It’s been a year when hope is hard-won. The shroud of darkness around the world is woven both of what is happening (a global pandemic, racial injustice, international unrest) and what is not happening (concerts, family gatherings, weddings and key communal celebrations).
For David Zach of Remedy Drive, darkness is not a stranger. For seven years, he has transformed the work of his band to align with the work of justice– specifically, the work of freeing enslaved individuals around the world in partnership with The Exodus Road. Imago Amor is the third album centered on telling the stories he’s encountered along the way. The songs capture a defiant hope that resonates both in the work of justice, and in the work of being human and whole in a broken, breaking world.
I had the opportunity to catch up with David about what it means to be made in the image of love, how he’s navigated the past year of human history, and what it means to practice hope as a sacrament.
Let’s start by talking about the phrase in the title. What was it about this concept of the Image of Love that captivated you? What did it look like for you to get hooked on that idea?
It all started for me based on something Jon Foreman actually said at a festival we were both at in 2019. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he used that phrase. I’d never heard it in that context before. And I looked back, and there were like 10,000 people on this hillside behind me. At first, I was thinking “these are people I have profound disagreements with,” based on the conversations I’d had at the festival. Propaganda was there, and he was doing some controversial talks about race and the border. And I get frustrated, usually. I’m like “why can’t people see where I’m coming from?”
I’ve developed this ability to see someone’s ideological position as who they actually are. And I don’t like that about myself, because we are more than our mistakes and our viewpoints that don’t align. Something changed in me that night, where I realized in a very real way that these people I’m around, on this hillside, while one of my favorite bands is playing– there was something in which we were all unified. People from different viewpoints and perspectives, all there together, singing together. And something clicked in me that I’m thankful for.
Now, I continue to make a point– sacramentally, almost– to eat with people that I’m different from. Whether it’s a trafficker while I’m doing undercover work, or sharing a drink with a woman that’s been forced into prostitution in Latin America, talking about music in Spanish with her. Or the refugees that I spend time with. Or even bringing home a plate of barbecue from across the street from one of my neighbors who has very clearly been infected by religious nationalism. Instead of letting those particular circumstances be their identities, realizing that person is intricately, delicately, wonderfully, and precisely designed and fashioned in the image of love.
That leads neatly into something I was going to ask you: now that you’re several years in to this work that you’re doing, writing music about it, what are some of the things that you’re learning that you don’t know? What are some of the questions that are coming up for you now? What is challenging you?
The more that I study slavery, whether it’s modern day slavery or slavery that built the economy of the country I live in, or the slavery that seems condoned and sometimes commanded in ancient Hebrew scripture, I’m confused by it. I’m confused how we accept it still, how there’s definitely slavery that taints the technology we’re using to do this interview– our phones, our computers, my jeans, possibly. My shoes. My coffee, my chocolate. And how it was overlooked by men that had such great ideas, otherwise. How someone could say all men are created equal and then come home and sleep in a house that was run on free labor. How someone could say love is patient, love is kind, and then tell slaves to obey their masters in historically some of the most brutal slavery in the Roman era.
Then talking with traffickers, face to face, after paying them for girls that they’re selling. Talking to them about music, talking to them about the children. What is it about us that can have such massive blind spots? That’s confusing to me.
We’re so resilient. We’re so profoundly, resiliently fashioned, yet at the same time, we’re so susceptible to such awful infection of our ideology.
Do you feel like that’s part of what has drawn you to the language of the prophets? I feel like there is more Old Testament language on this album than any other record you’ve recorded. And that feels very thematically in line, honestly.
Somebody told me, when Commodity came out, “it’s just a prophetic album.” And I had no idea what that meant. The way I always viewed that word was like a fortune teller, Nostradamus, seeing into the future. And I understand what he meant now, because I did fall in love with a lot of the writings of the prophet Isaiah, and the prophet Amos, especially, and their frustration with the way things are. People probably couldn’t stand them. They were probably like “hey, let’s talk about unity. Yeah, we get a lot of things wrong, but we get a lot of things right.” That was probably the same kind of pushback they received.
But I’ve fallen in love with those guys, in a lot of ways. Words that the prophet Micah wrote down poetically in Hebrew, I have the same words tattooed in Thai on my chest now: “love justice, seek mercy, and walk with humility in the way of the Maker.”
