Indie Christian Band Atlas Rhoads on Temptation, Surrender, and Their Broken Tour Van
To those who think all Christian music sounds the same, I have something for you. This “something” is, according to Spotify, my most-played artist of 2019: indie Christian band Atlas Rhoads.
Atlas Rhoads — named after the road trip that started it all — is not in the business of making radio bops. You won’t hear them every hour on K-Love (though, if my friends and I had any say-so, you would). Their style fluctuates from track to track, ranging from lily-pure punk rock (“Holy Spirit,” “Bride”) to the wafting, transcendent, happy-crying-in-the-car (“Nothing Can Tear”). Then, there’s my personal favorite, “Pilgrim,” which boasts a commanding, symphonic bridge fit for a cinematic climax.
If the band’s tone is a pendulum’s swinging weight, varying in tandem with the members’ lives, then Scripture — their means of grappling — is its fixed point. Atlas Rhoads songs are about the Lord, for the Lord, and as they themselves contend, by the Lord. In essence, their tracks are verses of Scripture, and their experience of that Scripture, set to music. In the words of vocalist and guitarist Timothy (“Tim”) Riordan, their music is their “means of processing what God has done and is doing.” The result is an imaginative discography steeped in His words.
Though the band has been together since college, its members haven’t shared soil in a while. When I video-called Tim, Lauren Dorr (vocals), and Eric Blais (drums) back in late March, they answered from North Carolina, Israel, and Virginia, respectively. This conversation occurred during the chaotic beginning of the global COVID-19 shutdown, but reading this, you wouldn’t know it. Our laughter and hope are not due to ignorance or blind optimism, but rather to whom our discussion centered — Christ, our Lord, our living hope.
Tell me a little about your respective journeys toward Christ.
Lauren: My faith was instilled at a young age. I didn’t grow up in a great church community, so I wouldn’t say I came to faith in church. But my grandparents and even great-grandparents were all on the field serving the Lord, so I always had a solid understanding of who God was. When I went away to boarding school, my faith evolved from a youthful, familial faith into something personal. I began seeking Him — like really truly, on my hands and knees, seeking. And He revealed Himself to me, again and again.
Tim: Similarly, I always knew who God was. My dad’s a pastor, so the Bible was saturated into my way of life from the very beginning. Over breakfast every morning, my mom and I would read a Proverb together. And many nights, my dad and I would sit down with a devotional and read and sing. I believe I first surrendered my life to Christ at age 7. Like Lauren, I then underwent the process of growing in my own faith, apart from that of my family. Then in college, the Lord shaped my understanding of who He is. He shaped my faith, my theology, and my heart for worship.
Eric: Unlike Lauren and Tim, my parents were new to the faith when I was born. Their approach in raising me was a strange mix of legalism and “but we just love you and want you to know Jesus.” So, like a lot of kids, I grew up feeling like I needed to “do the Christian thing,” but my heart wasn’t in it. Besides my family and small church, everything around me pushed me away from Jesus. There was a lot of tension there. At age 14, I started playing music and joined some hardcore bands. We played some really terrible music…well actually the music was awesome. But lyrically, it was really dark. At that point, I had everything I wanted from life, but there was this deep void and dissatisfaction within me. I had this growing angst…like “what is life…is this it?”
Fortunately, I knew Scripture and had believers in my life consistently reaching out to me. I kind of figured that I’d think about faith when I got older, but my dissatisfaction pushed me to go ahead and search. When I realized that joy and abundant life in Christ were available to me right then and there, I went for it. I quit the bands and started playing drums in church instead. It was a church with like no production value. It was just me setting my drums up and playing with wood drumsticks…so basically the opposite of my hardcore bands [laughs].
When and how did each of you begin seriously pursuing music?
Eric: I ended up going to Liberty University, where I saw a full-production Christian band for the first time. I knew there were Christian bands out there, like I knew Creed and P.O.D. [laughs], but I didn’t know it was something I could do. I had these abilities and talents that I’d been using for selfish reasons my whole life, but now I wanted to offer them up for His purposes. So I started playing worship music in college. And then I was able to join Light, the university’s full-production band. And that’s where I met Tim…
Tim: I started songwriting when I was 12. That continued into high school, where I became a worship leader in our chapel. When applying to colleges, I auditioned for Light and didn’t make it, but I felt that the Lord was calling me to that university anyway. Once on campus, I eventually made it into the group.
