label. At that point, we were a little frustrated. Because it was affecting our entire record label and not just our band, we had to back out of the deal. So that was kind of a bummer. But our folks were real pissed, because they were like, “You guys were doing this for the ministry and now you have to back out.” Yeah, we thought it would be a really great ministry opportunity to minister to some frat boys. Jesus also talks about knowing like when to back down and when not to cause other people to stumble. So basically we cut our losses.

MM: You had some lineup change between albums with drummers.

Thiessen: Yeah.

MM: Why did you change and how did that affect the band musically?

Thiessen: It was a while ago. We’ve actually gone through I think five or six different drummers, but we’ve only recorded with two. So basically our first drummer on board, like full-fledge on, was Stephen Cushman and he played on the first record. He’s a really cool guy. He’s really into hardcore and he screams really well. But we ended up just having different goals, different visions for the band. He just kind of felt like God was taking him somewhere else. So he joined this band called Narcissus. I’m sure Decapolis does stuff like that. I think they might even playing Decapolis Stage this summer at Cornerstone. So anyway, they’re a really cool band and he definitely kind of gelled with them probably better than with us, because we’re a little too cheesy I would think. We’re even too cheesy for us sometimes. Then just a buddy of ours from home, we had him join. His name’s Dave, he’s great, we love him. He sings well, plays drums well, he’s not even a drummer; he’s a guitarist. So it was kind of cool that it worked out.

MM: I’ve always suspected that Toby McKeehan is the fifth member of Relient K.

Thiessen: Oh.

MM: Because I can just picture him in my mind as being behind some of your catchier lyrics. Has he helped you out as a band like musically or lyrically?

Thiessen: At the beginning he was the guy who saw the potential I guess-which I still don’t see. He was the guy who signed us, but other than that basically he was pretty hands-off. We wrote the first record, made it and he said it was good enough for Gotee records. Because there was talk about not putting us on Gotee records and just developing us. So he said, “Yeah, I’ll put this out.” And then he was kind of checking over the songs. When it came to the second record, basically he heard it when it was done and that’s the same with the one we’re working on. I talk to him probably about twice a year now. So he definitely was “Uncle Toby” at the beginning, but I think it’s flattering that he trusts enough to be able to write well. I guess it’s good enough for him, so that’s cool.

MM: Your label’s got strong ties to the CCM industry. Do you like being part of that and how do secular bands view your band being part of that and do you have plans to go mainstream?

Thiessen: That’s a big question, but I can just talk about this forever. We grew up in youth group listening to the Supertones, Switchfoot, Five Iron Frenzy and all this stuff. Really that’s kind of where we came from, those are the kind of bands we wanted to be like and open for. We did that because we liked the ministry aspect of the music. We liked where the lyrics were and how people weren’t afraid to talk about their faith. So that’s kind of what we patterned ourselves after and that’s something that will always be with us; we’re not ashamed of anything. But a lot of us don’t really listen to a lot of Christian music that much anymore, I guess being involved with it so much. It’s a really weird situation. A lot of bands once they are in a Christian band or in a Christian label-they view it as a stepping-stone to get to the goal of being a general market band and being huge. And that’s something that we’re kind of embarrassed of-that philosophy. We love where we’re at-God’s taken us farther than we ever thought we’d get to go and if he wants to do anything more with it, then that’s up to him totally. And you know what, we enjoy playing with a bunch of general market bands. We just went on tour with this band from Jersey; they weren’t Christian kids, but they really liked our music and we really liked theirs. We became really good friends. It’s just a really cool situation where you can make new friends. And then we were at Friday’s one time, just eating with those guys and I was like “Hey, do you guys think that our lyrics are dumb because we’re talking about our faith?” They’re like “No man that’s just what you believe. Nobody thinks you’re dumb for believing in something. It’s the same as us writing about whatever.” So I thought it was cool and I like it when people don’t cut you down because you’re singing about your faith. So I hope that covered it.

MM: I’m sure you did. Your music seems to really appeal to a high school audience.

Thiessen: Yeah.

MM: Do you think older audiences, like maybe your peers, have a hard time taking your music seriously?

Thiessen: Yeah. We ran into this rut of putting out records of material that we had written two years before. So basically when our first record came out, it was stuff when we were 15, 16 and 17. And when we put it out we were 19 and 20 years old, getting into the whole indie rock scene listening to the Get Up Kids and Jimmy Eat World every day and being ashamed of what we wrote. But still having fun with it, still being the kids that we are. You know you just move on and you try and mature. So then our second record, we thought we had matured a little bit. But we even still used some of those songs that we wrote when 15, 16, just cuz’ we didn’t want to make the transition too jagged I guess. And now we’re scared, because we’re writing this third record right now. We’ve got 18 songs on it so far and it’s even matured more. We don’t want anybody thinking, “Ah, these guys are just all grown-up.” But we’re just doing what we like to do. We’re changing things up, because I don’t think anyone wants us to put out the same record over and over and over again. We’re not trying to fall into any gaps and stuff like that. I guess I don’t know if I answered the question about the peers or not.