I love that you mentioned that, because I feel like that’s the tension this album really sits in: that justice and mercy. You have these songs like “Pax Melodium” where it’s speaking truth to power, but then you have “Lovely,” right? Which is like a love song in a lot of ways. So there is this dichotomy. How did you weave it together in a way that felt coherent to you? What were some of the choices that you were making to balance between those two sides of this important and true paradox?
“Pax Melodium” started with leftover lyrics from the bottom of the file from “Warlike.” That’s probably obvious, if you look back at the two songs. “Using My Name in Vain” too, all those three songs– ”Using My Name in Vain” piggybacks off the last lyric in the song “Warlike,” where it says “you don’t look like Jesus Christ to me, you look like self-righteous apathy. Ye who tread on the weak to defend the wealthy.”
It’s all coming from that same influence, from the prophets. But to answer your question, I just kind of hoped that it wouldn’t seem out in left field to have those two songs fitting in with these other songs that I was intentionally more hopeful about. Jon Foreman told me, “when you’re writing, if I was trying to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish, you have to be careful about your bedside manner. You’re introducing people to some really heavy topics. How can you do it in such a way that it doesn’t repel people right off the bat?”
Talking about sex trafficking and slavery, it’s not something that’s comfortable to think about. So I wanted to write in a way that not only doesn’t repel the listener, but also tells the story of these elegant and majestic women and girls and these brave boys that are being trafficked, that I meet, that I spend time with, that are my friends. What if they heard one of these songs? Would they be OK with the way I’m describing their enslavement? What if it was me? How would I want that song to be written for me?
So I put a lot of time and effort into trying to reframe things. Which sometimes for me feels like forgery, because I like to capture the emotion immediately. But I was a lot more intentional with this album to try to not have it be a full-on album of lamenting.
I feel like a song where you achieved that really well is “Dragons,” because you capture the emotion of the thing, but you recast it like a fantasy epic adventure. I was wondering if you wanted to unpack some of where that song came from, what the creative process looked like in writing those very vivid, visual lyrics?
So the same tattoo place in Bangkok, Thailand, that I got my Thai tattoo– Matt Parker, who founded The Exodus Road, had got a tattoo there too that said “hic sunt dracones” in Latin which means “here be dragons.” In globes in ancient times, and on maps, sometimes if they didn’t know what was going on in a particular region, to denote danger or uncharted territory or uncharted waters, they’d just say “here be dragons.” Or there’d be a picture of a dragon.
With the work fighting slavery, there’s a liability to everybody involved. There’s not a playbook. Even if there was a playbook, traffickers are smart. They shift their techniques, and we have to shift alongside them. There’s so many doors I walk into, or elevators or staircases, where it’s very difficult to take that first step because we don’t know what’s going to happen on the other side. We don’t know what is even on the other side. When those doors get locked behind us, I’m never comfortable.
But then every time I watch a film or I read a book and I read about somebody just taking that step forward and doing that uncomfortable thing, especially when it comes to Frodo Baggins and Samwise, I think about that bond of them together. The bond I have with Matt in particular, and with my other friends from the States who go overseas with us, and with Thai women and Thai men when I don’t speak their language, but I share meals with them, and Latin American operatives, and my friends in India– all of us that are in this work together. There’s a love that we share for each other, an admiration that is forged in furnaces of adversity. And it’s together that we move forward.
So in January I wrote all that down. In March, everything shuts down worldwide, and I realize that the song has layers, and it also represents the fact that we’re going through these uncharted waters together. That’s the only way we can make our way through, even in the midst of all this clamor and violence and selfishness. I want to be part of that force that recognizes and champions love that’s forged by adversity.
I feel like that’s such a hopeful sentiment and truth. You’ve already alluded to the fact that this is a very hopeful album as a whole, just in many of the songs are really focused on– I don’t want to say optimism, because that feels a little bit cheap. But there’s a very real hope that comes from the heart of the darkest places. I was curious how you keep hope alive when you’re doing work like this. Because you see a lot of darkness, you have a lot of cause for cynicism. And I think often, our first exposure to the truth makes us cynical. But then we have to get to the truth behind the truth, which is that there is still hope. For you, how have you managed to keep that alive, enough to write a song about it and still feel like it’s true at the end of the day?
