The Brilliance is hard to pigeonhole. The music is a mix of classical and pop, so you might call it prog rock with no hubris, or classical music with no pedantry. The highly original sounds created by the duo John Arndt and David Gungor, close friends who haven’t lived in the same city since their collaboration began, are salve to both the ear and the soul. Their albums have delivered songs in suite form, the latest being World Keeps Spinning. Recently Josh Arndt, now in Paris, took the time to chat with me about their new album, their collaboration, and what it feels like to be part of something much bigger than just a couple of guys making music.
Give me doubt so I can see my neighbor as myself
Give me doubt so I can lay all my weapons on the ground
When the armour of God grows too heavy for peace
Give me doubt, give me doubt, give me doubt
What be my courage now, my shield from evil?
Love be my courage now–
I shall not fear.
~ “I Shall Not Fear,” from World Keeps Spinning by The Brilliance.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Dave Gungor and I grew up together in a small town in Wisconsin. Since then I’ve been all over the place. I lived in Austin, Texas for a while. David and I have known each other our entire lives. Our fathers were in a band together in the seventies and we all went to church together. So we grew up in church and music was a huge aspect of the life of the church.
We loved everything about church. Every time we would go it would be like a party. There are videos of us as young as one, before we could talk; you could see us in a room banging on things, yelling at each other. And so creative collaboration and making music together has kind of been ingrained in our relationship, and ultimately I would say, an exploration of spirituality and the meaning of life and the meaning of death and doubt has always been a part of our music as well.
We’re always trying to explore the big ideas as opposed to making having-a-good-time-at-the-club kind of music.
When we create we tend to dive deep. So we grew up int this charismatic, sort of Pentecostal church environment, very dramatic, and I left my childhood home, going off into the world, really, with a mission. I had this really clear sense of purpose and truth. I was the type of kid that you could have sat me down with anyone and I could have told them exactly how it is. I could sit down with the Dalai Lama and set him straight. I had all the answers.
A number of experiences led that to shatter. In many ways the music that David and I have made with the Brilliance came about with the shattering of my faith. In many ways I became an atheist. Although I love so much about spirituality and Christianity I rejected most of this, and yet David has actually been in ministry for the last twelve years.
So it’s been the atheist perspective hitched to the believer’s perspective. In many ways it creates a richer, deeper music, because we tend to think that they’re antithetical to each other. But what I think is once you experience them both, or if at some moment in your life you’ve experienced pure faith and then you experience atheism, I think that at some point along the way you see them as one larger three-dimensional thing as opposed to a two-dimensional thing.
David played guitar and bass growing up. I was the one who played the piano and became very serious about studying music. I could play pop songs by ear, and people thought I was a genius. And then I heard Bill Evans. It was something completely foreign to me. Something I could not understand because he was never playing bass notes the way I understood music, especially in pop music, where there’s a bass note and a melody. Basically if you can understand these two things you can fill in the blanks and make it work. With Evans the bass was moving all over the place, and the piano wasn’t even playing any bass notes.
So eventually I began pursuing jazz and jazz improvisation, learning to speak that language of music. A few years after that I got really serious about classical music, classical technique, and respecting the notes on the page. I used to think I was special as a young person because I didn’t have to play the notes on the page. I could play anything, and people respond well to that. With notes on the page you can get into the minds of some of the most beautiful musical geniuses of history. They’re trying to tell you something, and every detail is there for a reason. That’s something I grew into, and it has definitely informed our music.
How did you get to record World Keeps Spinning with the orchestra at Biola University?
I had basically completed the last song on the album, with this crazy ending that includes part of a Bach piece, part of a Stravinsky piece, and this really vast symphonic scope ala Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We thought wow, this could be a concept album, but then in the real world if you want to pitch an orchestral concept album it’s going to run you a lot of money, but we’re always looking for new ways to creatively collaborate with people and find solutions.
Creativity is not limited to the making of the music. Our last album, Oh, Dreamer, was a collaboration with a nonprofit, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Dreamers, that we really believed in, and we had a whole album inspired by the DACA Dreamers. It was like working for a label but instead we were working for a cause. We own the music and so we get to advocate for something we really care about.
