Interview: Christopher The Conquered

Singer-songwriter Christopher The Conquered may be one of the most underrated musicians in all of music. His lyrics are from the heart, the instrumentals alternate between beautiful and infectious to hypnotizing and haunting. Having just released an EP not too long ago, Christopher took some time to speak with us from the annual South By Southwest festival to talk about his upcoming full-length- I\’m Giving Up on Rock and Roll.

FRR: Oh, awesome man! South by Southwest is going on down there, right?

Christopher The Conquered: In Austin, yeah. I played down there last night, and I drove up to Dallas this morning because my dad lives down here and I’m visiting him. I’m actually driving back down to Austin tomorrow to play again. So like three hours, three and a half hours.

FRR: That’s crazy man. I’ve never been to South by Southwest, but I hear a lot about it. As somebody who’s played South by Southwest, how has that experience been for you?

Christopher The Conquered: Well, the first year, last year, was kind of shit show for me. A lot of things didn’t go as planned, but I’ve got a lot more experience with things not going as planned now. This year has been super positive, like last night was fantastic. It was my first show back in the states. I just did like ten weeks in Europe, but it was my first show in the states in a year, because I’ve been gone since January 3rd. I came straight from Milan to Texas. It was really fun to be back and be able to speak in my own language, and have people clearly understand the layers of my lyrics and talk about everything. So that was nice. But you know, it’s just like the crowd; South by Southwest is for people who love live music, that’s who’s there. People are excited to be discovering things and seeing things. It’s almost like that’s the thing: people want to discover new things, and they’ll really give you a chance. It was a great audience last night, and it couldn’t have gone better. It was super awesome.

FRR: Those are the best crowds.

Christopher The Conquered: That’s the other thing that’s really cool too: there are so many people from all over the world there, in terms of fans, and people who work in the industry who can connect you as an artist with new opportunities in the music industry. Last night, that was definitely the case, [CANT UNDERSTAND 3:30-3:25].

FRR: That’s awesome. And those are the best crowds, when they’re open to something new, and they’re wanting to find something maybe out of their comfort zone that they didn’t even know was out there. I feel like those are the best crowds, because they’re ready.

Christopher The Conquered: Yeah!

FRR: You played over in Europe, which you just touched on. Especially with your vocal sound, a lot of it has almost a spoken word feel to a lot of the songs you do. Is it hard, with the language barrier, to go over to Europe and sing some of these songs?

Christopher The Conquered: It can be. Especially with things like the South of Italy, where there’s almost no English spoken. On one of the very last nights of a tour, a woman told me, it was actually kind of interesting, because she was at the show, and she left because she was very emotional, because her nephew had passed away, and she’d come to this concert. And a lot of people that were there knew her, and everyone was telling her, “I’m sorry,” and giving their condolences, and she couldn’t really handle it.

She didn’t really want to think about it, and everyone was, you know, making her think about it, so she left. But then the next day I saw her at our hotel, and she was in a kind of very emotional state, which kind of made her words resonate more. She told me, “I wanted to tell you last night, but I left for this reason. But I wanted to tell you that when you sing, when someone can sing like you can sing, you don’t have to try very hard. You don’t have to do anything else, you don’t have to explain anything, or do anything. If you just sing like that, people can feel the passion and sincerity, even if they can’t understand the words or anything. There doesn’t have to be any other show for it.” I really appreciated that, because for a long time, I had a long entertainer streak in me. Like, I wanted everyone to be happy and entertained, and I wanted [CAN’T UNDERSTAND 6:03-6:07], instead of trusting it. I’ve always struggled with that: being too over the top, trying too hard, basically. And I’ve really learned, and I tend to play up my skills, which are my songwriting and my voice, which I focus on. I trust in those, and I don’t need to worry about any of that other stuff. I don’t need to worry about that other stuff, so her saying that really helped me focus, and I felt like I went into the show with that in mind, and it was really effective.

FRR: That’s awesome! That’s powerful, too. Especially being in another country, and someone telling you that. Your vocals are so powerful on these songs. It’s an EP, I’m Not That Famous Yet, but it’s a powerful EP. It’s short, but it’s strong, and there’s a lot of meaning buried in these songs, I feel like. I’ve been following you on social media lately, and you put on your Facebook page, the story behind the title track for the EP, and what kind of inspired it. Can you kind of talk to me a little bit about the song “I’m Not That Famous Yet,” and where it came from, and what it means to you?

