Steve Taylor: Rock music radical and thought provoking filmmaker

Cross Rhythms
June 30th, 2010
© 2010 Cross Rhythms
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Mike Rimmer interviewed Christian rock singer of the '80s and '90s Steve Taylor

Considering that Steve Taylor hasn't released an album since 1995's 'Liver' his reputation and vociferous fanbase remains extraordinarily strong. The internet is crammed with material about the singer, songwriter and record producer who with a series of groundbreaking releases - 1982's 'I Want To Be A Clone', 1984's 'Meltdown', 1985's 'On The Fritz', 1987's 'I Predict 1990' and 1993's 'Squint' - created some of the best rock music, Christian or non-Christian, of any era. In recent years Steve has worked mainly as a filmmaker, interspersed with bouts of lyric writing for the Newsboys. Last year Steve was interviewed by Mike Rimmer for his Rimmerama programme. Here are the edited highlights of that interview.

Mike: We've got to say that you were supposed to come on the programme last night, but you emailed me and asked if you couldn't and you had a very good reason. You went to the White House yesterday, didn't you?

Steve: I did. Here's a long story. A friend was talking to someone else at a White House function and this person that works there said, 'Oh man, I've always wanted to meet Steve Taylor', so he contacted me and said, 'Would you want to come up and have lunch at the White House and I'll show you around?' and really, how can you turn that down? So that's where I was yesterday. Actually we went to lunch on Tuesday and then he gave me a tour of the West Wing. Then yesterday we were having a tour of the East Wing and as we're walking through the rose garden, kind of sneaking through, a group of people were coming our way and we stepped aside. It was George Bush Sr. who was there for a lunch with every living president so we kind of smiled and he said, 'Hi, Fellas'. I guess, technically, I've been greeted by the President at the White House. We didn't go into the situation room but there's a situation room there that my new friend was describing and he said it's kind of like you see in the movies; they have big screens on the walls and they can be talking to a general in Afghanistan and seeing coordinates of what's going to be happening and all kinds of stuff. We didn't actually get to poke our heads in that room, it's like a bunker within a bunker.

Mike: People are asking me, to ask you, are you ever going to make music again?

Steve: Well, it wasn't a conscious decision not to. Other stuff came along and the last album I made, I really liked, and I could actually sit down and still listen to that and not wince too many times. Part of the trick is if I'm going to make new album, it needs to be better than that album. I've been gathering bits and pieces of songs over the years but I haven't sat down and decided I'm going to make an album and it's time to put the material together. In the meantime, the music business, as we know it, has crumbled beneath us so I'm not even totally sure what it would look like now but I've not ruled out the idea of making more music. I just had other stuff that needed more immediate attention.

Mike: You do have a cult following that would quite easily be reactivated I would imagine?

Steve: Well, I suppose that's possible. You don't really know until you make another album and find out if anybody wants to get it.

Mike: You played at Cornerstone a few years ago and people came to see you, didn't they?

Steve: I did. That was very enjoyable and made me think that maybe it's not too late. Was it Randy Newman who said, 'As you get older as a songwriter, the object isn't to get better, the object is to not get way worse', and certainly music history would bear that out.

Mike: Yes. Most artists make their best work in their 20s and 30s, don't they?

Steve: Yes that's true. My goal would be to make something better than the past stuff but I definitely don't want to make something way worse and then people would look at it and think, 'Oh wow, maybe he was never that good after all.'

Mike: So how come the 'Squint' videos haven't become available on DVD? That was quite a project wasn't it? Making the videos?

Steve: That was! You know, out of everything that I've done, that's probably the one project that I've thought most seriously about. Should I go back and re-transfer all that stuff and put out a high def version because that project turned out well? I don't know if anybody would still care, but that would probably be at the top of my list. I was happy about it.

Mike: When it comes to the changes in the record industry, you're uniquely placed to understand how record labels and the industry can crumble beneath your feet, since that's exactly what happened to you with Squint Entertainment.

Steve: Yes, it was funny because right when Sixpence None The Richer were first getting international attention, I was invited to speak to a group of Nashville-based music executives. What I told them was, 'This whole record industry, it's like the tax code in the US. Nobody understands it and it's built on a series of so many faulty presuppositions and shady dealings', and I said, 'All I can do at Squint is a better version of a corrupt model. What really needs to happen is something needs to come along and just chop the legs out from under this whole corrupt industry so we can start again from scratch and do something that's more artist-minded and, frankly, fair.' It was a very controversial comment because all these people were like, 'Why are you being so mean?', but then of course a year later, along comes Napster and pretty much that very thing happened.

