Dustin Kensrue of Thrice on His New Solo Album, ‘Carry the Fire’
Dustin Kensrue has been many things to many people. For most, he's the frontman of Thrice – the melodic rock outfit who emerged out of Orange County in the late '90s with a fierce and fearless spin on post-hardcore and driving, experimental rock. But to some, he's also a beloved spiritual leader, one who followed a path away from Thrice in 2012 to become a worship pastor for Mars Hill Church – a Christian megachurch based in Seattle that came to include 15 branches in five states, drawing more than 13,000 visitors each Sunday. Mars Hill was also a micro-industry of music unto itself with more than 35 worship bands on its roster, including Kensrue's own outfit, the Modern Post. Although he released two solo albums prior to Thrice's hiatus (2007's largely acoustic Please Come Home and the 2008 Christmas album, This Good Night is Still Everywhere), Kensrue also recorded an album entirely of his own worship anthems while at Mars Hill (2013's The Water & the Blood).
But just as the church became an increasingly important part of Kensrue's identity, things behind the scenes at Mars Hill were beginning to fall apart. Between 2013 and 2014, embattled founder Mark Driscoll became embroiled in controversy amid accusations of plagiarism, questionable leadership practices and overseeing the mismanagement of funds. Last October, as the church fell increasingly into disarray, Kensrue stepped down from his position and moved with his wife and three daughters back to California. Although he played no part in the darkness surrounding Mars Hill, Kensrue's role as a public figure and a leader in the church meant he was forced to shoulder a great emotional burden – one that he says he's only now beginning to grasp.
But no hero's journey comes without trials and Kensrue has emerged with renewed purpose. In this interview, he tells us how the events of the past several years have impacted him both as a Christian and a musician and how they led him to record a new solo album, Carry the Fire – an album more in line with the aesthetic of Thrice (who announced they'll be playing shows again this year) but one that might be so personal that even Kensrue has yet to fully comprehend its meaning.
How did your position with Mars Hill Church come about?
I had been working for the church and doing Thrice at the same time for about a year while we were still down in Orange County. I can't remember the exact order of everything, but I had already decided I needed to take a break from Thrice for a couple of reasons. Touring was brutal and we had a third kid on the way, so it was pretty rough on my family. But there were a variety of things that all added up to me needing a break. I felt a need to dip my foot into new waters. The cool thing about everything now is that, while the other guys in Thrice may not have been excited about it at the time, I think we all really appreciate that we got some time to get new perspectives. But, yes, I was working at the church down in Orange County and then ended up moving to Washington to take a bigger leadership role over all the music at the different locations the church had. I was also overseeing some of the recording and record label stuff.
What exactly does a worship pastor usually do?
I think in a normal church, you usually have the worship pastor handling a couple different things: some of the audio-visual stuff, leading music on Sundays and doing some other stuff behind the scenes during the week. I wasn't doing the audio-visual stuff, but I was doing kind of the bigger events with them – writing music, helping other guys refine the music they were writing and trying to build a team of really great musicians. With all the craziness that went down at Mars Hill, I'm super-proud of the music and I'm still really close with all of those guys.
The controversy there stemmed from the actions of just a fraction of the people involved. Do you think that clouds all the good the church did?
Well, that's complex because a lot of the good the church did was also directly related to some of the key people who were causing the problems. That's human nature, I guess. When you amplify something and you've got someone who has a lot of influence, the good they can do can be pretty profound, but they can cause a lot of damage, too. I don't think blame for it lands on any one person. But it was a weird, weird thing to go through.
When you were there, did you ever feel like you would never go back to being a rock star?
[Laughs] No, well, I've never liked the term "rock star." But I wasn't there because I liked it more. I was there because I felt like that's where I was supposed to be at the time. I had a lot of peace about it, even though there were certain things that weren't ideal. I felt right staying there as long as I did and now I feel a lot of peace about getting back into making music full-time. I'm really excited about it.
But after everything you put into Mars Hill, it had to be difficult to pull away.