MM: I think so. The song “Pressing On” is pretty similar to a popular Blink 182 song.

Thiessen: Oh really, which one?

MM: “Dammit.”

Thiessen: Oh yeah, yeah.

MM: Do you get compared with them often and like how do you feel about that?

Thiessen: The “Pressing On” song-that chord progression…

MM: It’s gold.

Thiessen: Yeah, it’s just… everybody uses it. Actually I think I was listening to a lot of Sum 41 at the time. So if you listen to the EP that they came out before, “All Killer, No Filler,” it would probably be even more of a good comparison. But basically when you’re writing pop-punk music and you want to keep it poppy and not too weird, there’s only so much you can do. So I know how my melodies and my chord progressions [are similar], so I just keep doing it. And I’m like, “You know what our voices are different, we put harmonies on stuff, sometimes we add different instruments, different keyboards; it’s never going to be exactly the same, we’re never going to rip anyone off on purpose. So we’re just going to do it and if we get compared, so what.” We do get compared to Blink. I like Blink, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m never a big fan of “If you don’t want your kids listening to Blink 182, have them listen to Relient K.” Obviously it’s good to have your own identity as well, but you know comparisons don’t get me down ever.

MM: My friend, I think he did an interview with you guys. He insists that the ska riff on “What Have You Been Doing Lately?”…

Thiessen: Is a Suicide Machines riff? I think I’ve talked to that guy before. Yeah, oh ok I remember that interview.

MM: Jason.

Thiessen: That was in Minneapolis.

MM: Yeah.

Thiessen: At the New Union. That’s funny. Yeah, I was listening to that Suicide Machines record, but he said that before. I didn’t rip it off, but he told me that before. It wasn’t blatant or anything, but I do like that record. It was off of the… I forget what the record was called. I think it might have been self-titled, the weird one where they slowed everything down.

MM: The other Matt in the band seems to have some really strong emo influences that come out on “These Words Are Not Enough.” Do you plan to incorporate more of that sound into your music?

Thiessen: It’s funny, as I said before, three or four years ago we just started getting into all the indie stuff. I know Decapolis is all about that too. It’s a cool thing, that music, I like it. It’s becoming such a trend now. All the people who have done it before are like, “We hate it.” Rivers is saying “I hate ‘Pinkerton,’” and that’s like the “father of emo records.” Saves the Day is like “We hate the word emo.” And I understand it because you’re trying to make original art and you’re trying to do what you think sounds cool, and then people are just calling it “emo.” And of course all of your friends think “emo” is stupid. We were just writing what we think sounds good. Definitely, the new record is still really poppy, but a lot darker in areas too. I don’t know we’ve definitely tried to avoid getting put in the “emo” box that’s for sure. We’re actually stirring things up quite a little bit: we’re actually going vintage a little bit, doing some 70’s type of stuff, acoustic stuff, weird stuff, but it’s not like what you’d expect I think. It’s not what you expect every punk band to be doing.

MM: Do you ever get sick of playing songs like “Sadie Hawkins Dance” and “Marilyn Manson Ate My Boyfriend?”

Thiessen: Oh yeah, it’s actually girlfriend, “he ate my girlfriend.” Yeah we don’t play that one anymore, the Marilyn Manson song. We played it for two, three years straight and got totally sick of it and stopped played it. “Sadie Hawkins” is kind of different for me, because it’s cheesy, but I still kind of like it for some reason. So I don’t get sick of that one, that’s actually one of my favorites to play. But yeah I mean I guess a lot of bands get sick of playing the really cheesy songs, but that one was an exception for me I guess.

MM: Who did the screaming on “Softer to Me?”

Thiessen: That was our old drummer and actually our producer’s stepdaughter. She did a lot of it too. She’s got a good scream. So we’re still buddies with [them].

MM: They really toned that down.

Thiessen: Yeah, well we thought it was kind of cool to put it way in the back and not scare anybody. It was actually something that Juliana Theory does a little bit too sometimes, because they’re not really a screaming band and they don’t want to be labeled as a “scremo” band. So sometimes you just put the screaming in the background.

MM: I never knew about this emo side, I thought it was all just Matt.

Thiessen: What?

