Steven Zydek of Joyful Sorrow

Steven Zydek of Joyful Sorrow

by Brent

Give our readers an idea of who you are?

My name is Steven Zydek and I play music with my wife, Heather, in a little band called Joyful Sorrow. We grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, IL and currently reside in Champaign, IL with our two daughters, Dorothea (Thea) & Mara. We are recent converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and our debut album, Quietude (released on our self-run label, Isidore Records), contains songs inspired by different lives of Saints who’ve made lasting impressions on us.

During the day, I work as a systems manager, tinkering with computers, helping students and planning system upgrades. At night I usually spend time with my wife and daughters, hang out friends, go to church gatherings and write/record music in my basement.

How did you learn how to play music?

As a small child I tried to play piano, but hated it, much to my father’s disappointment, unfortunately. Soon after quitting piano, around the 6th grade, I began dabbling with guitar, but was more into trying to make rap music, like the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Kool Moe Dee, and Newcleus. Eventually, I began more seriously experimenting with my dad’s electric guitar, playing the lead line for La Bamba and a few different chords my dad taught me. Finally, I moved into full fledge rock/thrash/metal, covering songs with friends by bands such as Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden, and others.

During high school I started playing in bands that concentrated more on writing music and was heavily influenced by Chicagoland bands like Cap’n Jazz, Gauge, Sidekick Kato, the Smoking Popes, Screeching Weasel, Naked Raygun, 8 Bark, Friction, and plenty of others. This is when I think I really began “finding myself” musically. My bands at the time, Birdfeeder and Plane Rides for Five Minute Drives, adopted the indie/emo ethos of recording, producing and releasing our own music on our own little labels. We had loads of fun and I still have a lot of great memories from this period of my life.

In college, I played in central Illinois bands Supporting Actress and Inlantic. Inlantic was my last serious band. I played guitar and keyboard — my early piano lessons finally paid off!! Our sound was a mixture of jazz and “early Nintendo music”, if you could imagine such a sound. We were actually compared to Trans Am and Tortoise. Unfortunately, we broke up after putting out a self-titled LP on 404 records in 2000, when the more talented keyboardist, Ben Shirey, moved off to California.

So, to get back to your original question, I learned to play music mostly through playing with different people throughout my life. I was formally trained on piano and guitar many years ago, but lately I think I now just feel my way around until I get the sounds I’m after. I rarely worry too much about key signatures, time signatures, chord structures, etc., when I’m writing music, but do find some value in having a good solid understanding of musical concepts. With my growing interest in classical, jazz and chant, I find it more and more important to have some idea of traditional musical theory, but in my early development as a musician, I never put a substantial amount of time in having a firm grasp of musicology.

Have you been involved in other bands besides Joyful Sorrow?

I know I mentioned some of this in my response to the last question, but it might be fun for me to give a listing of all the bands I can recall being a part of at one point or another w/some brief descriptions:

The Jr. Ambassadors (my first “real” band in Jr. High); Spilled Brains (we covered thrash/metal bands); Outreach (freshman high school band, wrote our own music); Constant Commotion (a mix of Dead Kennedys, Ministry and Minor Threat — punk wannabes); Birdfeeder (my first serious band); Park District (a goofy experimental band w/friends from high school. Kind of like the Residents); Plane Rides for Five Minute Drives (w/Erik Bocek from Sunstroke & early Joan of Arc, Kurt Gellersted from Birdfeeder & Kevin McComb from Sunstroke); Capital Baby (very brief project band w/Chris Broach from Braid/Firebird Band for a short while); 007 (very brief project band); Supporting Actress (a more serious band w/Neil Sandler from Gauge/The Sky Corvair & Aaron McCann from Creign/Bargos Steelers — we released an LP CD on Playing Field Records, were on the “Oh Do I Love You” comp, and were on a split 7inch with Sarge, released by Grand Theft Autumn back in the day); Inlantic (w/Aaron McCann from Supporting Actress & Ben Shirey — we released an LP CD on 404 Records).

Phew! There it is! If anyone’s REALLY THAT interested, I compiled an anthology sometime ago with songs from a lot of my past bands/projects, outlining my history playing music that I’d be willing to send out. Just write to: js@notperfect.org if you’re interested. The anthology is quite amusing I must say!

Your songs on Quietude are intricate and beautiful. How do you go about writing songs?

Thanks for your kind words! Well, I usually start with a song concept of some sort; a guitar part, lyric or simple melody comes next. Then I build from there. Almost always, I put some sort of “twist” in my songs. I like to try to keep things interesting without getting too carried away with trying to be different just to be different. I do like songs to flow naturally and have parts that serve some sort of purpose, no matter how out of place they may seem at first. I also enjoy experimenting with different beats, tempos, sounds and arrangements until I get something I believe fits well with a theme I’m after.

