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May 26, 2006

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I recently read Andrew Beaujon's Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside The Phenomenon of Christian Rock on the glowing recommendation of a friend who grew up as part of that scene. It's a fantastic book, especially for a reader such as myself who had only a passing knowledge of the music as I started in on the first chapter. I liken the experience to when I bought the Spin Alternative Music Record Guide when I was a young teenager - suddenly there was another canon to explore from yet another parallel musical universe. In addition to making artists like Pedro The Lion who I'd barely given much thought seem utterly fascinating, Beaujon approaches Christian culture with a sensitivity and curiosity that is quite rare for a secular music writer without sacrificing his critical judgement. I recently caught up with Mr. Beaujon to discuss his book, and share some songs by artists featured in its pages.

Matthew Perpetua: As an outsider to the world of Christian music, how did you come to write a book about it?

Andrew Beaujon: Well, it started with a conversation. My friend Jim Coe had just graduated from seminary in Richmond, and we were talking over dinner about his Christian-rock past. I talked to more friends about it, and I found out it was a really common experience for a lot of them - getting really into Jesus as a teenager, attending a festival or two, and then usually getting out of it during college. Jim mentioned that the Cornerstone Festival was a big one, so I pitched a story to the Washington Post about it, and they liked the idea. And that's really how it started. While I was prepping for the article, I couldn't find anything written about Christian rock that wasn't by Christians who loved Christian rock or Christians who loathed it. And being the enterprising sort....

MP: Was there much written about Christian music by non-Christians?

AB: Nothing I could find. The odd sneering article taking that "Planet America" tone, you know what I mean?

MP: Reading the book, I kept running into mentions of acts that I had no idea were Christian. I did not realize how many of the promos I've been sent over the past two years of so had been Christian bands. I've definitely written about a fair few bands without knowing that was part of their past. It's become amazingly mainstream in the last five years, was that part of the interest?

AB: Definitely. I had a similar experience when I was doing a piece on P.O.D. for Spin. I guess I knew they were Christians, but I'd never really given it much thought. But when you look at the numbers of Evangelicals in America, it's really striking how many people have this cultural background.

MP: Was Pedro The Lion at that first Cornerstone Festival you attended?

AB: Yeah. Bazan was drunk as a skunk.

MP: Were you familiar with Pedro before that show?

AB: Not really. I think the beard kept me away! You know, you're sorting through promos, you see facial hair...

MP: I don't have any idea what David Bazan looks like, actually. I just remember Pedro The Lion being on some decidedly secular mixtapes that I got from a friend back around 1999.

AB: He's interesting, because he does what a lot of Christian artists wish they could. He supports himself on the secular scene; he only does a couple Christian events a year, and I think he does them to mess with people. Not in a mean way -- I think he genuinely wants to shake the foundations of Christian kids' faith, to get them away from the literal take on the Bible.

MP: Do you think he would be able to work so freely outside of the Christian scene if he didn't have so many philosophical differences with the Evangelical movement? Or maybe not able so much as eager and willing.

AB: I dunno. I mean, it doesn't seem to hurt mainstream alternative acts, but on an indie level? I think those kids like their religion ironic.

MP: How much involvement have the Danielson Famile or Sufjan Stevens had in the Christian scene relative to Bazan?

AB: Danielson has played Cornerstone. Dunno about Stevens. I saw both at a conference about faith and music. I think Stevens is pretty uncomfortable with that whole scene, but he went to a Christian college, and I'll bet he knows a lot about it. Bazan is like an alien.

MP: How so?

AB: In that he has almost no grounding in pop culture, and you don't have to have grown up Evangelical to like his music. One time we were walking through a parking lot, and someone's car alarm was going off, and I mentioned to him that it sounded like the start of Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom." He'd never heard the song.

MP: Is there any particular song by Bazan that you find especially interesting or moving?

AB: I really like "Foregone Conclusions.”

Pedro The Lion "Forgone Conclusions" (Click here to buy it from Insound)

MP: If I recall, that's the song with swearing that the Cornerstone people had been freaking out about?

AB: Yeah, that's the one.

MP: What's going on in that song lyrically?

AB: Well, it starts out "I don't want to believe that all of the above is true.” It's about confronting absolute certainty. Christians are obsessed with absolute truth.

MP: How did you come to discover Larry Norman?

AB: It was just part of the research. He's such a big part of Christian music history.

MP: As of right now, I've only heard "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," which is a pretty amazing song. Is that representative of his catalog?

Larry Norman "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" (Click here to buy it from Cross Rhythms.)

AB: Kiiiinda. Some of the stuff is great. A lot of it is really average rock music, but there's always his crazy voice and the hectoring lyrics. It's sort of like hearing Pat Buchanan front an acid-rock band.

MP: He's become something of an outsider over time, is that right?

AB: Yeah, as I understand it he's pretty difficult to work with. He really dislikes the Christian music industry, and I get the impression the feeling is mutual. A couple people told me off the record that he's somewhat shunned.

MP: What tends to be the breakdown in the denominations of Christian acts? Are they primarily Evangelical?

AB: Yeah, I think it's pretty rare to have, say, Episcopalians doing Christian rock. That said, Sixpence None the Richer are Episcopalians. But in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, I don't think you've got the same orientation toward end times. American Christians, especially, are oriented toward getting their spiritual houses in order before the world comes to an end, and people who feel that way tend to associate mostly with one another.

