Life in the Face of Mystery: An Interview with Todd Olsen (The Waiting, Oats)

Todd Olsen is a founding member of legendary Christian alternative rock band The Waiting, and also performs solo as Oats.

In a basic sense, how would you describe your faith?


Todd Olsen: I would say the sort of basic “orthodox” things that most Christians adhere to; the basic tenets. I don’t really go for division and all that. I did walk into a Presbyterian church at one point and I was looking at what they believed about the end times, Revelation and all that, their view was basically “we don’t know exactly what it means” which really spoke to me because I like when people are honest like that. I don’t know what’s going on with all that stuff. I don’t wanna be like some people that act like they know when they don’t- I keep it simple. I think it’s far more important to live the faith than to have a particular denominational stance.

You once said that “I think people can be brought closer to God if you simply tell them what the Lord is doing in your life.” Would you say this still holds true?

Absolutely, and I would take it even further at this point and say that is really how to speak to others in my opinion. I believe in living the faith. I play in a lot of bars, but I’m not doing the same things many others do because that’s me. I’m not getting drunk, chasing women, etc, and I don’t go around preaching why but everybody knows it. I used to not do so well with that, to confess, I used to be a real flirt. I would chase girls and disappear on them! I’d be kissing on them and saying “bye!” right after! It wasn’t good. But the Lord really worked on me, changing my heart and making me realize that i was hurting myself and others. I didn’t flirt or touch another woman (that wasn’t a loved one) for 11 years after that. Didn’t even talk to them because if you talk to someone long enough
that’s flirting too! So what I’m saying is that the Lord has really changed my heart and my desires. I just abhor stuff I used to be caught up in. It’s not that I just don’t want to do it, but seeing other people do things I used to do, chase women and all that, it makes me sick. I really hate it. And it’s not just women or anything, there’s always stuff people get into. Now I’m not trying to do a holier-than-thou thing and look down on people, we’re all messed up in different ways. Joe Christian no matter how good he looks has got problems, but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t working on him to get him ready for the afterlife. I’m glad to be able to gig a lot doing these cover shows at bars and all, but it’s just a negative environment a lot of the time. It’s not easy to do, but it makes me happy to play and offer a little hope by good conduct…when people ask why I don’t do the things they do I tell them.

You’ve expressed dissatisfaction with the focus placed on conversion stories, but how did you come to Christ?

Yeah, I’ve never felt that was the super important thing it’s made out to be. Sure, some people have some crazy good stories. Like a guy gets out of prison and the moment he goes to the bus stop there’s a guy with a tract that shares Christ with him and his life is never the same from there. That’s all fine and good, but Christianity is a journey and not just a beginning. I grew up in the church and surrounded by all that, so I never really was without Christianity in my life. But when we were younger we were just kind of wild and doing crazy things around the church we shouldn’t have done. It was when I was 20 that I prayed. I don’t see it as being that exciting, I still had a long way to go and I still do to this day. My trouble with women was after that, it’s not like I became a saint with one prayer. I had to work through things and God had to put me through things for me to grow spiritually. That’s the thing I think needs to be focused on more.

What led you to pursue the arts?

I was five years old and my dad said I had to learn an instrument, so we walked into a shop and I picked out a trumpet. I started to learn how to play it and it wasn’t long before I wanted to quit. I told my dad I was intending to quit and he said “You can quit… as soon as you learn how to play it!” (laughs). So that’s what I did, I stuck with it till I was in my 20s because that’s when I really felt I had “learned” it. I was ready to move on to guitar though because it afforded more opportunity for musical things I wanted to do like writing, playing chords, singing along, and all that.

Who were some of your primary artistic influences growing up?

Well like many the first experience I had was with The Beatles. My dad had these sealed vinyl LP’s of their greatest hits that he wanted to keep pristine so he could transfer them to reel to reel. I busted them out and played them anyway (laughs) so that was really the first thing I latched onto, and you can of course hear that melodic influence in The Waiting. I’ve always been a melody guy. I learned a lot of classical music on trumpet, and classical is all about melody. Rock is about the rhythm, so I liked things that combined those two things, pretty much what you would call power pop now is what I enjoyed. When I got older I started listening to stuff that was unique, I always liked things that sounded different. That’s still really important to me. I don’t like hearing bands aping other bands. When The Beatles played a song that sounded like The Beach Boys [Back in the U.S.S. R.] it sounded cool because it still sounded like them and that was more of a tribute to how good the Beach Boys’s sound was. But there has always been way too many bands that just completely steal another band’s identity. I’m not naming names but I’ve seen way too many acts doing that. That’s something I’m proud of with The Waiting. We had our influences but nobody sounded like us. And we had our critics, I’m thinking of one in particular (laughs), who said we were too bright and poppy and not “cool” enough as an alternative band, but we didn’t care because it’s what we liked. I’ve always been a naturally optimistic person and I don’t want people to think there isn’t a struggle. But there is always hope with God and that may be reflected in my musical preference toward the melodic.