Who are some musicians/artists that inspire your music, both musically and lyrically?

Musically, I’m lately probably most inspired by the Sea and Cake, Tortoise, Kings of Convenience, Damien Jurado, some of Jim O’Rourke’s solo work, Lungfish, John Tavener, Arvo Part, John Coltrane, Chopin and ancient Eastern Orthodox chant. The music of St. John Chrysostom’s Divine Liturgy itself is very inspiring for me. I write a lot of music while humming “Lord have mercy”, as sung during the Divine Liturgy, in my head.

Lyrically I’d have to say that Dan Higgs from Lungfish has inspired me quite a bit over the years. Also, lyrically, I have been influenced by Sam Prekop from the Sea and Cake / Shrimp Boat, with his strong use of imagery. Other than that, I don’t think there’s much else to tell. Maybe Jim O’Rourke, David Grubbs and Mark Robinson (Teen Beat Records), stylistically?? I’m not sure. At one time I was really into the poet Carl Sandburg and found some of his poems to be very inspiring. Certainly, the writings of Church Fathers/Mothers are inspiring as well, including the great spiritual poet, St. Ephraim. His poems on creation are simply awe-inspiring and bring me to a very worshipful state of being. And obviously, anything in the Bible is a great source of inspiration for my lyrics.

Your lyrics are obviously influenced by your faith. Do you consider yourselves a “Christian Band”, and how do you fit in the Christian music industry?

I realize there’s a temptation for some Christian artists (including myself at times) to divide themselves up, so to speak, in saying things like “Christians in a band” versus “Christian band”, etc. I try not to see things within this sort of strict dichotomy. The way I see it is that I am a Christian in the world; I try to follow Christ in all I do and this journey is inevitably going to shine through in my writing to some degree.

Whether or not we consider ourselves a “Christian Band” is more an issue of labeling, marketing, etc., and really has little to do with what it means to follow Christ. As an American, I live in very consumer-oriented culture, where marketing and product placing/branding is thought to be quite important. The issue of labeling a band or music as “Christian” or “Secular” is a tactical marketing discussion. To be honest, I’m not particularly excited about marketing, so that might help someone understand how I think we fit in the Christian music industry.

Personally, I think the very idea of “Christian music” is not a great one, as it helps setup preconceived notions for people that may not be true. To say something is “Christian music” is actually a very extreme and presumptuous statement. People looking for music with a Christ-centered message will somewhat automatically assume Christian music always has this to offer, while this is not always true. And people trying to avoid Christ, or preachy-ness, will miss out on some great, wonderful music categorized under “Christian music” because they might assume all Christian music is preachy or lacks the so-called “realism” of secular music.

To me, music is just music. The genres, labels, brands, whatever are just fallen, human inventions to help sell music to certain groups of people. In the end, these things just turn music into business. When my music turns strictly into business I know it’s time for me to quit. This is why I love the true concept of indie music, where the focus isn’t so much on marketing, labeling, promoting, etc. True indie music is more versatile in that it isn’t confined to a certain style or genre. It’s as it is, just music, plain and simple. Sure people in the indie scene have influences and certain tendencies, but I feel like true indie music isn’t very restrictive. It’s more of a mindset that isn’t so concerned about selling itself.

On your website, you refer to your music as “musical icons”. Explain for us what this means.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, we use icons of Christ, Saints, and special events in God’s history with humankind in our worship life. Icons are never to be worshipped, although this has been a problem at times (research the events leading to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, for example). When God took on flesh and dwelled among us in the person of Jesus Christ, the first true icon was revealed. Before Christ, it was unfathomable to be able to “see” God in a physical sense.

Icons are windows to Heaven. They help us to see the world beyond the grave; to be in God’s uncreated time. Through icons we reflect on who we are and who we’re called to become. They are like our photos of loved ones who have parted from this life. We kiss (venerate) them, offering our love in a physical and spiritual way, wishing that the people portrayed were still with us. At the same time we know the people portrayed are well kept in God’s presence. This relates closely to the concept behind joyful sorrow.

We view our songs much in the same light as icons. This isn’t an original concept. I know the contemporary composer, John Tavener, considers his works to be musical icons as well. I think he helped me come to this idea for our band. With Joyful Sorrow, our songs are musical icons in that they all touch upon the lives of different Saints, most of the time in poetic, reflective ways, while trying not to be pedantic. Much in the way a painted Orthodox icon tells the story of a certain Saint or event in history, we try to do the same with our music. Whether or not we succeed at this, we let the listener be the judge.

What are your thoughts on the tendency to label “religious” bands as generally inferior in music quality to general market artists?

