JFH's Scott Fryberger caught up with songwriter/pastor Preson Phillips of indie label Come&Live! recently to discuss his new album, touring, and... Underoath?
This interview took place on: 6/1/10.
Jesus freak Hideout (Scott Fryberger): Hey Preson, am I catching you at a bad time?
No man, I'm just doing some yardwork, but I'd love a break.
JFH (Scott): *laughs* Okay cool. Now, you're a singer/songwriter on Come&Live!, but you're also a full time pastor, is that right?
Yeah, I have been pastoring a church in downtown Tampa called Watermark for about four years now.
JFH (Scott): How did you get started as a pastor?
Preson: Well actually, first I was a songwriter in some bands. I was in a couple of hardcore bands and stuff, and I was offered to lead worship for a church, and I did that for, probably about six years, just as the weekly worship leader. Eventually, the church went through some hard times, and just kinda disintegrated and we were left with just a couple of house Bible studies - one of them in my living room on the other side of Tampa, in a place called Clearwater. And they all wanted to keep going, so we sorta restructured and I just started preaching until we figured out what to do. And I just kept preaching and eventually they brought me on as the pastor, so now I'm the worship leader and the pastor, and I write music that goes with the sermons. And so I had pretty much stopped doing music to become a pastor, but I guess a couple of years ago, God started giving it back to me when some people got ahold of the music that I was doing over there.
JFH (Scott): Is it hard to balance the music and the pastoring?
Preson: As of now, I'm doing more pastoring than music. I just kinda record... I try to put out an album every year or year and a half or so. And I've never really had to tour. I kinda stopped touring when I quit my bands years ago, but I guess that's starting to pick up again. I think we're going up to Cornerstone this year, so... I guess just ask me next year *laughs* 'cause I mean, at this point my main focus is just playing east coast shows and local shows, and all the way across Florida, as far down as Orlando not too long ago, and we played in Miami. As of now, it's just a once-in-a-while thing to play shows, but I guess we're gonna be doing it more often now.
JFH (Scott): How did you team up with Come&Live?
Preson: Come&Live!... well there are some guys in my church that are in a band called Underoath, and we were going to a pastor's conference when I first became a pastor out in Seattle at a church called Mars Hill. (Scott: Is that Rob Bell's church?) No it's a different church. But I did do a thing with Rob Bell last year. But a few years ago at the conference in Seattle, I needed a place to stay, and Tim hooked me up with one of the guys that was the head of the label and it was Chad Johnson. Tim said he'd get me a place to stay with him, so me and my wife went and stayed with him and his family and we hung out all week. It was great, and we talked music and it turned out we knew a lot of the same people, same bands, and I guess some of the bands I was in, and as we were leaving his house, on the way out the door I kinda slapped a demo disc on his counter and then kinda left. *laughs* Thought maybe he'd listen to it, and then several months later I got a call, he told me "Hey, I'm leaving Tooth & Nail and starting a new label, you wanna sign?" And I said "Sure!" (Scott: That's amazing!) It was kind of a big accident.
JFH (Scott): *laughs* Yeah dude. Now, has your teaming with Come&Live! brought a wider audience?
Preson: Yeah. Well, before Come&Live! was formed, I put out an album on my website for free download, and Chad had called me asking how the progress was and to tell about this label he was doing. Since the label has come out, I've probably doubled my amount of downloads over there, and the new album got some good attention the website - I mean, mainly because of the other bands that were there and because of the name Chad Johnson attached to it. And I think the only reason the first album even got downloaded was because Tim [McTague] and Aaron [Gillespie] did some stuff on it. That's really probably the only reason. And so, I guess random people that I happen to know through ministry have helped out. But yeah, the label is awesome. It's legit. It's doing great. I'm really stoked about some of the bands he has signed and some of the bands he will be signing. Really excited about it. So yeah, it's really helped out with everything.
JFH (Scott): Do you know about how many downloads your albums have gotten?
