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Interview: Jordan Hoban of jesus is the path to heaven

jesus is the path to heaven (formerly JPH) has been a staple of this blog for the last year, as Jordan Hoban and co. have released two projects in 2022. The expansive and ambitious A Holy Hour (which we premiered two pieces from!)  landed on my top ten of the year.

The more recent Book of Moths is a more intimate affair. While it is no less experimental (see the enigmatic loops of “YMMBCALTM,” which encompasses the titular insect in its acronym), it focuses in on shorter pieces with more spartan arrangements. It also strongly returns to a theme of Hoban’s work: scriptural and religious texts as lyrics. Along with these foci comes the aforementioned name change, which got me thinking about the tension between tradition and experimentation.

Happily, Jordan Hoban was kind enough to sit down and talk to me about that idea (and many others) recently! (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Stephen Carradini (SC): Well, first off just thank you very much for talking with us. You know, we’ve been exchanging emails for years at this point, but it’s nice to talk to you in (digital) person for the first time.

The thing that made me want to talk to you more in depth is, you recently changed the name of your project from JPH to jesus is the path to heaven. Can you tell us why you felt like now is the time for a change? What does it mean for the project and for you?

Jordan Hoban (JPH): It started off as a joke that one of our old bandmates made to me. They said, “whenever anyone asks what JPH means,” they would say, “it means Jordan’s Path to Heaven.” And I thought that was really funny.

But then I thought, that’s also definitely not what I wanted it to be. That coupled with: as a band, we’re working together, and we’re growing together and making music as a group. And it’s not just me doing stuff anymore. So to be more inclusive for them, so they could feel like they had some stake in it. But I also wanted it to have thematic elements that inspire me to continue writing music.

So I thought, “Jordan’s path to heaven” was a really funny idea, and I thought, Well, jesus is the path to heaven is not funny. It’s weirdly been evoking the absolute correct interpretation—for the most part—with every person that I’ve talked to. By correct, I mean my intention, not correct.

But my intent has actually been coming across more than I thought it would, which has been a happy surprise. Because members of the band were really skeptical. And then people I would talk to were skeptical, because they thought we were either trying to be a parody band, or we were trying to do something that was hateful toward Christianity, which is not my intent at all.

If anything, I think that Christianity is being ushered into a maturity where people who identify with it can have a meaningful conversation with it and not in a heretical way. Especially if you’ve been raised evangelical, as I have been, any kind of dissent from the common interpretation of Scripture is seen as somehow heretical or seen as indued with evil and unwelcome. And I think it’s changing, and I love seeing that. Especially with things like in the emergent church, with Peter Rollins and Rob Bell, and these great philosopher/theologians that are really starting to see the Scriptures—I don’t want to say in a non-spiritual and only-in-an-academic way—but Spiritual with a big S instead of a small s, which I would say what I know I was raised with.

Like essentially, you’re in this community, and you’re going to be in this community or you’re going to go to hell, and that’s not Spirituality. That’s a cult. So I think for me, I’m starting to have that conversation with my childhood and with my faith and my spirituality, and it’s never going to be detached from Christian symbols.

I was so ingrained with it, since I’ve been a child. My grandfather was a minister who worked for Billy Graham, so that just, you know, it’s baked in. And my mother just stuck with it, and Dad was Catholic and all that stuff.

SC: Yeah, I mean, it seems like you’ve been doing it for a while. Hell Verses is a pretty clear exploration of some more complicated issues.

JPH: Hell Verses was interesting because I wrote it relatively quickly. I just thought, “you know, I want to talk about hell.” And, you know, that’s such a bigger part of the evangelical, especially the Baptist—I’m learning that evangelical can mean maybe Methodist and Presbyterian and Lutheran. Maybe Lutheran wouldn’t be that; maybe more Protestant base. I’m not familiar with those sects as much, except I’m learning that they seem more inclusive and more open minded than the Baptists that I grew up with. Southern and Independent Baptists. Were you raised Independent or Southern Baptist?

