The entertainment world is full of “are they or aren’t they” Christians. There are rumors that the guitarist of a certain band is a Christian, but he won’t go into specifics. Other times, a known actor claims to follow Christ, but will refrain from pinning down just what that means and how it affects his life. The lead singer of Thrice is not one of those entertainers.
Dustin Kensrue helped form Thrice in 1998 with some friends from high school. In the last few years, his band has become one of the most respected and innovative post-hardcore bands in popular music. Between their hit singles like “Red Sky” and “All That’s Left” and selling more than 1 million records—their latest two albums breaking into the Billboard 200—Thrice has garnered mainstream attention without losing indie-rock approval.
Kensrue has also done this without pretending to be something he’s not—or pretending not to be something he is. Unlike many other Christians in mainstream music, Kensrue never played the Christian music circuit. His band didn’t play Cornerstone or sign to a Christian label before their big break. They are not a Christian band. However, Kensrue has never denied that he is, in fact, a Bible-believing Christian.
Now, as he prepares to release his first solo album, Thrice’s frontman shares with RELEVANT about how he penetrates the world’s darkness with God’s light and love instead of labels. He also speaks candidly about his new music, his heart for social justice and his feelings toward the Church.
How did Thrice come together?
Just screwing around really. [Lead guitarist] Teppei [Teranishi] and I had wanted to start a band, and we recruited Ed [Breckenridge], who had never played bass before, to play bass. Ed’s brother was a lot older than us but decided to jam around until we could find a drummer. We started writing and everything just went from there.
What role has faith and the Church played in your life?
I have had the good fortune of some amazing mentors at the church where I grew up. I was never discouraged from questioning things and thinking deeply about my faith. I was involved in leading worship and other things in junior-high and high-school groups. When I graduated high school (or probably right before), I started helping out with the junior-high group on staff. After I started touring, I basically stopped going to church for a while because I was always gone. During that time, I went through some very dark spiritual times. At this point, I attend a different church, and am very fed when I am able to attend. Even though I am gone a lot, I’m trying to find ways to stay connected. It’s strange because I grew up being very involved in church, and now I am very peripheral.
How did you get through those “dark spiritual times”?
Like I said, I always had the answers to everything. One day I realized I didn’t and that I never would. It really freaked me out. Through a series of events, I came to realize that I never really understood faith. You can have answers up to a certain point, and then you choose to believe. This is true with anything. We use faith every time we sit in a chair, or step on the brakes of our car. We have no guarantee that the chair will hold our weight or the car will stop, but we sit and drive all the same. We do this because we have reasons to trust these things, even in the absence of absolute knowledge. All of life is like this. I finally learned that I will never have absolute knowledge of anything. I can know many things up to a point, but then I choose to take that last step, which is faith.
Describe the relationship between your faith and your music.
My music is influenced by my life, thoughts, feelings and actions. These are, in turn, influenced by my faith. I don’t have a mission to deal with anything specifically in my lyrics, which I think can be seen in the ways the lyrics approach the subject of faith: from a distance at times, as if looking in a window, and at other times, from inside the house itself. I deal with issues that are pertinent to me at the time. By being honest about the things I deal with, it allows others to connect with the music in a way that can’t be achieved by pandering to what you think people want to hear, or even what you think people should hear.
Your lyrics use a lot of imagery and metaphors to capture the weight of so many things—pain, rescue, love, healing. Where does it come from?
I have to be able to connect to everything I write in a mental and emotional way. I use imagery from situations I have never been in to communicate the things I am trying to express in a more dramatic way. For instance, I wrote the song “Melting Point of Wax” about the place that I felt like we were at as a band at the time—the decisions we had made, the warnings of others. I used the myth of Icarus to get across what that felt like, putting my feelings in the head of Icarus and taking a different approach to the common logic applied to the story. Though I have never flown on wings of wax, I can imagine what it would be like. I think most writers tire rather quickly of only writing about experiencing from their own lives. At first it is fun and therapeutic even, but it becomes boring after a while. I use things that I have felt, or seen through those close to me, as building blocks to bigger stories.
Do you write songs with the goal of introducing faith to people,
or do you simply write songs?
I write songs about what I believe in, and I believe there is hope. I can’t compartmentalize how I write. I am trying to get things off my chest and empathize with others at the same time. There is no great artist who didn’t write about or express strongly the things they believe in. I love Bob Dylan, and I think we can all agree that he is not the best singer ever. But he speaks from his heart, about things he believes, and it resonates with people as true. Not in the universal sense, but true to his heart, and people want to touch something true in that way. Hopefully the things I say can be true in that sense and true in a bigger way as well.
How do you answer fans who ask if Thrice is a Christian band?
No. Some of us are Christians; some of us are not. We are just a band—just four people who play music.
What are your thoughts on “contemporary Christian music”?