You once said The Waiting was influenced by Keith Green. Since you grew up in the church, were there any Christian artists like him in that stage that meant something to you?

Yeah, my mom was someone who didn’t appreciate me listening to Jimi Hendrix records on my turntable, she didn’t like the idea of a 14 year old tripping out to that stuff.. So I had to find Christian music that wouldn’t upset her that I could actually enjoy. This was at the time that Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith hit it really big, and I listened to them.

When The Waiting began, did you begin by deliberately writing about religious topics?

We did because it was what would make our parents happiest, honestly. That’s not the most artistic way to start by any means, but that’s what happened. We began doing it from that place and as we grew the meaning behind what we were doing grew and became more real to us.

Why did The Waiting wear 1940’s era clothes during the Blue Belly Sky era?

bluebellyskyOur manager wanted us to have a “look” and I’ll admit, I was the one responsible for that idea (laughs). Is it embarrassing now? Nah- I thought it was cool and I still do!

How did being a believer affect your career as an artist?

It affected it greatly! It was always the struggle of us trying to write stuff we thought people wanted to hear so we could get bigger, things that we might not have been so terribly interested in ourselves. “Hands in the Air,” pretty much everyone’s favorite song that we did, was one where we just let go and did what we wanted to do without worrying what people wanted to hear. We worried too much what people thought of what we wanted to do. I don’t want to rag on the Christian audience, because they’re the people who have supported us, but they make it hard on you sometimes when you maybe just want to write a song about your girlfriend or something. You put that on a record and it’s “Hey, I thought you guys were supposed to be Christians!” Yeah, well that’s a part of my Christian life! So we felt kind of constrained by that. Also, the industry was of course just a mess to work with. It’s different now. There’s really no such thing as a Christian music industry for stuff that isn’t worship music anymore. If you’re a Christian making music you’re either worship or secular. Which you know, I’m not really too sad about. The Christian music industry was a noble experiment, but it just got too big for its britches too quickly. There were way too many bands out there that just outright took the identities of other bands to the point that you could draw clear lines between every Christian band and a secular band, which is just terrible. It was like Christians were making their own bad copies of secular music so you could enjoy the sound without the sin. Now if you’re a Christian wanting to make music you play worship music and that’s that. I don’t hate worship music but it just isn’t my style and doesn’t do much for me. The problem for me is that with some notable exceptions I feel it’s too repetitive and sounds too much the same. So it’s not something I’m into musically, but I’m glad the Christian world has found some family friendly fare. There’s just still the problem of there being no place for artists who are Christians to flourish in making music that doesn’t fit into that category.

What were some of the struggles you faced that tested your ability to continue?