SC: I was raised in a Bible church, which is basically a Baptist church that doesn’t want to give to the OMB, the missions board.

JPH: Yeah, me too. It was just like hellfire and brimstone preaching. And I went to school at that church, and so we would have chapel like twice a day. Which, we can get into going and living in a monastery at some point, but there’s a definite connection between that and growing up with it and hating it. But there’s a huge difference in what you’re being subjected to in a fire and brimstone Independent Baptist Christian School.

But Hell Verses was relatively fast. I thought, “you know, leave it simple, just have the verses themselves, and sort of replicate a kind of traditional sound.” Kind of draw those two worlds together. And I kept thinking, after doing that, how much I really want to just keep working with Bible verses. And it’s the same thing that I love about traditional songs. I think, that humans have really hit the peak of lyrics and poetry pretty early on.

At some point, I can add. I think I’ll be able to add something that has some kind of importance, that hasn’t been said before. But there’s nothing that bothers me more than a love song or just your regular trope-y, lyrical exploration of whatever human experience is wanting to be explored.

I think that the Bible does that surprisingly well. Psalms specifically, Job especially. Nothing more human than sorrow. And you see that in the Bible, explored in this antiquated way because of the interpretations and language of it. In such a human way, that’s just so filled with anger. And like almost—not even almost. It is accusatory toward God. Like there are so many parts of Psalms were where the writers are like, “How could you do this to me?”

And you know, I just want to keep working with the Bible, I want to keep working with Biblical themes and religious themes. And the name—

SC: And Job is the same way.

JPH: Yeah. Yeah, we put Job in the new EP as well, in a very simplified way.

But just to keep that, to have the name be as authoritarian as it feels. But we’ve had people say that it seems bigoted, which I thought was kind of on the nose to what we’re trying to draw attention to that is inherent in a certain brand of Christianity. There is a sort of exclusive bigotry, and to do that in a way that subverts this really strong statement with nuance.

Because our music is really—it’s not something you can just walk into and go, “Oh, I like that!” It does require. It requires a bit of yourself. I don’t think that it’s, like, unlistenable at all. I think it’s really—especially our live stuff—is really beautiful, and I’m very proud of what the live band and I have been doing. But it still requires some attention and some presence to listen to it, which I think is what helps.

The name is more grabbing than JPH, which you’re just like, “What does that mean?” And I can explain, “Oh, it’s my initials,” and they are like, “all right.” And at a point I was like, “Yeah, why am I doing this anymore?” The usefulness of JPH was because my father passed and I wanted to include him.

SC: So you’re talking about this a little bit already, but I’m fascinated particularly that you make boundary-pushing music, right? Like, I don’t know how you feel about the word “experimental.” Some people hate it. Some people love it. But you make very boundary-pushing music. And so, to tie your name to the Christian tradition, I think, is a really unique and interesting move. So how does that tension between tradition and exploration work in your mind?

JPH: I think that’s where I feel most comfortable making art. I’m back in school now. I’m studying art history and English, and that is just tradition. But there’s something about learning about tradition and learning about the way that perhaps our perception of what tradition was, was never accurate in the first place. Because it’s consistently being changed every decade, every five years here. And it’s a constant conversation happening between all disciplines and all art movements, and all literary movements, and it’s a tradition that I want to be a part of.

And at the same time, I think that there’s an individual responsibility to add your voice, the individual’s voice, to that conversation. I think that’s where the experimental part comes in when people hear my music, because they think, “Oh, that seems kind of weird.” It’s like, “Well, that’s my input in it.” I don’t personally think it’s that weird. Especially the music I listen to, it doesn’t feel that far left. And sometimes I think it sounds, maybe, too familiar.

But I don’t see that as a problem. I mean, I grew up listening to Neutral Milk Hotel, which is like four chords and Jeff Mangum just belting out that he loves Jesus. Like, as simple as you can get. I think that our music is really simple. It’s like four chords. I think it’s the production that’s different, and especially on the new one we use a lot of loops. And the loops can be, I think, a little off-putting for people. But I think that there’s again: the audience’s participation and presence with it is crucial to the music. But, I think as simple and melodic and beautiful as you can be while allowing your own individual voice to be present—that puts you in special ground.

