Christian Rock's New Wave
As Southern boys given to singing about being born on the buckle of the Bible Belt, the young men in Audio Adrenaline are quick to hop on the backstage BBQ buffet. Lights are rigged, sound checks finished, the only thing left to do until show time is to kick back in the dressing room and wait for The Temple Theater in Tacoma, WA to fill. For diversion, there are phone calls home, guitars to strum, a jambox blasting rough mixes from the next LP. Though they are a successful rock band whose last LP sold 250,000 copies, the dressing room has none of the staples of the rock diet. There is no beer, no women, not a whiff of pot in the air. Laying on the floor of the dressing room, a crate holds a carton of nails used to attach the shoe to a horse's foot. In these idle moments, a band member will hammer and bend the nails into striking, heavy crosses to be sold as pendants along with T-shirts, posters, and CDs. An hour before the concert, a road manager pokes his head into the room to inform the band that the pre-show devotion and prayer meeting will be in the catering room in a half-hour. It is a scene closer to The Partridge Family than the normal picture of backstage decadence. "The only thing that might offend people," shrugs singer Mark Stuart, "is that our lyrics are pretty bold about what we believe in. We tell people we are Christian and the way to heaven is through Jesus Christ and that offends some people." For most music fans, Christian rock is an oxymoron. Images of Stryper, Amy Grant, or Petra are the only connection the secular world has with an industry that has, since its inception, been cloistered, conservative, and ignored. Thanks to Audio Adrenaline and a new breed of bands like them, there is a resurrection in Christian rock. The new bands are loud, proud, and based on record sales, they're probably not going away anytime soon. The Christian music scene is suddenly a growth industry with sales and concert receipts approaching a billion dollars a year. Seattle has taken the lead in a parallel industry of independent Christian bands (MxPx, Poor Old Lu, Gramma Train, Blenderhead) and is host to Tooth and Nail, the leading indie Christian label. In the past three years, Christian rock labels have been swallowed up by the likes of Sony, EMI, and BMG. Even secular independent labels have gotten in on the act with Chicago's Homestead releasing an LP by Soul Junk and Seattle's Sub Pop signing vocalist and Christian, Jeremy Enigk, to a three-record deal following the break-up of his previous band, Sunny Day Real Estate. The rap pop combo DC Talk (the DC stands for Decent Christian), the biggest band in all contemporary Christian music, sold more than one million copies of their last LP, Free at Last. Their newest record, Jesus Freak, debuted at No. 16 on the Billboard charts (between new LPs from Madonna and Alice in Chains), selling 86,000 copies in a week, the most successful Christian debut ever. Both DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline are now represented by the world's largest talent management agency, William Morris. Audio Adrenaline, often called the Christian Pearl Jam, are five twenty-something young men from Nashville. They are exceedingly friendly, earnest, and forthcoming about their beliefs. They are also selling records at an astonishing clip and, with a handful of other bands, are rehabilitating the concept of contemporary Christian music. Both DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline call Forefront Records home. Forefront, located in Nashville, TN, is among the largest of the Christian rock music labels. They have a major distribution deal, an efficient marketing machine, and a fan base that can only be described as devout. "The difference between what's happening now and what happened 15 or 20 years ago is that now there's money behind it," says Stuart. "Big companies are buying out Christian labels and they feel like they can make money, and they probably are. Now Christian artists are coming to the table and they are making good records. Five years ago you'd have gotten just a bunch of junk, now you're on the tip of a great music scene. It's a revolution that's taking place where the music is finally being targeted to the kids instead of the Christian bookstore owners." As for Audio Adrenaline, they are a guitar-driven alternative rock band similar to hundreds of other secular bands. In their best moments, Audio Adrenaline have the fire, dub-heavy bass, and slashing guitar of Fugazi. At their worst, they come across as a slightly cloying and cheesy pop band, pandering to the audience with a number the likes of "If You're Happy and You Know it Bang Your Head." "Our music is real competitive with what's in the secular world," says Stuart, a handsome man with a fashionable haircut and furrowed brow that adds conviction to a low, rough voice straining for emphasis. "When it first