Tony Cummings spoke at length to Ronnie Winter of mainstream rockers RED JUMPSUIT APPARATUS
The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus are a rock band with a huge following - their debut record for Virgin went Gold in 2006 - but they are one who never fitted comfortably into the corporate manoeuvrings of the music multinationals. It was through social media rather than record label hype that the band rose to prominence and it is still grassroots fan support that keeps them successfully gigging in the stadium and clubs of the world. Now free from the grip of the record labels the band have taken the bold step of making their latest record '4' available for free from their website. Such a radical move, their chameleon-like switch from pop punk the post hardcore to EMO and even pop, and the insistence of frontman Ronnie Winter to sing about his Christian faith on some Red Jumpsuit Apparatus songs have made them a "Marmite band" - you either love them or hate them.
Originating in Jacksonville, Florida, childhood friends Ronnie Winter and Duke Kitchens started the band while attending an AP music theory class in 2001. With the addition of other members the group became a five-piece with the name Red Jumpsuit Apparatus being chosen by the band voting for random words they threw on a wall. In 2005 the band released an independent six-song EP and it was through social media that news of the band's exciting performances began to spread their escalating fanbase, eventually attracting Jason Flom of Virgin Records. The group were signed to Virgin/EMI and started working on their first album. In 2006 that project 'Don't You Fake It' was released with the project going on to exceed 500,000 sales. The band did a number of headlining tours both in the USA and overseas and in 2009 the album 'Lonely Road' was released. In 2011 Red Jumpsuit Apparatus' "Am I The Enemy' was issued and in 2014 '4' was made available on the band's website and through iTunes. The current lineup of the band is Ronnie Winter (lead vocals, keyboards), Josh Burke (lead guitar), Randy Winter (rhythm guitar, vocals), Joey Westwood (bass) and John Espy (drums). Cross Rhythms spoke at length to RJA's Ronnie Winter.
Tony: It's been a momentous few years for you. You've had more ups and downs that a yo-yo.
Ronnie Winter: "That is definitely one way to put it, but that's rock and roll: anything that can go wrong will go wrong."
Tony: Was there a conscious decision to be more open about your faith on this album?
Ronnie: "Yes. It actually traces back to our album called 'Am I The Enemy', which is the first album we released after we left Virgin Records. When we first started as a band I wanted to be considered a Christian rock band. When our album first came out it was under the Christian rock section in Walmart. They found out about it and they pulled it; they put it in the mainstream rock sections because they didn't think it was a good idea. At that time we were all very young - between 19 and 22 - so we didn't have any say; we had management, lawyers, and they were all working with the label. We were just told what to do, and at that time that was good because we didn't know what to do. We made two albums with Virgin then when the opportunity came for us to leave, we did, and one of the main reasons is because I wanted to pursue a more spiritual route. Since we left that label - 2010, 2011 - the first major release we had was called 'Am I The Enemy', and that's where the Scripture started coming into place, us being able to voice our Christianity and our beliefs a lot bigger.
"With '4', what happened is we had a huge impact on the Christian rock scene in the US and throughout the world, and a lot of Christians - not non-Christians - were like, 'Who are these guys? Why are they trying to say they're Christians now?' They're very touchy when it comes to these things. I responded, 'If you actually read the lyrics of the first album, there's spiritual references from the top to the bottom'. I took that as a challenge to make it even more obvious. Our one main single from 'Am I The Enemy', which is called 'Am I The Enemy', is based off Galatians 4:16. I had to make it more apparent. Another one of our songs is called 'Reap', which is based off Mark 8:36 - 'What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' The chorus of that song is, 'If you gain the whole world and lose your soul': obviously I'm tipping my hat to the Scripture there.
