Christian Rock Lifers #2: Steve Taylor

Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside The Phenomenon Of Christian Rock
May 2006
© 2006 Andrew Beaujon
Pages 95-104

Nowadays, Steve Taylor is a pillar of the Nashville Christian music community, but there was a time when he was its Marilyn Manson, Dr. Demento, and Eminem rolled up in one. Taylor first started blowing toupees back with his I Want to Be a Clone EP in 1982, the title track of which lampooned unthinking, "assembly line" Christianity. But the then twenty-five-year-old Taylor was just as harsh on the secular world: in "Whatever Happened to Sin?" he blasts a country where "the closets are empty, and the clinics are full."

In The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, Mark Allan Powell reckons that Taylor, who soon took on racism in the church, as well as moral relativism and euthanasia, managed to maintain a prominent place in the industry because he basically attacked the church from its right flank with "critiques ... that do not question the basic assumptions that underlie some of the foibles of American Christianity." Regardless, Taylor didn't choose an easy road for himself in the only genre where, as Powell also notes, controversy "tends to hurt sales." His antics made him a hot potato for record companies, even though he sold lots of records for the time and was one of the genre's first real superstars.

Taylor took a break from the Christian music industry in 1991, when he moved to London and formed a group called Chagall Guevara, which signed to MCA in the general market. No experiment is a failure, but Chagall's self-titled debut certainly bombed, saleswise, despite good reviews from secular publications. Taylor returned uncowed to Christian music with the excellent Squint in '93. Inspired by albums like the Clash's London Calling, Taylor's insistence on first-class recording and playing, as well as his sharp wit, set a new standard for the often middling Christian market.

He also introduced Christians to the art of the remix, from the three versions of the title track of his first full LP, Meltdown at Madame Tussaud's, to an album of nothing but remixes in 1985. With his recording career ceasing to holds his attention, Taylor began to produce other artists, notably Newsboys, and direct music videos.

In 1992, Taylor founded his own record company, Squint Entertainment, where he signed Chevelle, L.A. Symphony, and Burlap to Cashmere. Squint really made its bones, however, with its first signing, Sixpence None the Richer, whose single "Kiss Me" went to No. 1 in ten countries, in no small part due to Taylor's ferocious championing of the band (pestering the single's way onto the She's All That soundtrack, for instance).

In one of those moves that must make sense to record executives, the successful label was wrested from Taylor's control by its corporate parent, Word, in 2001, and then shuttered, its bands distributed to other Word-owned labels or dropped, its unreleased records mostly shelved. Since then, Taylor's mostly devoted himself to film and production and completed his first major motion picture, The Second Chance, which was released through Sony Pictures Classics in February 2006. It stars Michael W. Smith as a pastor in a comfortable, predominantly white, Nashville evangelical church, who's forced to confront racial inequity within and without the church.

I spoke to Taylor as he was waiting to get his cars inspected.

It seems like your film is addressing something of an elephant in the room when it comes to American evangelical Christianity: race.

STEVE TAYLOR: Yeah. It's certainly an insider's peek. And, you know, I've actually found that most Christians I know don't mind being criticized. They go to church every Sunday to hear a sermon, usually directed at them! They don't especially like it coming from the outside.

That was sort of how you made your mark on Christian music in the beginning.

In some regards, that's kind of my MO.

Do you think that appreciation of criticism is genuine?

As far as fellow Christians? Yeah, because the Bible is full of stories of people who God used in spite of their faults. And, as Christians, you know, we believe that we are sinners saved by grace and Christ's atoning work, so it's always an odd thing when you see a Christian maybe who works within the public eye who comes off as arrogant. And it's particularly troubling when maybe you see a talk show host or something like that who, uh...

Calls for the assassination of a world leader? [Televangelist Pat Robertson had urged the U.S. to "take out" Venezuelan prime minister Hugo Chavez a few days before we spoke.]

Yeah! Well, exactly. Because it's so completely at odds with the Gospel message, and I guess, to his credit, [Robertson] apologized, whereas some people wouldn't bother to apologize. You know, you could sort of excuse it from people with other points of view, but Christians, we really don't have any excuse for that kind of behavior.

Are you very politically minded?

I've always had a very strong pro-life viewpoint, but as far as politics in general go, I've kind of stayed more apolitical--just because political affiliations invariably involve a lot of compromises and a lot of alliances, and, usually, you throw your hat in the ring and stay with somebody, and they disappoint you. I certainly wouldn't consider myself a very politically engaged person outside of those areas where the Bible speaks really specifically and strongly to me. And those would be pro-life areas and also peace and justice and helping the poor. So, my political views don't usually end up sitting very well in either party.

