As a reporter who writes about artists, I have a short list of dream interviews — that is to say, people I would love to talk to, not so much for journalistic purposes, but because it would fulfill a lifelong goal. One of them is Matt Thiessen, a hero of my youth and the lead singer of the seminal Christian rock band Relient K.
When I finally lined up a phone interview with Thiessen, I panicked. How could I tell him about the six dozen times I listened to the melancholy Relient K ballad “Jefferson Aero Plane” after breaking up with my girlfriend in high school? Should I tell him that I started wearing Western-style button-up shirts as a teenager (and continue to do so to this day) because of a poster I had in my room of him wearing one? Did he need to know that my brother and I had once played a cover of “I Celebrate the Day” on piano with shaky vocals at a Christmas Eve church service?
Instead of telling him all that, I told him that I had thrown a few bags of Skittles and Combos onstage at Relient K concerts in my days. It was a reference to a hidden track on the band’s 2001 pop-punk breakout album The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, one that I hoped would tip my hat as a fanboy without excessively skeeving him out. I think it worked. “No, that’s awesome,” Thiessen said. “I was talking to my dad about that the other day, and it’s a really cool rite of passage … It’s a cool thing when someone says that.”
From their humble roots in Canton, Ohio, to their rock-radio ascendancy in the mid-2000s to their current incarnation as a venerable pop act, Relient K has always been the sort of band that inspired superfans — and the sort of band that you could talk about with your parents. Their songs were a staple in my Southern Baptist church youth group, and we caught them live at Carowinds’ Christian Music Days more than once.
Today, only two of the original band members remain: Thiessen on guitar, piano, and vocals, and his childhood friend Matt Hoopes on guitar and backing vocals. And where a younger Thiessen once penned slaphappy anthems about ThunderCats and Marilyn Manson eating his girlfriend, the band has trafficked in soberer reflections of late; 2009’s Forget and Not Slow Down was a cathartic breakup album, and this year’s Collapsible Lung (released July 2 on Mono Vs. Stereo) includes a hodgepodge of pop-rock and dance-pop genre studies and the country-sob-song line “Can’t drink enough to wash her down.”
Thiessen has also racked up a few co-writing credits, famously with Kelly Clarkson and Owl City, but Collapsible Lung marks the first time he called in co-writers of his own, including Ari Levine (CeeLo Green, Bruno Mars) and Evan Bogart (Beyonce, Rihanna). “If I Could Take You Home” is a synth-driven pulse-pounder, “PTL” features a killer falsetto chorus, and “Lost Boy” sounds like a lost Maroon 5 track.
“I think it was a reaction to not really knowing what to do in 2013,” Thiessen says of the band’s seventh full-length album. Still, you can hear Thiessen’s trademark snark and self-deprecation, including on the bombastic “PTL,” when he sings, “I never meant to be a part-time lover/ Then again, I’ve never been a full-time man.” I ask Thiessen how much of him is in the lyrics anymore, and he explains that the whole album was a process of trying “to see what would happen if I wasn’t such a control freak in the studio.”
But even with the deeply personal lyrics on Forget and Not Slow Down, there’s already a distance between himself and the guy who wrote them.
“It’s not like you can be up there singing the songs with the exact same conviction that you had when you wrote them, because you’re over it a little bit,” Thiessen says.
The world of contemporary Christian music is notorious for parsing lyrics, decrying objectionable content, and keeping a count of how many times an artist says “Jesus” in an album (this time around, the count is zero). The critics didn’t make an exception for Collapsible Lung, in some cases spilling more ink on Thiessen’s references to sex and alcohol than on the music itself. But Thiessen says he doesn’t spend time googling his band, and the only person he’s ever felt pressure from in the lyrics department is his mother.
“I’ll have to go check out what they have to say about it, but honestly, my mom, she knows about life, and it’s not like everybody’s perfect,” Thiessen says. “She doesn’t take offense to it, she’s just probably bummed that I would air some of that laundry. But I’ve always been one to sing about making mistakes and trying to find redemption in life, and I think she gets that.”
I think I get it too.
There is one direct reference to the Christian Trinity on Collapsible Lung, and it comes at the end, on the title track: “And I’m feeling backwards when I’m trying the most/ And I hope I haven’t heard the last words from the Holy Ghost.”
“Sometimes something super-poignant changes your direction in life, and it’s nice when that happens, and you’re always hoping that something else like that is going to happen where your eyes are a little bit more opened and you make better decisions,” Thiessen says. “I definitely believe in the Holy Spirit, and it’s just nice to invite it in.”