Chagall Guevara, How'd You Get So Good?

Harvest Rock Syndicate
March/April(?) 1991, Volume 6, Issue 2
© 1991 Harvest Rock Publications
Pages 6-7

By Kathleen A. Ervin

Music that's important, lyrics that have a mind, and a group that takes the music and not itself too seriously. Impossible? Not according to rock 'n' roll's latest entrepreneurs. Striking back at the techno-rock of the 80s, Chagall Guevara appears as a ripple in the sometimes all-too-calm waters of making music for business' sake. Hoping to live up to its revolutionary, artisan namesakes--impressionist Marc Chagall and political revolutionary Che Guevara--these guys intend to do things differently, with an eccentric, theatrical flair.

Dig a bit deeper into this multi-layered ensemble and a schizophrenic- like group identity appears, complete with pandora-like surprises and past lives of individuals that all begin and end in music. Won't you please welcome Steve Taylor, vocals; Dave Perkins, Les Paul guitar; Lynn Nichols, Rickenbacker guitar; Wade Jaynes, bass; and Mike Mead, drums.

While Christian music fans are screaming a joyous "Yes!" to welcome these less-than-prodigal sons home, rock 'n' roll critics are having a 'wait-and- see' approach for this new group on the block that has broken out of the Nashville music scene. This band is cautious in its step, claiming no "spiritual agendas," "group vision," or "philosophical sensibilities." Huh?

Steve Taylors begins: "When the band started out, we decided many of these same things for the music--no agenda. We weren't going to form a group on what we hoped to be or what we wanted to sound like. A lot of records that are popular these days are the same songs pretty much: same variation on one theme. We went in with no agenda and our songwriting reflected a wide-opened attitude of 'Yeah, let's try it. Let's write a lot and record a bunch of stuff and see how it all starts gelling.' In some ways, there's a lot of freedom in that."

Freedom, both spiritual and artistic, is the modus operandi here and if the group had a vision--and they say they don't--it would be creating such a space where creativity can be bred and nurtured without first weighing consequences. This 'space' is very important to these individuals who found it a hard commodity to come by in the contemporary Christian music industry where they met.

Nichols was Vice President of artist and repertoire for Myrrh Records, producing and playing on many projects, including the recent pop records by Phil Keaggy. Dave Perkins produced projects including Servant, some of Randy Stonehill's best work to date and the last Myrrh release for Taylor. An artist in his own recording right, The Innocence on the What? label was released in '87 to much critical acclaim, but low sales through Word/A&M distrubition.

Then there's Steve Taylor, Christian music's stand-up artist and gentle rebel, creating tunes of sardonic and intellectual bliss. He talks thoughtfully of the cultural ceiling in an industry that was a home to his creativity for so long. "When we started, the ccm music scene was so wide-open. There was much to be done and much we could do. I felt comfortable in that. As time progressed we noticed there was a ceiling, a limit. And by the time we were in the studio with I Predict 1990, it was clear that we had to go in some different directions."

Instead of trying to break out, Taylor decided to move on and after seven albums was joined by Perkins and Nichols who similarly arrived at the same conclusions. You'll hear no pity parties or ccm horror stories--albeit, they surely exist--but rather honest interpretations about an industry that they had outgrown and an appreciation for the people they've worked with. No bridges burning here. Nope, not even the slightest smell of smoke.

"We wanted," says Nichols, "to do things and create stuff that didn't fit into the Christian music box." Continues Taylor, "It just wasn't fun anymore trying to work under some pretty stringent unspoken rules and codes. We hit the ceiling of what was acceptable and it was just getting ridiculous in the ways we were being asked to justify our methods and purposes." Okay, so let's cut to the chase. The time was right to move on, MCA Records seemed to agree and Chagall Guevara was born.

Perkins recalls, "When we were out in California working on the album, the group name kind of surfaced as a joke. It was a toss-off. But as we lived with it there was some magic in it, something that rang true. When you juxtapose the two sensibilities--Chagall and Guevara--and the perception of who those two people were, you get something that's akin to what we are.

"We come together each being used to being our own boss, having our own likes and dislikes. A lot of things did not necessarily lay over easily and I sense that it was because the diversity was trying to express itself in the membership of the band. The philosophies--musically, artistically--are different and very much the same.