SC: I love that you mentioned the “King of Carrot Flowers.” When I was early on in my musical exploration, I landed on that album. And that always struck me as like, that tension of being deeply earnest and also sort of affected at the same time. Like, “Do you really love Jesus Christ, or do you not? Like, is that the point? Do we know?”

And so, I chose to interpret it just very earnestly in the context of the rest of the album. But now that I’m older, there is that tension of how it can land in so many different ways.

JPH: I think that’s where good, in terms of thought-provoking music and music that engages me specifically, exists. Like, I don’t know what Jeff Mangum meant by that. I don’t care. Because the way that I take it on my individual listens of it is going to change. And there’s the fact that people like him, or Nick Cave, or Current 93, or mewithoutYou (which we know mewithoutYou is Christian) but they all kind of exist in that tension. I do bring up mewithoutYou because they were, you know, obviously inspired by Neutral Milk Hotel.

People think that we’re really inspired by mewithoutYou, which I think is really funny, because I don’t think we sound anything like mewithoutYou. It’s so strange for people to hear music that has religious themes done in a not traditional way that their brains go, “Well, what is it kind of like?” mewithoutYou is the first thing that comes up for people, or Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan I get for early stuff. Totally. Harmony-based stuff and time signatures and percussion, I get that. But at the same time, it’s like, “we’re not as wordy.”

SC: You mentioned earlier the Book of Moths was influenced by your time at Mepkin Abbey. Can you speak more about how that place affected you in your writing?

I wrote that whole album in the music room in Mepkin Abbey, between our hours. That place is incredibly special to me, for—I’ll reduce it to two really good reasons out of many reasons. It gave me a chance to really experience high church and the discipline of very traditional expressions of faith.

Which, Independent Baptists are as far afield from that as possible. It feels traditional to me, because, even though it’s existed for maybe 150 to 200 years, it was all I knew growing up. But then you get into like monasticism, which has existed since 1090. Or the Trappists, especially. You’re like, “Oh, this is like actually traditional worship. Like, this is really what Christians did, and they’ve been doing it in the same way-ish for that amount of time.” And that’s an incredibly long, almost a thousand or over a thousand years. Like at some point, that’s incredible. So I thought that was really interesting to connect discipline with faith. Like personal, self-discipline with faith.

The second thing that I really learned at Mepkin was a sort of disillusion of faith. This is recent, maybe three years ago now. I went in with these really lofty ideas, the sort of Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton idea of what monasticism is.

And this, I think, was really good for me, as I had this wonderful opportunity to stay for a year and see other people come in with that same perspective. A lot of young men my age would come in. A lot of musicians would come in, which is kind of interesting. Artists and musicians were very drawn. Young men, artists and musicians. Very few young women—there were some, but it was mostly young men between the ages of 20 and 35. And then there was a break, and then between fifty and eighty.

And I got to see them come in with these lofty ideas about religion, monasticism, lots of opinions on the comfort of American life and how it’s detrimental to personal development, all the stuff that I had going in. And then to realize like, “Oh, man, we’re just like—we don’t know anything!”

I had no idea! They’re people. All these monks are just people. And they have a vow of silence that they are so ready to break at any moment, because they’re so starved for having real, meaningful conversations with people who they don’t see every single day. And plus, like all the bureaucracy involved, and the issues with leadership and the tension inside of the community itself. It was like such a hyper-focused and crystallized representation of the exterior world outside the monastic walls that I thought, “Wow, what am I doing? I’m tricking myself into thinking that there is actually a higher understanding of spirituality that we cannot have.” But there isn’t, I don’t think.

