Jonathan Thulin Makes Sense Of Babylon NRT Founder Kevin McNeese speaks with Jonathan Thulin about his captivating and unforgettable short film that compliments his moving single "Babylon," off his debut national release.
Jonathan Thulin: "Even when the physical things in our lives are removed and we’re set free, we still put ourselves in bondage because of ourselves."
I'm a big fan of being surprised by music. I love putting iTunes on shuffle while working and then having to pause what I'm doing to look up the artist that's caught my audible attention. Most of the time, it's a deep cut off a record that I haven't got through, or it's a new artist that I haven't fully discovered yet. But every now and then, it's not the audio that reaches out and grabs me.
Once in awhile, I'll come across a video that introduces me not only to the artist, but to a great new song, and that's equally enjoyable. 95% of the time though, the video is forgettable and serves more as a bridge to discover the full album than something that can stand on its own visual merits. So, I was pretty taken aback when I played the video for "Babylon" from new artist Jonathan Thulin. So much so that after a few weeks of consumption, I felt compelled to get Jonathan on the phone and fully dissect what has quickly become one of the most compelling, interesting, wonderfully deep and visually pleasing Christian music videos I've ever seen.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the song is incredible on its own.
I hope you take a few minutes to first watch the video (embedded below this introduction) and then dive into the great conversation that Jonathan and I had about the song, the video and what it all really means.
There's not a lot of Christian music videos out there that would allow for this type of dissection. Most follow the basic format of band rocking out, fans screaming loudly and maybe a few random scenes thrown in for creative measure. But "Babylon" is different. The more you watch, the more you'll discover. Hit play and then read on for the full interview with Jonathan below.
Now that you've watched the video, let's see how much you caught...
Hey Jonathan. Thanks for joining us today! So let's start by talking about the overall concept of the song. What is the general story and themes that you are telling with "Babylon?"
Well, Babylon in the Bible stands for false religion and for ungodliness. When I first wrote this song it was creepy because I wrote it in five minutes. It all came down on the paper and I looked at it and asked myself, “What does this mean?”
As the months progressed and as other people listened to it, it kind of came alive to me. So the cool thing is that I believe God handed it to me.
False religion is any belief or practice that is manmade and as Christians we tend to stay in our own denomination. We kind of look down on the other denominations. In research, I found that there’s 33,000 different denominations and that’s all separated by these little tiny things. We all like our traditions, but they are all manmade and we sometimes focus more on those manmade beliefs and traditions than we do on the word of God.
By doing this, I think that we build up walls between ourselves and God and certainly walls between ourselves and others. So we try to reach God in our own way when God has told us that no way is higher than his. We can spend all of our time concocting new and fresher ways to reach God, but if it’s not inspired by Him, it won’t be blessed by Him anyway.
So when you look at Babel in the Bible (same as Babylon), the people built this spectacular tower attempting to achieve greatness and create a name for themselves on their own. If you think about it, not much has changed from us today. We’re always looking to make a name for ourselves by bragging about maybe how many people we had in our church or how great we’re doing in our careers. Of course the danger in that, and really what I’m trying to say in the song, is that we can become so obsessed with our own work rather than God’s and we can appear righteous on the outside, but be complete hypocrites on the inside.
Eventually, regardless of our good intentions, man-built things will always fall and what God has built will always stand. So that’s kind of the overall message of "Babylon" and as I get feedback on the song, apparently it's a message that's really relevant right now.
Why do you think that is?
Denominations are a huge issue right now. We’ve separated ourselves from each other and we’re supposed to be one unit. We’re supposed to be one because God told us to love one another. We’ve built walls around ourselves and inside our denominations and we've made our way the right way. The church is in massive separation right now and people are noticing it's getting worse all the time.
Well, the song is fantastic. But the video is one of the most captivating visuals I've seen from a Christian artist in quite some time. There's a lot going on that expands on the theology you're talking about in the song. But as one user posted on our Facebook wall, "Babel...the confusion continues."
