Jason Dunn, formerly of Hawk Nelson, is beyond amped to get his latest pop punk project Lights Go Down off the ground. This band has been a brain child of Dunn’s for years, and finally seeing it come together and beginning to record the debut album We Kept It Alive, his excitement is contagious.
I had the opportunity to chat with Jason last week, where we talked band formation, the Christian music industry and the Lights Go Down Army.
Darcy: So first of all if we could establish a bit of a timeline.. So it was 2012 that you left Hawk Nelson?
Jason: Yeah it was early 2012, I think it was.. March that I left?
D; Okay, right, so you had started writing a solo record around that time, or just before leaving?
J: Yeah. Well I guess what had actually happened was that things were starting to get funny with me and with Hawk so I was just kind of preparing to start something new. I actually started Lights Go Down while I was still with Hawk Nelson. But it just wasn’t the right time for it, you know? So I had it done, I had the songs written, I just wasn’t in the right headspace, if that makes any sense. And I recorded it, but never released it. Then I wrote a solo record about a year later and I released it independently. That was about two years ago now, and since all that I’m ready to fire it up again.
D: Okay! So that solo album you released, that was Abandon Progress.
J: Yeah, correct.
D: Did you do much touring after that?
J: I did two small tours and a couple summer festivals and it was just under my own name. It was just a very interesting transition because I just wasn’t sure of what to do. Which I suppose would be normal when you’ve done something consistent for ten years straight. So when I was back on my own being like, “oh my gosh, how do I actually do this, I don’t even know how to function right now,” it was a lot to learn, and I think I figured it out. Upon doing that I realized I’m a total band guy; I’ve got to be in a band. I’m not a solo artist and I’m okay with that.
D: Right. I can understand that. That leads to my next question, too. Is this a permanent lineup for Lights Go Down?
J: Yeah! Lights Go Down is a band! It’s crazy.
D: Awesome – so how did this come together, where did you meet these guys?
J: So when I was doing my solo stuff, I didn’t do a lot, I did two tours, but I did a lot of one-offs, just like spot dates here and there and I took a band out with me, out of New York and I had a couple of guys who played with me, but they weren’t full time or anything. I would just call these guys up – this is when I was still in Nashville – and they would come out with me.
Then two years ago I moved to New York with my wife. And then I was like, “oh my gosh, who am I going to call to play?” I didn’t know anybody. So I made a few calls to a couple friends and actually a buddy of mine in Vancouver sent me two phone numbers of two guys he knew who played guitar in New York City. And I texted both of them, like, “Hey guys, my names Jason, my buddy Josh gave me your number”. One of the guys got back to me, his name is Ryan. He’s a producer in New York, and he’s seriously one of the greatest guys I’ve ever gotten to know in New York City. He leads worship at Hillsong church in New York, and is just a wholesome guy with a really good ear for music, and for the style of music that I like and he likes. So I just asked him to play this show with me in Pittsburgh, this is, gosh, maybe a year and a half ago now. So he met me at my apartment in New York, never met him before, and I’m like “Hey man, I’m Jason, let’s go. You learned all the songs, right?” So he did, and while we were there he was showing me some songs that he’d been working on and some songs that he’d written, and I was like “Bro, this is really good stuff” and so we started writing songs together and deep down in my mind I’m thinking “oh, I’m going to be in a band with this guy.” So we wrote a bunch of songs together, and with some other guys in New York that I’d met since meeting Ryan and his brother Nathan. Those two are actually producing this record. But long story short, I talked to him about doing the band thing, and he was like “You know, I did the band thing for a while, I’m kind of over touring.” Which, you know, touring is not for everybody. It is for me, but not for everybody.
So that was good to know, so I’m like, okay, I’ve gotta find a guitar player. So I went back to square one, I don’t know, a year ago, but there’s other guys who’d play with me along the way and a couple of guys actually here in Minneaoplis which is a big reason why I’m here this week … to meet these guys. Enrique, who’d also played with me for I think a few shows on that tour I did on a solo run, he played in the band Hyland, do you remember them?
D: Oh yeah! Totally.
J: Yeah, so he played with them, and is such a good guy and we all share the same passion for the music that we make. It just seemed like a really good fit. Because for me, I understand talent is important, but it’s not everything. Especially when you’re on the road so much. With Hawk, we were on the road so much the first couple of years: the first year was 280 shows!
