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Sonny Sandoval discusses journeys of faith, facades, and P.O.D.'s return

Sheila Esmaili-Doki, Music Examiner, interviews Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D. in Dallas, Texas
Sheila Esmaili-Doki, Music Examiner, interviews Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D. in Dallas, Texas
Sheila Esmaili-Doki

Forrest Gump once said, "You know it's funny what a young man recollects? 'Cause I don't remember bein' born. I don't recall what I got for my first Christmas and I don't know when I went on my first outdoor picnic. But I do remember the first time I heard the sweetest voice in the wide world."

I understand what Mr. Gump means, though his life has clearly been a tad different than my own and I won't be referring to Jen-nay, shoes, pang-pong or peas and carrots today. But keeping up with the format of his fond memories and random musings in life, I give you this: I don't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, who my last phone conversation was with, or where I put the tenth pair of sunglasses I have purchased this year. However, I will never forget hearing the first band to get me into rock and metal music when I was fourteen years old, P.O.D.

To make a long story short, P.O.D.'s music has served as a tremendous source of peace and inspiration for me during countless pivotal moments in my life, influencing me in a number of excellent ways. I am certain that I would be a different person today had I not discovered that band back then. The musical aspect of it is just the tip of the iceberg: through P.O.D., I discovered Blindside, and through the tour the two aforementioned bands did together (my first rock concert ever, in May 2004), I discovered Lacuna Coil, which led me to an entirely new world of music I highly doubt I would have discovered otherwise. It was a chain reaction, and not only in a musical sense. P.O.D. was always my "go-to" band to make me feel. Their positivity has somehow proven contagious to me. I consider myself fortunate and blessed, and I have always generally been a content individual, but whether it was stress over a Pre-Cal test in eleventh grade or aggravation because I'd went to the orthodontist and the pain was agonizing when they tightened my braces -- anything ranging from trivial nonsense to authentic discord in my life -- it was always this band's music I would turn to. For that, I'm grateful. Those memories are endless and it's truly incredible to reflect upon.

I had the chance to meet P.O.D.'s frontman, Sonny Sandoval, in Dallas, Texas, for the first time on August 2, 2013, and speak to him about a variety of topics. P.O.D. returned last year with a strong album, Murdered Love, one of the most diverse in the band's 20+ year career. Sandoval's unique insight on a number of things really resonated with me. It was simply an honor to interview him, and if there's a more humble, approachable musician than Sandoval around, I would be extremely surprised. Read on.

Sheila Esmaili-Doki: P.O.D.'s latest album Murdered Love is your best in many years. You took a five-year hiatus. What new perspectives did you gain upon your return, and how did that influence your writing?

Sonny Sandoval: It had a lot to do with it. We had been a band for fifteen years, you know… been on our own, signed to a major, sold millions of records, been all around the world, got a whole different perspective on the world in general, and I think for me, just…so caught up in this industry, and the institution of the church, Christianity, rock and roll -- everything -- it takes its toll on you. So I had just laid down P.O.D. in my heart. I went home to be with my wife and kids. For me, it was really over. In that time, I got to do a lot of charity stuff, and work with ministries, and church organizations, and just do awesome things that I felt were Godly -- and at least warmed my heart. And God just kind of reminded me of the platform He has given me. Sure enough, I came back to P.O.D. and this industry on my own terms and made a record that was from my heart.

SE: P.O.D. has always had such a wide range of influences: rock, metal, reggae, hip-hop. Which album to date do you feel most accurately represents how versatile P.O.D. is?

SS: I would have to say this record, Murdered Love, just because it's twenty-one years later and our experiences have gotten…so big, you know. And you're always making records for that time, however you feel. That is one of the reasons, like I said, that we walked away from it -- there are always so many people trying to tell you what your band should be, "Hey, do you want to sell a million records again?" -- everybody's got their opinions. It's kind of like, when we went away for five years, it's almost like we dropped everything. And some people referred to it as "rock'n'roll suicide", leaving that long. But for us, it was more like just emptying ourselves of everything and coming back, saying, "Dude, I don't care if I play a sports arena; I don't care if I play a sold-out, 8,000-seater room. I'll play a 200-seater club and if whoever's going to be there is going to be genuine" know what I mean - and honest, and love the music, and have stuck with us all that time…that's just kind of the way we want it.

SE: In the past 20+ years of P.O.D.'s career, what are some of the most significant changes you have seen in the music industry, especially going from cassettes and CDs to the world of downloading and social media?