Oh man, well, I’ve already gone over some. But really the main thing that really crushed me? The death of a dream. I can’t tell you how much it broke me in 2002 when I had to decide to take The Waiting off the road. This may not sound good, but my dream was just to have a really successful rock band. To play big shows and have great sales on our singles and records. We really fought hard for that. We had the dream start that every band hopes for. We got discovered at a festival, we took the stage and did our set, started walking down the steps and there was a PACK of record executives wanting to sign us to their labels immediately. Things seemed like they were going to go really well. We toured relentlessly, we made good records. But it was never really enough. It supported a bunch of single guys for a long time, but then people started getting married and having families. Suddenly what we were doing just didn’t cut it anymore. We all had to go separate ways and take jobs that could actually provide for us. It was just a huge blow that took me a long time to recover from. You pour so much of your life into this band. For about a decade we worked our asses off trying to make it big.. to achieve that dream. Then you hit the moment where you realize it’s just not going to happen. That was really painful. I made the decision that it just wasn’t in our best interest to be on the road anymore even though it was going to be hardest on me. I was single and I loved playing shows, but I recognized that I couldn’t be the one driving everyone into the ground. I had to cut it off when the time was right. I went on to do freelance producing work from there, which didn’t make me all that happy, but I learned how to record. I went through a time of great grief which led to the Oats album a tear and a sneer, which is really about the five stages of grief that I went through when my father died, who was so important in my life and in supporting us. Eventually Tom Hill invited me to play with his covers band, which brought me back to playing gigs. That reignited my love for playing and sparked the idea of having Oats shows. I had to fight through a period where I was really uncomfortable with being a frontman though. That was always my brother Brad’s place. toddolsenBrad is a great frontman, and he feeds off the energy of being in the spotlight like that. I do not at all! I’m introverted, and I was always happy not being the center of attention playing guitar with The Waiting. I had to learn how to sing lead and be a frontman, which was not easy at all for me. I was terrified every time I did it for years. I had played for tens of thousands of people with The Waiting no problem, but I would freak out singing lead for twenty people! It took me years to not be afraid anymore, and it was just like one day *snap* it wasn’t there anymore. No more fear at all! God just completely took it away and I’ve never been the same since. Now I’m confident, which is so important for being a frontman. And now the Oats band is rehearsing, and that’s been years in the making. I’m ready to do it now!

But that was the hard thing for me. The death of the dream. Dreams can die hard, especially for me. I’m an extremely tenacious and persistent person, so that dying dream is all over the Oats record. The record is written about a relationship, but there’s a whole lot on the record behind that about other griefs.
It’s written that way because it was just kind of my introverted way of expressing other griefs that were too painful to address directly, one was my father’s passing and the other the death of that dream.
And now it’s kind of come full circle because getting the Oats thing going shows me how it’s not going to be the way it was and I don’t necessarily want it to be the way it was.
I don’t want to be full time on the road. I wouldn’t say no if there was a great need but in truth I’m kind of a home body. But going out to do Oats shows on weekend trips will be a lot of fun and it will be nice for fans of The Waiting because since there is only one Oats record we plan to round out the show with our versions of Waiting songs.

What are some Biblical verses, passages, or books that mean a great deal to you personally?

I always love Ecclesiastes, I just love that. I guess that’s the one most akin to the Oats experience (laughs). It’s just my personality. I like the Psalms too, things that are more uplifting or considered more uplifting. I like the overall, because The Bible really captures the overall experience of life. If you think you’re facing something that no one has ever faced, you haven’t read the whole thing because you’d see that’s just not true. The people in those stories faced a helluva lot more than any of us have. That is comforting to me, and those books are especially comforting to me. And I like Proverbs too because I aspire toward wisdom. It says a lot of good things that, taken at face value, will just make you happier. I’m just a rubber to the road, practical guy in that way. I don’t care about anyone’s theories and interpretations. It’s real simple for me to just take something like Proverbs at face value and not have to go through a ton of interpretation. Just “do this, and you will be wiser and happier.” It’s not necessarily that it will make you “happy,” but if you attain that wisdom and make decisions that are better for you – that goes toward making your life happier.

Something a lot of people are clamoring to hear more about is The Waiting’s new album Mysteriet that has been in the works for many years. You’ve said the album is about the “mystery and majesty of the Trinity.” What is your view of the Trinity?

I have no idea. That’s why it’s a mystery. I think that it’s probably put best the Irish way mysterietof talking about it, like a three leaf clover that has three leaves but is all one thing. That comes as close as anything because I don’t think it’s something that can be explained. I don’t expect to understand it while I’m here (laughs). In the next life I’m sure I will know fully, but I just take it on faith at this point.

You said that the topic is “literally the Mount Everest of Christian music”