"We all are spiritual, that did not stop with a formation of a band, but are we going to 'sell' religion to the masses? We'd have to say 'No.' There's no preconceived agenda for that, and it's not a goal of the band."

Lines delineating band statements and personal beliefs tend to become hazy as these gentlemen talk about accountability to church, family, and friends, and of a responsibility to make intelligent music that sounds as good as the messages it implies. But stil there's a politeness evident that these guys do not want to assume or imply opinions for the band as a whole.

Says Taylor, "Speaking for myself, I'm hoping that the people who were into what I was doing would be ready for this album. It's hopefully a natural progression... what they would sort of expect on a new level."

This new level attributes much of its character from a record that's eclectic and from songs written in a stream of consciousness mode. The sound of Chagall Guevara is found somewhere in the free fall style of the late 60s and 70s, bearing no small effect from the post-punk era.

Says Taylor, "Early 60s, early 70s bands were more free to create their own identity. There wasn't a hard idea of what bands were supposed to be in order to sell. Then along came this concept of marketing and selling to a niche. I guess it was inevitable but a lot of freedom was lost in that. Then along came the concept of alternative music. I'm not sure that there's really such a thing anymore. It used to be that when you were titled 'alternative' they couldn't categorize you and there were no rules, you played whatever sounded good or worked well. Today there's a definite sound to many 'alternative' bands."

Continues Perkins, "Having experienced the music industry in various times and forms between the three of us, I think that the thing we came to realize is that in some quarters the industry tends to lead the art. It used to be that the art led completely. It had an easier time of getting itself on the right track, centering itself.

"What we tried to do was defy that sensibility and not 'put' together the band and write music from a marketing standpoint. I'm sure we carry some of those sensibilities around in the back of our minds and they sometimes find their way out but we definitely wanted the exhilaration and whim of artistry. Just go wherever we wanted instead of putting the band together for some blueprint for success."

Adds Nichols, "I think we've all done enough of this thing to know what the task is--from a business and musical standpoint--so I think we're realistic about it and definitely up for it."

Up for it and taking it on the road: performance is a cornerstone for this band. Close proximity to many locations and a burgeoning new-band scene makes Nashville an ideal place to call home. "In this age of computerized music," notes Nichols, "We definitely wanted to be a live band, a straight-forward type of group. In the 60s fans got to see a lot of groups who were together because they loved the music and energy of the band. It captures what we are like live."

It was during these live gigs that the crowds began to notice the band that was awarded the dubious honor of "Best Cartwheel" (thanks to Mr. Taylor) during the Nashville Artist Extravaganza--an annual showcase to highlight new and local talent. Taylor, whose stage presence has been described as "looking suspiciously like exercising (Nashville Scene)," jumps, jogs, twirls and of course, cartwheels with the greatest of ease.

Stage presence, a sense of humor, and killer songs that run the gauntlet lyrically of idealism, love, hope, and observations on life from afar. And there's not a runt in the litter. Jokingly claiming each other as musical influences, there is a sense of history in this project and the same directness and sarcasm found on many early Taylor tunes.

First single and video "Violent Blue" showcases some hit potential: "Hey, don't I know you from some other life? / You were wide-eyed and green and a little bit taller / and you didn't look away when spoken to ... / I can't help but notice how hard you appear / when I look into your eyes / A violent blue ... / I could say more / We were headed for somewhere / But that was before you traded in your peace sign for a finger."

Perkins is quick to comment, "I hope that these songs are not so much observing or judging people as much as kind of taking or own temperature and asking ourselves those necessary hard questions every now and again." Whether the band is to take off to MTV stardom is yet to be seen, but it's comforting to know some old friends are doing okay not far from home.

Making a good case for selling good music instead of selling out on the credibility factor, the phrase echoed by Perkins has now become the Chagall Guevara credo: "We want to play intelligent music like mindless fools." Perhaps smelling some subconscious marketing ploy, Nichols notes with a smirk in Perkins' direction, "Well, at least we got the 'mindless' fools part down real good."

Kathleen A. Ervin is the Assistant Editor for CCM magazine, and as a Nashvilian is subjected to all the hometown mania about Chagall Guevara. She tried to be objective, and we thank her for the effort.