MP: So is this the prime market for "worship music"?

AB: No, those are different markets. Worship music is pretty much strictly marketed as a way to "do church.” Most Christian rock is a lifestyle accessory.

MP: For people who've never heard worship music, how would you describe it?

AB: The best description I have is that it's rock music for church.

MP: As in, actual services.

AB: Yeah. A lot of it sounds like adult contemporary. On Wednesday nights, a lot of American churches have "worship services.”

MP: I appreciate the way that you describe in the book trying to enjoy worship music, and largely failing. But you did find some songs that you eventually liked, right?

AB: Yeah, and I really like David Crowder Band a lot.

MP: That's the one you compared to Dave Matthews?

AB: I like Dave Matthews, though. I have terrible taste! Crowder's also pretty influenced by Radiohead, Bjork, that sort of thing.

MP: Which is also the case for Mute Math, right?

AB: Yeah, definitely.

Mute Math "Control" (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

MP: Mute Math are one of the bands that I had the promo, and just had no idea about their Christian roots.

AB: Did you hear they're suing Warners?

MP: Really? What is the suit about?

AB: They're shocked, shocked that they're being marketed as a Christian rock act. I mean, come on, they're on Word!

MP: Why do you think they are so paranoid? I mean, at this point in time, it doesn't seem to hurt your chances of doing well in indie or mainstream rock, whether you're Sufjan Stevens or Switchfoot.

AB: I agree. I think Mute Math don't want people to think they're lame. You know, it is pretty serious. Very few acts can survive the Christian rock label.

MP: It seems like the people who do, it's mostly because they are obscuring it as much as they can. Like your friend, I was totally amazed to learn that Underoath was a Christian band.

AB: The interesting thing about that band is they don't downplay their Christianity. When I asked them about it they were like, "Heck yeah, we're a Christian band!"

MP: Do you think that if U2 were coming up now, they would have a better chance of being embraced as a Christian act? I mean, let's say that All That You Can't Leave Behind was their first album.

AB: I don't think so, because I don't think U2 make the same mistakes Christian bands do. They are who they are.

MP: The smoking and drinking and swearing taboo is that strong?

AB: Well, definitely that, but I think it's more that they sing about doubt. Doubt is not kosher.

MP: Well, isn't that the same for Pedro The Lion?

AB: I think he gets grandfathered in! He's sort of the house cynic. You know, the guy at work who's like, "This place sucks" and never gets fired?

MP: There also seems to be a general unease about European Christianity among Evangelicals, which I was aware of, but have never really given much thought.

AB: Well that's exactly the difference between U2 and Pedro, in terms of the Evangelicals' acceptance. Bazan grew up in Evangelical Christianity in America. He knows the language.

MP: Do you think the Christian record industry will ever see itself as a mainstream part of the music world? Or would that have to entail the obviously secular acts vacating the general market?

AB: I think there's probably going to be a lot more middle ground. I think Underoath are probably the model.

MP: How so?

AB: They're unabashedly Christian, but they don't only court Christians.

MP: Why them, and not, say, Switchfoot?

AB: Well, I think the trouble with Switchfoot is exactly why they'll never be U2. They try to relate to two different groups of people at the same time through lyrics that could be taken one way or another. They'll try to have choruses that mean one thing to Christians and another to alt-rock consumers.

MP: How obviously Christian are the lyrics of Underoath's songs?

AB: I don't know, I can't understand them with all that screaming! They're pretty emo. I think their music is more informed by faith than focused through it.

MP: I suppose that in terms of the general market, having barely discernable lyrics that are quite open about faith is roughly the same thing as having lyrics about faith that are vague to the point of seeming like they are about something else entirely.

AB: You may well be correct!

MP: The Evangelical population is constantly growing, right? To a certain point, the mainstreaming of Christian pop culture is inevitable.

AB: At a certain point, you have to wonder which is the outside culture. I mean, I think it's a lot more normal to grow up Evangelical than to grow up in New York!

MP: In terms of statistics in America, definitely. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, so there were always religious people, obviously, but it's just nothing like the Evangelical culture. It seems that even religious Catholics, Jews, and Protestants in the northeast tend to have some kind of divide in their lives between their cultural consumption, identity, and their chuch activities. The church is a lot more peripheral to social activity. It's somewhat hard for me to relate to growing up in a place where the church was the main hub of social activity for people other than old ladies.

AB: Well, that's the divide. When I was pitching this book, a lot of publishers (in New York, natch) were like, "Why would anyone want to read about this?" And then the election of 2004 happened.

MP: Is the assumption that people only want to read about their own lives?

AB: I think it's more insidious than that. I mean, I get probably two or three anti-Bush books a week which are really anti-middle America books in a lot of ways. The subtext always seems to be "what a bunch of rubes these people outside the cities are, how could anyone with any brains vote for Bush/be a Christian/etc., etc,. etc."

MP: Right. In fairness, it seems that people in "Middle America" are often equally dismissive of the Blue State people.

AB: Agreed. My feeling is, though, that if you can't understand where people are coming from, you can't find any middle ground.


Matthew Perpetua