Gosh, how presumptuous were we trying to do a record about the Trinity? (laughs) I liked the idea because it’s a concept album and we’re doing a few of the songs about the Father, a few about the Son, and a few about the Spirit, and a couple overall about all of them. But it’s all about God. So I like the idea, but dude, in practice it has been a nightmare. Because think about it, how do you put that into a record? How do you put God into music? What words do you write that are going to be fitting, suitable, that would be anywhere close to what has already been said? Or at least, able to be in the same room with the Scriptures, the same ballpark, planet? So that’s been a heck of a thing. But most of the songs have been written, so that was the hardest part. We’ve had some problems and troubles I won’t go into… just life stuff. The computer everything was on was disassembled for a long time and now it’s reassembled. It’s working and the files are still there. We’re in the process of getting those in a form where I can send those to Brad because the next step is for him to put his vocals down in a finished form. We already have vocals down but they need to be touched up and finished. From there it’ll be time for it to go to Ricky Rodriguez who’s the mix engineer, he’s also mixing the Oats record. He’s a guy in North Carolina, a buddy of mine. He has a place called Bomb House Studios with great music up there. So it’s one step at a time, but for a long time it was not in motion because we were kind of stuck on writing and even me. I was stuck on music, writing the right music. And Brad was stuck on writing the right words because it was such a hard thing to do. But I got a couple of things I like, and a couple of things I really like, so I’m very much looking forward to it. But it was inactive for a long time. Anyone can relate to that who has done any kind of writing.

In a 2001 interview you said that “The talk around the camp here is that our next record will be The Waiting’s Sgt. Pepper, which was a total left turn for The Beatles. Right now we’re reserving any nutty, crazy, out-there thing we want to do for the next record.”
Does this still apply to the musical direction of Mysteriet?

Ab-sol-ut-ely. There is nothing we have done that’s anything like this. Absolutely nothing. I’ll give you an example, we don’t go into any Rush territory per se but the first song on the album is in 5/4 time. We got a couple of mixed meter songs in there. We’re just kind of stretching. That’s what I was talking about when we were trying to write the music. We were trying to come up with something different we’ve never done. It’s a cool sound, kind of a hard sound more akin to what I did on the Oats record. That’s just where I’ve been lately, but it’s interesting technically from a musical point of view. It’s not just stuff with the same old 4/4 beat, we’re stretching. You could relate it, not in the ballpark genius-wise of Sgt. Pepper, but in that direction in the sense of it being just experimental. We’re just doing whatever we want to do. We have literally nothing to lose. Some people? They’re not going to like it, well fine. But some people are going to really love it, and think it’s our best work since “Hands in the Air.” And that has been our inspiration. Just that song. Not even a whole album! I took that song as the best thing we’ve ever done, which is what me and all the guys think, and I said “what did we do on this song?” What we did was just whatever we wanted. We didn’t think about the end, who was going to hear it, the radio. We just did what we were inspired to do by our creativity, our Creator, our God, and had no fear whatsoever. That’s the difference on this record. No $70,000 budget to worry about or paying a record company back to worry about. So it’s just what we think is good and that is what we did on Mysteriet.

Where did Mysteriet’s Norwegian name come from?

It’s a Norwegian word that means “The Mystery.” We chose the Norwegian word because that’s mine and Brad’s ancestry on my father’s side. My grandparents were from Norway.

You seem to be quite a reader, at one point saying you read two versions of Les Miserables!

Yes, I read two versions because I love that work. I just love Hugo’s style because it’s bombastic and he’s always asking a lot of questions. Victor Hugo is always like “How do you think he felt?? What could he do with all these feelings??” etc and I just love that. He’s just so over the top and it brought me into the story and made me feel what the character was feeling. But my favorite book by Hugo is Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame).

Are there any books or authors that have particularly influenced you?

hobbit.jpgOh gosh, I could go on forever. One of my favorite ever books was The Hobbit and I was really glad they made the movies because the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings were really great. I don’t know if that’s considered in our community to be popcorn fare but I don’t care I just like it you know? I just like the stories. I like how Tolkien creates a whole world. He made up a freaking language! We tried to make up a language on the road with The Waiting. My brother was the spearhead of this, we made up this language because he used to say all of these nonsense words and we started writing them down and tried making a whole language out of it.
But the point being that Tolkien created a whole immersive world and I think that’s wonderful and very human. If there’s anything that can separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom maybe it’s that we can invent an entire universe. It makes us a little like God in that way. That nature. I really love The Hobbit. I love Watership Down too, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one.

I’m very familiar with it!

I love it. I’ve never seen the movie, I’ve never been interested in seeing it really. I might be interested when somebody like Peter Jackson does it. At any rate I love that book and when I was on the road with The Waiting I would be reading up to seven books at a time! I would read philosophy, historical fiction, straight history, numerous topics. Soaking it all in. That’s something being on the road is great for. Plenty of time to read and soak up knowledge on the bus. But being home three days a month wasn’t great for me. You start thinking you’re going crazy! Anyway, those are a few I like. I love sci-fi too.

What is the most rewarding aspect of creating art that speaks to Christian truth?