Preson: I do not, as of now. I know, in like the first month, Weep..., the new album, had about, I think a little over a couple thousand. Which is good, 'cause, like I said, I don't tour, you know. So that's just people stumbling in and downloading it. The first one, though, it was up for a couple of years before I got on Come&Live!, and in those couple years it had somewhere around twenty thousand or something like that. That was a long time for it to be out, but Chad's really helped out with it big time.
JFH (Scott): I actually discovered your first album through some random music blog, and saw it on your website and then I saw you signed to Come&Live! and I got really excited, because I'm a big fan of the label. But now you have your new album, Weep...He Loves The Mourner's Tears. I noticed you used that as a line in your song "Pilgrim," but what exactly does that mean?
Preson: Really, it's about a repentant heart. That song in particular comes from a moment in Church history. I kinda wrote a little about it on Come&Live!'s website when they were promoting the album when it first came out. But there was a pastor who lost his church to a movement that was supposedly Christian but lacked the gospel and lacked repentance, and he abandoned the church after everyone left and he pulled everything out of the church and threw it into a pond right next to the church and left a poem on the door, and some of the lines in that song are from that poem. And he commanded the people that left that if they come back to God they need to do it weeping. And it's really all about a repentant heart, and that God hears not just the words that we say but where it's coming from. And it's kinda like the places in Scripture where it talks about how they were reading the Law and weeping. It's to really understand what we have done in the face of God's grace that we would have weeping hearts, and just crying out because that should be the state of us coming to Him and and that's what God ultimately wants is for our hearts and emotions to be real, not just the words that we say.
JFH (Scott): Do you draw all your songs from past experiences?
Preson: Some of the songs are from different places, but the majority of the songs come from stuff I've been preaching through. On [Weep...], I was preaching through the Epistles of Paul, and most of the songs - well, Paul was a rabbi, and he made a lot of references to ancient Old Testament stuff and so a lot of it kinda spurs songs, so that's why a lot of the stuff on this album is Old Testament mixed with New Testament.
JFH (Scott): Do you write your songs specifically for albums or do you just pick and choose from what you have that you feel work the best for albums?
Preson: I kinda just pick and choose. I mean, I have other songs that I didn't record. I honestly had about twenty songs written and ready to go, but I just picked the ones that were cohesive and told the same story and represented what we do - our worship sets at the church. I don't like it to be too sporadic. You know, there are a couple songs there, like "Grace and Peace," that don't really sound like any of the other songs, but they're just to be expressive of what we do.
JFH (Scott): Do you have plans to record any of the other songs you've written?
Preson: Some of them I think will never be recorded. I think we'll just sing them at the church. But I don't really know. I've been thinking about what's the best way to record, because Tim does all my recording and he's always out with Underoath, so it's really sporadic when he comes home, and he does stuff with his family and I don't wanna take up all his time, so I'm thinking about maybe doing EP's, like a whole string of EP's that all kinda flow together and releasing them every few months, but I don't know. And if I do that, maybe I could fit in more songs. Maybe someday I'll do those old ones.
JFH (Scott): That'd be cool. Do they all have kinda the same sound as what you've already put out?
Preson: Yeah it's all kinda indie/folk stuff. And honestly, some of them were a little too similar to ones that have been done before. So, you know, you don't wanna do that. *laughs* That'd be a no-no.
JFH (Scott): *laughs* Yeah, true. Now, I kinda hate to ask this question, just because I feel it might be one you get a lot, but do you ever get flack from anybody for sounding a lot like Reese Roper?
Preson: No. You know, I've never even heard that until I read the Jesus Freak Hideout review, and then someone was commenting on another review that another online zine or whatever did and they mentioned that, and I was like "Really? Huh." But no, that dude rules. I listened to him when I was a kid. So that's cool.
JFH (Scott): Well, just as long as you're not offended by it.
Preson: *laughs* No, it's cool!
JFH (Scott): Awesome. And speaking of who you listen to, do you have any particular bands you've enjoyed listening to lately?
