Ashes Remain’s Smith and Ryan Nalepa (guitar/keys) met one summer leading worship at a youth camp located about 45 minutes southeast of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the end of a road called Grave Run in rural Maryland. It makes perfect sense that a band that doesn’t shy away from dealing in somber themes and stark realities would, in essence, be born in the shadows of our nation’s bloodiest battle – fittingly, a battle that proved to be a turning point in history, and the beginning of the end of some of our nation’s darkest days.
Over the course of that summer, Smith and Nalepa recognized the connection that had been made between them as well as the feeling that God was calling them to walk down similar paths. Desiring to be obedient to God’s will, Smith and Nalepa committed to pray together each day throughout the summer, asking God that if He wanted them to form a band to make His will known to them. Months later, Smith, back in Florida, received a phone call from a church in Maryland inviting him to lead worship full time. It just so happened that the church was ten minutes down the road from Nalepa. Over the next few years, God would, seemingly at random, placed Rob Tahan (guitar), Jonathan Hively (bass) and Ben Kirk (drums) in the path as well and Ashes Remain was formed.
After signing with Fair Trade Services in late 2010, the band teamed up with guitar ace and rock producer Rob Hawkins (Disciple, Fireflight) to produce the bands major label debut. The album is a collection of melodic rock songs with arena-sized hooks that have almost instant and broad appeal – broad in the gold-record-selling and sold-out-tour sense of the word. If you are accustomed to having your FM dial tuned to Christian radio, get ready to hear Ashes Remain – a lot. What I’ve Become is stacked with songs that would fit on any programmer’s playlist Christian or otherwise.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the bands influences (3 Doors Down, Rage Against The Machine, 311, Tool) are all platinum sellers, and have been mainstays at Alternative Rock radio over the past two decades. Interestingly, while the melodies and vocals seem tailor made for the airwaves, the songs of What I’ve Become are far from formulaic in their creation. Aside from Tool, drummer Ben Kirk sites Imogen Heap and Circa Survive as influences to his playing and admits to getting a kick out of incorporating hip-hop and gospel beats into rock songs - beats that are a perfect match for the grooving bass lines of bassist Jonathan Hively.
First single “Everything Good” which highlights lead singer Josh Smith’s gritty and earnest rock vocals, is as the title suggests one of the band’s more uplifting songs. “This song is actually the flipside or brighter side of everything else on the record,” explains Smith. “Its hope, it is praising God when nothing makes sense. Like Paul singing praise songs while sitting in jail.”
The ballad “Without You” has special meaning to Smith who lost his older brother at the age of 15 in a fatal car accident. The song’s vocals were recorded, somewhat by chance, on what would have been his brother’s birthday. The emotion and always rawness of loss comes through as you listen to Smith sing lyrics that recite age-old truths in spite of pain, knowing the promise of eternity.
“Change My Life” came to guitarist Rob Tahan in a dream years ago where he could vividly see the band performing the song from stage. The song bounced around from writing session to writing session in various forms until it was full realized with the help of Ben Glover, ASCAP’s 2010 Songwriter of the Year. Glover and the band polished off what turns out to be one of the band’s favorites and a real standout track on an album full of standouts. The song deals with the paradox of believing a God of miracles and the Creator of the universe and still being able to believe that the same God cares about us and the seemingly minutia of our day to day lives.
The song “Right Here” masterfully illustrates God’s faithfulness to his followers over a bed of lush string arrangements and lyrics such as: I’ll be right here, now / to hold you when the sky falls down / I will always be the one who took your place. / When the rain falls, I won’t let go / I’ll be right here when daybreak seems so far away. This commitment is one that the band strives to mirror with their fans and anyone they cross paths with in day to day life.
Kirk explains, “It’s something we take very seriously. We can’t be off our game so to speak just because we are busy or have something else on our mind, we feel called to be available to our fans. Connecting with a kid who was one conversation away from attempting suicide has a way of reminding you that you never know what that persons going through that night.”
Phrases like hard-working and down-to-earth may be cliché and over used when describing rock bands, but when you attribute them to Ashes Remain and the blue-collar way in which they approach the band’s mission and calling it seems like no other descriptors adequately fit. “We were built for this,” says Smith. “This is our place in what God is doing in this world.”