In ECCLĒSIAM’s series on the intersection of art and faith, I was able to spend some time catching up with Michael and Matt LoPresti, brothers who started The Lighthouse and The Whaler, while they were on their most recent tour to talk about how they understand this enigmatic intersection.
Aaron Ross: The Lighthouse and The Whaler – what does it mean? What made you decide to start the band, and move from there with your art?
Michael LoPresti: Yeah, the name is very symbolic. “Whaler” comes from Moby Dick, and the part in the book where the whalers are going back to Nantucket, which is their home. And the first thing they see before they get there is the lighthouse. There comes this point where they’re headed home, they see the white whale, and Ahab’s obsession with destroying it takes over. They decide to follow the whale as opposed to going home. The turn of events in the book was so powerful because I believe every person has something they’re meant to do, and this band was that thing for me. There’s so much power in the name, at least my wife always says that, and I’ve begun to really believe that because as the band has gone on, it’s shaping everything about my life: shaping the way I believe, and art shaping the way I believe in life in general. It’s all-consuming. It’s everything that I do. I hope I can use it to change the way people view Jesus, and the way that people view the culture of Church in general because that’s really at the heart at who I am as a person.
Aaron: I wouldn’t categorize your band as Christian, but as art with music. How do you go about doing your music, being in The Lighthouse and the Whaler, and thinking about your art in relation to your faith?
Michael: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this in the last few years of my life, and trying to understand what I think about this question. I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians have this fundamental misunderstanding of what art is, in my opinion. There are many people who’ve said very similar things this to this effect, but I think a lot of the time we Christians try to use art as a track or a way to further our faith. At the heart of what art is, and why people even create in the first place, is to help them understand the world around them, and to help them understand and comprehend the things that they aren’t able to fully comprehend. Things like the ideas of a soul and love, these are emotions you can’t simply convey with the word, and then encapsulate all the meanings of what it is. For example, you can say the word love but there’s so much more that goes along with that word. I mean, there’s even different kinds of love: love for your significant other, love for a good friend. There are so many different forms of it. Throughout my musical journey I’ve come to realize that out of the outpouring of your soul is what your art is, and what your art becomes is who you are. So as a Christian, what I believe comes out of everything I do regardless of whether or not I want it to. From the themes I sing about, to the way I view the world, to the way I view loss, sorrow, joy and all of those different emotions – my Christianity shapes my worldview. Out of having all that inside of my soul, my music and my art inevitably has that rub off on it. Instead of viewing my music as “Christian,” I view it as art and the byproduct of what I believe.
My art embodies my Christianity inherently, regardless of whether or not I am intentional with it or not.
Aaron: Is there any specific song, or any lyrics you’ve written that has embodied what you’re saying, in terms of this outpouring of your faith coming through your music that’s not necessarily intentional? Is there anytime you’re singing something or writing something, and you’re like “oh wow, this is why I wrote that” as almost a surprise to you?
Michael: A great example of that for me is a lot of times when I write songs I’ll put holder lyrics, which are lyrics that I make up on the spot to help reinforce the melody and allow the melody to become what it’s going to be. The song “I Want To Feel Alive” is on our newest record, Mont Royal. The lyrics “I want to feel alive” are holder lyrics, and they weren’t even supposed to be lyrics of the songs, but they ended up embodying the song so well that they just became a part of it. This is sort of a cry of trying to understand what it is to exist in the world. There are so many questions and faith is such a major part of our existence as Christians, and lot of times we just have to make the leap to believe because that’s the ultimate choice I think that people face. So out of that I was just like, I don’t really know what else to say, and I think that is really how that song came about and everything from that song. “I Want To Feel Alive” was shaped around those lyrics which just came out of me. I didn’t even really try to make them something, they just were. And actually we were on tour with a band called Surfer Blood, and the girl who plays bass in their band was just in love with that song. And she’s like, “I just want to feel alive. That’s why I love it.” She’s like, “those lyrics like mean so much to me.” We got a lot of cool experiences with that song with people, and I think that is part of what I talk about earlier, out of the overflow of your soul pours out your art. I think that out of the overflow of my soul at least I think people are seeing little glimpses of Jesus in that.
Aaron: What has then, in your music inherently, been able to speak to your listeners, whether its at a show or on a CD, where you’re able to better connect with people through your music than maybe even contemporary worship music.
Matthew LoPresti: Part of the critique Mike and I have on worship music is that it’s always upward which is obviously necessary, and you need that, you know.
Like what Mike said, art is just describing what you’re going through and we’re addressing topics that aren’t upward worship topics, if that makes sense.
We’re dealing with the difficulty of human relationships – loss, betrayal, and love – and I think that there’s people who come to us from all over the country, and say “I don’t know why but you’re amazing and I listened to your music only when I went through the hardest time of my life.” I think there’s something in art that transcends all of us. I believe most Christians have experienced this. You can listen to bands that aren’t Christian, bands like Bon Iver, and Sigur Ros, and experience something in the moment that we can all connect to, something outside of ourselves in that moment through art. We say “that music really spoke something I was feeling and helped me deal with the struggles in my life,” you know. So, I think that the way that we connect with people, which doesn’t maybe happen in worship music, is that it’s more the communicating of, “yeah we’re all going through life, and life is really hard,” and this art is a conversation of about the things we’re going through. People say, “dang, I’m going through that as well and it connected with me,” and I think the fact that we’re Christians, and the fact that the gospel exudes out of our life and inherently will be in our heart in some way, shape, or form allows people to connect to something outside of themselves. That’s something you need to make, not just our band but Christians in general – something that isn’t directly upward worship to God.
