After a nearly 3 year hiatus, The Afters return with their sixth studio album, Fear No More, available everywhere May 31. The album’s debut single “Well Done” continues it's radio chart dominance while the title track has found a grassroots life of its own as an instant fan favorite. Inspired by personal challenges and changes amongst band members, this new collection is a deeply personal release for the group. On the eve of the release of Fear No More, Josh Havens, Matt Fuqua and Dan Ostebo shared with us insight into the band's growth over the years, the impact these new songs have had on listeners and how they will measure success with their new release.
Congratulations on the release of Fear No More! What was the journey like in creating this record over the course of the band’s 3 year hiatus?
Josh: It’s funny because it didn’t feel like a 3 year hiatus. We felt like we were going strong. It has been 3 years since we released music, but in some ways, it feels like yesterday; it’s just gone by so fast. A lot of life has happened – we all have kids and families. And this guy [Dan] had a new baby 3 months ago named Bronx. And our drummer Jordan welcomed his first kid, a little girl named Rosie. And we’ve been all over the world – literally all over the world playing shows. We work a lot with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, so we’ve been as far as the Outback of Australia, Scotland, Portugal, and Norway. And we’ve done some tours in the States, and we had to write a record, which takes time. With us, we write a record when we feel like we have something to say. Sometimes it feels like it takes us a little longer than some people. We aren’t a band that writes 80 songs and picks 10; we are usually a band that writes 8 songs and then say we need to find 2 more. [Laughs.]
Dan: We just know when they’re bad. [Laughs]
With this being your sixth studio album, what do you see as your biggest point of growth over the past 14+ years?
Josh: Well I was just listening to some of the earlier music with my kids because they were curious. And they noticed there were a lot of guitars. And it was an era where guitar-heavy music was really popular. In our earlier records, I think we are a post-alternative band, a rock band, when we first started. And through time music changes, and there are a lot less guitars in music now. Matt’s just lucky he still has a job because he’s a really good guitar player.
Matt: I did start learning tambourine there for a while, just in case. [Laughs.] You know, in a lot of ways, our process is kind of the same. We are really good friends; we get together and talk about what is really going on in our lives and we write from that. So the things going on in our lives may not remain the same, as the kids get older and we move into different phases of life, as we move, or as we have more children. But I think our process has always been searching our lives for what the most important thing is to us and then writing about that.
Josh: A lot of music is conversations turned into song. These are my best friends. Jordan, our drummer, isn’t here, but he would be included in that. I love these guys; we do life together. So when we write, it ends up being just a great hang. We talk about what’s going on in our lives, what’s on our hearts – just brotherly stuff – and then songs come out. So this new record is a breakthrough for us by becoming more vulnerable and open with each other and our music. I’ve had a hard time in my life going to some painful places and really being transparent with some things, and these guys have pointed it out at times, and I’ve realized it’s not good to hold inside. There are things I’ve dealt with and struggles I’ve had that I’ve kept to myself because I thought 'if people know this about me, they’ll see the weakness and think there is something messed up with me.' For instance, the conversation of anxiety came up because Jordan had a season a year ago where he was having panic attacks, and he was going to the hospital with health problems, and it all ended up being stress related. And I shared with them for the first time I shared with anybody that I deal with anxiety too and have since I was a kid. It can be debilitating sometimes, and there are seasons in my life where so much joy was lost because of anxiety. And when you share those things, first off it’s freeing to get it out there. But what I’ve also learned by sharing is so many people deal with this; I’m not the only one. It’s a common thing, and when we are open and transparent about our struggles we can be there for one another.
The album’s first single “Well Done” has had incredible success on radio charts and has impacted listeners. What are some of the stories that fans have shared with you about the song's impact?
Josh: We’ve had a lot of stories sent in about that song in particular. And I think it’s because people have latched on to it in their hardest times, a lot of times when they’re dealing with a lost one they loved, which is one of the deepest cutting pains we feel. When I think about the hardest things I’ve gone through in life, they deal with losing ones I loved the most, like losing my dad was really hard. So a lot of the stories that have been coming in are about a loss. Just last weekend I had someone reach out to me on Facebook and he said he lived in my neighborhood and went to my church. And he explained how his wife was in a Bible study with other women in the area, and there was a woman in that group who has been battling cancer for a couple years now and she is at the end of this. So their Bible study group got together and were going through songs to use for the funeral, and they wanted her to be there helping pick them out. And while they were making those plans, her husband had gone to the store, and when he was driving back he heard “Well Done” on the radio. So he pulled over on the side of the road and wrote the name of the song on his hand. And when he came home, he said he found the perfect song. Well, side note, there had been a woman there who had pulled up “Well Done” on her phone, but didn’t suggest it. So when he walked in and said this song represented everything [his wife] is and how she lived. And so they decided to use it in the celebration of life. Well, the lady knew I had written the song, and her husband reached out to me and told me the story and asked if I would consider coming to their house and playing this song for her before she goes to be with Jesus. So my wife and I went over to their house and I brought my guitar. We spent some time with them, prayed with them, and I played “Well Done” at her bedside as her husband was holding her. It was emotional, and here she was talking about how ready she was to be welcomed into Jesus’ arms. She was even telling her friends that were there that even though they didn’t want to hear it, she was ready and had a peace about where she was going. And it really hit me in that moment that this was a woman who knows she was about to be more alive than she’s ever been. And I think we get afraid of the unknown. If you ask people what their biggest fear is, for a lot of us it’s death and what’s on the other side of this life. But think about that for a minute – when we leave this world – the only world we’ve ever known, we are going some place where we will be more alive. And we will be welcomed into Jesus’ arms. We’ve only lived here a few years, and we’ll be in Heaven forever. And so I hope that song is a reminder to live life thinking about the eternal. We spend so much time preparing for our last few years here, but what if we live life preparing for the first million years we will spend in eternity. We felt like Heaven was touching the Earth in that room. It was really special.