Do you know the band Pedro the Lion?

I don't know David, but I'm real familiar with them.

He told me that one of your songs really affected him when he was a kid, "Sin for a Season." He didn't even want to play it for his parents because he was worried it might be too ambiguous.

Oh, right!

He grew up in a really strict home. You were a real turning-point artist for him, apparently.

Huh. That's a high compliment because I really like his lyrics.

Were you allowed to listen to secular music growing up?

No. In fact, I didn't have a radio till I was fifteen or sixteen.

Holy mackerel. You were a music major, right?

Yeah, in college. That's not to say we weren't musical. I would listen to Top 40. The DJ at the Top 40 station was realy kind of arch and opinionated. He would play certain songs and say, 'Frankly, I hate this song, but...' Even though I didn't know that much, I still became a really opinionated guy! As I've told people, I didn't get fully musically engaged until [the Clash's] London Calling. A real turning point for me.

You said in a documentary I saw [Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?] that London Calling really changed your life.

I was still musically minded, but that was the thing that made me wanna get serious.

So you got saved, so to speak. And when you started making music, you were almost immediately controversial.

It would be a little disingenuous of me to say I don't know why. The songs weren't done with the intent to offend, but I had a feeling they would be controversial, just because there was no satire to speak of in Christian music at the time.

Was it commercial suicide?

There was a song on a later record called "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good." It was probably satirical. [It was about an ice cream man who destroys an abortion clinic to ensure future customers.] I'm not even totally sure it was such a good idea in retrospect, but I remember I was on a tour in Australia, and some kind of Geraldo-type guy in Australia picked up on and started doing these attacks on the songs. This guy would come into town, like, "This needs to be stopped!" and I ended up being on Australia's version of the Today Show saying it was a satirical song.

Conventional wisdom would way, "What a godsend for a tour!" And every date ended up being canceled except for the Sydney date! It was a disaster! So, yeah, that's where I realized that old say "any publicity is good publicity" doesn't work in Christian music.

What about that early stuff--do you like it now?

Well, I don't like any of my work, particularly, because the more I've got into producing, the harder it is to pull yourself out and listen to these things with any kind of objectivity. I'm like, 'That's a stupid sound. What was I thinking?' And plus, you know, like, maybe every other song lyrically feels like, that feels pretty good, but a lot of them, they were just so much specific to their time, and now they seem either dated or melodramatic, or there's a verse that I wish I wouldn't have put in, so I really just have nothing but regrets!

Your production career seemed to mark the rehabilitation of Steve Taylor.

Well, the producing has been a strange trajectory, because I followed up. I dabbled in it a little bit, particularly with my own stuff, coproduced things, and had done one really obscure record in England right before we started Chagall Guevara.

It was right when the band--we hadn't broken up yet, but we were trying to get out of our MCA deal, which led me to producing a Newsboys album. And, you know, originally just helping them out on some lyrics turned into a full-blown production, and it was very much a pop production. And what they needed lyrically was, generally speaking, not something that I would have done with my own records. But, on the other hand, it was great fun and a great experience as more of a craftsman I suppose--

I imagine in some way it's like taking you out of the equation.

In some way it was. Because there would be songs, most of these songs were songs I would never have done for my own records. But, on the other hand, I really loved doing it. One of the difficulties of being an artist is that, no matter how hard you try, you still get boxed in by your part work. And if you totally ignore that, you do so at your own peril. I remember a string of records Neil Young did in the '80s where there was a rockabilly record, one was an electronic record--what are you this month? But, at the same time, [he was] learning how to make records and learning how to use the studio to full effect, learning to become a better musician in the process.

You've had an impact on secular music, too, particularly modern rock.

I would call it, maybe, a moderate impact, but hey, I'll go along with you!

Stick with me kid!

When I was doing the Squint label, when I felt like a band had real talent, I was just really passionate about bands that I thought were great. And, certainly, Sixpence was a band like that. And Chevelle was a band like that.

The hip-hop collective L.A. Symphony--that record never got released. We had Will from Black-Eyed Peas do four of the tracks, before, you know, Black Eyed Peas got ruined by that chick singer! And Prince Paul produced a track, but beyond all that, they were fantastic rappers; they were just, like, writing some of the best lyrics I was hearing anywhere. So, I don't miss the record business at all. And I don't really miss running a record label. But I miss that sense of, you know, when you find a really great talent, you wanna do whatever you can to get the world to hear it.