started, it wasn't that good, it was cheaply made, and there wasn't a lot to pick from. Now we're in our own industry and we're just getting able to compete, but we're still on a Christian label, in Christian bookstores, on Christian radio. There are walls built up around the industry. Within the Christian movement, we're considered radical because we play rock music. In the secular world's standards, we're shunned because we're Christians." Because Audio Adrenaline are good, and because they are selling records, the tension Stuart describes is a constant topic of conversation in Christian rock circles. If Christian rock music is finally marketable to the mainstream, how will they get them to heed the call? "We do actually sit around and try to figure out what our goals are," Stuart says. "Why do we do what we do? Is it to create the best music we can to glorify God? Is it to use music as a tool only to minister to kids? Is it to make money? All those things run through your head when you're in a business or ministry like this. We gotta be good businessmen or we wouldn't survive. We gotta create good art or the kids will snuff it out. They'll say we're posers, we're not for real. And above that, we are called to tell people about our relationship with Christ." None of these tensions are evident in the faces of the fans streaming into the theater. The 1,700 seat house, filled about three-quarters full, is humming with the unbuffered electricity of hundreds of young, sober Christians. Though there is an absence of drugs and alcohol, the other constant ever-present in rock music-sex-crackles in the air. Devout or not, when kids and rock 'n' roll combine, the attraction is magnetic. Though youth group counselors and moms and dads swarm the place, there is still an ozone snap in the air and tight blue jeans on stage. Maybe it's the anticipation of bona fide, undiluted rock 'n' roll that has the audience so jacked. Given the right beat, kids will listen to just about any message, and rock music has long been a platform for on-stage proselytizing from topics ranging from neo-Nazism (Skrewdriver), radical feminism (Tribe 8), anarchism (Crass), socialism (Billy Bragg), cop-killing (Ice Cube), drug use (Spacemen 3), straight-edge (Minor Threat), to Satanism (The Electric Hellfire Club). By extension, there's no reason Christianity shouldn't have its own romantic, countercultural rock heroes. "Christianity is one of the few things today that it's OK to be bigoted against," says Audio Adrenaline guitarist Barry Blair. "Christians get slammed a lot. We want to be known as a Christian band." The evening begins with Grits, a hardcore hip-hop band who send the kids flying out of their seats. Grits, entertaining and quite good, initiate a night-long audience screech that only dwindles when the lights go up and the bands change. Next up are Gramma Train, a Seattle band also on Forefront. Gramma Train are the quintessential Seattle band; bottom heavy, sludgy, and given to fits of flailing aggression. If they were not on this bill, it would be impossible to deduce their Christian leanings. They are loud, grinding, and not given to stage-side preaching. In fact, their only spoken message to the crowd is a mumbled apology for a broken wah-wah pedal. "We always feel like we have to take two steps back to explain ourselves when someone finds out we're a Christian band," says Gramma Train drummer Paul Roraback. "The first thing they think of is Spandex, or that we'll throw bibles, or preach. We're not like that. There's nothing that makes us special except that we accept the forgiveness that Jesus has for us since he died for us. Other than that, we are the biggest losers on the block." Gramma Train's music is certainly more extreme than Audio Adrenaline's. Their rock is heavy, uncompromising, and loud. That combination, they say, has not won them many fans in certain, more conservative circles. "We have some Christian suppliers who won't sell our records because our lyrics are too vague," Roraback claims. "Some people are thinking they are finding doctrinal problems with our music because they don't recognize the sarcasm in some of our lyrics." Those are not the only problems Christian bands are facing. According to Forefront's Missy Summeral, some Christian magazines will refuse to put a band on the cover if they are shown wearing ear rings or not smiling. Audio Adrenaline had a CD pulled from a chain of Christian bookstores because someone thought they mentioned beer in a lyric (they didn't). Though part of Forefront's Nashville scene, Gramma Train have taken it upon themselves to push the musical envelope. "A lot of Christian music you can identify after two seconds," says Gramma Train's singer Pete Stewart, "it's the worst quality. Growing up there wasn't any Christian music I could play in front of my friends who weren't Christians and not have to turn the stereo off right away. They'd