What an awesome image. Your band has had several songs like this, that climb the charts quickly and connect with listeners inspiring these stores. Do you ever get an inkling when you are writing that this might be something extra special or is it unpredictable?
Josh: You never know. There are some songs you can just feel in the room. One of those songs was “Broken Hallelujah”. When we were writing the song, we could feel it all ministering to us; we were all in tears. These were the words we needed to hear right now. “Well Done” was also a song like that. I could feel it comforting even me, so I thought that maybe it would bring comfort to people who are in the midst of loss. And sometimes, you just don’t know.
Matt: Sometimes you don’t know how God is going to speak through those songs because so many times people will come to us and say they heard a song that really spoke to them. They hear something that we couldn’t imagine or we didn’t write, and we just know they are hearing this at a certain moment in time and the Holy Spirit is speaking what He thinks this person needs through the words of our songs. So our song is just really a vessel for whatever God needs to do in that moment. And so that’s something you can’t ever account for. It’s just really cool to have something you do that you just send out into the world that does great things like that.
Which track was most difficult to write or record?
Josh: Honestly, there were a lot of these songs that came together really quickly. In fact the last song on the record, which is my wife’s favorite, is called “I Run To You”. We were in the studio and were almost done with our time there, and we just had a few minutes left. I had heard that Mia Fieldes had written a song in 15 minutes; it just poured out. So I thought we could set a timer for 15 minutes and see what would come out. And so we did it, and 15 minutes later it was pretty much done. I think we took 20 minutes, an extra 5 minutes; I like to press snooze. [Laughs.] And we had this beautiful song that came out of it.
Dan: It’s really easy to second guess yourself.
Josh: That’s probably why it takes us 3 years to write a record. [Laughs.]
Dan: You’re talking about the special feeling when it’s different. And a lot of songs will have it, but as you live with it more and more, you start to second guess yourself. Is the feeling still there? Have I heard it too much?
Looking forward to release day, what are your measures of success for this album?
Matt: Personally I gave up on that because I’ve had my own ideas for what I think success looks like, and I feel like what God has done through our music has challenged me to say ‘your ideas about success are all wrong. Your success is when you do what I call you to do, and then I’ll use all of these things however I see fit. But your idea of success may be the opposite of what I have planned for you.’ I used to watch the charts like a hawk when we would have a song go to radio. And then I would be disappointed if it didn’t climb as fast, or if a particular station didn’t add or whatever. But now I just realize that there have been a couple songs that haven’t succeeded like I thought they might on radio, but they take on a life of their own because God is using them in people’s lives. And I think that’s ultimately how I measure success now – are they moving people; are they changing hearts; are they stopping people in their tracks and pointing them to Jesus? And that may not look like success on a worldy level – that may not look like me driving a new car or having a bigger house. So I’ve learned to be content with whatever it is that God wants us to do. He gives us these songs and He’s going to take them wherever He wants. I feel like that is success.
Josh: We live in a culture that really values people based on accomplishments. We admire people who are really busy, accomplish a lot of things and are working really hard. When someone asks you how you are doing, the badge of honor is to reply ‘I’m so busy, I can’t even keep up’. Well, I’m not telling you all the hard stuff that’s happening; I’m just giving you the highlight reel. And that’s what our social media has become – a highlight reel of our lives – and that’s why I think anxiety and depression creeps in so much because we are comparing ourselves to others. But when you look at the things God wants for our lives, our success in career is way down the list. We had to learn that very early on because we were so hungry for success, and we put so much value on those things. There were years we were gone 250 days [out of the year] because we were out on the road and couldn’t say 'no' to anything. It was taking a toll on our families. We would come home and just be exhausted. And we realized we were not being the fathers we needed to be or the husbands we needed to be. I went to my church and I realized these people don’t even know me. They don’t know I’m my wife’s husband or that I’m my kids’ dad. And that didn’t feel good, so we decided to reprioritize how we tour and do our band. We really started thinking that our priorities in our life are first and foremost to live this life for what is important to God. And then we are called to be fathers and husbands, called to love our family well. And then we’re called to love our community – to be involved in our churches and love on our communities the way that Jesus would. And our career is way down on that list. And what we’ve realized is that when we were most hungry for success, that is when it came the hardest. We couldn’t work hard enough to make it happen, but when we reprioritized our life and said 'God we want to put You first and move in the direction of Your heart', that’s when God blessed everything the most.
What are you most looking forward to as a band coming in the near future?
Josh: We have some fun stuff coming up in the pipe. We have a run in Denmark. We will be going to Albania and Italy. We’ll be going all over the United States playing shows. We will have radio tours for our new single, “I Will Fear No More”, coming out this summer. We are very excited to get that song out there. We’ve only done a very soft release so far and it’s really gained traction with people sharing it and telling other people about it. And we’re really excited about…
Dan: …my birthday! [Laughs]
Josh: What I was going to say is we have this new vlog series coming out that is so fun. It’s called ‘Around The World With The Afters’. We love traveling together, like I said these guys are my best friends. So we see so many amazing places; I like to see what’s the best thing there – what food we need to try, what coffee shop we need to experience before we leave. So we thought it would be cool if we bring our fans to experience these things with us. So we brought a film crew when we were in Belgium, and we filmed a bunch of days there to show the best of Belgium. So now we are going to keep doing that. For instance, the first episode you’ll find out the best chocolate in all of Belgium. We did the research, which was great! [Laughs.] Very hard, scientific research of trying every chocolate, and so we are going to do this whole series with live shows involved as well. You’ll be able to find it on our YouTube channel.