I sang “hold on, daylight is coming.” I sang “hope’s not giving up, in the cold dark night, not giving up.” And hope, if we could see it, if I could understand exactly what has to be made right, what has to be made new, I wouldn’t need hope, because I’d already be able to see it. So for me, hope is sacramental. And the way hope is sacramental for me is through writing and singing these songs. That’s me calling into existence something that does not exist in this time. And having a confidence that specifically with trafficking, the very high percentage of people that I’ve met that are enslaved, especially teenaged girls, I know that I’m not going to be able to help them. The Exodus Road is not going to be able to help them. And of the 40 million people enslaved today, I know the majority of those families, their daughters, their sons, they’re not going to be able to get out. And I have to get imaginative, I have to lean into fantasy. Like C.S. Lewis said, all those stories he wrote, all the stories from Tolkien, even Hunger Games. I saw those women in Myanmar, medical professionals holding up Katniss Everdeen’s bow and arrow fingers in defiance to the beastly empirical actions of their military.
I lean into that because it gives me a way to imagine things being made right. I think Brueggemann called it “prophetic imagination.” So I have to hope that there’s a way that I could never understand, where all these wrongs that are being done, some of which I am part of– like my short temper with my family. Whatever it is that we do that we wish we could take back, I imagine that there might be a way where those things are taken back. And the damage that’s done becomes unmade.
I love Preemptive Love, and they have this video that shows a bomb in reverse. Picture that in your mind: a bomb hitting a building, damaging that whole block. Then put that in reverse, see all that be remade. Then imagine that being a person’s spirit that’s being crushed by slavery, crushed by corruption, being held back by injustice– unjust systems, unjust laws, inflicted upon them by societies and empowered by the apathy of the masses. What if all that pain that’s being caused, all those seeds of despair that have been planted and have grown up, those thorny branches, all go backwards back down into the seed.
All of that for me is sacramental. Hoping and knowing that if there is a Maker that is not just known by love as an attribute, but actually is love and has other attributes. The quality of that being, the quality of that Creator, the one that breathes everything else into existence and breathed the breath of life into us. If that Creator is truly good, there has to be a plan to undo all this damage that we keep on doing to each other. So for me, that’s my only way to continue to be hopeful. I think that’s what hope is.
On a practical, mechanical level, were you writing these songs while overseas? How did COVID impact the creative process of this album?
For me, lyric is more of a curation process than coming up with ideas. That’s really obvious to you, because you’re a fellow Tolkien fan, and you see the influence. I collect things that people say.
One of my big processes this time was collecting things from people that do undercover work, things we wish we could say to some of the girls we meet but can’t because we have to stay in character. As an example, “Blue” came from a letter that my friend wrote. The day that we both got our tattoos, he got a tattoo that was just “blue” written on him, in English. We’d met a 15-year-old girl that we were desperately trying to help, to get her out of trafficking. We could never come clean to her about who we are.
We had one day left in Asia before we flew home, and sometimes we’ll write a letter that we can’t send. He wrote a letter to Blue. A lot of the lyric from “Blue” is directly from that letter that he wrote.
A lot of the phrases from “Lovely” come from my friends in Latin America. A lot of the phrases from “Burn Bright” come from some of my friends here in the United States that have gone overseas with us.
So that’s how it started. I came home, we were on the schedule to record, we recorded a little in late January with Timmy and Phillip. And then like I said, from interstate to quarantine, from dust to dust, it all just stopped overnight for us. And I thought, “well, I can make use of this, I can keep it going.”
But I was just really paralyzed for a few months. And Phillip had a baby on March 14, and he didn’t want to take any risks. I thought “maybe we can do it long distance.” But it really stalled the process, because I know there’s a magic to being in the room with someone else in a creative capacity. So it just slowed us down. There were no guests in the studio when I eventually got to Lincoln. It was just Phillip and I, hammering it out in a way we never had before.
Then when I was home, finishing up, I wanted some harmonies. Without anybody to turn to, I just called my daughter and said “hey, I need your help.” So Ava’s on a couple of tracks.
I feel like that’s such a fitting thing, that this became such a DIY, intimate ethic behind the album’s creation, because I think that really served the songs. There are some really big rock tracks on here. But some of the ideas and sentiments are very personal, and I feel like that translated in part through how it came together. I’m glad you brought up working with Phillip, because I was going to ask what that was like. This was the most he’s been involved in a Remedy Drive album in a while, correct?
