This interview originally appeared on NewReleaseToday.com in December of 2017.
Project 86 has been around for twenty years now–enough time to learn how to do things right. And with Sheep Among Wolves, they have done exactly that. Spending a full year in the recording process and involving fans at every step of the way, the seasoned hard rock band finally released the resulting full-length album on December 5, 2017.
As the album was approaching release, I had the chance to talk with Project 86 founder and frontman Andrew Schwab about this project’s creation, the crucial role of the listeners and what has kept them going for two decades.
Could you start by catching me up on the PledgeMusic process that you’ve been in for over a year now and the ways you’ve utilized that platform to connect with your fans?
Yeah, it’s been a unique situation. We had two previous crowdfunded albums, one through Kickstarter and one through Indiegogo. And the first one we did with Kickstarter did moderately well, and the second one did quite a bit better, and this one has done great. The PledgeMusic platform has been cool because it allows you to really customize every part of the experience with fans. We’ve been able to do what I think are some pretty unique things to up the engagement and up the investment on the part of the fans. And not just the monetary investment, though that’s great and helps us pay for what we do, helps us do this in general. But also the emotional investment, which is what you really want at the end of the day.
So what we have been doing and the way that we’ve structured the campaign we think is a win-win. Fans get, in exchange for pledging at even the bottom level, a five song EP to download right off the bat. It’s some of our favorite songs that we’ve covered. We’ve never done cover songs, but we’ve had requests for that over the years. We’ve gotten a good response on that.
They also get to listen to the music as we write it and record it. We recorded the album one song at a time in their entirety throughout the process of recording. So we essentially released one song per month to all of the people that have pledged up until recently. And then they’ll get their download just prior to the album release.
So this album is called Sheep Among Wolves. A lot of your albums in the past have been very concept and imagery driven. What are some of the concepts that were behind this record?
While it’s not a concept-heavy record in terms of there being one message or theme from song to song, it’s pretty diverse, I would say the common thread throughout became the album title this time around. The idea of “sheep among wolves” is a little bit of a vague or mysterious concept. There’s a quote in the Bible about Jesus saying to the disciples that he’s sending them out as “sheep among wolves.” Whenever I use biblical references in our music, I always put a severe twist on it. So it’s not just a Christian reference, it’s more a commentary that’s completely a spin on the original concept without contradicting it.
The idea of sheep among wolves here in a modern context as compared to the original intent is the idea that there are sheep among wolves, both in culture at large and in the faith-based culture, but we don’t know who is who many times. And people who claim to be sheep are actually the wolves, and the people who are labeled as wolves are actually the sheep. So there’s a lot of ambiguity in our art, but it’s very striking and bold and contrasted.
That’s kind of the way the album is presented too. There’s a lot of really stark, almost harsh lyrics on this record. It’s meant to make divisive statements to make you think, “OK, who are the sheep and who are the wolves?”
Does that get reflected musically as well? Where does this sit in the broader context of Project 86’s discography?
We’ve always put a lot of effort into having diverse records. So on this album there are some songs that are pretty aggressive while still not being metal or metalcore, and then there are songs that are a little bit more moody and melodic. And the intent there is that we want you to listen to the whole album, not just one song, to sort of chart emotions through a scale, through ups and downs and highs and lows. So there’s a lot of contrast, and I feel like that’s kind of the concept in and of itself: this idea of contrast, but it’s like an exercise in critical thinking in terms of the lyrics. I like to try to give people something to think about.
What does that process of creation look like for you when you’re writing lyrics? Is it lyrics first, then music?
It’s usually the opposite, music first, then lyrics. Nowadays I’m super involved in the music creation, but I’ll have a vocal idea or a thematic idea in the back of my brain as we’re writing. But it’s pretty spontaneous in terms of the music. Then I sort of allow the emotion of the music to dictate where the song needs to go lyrically.
There are some examples of that on this record. Track 4 is called “Freebooter,” and it’s one of my favorites. It’s definitely more a rock song, it’s mid-tempo, it’s haunting. For whatever reason I just thought of being adrift at sea because of the music that we wrote. So I developed a theme for the song around the idea of defining your life by living on the open ocean. Not necessarily like a pirate, but the idea that you’ve put all of your eggs in this basket of being at the mercy of the waves of life. So you can be defined by the highs of that, but eventually probably you’ll hit the low point, which will be not a good ending.
Did the other band members write with you? What did the creative team look like in the studio, at the writing stage?
It was all written by myself and our guitarist Darren King, just us two. We collaborated on some of it over skype and some of it in person as he lives in Nashville and I live in California. So I flew out to Nashville four times to record and write, and we kind of just made it happen. There were a couple other studios involved with tracking vocals and drums. Nowadays technology allows you to share ideas and files, and we made it work.
Part of the thing with this project is that you’re celebrating 20 years as Project 86. And that’s a huge rarity right now, that a band can hit that kind of milestone. What are some of the things that you think have enabled you to have that kind of longevity?
