Five Iron Frenzy spent eight years making music and capturing the hearts and minds of Christian outsiders: those who felt they didn’t fit with the status quo of their church setting. In 2003, to the dismay of their fans, they called it quits to spend time with their families and start different jobs. Eight years later they announced their come back with a Kickstarter campaign to raise 30,000 dollars. Within twenty-four hours they had reached their goal: eventually raising over 200,000 dollars. Almost a decade since their farewell tour they are again touring the nation and putting out a new album. The Washington Institute interviewed guitarist Micah Ortega to discuss his own vocation and this new season for the band.
TWI: What makes a good song?
Micah Ortega: A good song has to have a good rhythm. Something that makes my head bob, or makes me want to move for no other reason than the groove. If it does that determines whether or not the music captures my interest. There are plenty of songs that I can bob my head to but the music is so contrived it’s almost insulting. This is not to say that it’s got to be complicated or simple. It has to be honest, or if it’s not honest the musician writing it has to have a strong enough grasp on human nature that there is a truth to the notes that are being organized.
After that, the song needs a good melody. There are times when I want a song that is just super catchy but sometimes it grows old after a couple dozen listens. Then there are those songs that are so intricate and interesting that it takes 5-6 times to even understand what is going on. But if you can keep me interested with textural stuff or grooves long enough that I get what is going on musically, then I keep listening and the song is almost endearing to me. After that I start to listen to words. At this point I like the music enough that even if the lyrics don’t make any sense its ok. If they are just stupid it bums me out and I feel a little duped. If they are awesome and honest and not contrived and transport me to another headspace than I like that, a lot. Those are all the hoops that a song has to jump through for me to think it’s a good song.
TWI: What makes a good performance?
Micah: I think a good performance is when you connect with the audience. Not how flashy the lights are, not how pristine the audio is, but if the audience feels like they you know the artist better after the show. That is a good performance. Playing the right note at the right time is sort of important too.
TWI: What specific instance of your work as a musician are you most proud of?
Micah: Coming up with the riff for “Oh Canada” back in the day. That’s a pretty good riff.
TWI: Why are you proud of it?
Micah: Because I can play half of that riff when we are warming up for our crowd as sort of a teaser and people know it. It’s pretty cool to have a written a riff that is so fun and recognizable. I did it as an experiment for a very common note progression. The idea was to hide the three note progression in enough flare that the progression wasn’t so obvious, but to make sure the original three note progression wasn’t totally lost. It’s a classic 1-4-5 progression.
TWI: How did you understand your vocation when you were playing as a band full time?
Micah: I felt like I was made for it, but only for a season. Everything in my life was preparation for that role. It felt very natural and what we were doing as a band was bigger than ourselves, bigger than our music in an almost embarrassing way. In a way I feel like it’s hard to take credit for. That is very humbling.
TWI: How did you specifically feel you were a part of something much bigger than yourselves?
Micah: For the amount of effort we were putting into the band the returns were exponential. Not necessarily in dollar amounts but more if there was a need, it got filled. We felt like there was something beyond us driving the proverbial bus. It’s strange because we had tried to the previous year to make this latest incarnation of the band happen. For all the effort we put in, it sort of just crumbled in our hands. Then something changed. God has a timing with things. He planted the desire, we acted on it, but our action was premature.
Then a year later we thought “lets just jam some of the old tunes” and it felt right. Things gained momentum in the same way that it had happened before. The little effort we put into it was amplified. It is almost freaky. It’s sort of like stepping on the gas a little bit but feeling like you had floored it. We needed 30,000 to make a decent record. We didn’t think we would raise the money so we gave ourselves 60 days to do it (the max time Kickstarter will let you run a campaign for) and we met out goal in less than 24 hours. Freaky.
TWI: Were there times when you didn’t feel this way?
Micah: Yes, toward the end of the band, the first time around. We felt we were fulfilling previous obligations and trying to ease our fans into the idea that we wouldn’t be around anymore in that form.
TWI: How has your understanding of your vocation changed now that you are performing while carrying on other work during the day?
Micah: It really hasn’t. I am actually more intentional in my day job, while with the band I was just there being directed in a strange way.
TWI: How have you developed your own sense of calling and theological language for your music?
Micah: Just living helps me develop my sense of calling and theological language. I would hope that my theological language is closer to the common dialect than something that can be separated as its own language. I suppose I’m trying to say that my calling and the language I would use to describe it just tries to represent Jesus in my day-to-day life.
TWI: Are there any tensions or complexities that trip you up when you think about your work being part of God’s work?
Micah: A personal tension is not totally giving over to my sin nature. Being in Five Iron has been a tremendous source of accountability, knowing the responsibility I have as someone who is openly representing Jesus. Another tension is being directed—which means not knowing how everything is playing into the end result, and still being ok with that. After the band ended in 2003 I would hear stories of how our work helped people through all sorts of hardships in ways that I could not have seen coming. I’m not sure how it all will play into the furthering of the gospel but I have to sit back and just be available like I have always been, to do what I have been prepped to do. I can take very little credit for it.
Adam Thies is the former Content and Program Coordinator at The Washington Institute. He comes to the DC area as part of The Fellows Program at The Falls Church Anglican.