The hardest stuff was more when we moved up to Washington, we sold our house in Orange County. We thought about renting it out, but we were like, "What if someone trashes it and doesn't pay? Can we get through that?" So we ended up selling it, but the Orange County housing market is brutal, it appreciated like 50-percent while we were gone. So now we have to rent a place and we're fine with that and we're saving up some money again. But it was stuff like that – the money we lost while moving around – that makes you start to second-guess yourself. It was like, "Was I really supposed to do that? Was it a big mistake?" But I don't think it was. I look back and feel like, at every point, I was doing the right thing for me and my family and that's all you can ever really do. You can't tell what the future is going to hold. But, yeah, there was also some rough stuff to deal with – just how intense the last year and six months were. I think it really affected my wife more heavily at first. Now it's all kind of landing on me in a really obscure, ambiguous way. I can't even really describe it.
Do you have a new church?
Yeah, I'm at a church called the Village Church of Irvine. It's a small church. I'm leading worship there once or twice a month when I'm home. But I took a break from doing that for a good five months or so.
Did you ever have fans coming to Mars Hill just to see a unique concert from you?
Generally, I don't think someone who wasn't inclined to go to church before was going to come just to see me. But some fans of the band who did go to church and knew about my position at Mars Hill would come out. I have a really cool friendship with those guys and I'm still in touch with them.
Thrice were never a Christian band, but at a certain point, it became clear you were coming at songs from a Christian mindset. How much of a struggle was it back then to express your beliefs but also maintain secular appeal?
There was a little bit of tension at times with some things, a lyric here or there. Someone would say, "Man, can we change that? I feel like that's a little bit too on the nose." But there were only a handful of times where there was an issue and we would adjust it. The really difficult thing was always that I spend so much time on lyrics and getting everything right, that if I felt a need to change a part, I'd have to go back to this other part and change that, too.
At the core of it, I've always just tried to be really honest with the way I write. The things I'm dealing with – whether it's doubt or faith, joy or sorrow – I think that's come through over the years and there's been a space created where a Christian and an atheist can both really dig on the same song. Fairly often, someone says, "Man, I totally disagree with you, but I really appreciate the way you talk about stuff you believe in." I think that's cool and it seems kind of unique, so I try not to worry about it too much. Looking back, though, I feel like there have definitely been times where I was too on-the-nose with things, but that's more just due to the fact that I think I'm a far better songwriter now than I used to be. But I've got no major regrets.
Are there any songs from Thrice that are rooted in Christian themes that people may not be aware of?
It's hard to say because I think everyone has their own world view even if they're not aware of it. Everyone sees everything through their own unique lens. Because of my world view, I'm going to see everything in a certain way and it's going to fundamentally change how I look at every single subject, but another person might not have that. I think there have been a few "story" songs that have some biblical stories as a background or something, but it might not be clear if you don't have that background. One song that comes to mind would be "Blinded" from [2011's] Major/Minor – it kind of has some allusion to the story of the apostle Paul. But I think it also functions on a broader level about any kind of hypocrisy or how we can look back on ourselves and see that we thought one thing at the time and now feel completely different or even ashamed of how we saw things before.
Has any of what happened altered your view on organized religion?
No, it really hasn't. I think there's a distinction to make in that, theologically, there's kind of the "Big C" church, which would be everyone who is a believer. That kind of exists above the "little c" church of a million different denominations with different ways of doing things. That "little c" church, there's no perfect way that it is. It's never like, "Oh, well we've got the answer." I think a lot of people think that at times. But if you look at the Christian religion as this little speck among this huge tradition and think you've nailed it, you've got another thing coming. I think you can be frustrated or disenfranchised at times with the "little c" church, but that doesn't make me jaded about being a part of that larger church in general.
How much of that went into Carry the Fire?
I don't think much of it is about that, but I process things kind of slowly and analytically and carefully and, like I said, some of the different feelings that came out of the controversy are only landing on me now. Maybe that's because I'm more involved with my local church again and it's kind of bringing those things back or something, but I don't feel like I was really addressing a lot of that stuff while I was making this album. I feel like it's very disassociated from it. But you can ask me the same question in a year and I might be like, "Oh my gosh, the whole thing was a metaphor for what happened." [Laughs] But I don't know that now.