Mike: No doubt you've had people attacking you and telling you that you're doing it wrong and hurting you and I wonder how, over the years, you've managed to deal with that stuff and stay sane in the midst of it all?

Steve: Well, I never assume anybody is doing it because they just want to be nasty. I think a lot of the controversy when I was a recording artist was from generally well meaning people, but with a very narrow agenda. Since I'd grown up in a fairly conservative church, I kind of understood where they were coming from and never took it personally. In the record business nobody wants to believe they're actually ripping artists off even though that's what the record business has been doing for years. They don't really like it when somebody points that out to them and nobody wants to feel guilty or feel like they're not doing artists a service. Again it's kind of understandable why that position would not be too popular because there were so many people benefitting from a corrupt system. Understand, we did a much better version and a much more artist friendly version but it was still the record business, right, it was still founded on a very corrupt business. So we did a better job of a corrupt model. Overarching all that, God's been so good to me and so gracious I've had so many great experiences that those have always so far outweighed any kind of negative experiences or troubles or anything like that I've never felt too bad.

Mike: A lot of people won't know that you are in some ways the man behind the success of Sixpence None The Richer's "Kiss Me". You produced the record and you effectively set up the record label because you loved the band so much and wanted to give them a fair shot because they'd had such a bad time with record labels and then ironically the same thing happened again.

Steve: Well, their deal when we started their records, kind of undercover, was like a cartoon of a bad deal. It was like their record label, their indie label, went under and some lawyer ended up with the contracts and he might as well have twisted his mustache when he told them how he was going to be treating them. That was kind of like a justice mission to get this poor band out of this evil empire's clutches so when we set up this new label I was very mindful of the fact that we were going to do better by bands, and we in fact did that. Sixpence probably benefitted the most from a much better system that pays them a much higher royalty percentage and let them keep their publishing and on and on. Of course when you're doing something like that, you immediately become kind of a target with a band that gets as successful as that worldwide. . . new people come in, managers and things like that and they try to take advantage of the situation. In my case, I had just done this because I had friends and wanted to support what they were doing and wanted to give artists I believe in a platform, and the next thing you know, I'm dealing with licensing agreements in Turkey and managers telling me that they don't like the way the records are placed in stores and it just became frankly, a huge drag. I don't know if you ever saw the movie 24 Hour Party People? It was the story of Factory Records. I felt like I was watching my life on screen when I watched that movie except for all the nasty parts. I think what Wilson said was, 'I've created the perfect scenario' (because he didn't have any contracts). It's like this scenario will never allow me to sell out and so his record label collapsed instead of him ever selling out. In some ways it was the same thing. I had been so outspoken in so many things that there was no way I could become a sellout. In the end it was, at least for me, far better that Squint just kind of imploded than having to become the thing I did not like or the thing that I had tried to change.

Mike: You did manage to spend £10,000 on a table though!?

Steve: £10,000 on a table? Oh, that's right! That's the famous table in Factory Records! You know, that's one thing we never did - spending a ton of money. The biggest [extravagance] was, right towards the end, I took the whole staff to New York City for the launch of a hip-hop group. That was as close as we ever got to our £10,000 table.

Mike: I dream that one day I will manage to hear that LA Symphony album.

Steve: I've got to tell you, out of the whole Squint experience the biggest regret, by far, I have is that the LA Symphony 'Call It What You Want' album never came out because it's just SPECTACULAR. Six tracks were produced by from Black Eyed Peas before they got stupid and added that chick singer. No offence but Black Eyed Peas actually used to be a really good, credible group until Fergie came in. Anyway, produced tracks and Mario Caldrato Jr (Beastie Boys) did a track and Prince Paul. It was just a great album. If you can ever find a bootleg or anything online, it's spectacular. It still holds up today.

Mike: I'm going to wait until it says on your Facebook status 'Steve Taylor has gone to LA' and then I'm going to come and burgle your house (chuckles) and see whether I can get it.

Steve: They are here. I just made a copy for my daughter for her iPod because if she's going to listen to hip-hop, I wanted her to start with the best.

Mike: Most people got to know Steve Taylor because of the music initially and at the time didn't realise that you'd actually come out of a background of studying films. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that you've moved on to becoming a filmmaker and that you're making films with about the same kind of regularity as albums, aren't you? It takes you a while.

Steve: Well, you know it's a very expensive hobby.