J: That’s basically a full year, because that’s not including the days you’re traveling to get to the shows and the days off when you’re not at home. So that’s a full year with those guys, so you want to make sure you’re with the right guys. So Enrique was kind of my first choice after Ryan basically said he didn’t want to do a band thing. So I got Enrique, he was super excited and he introduced me to this guy he used to play in a band with when he was in high school. His name is Blake and he plays bass and he’s a great guy. So those two, and then myself and then our drummer Daniel – he’s out in California. These guys, I talked to them all at separate times and all three of them had the same reaction when I asked them. Specifically Daniel: he was playing at a church out in Portland for Judah Smith and then he moved down to Ventura, California and was playing at a church there, and his whole life is pop punk, like myself. When I called him, basically one of the first things he said after we talked was “When can I leave? When can we do this?” He’s like “I’ll quit my job right now” and I thought, “Wow, this guy is serious.” – and I said, “I’ll let you know,” and the very next day he texted me and was like “I put my two weeks notice in.” I just though, “this guy is crazy, but dedicated” and I really appreciated his heart behind it, because you’ve got to be 100% for this. You can’t just want to do it for a weekend kind of thing and hope for the best. These guys are completely all about it, and are willing to do whatever it takes. And that’s important. So those are the guys, Daniel, Enrique, Blake and myself. The four of us are Lights Go Down.
D: That is awesome! Cool, Thank you. What is the writing process been like? Are you primary songwriter, or is everyone bringing something?
J: This has kind of been like my brain child for the last four years, I’ve been kind of been going for it for that long. I haven’t really stopped. I took a bit of a hiatus from touring. I think that’s good to do once in a while, but I never stopped writing. I took a bunch of ideas to Ryan, who I talked about earlier, him and his brother Nathan, and another good friend of mine Ryan Buck. All three of those guys are amazing producers and writers, and they are all so creative, and it was just good to sit down as a group and kind of knock out these songs. This is before I had the band kind of together. So that’s why I didn’t have the band writing on this.
In the future we’ll definitely write as a band. There’s something awesome about the chemistry of a band when you sit down and jam with some guitars and kind of have that natural flow, but unfortunately I didn’t have them for these first ones. But the next one for sure it’ll be the four of us. With these guys as producers it was a really good fit, and I think for the first one it’s good to do it like that because I could kind of get what I was trying to say out there. It’s been a while since I’ve released music on a national level, before I just did it independently, but this time around I’m going to shop it to labels, and kind of take that approach again. I think that’s very important. I think label support is good, especially for a band like this; we could definitely use the help. So that’s the plan, and we’re all super excited. We’re excited for what’s next and I can’t wait to hit the road again!
D: That’s wild! Since you mentioned labels, let’s take it in that direction for a minute. So Hawk Nelson of course is one of ”the” Christian rock bands, even if you didn’t intend it that way, it became a huge Christian band, and even from Abandon Progress, I was hearing “Insecurity” a bunch on my local Christian radio station. So what are your attitudes toward the Christian market, or that industry now for Lights Go Down? Are you just going to see what happens?
J: I have a pretty good vision for what I want to do with this, and I’m not going to dare try to compete with the brand I created. I created a band, Hawk Nelson 12 years ago, and it’s a little alarming to me that it’s still going. But why would I compete with something that has been so built over the years. I’m not even going to try to compete with that, so you know, my heart as a kid, when I was 17 years old was like.. I never ever anticipated being the Christian version of Simple Plan or the Christian version of Good Charlotte. I always wanted to be a competitive version; I always wanted to be the band that would go on tour with those bands. And that doesn’t change my heart, or my faith, or what I believe. That’s going to go with me wherever I go. So the songs I write are from my heart and they don’t really have the cheesy… that’s kind of what I got so familiar with writing for the last 10 years, our focus and what we were told over and over again was to write songs for Christian radio. And I got really good at it, but I don’t think that’s really what I want to accomplish with this project. And the guys, I was very clear with that to the guys – they’re all on board, we all have a strong faith in God. The other three guys are all still active in their church, on their worship and worship pastoral teams there, so they’re all active in their churches. So yeah, our hearts are still very for God. We’re living for God and our faith will speak through our actions more than the songs that we sing and I think people are still going to be able to relate to our songs which to me is the most important thing.
D: Right on. And bands like Thrice, and things like that, with Dustin – a Christian guy, and wildly successful band in the mainstream market.
J: Oh yeah! And I mean why just settle for one market when you can hit the world. Just shoot for the stars!
D: For sure. And of course there’s always going to be those people who say “Oh no, they don’t say Jesus in their lyrics”
J: Yeah. But I’m not singing for them anyway, so it doesn’t matter.
D: [laughter] That’s what I like. Okay! So could you tell me about the Lights Go Down Army? And how much of a fan base has followed you from Hawk to solo to LGD?
J: It’s been unbelievable. I’m seriously so ecstatic about it, it’s ridiculous. Like, I stay up until 3 in the morning just keeping up with everybody.