SS: It's good and bad, you know. I mean, it's great if you're a new band starting off. There are so many outlets to get your music out there. You don't need the major labels; you can do things on your own, with technology. People are writing and recording in their bathrooms. That's a good thing, in a sense, but at the same time, I think it waters down a lot of the passionate and creative artists out there, because now, anybody can be in a band or make a record, whereas before it was a struggle. It was a life commitment, you know what I mean? Now it's more like, "let me do something as a hobby. Let me do something for fun before I go off to college". These people, these bands, you hear their stories -- they dedicated everything, just going for it. That's kind of something that P.O.D. did. But now it's tough, with us, an established band, we have to tour and hustle more than we ever have before. Because nobody sells records anymore. So, there's a downside to it, you know?

SE: What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges for Christian youth today? You have never been ashamed to talk about your faith. What do you think are some of the major issues Christian musicians in particular might face in today's world?

SS: It depends. We never came out and said, "We're a Christian band", for the sole purpose of marketing to Christians. If anything we were just so open about our faith, and there was that Christian world that I had no idea existed, and they said "Wait a minute - these guys are Christians, and they're playing in clubs, and playing in the real world"…and it's almost like they were trying to bring us over to that side…for me, I never tried to market my faith as a selling point. And the hard part is that there are believers that are in bands and they're doing their job, you know; they're living their life, they're believing in Jesus. Whereas, on the flip side, there is a Christian industry where a lot of it is just a front, it's just "let me say 'Jesus' let me wear 'Jesus'", but it's still an industry. It makes billions of dollars a year. I'm not saying that there's not genuine worshippers out there that are putting out music. If I like a guy and think it's genuine, I buy his music, and I listen to it, and I praise the Lord with it. But a lot of it is industry. And they're out there, doing what they love, and I guess they sleep better at night if they call it Christian. Because, again -- the big bad wolf of going out and just being excellent at what you do, in the real world, and you can still be Christian and be in the real world, and be excellent at it, you know. When I meet guys who are like "Hey, I'm a believer; I'm in a band", I'm just like "Just be excellent. Love God. Don't get caught up. Don't get tripped out. Don't fall for the facade. If you're in love with Jesus, and your faith, and that's #1 to you, that doesn't matter. You're going to go, do whatever you want to do, be who you are gonna be, whether you're a doctor, or a school teacher, a construction worker, or if you're in a band. Just love Jesus and stay intimate with Him. It doesn't have to be classified as, "I'm a Christian this; I'm a Christian that." To me, that's industry. Now I could understand if it was an industry that didn't make any money, and they gave all their money to charities and built orphanages all around the world, but that's not the case. There are just as many millionaire "Christian artists"…so that's where…my thing is like, I don't want to get caught up in that. And I think sometimes, especially I meet these guys, "Yeah, I recently gave my life to the Lord! Yeah, we're a Christian band now!" I think sometimes they live their life and they were lost for so long that there's that zeal, there's that excitement, like "I want to give God the glory, I want to do everything", but there's a lack of maturity. I think we did the same thing, too, when I got saved. I almost…I just vomited at the mouth, everything…you know what I mean? I was just so excited about it, without really having the maturity 21 years later, like "Okay, God…now that I have shut my mouth and I am actually at your feet, and I can go and just love, and know when to speak and know when to shut my mouth and know when to say this and know when not to say that, and live it more than just talk it." It's maturity. So again, my thing is, if you're going to do music, and do it with passion and heart and give God the glory…it doesn't have to be this showboat, Christian activity, because 99.9%, that's all pharisee, so beware…I had some kid tweet me the other day who said, "Why haven't you ever said Jesus in your lyrics?" and I said, "First of all..that's not true. Second of all, does that make you think that I'm 100% sold out for Jesus, because I could write a song that can fool you, just like that? It's like…look at my life, let me live my life, check out my resume, you know what I mean? (laughs) If I'm a faithful, loving husband, and I love being a daddy, and I love being a friend and a brother to people around me, isn't that what it's supposed to be like? Isn't that what it's supposed to be about? So there's a fine line there. I always encourage people. I can pray with somebody, and somebody genuinely gives their life to the Lord, I can tell them: Go and LIVE what you feel now. Go believe in Jesus. You shouldn't have to tell people that you're a Christian. Everybody wants to put the name Christian on something. You shouldn't have to tell them you're a Christian. They should see you and say "That's love of Christ." It was the disciples, it was the Greeks that watched them and -- this is the only time Christian is mentioned in the scriptures -- they said, Aren't you guys Christians or something? "Little Christ"… you know what? Yes, we are, yes we are! And then those guys went on -- after Judas killed himself -- the last ten disciples…nine would die and be a martyr for the cause of Christ, and one would live to tell us how the world is going to end. To me, that's Christian. If someday I can wear that title, by the grace of God, if He wants to give it to me, so be it. But I don't flippantly go off saying "I'm in a Christian band, I'm Christian this, I'm Christian that; this is Christian, check out my Christian product, buy it, Christians." I don't do that. I fear that. And it's a very fine line. So if God wants to call me a Christian, I'll take it (laughs).