Christopher The Conquered: Yeah, so I did it on Facebook there, and maybe some other interviews. Basically, I went to a music festival, I went to a show that was free, and it had free pizza, so I’m like, “yeah, I’m gonna go to this show and get free pizza.” So everyone was there, and you could kind of feel that thing where it’s kind of like, you know, everybody’s here because it’s the place to be. This is the band that just got done [CAN’T UNDERSTAND 8:10-8:13], and they’re supposed to be the greatest thing.

So everybody’s there because it’s like, the cool place to be, and I had this feeling, being a musician, and I love to watch them, and I had this feeling in the moment where I was like, “they’re okay, but they’re not that great. They’re not that great, but everyone is basically treating them like royalty on stage because they’re coming in with this like pre-bias, and they’re defined by this kind of all-star review on this blog and stuff like that.” People are like, “this band is amazing,” but they’re not really reviewing it objectively. So that’s what I was feeling in the moment. It’s kind of a negative presence and it might be true, it might not be true, but the thing is, I wanted to get away from it. I was kind of angry, and I struggled with that; I was like, “why am I upset?” And I thought about it more, and it doesn’t really matter why people care about the band. What’s important is that people were having a really good time, and they were enjoying it.

Like, nothing else was important. The band was eating it up, but they were delivering it, and they were good, and they worked their asses off to get to that point of having people be able to trust them with their art, and come be a part of what they’re doing. Whether or not it was the kind of music I like is outside of the point, and to some degree, I was a little jealous. I want to connect with people like this, I want to have people trust me, and say “yeah, this guy is supposed to be great” so everyone is on my side. I’ve been playing for years, and that was like a few years ago, maybe three years ago… I think we started out nine years ago, basically self-taught in every aspect. For years, it’s like the audience has been my enemy. It’s like, nobody wants you to be there, nobody cares, and your job is to [CAN’T UNDERSTAND 10:53], which is like a battle; it’s like a game.

FRR: I’ve never seen it that way.

Christopher The Conquered: Yeah, when you’re not very good, nobody cares about you because you don’t have any [11:10] or anything, you’re just the band on the show opening up for somebody else or whatever. Sometimes there’s just five people there. So your raw feeling is, “I want people to come away from it thinking, ‘that was amazing and I love it.’” For the longest time, it was like a battle for me, where I’m like, “I have to conquer these people.” In reality, what I’ve learned is that is that it’s kind of the opposite, really. I mean, people can be like that, where they’re sort of judgmental on the surface of something they don’t know, but deep down, they want you to be good.

Even if they can’t vocalize that, deep down, they want a good show, even if it’s something that they don’t know what it is. Nobody wants to leave judgmental and be like, “that guy kinda sucked” or whatever, they hope you’re amazing. So now the way I think about it is deep down, they’re on my side, they want me to be good. They’re rooting for me, but they don’t know it, because if I’m good, they’re going to be happy. I don’t have to convince them of anything directly, I just have to be good. Being good also takes a really long time, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to be good. I feel like I’m starting to get there, but for me, I’ve developed like a “three p’s” when it comes to performance, and I feel like it always works no matter what. If I go on to the stage feeling positive, and I’m present of mind, and I’m prepared, positive, present, prepared, then it’s going to be a great show, and I’ll win anyone over who’s able to be won over.

FRR: Nice! A lot of the bands I’ve talked to who are the opening bands, they’ve got that one album out now, and they’re the opener for the tour, and it’s almost like a lot of them have that mentality where they take it as a challenge because they feel like they’re the get-there-late band. Where, “we don’t know who they are, so we can get there late and it’s okay,” and they want to make people regret the fact that they did that.

Christopher The Conquered: Sure, yeah.

FRR: Which is a really cool mindset. One thing I’ve noticed is that you and I are based out of the same state. I’m in Indianapolis now, but I’m actually from Iowa.

Christopher The Conquered: Oh, really?

FRR: Yeah, I’m from a town by Mount Pleasant, Southeast.

Christopher The Conquered: Okay, cool!

FRR: Yeah, so we’re both from there. Being from Iowa, there’s not a whole lot going on out there in a lot of ways. There’s not a lot there, so in a lot of cities, there’s some kind of spare time to create and occupy yourself with. How does living in Iowa, in the Midwest, inspire you artistically and creatively when you write?

Christopher The Conquered: I think on a deeper level… Des Moines is growing quite a bit, culturally, there are a number of things happening. But you’re right: you’re not at the forefront of any cultural movement in Des Moines. You’re not in that global sort of scene.