That’s funny. There have been people that completely just don’t get it. I guess I’m just more of a deep thinker in general and I like to challenge people. One of the artists that kind of got me on this track was Brooke Fraser. She released this album in 2006 called Albertine and I listened to that CD over and over again. It literally changed my perspective on so many things. But it didn't connect fully the first time through. The first time I listened I was like, "Oh, that’s cool," but the more that I listened to it, it actually came alive and did stuff. I really changed my thinking.
I’ve been praying to God to give me music that the listener will question, "What is this about?". But the more they listen to it and the more they think about what’s going on and really think about the lyrics, they more they will understand and get from the song.
I just invite those that are confused or don't get the video to really dive in a few more times. I think that "Babylon" is just one of those songs that you need to listen really intently to what’s being said. And honestly, it might not be a message that’s particularly for you. You might be in a different place in your life that you don’t need to hear what I'm talking about. It’s different for everybody.
Can you sum up the storyline in the video for us and then we'll dive into the details next?
Sure! I am a super fantasy freak. I love sci-fi, fantasy stuff, so I wanted the setting to be in a post apocalyptic world. There's a woman who is playing the violin and she controls the whole world with her music. In the book of Revelation, it actually refers to the harlot of Babylon who is drunken with sin. It talks about how mankind has become drunk from her sin and we need to find a way out of that. I wanted to create a visual way of showing those revelations so there is this person that plays her music and everybody is controlled by her decisions. But then there's this resistance.
There’s a white chapel that’s in the middle of nowhere and supposedly there’s this key there that can set people free from her control. These two kids are running towards this church in search of this key. When they get there, there’s all these robotic looking people that we assume have gone before them there trying to find the key, but have gotten caught up with themselves, with image, with their artistry, with money or whatever it may be.
So pretty much the whole premise of the video is following these kids journey inside this church. The girl that is with the boy eventually gets caught in everything going on and gets stuck, but the boy is able to escape. But maybe what everyone is after is not a physical key? Maybe that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for this physical evidence of this physical way out when really it might just be a change of our mindset and understanding and looking at it in a different way.
That's a great setup! And after watching the video multiple times, I just realized the girl never exited the church. I love how this video keeps on giving. So, in the opening monologue that was created just for the video, you mention "she." We now know who you referencing, but why is she playing a violin?
So in the storyline I’m referencing this woman that’s controlling everyone around here, the one that’s playing the violin. She plays and we move. I wanted an instrument to visualize her control. She's playing the entire time in the background at the beginning of the video and it's just covering the whole land. Then, you'll notice that when the two kids walk into the church, she messes up on the violin and the entire church, myself included, twitches. That’s kind of showing that something’s happening and something else is starting to take over--a new type of song--and that’s when the Babylon song starts and begins to slowly take over control.
Very cool! So I'm interested to know why the guy throwing money down is so angry? I get the visual of hoarding money and you depict people literally leaping over pews to collect as much fallen money as they can. But I don’t get why the guy is angry.
Well, everything in this video is exaggerated. Even the girl that’s spraying herself with the perfume, it’s black. So I wanted the actor to be more passionate than angry. Maybe that came across wrong. Without stepping on any toes here, I think that there are a lot of preachers that are very focused on money and prosperity and saying that God blesses lives with money. I was referencing a particular situation where I was at a service and literally that’s exactly how the Pastor was acting. He was just incredibly intense as he preached about people not tithing and he was just so focused on money.
I think is the love of money is one the most dangerous desires out there. It’s something that we obsess about and it talks about that so much in the Bible.
The video brillantly brings to life so many of the great lines of the song. What is one of your favorite scenes in the video.