The most rewarding aspect of creating art is the work. After the fact when people see the olsenguitarwork or hear it, pile money on you, pile adulation on you, give you attaboys. That’s all great, but for me the accomplishment is in the creation. When I get the idea. One example is when I was at Beaker’s house getting ready for a show, and we were making an arrangement we were working on of John Mellancamp’s “Jack and Diane.” We were trying to come up with an arrangement for two guitars  and what we were going to do, because obviously we don’t have the big drum bit happening for the solo. I was working on it and there was a moment where it finally clicked and I was like “That’s it!” We rehearsed it in front of Beaker’s wife and she said the same thing.
It’s an arrangement like we would do with The Waiting, something that will entertain that people will go crazy for. Keeping showmanship in mind. It’s a creative moment. That’s what I’m going for. I’m lying in bed watching Murdock Mysteries on BBC on my laptop, everytime there’s a break I mute it and think of how we’re going to do this arrangement. It’s the same kind of thing we’d do for a Waiting show. We learned from Tom Jackson, who was one of the best entertainment consultants in the business. We learned how to do The Waiting thing a lot from him, and now he consults people like Taylor Swift. So that was me taking what I learned from him and working it out from The Waiting. Using those creative moments.
The payout for me these days is getting the right idea. How do we get from here to there? On The Waiting album. How do I represent the awe of the Trinity in sound?
Part of my inspiration for Mysteriet was the beginning of Genesis where it says that the Spirit of the Lord was hovering on the water. In my mind that’s the mystery right there. Realizing that’s where I wanted the vibe of Mysteriet to come from, that was the payout.
As a creative person I know God felt this way when He created the earth, in whatever way He did it, He had to have gotten a charge out of it. I get a huge charge out of the smallest things.
When I’m creating it makes me happy. Even just to be primed to be creative. Seven failed attempts makes me happier than not trying.
As far as the Christian aspect? It depends on your calling, but the thing I like is for my life to be all one. The thing I like about having Christian content is for it to come out of my work that is not on a Christian label or record. But the fact is that there’s a way it is a Christian record because I am a Christian. I can’t escape my point of view! I can’t write like I’m a hedonist or something. The way I’m going to write it is going to be from my point of view. Everything on the Oats record is consistent with my Christianity and my life. I like that better than some of the divisions I’ve seen through growing up in church. Divisions in people’s lives are not good or helpful. In short, I feel like you shouldn’t be a Christian on Sunday and something else at other times. And church shouldn’t be a gathering of people painting smiles on their pained faces, it should be all the ups and downs. It says somewhere in the Bible that you have to laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry [Romans 12:15]. Have some compassion on the other guy, he’s a human being! Be real in church and I don’t mean rude, I just mean honest. Not just painting a smile on something when it hurts, but saying it damn hurts! We are all called to be honest. It’s every bit a part of being a Christian and your failures mean as much as your successes, and I don’t mean to dwell on the negative. But if you’re hurting there’s nothing wrong with talking about it! That’s what those other people are there for! It’s not like they have never grieved, we all have. I feel it’s important to not have a compartmentalized life, to have it all of life be one. That’s integrity. The same guy everywhere I go- all one. That’s what I aspire to.

I would encourage all the believers out there to do likewise. Be who you are all the time. Let the chips fall from there. If someone doesn’t want to be my friend because I’m honest about problems, well goodbye sir! God will be proud if I’m the real deal, I think. Your opinion does not matter as much to me as what God thinks. So I have to go by that. I’m not trying to say “yay sin!” or anything like that, but I just think people should be honest about struggles as well as successes. I encourage everyone to just be a faithful reporter. Whatever your calling may be, be faithful in that!

I’m just trying to practice what I preach.

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2 thoughts on “Life in the Face of Mystery: An Interview with Todd Olsen (The Waiting, Oats)

  1. Debi Z

    This is an awesome interview! My husband and I are huge The Waiting fans! I love how this article gives insight into both that past as well as what is happening now for Oats. Thanks so much for doing this!

    Like

  2. Bradford I

    Excellent interview! I’ve been a fan of The Waiting since before they were The Waiting…and I’ve been wondering about the Mysteriet situation. Thanks for the clarification.

    My only wish — my one desire — for Mysteriet is that there be (some way, somehow) an insightful, thought-provoking, inspired reworking of “Way-O.”

    Like

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