I definitely see and understand this tendency. If a type or genre of music is being “Christianized” just to make a sort of religious replica of a secular music “product”, I think it’s totally a bad idea. Life in Christ can’t be manufactured with products, whether it’s music or clothing apparel. I don’t like to think of music as a commodity to be packaged and sold. If the music isn’t a sincere extension of who the person is behind it, I have a hard time liking it. So, if the music is religious simply to be religious or bring people to a certain religious ideas, I think it lacks something real from the start. Asthetically, it might be fine, but I find it hard to believe that “manufactured” music of any sort has much to offer.

Music that is REAL from the start, religious or not, is what makes music worthwhile. If anything, religious music that is real might have more to offer with regards to musical quality, because it strives to know the world through Divine revelation as opposed to human calculation. But then again, how are we to divide between what’s religious music and what’s not? I don’t believe God can be completely avoided. Humans either love, hate or are lukewarm (agnostic?) toward God, but can never truly avoid Him altogether. There is always a relationship present. God is personal. The idea of secularism is a total lie, in my opinion. With this said, all music is religious to some degree. There’s always something metaphysical going on. But not all music is written to glorify God. I think this is where distinctions should really be made.

Is there a specific message you wish to convey in your music? (either lyrically or musically)

This could probably be best summed up with a couple lines from our new song, ‘Gently’: “There are things in this world that strike deeper than we know. It’s our life not to run, but seek refuge in the One Who offers us greater peace than anything in this world.” I think everything I write really comes down to this sort of theme. I am always striving to find deeper spiritual truth through the creative process of writing music. And because I believe truth is revealed to us in a personal, relational manner, through prayer (as opposed to something that is found through strict rationalizing), music is the perfect avenue to explore what truth means because it’s very personal in nature. For an earlier example of this, look to the Book of Psalms.

I use music as an outlet to express different emotions, ideas, or whatever I may be having, but also as a means to help me move deeper in my spiritual life. I recall John Tavener mentioning something once about music being a sort of ceaseless prayer (“prayer of the heart” or hesychasm) for him. I can say with confidence that this is my ultimate goal with music — to be able to allow it to flow from me unfettered by the worries of this life, all the while communing with God; to reach beyond and within, always striving to know and reflect God’s presence. I can also assure everyone, I have a long way to go with all this!!

How has the response to Joyful Sorrow been in live settings?

Live!? Hehe… We’ve actually only played live once thus far! Basically, Joyful Sorrow is a studio band at the moment. It’s kind of funny. It seems like we’re doing things backwards with Joyful Sorrow. In the past, I’ve been in bands where we first write and practice songs, go out into the world to play them for others and record them for people who liked our live sets. In Joyful Sorrow, we write the songs, record them, make records and THEN begin thinking about playing live. This is a different approach for me, but it makes the most sense given our current life situation w/our children.

Our hope is that ‘Quietude’ will draw some attention and create some sort of demand for us to play live and then we’ll go from there. I guess this way we’re not pushing our music too heavily on anyone and we still have enough time to focus on our children, while writing new songs. We have a lot of time and there really is no rush. We plan on keeping Joyful Sorrow around for the long haul. I’m tired of seeing bands come and go.

When we finally do get out and play more shows, it will be interesting to see people’s reaction. When I’ve played shows in the past with prior bands, including when Joyful Sorrow played live at a church here in town, people have commented on my strange stage antics. I guess I have a tendency to do weird movements while deep into guitar lines. I realized this for the first time when I saw a photo someone took of me while playing with Inlantic, where I stuck my teeth out in a very strange manner. I couldn’t believe I look like such a weirdo!

What is in the future for Joyful Sorrow?

Because Joyful Sorrow is a family affair, I expect it to be around as our musical outlet for a very long time. So, God willing, Joyful Sorrow has a long future ahead. I see our music evolving as we learn to adapt different musical and theological concepts into what we write. I also see us playing out more as we find more time.

Perhaps one day our children will play with us! That would be really cool! I dream of one of our daughters taking up drums – we talk about getting a set for them to fool around with. At the moment, we are preparing a new song for a comp and writing a few more. In late summer we expect to play live on a local radio station and maybe get out to some different venues around the area. In the end, it’s all in God’s hands.

Any other comments?

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to do this interview! What a blessing it has been being able to share with you and others about my latest musical endeavors. Keep up the good work with SomewhereCold! I think you really have something good going here. If people would like to read more about Joyful Sorrow and perhaps even purchase our music, please go to:

http://www.notperfect.org/joyfulsorrow. We can be reached via email at: js@notperfect.org.  If you’d like to have us try to come out and play in your town, send us some email. We’d love to hear from you! Thanks for listening.

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