go, 'What's this garbage?' It almost sounds sacrilegious, but the music does come first because we're a band. We're not preachers." "We tell people were on an indie label," says Roraback. "I'd rather not have people know we're on a Christian label and then have them stereotype us. I think a lot of the kids today think of Christian music as a style of music, which is sort of what it had become. It was not a good style of music. I think the stereotype is totally deserved. I think Christian music has shot itself in the foot." If Christian music has become known as a certain style, record labels like Seattle's Tooth and Nail may soon put the stereotype to rest. Tooth and Nail might just be the Christian rock equivalent to Sub Pop. Though they prefer to be identified as an indie rock label, Tooth and Nail is owned and operated by Christians. Their roster, approaching 30 bands, is dominated by Christian acts. The bands on Tooth and Nail are the best in the business and run the gamut from electro-pop (Joy Electric) to Pantera-like grind and thrash (Strongarm). Their best acts, Blenderhead, Joe Christmas, The Havalina Rail Co., Luxury, and Starflyer 59 are derivative of nothing and no one and show the depth and breadth of Christian rock's new wave. Their offices, located in the Pioneer Square district of Seattle, are much like any other indie rock operation. It's run by a small staff, the walls are plastered with posters, and rock music pours from the graphic designer's office. The only noticeable differences are that Tooth and Nail's office is neater than most and no one smokes. Started two years ago in Southern California, Tooth and Nail moved to Seattle in April of 1995. Since then, they claim to have grown 300 percent. According to the label's spokesman and A&R man, St. James Morelos, the label is on the cusp of a major distribution deal that will place their records "everywhere." "Our goal," says the fashionably gawky Morelos, "like any other independent label, is to put out legitimate music -- not music with an agenda. We put out the bands we like, period. The kids that are in the bands are legitimately into what they're doing. In Nashville or the corporate thing or a ministry thing, its like, 'We need to do an alternative band because that's what the kids are listening to.' It's a contrived thing, sadly enough." Morelos illustrates the two worlds of Christian rock; the corporate or "Nashville" scene dominated by DC Talk, Amy Grant, and Audio Adrenaline and the independent scene where Tooth and Nail has carved a dominating niche. The major difference, according to Morelos, is that bands like Audio Adrenaline consider themselves Christian missionaries first and musicians second. At Tooth and Nail, they'd prefer not to even be known as a Christian label. "Tooth and Nail has never marketed itself as something Christian," Morelos says. "We don't set ourselves up for that or the criticisms that go along with it. There isn't any other label that's done what we've done. It can be trying sometimes because we do get labeled, but it's not as if we're afraid to admit that we're Christian owned and operated and that our bands are Christian. I wouldn't say every member of every band is Christian, but we have no identity as a label with any organization, any denomination, or any agenda." By skirting Nashville and its homespun, conservative industry, Tooth and Nail has also skirted some touchy problems associated with Christian artists and their manicured, saintly reputations. While many labels insert "morality provisions" into their artist's contracts and run song lyrics past a review board, Tooth and Nail gives its bands free reign lyrically and artistically. "We don't apologize for anything we do," Morelos says. "We really believe in the people on our label and we really strive for integrity in business and in the bands. We do get flack [from other Christians] because people don't get it, but it's just silly. The question of whether a Christian can play punk rock, well, that's just out of the question." Morelos takes the opportunity to distance his label from the prevailing notions of American Christianity. "Often there is a political stance associated with religious convictions," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Like on abortion issues and gay issues. Tooth and Nail records, not being a Christian label, is not the right wing. The bands are given the freedom to express the art as they want. Whether it has a Christian message or not is not up to us. We're not gonna put a Bible verse on something to please someone and we're not gonna take one off to please someone else." Tooth and Nail's indie attitude, hip packaging, and roster of quality bands has only helped their image in the minds of Christian teens ravenously hungry for something -- anything -- cool with which to identify. It's all part of Tooth and Nail's plan to guide their bands toward secular