SE: It's leading by example. Actions speak louder than words.

SS: And not only that, it's the stereotype, the stigma -- that the institution, and I always say the institution of Christianity -- has. Because it's different. You can ask me my opinion of it, but you can ask somebody, a couple different people about it, somebody who wants nothing to do with God, and you can ask somebody who was raised in the church and who now wants nothing to do with God. Everybody's different stories, they will trip you out. And my experience is all these stories: I just say, okay, God, I could easily get jaded so quick. Even the Christian family I was supposed to have, they haven't had our backs since we started. So that's been the tough part. Now I just say, okay, I have to make sure I'm aligned up with God and the spirit and not count on all that.

SE: Very well said. The song "Hollywood", from The Fundamental Elements of Southtown -- I always thought the lyrics were so powerful. You have probably seen so musicians over the years who have kind of taken that route, to where they lose who they are. How does that make you feel to witness that, and how do you stay grounded?

SS: You know what, I have to confess, even since that song, I've fallen into that trap myself. It's just…I think for us, even as believers in this industry, saying "I'm going to go on with the full armor of God, and I know what I believe in and I know what I stand for"… you don't know until you're out there. THEN you know how strong your armor is, you know what I mean? Is it true faith, and is it genuine and real faith, or is it "I'm a Christian by routine and because I said a prayer and I'm saved"? I see guys coming in there, they're holy rollers, Pentacostal, they're just flailing in the spirit, and the next time you see them, it's like "Eh." Because we get jaded. And me too. For the longest time, you just get sick of so much stuff… I never lost faith in Jesus, I lost faith in the institution of church, and people. To this day…you get just as many people who hate you, that are believers in God, and that's what wild (laughs). We're human. It hurts, you know what I mean? We're not robots. We're out here, and we've been hustling and working so hard for years, and we see so much good fruit of it, and then you see someone who comes in who really doesn't know what they're talking about, and they just want to sound religious, and they just want to sound like they've got it all figured out, and come and just attack everything you're about…it hurts. But at the same time, you look at the life of Jesus and that's exactly what happened. So it's…again, I always say, for me, the Bible says that I have to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling, and I do that. I don't walk in any of these clubs thinking that I'm untouchable. I mean, I know God's got my back, but I know that I'm human, and I know that if I'm not grounded in His word and I'm not in constant communication, and in God's presence… that doesn't mean that I'm perfect, and I'm not trying to sound like I am holier than anybody else. But I'm also…my experience is big and I'm not foolish to know…to see… everybody who comes in and they walk out; sometimes people walk out and, again, they come out here and get destroyed.

SE: What is your take on the issue of "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Often, people lose faith because of that, saying "Why does God let this happen to me?"

SS: First of all, you've got to understand that we live in a sinful world, we live in a fleshly world; God gave us choice. Without choice, without freedom, then we would be robots and we wouldn't experience the relationship that we have with God, and things happen. God's got His boundaries, and He says, don't leave my boundaries; these are my arms around you, holding you in tight to my soul and to my heart. But as people, we find ways to get outside of God's boundaries. That's the crazy part. We allow ourselves…we remove ourselves from God's boundaries, and when things happen, we want to blame God for it, and I don't think that's fair. I mean, obviously, things happen and they're unexplainable…you know, I think that's where true faith does come in. Even in the Old Testament scripture, Habakkuk is praying, "God, I watch all these people doing bad things, and I'm trying to live my life for You and live by Your scripture and do good, and I see all these wicked people prosper". It gets frustrating. I see that too. I see people like, "Why does that guy…he doesn't have financial worries, and these guys are wicked, you know" … But that's the physical. That's not the eternal. Our riches are in our salvation and in Heaven. If you think of the eternal, you have paradise to look forward to. A lot of these people are just living it up in their life, unless…if they realize one day that they need a Savior, and they have the eternal to look forward to. I believe God works all bad things out for the good, and unless we stay faithful and kind of hang in there, we might not see it. And sometimes it's not for us to see. Again, I can't explain things. I pray every day for the safety of my friends, my family, myself…because I always pray to God -- God, I know you won't give me more than I can handle…please don't…because I want to say that I'm strong, you know? But I have to go through things in my life that I think about all the time, like, how strong is my faith? Would I just accept everything and say 'God's rule, God's glory, God's plan', or would I sit there and challenge it? I have in the past, through my own weakness. I guess that's just where our faith comes in. You either believe in God and trust Him, or you don't.

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