James Mead of Kutless

There are few bands that successfully combine hard rock with worship lyrics. Kutless is just such an exceptional group. Led by Jon Micah Sumrall's distinctively gutsy singing style, this Portland, Oregon group has been putting out inspiring music since 2002. Their accolades include GMA nominations for Praise & Worship Album of the Year (2006), and Rock Album of the Year (2009).

James Mead is one of the guitarists in the band, and he took some time to bring us deeper into some Kutless songs, and explain how this unique group combines the rarely paired styles of praise music and hard rock.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): This interview is for Songfacts, so I want to talk about songs.

James Mead: Oh, great! Let's talk.

Songfacts: I've followed you since you started, and you've really developed into more of a praise and worship band than just a straight-ahead rock band. What do you think caused that shift in approach to songs and making music?

James: We actually started off as a worship band in 1999-2000, so that's really what we were doing at the college here in Portland, Oregon. And along the way we've had tremendous support from our home church, too. So a joy of ours throughout the years has been to be home from tour and have the opportunity to play worship for our church. So this has been a natural thing for us throughout the years; we've always tried to work them into our set, too. I just think it's been really important to us to do those projects. But Strong Tower and It Is Well are rather different projects, too, not only musically and song-wise, but also how they represent the timeline of our growth in our band. They both were really exciting projects to do and I've been really blessed to see how much the songs - especially "What Faith Can Do" - really affects people.

Songfacts: "What Faith Can Do" is probably your biggest song. Do you ever hear stories from fans about it?

James: Yeah, that song is pretty much the email song, the letter song. I can only say that it's been anointed by God to really be the perfect message for people at the right time in their lives. It's stories by people who were contemplating committing suicide or stories of people who are going through tremendous difficulty in their marriage and considering divorce, and people who are facing cancer in their own lives or in the lives of a loved one, it's got that - it's just been a song that has the right message for them.

Songfacts: How exciting it must be to be able to make a recording and then have that song be more than just another pop song on the radio, but to be something that keeps people from making bad decisions, from taking their own lives. It must be awfully gratifying.

James: Absolutely. On some days that is the sole fuel that does keep us going. You're precisely correct. I think that hope - especially hope that we all have in heaven, because of the relationship with Jesus Christ - I think that hope is infectious. And I've seen it everywhere that I've been in life. So when people have restored hope and they tell you about it, man, it definitely pumps you up. Or trips that I've gotten to take with Compassion International to several countries around the world. When you meet these kids face to face, the most impacting part of that trip is just being confronted with the contagious amount of hope that they now have in their lives, that seeing the Gospel can change them and their families and their situation and it's infectious, man. So it's a cool business to be a part of, playing these songs that the Lord has chosen to bless people with, because in turn we end up getting collateral blessing.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Strong Tower." Now, as I understand it, that song was written by members of the band as well as your producer. You weren't a part of the writing of the song, I don't think. But can you tell me a little bit about the story behind that song that you know of?

James: Yeah. So the song itself was written by Mark Lee from Third Day and Mark Byrd, who wrote "God of Wonders." They wrote that and submitted it to us. And we just tweaked a few things verse-wise and then a couple of lyrical phrases here and there and that was primarily Aaron Sprinkle and Jon Micah who did that. But I was there when we got the song and tracking it and everything. I think some of our most influential songs in the Kutless gamut are those songs that have a really straightforward vertical praise-oriented lyric. Everyone can identify with the Lord being their strength and being the shelter over them. And honestly, when you just take a sample of the biblical doctrine, I mean, that's straight out of Isaiah and Psalms right there, that whole of the lyric of "Strong Tower." So obviously those are going to be encouraging, because the Lord promises about His word himself that it will not return void. So I think that those people have been blessed by those songs because of that.

Songfacts: My favorite Kutless song, and I'm not even sure if it was ever released as a single, is your version of "All Who Are Thirsty."

James: Oh, thank you.

Songfacts: Which I just love. And I imagine - do you still include that in your set and does that have an impact?

James: We don't play that in concert very often. But just the other night, we were at home in Portland in our home church and we played that for worship that night. I love that song, too.

Songfacts: Are there any songs that are your particular favorites that maybe are not ones that you play often that you wish you could?

James: Yeah. We definitely have songs like that that I wish we would play but we just don't really often. One of those songs for me is off of our record To Know That You're Alive, and it's a song called "Dying to Become." That song is really fun to me and I like the message of it. It was a blast to record; that was one of the songs that we were able to utilize the London Symphony Orchestra strings at Abbey Road, the string part. So that was quite a musical milestone for me to be able to walk through the doors and the same hallways there and just sit in the live room with the orchestra while they were playing.

Songfacts: But I guess you can't bring the London Philharmonic with you?

James: Not too often. (Laughs)
We spoke with James Mead on November 13, 2011. Get more at kutless.com
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