And so it begins! How’d it go down?
Tim: At the time, I was taking a songwriting class and had been composing more than I ever had. I had no idea what to do with my work, because in my mind, I wasn’t a vocalist. I reached out to a few potential vocalists, asking if they wanted to start a band. Nothing came of that. Then, in 2013, I went on a road trip with six of my friends. Our trip involved a mix of hiking and playing music at various churches.
By the time we got back to school, word had gotten around that we had formed a band (we hadn’t) and a local musician asked if we would open her upcoming concert. No one else in my “band” was around, so I asked Eric if he’d open the show with me. He agreed, and after that performance, it was obvious. We were both just like “yeah, we’re supposed to do this.” So, we started playing together. Shortly after, I hosted a bonfire at my house, which is where we met Lauren. The two of us performed and then we heard Lauren perform. Again, we just knew it was the perfect fit. We had to have her with us.
Lauren: I was sitting at the bonfire with friends when they started playing “He Cries.” I was so moved, I started crying [laughs]. I was totally struck…I’d never heard the Gospel written so beautifully into a song. I just remember thinking “Whoa…they gotta put that out there.” I don’t remember what I sang that night, but I guess they heard my voice and saw my love for music, because a couple of weeks later, Tim wrote me and invited me to play a show with them. We sat down together, learned the harmonies, and played the show. After that, we played show after show and eventually, Tim was like “You should just join the band.” I felt right about it from the beginning. I knew I loved Tim and Eric. It wasn’t only that we blended well musically — there was a deeper connection and we all knew it.
And did you, Lauren, already have a background in music?
Lauren: Yes, but in a way, no. I grew up singing with my family…we were always chirping around our house. In school, I was always that kid who was trying to convince others to sing with them. When I got to college, I didn’t know whether to pursue music or art and graphics. I felt pulled toward graphic design, but I still had a longing for music. I remember being like, “OK, Lord, I’ll pursue graphic design, but I really hope I get to do music somehow.” I also remember sitting in my boarding school dorm with my guitar and saying, “Lord, it’d be so cool if I could join a band one day.” And here we are.
And sure enough, my graphic design background has benefited the band. I designed our self-titled album, as well as the graphics for our single “Nothing Can Tear.” It’s funny how the Lord works. He really does know the details…He knows and cares about the desires of our hearts. And He’s given me so much more than I asked for. He didn’t just give me Atlas Rhoads the band, He gave me life-long friendships.
Did you sense that God wanted you all together? Did He confirm that He was in it with you?
Tim: Yes. In so many ways. He’s certainly confirmed us as a community of people doing life together. He’s been awakening us as a group to who He is. Atlas Rhoads is equally a band and a community of people. Our families come together for Bible studies, games, and prayer nights. We’re like a small church.
Lauren: Together, we’ve gotten to know the Lord in a new way. He’s also pushed us toward a greater understanding of His purposes for us, not only as a band, but individually. We’ve grown together.
Eric: And I think our music is an overflow of that…of our community and of what we’re going through. For instance, “Nothing Can Tear” came out of a season of uncertainty. We were seeking the Lord and we weren’t quite sure what was going on, but we were confident in His love and that nothing could tear us from it.
Tim: We also receive a special sort of confirmation when people all over the world tell us about how the Lord has spoken to them through the songs.
Lauren: There have also been major seasons of confirmation, like during our 2015 tour with the band Future of Forestry, where it’s just been so clear that God was bringing us together at that exact moment for His purposes.
How has the Lord guided your steps as a band?
Lauren: So, in 2017, I joined a discipleship training program at a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) base in New Zealand. This one night, the staff had us lay down a possession as an exercise in worship and surrender. People were giving up guitars, computers, things of that nature. I didn’t think I had anything to give, until the Lord reminded me that I had my in-ear monitors, which I used on tours. He told me to lay them down, but not only those — also everything I do and create…Atlas Rhoads, as well as my vision for everything creative. I surrendered it all. Soon after, a fellow student told me that she’d had a vision of our band touring around the United Kingdom. I was like, “God, what?? I just laid that down!” [laughs] At that point, the three of us were all living in different parts of the world and Eric and Tim were both planning to settle down…so, I was kind of skeptical. I didn’t tell anyone in the band about it. I just kind of shelved it in my mind.