So for World Keeps Spinning we were contacted by Biola University who wanted us to play a concert. So I said why don’t we take a week, do a whole collaborative recording? I ended up spending a week with the students of Biola University, recording as much as I possibly could, and in the end we had a record. I’m really excited about working with more large ensembles in the future.
What inspires your musical suites?
Many of our ideas are rooted in moments of despair. Both David and I had both had our first true experiences with anxiety. The first song on the record, “Release Me,” came from my first experience of physical pain as it related to stress in life. I suddenly had a chest pain for three or four days. I don’t know what it was about, but it had something to do with outer circumstances. I was like, chest pain! If this stops, everything stops!
In Dave’s case he got on some medication and made some life adjustments. Also living in New York City. It’s a family of six—he’s got four kids, so he’s going a million miles per hour at all times. And in addition to pastoring a church, raising a family, and The Brilliance (which could be a full-time job) he just started a job with a new organization called Telos which brings awareness to the Palestinian conflict. And he’s working toward a master’s degree in philosophy.
When you listen to our music you’ll hopefully get the sense that it’s tapped into something much larger than just these two guys. One of my least favourite things about promotion, at least the promotion that we’ve done so far, is it really bugs me whenever I see band promo pic and it’s two sad-looking guys in an alley, and I think, this has nothing to do with the music.
How did David respond to your loss of faith?
He’s understood every step of my path, and in many ways we’re seeing the same things. And when I say “atheism” what I really mean is that it’s clear to me that all religious texts were written by men. If you look at the Old Testament, you needed two good testicles to get into the most holy place.
I used to be afraid of saying I was an atheist around Christians, but when I say the room grows and what we can talk about becomes much larger. Many of them are able to name things they’re thinking but can’t say. I was in the American Cathedral in Paris here the other day in tears, it was so beautiful. At the same time I believe there are elements to religion that are just purely sinister.
We have this one choir piece on the album called “Give Me Doubt” that we call a hymn of doubt. We often confuse faith with certainty, whereas faith can’t exist without doubt.
Innovative responses to the unexpected
Whenever we perform we always look for local musicians to work with. When we go to a university we work with the music department, so we have all kinds of students with us, and what happens as a result is we’re playing with a nonprofessional group of musicians, which means that things are going to go wrong. The things that make a live performance special are the ways in which it’s not like the album. So instead of breaking our necks trying to recreate the album, we turn it on its head.
There was one concert where the power went out. It just went pitch black. The music cut in the middle of a song. I started walking off the stage, but David said, “No, no, no, let’s find a way to make this work!” So we gathered at the front of the stage and we found little instruments that we could play, and people gathered around us and we continued to play. People came up to me later in life to say, “Hey, I was at that concert when the lights went out, and it was the best concert I’d ever been to.” The concert where everything went wrong became the most memorable concert.
What conditions do you need in your life to maintain your creative output?
This is the least sexy thing, but it’s the most real thing: One of the best creative tools is a deadline. If I can create patterns in my life where I have to finish things, then I can be the most productive. Now that I’m in Paris I have four months to be focused. I have to make things. You’re not going to love everything you make, but getting it down and having a reason to get it down, that’s accountability. I need that.
Have any books inspired you?
I really love the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The way he writes is just so clear and beautiful, and for me there’s something really calming about it. It’s a reminder of who we are and where we come from, why we act the way we act.
What, in your opinion, is music?
Music is my connection to the magic of being alive, the magical world, the spiritual world. Ever since I was young I’ve always resonated with music. I’d get on the piano to feel that resonance and respond to it. Today I organize that resonance and push it into the world, and the world responds to me. I have thus beautiful situation where I can trade those resonances for food and shelter. The combinations of sounds I make are resonating in the world.
As an artist it’s easy to get down on your way of life, thinking you should have a mortgage or a wife by now, kids, and a steady job. One of the things that brings me the most satisfaction is imagining the world vibrating just a little bit with the music I’ve been a part of. I feel honoured and humbled to vibrate in the world in this way.