Rise of ‘Flood’ Opens Jars of Clay to Secular Audience


If your radio has been tuned recently to KSCA (101.9 FM), KROQ (106.7 FM) or 91X (91.1 FM), there’s a good chance you’ve heard “Flood,” a tasty acoustic song by Jars of Clay.

The Nashville-based quartet has been getting a fair amount of airplay for the song, thanks to its America-esque harmonies, a catchy refrain (“Lift me up when I’m falling”) and a clever deluge theme.

Not surprisingly, the group is on tour in support of “Flood” and the other songs on its debut album, “Jars of Clay.” In fact, the band plays Friday at the Pond of Anaheim as an opening act.


What may be a tiny bit surprising is whom the band is opening for: Christian pop star Michael W. Smith.

Jars of Clay, as it turns out, is the latest in a stream of Christianity-influenced bands making a crossover into the secular arena. But what sets it apart is that it’s not crossing over with gospel, heavy metal, rap or straight pop a la, respectively, Andrae Crouch, Stryper, DC Talk or Amy Grant. Jars of Clay’s sound is more alternative than anything else.

“We don’t listen to much Christian music,” singer and lyricist Dan Haseltine said via phone after a gig at Clemson University in South Carolina. “Our influences for our album were people like Seal, Sarah McLachlan, Sting, Peter Gabriel--acts we think of as intelligent pop artists. We’re also into techno [pop], and the folk elements of singers like Paul Simon and the Indigo Girls.

“We describe our music as alternative-folk. The first people who critiqued it said it was a cross between Pearl Jam, Janet Jackson and Toad the Wet Sprocket. Kind of interesting,” he said with a laugh.

Whatever they want to call it, the Jars’ music has a wide enough appeal to make inroads in multiple music arenas. The album, on the Silvertone label, is currently No. 113 with a bullet on the Billboard pop chart. It was No. 1 two weeks ago on the magazine’s Heatseekers chart, which tracks acts that have never appeared in the Top 100 before (it was displaced by Skinny Puppy the following week). It’s also No. 2 on the Top Contemporary Christian chart.


The group is up for new artist, group of the year and three other honors in the Gospel Music Assn.’s annual Dove Awards, which will be handed out April 25.


Meanwhile, “Flood” is No. 29 and rising on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, though it hasn’t cracked the Hot 100 singles chart yet.

Not bad for a band that started out as a bunch of buddies experimenting in a college recording studio. Early in 1993, Haseltine, 23, and his friends Charlie Lowell, 22, and Steve Mason, 20, were writing and recording songs to satisfy the requirements of a music class at Greenville College in Illinois. Fourth member Matt Odmark, 22, helped out on guitar.

“I hadn’t written lyrics much before that,” Haseltine said. “I was a piano player for a long time and would have other people write the words, because I really didn’t like my writing style at all. But when I started writing for Jars, the words just came out and seemed to work well for what we were doing.”

With no intentions of snagging a record deal, band members spent weekends recording a full album of material simply to hone their songwriting and producing skills.

But after they beat more than 200 groups in a battle of the bands sponsored by the Gospel Music Assn., the labels came calling--on their dorm floor pay phone.

The fledgling group signed with the relatively young Christian label Essential, Haseltine said, because “they came to us with a full marketing plan that was far superior to the others. It seemed like a lot of labels wanted to sign us but didn’t have a clue what to do with us.”


The band members’ music engineering classes paid off when they showed themselves capable of producing their own debut album. They gratefully stepped aside for two tracks, allowing studio whiz and master musician Adrian Belew to produce and contribute strings for “Flood” and the propulsive dance cut “Liquid.”

Once the disc was released in the Christian market, an executive at the Zomba Recording Corp., Essential’s parent company, took interest and brought it to the attention of Silvertone, a sister label to Essential that specializes in rock and blues. Silvertone began distributing the album in October.

“The consensus was that because of the universal quality of the songwriting, this music would appeal to everyone,” said David Goldfarb, marketing manager for Silvertone/Jive records. “Our plans are to take the record as far as it goes in the alternative, pop and rock markets.”

“Jars of Clay” seems to have as reasonable a chance for widespread acceptance as other music on the market.

It might help that Haseltine’s lyrics lean toward sober poetic impressionism rather than preachiness. “We’re not a real evangelistic band,” he explained. “We’re just trying to have a positive message.”

At the same time, other songs employ vividly specific Christian images. So if Joan Osborne can croon about “St. Teresa” on alternative radio, perhaps the time is ripe for Jars (which takes its name from a Bible verse in Second Corinthians) to get its own airplay with lines like “Arms nailed down/are you tellin’ me something?”


Though the group didn’t initially set out to make a big secular splash, it did aim, through its guitars-strings-touch-o’-techno blend, to be as musically fresh and interesting as possible.

“There are some great bands in the Christian market, and they’re starting to come through, but for a long time it seems that art has been sacrificed for the sake of a message. That’s just not the way that things should be,” Haseltine said. “People should be making the best music that they can.”


As to whether Jars of Clay is sacrificing a message for the sake of art, Haseltine offered a poetically simple no. He also said his favorite song on the album is “Worlds Apart,” about a person who is torn between the world of Christianity and the “regular” world.

For now, Jars of Clay isn’t available to capitalize on mainstream interest with its own concerts, since it’s committed to the national Michael W. Smith tour through May.

This, Haseltine said, doesn’t trouble the band at all. “We’re really happy doing this tour for a lot of reasons,” he said. “For one thing, we’re in our comfort zone.”

And when it comes time to play their own club dates in the summer and open for a secular-arena act in the fall, he feels Jars of Clay will be ready.


“We’re kind of like sheep in wolves’ clothing,” Haseltine said, laughing. “One of the things we’re working hard on is just not scaring people away. Because of a lot of the stereotypes of what Christians and their music are, it would be really easy for people to just write us off. We’re trying not to let that happen.

“It’s great that we’re getting this secular acceptance now,” he said. “Someday, if we’re playing a concert and talk about our faith, it may be a surprise to some people, but hopefully they’ll think it’s cool.”

* Who: Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay and Three Crosses.

* When: Friday at 7:30 p.m.

* Where: The Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave.

* Whereabouts: Exit the Orange (57) Freeway at Ball Road or Katella Avenue and head east into the Pond’s parking lots.

* Wherewithal: $18-$35.

* Where to call: (714) 704-2500.