"'Am I The Enemy' thrust us into the Christian realm, which is where we wanted to be - at that point we were independent, we were free from Virgin Records, able to make our own decisions. For the first seven, eight years of our career we were not running the band - we were just doing what we were told to do; from 'Am I The Enemy' forward, I've been running the band. With '4' I took it to the extreme level, which is what I like to do. There's no way you can listen to '4' and not know that I'm a Christian; there's no way you can listen to '4' and not understand that I've grasped the Gospel and my ultimate goal through my music is to share that with everybody. So the reason why some people found it a little odd is because, quite simply, they didn't read the lyrics on the previous releases. That's fine: that's actually how I get away with doing what I do. I lace the message in there, but I structure my music so it sounds like all of the other popular, current bands; so when you first hear it you kind of sing what you want to sing. When they find out all of a sudden they've been singing Christian songs all these years, people get angry, feel cheated. Other people feel relieved and happy; a lot of people are like, 'I'm so glad you're a Christian band. I already loved you, now I love you even more. Now my family lets me listen to your band in the house.' You take it one way or you take it the other way."
Tony: I don't know if there's any such thing, theologically, as Christian music. All we have is music made by Christians.
Ronnie: "Agreed. It's a bit of a rabbit hole when you try to dissect it theologically, and even just in pop culture. I pray for guidance when I write lyrics, and I don't take credit for those lyrics. They make me put down they're written by Ronnie Winter because if you put down they're written by God people will think you're a crazy person. They try to divert attention from anything but the truth. I do my best to try to give God the glory in every way that I can. It wasn't always that way in the beginning, because we weren't making decisions. As soon as I was able to force my opinions as far as what direction we should go in, I made it very clear. Definitely a lot of people turned their backs on the band; they said a lot of things like, 'You guys disappeared off the face of the earth. Nobody knows who you are anymore.' Actually, we had more US radio Billboard number ones since we left the label than the entire time we were there. The thing is they're in the US Christian Rock Billboard charts, and because people don't follow those charts they choose to believe you don't exist. But the proof is we've had five number ones these past few years, and when we were with Virgin we never had even one Billboard number one. Do the math."
Tony: Why did you decide to make your music available for free on your website?
Ronnie: "We had this discussion so many times, me and my brother Randy. He's a solid Christian guy as well, and a lot of times we implement Christian ideals not only in music, in our lyrics, but also in the way that we run our company. I'm not a pastor, I'm not a preacher - I don't lead a flock, and I don't think I would do well in that scenario: in my heart I'm a rock and roll musician - so the best way I can give back is by trying to help people through music. The first step is you sign a record deal because that's what everybody tells you to do. When you're young and you don't really know a lot, you do what everybody tells you to do; if you don't, people see you as prideful, a know-it-all. When you're working with a label they have one goal: sell records. They don't care about message, they don't care about good, bad: they're indifferent, completely middle-of-the-road. When we realised that - you can't realise that till you've actually signed a deal and worked with certain people - we decided that's not what we actually wanted. What we wanted was to spread the message to the best of our ability, so we welcome downloads.
"There was a lot of press when we announced this; people flat-out called us dumb, made fun of us - some big news outlets in the US. Then guess what? U2 turned around and put their album up for free; nobody called them dumb. It says in the Scripture, 'They will hate you because you know me'. We expected that backlash, so we took it to the next level. We said, 'We're not just going to put one album out; we're going to put everything we've ever released out.' In the US, we're a very blessed country - I would say the UK is as well: when it comes to opportunity, if there's a will there's a way. But I've been to many countries where it doesn't matter how hard you work, the poverty is so vast; they can't afford to spend 10 dollars on an album, because that's the money to feed their family for a week. The longer we were a band, the longer we were implementing Christian ideals, the more we started to have problems with charging money for our music.
"So we released our songs on iTunes for the people who basically don't want to go through the effort to go to the website and download it. There's a few things you have to click on, two little files you have to open; and sometimes people are impatient. We put it on iTunes out of convenience for those people who just want a click buy and it goes right onto their phones. We don't mind charging for convenience, because that's how the world is; but should anyone have to pay money for our music? We don't believe so. I think that we, to my knowledge, are the first band that have not just put a record out, we've put our entire discography, and we will continue as we go on as a band to put whatever we release in that same folder. If they can't afford to buy the music we invite them to download it. We give them the high quality versions. A lot of times when kids are downloading stuff from the internet, they have your music but it's weird-sounding - a bit crushed, or they got it from YouTube and there's some ads in there. We'd rather they had the awesome mixes that we spent time on, that we had professionally mixed and mastered: if they're going to rock Jumpsuit, we want them to rock it loud and clear.
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