Lo and behold, two weeks later, I got a long text from Tim proposing that we tour the United Kingdom! His message essentially matched the YWAM student’s prophecy word-for-word. He was like “Hey, Lauren…dot dot dot…” [laughs] [continuing] “This might sound strange, but we really feel like God is calling our band to the U.K…We don’t know what that means, but would you be willing to commit to that for maybe a year?” I was in total shock. In the end, I’d had that exercise in surrender with the in-ears just before the Lord called me to surrender in this massive way. That’s a recurring lesson for me with Atlas Rhoads. It’s a continual exercise in surrendering my own thoughts and plans. I’ve also learned to lay down my own gifts. I’m like, “Lord, you started this!” These are God-given gifts and I want to use and steward them well.
Eric: Surrender is at the heart of it. There have been seasons during which we haven’t played Atlas Rhoads music at all, but have instead led worship in rooms of 10 or so people. We’re just like, “This has nothing to do with the music we write, but it’s where the Lord wants us right now, so let’s do it.” And then there have been times when the Lord has allowed us to be in front of thousands of people! It’s all taught me to be open-handed with everything in life. For instance, moving back to my college town was the last thing I ever wanted to do, but I can see the Lord’s hand in it.
And more generally, the Lord has made it possible for us to be together, despite us living in different corners of the world. But we’ve always told the Lord, “We want to be faithful to you, wherever we’re at.” We’ve all tried to have a willing spirit and keep our hands open.
Like with the U.K., Tim, his wife, and my wife and I all moved there, but Lauren had to split her time between Israel and the U.K. Looking back, it’s like “How, logistically, did we even make any of that work?” Those were crazy obstacles. But that year is a testament to what God can do when you remain surrendered to His will. God does things that seem impossible or unrealistic or maybe, in our eyes, even unwise. God is God. The whole world is His.
Have there been problems solved or obstacles overcome that you all can only credit to God?
Tim: Right before that 2015 tour, we bought this junky, 20-year-old tour van. We named her Gladys [laughs]. We drove her from Lynchburg, Virginia all the way to San Diego, with a pit-stop in Texas to pick up Lauren. We practiced with Future of Forestry for a few days in San Diego, then took Gladys on tour. We drove from California to Chicago, down through Tennessee, and back across California. In the desert of California, with two shows left to go, Gladys broke down. It was 3 o’clock in the morning.
Fortunately, a good friend was willing to pick up a truck and pull us and all of our gear to the next concert. We finished out the last two shows and flew home on Christmas Eve. Though we’d made it home, all of our gear was stuck in California. It would cost a fortune to ship it and we were broke. Things looked dire, but then people just came out of the woodwork with donations. Through all of that, we really saw the Lord’s church come together. Because of them, we were able to finish our tour, make it home, and ship 1500 pounds of gear across the country.
Do any challenges stem from the faith-based nature of your work?
Tim: It’s difficult for indie Christian artists to make a living. We’re not creating three-and-a-half minute radio singles that sound like typical contemporary Christian music. We’re all worship leaders; we love worship, but we’re not making congregational worship music. So, finding our avenue hasn’t been easy.
Eric: In the West, especially in America, Christian music has become an industry. It’s a money-making thing. It’s not necessarily bad; none of us knock it, we just don’t fit into it. There have been moments where we considered trying to make ourselves fit. Well, if we just write a couple of radio-friendly songs… You know? But it always comes back to asking the Lord what He has for us. For now, we all work full-time jobs and just make music out of the overflow of our hearts. None of us are really concerned about creating a living out of this…we’re concerned about doing what God created us to do and reaching His people.
Tim: God has given us these words — we’re just blessed to be pouring them out and hopefully bringing the world to Him in a fresh way.
Well, it’s certainly a fresh way…perfect for sharing with unbelievers. Speaking of, do you guys have a message for unbelievers, or perhaps, new Christians?
Lauren: Keep seeking truth and you will find it.
Eric: Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Tim: Keep pressing in. There’s so much to be gained ahead. Growing in Christ is a beautiful journey that can only be had by pressing in and abiding in His Spirit. The Word is legitimately alive and prayer is actual communication…until we can really grasp that, we’re missing out on something truly amazing.