Michael: And I think that, for me, I don’t think Christian music is a thing, and this is something that I’ve been really trying to develop in my own life for a while. But I don’t actually think that Christian art in general is a thing. I think there’s just art. It all ties together for me. It’s very cyclical in nature for me. It goes back to a previous question you asked, in that out of who you are comes your art, so I don’t think there’s anything such as Christian art. It’s a label that we term things sometimes in the most terrible ways just to make money, and then in the best of ways, in my opinion, a misguided attempt to turn people to Jesus. I mean I’m not discrediting what other people have done because I think there’s a lot of good that’s come from art that we deem as Christian, for sure, and you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water by any sense. But I do believe that we’ve had people who have written us emails and messaged us on Facebook and they were like, “I was going to kill myself, but your music just changed me.” I have this experience with bands myself right now. I’ve been going through a pretty difficult time in my own life, just – art is hard to do. There’s this guy, Keith Henson, and he has this song called “You” and it’s just really a love song, to be honest, to a woman. I’ve really just connected so deeply with the song and its lyrics and it’s helped me through a hard time. You know it’s definitely not a “Christian” thing by any stretch of the imagination. So, I think there’s something to be said for thinking outside the box when it comes to art as Christians because we’ve really boxed ourselves in in a big way.
Aaron: In what ways do either of you think that we as the church can we embody art better? I mean, yeah I completely agree with you. We have God’s Not Dead 2 which just proves we’re bad at art. Like if one wasn’t bad enough, now we’ve got 2 in terms of art through film. But, how can we do it better in your opinion? How can the church progress in our art and connect with people who aren’t necessarily Christians through art?
Michael: I’ve had this passion to unearth exactly what you’re talking about. The way that we can do it better in my opinion is to stop trying, stop limiting ourselves with not only our topics but with what we consider worship or, art that is spiritual.
Instead of saying there’s only these like three or four ways, or we’re only going to accept these styles or we’re going to do CCM or whatever, I think that we need to open ourselves up to the multitude of not only mediums, but ideas the people have of what art is and how it can affect us spiritually. It’s really difficult because it opens up a very large door which I think the church is a little bit afraid of, in a lot of ways, because there’s a lot of complex emotions that music and any form of art brings out. It asks a lot of really difficult questions that sometimes I wonder and I speculate to myself that maybe the church is a little bit afraid to open those doors because they’re afraid of what’s going to come out, not of only their own people but people on the other side of what we believe. But I think that what we’ve done as a band so far is a little bit of a testament of how we can reach people who probably don’t care at all about religion, God, or spirituality or any of that. And I think when people respect you, they’ll listen to what you have to say. David Ayer, he’s a Christian, and he directed the movie Fury which I like absolutely loved, and there are so many layers of spirituality inside of the movie. There’s also insane intense violence, there’s sexual things, there’s all sorts of stuff, but he made something that I respected deeply that I wanted to delve more into and try to understand. Film is one of the ways for me personally that I’m the most impacted. I love music and it definitely moves me very much, but sometimes on the deepest levels film just can wreck me as a person or build me up or whatever depending on the movie. But I think we need to really hone this question down to one thing. I think we really just need to allow ourselves to be more free in what we consider, and what we create, sort of take the shackles off the sense, and allow ourselves to explore what it means to be an artist, and to believe in God and what it means to have spirituality inside of our hearts, and not be afraid of where that goes. Even if it takes us to places where we don’t necessarily like, and I think by doing that we’re allowing people who are looking at what we’re doing and say “hey I can be involved in this conversation because I respect the art that this person is creating.” And it’s almost like this bridge without being a bridge. It’s like an unspoken bridge where you don’t have to say anything and be like, “I love what you do,” and you’re like “okay, well let me tell you about it, and why I do it.” It’s so easy, it’s almost ridiculous that we haven’t seen how this is how we can change the entire culture. I’m really a firm believer that as spiritual artists we can create and change the culture completely. I really do, so to boil it all down I think, yeah we need to take the chains off man and allow ourselves to really look at the human condition and look at what we’ve already done and be cool with it because yes, some of it is not great. Some of it’s terrible actually. Some of art is terrible. But, let’s embrace where we’ve come from, but evolve and constantly be evolving. You’re forced to evolve in the music industry. We can never stay the same. If we do, we’ll get destroyed by critics and people and fans and so, the Christian artistic industry doesn’t really have a lot of that because all you have to say is “Hey, God told me to do this,” and people are like, “I love it!” Well, it’s also really bad art so maybe you know, just do what you gotta do but you don’t gotta share with other people. [laughing]
Aaron: And along the lines what you said, we’re afraid of opening those doors. And I think it’s interesting that we’re afraid to open them because it’s ironic towards our own understanding of faith.
Matthew: Right. And I think part of the reason we’re afraid is because we’re afraid that anything that doesn’t overtly evangelize the gospel is somehow heresy. And so for the norm of Christian culture, I feel like we use art as basically a platform to shove the gospel in people’s face. It’s not working, and I think we need to look at the culture as a Church and ask ourselves is what we’re doing working, and I would say the answer is overwhelmingly no. So for me, we have to go back to what it was like when the Sistine Chapel was being built for its day. Let the church be the innovators and take on problems of the world, and find solutions. Let’s find solutions through innovation, and technology, and art, and design, and so by that you earn the trust of humanity and say, we know the church as the answers, and we want the church be a part of that conversation. And for art it’s something that starts with making good art, and not using art as a tool to shove the gospel in people’s faces. And so,
I think that sometimes we’re afraid that if we don’t put Jesus in this song overtly we’re not doing our job, and that’s not true.
Special thanks to ECCLĒSIAM student editor, Hanna Larracas, for transcribing and editing this interview.