Even though you released a few religious albums in the interim, do you consider this to be the true follow-up to Please Come Home?
Yeah, it's a record I've been trying to make for eight years and never found time. Some of the songs come from ideas I had back when that record came out and some of them are newer, but I finally got to track them all.
You recorded it entirely on your own?
I did. It was definitely a learning experience. I did that Christmas record on my own, but it was kind of a lot smaller of a project in a sense and much more stripped down. I don't think it sounded that great, but I'm really proud of the way this record sounds.
Where did you record it?
I did it in a room in my house and used [Apple's] Logic – it's, like, $200, which is sweet. I think it's crazy how cheap that program is for how professional it is. All I really invested in was a couple of studio monitors, speakers and a decent interface for the pre-amp for the mics and stuff. I used an Apollo Twin [interface] and bought a microphone that I actually didn't end up using. I mostly just used this one microphone my dad had given me a couple years ago. I didn't realize it was a great vocal mic, but it turned out to kind of be the savior of the record.
The title, Carry the Fire, is a Cormac McCarthy reference, isn't it?
It is, yeah. The phrase is woven all throughout The Road, but the image is also at the end of No Country for Old Men.
Do you see it as a metaphor for the world or more closely tied to your place in it?
I feel like it's just a good image to capture – this idea of holding onto something true and good and right and beautiful, even holding onto the idea that the idea could exist at all. I feel like it's something I see in pop culture and TV or literature. I reference The Walking Dead a lot because I feel like that idea is the central theme to that show: What do people become when the external restraints of law and civilization break down? What are you left with? Are you just an animal? Does it not matter what you do to survive? Does it matter how you treat other people? Is there something really good that you're holding on to? Or is there nothing? Those are some of the themes that play out in different ways throughout the record.
Now that you're a worship leader, do you feel like you have two separate audiences to please with the same music?
No, not at all. Between Thrice and my solo stuff, there's always been somewhat of a natural difference between the styles, but I think that actually breaks down a little bit more on this record. The song "Carry the Fire" could possibly be a Thrice song. The main difference is that my solo songs start more as "songs" whereas Thrice songs start as just "parts" that someone brings in. Then we all jam on it and contribute and build it up very democratically and messily. What separates the worship stuff is purpose more than anything. I could write a marching song for a band to march to, but there's always going to be certain parameters that make it a good marching song. There will be times where someone is going to want to play or listen to that marching song, but I think its function is a bit more focused. So, for a worship song, I'm thinking, "Okay, people gathered together will be singing this, so I'm going to limit my vocal range and I'm going to try to have really strict meters where it's easy to learn and memorize." I'm also probably going to use a clearer language – not less poetic, hopefully – but just a song to enjoy.
Some of the fun of listening to certain songs is trying to decode or get underneath the level of meaning. But with a worship song, you want it to be really clear what you're saying because someone is going to be singing it and you want them to know what they're proclaiming in that moment. So I'm not looking at things in terms of audiences, but more in terms of the purpose of the song. I'm not really writing to please anyone but myself anyway. [Laughs]
You guys revealed that Thrice will be playing shows this year but you had always made it clear from the get-go that you weren't breaking up. Are you surprised by all the hubbub about the return?
Not really. Thrice is a certain thing people who are big fans want to see. Even if we weren't actually broken up, we weren't active for a while. Who knew how long that was actually going to last? I was constantly telling people, "No, we didn't break up" and I tried to make that super-clear from the start, but I think people just feel like we've been broken up.
Can we expect a new album?
I don't know. I can't say more at this point. Right now, we're just focusing on the shows. We're doing a bunch of festivals and random headlining shows, but there's definitely more to be announced. We'll see if (an album) happens.
Do you think you'll always continue making music on your own?
I do. I enjoy it and even if there were to be more Thrice stuff, I feel like it would be healthy for my songwriting and sanity to do some stuff on my own. I really love working with those guys, too, but they've just always been totally different things.