John Van Deusen’s music feels like the apotheosis of Cascadian Christian indie rock. His recently completed four-album series, (I Am) Origami, will feel instantly warm, familiar, and right to anyone who’s spent time in the Venn diagram that envelops large swathes of the Pacific Northwest’s independent rock scene and its evangelical churches in the last thirty years. Tooth and Nail Records, Mars Hill Church and the Paradox Theater, Damien Jurado, Pedro the Lion, the Teen Dance Ordinance and all-ages clubs in the suburbs, The Stranger’s music section, KEXP, church basement shows, the DIY scenes in Olympia and Anacortes, Sunday morning worship at any church in Vancouver (either one!), Bellingham, or Spokane–put it all in a blender (or, more appropriately, an oak barrel in a craft brewery) and you get these four albums that together form both a portrait of the artist as young Christian musician as well as a map of the myriad influences that have shaped this region’s unique religious culture.
I first met John Van Deusen fifteen years ago when his former band, the Lonely Forest, needed a place to stay while on tour in Northern California. They crashed in our apartment and I’ve followed his career with interest ever since. We’ve both spent our lives embedded in the culture I referred to above–he as a musician, toeing the line between the secular and Christian independent music worlds of the Pacific Northwest, and I as a music critic chronicling those scenes. So, I jumped at the chance to talk to him about his recently completed album series and how it reflects his faith, his life in our region, and the strange landscape Cascadian Christian art sometimes sits in. What follows is an edited version of a conversation we had a few weeks before his newest album, Marathon Daze, was released.
Joel: Where did the whole vision for this album series come from?
John: When the Lonely Forest ended, I had hundreds of songs that were never used. Two days after the last Lonely Forest show, Annababe, my wife, and I went overseas to kind of take a break from music. I can pinpoint the exact moment when I decided I would do an album series. I was riding a train in Beijing. I had picked up Annababe’s iPod that for some reason had all of my demos on it. I was listening to them on this hour-long train ride and I just knew at that moment. I remember telling her, I’m going to record these and I’m going to put them out in a series.
Joel: I like the notion of there being different themes or “flavors” to the records. I tried listening to them all in the last couple of days. I was trying to figure out if I felt that there were things that differentiated them. I see parts one and three as being similar and I see two and four as similar. Does that seem fair to you?
John: I’ve had people reach different conclusions. It’s pretty common for someone to say, part three reminds me of part one or part two reminds me of part four, but I’ve also noticed a lot of people connecting the others.
As far as production is concerned, part one has the most pop sensibility. Part two obviously was kind of nodding to all of the DIY recordings that I grew up around, like the Microphones, Mount Erie, or Neutral Milk Hotel. The third, I was trying to make a record that I would have liked in high school. In maybe eighth or ninth grade, I listened to a lot of loud what maybe you’d call pop punk. You know, Weezer’s Pinkerton and stuff like that.
I think the reason part two reminds you of part four is that I self-recorded both of those records and did them in spaces that are not normally used as recording studios. I wanted them to sound like bedroom records.
Joel: Yeah, they sound warmer to me for sure.
John: And then, parts three and one were produced by Andy Park, who actually is mixing my fifth LP right now. Also, it was really important to me thematically to end Marathon Daze on a hopeful note. Especially when you listen to the deluxe version, which will be the vinyl, I feel like the story arc there, beginning with “Oh Sweetest Name” and finishing with a song called “If I Get to Heaven,” is an extremely redemptive arc.
Joel: I sense a lot of these four records as a coming to terms with a kind of maturity in some ways. I think the second record very clearly lays that out in a devotional way, like, “spiritually, this is the path I‘m taking.” But also some of the songs make statements about “this is where I’m choosing to make my home, I want to live here, where my family is, where my friends are”—these types of things.
Am I right that there is a spirit of looking back, maybe not in regret, but at least in critique or lament for a certain time in your life?
John: When I’m telling the story of my life to somebody, I often refer to myself as the antagonist in my own story. And most of the songs in this album series where I’m talking about a toxic way of living, or mistakes, or a destructive lifestyle—a lot of those are old songs, where I was either still living in it or was not very far removed. I often write those songs when I’m still feeling the emotional weight of a bad decision or a toxic time.
I got married to Annababe in 2010 and I left on tour a few days after our honeymoon. The first three years of our marriage were really difficult. I was gone a lot. I can kind of look back and talk about a lot of these songs, especially on The Universal Sigh, “Forgive Me, Audrey Horne,” which is a Twin Peaks reference but I’m clearly singing to Annababe. I wrote that in the thick of an “I might lose my marriage”-type moment, so the lyrics “If I change my ways/ commit my days”—that’s literally me still living in that.
In the I Am Origami series, anytime you sense peace, health, balance–you know, “I was this and now I’m stepping away from this”—those songs have come out of the last five years of my life.
Joel: In another interview you gave, you said something about a touring lifestyle ultimately being something you decided you didn’t want, or that wasn’t going to be good for you. And I do want to talk a little bit about this, your sense of place or your sense of rootedness. When Arrows came out in 2011, I was living in China to do my PhD research. I left on August 20 and my wife found out she was pregnant on August 26, I think. So, I was gone for the whole first trimester of her pregnancy with our oldest son, who’s ten now. I started listening to that song “I Don’t Want to Live There.”
And I just wept, almost daily, because it was about my home. I realize it’s about your home but it was describing the world that I’ve lived in for pretty much my entire life. And I felt such a tangible longing, man. I came back and we had New Years’ with some friends in Birch Bay up by Blaine. And I just remember waking up before everybody else, putting that song on my headphones, and looking out over the bay. It was one of a handful of times when I’ve felt so much like this is where I’m supposed to be.