So, I started this three weeks ago. I’ve been kind of – I guess it sounds kind of creepy – but I’ve been stalking people on Facebook and Twitter just trying to figure out who our audience is going to be, and how I’m going to approach these people.
I am very thankful for the audience that has supported both me and Hawk, when we split ways. A lot of people were like “Hey, we support you and them”, which is super cool, and there are some people that are like, “No, I’m sorry, I’m just going to go wherever Hawk Nelson goes,” and I understand that. The whole branding thing is important to a lot of kids and some people don’t even realize I’ve left the band yet. But again, that’s not my audience. I’d rather people know my voice and the band rather than just the brand. That’s just me personally, so that’s kind of the audience I’d rather have: people that care about this band and the sound that we make, not just the name.
So I’ve realized with Hawk’s audience, that with the Hawk that I was in, the audience that we had has grown up with us. So I think it’s safe to say our audience, if, hypothetically, I was still in Hawk Nelson, our audience would be 18-26 years old. So that’s where my focus is right now, 18 to 26; late high school, early college. But at the same time I’m trying to expose LGD to a new audience so I created this. I found 10 people on Twitter and Facebook who didn’t even know who I was. I followed them and was like “Hey, my name is Jason, I’m in this band called Lights Go Down. Would you just check out this song?” and I sent them one song, actually it wasn’t even the full song, I think it was like a verse and the chorus kind of thing. I’m like “Just let me know what you think, if you like it, get back to me, if you hate it, hey, that’s okay.” All 10 got back to me, and they all pretty much said the same thing: “Why is your band not huge, why have we not heard of you?” So I took that as a huge compliment. I’m like “well, you know” – I didn’t even get into the whole Hawk Nelson thing, ‘cause I’ve moved on from that – “Hey, well that’s our plan, we want to be huge so will you help spread the word?”
So this one kid came up with the name “Lights Go Down Army.” I wanted the fans to run this, I want this to be their thing and the reason I wanted to do it like this, is that it’s underground. it’s super-secret, no one can get to it. Every band has a street team, and street teams are cool, you can just click a button “Hey, I’m on the street team now, I’m going to sit here and watch it do something, while I do nothing” and then after a month they’ve moved on. Where this is invite only, you have to be invited to join this army, and so kids are like “How do I become part of this?!” and they want to know. I’ve even had a few people text me like “Bro, I want to be in this.”
So we started it three weeks ago, and we’re over 300 people now!
D: That’s wild!!
J: It started with 10 kids just spreading the word and bringing in people they think would like that music. And I keep the song up there just for those people to hear, so they get to sample it and they get excited, and it’s a snowball effect. It’s incredible. There’s great forums and discussions, just talking music and their favorite pop punks bands, the music that got them through high school, the struggles these kids are going through, and I kind of did this on purpose, I’m going to say about 90-95% of the kids in this army, they don’t believe in God. That’s not their thing. I kind of did that on purpose because I didn’t want them to get bombarded with “you gotta go to church!” That’s just not my approach on this; I think actions speak louder than words and that has kind of been my whole philosophy since day one. And we are making a difference, whether they know it or not, and it’s been really, really cool experience. I can’t wait to get on there again tonight and answer more questions. It’s just a really cool experience, just the slow build. I’m introducing the band one by one and they’re asking the band questions, and those guys are getting excited like “Oh my gosh, we actually have a fan base now, and we haven’t even played a show. We haven’t even recorded a song yet and these kids are so excited!”
Again, I probably should have said this earlier, but with Hawk, there’s things that we did that I wish we could go and do again differently, which is what I’m doing now. I’m doing it differently, the way that I should have done it with Hawk. It’s a lot more creative freedom now, I can write about what I want to write about. I can make these cool little army things without having to worry about stepping on toes, I can just do it and not worry about it! And people are excited, and I think it’s just a cool approach. I am so amped! My energy level is up to about a thousand right now!
D: I love it. Yeah! You can tell you’re super stoked about this! So when the record hits, there actually is going to be an army – that’s the perfect word. It’s so cool that behind the scenes there is building a community for those kids.
J: Yeah, it’s exactly that: it’s a community. A lot of the kids say things like they didn’t have a good group of friends in high school but feel accepted here. That’s so cool, that’s what it’s all about, you know.
The band is coordinating schedules to begin recording We Kept It Alive soon. As Jason will be shopping the record out to labels, they haven’t set an official release date just yet. Lights Go Down has been in touch with a pop punk vet who may be on board to mix the CD. (This guy has mixed some amazing records by bands like Fall Out Boy and Plain White T’s!)
Lights Go Down will play its first show at the end of May to warm up for the CD release party which will happen in NYC. Jason has also already routed an upcoming tour, which will be fulfilling a dream of his – hitting only small clubs and skateparks, and “just rocking it.”