CATECHISM - An Interview with Kevin Schlereth & Jay Costlow (pt. 1)

It’s already been almost a month since the release of CATECHISM, Kevin Schlereth’s newest album, and to celebrate I (this week's host, Fallon Braddy) had the privilege of interviewing both Kevin and Jay. We talk about how the album was formed and the intimate ways in which spirituality is intertwined with their art.

Editor’s note: Kevin and I played music together a couple years back, culminating in the recording and release of This Broken Jawbone of our Lost Kingdoms. This fact is assumed in the interview, but it’s never really explained… well, now it is! This might explain the casual tone of the interview as well. Okay, on with the real stuff!

Fallon: CATECHISM deals with pretty heavy subject matter; only if you ignore the lyrics would you miss the fact that this is a pretty intense album. What was the intent behind the name CATECHISM and how does that influence the contents of the album? or did you write the songs before you picked the title of the album?

Kevin: The title definitely came after we had recorded the songs. That was what came to mind when looking at the songs as a collection, and then Jay and Jess (editor's note: Kevin's wife) didn’t veto the name, so…

Fallon: In your own words what does “catechism” mean?

Kevin: Well, I used to collect a bunch of Christian literature, whatever I could find, if it was good or bad or otherwise. One of the first books that looked kinda cool and was interesting to me was Luther’s “Small Catechism”, so I guess that’s how I knew what a catechism was. But yeah, knowing that it was a gospel primer of sorts, that’s how I felt about the songs on the album, that they were laid out intentionally with each one trying to say something theologically specific. I think some of the things [on the album] are some of the most important things to establish when you’re talking about what Christianity means. Maybe the others not so much, but they would still be a part of it.

Fallon: Part of the consideration or discussion of Christianity itself?

Kevin: Yeah, and one of the interesting things that I wasn’t aware of when the name popped into my mind is that the setup of a catechism has an implied question-and-answer sort of dialogue. I think it really fits with the idea of making music, where sometimes we assume some of the questions we ask are inviting a conversation. It was a cool way that the name fits in that wasn’t really intentional.

Fallon: Yeah, you can see that a lot in different aspects of the musical process, like how you as an artist grow as you put out and contemplate content. With your music specifically being spiritual contemplation we can see that. Then there’s the listener having these thoughts and questions posed to them to consider through the music; it’s very thematically appropriate for what you all do.

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Kevin: Still with us Jay?

Jay: Yeah, I’m just doin’ yoga.

Fallon: Oh okay, gonna put that on the website.

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Fallon: Every Kevin Schlereth release so far has had a different lineup and instrumentation (some would go as far as to say even genre). This is the first one to have repeat players, Jay and Evan [Kunze]; how did that affect the process for this album and, in general, what was the process like from writing to recording to release?

Kevin: I don’t know how much the continuity with Evan came into play since there was a degree to which Evan was just haphazardly a part of the album, and there’s not a whole lot of drums on the album. That would be interesting for me to think on, I don’t have much to say right now.
I spent a lot of time in reflection going into the writing process having a level of comfortability with Jay, which I think impacted the process and the product greatly, more so than with you and I on Jawbone. A lot of those songs had their core fleshed out before you came around, but with CATECHISM Jay was there even from the inception of the idea that we would set out to make a worship album. At the bare minimum each song was written from the start with the acknowledgement that “Jay’s gonna be on this.” Jay came into the picture early in the cycle of songs that were not written with her in mind; she’s basically been touring for two years on songs that were written with you and I, meaning not with a female vocalist in mind. A lot of the writing [for CATECHISM] happened when I was not with Jay (on maternity leave or whatever), but we had already talked about doing the worship album... thematically what some of the content would be.

Fallon: So you would say that Jay was pretty integral in the conceptualization of the album?

Kevin: Yeah, well Jay do you wanna talk about "TABLES"? That’s my favorite song “Genesis” story from the album.

Jay: Yeah, I feel like I just presented Kevin with stuff that I was thinking about while I was reading the Bible. I was wondering about the part where Jesus calls a woman a dog, what that means and why that happened.

