by Nick Bynum of Rock Edition
Drawing inspiration from events in their lives, We As Human embark on a journey to create music that is intense, meaningful, and “sticky.” That’s right, I said sticky. After being discovered by Skillet frontman John Cooper, WAH signed with Atlantic Records in late 2011 and it wasn’t long before they were in the studio with producer Howard Benson. It was there that they coined the term “being sticky” and have since focused on making every melody and line of every song stick in people’s heads. The quintet has come a long way from their humble beginnings in Sandpoint, ID. Fresh off of the ‘Release the Panic’ tour with Red and Southbound Fearing, WAH await the release of their self-titled full-length debut this June.
Keep reading below for our interview with singer Justin Cordle. He details the band’s rise and explains how they went about writing songs that are intimate while still powerful.
Tell us about your experience with Skillet’s John Cooper and his involvement in landing you guys a record deal.
Before we ever knew John, we were huge Skillet fans. For our very first show, we covered two Skillet songs. We’ve been huge fans for a long time. A couple years ago, our road manager was working a Skillet show and ended up getting an EP that we had done into the hands of John Cooper and he listened to it. It was crazy because you hear stories about that, but I didn’t think that actually happened anymore. We got it into his hands and he got ahold of his manager directly and told him, “I think you should manage this band, get ahold of them and work with them.” Their manager’s name is Zach Kelm, and Zach told him that he would do it. They got together to get ahold of me and I thought I was getting prank phone calls or something. There’s no way that Skillet is digging my band — that’s crazy! But sometimes it’s true, you know? So I got ahold of John and flew out here to Nashville and met with Zach and he asked if we would like to work together. I said yes and that kind of started this relationship we have now. They said they had some labels they wanted us to look at and Atlantic was interested. That was a dream come true. I had always thought we would sign with a label, but I never thought in a thousand years that it would be a huge label like Atlantic Records. We went and showcased for them and actually showcased for them three times. They came out and saw us the first time and said they really liked us and moved us up to their bosses. So the next thing you know we’re showcasing again for [Atlantic’s head of A&R] Pete Ganbarg. He liked us and asked us to come out to New York and showcase one more time and the rest is history. Skillet was hugely involved in coming up with our record label and we’re really grateful for it.
How soon after you gave your initial EP to John Cooper did you showcase for Atlantic Records?
The last two and a half years have been crazy. It’s hard to remember exactly how long it took to get certain things done, but I would say it was probably two to three months.
Are you still close to John today?
Oh, absolutely! I feel really blessed to call him a really good friend of mine. We did over seventy shows together last year and we see each other all the time on the road. Both of our families have become very close. I have a wife and three kids and he has a wife and two kids. We do festivals together and our families are all hanging out. I’ve been really impressed getting to know the Coopers and the rest of Skillet. They’re really genuine people and they’re no different offstage than they are on; except they don’t jump around as much when we’re just talking.
Yeah, that would be a sight to see: John just walking down the street jumping around.
[laughs] Yeah, exactly!
Howard Benson produced your upcoming album. How did working with him impact the album?
That was another milestone in our career. He’s done some of our favorite albums. When we first went into the studio, we were pleasantly surprised that we really hit it off from day one. He really liked our songs and had a lot of really good things to say about them. He didn’t change a ton in pre-production. We obviously had some little tweaks here and there, but for the most part, where Howard really came in to shine, was with the drummer. He really got him dialed in, and then after a few days of getting music going, Howard and I disappeared into the vocal booths for the rest of our time in the studio. He and I really dug into melodies and lyrics and phrasing. He has a really great sense for melodies, and I love both of those things. I love harmony and melodies and letting it be big and open. We call it being “sticky.” It gets stuck in your head and that’s what Howard and I were really focusing on. We were trying to make every moment of each song stick. He’s just really good at that. And I think that’s where he shines the most. It was actually pretty easy doing vocals with him. He made it really comfortable and we weren’t in there for 14 hours a day. I wasn’t coming out with my vocal cords bleeding, covered in sweat. It was really a cool experience. I love working with Howard.
So he really helped you unleash that “sticky” and intense aspect of your music?
He did. He helped me find things in my voice that I didn’t realize were there. He helped me find some of the deeper emotions for some of these drafts, especially on our record. I don’t tend to write happy songs that much, so in order to perform these songs and do them justice I will often have to be in a very vulnerable, emotional state. Howard was really good at getting me there. In fact, Howard’s father passed away in the studio. He left for a few days and when he came back we recorded a song that dealt with that kind of thing. It was a really emotional time in the studio for him and I. It took longer to record that song because we were both trying to keep it together. We had a few moments like that in the studio now that I look back on it.
Going off of that, you described every song in your album as “a part of your heart and the band’s history together.” Tell us how you guys come up with these heart-felt lyrics and songs.