There’s experience that, I think, leads you to a higher understanding of your own spiritual experience, but you have to go and experience it. It’s kind of the Kierkegaard existential thing: where through the experiencing of your own life and the faith and the way that you will develop, you begin to actually develop your spirituality. As opposed to like, “I’m going to go to a monastery and become more spiritual.” It just doesn’t work like that. And I saw a lot of people either broken by it, or… A lot of people broken by it. We lost like seven or eight people while I was there just who left. They were just done.

Yeah, I was like, “I’m still here!” Because by that point I was like, “I know the trick.” The trick is that you’re living. You’re not leaving the world, you’re entering the world, but in a really dense way, in an inescapable way. It’s an intense experience to just live with a bunch of the same people, and to pray at like four in the morning until seven at night and work all day long, and you’re never alone. You’re always reading the same thing. There’s just a point where: it isn’t the spirituality.

And I think about this thing Richard Rohr said. He told he would tell this story. (This is before I went to Mepkin.) One of the things that intrigued me about monasticism was Richard Rohr’s Franciscan experience with monasticism, which is radically different than a Trappist, because they don’t have cloisters.

I didn’t know that! He’s like living in Albuquerque, being able to like go out to Black Rock Coffee or whatever he wants to do. And you know we’re like living in this little hovel. A beautiful hovel, by the way. Mepkin is absolutely gorgeous. I urge everyone to have that experience.

Anyway, what he said was, He went to Gethsemani. He went to see Thomas Merton’s novitiate, and he went to visit this one hermit that lived outside. Richard went out, and he went walking on the trails, and he saw this hermit. He was just walking around outside, and he said, “Hey, Richard, I knew that you were coming. I just wanted you to know that if there’s one thing that I could leave with you that you could tell to the world, it’s that God isn’t out there. God is here.” I was like, “That’s the best takeaway that you can get.”

It’s not that God is somewhere that you are pining to get to, or striving to appeal to. You’re missing the point. It’s in the earth. And that can be interpreted in any way you like: pantheist or deistic, or even just representative or symbolically. But we only can understand the divine through material terminology anyway. All the best poetry about God is incredibly reliant upon imagery from the natural world. Why? That’s how we understand that.

So all of that was something that I felt was really important, and really pressed upon me at my time at Mepkin.

SC: It’s interesting that you mentioned Merton. I’ve been listening a lot to Brian Harnetty’s Words and Silences. Harnetty is a composer who uses found audio over all of his compositions, and he did a whole album of his work with Merton’s tape-recorded musings over it. It came out earlier this year. It’s amazing. You would love it.

JPH: I just looked it up.

SC: Especially the more you know about Merton, the more interesting it becomes. I think you’d be very interested in it. On that note, the closing question I give to everybody is: What are you listening to right now? What sorts of things are rattling around in your brain?

JPH: The new Björk album. So, so, just resplendent. I was really impressed. I did not connect with the singles, but I thought, “Well, it is Björk.” Björk is a near perfect composer, so I want to give the whole album a listen. And really, as an entire album, it is a work of art. And I urge you to hear if you haven’t heard it yet.

Apart from that, you know I’ve been listening to a lot of Current 93. I’ve been revisiting Neutral Milk Hotel—their live stuff, which I never really delved into, which I was really impressed with. I just heard of this New Zealand artist named Aldous Harding and I’m very gradually getting into her stuff. But I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen, like visuals that she puts out, as well as the music. It’s really singer-songwritery, which is interesting because I don’t really like that very much, but it relies a lot on silence and an almost staccato delivery. It’s like she’s playing with the singer songwriter structure. But she’s doing singer-songwriter stuff.

SC: Well, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us. I’ve just been really fascinated with your work, and really appreciative that you took some time to sit with me and talk about it.

JPH: I just want to add a real debt of gratitude to you for supporting what I’ve been doing for as long as you’ve supported me, I think, six years, seven years now. So thank you. And also to acknowledge the band that I’m working with, which is Tommy Underhill, Meara, and Zach Jordan. They have been making our live shows just really incredible. We just played one last night, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had playing music in quite a while. And very soon we’re going to be all recording and writing together. So I want to shout out to them for just being wonderful.