MM: About this emo side to you?

Thiessen: Yeah, you thought it was Hoopes?

MM: Yeah.

Thiessen: Yeah, we’re into the same music, I just don’t T-shirts I guess. I always wear button-up shirts, cuz’ I don’t know I’m just in not shape enough to wear tight T-shirts I guess. So I don’t ever wear… I don’t get a Saves the Day shirt or a Dashboard shirt like Matt does. So he gets branded like that a lot and he’s so much more serious than me that everybody’s like, “He’s the dark mysterious emo one.” But I definitely have a really serious side to myself, so that’s what I listen to.

MM: So like what stuff is in your CD player right now?

Thiessen: Well, there’s stuff like the Boxcar Racer, I just picked it up, so it’s in there. You know I’ve been getting into The Starting Line. It’s weird it varies from Pete Yorn to Death Cab for Cutie, Blink 182’s always in there, the new Weezer a little bit, Taking Back Sunday, this band on Victory, is pretty decent, the new Goldfinger even and that’s like cheesier than anything, I like Mest a lot and I could go on forever cuz’ I just listen to music non-stop. Yeah, it’s cool. It varies quite a bit.

MM: I remember seeing a single of yours with the song “For the Moments I Feel Faint” and there was a liner note in there about someone playing that song on 9-11.

Thiessen: Oh yeah.

MM: What were the circumstances behind you writing the song?

Thiessen: That song’s kind of funny for me. It’s the acoustic one on the album, but originally I think it was one of the first songs we ever wrote as the pop-punk band. It was pretty much kind of like a Blink 182 song. I wrote the lyrics to the verses back when I was 15 and I had just become a Christian. I was sitting in a bible study and I just started writing this poem-I don’t know how much of a girl that makes me. But I just start doing that because I was thinking about my… I was like “Man am I at the point where I can’t improve anymore or what about all this stuff?” So I was writing my thoughts down. It was like a first song type of thing almost. We never used it for anything and then I kind of looked back on it and I was like “You know what? Some people might think on this new record that we’re ashamed of our faith. You know what? I like this lyric a lot and it’s hopeful,” so we just decided to change the tune into an acoustic song. I liked the way it turned out a lot. It’s a really old one, but we just kind of brought it back and changed it around.

MM: So you got the Creepy EP out and this other one you’re working on. When will that stuff be out, and what such Relient K and Decapolis readers expect from such recordings?

Thiessen: Ok, right now we’re in the middle of this record. We started it in March and we’re not anticipating being done with it until August of 2002. We’re just taking our sweet time and just throwing like 14 guitar riffs on every song and stuff like that, we’ll weed it out later. Just basically trying to do everything we want on a really low budget, so it’s gonna be interesting, but it should sound good. Our record label doesn’t want to put it out till probably March 2003, which is forever of a wait for us. We’re gonna try to put together a new EP of some sort, like take some songs from the upcoming record, do some acoustic stuff, maybe just write some more songs and make an EP for the fall. And from the music, I don’t know. It’s basically the same direction that we were going with the self-titled to “The Anatomy of the Tongue and Cheek.” Now we’re just trying to keep going in the same sort of feel with it. We like all the songs-everything on the new record we like better than anything we’ve ever done.

MM: The Creepy EP’s already out?

Thiessen: The Creepy EP came out before “The Anatomy of the Tongue and Cheek.” It was kind of the same thing: it had “Pressing On” on it, “Those Words Are Not Enough,” a b-side from the record that didn’t make it and some acoustic songs, like it has “Softer to Me” acoustic on it. So we just put that out last summer so kids could hear what the new stuff was sounding like on “Anatomy.” So that when “Anatomy” came out at the end of the summer they could buy it. It’s kind of the same thing with the fall, we’re gonna try to put some new stuff [on it] from [the album] yet to be named.

MM: Are there any last words, thoughts, comments, puns or suggestions?

Thiessen: I’m all done with the puns I guess. But I just want to thank you guys for doing the interview; I go to the Decapolis site all the time. You know a band I like a lot, this band called “Noise Ratchet,” you guys had them on your stage a couple of years, we might get to tour with them a little bit next spring. It’s kind of been all about the stuff, so I just appreciate you guys taking the time out to interview us and actually caring enough to do it. It’s kind of weird, but we’re excited about it. Actually I write e-mails, I return all the fan mail that we get and on the bottom of everyone it says, “Questions about Christian music vs. secular music” and I have a link to the Decapolis site, this something somebody wrote on there. I really like the way you guys deal with that stuff, as far as saying that secular music isn’t evil. That’s it, there’s my piece.

For more information about Relient K click here.