acceptance by sneaking them under the Christian radar that repels most rock fans from the genre. So far, it seems to be working. Tooth and Nail's credible indie rock, mixed with messages Morelos terms alternately as "hopeful" and "positive" in place of "Christian," has lured big-time producers like Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Breeders, Wedding Present), Bryan Carlstrom (Orange 9mm, White Zombie), and Armond Petrie (Goo Goo Dolls, 10,000 Maniacs) into the studios with Tooth and Nail bands. MxPx, a group of 18-year-old punks with a sound reminiscent of Green Day or The Adolescents have appeared on MTV, snowboard videos, toured Japan as part of a Thrasher magazine blitz, and sold more than 30,000 copies of their last LP, Teenage Politix. The Bremerton, WA trio is the hottest thing on the indie Christian scene, and Morelos claims even the majors are interested. "The reason is because they are good," he says. "This might sound like an arrogant statement, but I think MxPx are better than most of the bands on Epitaph. I personally think they are better than Green Day. They do get under the radar because they are good and they are legitimate. They don't have an agenda. It's just good music." The image of Mike Herrera, vocalist and bass player for MxPx would not be the first to pop into your mind if the subject were Christian teens. Herrera favors bleach-blond hair, tattoos, earrings, sideburns, and creepers over Sunday church clothes. He also prefers full volume poppy punk to hymns. In conversation, he's as forthcoming as any 18-year-old could be, talking about music, touring, and using the word "rad" as many times as he can. Even though his band is poised at the cusp of Christian rock hugeness, Herrera claims he's never even listened to Christian music. Instead, he was raised on a diet of Southern California hardcore and thrash. "We don't claim to be a Christian band," he says. "It shouldn't matter. We're Christians, but we don't know about the Christian scene. Everybody's got their own opinions and they're entitled to that. We're not religious, we're more about being spiritual rather than following religious rules. I think a lot of times people are using God to sell music. I think it's jacked. You should always be real and sincere." In the face of an increasingly generic and commercially accepted punk rock scene, a band committed to a concept entirely devoid of coolness -- Christian spirituality -- seem to embrace the non-conformist ethic of punk more so than their often predictable secular brethren. Herrera is quick to see the irony of his position, but instead of attacking the peer pressure prevalent in many punk circles, he seems nonplused. "It's true, society is totally against God. I think were doing the best we can. I write words that are real to me, not to sell records or to save people. I write what I write because that's what I'm feeling, like anybody should. Being a Christian is part of my life, and that's why I do it." After listening to piles of CDs from Christian bands, some derivative and bad, other fresh and well done, the question still remains: Why now? Why is this music rearing its head at this time in this country? The easy answer is that Christian rock is a reflection of the times, a mirror held up by middle America that reflects the conservative, family-values stance of the nation's political climate. But while that may be true to some extent, most of these bands put a more acceptable, forgiving, and inclusive face on a Christianity that is seen by many as being hypocritical, close-minded, and intolerant. The Christianity espoused by many of the new breed of Christian rock is more populist and certainly more liberal than their dogmatic brethren. That combination; a U2-like blend of hopeful, fuzzy Christianity and aggressive, hard-driving, and original rock is often an unimpeachable combination for kids still searching for an identity. "Literally, to some kids, we've been their savior with a little s," Morelos offers. "A lot of this has to do with everyone being politically correct and being able to voice their opinions. Different lifestyles are a lot more acceptable, and that's cool for people." For Barry Blair of Audio Adrenaline, the answer comes back to the message. "Along with the whole alternative scene comes a realness, a willingness to say this is us, this is who we are. We're just going to be ourselves and we are Christians. People are looking for answers and I think this is where the answer is to be found." When Audio Adrenaline do finally take the stage, the theater goes ga-ga. With index fingers pointed aloft, they rip into one of their best songs, "We're a Band." It seems everyone in the theater, from the 12-year-old girls to the 50-year-old chaperones, knows the words Stuart hollers. "We're a band!/We're a band!/With guitars in our hands/For the Son of Man/ We will take a stand." Everyone in the theater believes him.