Before being signed to Fair Trade Services in 2010, Ashes Remain played together for nearly a decade. The group released their major label debut album, What I’ve Become, on August 23. On their debut, Ashes Remain tackle the subjects of desperation, hope and redemption. Drawing from a wide range of influences, everything from 3 Doors Down to Circa Survive, What I’ve Become is fueled by the band’s accessible, rock radio sound. On September 1, 2011, I had the opportunity to speak with the lead singer of Ashes Remain, Josh Smith, about their debut album, traveling in a 1987 school bus and his inspirations as a musician.
Webb: Before I talk about your debut album, I was wondering if you could give a very brief history on the band.
Josh Smith: Yeah man, no problem. I moved to Maryland in 2002. I am originally from Florida. But, before I moved up here, I worked at a camp in Maryland for four summers. That is where I met our rhythm guitar player Ryan Nalepa. He and I really believed that we were supposed to do something in music together. We committed to pray about it daily. I was looking for God to open a door for me in Maryland. One year after the camp was over, I moved back home. A couple months later, I got a call from a church up here [Maryland] that was looking for a full time worship leader. It was about 10 minutes from where Ryan lived. We kind of took that as a green light from God, and just got things underway.
Webb: Were you guys touring for many years before you got signed to Fair Trade Services?
Josh Smith: We were. This September, we will be a band 10 years. Probably for the last four or five [years] we were touring regionally, and then we finally started touring all over the country on our own. That was actually part of what Fair Trade liked about us.
Webb: Was it ever tough for you guys touring that long while being an independent band, or was it something that you knew God was calling you to do?
Josh Smith: It’s both. I think we always knew that this was what God was calling us to do. It can still feel tough. But, when you know you are being obedient, you kind of just push forward and wait for his provision.
Webb: Looking ahead to your debut album that was just released, what was your feeling on the release date of What I’ve Become? Relief, joy, excitement, anxiety?
Josh Smith: Honestly, we couldn’t be more excited about it. Like you were saying, we have been in the business for so long. We never had anybody backing us up. Having the label behind us, and all the things that are going on right now is just exciting.
Webb: Listening to the album, I felt like one of the major themes was redemption, and coming out of a place of no hope. Was that theme intentional in the writing process? Did you want to tackle that theme on this album?
Josh Smith: We really didn’t aim for it; but with every song that we wrote, it just seemed to be where our heads were at. I think it comes from touring and talking with people at shows, and just seeing that that is what this generation is dealing with all across the country.
Webb: I do want to specifically talk about a couple of songs on the record. Your first single “Everything Good” is really different from the rest of the album. It is very positive and it almost has a worship style feel to it. So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the story behind the song “Everything Good.”
Josh Smith: Yeah, we wrote that song in a grocery story parking lot with a guy named Paul Alan. We were just sitting around talking about the different stories in the Bible, like Paul being in prison and literally singing praises from behind prison bars. It’s talking about how so many times in our faith in America, we run into people where life isn’t perfect. Things aren’t going their way and they think that God is out to get them. In the Bible, we just see the opposite of that so many times. God leads us through valleys and tragedies to just make us who he wants us to be. That was kind of the thought behind that song. Even though the world is falling apart around you, instead of blaming God, just realize he is God and taking you through that journey.
Webb: Also, I think one of the most powerful songs on the record is “Without You.” Could you share the story behind that song too?
Josh Smith: Yeah, absolutely. The chorus kind of says it all. That song is just about realizing that life without a relationship in God is completely useless and empty.
Webb: What is your favorite song on the record? Is there one that you are most proud of or one that means the most to you?
Josh Smith: Oh man. It changes week to week. Right now, I really like the song “End of Me.” That one is really speaking to me, and is really fun to play live.
Webb: Can you tell me a little bit about the album title What I’ve Become? Is there a certain meaning or message that you wanted to convey to listeners with the title?
Josh Smith: What I’ve Become, when that came through my mind, it was just thinking about as a Christian coming to a place in your life where you have drifted away from who you were supposed to be and who you were meant to be. Just realizing in that moment that you are not the person you are supposed to be and not even recognizing yourself.
Webb: Musically, you have been compared to other Christian rock bands like Kutless, Seventh Day Slumber, and Decyfer Down. Do you like the comparison to some of these bands; do you welcome the comparison? Or do you just want to say we are our own band with our own sound?
Josh Smith: Comparisons don’t bother us. We are not aiming for that. We are not trying to sound like any other band, but that is the way music is. There is nothing new under the sun. Any time you write a song or put out an album, no matter how unique you think it is, someone is going to find a way to compare it to something else that is already out there. So, we are not offended at all.
Webb: I saw that you guys travel in a 1987 Ford school bus. Can you tell me a little about this bus?
