Ashes Remain: Still at the crossroads of pop and hard rock

Friday 27th April 2018

Tony Cummings spoke to the vocalist Josh Smith from the Baltimore-based band ASHES REMAIN

Ashes Remain
Ashes Remain

When in 2011 the album 'What I've Become' by a rock band from Baltimore, Ashes Remain, it seemed tailor made for Cross Rhythms. Not one but four tracks from it were selected for airplay and judging from listener response each of the tracks - "Everything Good", "End Of Me", "On My Own" and "Keep Me Breathing" - were just the kind of inspiring, skilfully written, imaginative not generic pop rock that our listeners like. As CR reviewer Lins Honeyman wrote, "This is a stunning release from a band set on communicating God's love in a real, relevant and electrifying way."

When "Keep Me Breathing" finally came off the Cross Rhythms playlist we began looking hungrily to the American CCM band for the expected followup. We waited. . . and waited. By 2017 we'd come to the reluctant conclusion that these most gifted of pop rockers - consisting of Josh Smith (vocals), Ryan Nalepa (guitar), Rob Tahan (guitar), Jonathan Hively (bass) and Ben Kirk (drums) - had called it a day. After all, we reasoned, Ashes Remain had been around a fair while (recording their first independent album in 2003) and it's hard to keep a band together particularly through the seismic changes that have affected the whole music world.

In view of all this, you can imagine the excitement and expectation there was at Cross Rhythms Towers when towards the end of 2017 the pioneering Seattle company Tooth & Nail/BEC Recordings were about to release a new Ashes Remain album. That album, 'Let The Light In', is, in our view, every bit as good as its predecessor and thankfully one or two American reviewers have agreed, JesusFreakHideout suggesting "'Let The Light In' is a solid pick for those who like honesty, passion and good old-fashioned shredding" while 375 Days Of Inspiring Media commented "a few tracks are genius."

I spoke to Josh Smith and began by asking him the most obvious question - why a six-year delay between albums?

Josh: Well, as you know we are primarily a rock band that also has a softer side and in American Christian radio, the softer side is all that people are really looking for on the radio. The label we were signed with turned in tons of demos over the years and it was always too rock n' roll for them. We finally got them to agree to let us go. We signed with BEC/Tooth & Nail and they let us be a band doing both rock stuff and songs on the softer side. It sounds overly simple but that's all it was. We were basically on the shelf because we weren't turning in the music they were looking for and they wanted us to make the entire album what feels like the softer side of us and it just didn't feel honest. So, that was about a six year struggle for us.

Tony: The received wisdom is that if you haven't got a record out, the gigs start to dry up. Presumably that began to happen with you?

Josh: Oh, it absolutely happened. The last three years have probably been the least busy that we have ever been and it was exactly what you're saying. I mean, we'd go to the same places and we're playing the same songs and these people who'd bought that ticket, they've heard that show and loved it but there was nothing new to offer.

Tony: But you kept going. With those circumstances, most bands would have split up and gone their separate ways. What kept you together?

Josh: We are a family. I know you probably hear that from a lot of bands. But in truth you'll find that with many bands it's one or two original members and then it's a revolving door of a new bass player, a new drummer, a new guitarist. We've been the same guys going on for 16 years now. We've built our lives around this. I mean, our families are connected, we love each other just like brothers and so for us it was never a question of do we keep doing it, but it was how do we get to keep doing this because we always feel like this is a privilege. I mean it really is. I've had this dream of being a musician much of my life and most people do. Though we're not, by no means, the next U2, we do get to go out and present this music to people. For us, it's always been a passion, even over those six years just sitting by.

Tony: But alongside your passion for music is your passion for God, isn't it?

Josh: Absolutely! I feel that he has blatantly called me to write these songs and he hasn't told me I can quit yet! If God shuts the door, he generally gives you something else to do. He's always using you. I am a worship pastor, also, here in the state of Maryland in the US, so I've always been in ministry, in one way or another. But he's not even come close to telling me that he's done with the music that Ashes Remain has been making. I'm just following that and it's all his to do what he wants with it and if great success comes, that's really cool and if not, I still get to know that we've made a difference in the world. That's a big deal to me.

Tony: As a worship pastor, how much of a rock 'n' roll edge have you been able to bring in to your worship music?

Josh: Well, sir, the church I'm at is fairly edgy. I'll be honest with you and say that when it comes to worship, I don't have a lot of preferences. I just believe in connecting with God and so for me, I can literally walk into a hundred year old southern Baptist church with a piano and I can speak to God. I can walk into a Hillsong venue and I can speak to God. So, I have never intentionally tried to carry over the edge, if that makes sense.

Tony: That makes a lot of sense. What about the album now? Give me three or four songs and what inspired them and what these songs are saying?

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