He was just as involved in North Star and Commodity, but there were also more of us involved on those albums. It’s always fun to have a group in a studio. With this, we started it recording in the van in 2019, traveling to festivals. We had the studio set up that night at the festival that Switchfoot also was at. But he really pulled a lot of weight, and he had to kind of pull me along. I had migraines for the whole week while I was recording a lot of the vocals. So I had to lean into him a lot creatively, and just trust that he was getting what he needed.
He’s so good at being patient with me, and getting the best out of me. I like the way my vocals sound on this album more than I ever have before.
I feel like there’s definitely a certain quality to them that feels truer, to me, to the way they’re experienced live. And I would say that in general, this album comes closer in feeling to a Remedy Drive set than probably any album before. It’s a really cool thing to hear, and makes me wonder what it will be like to bring these songs out on the road.
Maybe you could share some about what you’ve been doing even on Facebook live, some of the ways you’re finding to connect to people through these songs, even though you can’t go out in a traditional way right now?
That’s usually my dad’s question for me. He was always like “this is great, but how are you going to do it live?” He was always really concerned about that. This is the first album I’ve ever made that he wasn’t there for.
At times we’ve been 4 guys, sometimes we even had 5 guys at a time. I know that moving forward, it’s most likely going to be 3 at a time. I’m up for the challenge. I’m excited to figure out what different forms the songs will take live. And the first form, like you said, that they’re all taking is just me on the piano. I’ve played through the album, front to back [on Facebook live], and tried to reinterpret the songs for piano. I’m up for doing that with just guitar, bass, and drums. All three musicians, we have a synth next to us too.
I really want to do livestreams, like full band livestreams, which I think could be a lot of fun. We’re planning on figuring out how to do more of that. Then we did the Together for Freedom event with The Exodus Road, Love Justice International, Free the Girls, and Hope for Justice. That’s also fun, for me to get videos from Corey and Tim and Timmy and David and Phil, all of them just picking what instrument they pick, then they all send it in, and I get to compile it all together. That’s a blast. Though it’s not even a close second to playing together in the same space.
As you look ahead, do you ever have concerns that you’re going to run out of things to say about this work? It feels like you’re digging from such a deep creative well. Coming from the other side of these songs, it seems like you always have boundless things to say. Does it feel that way for you? Is there ever an anxiety that you might tap it out? Does it feel like there will always be more stories to tell?
There will be more stories to tell. But at the same time, I was shaken by how fragile everything is. I know what a precious gift playing music live is, and writing music and releasing music. I really took track 10 very seriously– the last track on the third album on a trilogy of albums dedicated to fighting slavery. I very intentionally said, “petals once trampled underneath in gardens of broken dreams in early hours will open east when sunbeams descend.”
I viewed that song as “if this is the last thing I ever write, I want it to be a great rhyme.” And I’m happy with that rhyme. But I know that there’s more to say. And I don’t mind expanding. One thing I love about Preemptive Love– they’re dedicated to helping refugees, right? They’re dedicated to helping to unmake war and be peacemakers. But they don’t stay in their lane.
I like it that both Remedy Drive and The Exodus Road, we can go outside of that lane because not everybody’s going to necessarily have that same tug to focus primarily on fighting slavery. There’s so many other important things that need to be done. So while I am going to continue to write about my experiences fighting slavery, I foresee expansion into other areas in the arena of justice and mercy and compassion, both with Remedy Drive and The Exodus Road.
That leads neatly into what I wanted to be the final question for this conversation, which was just to ask what are you hoping that this album offers to the world, in particular to this world as it is now? In our contemporary civil rights movement, in the middle of a lot of division, in the middle of a lot of very strong ideologies and questions about what it looks like to be human– what about this album are you hoping transcends this specific cause to communicate to humanity as a whole?
It’s my responsibility as an artist to remind the world of her loveliness, even when it’s not apparent. I hope that it does that, both for individuals that are feeling beat up without a place to belong, theological orphans, political orphans, we’re all caught between growingly extreme ideologies. WE’re all caught in the middle, and we’re swaying like a seesaw. IT feels uncertain, and it feels volatile, like the stock market is volatile. I hope that someone can hear it and be reminded that something’s right, in the universe, in the midst of all of this. There is definitely something that’s right. There is something that is right, and is pushing, or maybe pulling, everything towards what is right. That arc of the moral universe being bent towards justice, as Dr. King said. So I hope that the weight of these melodies, whatever or however they weigh, their metaphoric weight but also their very real weight and value they have, I hope that they contribute to continuing to bend that arc down towards justice.