Preson: Let's see, what have I had playing lately? There's this band called Wye Oak that I really love. I don't know a lot about them, but I listen to them a lot. I listen to a lot of William Fitzsimmons, City & Colour, they're pretty awesome, pretty catchy. And I'm a big fan of Broken Social Scene, huge fan of theirs. (Scott: Okay, I've heard of them) Oh they're great. I like... oh man, you don't sit down and think about these things until you answer a question like this *laughs*. I mean, my iPod's all over the board. I'll tell you what I'm really stoked about is the new Overcome. I'm really excited about that. They're good guys. I love their old stuff. I still listen to that stuff. I listen to a lot of old Central Florida hardcore stuff sometimes, stuff I really grew up on. I'm a big fan of Sleeping By The Riverside. I was in a band with some of those guys and those guys just tore it up. But as far as stuff that really inspires me, it's the typical stuff that everyone's listening to right now. Bon Iver's great, stuff like that.
JFH (Scott): All kinds of different genres. Pretty cool. Now, are you a part of the campaign for Come&Live! to hit summer festivals?
Preson: Yeah, I'm part of it as in I helped them raise money. That's just mainly to help take the guys that run the label around to the different festivals this summer. I myself am personally raising money to get my band out to Cornerstone this summer. It's pretty expensive - gotta rent a van, gotta do a lot of stuff, so we're raising money to go out there ourselves. So far we're not even close, but we did have a few random donations, like someone donated a conversion van that we can use and a trailer. So stuff like that really brings the price down. I have full confidence that we will be there, and I think we'll be doing the Come&Live! stage and one of the worship services.
JFH (Scott): So you're just going to Cornerstone and not any of the other festivals?
Preson: No, I don't get that much time to do stuff like that. I recently requested off a certain amount of weeks a year to tour with the church, and that's my main focus, the church. When I can get out and play, I'll get out and play, but it really would have to fall in line with what I'm doing here in order for it to work. But I'll probably just do Cornerstone for now, and if anything else opened up and I get some time off, I'll go do it. But it has to be a God thing.
JFH (Scott): When you are on the road, do you sell physical copies or your albums?
Preson: I actually don't have any physical copies of the stuff I've done for Come&Live!. Everything that I've done has just been free. Tim donated the studio and the studio time and the production time to get to the records, and my bass player runs a company called Merch Line and he donates all the merch for the band. We don't make any money, we play our shows for free most of the time, and we don't make any money so we don't have any money to spend on stuff like that. And honestly, I probably wouldn't do physical CD's anyways. If I did anything physical it would probably just be vinyls. I mean, we don't really need physical CD's anymore. When I get them, I just rip them and throw them away. There's nothing I do with them, and most of the people I know and the people that my music would appeal to, I don't see why they would be collecting CD's anyways *laughs* But, you know, the digital download thing is great. We put stuff up on iTunes for dirt cheap just so people can download it on the go when they want to, you know, from their iPhone or whatever. So yeah, I'd do vinyl, but I'd probably do it a little more artistically and talk to the artist that made the album cover and maybe put a full-on print spread in there or something like that.
JFH (Scott): So you've definitely just leapt entirely into the digital music era.
Preson: Yeah, yeah. It's a great time to be a musician.
JFH (Scott): Going back, you mentioned working with Underoath. How was it working with a band that is just that gigantic in both Christian and mainstream music?
Preson: Well, I grew up with these guys, so I probably don't have a grand scope of just how big they are. I mean, me and Tim used to go see Underoath when we were kids. I was roommates with the guitar player named Corey Steger. He started the band and he did the first two albums that were like black metal, and, you know, different band different time. And when he left I was actually gonna try out to be the guitarist *laughs* but I was like "It's not gonna go anywhere, I'm gonna go to college." And then Tim took it over and then he started writing music that was just unbelievable and really took it to the next level. And really, we're just friends, some of us have just known each other for years. And so I probably don't have the outside scope on them. But you know, James [Smith] lives three blocks from here and they all come to Watermark and their wives and kids are in the childrens ministry, and they're just all around amazing people.
JFH (Scott): That's really cool. Well man, I think that's really all I had, unless there's anything you would like to throw in.
Preson: Um...no. I guess not *laughs*
JFH (Scott): *laughs* Alright, well thanks for your time!
Preson Phillips's new album, Weep...He Loves The Mourner's Tears is available now.