But that's almost an unproductive attitude in the music industry.

Yeah, it's not a commonly held belief. Part of the reason of having a record label where I controlled its destiny was because the frustration of making a good record, and the Squint record is the one record I made that I can still listen to, and having, in that case, what appears to be a relationship with Warner Bros., and the possibility of getting it heard further, and just coming up against brick walls that had nothing more than people deciding, 'Well, that's not my department.' And it's really frustrating.

Did you ever feel that being a Christian ever kept you from more mainstream acceptance?

Probably nobody would have articulated that as such, but yeah, I think that's true. A lot of Christian artists use that as an excuse for not making good music, but you still are dealing with a certain amount of prejudice, mostly along the lines of the kind of old school believe that rock 'n' roll is primarily about rebellion, and how can a Christian be rebellious?

But I do think--and part of it's because, frankly, I could have held out for a few more years and waited to get signed to a mainstream label, but the early response came from a Christian label, and at that point, in the '80s, nobody knew how separate the two worlds would become in the next few years. And now, of course, we live in an age where they're less separate, actually.

Things do seem to be converging. Obviously, one of the bigger innovations has been better quality.

Right. I think also--you know, when I was touring, we were playing in theaters. I kind of had a rule not to play in churches, but even if I wanted to play in churches, there weren't that many churches that would have had us. And that's really changed, and now there's almost, like, a circuit of churches and church gymnasiums and things like that were these bands played. And so, a lot of them are frankly better than their mainstream counterparts. They can play better; they've had more road experience. In the '80s, the flavor of the year one year was signing Australian bands, and it was because all these bands were growing up playing in pubs in Australia, and they were better bands. Part of the problem in America is, if you're a young band, you can't really playin in clubs because they won't let you in if you're under eighteen. So, this circuit for Christian rock bands developed [and] allowed bands to actually get good.

It almost reminds me of the punk underground when I was a kid. Do you stay in touch with that scene?

I don't at all. My answer would so completely be based on ignorance. I know there's a lot of good bands around, I'm just not listening to it. I've gotten to where I actually enjoy music again, which--

Oh, man, I am so jealous of you.

Well, that's it! When you work in it, it's almost impossible to enjoy it because you're kind of evaluating everything as you listen to it. But, like, my favorite album of the last year is the Arcade Fire. And there's a great indie record store in town where I'll just go and say, "Tell me what's good." They'll load me up.

Do you ever get besieged by crazed Christian rock fans?

I still get a lot of CDs and demos. I just went through another stack the other day because I felt bad about not listening to them. But I don't have a way for people to e-mail me.

It was hard to find you!

I know, I know. There's a guy in Memphis who does a fan website, and I think once in a while he'll forward me something.

What would it take for you to start doing music again?

It probably would take a long stretch of open time, and a complete failure of this movie, frankly.

Is movie-making where it's at for you now?

That was always kind of the idea. Even when I was in college, I studied music as a major and film as an undeclared minor. And I was doing some short films in college and right out of college. I figured I'd get into film sooner or later. As I got going, I kind of felt like music was kind of a younger person's game, and that film, I might actually benefit from accumulating a certain amount of years and wisdom before I jumped too seriously into that. So, you know, I still dabble in music videos and things like that. But that was kind of my long-range plan, to get into filmmaking.

So, what's your next film?

Well, the next project, I'm hoping it's just a straight comedy. I gotta start raising money for it. The script's almost done. I think it's funny. It seems funny to me and the guys writing it. When we were doing The Second Chance, the editor's one of the cowriters, and I kept telling him, 'You know, if this is a comedy, I'd know exactly what to do with this.' So, that's, hopefully that'll be the next movie. And then, after that, I'd love to do something--outside of being as hopefully funny as it is, no spiritual themes of anything like that. But then, I'd like to do another movie after that that would a more logical follow-up to The Second Chance.

You don't want to be known as a Christian filmmaker, too.

No, you know, it's weird. 'Cause if I had a chance, what would I do differently? And my original plan was to do the comedy first. But I planned another movie prior to that, and I just couldn't get the script right. In the meantime, you know, you're supposed to write about what you know, and I started writing this script with some other friends that became The Second Chance, and you kind of go with whatever project seems to have the juice behind it, and that was how this one was.

So, in a perfect world, I might have started with the comedy first. But I think, in retrospect, the movie I just finished, I can make mistakes, and it wouldn't be fatal. And with comedy, there's just very little room for error. If people don't laugh, you're in big, big trouble.