A death wish, for the most part! [laughs]
Playing music for a living and doing it full time is something that every musician dreams of. But once you attain it, you realize “this is challenging.” It’s not work in the sense that you don’t have to go to an office for 8 hours a day, but it presents totally different types of mental and emotional challenges along the way.
I think the enduring motivation for this band really lies in the hands of the people who support us. And I don’t even really like the word “fan,” for the most part, because I think the association with the word “fan” puts such distance between the artist and the person who appreciates our music. And for us, it’s almost like the Green Bay Packers, like the people who support our band are the direct owners of the band. Without being directly involved in the creative process, we try to get them as close as possible. So I think the people who love our band stick by us because they’re invested in it. And we try to go out of our way to make that part of the experience of following our band.
Throughout your history, you’ve entered both Christian market and mainstream spaces indiscriminately. Was that a philosophical choice you made from the beginning? Do you have an ethos behind that?
I think when we started out, we were such young people. We’d come up inside this music scene in southern California going to shows and seeing some real authentic movements in the underground, indie and heavy music world that we lived in, this little subculture that kind of revolved around some of the early bands and record labels that started the faith-based scene in southern California. We weren’t really being intentional about anything, we were just doing what came naturally, which is reflecting our belief system through music that we wrote and liked. And at the time, the kind of music that we played had not hit yet, so we were kind of on the leading edge of a movement I guess.
As we evolved and sort of grew up as a band, we realized “oh, we’re good enough that we don’t have to only play for Christian people.” Well, this opened an entirely different can of worms and presented some challenges that maybe if we would have thought about it a little more intentionally when we were younger as a band, we would have been able to have some different opportunities. But everything happened as it should, you know?
Thankfully, we put out some records that were pretty exciting early in our career, and that provided some opportunities to do a lot of things in the general market. We were on Atlantic for a couple of records and toured with some really well-known bands, Linkin Park, 30 Seconds to Mars, bands like that, who were at the beginning point of their careers who came to know us as a band who had been around a little longer than them. There was some rapport there that was gained.
But our experience has always been that you have to be very intentional in the way you market your band and in what other people will perceive. So very early in our career, we were a little more overt about our belief system, and as we evolved we sort of made that a little bit more ambiguous. But it’s interesting how people respond from album to album in thinking that somehow if the material is different, or if the lyrical content is a little more challenging or ambiguous, that somehow we’ve changed as human beings in what we believe. And that never has occurred.
I think you have to be intentional about what type of perception you try to create, what audience you try to appeal to. And while the band isn’t perfect in that sense, I think we’ve been at our strongest when we’ve allowed the music to speak the loudest.
At this stage, after all the things you’ve accomplished, is there anything you still want to do in the future with Project 86?
To be honest, something that I’ve been hungry for really from the beginning, something that I don’t think we’ve completely accomplished as a band just because opportunity has not presented itself, is to play with more of the heavy bands of the day in a live setting. More in the general market side, proving that our band is legit. I think we can compete with anybody, I think we’ve been given the gifting to do that. And I just would love more opportunities before this thing will end, and I have no idea when that will be, but to hop up on stage with bands that have sold millions of records and play for their audience and show that we can crush it live, that we’re a real band who deserves to be in the conversation of some of the more prominent rock bands out there.
I’m not saying we’re going to hop on stage and show up with the Foo Fighters or something like that. But I think that we deserve to be more in the conversation than we have been, and it’s just been more marketing politics that have kept us from that, because our live show is really strong.
You have kind of referenced some of this with the fact that you made your Influences EP, which is covers, but are there other bands that are feeding and inspiring you creatively? We live in this world where everyone says rock is dead.
It really is. But there are a few bands that I listen to and who do influence me in one way or another. Circa Survive is one of my favorite bands, and I was just listening to them before I called. There’s another band called Thrice that I like a lot. I’ve known those guys for a little bit, great dudes, great musicians. There’s another band called Oh Brother that I really like, a band from the southeast. So there are some bands out there that are cool, doing some unique things that doesn’t sound like everything else that’s been put out.
And that’s the hard thing in rock music, and I think that’s why people are over it. It’s all been done before. [laughs]
In our opinion, all that’s left is songs. If you write a memorable song, any other variable doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what genre of music you play. If you write a memorable song with a great chorus, people will like it.
If you could summarize what Project 86’s mission statement is right now, how would you do that? What is driving you guys as a band?
I would say to continue to push ourselves something that we’ve never written before, something that’s different, not repeating ourselves from album to album, giving fans a new experience each and every time that we create something. And just trying to write honest music from a lyrical perspective. I say honest, just reflecting my emotional experience without having to cater to the expectations of anyone else. So if I’m having a bad day, I will write about having a bad day. I’m not going to pretend that I’m having an awesome day if I’m having a bad day. That’s the beauty of music and the beauty of the kind of music we play is that it’s therapeutic, and I think that that’s an underlying premise to everything that we do. We do write music that we like for ourselves first and foremost. And if we like it, and it’s unique and it’s cool, then other people will like it too. Maybe that’s very simplistic, but that’s the thought process.