They’re sections of who we are as people. They’re very much a part of our life story. Each song is either my story or someone in my family or somebody that I’m close to. I’ve tried to sit down and write songs that are at more of a distance or that I haven’t experienced necessarily, but those typically don’t tend to work with me. It has to come from a place that’s raw inside of me. Like I said, there’s a serious vulnerability that you need to have as a songwriter, because if you ever write a song that’s worth listening to, it’s probably going to come from a place of deep sorrow or deep joy or deep regret. So that’s what we tend to do in our music. When we’re writing songs, they’re usually about some significant life event that we’ve gone through.
Can you give me an example of a song that you took from a prior experience?
Absolutely. There’s a song on our record called “Take the Bullets Away” that I wrote about my sister-in-law. She came to my house a couple years ago after her husband had left her and her children alone. She had gone through some horrible physical abuse. Her entire life was just completely shattered and she was in this really bad spot. I sat there and she told me story after story about the things that had happened to her family in the last year. It was hard to watch because I was seeing this broken-hearted woman sitting in front of me, spilling these heart-wrenching stories. She looked at me and said, “I tried to turn to God after all of this, but I’ve been hurt by so many men that I don’t think I could even trust God anymore.” So I wrote the song “Take the Bullets Away” and it’s her story. Lacey Sturm of Flyleaf is singing with me because I wanted to bring in the female aspect of the song, which Lacey did beautifully; oh my gosh, she was just killin’ it. So writing “Take the Bullets Away” is one of those times that a story from a person so close to me was almost already written; I was just writing the words down.
Luckily, my sister-in-law is doing very well now. She’s doing a lot better! So it’s not all bleak and gloomy. I feel that a sad phase is good for the heart sometimes, man. Every now and then it kind of feels good.
Yeah, it points you in the right direction at least.
It does, man! I think it really helps us find a contrast so we can discover happiness. We wouldn’t know what happiness is if we didn’t know what sadness felt like.
Exactly! So you mentioned that you recorded with Lacey Sturm. Are there any plans in the near future to tour or collaborate with any other artists?
I had a collaboration on our record with John Cooper, of course. He performed on a song called “Zombie” and he absolutely killed it. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. I’ve had a few different artists in mind that I would love to collaborate with. I haven’t talked to any of them, but I would love to do something with them down the road. To name a few: Brent Smith of Shinedown or Hayley Williams of Paramore. I’m friends with Amy Lee from Evanescence, so I’d love to do something with her. I love Papa Roach; those guys are awesome. So any of those artists, man! I definitely have a bucket list in my mind of artists I’d love to do collaborations with. We’ll see what the next record brings.
On your cover art there’s a man standing in the middle of nowhere with a giant door that’s slightly cracked open and then there’s a city in the background. What does it symbolize?
I’ll put it as simply as I can: the door represents a big decision. Not like a typical everyday “Mac or PC” kind of decision, but a major life decision. This guy is standing there facing this life-changing decision and he’s just not sure what to do. My band and I travel so much that when we go into a city, we literally just try to get lost. Depending on the amount of time we have, we love to go into the depths of the city. Sometimes it gets pretty shady because we end up in the ghetto and we try to find a way out without getting shot, but we love to get into a city and just start walking. The city has a very strong feel for my band and I, so we wanted to put the city in the background as a destination. That’s where we want to be. So this guy is standing there facing this huge door thinking, “Do I go through it to get to where I want to be (in this case the city, where it’s alive and electric) or do I stand out here all alone?” The door can represent any major decision that we’re facing. I think that when we come to decisions like that you can kind of see through it and envision what it might be like, but you’re still not sure until you step through it. For my band and I, one of these decisions was whether we should move to Nashville or not. There’s huge questions we have on faith and there’s huge questions we have on family and how to raise a family and love our lives. So that kind of represents these huge decisions that we’ve made and these decisions we’ll all have to make. Does that make sense?
Completely! It stood out to me and initially I saw the door as an opportunity. You make a choice by going through the door and it leads somewhere new.
You got it, man! You figured it out. [laughs]
You were recently on the road with Red and Southbound Fearing. How was your experience playing alongside them?
It was sick! I loved it; what a great tour. We played a lot of smaller venues that we had never been to before, but we fell in love with them. We played in places like the Machine Shop in Flint, MI and the Altar Bar in Pittsburgh, PA. There were quite a few different places that we ended up playing that are some of the best-known smaller venues in the United States. We hit a lot of those on this tour, so that was really cool. Coming off of the tail end of two huge arena tours that we did, it was really nice to break it all down and have the audience right there with us. Going from playing to 10,000-20,000 people every night on the arena tours to playing to 400-1,000 people each night was really cool. I think we needed that, honestly. Big shows are really fun; we love to do them because you get to live this rock star dream, but you do it and after a while there’s something inside of you that just starts to beg for that intimacy with an audience that’s harder to achieve in an arena. Getting to know the guys from Red was great as well. They’re really cool guys and we’ve been Red fans for a long time. We’ve played festivals together over the last few years, but we had never done a tour together. So to do a tour with those guys and the guys from Southbound Fearing was great. It was great tour, man! It was one of the most fun tours we’ve ever done.
So with your album hitting stores in late June, tell us in three words what your fans can expect.