Photo by Chris Higdon
Seminal emo-band Elliott has been one of my favorite artists for over a decade. When I found out that their original bassist, Jonathan Mobley, was a Christian, I decided he would be a perfect interview for this website. Jonathan was kind enough to take some time to discuss Elliott’s legacy, Christianity, and the current state of emo and hardcore with me.
You played in legendary Louisville bands like By The Grace of God, Falling Forward, and then Elliott through the False Cathedrals album, correct? Have you been involved in any music projects since then and do you play any music now?
Yes, I played guitar and then bass in Falling Forward throughout my high school years. BTGOG started after I graduated, then after touring and recording two albums with them, I left in September ’97 to focus primarily on Elliott and starting a family. After Falling Forward broke up in ’95, Chris, Ben and I still wanted to make music together so we started Elliott and had Jay join after he moved to Louisville. I feel like so much happened in the few years that I was in Elliott. After we recorded False Cathedrals, we did another tour and then I quit before the album was released. Jay just so happened to quit that same day. About 5 years later, some friends and I started a hardcore band called Us Lions. There’s a song or two floating around out there on MySpace and Youtube… ha ha. Currently, I’m writing music with a friend who played in Louisville’s OfAsaph.
“I know for me, there’s pressure in resurrecting something where there’ll be so many expectations.”
False Cathedrals is a classic in the emo scene, and one of my favorite albums of all-time. What do you think has contributed to making that album so impactful?
Awesome… well, we stood on the shoulders of those who came before us and were influenced by bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Radiohead, and Dischord bands, among many others. The four of us got along and worked well together. Chris’ voice is uniquely both aggressive and angelic. Kevin’s drumming, programming and song writing were incredible. Jay’s energy and unpredictable guitar riffs and melodies alongside Chris’ guitar. My bass on that album fit well with Kevin’s drumming to form a strong backbone. People love the rhythm section on that album and I think it’s because Kevin and I learned to settle down a bit and lock in together. We didn’t give that a lot of thought on our first album. Another contribution to it being what it was may have been that the writing of it took place in an old 19th century warehouse where the other three guys lived. Kevin had a studio that he built which gave us a great place to write and practice. The final recording process at Grand Master and Rondor Studios was a great time, and several different hands went into making it sound the way it did.
Are you still friends with the guys from Elliott? Any chance of a reunion one of these days?
I love each one of those guys and see them occasionally. The question of a reunion show has been brought up several times in the last 5-10 years. I can’t say really. I know for me, there’s pressure in resurrecting something where there’ll be so many expectations. We can’t just meet up, practice for a few times and play a show. I think we have perfectionistic tendencies that make a few of us feel it’s all or nothing. I think a lot would have to go into making it happen, and that’s not including the personal obstacles we each have in our own lives.
Do you still enjoy listening to a lot of emo and hardcore?
Selectively, yes. I like Xerxes, La Dispute, MewithoutYou, Have Heart, Miracle Drug, Frontier(s), Touche Amore… stuff like that. Of course, I still appreciate the old bands too.
What are your thoughts on the current punk/hardcore scene and the recent “emo revival” of the last few years?
I think some of what I heard while taking my kids to the Warped Tour for a few years was pretty bad. Then there were bands like Title Fight, Polar Bear Club and Defeater that were a breath of fresh air. I haven’t given the time to really pay close attention though. I find it pretty amazing how similar sounding much of the hardcore and emo music is compared to what was coming out in the 90s. Overall, I’m glad bands are still forming, writing and touring the way we used to do it. The relationship between a band and their fans is something that was always special in the punk scene and I love it when I still see that. It’s hard for me to see people line up to get a quick autograph from a band sitting at a table. I get it, but it’s just not the same as seeing a band talk with their fans out in the crowd or outside of a club.
“Art is something I make, but it’s also how I see.”
I noticed that you do great illustration work. Do you have a website where people can check out your art?
Yes! I’ve been drawing longer than I can remember. I think the enthusiastic compliments that I received as a child helped me to see myself as an artist before anything else that I did. I was a skater, yes… and a musician, but I had a different connection with art. Art is something I make, but it’s also how I see. Back when I would tour, I used to take my sketchbook with me and the other guys were really supportive of my art, insisting that I illustrate a children’s book or something. After I quit Elliott, I spent most of my time investing in my kids and exploring my Christian faith. Now that the kids are older, I’m taking more time to write music and create artwork again. My wife and kids have been a huge support as I make that happen. My website is BlackArborArts.com. Also, check my BlackArbor Instagram and Facebook page. Thanks, I really appreciate the interest.
Illustration by Jonathan Mobley
It seems you’re pretty serious about your faith, tell me about your testimony. When did you become a believer in Jesus Christ?