Fallon: So you wrote the lyrics for that?

Jay: No, Kevin did, but him writing the song was really cool because it started from my questions and now it’s turned toward praise and prayer, acknowledging that I’m probably a dog and that’s completely fine. Kevin’s been talking a lot about how receiving scraps from God’s table isn’t lacking anything but it’s abundant. That’s just really cool.

Fallon: So when you came together with Kevin it turned into this really meaningful experience for you to consider and work through; that’s really cool. I feel a lot of times the process of putting the song together has an impact, whereas often a lot of songs are just “I have a thing to say, let’s say it.” but it sounds like you were working through the subject matter as the song was being written.

Kevin: I think it’s really neat, that question that Jay posed, even the way that it embedded that idea into my mind. I never sat down like “I’m gonna write this song.” I had this thing that was the first half of a song (working through a story from John 6), which in my mind had some sort of ending to that. Then as I was practicing I improvised an ending that came from the question that Jay posed, which was only in my head because Jay put it there. I don’t feel like I answered the question, there was just this thing were it became hopeful. There are a lot of people like Jay and myself who would look at that scripture and struggle with it; at first glance it’s not what we would want Jesus to say. In the world we live in, specifically the culture we play music in, it’s really meaningful to be presented with an opportunity where we can be immersed in these true things almost in a way that, hopefully, is comforting to people that are wrestling with doubts and mental gymnastics that precede engaging with the faith. There’s something strangely powerful about a room full of doubting, almost post-Christian people, getting to sing this song. On some level, they’re agreeing with the hope of it, and I think that’s really special.

Fallon: So for people that don’t know you: that’s the type of crowd you typically find yourself playing to? People who have claimed Christianity at some point and maybe left it to the wayside or rejected it?

Kevin: I don’t think that’s all the time, but I do think specifically we are experiencing a wave of varying degrees of deconstruction within the faith communities we’re a part of. We run the gamut of very mainline churched-type people to people who are antagonistic toward Christianity. It was a weird album thinking about that because it feels more awkward to play for “we hate Christians” kinds of crowds. Our past music has been good at interfacing with that crowd without denying what I think to be true; this [album] feels more intimate…

Fallon: It’s really interesting when you have that question that isn’t being answered [in "TABLES"], “Am I a dog at the table?”, yet people are still imposing “yes” or “no” to that despite that not being the point. If I understand you correctly the question doesn’t have to be answered because it’s about illustrating the character of God in the moment, that the scraps from God’s table are enough, that even if you’re a dog at the table that’s still more than enough. Even though that gives people a lot of freedom in consideration, they’ll still impose a place [to land on that question.] It’s interesting how you have a piece of content that’s possibly the most accessible, but because of the subject matter, it’s probably the hardest to engage with for secular people. But since you’ve been playing these songs, how do you feel they’ve been received by secular crowds?

Kevin: I would say we haven’t been playing those songs in the most potentially hostile environments that I can imagine, but I have been, as usual, pleasantly surprised by the grace that’s been extended to what we do. There’s a song on that record called “HOLY”, which reads like church music, so if you’re someone who thinks of themselves as someone who hates church it’s like “Man, this is rough, it sounds like I’m singing church music to you.” But that track is one we get a lot of people coming back to us saying “That’s the best one, this is my favorite”. I don’t understand how things work, but it makes me glad.

Fallon: They must feel comfortable with you all!

Kevin: It’s a mystery *laughter*. 

It’s really great chatting it up with these friends, so much so we often forget we’re trying to have an interview. We end up rabbit-trailing quite a ways in regards to spirituality before digressing to the questions I had planned. We decided to cut the aside in hopes of saving details for a more intentional discussion at some other point.

And it is on that note that we will pause this interview until next week, where you'll be able to read part 2! Next time we talk about the troublesome contemplation that led into joyful partnership with Chroma. We also talk about pennies and pizza. For now, go listen to more CATECHISM on Spotify or Bandcamp!