My favorite part visually to watch is when we get to the "march, march, march" line and the people in the church start to move to that rhythm. That was one of my original ideas with it and it came together so well. It's very haunting because the lady that’s playing the violin suddenly stops. She's hearing something different for the first time and she’s looking like a deer in the headlights wondering what’s going on. When that march action begins to happen, she begins to deteriorate. Her hair falls out and she gets beaten down by this other thing. That was one of the most powerful scenes for me.
I agree. In fact the next question was kind of centered around that scene. The boy is going after the key, which represents what exactly?
I put "the key" into a physical form of an actual key, but the whole point that I wrap up at the end is that the boy has the key and understands that maybe that’s not it. It’s not this thing he was seeking. Maybe he just needed to get to a different place. Maybe there’s just a different mindset and that’s when he comes out of the church and everything is much more pretty and colorful than when he entered. He has this smile on his face because he gets it. He understands that the key doesn’t get caught up in all that stuff. He understands that it’s just a different way of looking at things and that key is almost a stumbling block to what people really are looking for. People have tried to move that key and do stuff with it, but haven’t understood the full purpose.
The key is an answer to whatever then, right? Meant to be defined by each one of us.
Near the end of the video, as soon as the boy takes the key the people in the church stop their movements and they begin to die off, but some survive. So what’s going on there? Once that key is removed, why are some people dead on the spot? The line in the song says, "Our will is strong, but the truth is a killer." So explain to me what’s happening there.
Well, the people that died were the violinists and those girls that were sitting next to her. They represented the power over the whole land and when the boy removed that key, that action destroyed their rule. If you look at this from a really Christian perspective, the devil has already been beaten. It’s already spoken. His destiny is sealed. We already know where he’s going to end up and he’s not going to win. But even after everything is taken care of, people are still stuck in themselves.
This boy is the only one that understood that even when the physical things in our lives are removed and we’re set free, we still put ourselves in bondage because of ourselves. That’s basically it.
Well, again, it's an incredible concept realized so well. Who directed the video? Who came up with the concept?
I came up with the concept and I found the team that put the video together on YouTube. They’re called Neumann Films and I just was so captured by their cinematic eye. I contacted them eight months ago and I was like, “Can we do something together because you’re amazing?” They had all these subscribers, so I was like, “Okay. They’re probably not going to answer me,” but they responded right away saying they loved the song. I had no idea who they were or if they were Christian, but they ended up being Christians.
For the people that know me, I just have really big ideas and then I just go for it and do it. People are always saying to me, “You’re crazy! Why are you doing this? You don’t have money!” I’m like, “I’m just going to do it.”
So I booked Neumann films. I booked all these actors. I went to Moscow, Idaho to film and hung out with the crew for a few weeks before filming. It was incredible.
The day before I got there, the money came in, so I had nothing. I had no money. I was telling people as I was casting them, “I don’t have any money, just so you know,” but that’s what was so great, because I felt in my heart it was something I needed to do and I felt like it was an important thing.
I did it and God came through and the finances came through. They completely grabbed onto what I was trying to say with the song and created this cinematic masterpiece. When I watched it, I was like, “I can’t believe they did that.” They have just amazed me and I’m working with them a lot more on a lot of stuff. All these other Christian artists that I’ve done festivals with that have seen it are saying, “We’re going to call you tomorrow. We need you to do this video.”
It’s cool that people are wanting to do a more cinematic view of things now because there needs to be more of a point in our videos.
I've got one more question for you. There's so much in the video. What is one thing you want to make sure people catch after watching it.
Well, we hit on it a little bit before, but I do think that the girl not leaving the church is very important because not all of us get out of our own struggles and that’s a big problem. It’s dangerous. There’s danger in the world and it’s very, very easy for us to get stuck in that church and to get stuck inside those walls and stuck in ourselves. Just take your eyes off of people, take your eyes off of yourself and unite together.
Posted October 25, 2011 | Kevin McNeese founded NRT in 2002 and has worked in the industry since 1999 in one form or another. He has been a fan of Christian music since 1991. He lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two children.