Mike: You did this Second Chance movie starring Michael W Smith, which is very strange casting I've got to say. That went down very well actually, didn't it?

Steve: Yeah, it was one of those projects that defied the odds and actually turned out reasonably well. It was kind of an interesting project for Michael and potentially a risky project because his character wasn't necessarily a heroic character. There was an interesting arc in the story and it was kind of like those black and white buddy movies. Kind of a black guy and a white guy, you put them together, they don't get along and they don't want to be together and they have to figure out how to work together. In this case, Michael plays the associate pastor in a big mega church and gets sent down to an inner city church where the black pastor there doesn't want him. We did this on an independent budget and then it got picked up by Sony Pictures and got distributed into about 100 theatres across the country and then sold a lot of DVDs. It turned out reasonably well. I made some mistakes, but it's not bad.

Mike: Now you're working on another film. I can imagine there's a certain attraction to doing [a film based on the book] Blue Like Jazz.

Steve: There's a scene in particular that happens at a confession booth, you know what I'm talking about?

Mike: Yes, I do.

Steve: Just to fill everybody in, the main character is at a very radical campus in Portland, Oregon. He and some friends decide to build a confession booth, but instead of taking people's confessions, they actually confess the sins of the Church, historically. It's a very moving scene and very powerful. I read this book and I thought, I want to make a movie and I want the movie to end with that scene. In the book itself, there's not much of a narrative arc, it's like a series of essays and memoirs. I went to the author and told him my idea, but I said, 'You know, the story, as is, isn't going to work. We need to make this a story about a 19 year old who lives this experience and turn it into a full on movie with a narrative arc and all that stuff'. He was really into that idea, so we've been working on the screenplay and just finished it up. I think the screenplay's really good and now we're just trying to raise the money.

Mike: Which is going to be difficult in this current climate, I would imagine?

Steve: Really? Like money is tight you say? I keep hearing about this.

Mike: Yeah, me too.

Steve: It's weird to actually be able to sit across from a wealthy guy and look him in the eye and tell him in all seriousness, 'Could you be any worse off putting your money into banks or into the stock market? So movies are actually an attractive investment opportunity for you!'

Mike: Very good!

Steve: Yeah, well, we'll see if anybody buys it. It's a fine art trying to separate people with money, from their money, to make a film which may or may not make money.

Mike: So the process at the moment is that you have to raise some money. This is why it takes so long to make films.

Steve: I know, like even an independent movie. Well, this is where I can learn from England, because your movies - let's take Danny Boyle, who's like one of the all time greats, and with what he's done with Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire (that just opened here), but even like Sunshine, and 28 Days Later, there's a guy who knows how to do a lot with not that much money and always comes up with fresh new ways to shoot things and show things. I'm still learning from the Brits, just like back in the music days.

Mike: Are you a control freak, because you seem to like writing, directing and kind of doing everything and being in control?

Steve: Well, in the filmmaking side of things, it's less control; I mean there's part of that, but it's more that when you don't have a lot of money you can't throw money at a problem so you end up having to take on multiple roles. If I don't have $50,000 to buy a screenplay, I am going to need to figure out a way to write my own or work with some friends who don't need to be paid a lot of money in order to write the screenplay. If I don't have a lot of money to hire big shot producers, I've got to work with friends and be one of the producers myself, and so that's part of it. If you work with say, a Hollywood studio, essentially you're giving them the opportunity to fire you or to re-cut your movie or. . . I wouldn't want to do something like that. In that case, you could say that's more of a control issue; otherwise, it's just, you do what you have to do to get a movie made.

Mike: In view of all the things that have gone on in your career, are there a lot of people in the industry who hate you?

Steve: It sounds like I've made a lot of enemies over the years, but I haven't actually made that many enemies. Part of it is that there have not been that many recording artists that have aged gracefully, not that that never happens, it's just that it's rare. Modern music tends to be a young person's game now. You always get the exceptions like David Byrne, Brian Eno or maybe Bowie, although he's not been making very good music for a while now, sadly, either. It's back to that Randy Newman thing. If you can't keep making better music, you definitely don't want to make way worse music. I'm just talking in circles right now.

Mike: I think when it comes to Christian music though, your music has aged better than just about anybody else, if you think about some of your contemporaries. I mean, your albums sound better than, say, oh I don't know, Carman?

Steve: Well, yeah, but that's setting a pretty low bar isn't it. (chuckles)

Mike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham. He makes radio for UCB and also presents his own Rimmerama podcast at