I want to preface this by saying that I don’t want people to be offended by this personally. I know a lot of people who are in Christian bands and have their hearts in the right place. I won’t say that there aren’t some good things about bands that are labeled “Christian,” but I will say that there are not many, in my opinion. The only one that comes to mind really is that certain parents will only let their children buy “Christian” music. So, I guess it’s good that they get to listen to something.
In regard to that, though, we are called to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” [1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB], not to just blindly accept things that are labeled a certain way. At the church where I grew up, a man recently came and talked about music. He was trying to recommend “Christian” bands that were bad copies of the popular music that kids were listening to. On his website, we were listed as a band that he had better “Christian” alternatives to. It was just frustrating that he hadn’t even listened to the music he was recommending against. This may come as a shock to some people, but there is a ton of good in the world that is not “Christian.” This labeling is so destructive to our God-given creative impulses; it neuters our art. Not to mention the fact that having a little world separate from everything else in life is what is wrong with a lot of the Church today in general. When there is a “Christian” band, it automatically is an exclusive thing, and the invitation to Christ is anything but exclusive.
I feel that people who happen to be both artists and Christians need to make art from the center of their beings, art that is honest and real and glorifying to God all at the same time. Art that can vibrate to the chords of anyone’s hearts, despite what they profess to believe. Are we not all human, and is not art a bridge that crosses over otherwise unbridgeable chasms? There is an amazing book called Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H.R. Rookmaaker that deals with a lot of this, as well as people’s misunderstandings of the good intentions of those who don’t agree with them. I highly recommend it.
It must have been frustrating to be so misunderstood by Christians. Is it difficult for you to identify with and love the Church, when that is a perfect example of how broken it appears?
For a long time, I didn’t want to be called a Christian because of how many negative things it brings up for a lot of people. But I realized that I just needed to be part of the solution, rather than running from the problem.
What’s your hope for the Church?
For the Church, I would like to see it become filled with God’s mercy and love. There are parts of the Church moving in this direction, and others moving so far away from it. If we are to be Christians, I think we should be worthy of the name. We need to see how Christ acted toward others and imitate Him. He reached out to the people in society who were shunned by everyone else, the people who everyone saw as hopeless. It is these people who He chose to eat with, which in that culture was a huge deal. We need to learn how to really love. It makes me sick how we have elevated certain sins above others and chosen not to see the logs in our own eyes. We are told, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned” [Luke 6:37, NASB]. But we are so quick to accuse, to throw the first stone. The essence of Christ’s message was that we would love each other the way that God loved us—unconditionally and recklessly. My prayer is that the Church, and all of us individually, can learn this above all things.
You seem to have a burden for broken people. Where does that come from?
My personality is somewhat inward looking, and, therefore, I am somewhat selfish and self-centered by nature. I am not naturally a very empathetic person. I would have to say that my burden for broken people comes from the influence of Christ in my life, showing me how to love people like He loved them. I have a long way to go.
I’ve heard that a percentage of every Thrice record sold goes to support social justice organizations.
That is true. Our records have and continue to benefit Crittenton Children’s Services, A Place Called Home, SSE and 826 Valencia. We started doing this with Sub City Records with our record Identity Crisis and have continued on since then.
Was the decision to give away a portion of your income a difficult one?
It wasn’t really that difficult. It was the main reason in the end that we went with Sub City over other labels. Sometimes it’s hard to see a large chunk of money go away when you have bills to pay, but giving isn’t supposed to be easy, I guess. And the people the money is going to definitely need it more than us.
We started giving a percentage of our earnings away before we really had earnings. So as we grew, that money started to grow as well, and we were able to really make a difference. I see people getting frustrated because they aren’t raising thousands of dollars with their charity show or whatnot. But there is no reason to be frustrated. Your hundreds will be used and will have an impact. We are not judged on what we give, but on what we do with what we are given.
What can you tell us about your plans to record a solo album and tour?
I’m very excited about it. It is such a great feeling to just show up to a show with an acoustic guitar and that’s it. The whole goal of the project is to be an outlet for a different style of music and writing, more of a singer/songwriter storytelling vibe, and for all the songs to be able to work just as well with one guitar and me singing as with a whole band. I will be recording this summer and hopefully putting out a record in the fall. I will also be playing some dates in the Southwest and Northeast in late summer. People can check out MySpace.com/dustinkensrue for more info.
How are those songs coming?
The songs are coming along very nicely. I think there will be a decent amount of diversity on the record, but it’ll still have a general vibe. I really want to concentrate on not letting it get away from me instrumentally. I want it to be pretty stripped down most of the time. I find that with a lot of my favorite artists—Elvis Costello, for example—I end up liking their demo versions of songs almost better than the finished product. I think the record will end up being 10 songs or so and, God willing, will retain the raw vibe that I feel the songs need.
What’s next for Thrice?
For the band, we are embarking on a new project that will end up being four EPs, released as a set. It will most likely have about 20 songs on it. As for now, we aren’t releasing any more info, but we will be soon. We are very excited about it.