Josh Smith: Yeah, it is a 1987 Ford school bus with no air conditioning, no heat, and only goes about 50 mph. But, it has also been a blessing to us. We don’t hate the bus [laughing]. We are excited to have it. For the past five years, we have been touring all over the country. We have gotten to play in 27 states. We couldn’t have done that without the bus. We did the van and trailer thing for awhile. But, [in the bus] we put six bunks in, two couches, and all of our equipment goes in there. It allowed us to tour a lot cheaper because we didn’t need hotels wherever we went. It opened up a lot of doors for us to play a lot more shows.
Webb: Since you have had this bus for awhile, is it something that you definitely want to keep or are you ready to move up to a tour bus?
Josh Smith: [laughing]. I don’t think we are in a hurry either way. If the schedule demands it, the money is there and it all makes sense, we would get another bus. But, I feel like we are almost in The Karate Kid [laughing]. This bus has taught us so much. It has taught us a lot of patience and a lot of just gratefulness. I don’t know. That is a good question. If the timing is right, we would probably get a new bus because our schedule is getting a lot busier than before. We are having to cover a lot more miles a lot faster. The 50 mph is literally becoming an issue. We are having 600 miles between shows over night. That is just hard to keep up.
Webb: Now talking about tours, do you have any upcoming tours or festivals planned for this fall?
Josh Smith: For the fall, we are doing a tour with a band called 7eventh Time Down out of Kentucky. Those dates are starting to come in now. I know we are going to be in Canada, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina. We have a lot of cool one off stuff that we are doing that is pretty exciting. We are getting to play in Virginia. We are getting to play with Thousand Foot Krutch and Switchfoot in September. So that is cool. In the spring, we are pitched for a couple of different tours, which we won’t know for a couple of weeks now which one we will land on. We are just trying to keep it moving. Stay out there in front of people with the record being so new, and just make some new friends.
Webb: Would you say maybe the most important part of your band is touring, meeting people and talking to fans every night?
Josh Smith: For us it is. But, it is hard to say what is more important. Without a record and without radio, touring is next to impossible. It is so hard when no one has ever heard of you in any town you go to. You are lucky to have 50 kids show up at any show. It is so important to have the record out there and have the radio behind you. We have never had that before. It is so crazy to go to towns now and to hear kids singing along to “Everything Good,” and singing along to our rock single, “Come Alive.” It is so cool. For us, the most fun part is definitely touring. Writing a recording is a blast, but there is nothing like getting on the stage, and just living it out.
Webb: Since you guys have been signed and you are gaining a lot of momentum, do you find that it is harder to have that one on one time with fans? Do you find that it is harder because you now have more fans wanting to talk with you?
Josh Smith: I can see the difficulty growing, but right now we are still okay. It is still pretty attainable to sit down one on one with people. I hope that it always is on some level because that’s who we are. We are not the band that wants to hang out in the green room, and come out and play the set; then get on the bus and leave. We are the band that wants to know people and share life with people. So, we will fight for that.
Webb: I saw on twitter that you called your fans Ashes Remainiacs. Is that name going to stick? Do you want to keep calling your fans that name?
Josh Smith: That is 100 percent up to the fans [laughing]. That is something that I said one day when I was in a goofy mood. If they go by it, that is cool. If they don’t, I am not offended [laughing].
Webb: I do want to talk about one music industry topic. Are you guys okay with selling music online, and just the thought that we are okay with whoever picks up our album. Or do you guys like having people buy the actual physical album?
Josh Smith: Oh no, we are fine with online sales. I mean, I think the industry has shifted so violently. Physical record sales are down so much, and digital sales are up so high. I don’t really see a lot of bad in it. I mean I am a guy that has to have the physical copy of something, but there are times when it is just simpler to go ahead and download something on my phone or on my computer. So, I don’t mind it, and I can appreciate it. The way I look at it, any way someone wants to get our music into their hands, I am honored.
Webb: Thinking way back, what inspired you to become a musician?
Josh Smith: I grew up in a musical family. My dad was a country musician. He lived in Nashville in the 1970s and put out a record. He got opportunities to go on tour and do all these things, but he was a family man. He pretty much walked away from the business. He always played on the weekends, and did whatever he wanted for fun. My brother also played in the band with him. My brother Robert, when I was 15 and he was 26, he landed a gig at Disney World. He was in a house band at one of the places at Disney World. He died in a car accident on the way home from a show. I just remembered it impacting me deeply. Up until that point, I was the kid who always sang in the shower. But, it was never something that I wanted to do. That was when I was 15, within a couple of years by the time I was 18 or 19, I really started to grow this desire to play. I started learning guitar chords, and just couldn’t put it down. That’s when I realized that it was becoming more of a calling and a passion than a hobby. Then I quit college and started a band.
Webb: Looking ahead to the future a little bit, what is the goal or goals of the band in the next few years? What do you guys want to achieve?
Josh Smith: You know a lot of people shoot for the moon, and maybe I should. If we become a stadium rock band, that’s great. But, if we can just sustain ourselves, if this can be our ministry and career for life, I am a happy man. If I can keep the lights on at home and do well enough there, then I have no complaints.
Webb: Any last comments?
Josh Smith: Man, I just appreciate your time. It is very humbling to me that people care to talk to us now. So, I just appreciate it.