FRR: Yeah, it’s not New York City or LA or anything like that.

Christopher The Conquered: Yeah, but deep down, I think that’s very freeing. Not necessarily consciously, but the attitude. You don’t constantly have someone you just met or just met the other night getting a record deal or getting great opportunities. There aren’t really opportunities, and since you aren’t seeing that stuff, the potential, I think your creativity is not at all subjected to a bias that would come from the art that’s being successful around you. I think you’re more likely to see derivative work in the places where the progressive global movements are happening, whether it be New York or LA or Berlin or whatever. Yeah, that’s where you’re finding really great stuff, but for every great thing there, there are a million “blah” things.

So I think even though professionally, in terms of stage presence, and marketing, and banter [6:18], and videos, and that sort of thing that becomes the sort of the package of the artist, even though we don’t have a lot of that going for us in Iowa because we don’t have much infrastructure or even any sort of know-how like information or resources, on its raw level, there’s a good amount of creativity that’s very freeform and feels like it’s just being made for the sake of being made. It’s more of a passionate form of expression, so I feel like that’s where I come from, and I feel very uninhibited in my creative process because of that.

FRR: Awesome. The town I’m from has maybe 1,000 people or so, so there’s kind of a mindset growing up in [17:14] that says, “you’re not going to get anywhere bigger than this. This is it.”

Christopher The Conquered: I think [17:23] is about 1,300 people.

TFRR: Oh, wow! Yeah, so I mean, it kind of drives you, once you get that creative bug, it almost pushes you and drives you more to get to that next level, because it’s like, “nobody thinks anybody’s gonna go anywhere from here, so somebody has to, and I’m gonna be that guy.”

Christopher The Conquered: Definitely; I definitely feel like I have something to prove.

FRR: Even in Des Moines, I know one of Iowa’s claims to fame is the Slipknot guys, and I know that was what drove them the most, was “I want to prove everybody wrong, that we’re going somewhere.” So I feel like that helps, and once you get that, it’s hard to shake it. Another song that really stands out to me is “On My Last Day.” It’s so emotional, I mean, it’s deep. Can you tell me about where that song came from?

Christopher The Conquered: Yeah, I will say that that’s the vocal recorded performance I’m most proud of out of anything I’ve ever done. It was like I was performing on stage when we recorded that vocal performance. Like, pretty much everything I do on that recording, it was nothing I’d been rehearsing for six months. It starts off that way, and it just goes off the hook in terms of the vocal performance. I think it really came from the band, from the arrangement, because once I got in there doing it, it totally changed the way I sang it. It felt really real, and it just felt so powerful in the moment. We were just like, “that’s it, we aren’t cutting it.” That song is really interesting to me because it came from more of a craft songwriting perspective, which is very new for me, because I’ve always written from a very emotional state.

I’m also just working on being a more professional songwriter, and being able to write songs that are good and meaningful as a craft. So that song kind of came from that, where I was just coming from a poetic idea of, “there won’t be much to say on my final day.” It was just an idea that made me think of a Leonard Cullen [20:03] song, and I was just like, “I want to write a song like Leonard Cullen when I first started.” So that was the idea that I just wanted to basically write about that feeling of having something to prove. In the song, I basically feel like I’m achieving this grand thing I’m striving for, and the idea of the song is to address: did you really know what you were trying to do anyway? Was it even possible? Is it more important what you created in the ‘trying?’

Like, maybe a lot of beautiful things are made from you attempting to reach this grand thing you’ve been trying to reach in your life. And it’s also like, I’m questioning: is it the best use of your life to live in this endless sort of chase? I’m kind of questioning: is it healthy to feel like you have something to prove or not? And the song sort of talks about that feeling of helplessness of, “I waited around to find out how it’s done/the only thing I’ve learned is which way to run,” which is basically like, “well, you might as well give up, it’s easier to just go work your job, live for food and rent,” so that feeling of helplessness. But the song developed over a long period [CAN’T UNDERSTAND 21:57] with a lot more meaning, because I sort of wrote it in what felt like a negative way, which is sort of like, “well, I’m writing it because I’m never going to accomplish this thing.”

