Jars of Clay's Stephen Mason talks Busch Gardens' Christmas Town, covering Paul McCartney's 'Wonderful Christmastime' and more
In this day and age, when everyone from Cee-Lo Green to the Oak Ridge Boys has a holiday album, it’s hard to believe one of the most successful Christian rock acts of all time was actually once dissuaded from recording a Christmas album.
“We were told by our label at the time that Christmas records don’t do well, and weren’t anything to bother with,” said Jars of Clay guitarist Stephen Mason. “It was a bit strange, but we took it in stride. And when we gained our independence, it was one of the first things we wanted to do.”
The result was 2007’s Christmas Songs, and five years later, it’s led to one of the more unusual gigs in Jars of Clay’s nearly two-decade career: A monthlong weekend residency at Busch Gardens’ new Christmas Town extravaganza. The band will play holiday songs and more each Friday, Saturday and Sunday night from now through Dec. 23.
Busch Gardens has brought in national headliners in the past, but never a single artist for a full month. Jars of Clay have long been one of America’s best-known Christian rock acts — if you know only one Christian rock song from the past 20 years, it’s probably their 1996 alt-rock hit Flood — and this is all new territory for them, too.
“Rarely do we play anywhere more than one time in a few months, so the idea of doing these shows was curious at first, but then we thought, 'Man, there’s no reason not to do this,’” Mason said. “They’re designing a fantastic stage for it, and we’re working on some interaction with the audience, but I wouldn’t want to give it away at this point. I think it’s going to make for a special night.”
Plus, a whole month at a theme park? Who wouldn’t love that? “There will be some roller coaster riding,” Mason said.
Founded in Illinois and now based in Nashville, Jars of Clay have remained successful in the gospel world in the years since Flood became a surprise Top 40 and MTV hit, touring consistently and winning three Grammy awards.
Though their Busch Gardens set won’t be entirely holiday-based — fans will still get to hear Flood, Mason said — it’ll draw heavily from Christmas Songs, a collection of indie-alternative twists on carols both religious and secular, from O, Little Town of Bethlehem to the Peanuts classic Christmastime is Here. They even succeed in putting a new twist on two of the most reviled holiday songs of all time: The Little Drummer Boy and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime. Drummer Boy is synthy and glitchy, yet warm, a la The Postal Service; while McCartney’s anti-classic is transformed from a spacey ’70s oddity to an inviting sing-along replete with strings and horns.
“We felt like there was a song inside there that was probably obscured by some of the quirkiness. That phased keyboard is just unbelievably ridiculous,” Mason said. “I there’s some sincerity in that tune as well, and in terms of secular/sacred conversations, few songs articulate more for us the communal aspects of living life and doing family holidays together. Lyrically, it’s a brilliant picture of a lot of people’s Christmases.”
Covering a song like Wonderful Christmastime is a good example of how Jars of Clay tries to defy mainstream audiences’ expectations of how a Christian rock band should act. On Twitter, for example, Mason tracks a plethora of accounts that are about as far from faith-based as you can get, from comedian Rob Delaney to rapper 2 Chainz to oddball accounts like Weird Horse and Kim Kierkegaardashian.
“We don’t believe that true things about life and the world and humanity and love are exclusive to our faith, but they can be informed by people from all walks of life,” he said. “I like that sort of approach to worldview and faith, trying to find clues everywhere and in everything.”
When, during the Democratic National Convention, a comedian tweeted, The #RNC last week compared to the #DNC this week is like Jars of Clay opening for Slayer, the band replied with: HEY. We toured with Slayer. They were too weak. Had to cancel the tour.
“We like to be those who are hard to pin down that way,” Mason said. “We want to ask good questions of life and love and our faith. That keeps everything on the table. We want to be interesting and not easily summarized, so when someone tweets something like that, we want to be like, 'Eh ... you don’t know us, do you?’”
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*