I was raised in a Roman Catholic Church and always had a belief in God. My dad became a born again Christian in the 80s and his life was changed. He was careful to love me and teach me what the cross meant and that Christianity was about walking with God, not in order to be accepted, but because, by faith, I was accepted. Though I believed in God and knew the cross had huge significance, the gospel still didn’t really sink in. Then after tour in 1999 or so, I came home and wanted to hear anything other than music on the radio. So, I found NPR and then Christian talk radio. Thankfully, my local station didn’t have a lot of crazy “name it and claim it” preachers, so I started listening and immediately soaking up solid teaching. Then one day, I heard the gospel like I never heard it before. It hit me and I finally got it. Salvation from my darkness and from God’s judgement was by God’s favor and grace, not by living up to a standard. I didn’t have to work my way up to God because he already came down to us. From there, I’ve tried to spend much of my time reminding myself of that truth, exploring the implications of Christianity and wrestling with the inevitable tensions within my heart and of my faith within the world.
I noticed you follow a lot of my favorite reformed preachers and theologians on Twitter. Do you subscribe to the core beliefs of the reformers? If so, how did you become interested in/convinced of reformed theology?
I became interested in reformed theology when I noticed that some of the most solid teachers were reformed. One of the first guys I used to listen to on the radio was Dr. R.C. Sproul. After some time listening to Christian radio, I noticed the debate out there over the sovereignty of God and human free will. After digging for years and not really understanding how it all worked out, I found Monergism.com and also started listening to Dr. James White’s teaching which I found to be really clear on that matter. Being a member at a church that was influenced by reformed theology played a big part as well. I’ve also read Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, and some of Calvin’s Institutes which further helped me understand what I saw in Scripture on the topic of predestination and election. I consider myself reformed. Divisions are necessary but I look forward to the day when our man-made divisions aren’t necessary.
“Salvation from my darkness and from God’s judgement was by God’s favor and grace, not by living up to a standard. I didn’t have to work my way up to God because he already came down to us.”
I saw that you follow one of my favorite bands, My Epic, on Twitter. Are you a fan or friend of theirs? What do you think makes their music special?
Yes, I have their album entitled Yet. My friend, Mark, played drums on that album. I found that out later. I love the music, but it’s the lyrics and vocals that really move me. I have a white My Epic shirt but it turned pink in the wash and I can’t get it white again for anything… ha ha. Pink is a lovely color, on flowers.
Me being a Kentucky Wildcats fan, I have to know, are you a Louisville Cardinals fan? I promise I won’t hold it against you if you are, haha!
I currently don’t have a favorite. I love Louisville as a city and as home, so I tend to want to support the Cards. But for you and for another friend, I rooted for the Cats the other night when they played against West Virginia!
What are some of your all-time favorite books?
Probably the ones I haven’t read, because other people have and made great movies from them. I’m a sucker for fantasy movies like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Narnia. I have read some of LOTR and Narnia. I’ve read and loved The Hobbit. I buy theology books all the time but rarely finish them. Resurrection by Hank Hanegraaff was very impactful to me. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I would recommend books by Dr. K. Scott Oliphint just because I’ve listened to his seminary courses several times on the same material and find it helpful. The same goes for Dr. John Frame. I have a goal this year to read at least 5 books.
“The cross is proof of God’s character in his willingness to send his Son to stand in our place, and of God the Son’s willingness to make it all happen.”
What are some of your all-time favorite albums?
The first album that I ever loved in the 80s was Michael Jackson‘s Thriller. Then in the 90’s when I wasn’t listening to Minor Threat or Gorilla Biscuits, I was buying Beatles albums at used record stores. I love the first two Cranberries albums. Fugazi’s Repeater. Radiohead’s The Bends. This question overwhelms me. I’m just going to throw out things that come to mind, if that’s ok. I love female fronted bands. I like metal. I like 80s pop. I like hardcore. Louis Armstrong and J.S. Bach. Russian Circles and God Is an Astronaut. Sojourn Music. I enjoy hip hop and love the reformed hip hop artists on Reach, Lamp Mode and Humble Beast records. There’s so much good indie stuff coming out now, too. I love New Order and the Smiths. It’s hard to say certain albums because I cheat and listen to a lot of “Best of” albums. Haha…
What are some of your all-time favorite songs?
What has God been teaching you lately?
1) That if I want to change someone, I need to change myself first. 2) That even though the implications of God’s sovereignty are sometimes difficult when it comes to free will and evil in the world, I need to trust him. “Lord, to whom [else] shall we go?… The cross is proof of God’s character in his willingness to send his Son to stand in our place, and of God the Son’s willingness to make it all happen. 3) That I have been made a new creation and therefore, I need to live for God always. Resting and enjoying the good things in life are good, but so is being a wise steward of my time and not allowing myself to be unintentionally idle. 4) To act on my faith more instead of just believing. I want to spend my last days knowing I followed His Spirit instead of just believing His truths. Faith and action are supposed to be together.
“I want to spend my last days knowing I followed His Spirit instead of just believing His truths. Faith and action are supposed to be together.”