What came out through performing it was that people were responding in a very different way. I think the most meaningful thing was that I played a show in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and this woman was there, and she had just survived a two year battle with cancer. Her and her husband had come to Fayetteville—no, it wasn’t Fayetteville, it was Hot Springs, where they have the hot springs—and they had come to sort of celebrate this, and just take a huge breath. They came to my show, and for her, this song was very hopeful, it was about “yeah, it’s worth it. Yeah, you’re questioning ‘is it worth it?’” and when you think about it, and you sing it, and you listen to the song, you’re like, “yes, it is worth it.” So that negative energy, for her, was the other way around. She had just survived a battle with death, and so it was much more meaningful to her than it was to me, I think. So that kind of changed the way I thought about it, and that really affected the way we arranged the song.

Before, it was much more somber, but we arranged it to have this groove that’s really infectious, and with the way it’s arranged on the record with the background vocals, there’s this underlying heartbeat and sunshine paired with the feelings of self-doubt. That’s it, I guess, to be honest.

FRR: That’s insane, I mean, that’s as powerful as it gets. Wow.

Christopher The Conquered: Yeah, and I guess I think, she was so miserable, and she was very emotional. And I’m like, “wow, that song means way more to you than it does to me.” It helped me evolve the song a lot. The performance of the vocals wouldn’t be like that if it weren’t for that woman.

Yeah, wow. And finally, the full-length, it was just announced a couple weeks ago, I’m Giving up on Rock and Roll. Will anything from I’m Not That Famous Yet be on I’m Giving up on Rock and Roll? And thematically and artistically, what can we expect from the full-length?

Yeah, actually, the EP is kind of a teaser for it, so the first two songs are on the album, “What’s the Name of the Town?” and “On My Final Day” and “I’m Not That Famous Yet”—the studio version. So it’ll be a different version that has instrumentation. The version that’s on the album is basically the opposite of what you think about rock and roll. It has this primitive, tribal chant and rain sticks, and like, wind chimes. I’m super proud of it. It ends the album, and it kind of dramatically bangs like, “this is where we move on.” And so what you could expect from me next is being more free, musically. So that’s that. The album is really important to me. The easiest way to say this is: the theme of this album is the theme of Christopher the Conquered as a whole. So with Christopher the Conquered, a lot of people ask me, “why is it ‘Christopher the Conquered’ and not ‘the Conqueror’?”

Sometimes my funny answer is, “well, because ‘the Conqueror’ is what everyone would expect, so that’s why it’s not that. In reality, the way I explain it is that everyone has an internal battle that they fight every day, some days it’s easier and some days it’s hard, and it’s different for every person, what their battle is about. For me, and I think for a lot of people, you have this point in your life where you’re struggling with whatever it is, and you don’t have control of your life and your choices. This struggle can cause you strife and wear you out, and they can give you feelings of self-doubt like I talked about, or where a lack of understanding of fear can come from, and these are just my ideas, obviously.

This stuff can make you want to give up, give up on that dream, or anything, or everything, and just do whatever’s easiest because you’re tired, for some, and life is not easy for anybody, necessarily. And it’s all relative, and it’s different for people, but it’s a common thing that everybody has, is this internal battle. For me, I think of it as the two people within me, the conqueror, the king, the person that has the crown from the day you’re born, and the conquered, you have the conquered that exists within you, too. The album is black and white of my face to show that you have these two things within you, fighting each other, and the goal is to find peace, and to free the conquered. So that’s my idea about what Christopher the Conquered is about. I always wanted music to make people feel happier, like, I want people to leave the show feeling better about themselves, personally, than when they came in, and that’s what my performances are about, and the way I did some songs, especially “I’m Giving up on Rock and Roll,” is about that kind of personal journey for me. I try to write as sincerely as possible, and put it in a way other people can connect with and put it into their own context. That’s why I’m really proud of “On My Final Day,” because I was trying to write sincerely for myself, and it could become something for somebody else.

Yeah, so that’s the theme of the album, it doesn’t stray from that. I recorded like 40 demos for the album, and then we recorded 15 songs in the studio, and then trimmed it down to just nine tracks on the album because I just wanted it to be that thing. Like, I didn’t want to just be like, “here’s 15 good songs or twenty good songs”—I mean, hopefully I can get a song that’s good, and maybe they’ll show it somewhere later, but they didn’t fit in to this, this is what the album is about. So that’s what I wanted it to be.

FRR: Awesome! Five awesome songs instead of 15 good ones, but none of them are REALLY good, but the other ones are just…THERE.

Christopher The Conquered: Yeah

FRR: Awesome, man. That is awesome, and I cannot wait for the full length. I’ve listened to I’m Not That Famous Yet probably about five or six times, twice on the way to work the other day, actually.

Christopher The Conquered: Awesome!

-Reggie Edwards