John: I’m honored that I got to be a little part of that.
Joel: So, tell me a bit about that. It’s unusual to hear a contemporary rock musician sing about visiting his parents, which you do on “Marathon Daze,” but I think it’s a really powerful thing and I love hearing it. I wonder if you could say a little bit about that notion of home or rootedness.
John: Anacortes, Washington, where I live now and where I’ve grown up, is very important to me. It’s shaped my artistic identity. When I first started touring, I realized that I like small, quiet places more than bigger places. I often reference places on Fidalgo Island, where I live, in my songs because I like having a sense of place. And often, I have written songs about being away from Anacortes but also everything it represents to me.
I don’t know if you’ve read the lyrics of the song “Marathon Daze,” but the first part of that song I wrote while being in Nuremberg, Germany and then the second half of that song where I say “no more car alarms, crowded subway cars, indoor cigarettes,” I’m talking about Beijing. So, it’s actually interesting that you were living in China. We are connected there, because that whole song is about wrestling with culture shock. And I love China, but being in Beijing is the epitome of loud and fast and, as I sing in the song, I’m just aching for “endless fields, early family meals”—things that give me a sense of place. Climbing the cherry tree in my parents’ backyard and the places that I know.
That song makes more people cry than any song I’ve ever written. I’ll be playing a show where somebody is away from home and they’ll come up to me and say, “that wrecked me.” Because I sing, you know, “walking with my mom, coffee with my dad,” my sisters—and it just gets people. When I was playing it on tour in Europe, expats would be destroyed because all they wanted was, you know, to be in Ann Arbor or Jacksonville.
Joel: Speaking of place, what does it mean to you to be a musician in Cascadia, or what does it mean to be a musician/Christian musician/“churchman” in the Northwest?
John: Well, I love being an artist from the Northwest. I think there’s a Northwest sound. If I’m somewhere far away, people can usually tell.
Joel: I mean, if I had to pick the archetypal Northwest sound, it would be yours.
John: That means a lot to me because most of my favorite bands are from the Northwest or from the UK. I loved growing up in the scene in Anacortes, and the Seattle and Bellingham scenes that I was a part of, back ten years before Death Cab for Cutie, Sunny Day Real Estate, and bands like those.
And being a Christian—here’s the thing, even when I was writing spiritually sensitive lyrics, I didn’t like talking about my faith because people would write me off. And they still do to this day.
Especially in the last five years, with the arrival of Trumpism, I think it’s become the worst possible time for me to talk openly about my faith. You mix that in with the fact that I’m also still writing lyrics that piss Christians off and I’ve made the worst possible business decision.
On my new record, I’ve been getting a lot of messages about the lyrics, like, “what do you mean by this?” I think I’ve been trying to create art that reflects who I am holistically and, because of that, it’s becoming increasingly niche. The audience grows smaller but the people who like it really like it. So, I struggle on a daily basis about what it means to be a Christian making art, because I don’t think all Christians making art need to make devotional art. I don’t think all Christian art needs to be used by the church. It doesn’t all have to have a utility.
I also don’t feel connected to Christian culture at all. The only Christian culture I feel connected to is that of the local church where I live, because that’s where I work, and also the Brehm Residency and Shannon Sigler, and the people I know who are curating good art made by people of faith. But it’s all on the outer edges of Christian culture. It’s a difficult time to be too Christian, too pagan.
Joel: I agree. The notion of Christian culture or the evangelical culture that I grew up with, to me, it’s sort of incoherent at this point. It has evaporated or turned into something else. I grew up in Spokane and I would go to church basement shows with touring Christian indie rock bands. That was a huge part of my life when I was a teenager. It was a unique time, especially in the Northwest.
I live in Vancouver, BC now, which is less Christian than Washington, probably. I find it a really interesting time and place to be a Christian. I’m learning what it’s like to be part of something that is viewed as a little bit weird or a little bit outsider-y. I wonder, for you, is there a sense of that kind of outsider-ness? Is that fruitful to you at all or does that just feel hard?
John: I guess it depends on who or what I’m outside of because, sure, I released two worship records, and released a worship song with a prominent artist.
That’s where I become an outsider to my peers who play in secular bands. So, I have to walk that line, and let go of my desire to be included, especially in the scene I used to be a part of.
But the thing is, I’m also kind of an outsider from the greater Christian music world. And the internet has destroyed local scenes. So now, because of the algorithm, if you listen to my worship song, you’re probably only listening to that one song. You can be anywhere in the world and that’s going to be the one John Van Deusen song you know, and then your next song is going to be a Chris Tomlin song or, you name a major Christian artist.
So, that’s a long way of saying, I do feel like an outsider, though it allows me to be kind of a shapeshifter. I have access to certain places that others don’t. I could get a mainstream Christian artist to feature on my song and I could also get a Sub Pop artist to feature on my song, and I could put those songs on the same record. It carves out this space for being in no-man’s land. Like I said earlier, it’s a bad business decision. But eventually, I think it will be a strength because I won’t be lumped into any one category.
Joel: What I like about what you just said is there’s a flattening of differences, probably artificial differences that were built up culturally. I think it’s really healthy to figure out how to do that. I feel like you’re doing something that opens up possibilities for everybody.
John: That means a lot to me, that really does. I appreciate that. It’s a strange landscape to be a part of.
Cover photo credit: Clint McKoy