The Gibson Interview: Jars of Clay’s Matthew Odmark
Jars of Clay are anything but newbies. Over the years, the Nashville-based Christian alternative rock band has scored three Grammy Awards and sold 5.2 million albums and 1.4 million singles.
Head to a Jars of Clay show, and you’ll spot guitarist Matthew Odmark playing a variety of Gibson models on the stage.
“Each of my Gibsons does a very unique and specific thing,” he told Gibson.com. “It feels like a real instrument. They are rough around the edges in just the right way to make you feel like you are holding a living thing.”
Odmark checked in with Gibson.com to talk about his journey into guitar, the story behind the band’s eleventh studio album, INLAND, and the thrill of winning the 2001 Gibson Guitar Award for Best Acoustic Guitar.
How did you first discover guitar?
My dad played. He is very musical and, in fact, has begun building guitars in his retirement. He had guitars and he played, but to be honest, I did not pick it up until early high school. I had played piano and trumpet prior to that, and it wasn't until I was 13 or so that I picked up one of my dad’s guitars and began to fool around.
What guitarists shaped your early learning and playing?
Like any serious music kid growing up in Rochester, N.Y., WCMF shaped my understanding of popular music. Album-oriented rock and classic rock were my education: Zeppelin, Rush, Yes, Kansas, Genesis. For some reason, I was drawn to the more melodically adventurous parts of the more progressive artists in this genre. It was those guitarists that were my earliest influences. As I picked up and started playing more acoustic guitar in college, I was drawn to James Taylor and especially the Indigo Girls, as I loved how they used to different complimentary acoustic guitar parts to create richer and more complex chord voicings.
What are the specific challenges of playing guitar in Jars of Clay?
Playing with another player like Steve Mason forces you into a collaboration. There is no, “Hey I play guitar— I will just do my thing.” There is always a discussion in a song about, “What will you do? What will I do? How will we use the combination of those two elements to do something interesting in the sonic presentation of the song?”
Jars of Clay are on this road this September. What’s the story behind this tour?
We’re out in support of our newest record, INLAND. INLAND is a self-released record that is over two years in the making for the band. It’s a record we did in collaboration with Portland-based producer Tucker Martine and had the privilege to work on with Matt Chamberlin on drums. It’s a project that is very dear to the band’s heart and reflects the notion that, at almost 20 years in, some of the band’s best creative work is still in front of us.
You picked up a Gibson Guitar Award for Best Acoustic Guitar back in 2001. What was it like to receive that honor?
Outrageous. Completely unexpected, and in many ways, things like Grammy Awards and these other types of awards are nice honors, but rarely are you sitting there next to the people that either invented the very thing you have given most of your life to … or sitting at a table with someone that was the whole reason you picked up the thing when you were 12 years old. It was crazy and a career highlight for me.
Tell me about the Gibsons in your arsenal. It looks like you play a ‘63 Non-Reverse Firebird , a ‘90s Reissue Reverse Firebird and a ‘70s Les Paul.
Yes. The Gibsons are very special guitars to me, and all have come to me in very serendipitous ways. The ‘90s reissue was the first electric guitar that I got from Gibson... When I made the transition from primarily acoustic guitar on the records and in the shows, that was the guitar I played first. She is meaty and manly and I love her. The ‘63 Non-Reverse was a bit of pawn-shop serendipity. I still have the $900 price tag on the guitar! I love that guitar. In many ways, she needed a lot of love and work to be brought back to her glory, but I decided rather than make her a museum piece, I wanted a guitar I could play… It was only recently that I decided that I wanted a Les Paul. I had always wanted one, going way back to high school, and so I just painstaking began scouring for the right one… She is wine red and just kills in all the ways you want a Les Paul to kill.
What guitar tips do you have for guitarists in the studio and on the road?
I am constantly amazed at what can happen in collaboration. There are many times when I sit down by myself and I am convinced that there is nothing new to discover in these instruments or no new songs to write, but then I sit in the room across from someone else and dare to begin to react to them and what they are doing, and all kinds of new and unbelievable possibilities seem to emerge. To me, this has always been the part of music that keeps me in it.
What's next for Jars of Clay?
We will be hard at work on the road all over the world playing these new songs for people. We continue to be grateful for the many years together as a band and are excited to continue to make music together. Beyond taking INLAND around the world, we’re looking forward to 2014 as marking the 20th anniversary of the band and are planning a fitting celebration for such an event.
Photo: David Braud