Would You Trust This Man With a Record Company?

Nashville Scene
April 22, 1999
© 1999 Nashville Scene
Cover story

Christian music iconoclast Steve Taylor finds unexpected mainstream success

By Rob Simbeck

photos by Ben Pearson

Steve Taylor may not be the last person you'd expect the Gaylord Corporation to entrust with millions of dollars, but he'd have to be pretty far down the list. True, he has long been a highly visible part of Christian music. But in an industry concerned with projecting a positive, upright image, he has been anything but orthodox. A left-of-center singer, producer, and filmmaker and an unapologetic fan of The Clash and David Bowie, he has made a lot of people nervous. Over the course of his long and fertile recording career, he has displayed a wicked satirical streak, skewering the pomposity, smugness, and self-righteousness of Christians and non-Christians alike. In fact, his over-the-top rock 'n' roll stage theatrics and his iconoclastic lyrics once earned the enmity of famed televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

Taylor helped modernize Christian music, transforming it from an often lame, Sunday school version of pop radio to a genre that can hold its own with the best of secular music. Along the way, though, he found himself bound alternately by the expectations of the Christian marketplace and by the cold, hard politics of the record business. With a deep understanding of just how hard it is for a musician to succeed, he decided three years ago to form his own record company--a company where he could do things differently. Squint Entertainment is his ultimate act of rebellion, the hacksaw with which he aims to cut through corporate shackles. The fact that he's operating under the umbrella of the Gaylord Corporation, a company not often identified with innovation, is intriguing, to say the least. If his enterprise works, it could help change the way Nashville makes music. And so far, it's working pretty well, thank you.

"I would have to say honestly that picturing him as a label executive was not within my realm of capability," says Neal Joseph, former head of Warner Alliance, the label that released Taylor's last solo record. "[It's not strange] that someone would give him the opportunity, but that he would take it. By its nature, heading a label has some corporate structure to it, and Steve is not one who likes to function within a corporate structure."

Yet here he is, with a desk in a nice fifth-floor office overlooking West End Avenue. Of late, things at Squint have been going swimmingly: The label has scored that rarest of coups--a hit pop single from Nashville, by Sixpence None the Richer. The group's single "Kiss Me" is now sitting in the Top 5 of Billboard's Pop Singles Chart, while its eponymously titled album has shipped 400,000 units. The video for "Kiss Me"--shot by Taylor for $50,000, a mere fraction of a normal rock video budget--has received significant airplay on VH1.

And that's only one of Taylor's successes: The Insyders' Squint LP Skaleluia is the only record ever to hit No. 1 on both Soundscan's Rock/Alternative chart and its Praise and Worship chart. Burlap to Cashmere, another Squint group, peaked at No. 10 on the Soundscan Christian music sales chart. Both groups' albums have sold nearly 100,000 copies. His next big project is Chevelle, a Detroit rock trio inspired by such heavy alternarock bands as Tool and Nirvana. The group is being produced by Steve Albini, an underground rock musician who has found major-league success as producer for Page and Plant, Bush, Nirvana, and PJ Harvey.

What makes Taylor such an interesting figure isn't his surprising success--it's his wariness of the very music industry he's working in. "The modern recording contract has become like the tax code," he says firmly. "I think it should be thrown out and started over from scratch. It can't be fixed."

Taylor has long been troubled by the business side of music, so he has decided to lead by example, dealing fairly and honestly with the musicians on Squint's roster. Sixpence None the Richer is a perfect example: The group's album, which is doing so remarkably well, was released in November 1997--a full year-and-a-half ago. Most other labels would have long ago lost interest in such a project, preferring to write off their losses and move on in search of the next big thing.

But since Taylor is himself an artist, he follows a different set of guidelines. For starters, he says, "I want to sign people I like and trust. If I don't like hanging out with them, this is not going to be fun in five years." His other prerequisite is contractual fairness, something that falls squarely on his shoulders. "I don't want a scenario where you spend all this time developing trust, and then when it's time to make a deal, you turn it over to the lawyers to fight it out. Modern record deals have become an exercise in bad faith. I don't believe in taking advantage of new artists by offering them lowball deals."

Putting this concept to the corporate suits, he says, "left them sort of bewildered, not because they're not trying to be fair with artists, but because they've never been artists, having to live off royalties that come every six months. I think it's hard for businesspeople to grasp what it's like to be a musician, and how difficult it is to make any kind of living at that. It's not like I've reinvented the wheel by starting Squint, but hopefully we're tipping the scales toward respecting the artists' best interests."

It's this concern for the person on the other side of the handshake or the microphone--or, for that matter, the dinner table--that makes Taylor one of the most genuinely loved people in an industry where niceness isn't always at a premium.

[Photo: Steve Taylor in bear suit] Indeed, people love Steve Taylor. Their comments, almost to a person, are typified by those of Barry Landis, formerly Warner Alliance's marketing VP, who now runs Atlantic's Christian label: "Steve Taylor is the most creative, honest, and honorable person in the entire industry."

Roland Stephen Taylor's earliest memories are of a family caravan from Southern California, where he was born, through Mexico. He was 4 or 5, traveling with his parents (his dad is a Baptist minister), grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and two cousins. They arrived at the Guatemalan border in their three vehicles and decided, at the last minute, to keep going. They talked their way, without visas, all the way to Panama, where they sold their cars, flew to Florida, bought new cars, and drove back home.

"I can tell you very little about the rest of my first 5 years, but I remember that trip vividly," he says. "I remember my mother dressing the wound of a kid who had just taken a chunk out of his foot with a machete; pulling off the road to stop at a swimming hole; picking up a German hitchhiker for a few days; and holding my dad's hand and leaning over the edge of an active volcano in Costa Rica."

That trip gave him a love of travel and a lifelong penchant for pushing boundaries. As a youth minister in his father's church, he and his young charges were booted from the Denver airport when their game of "capture the flag" got too exuberant. Recently, when he and Sixpence were working on their Francois Truffaut-inspired video for "Kiss Me" in the Paris cemetery where Truffaut is buried, they were told they couldn't film there. They smuggled in the equipment and filmed anyway. "We did have permission from Truffaut's family," he adds sheepishly.

Taylor says his parents were "pretty conservative"--he wasn't allowed to listen to pop radio until his mid-teens--but "also very consistent between what they said and the way they lived," he recalls. "I got to high school, and there was that sense of, 'Now's the time to start rebelling,' but I didn't know what I was supposed to be rebelling against. I think a lot of kids rebel against hypocrisy, and I hadn't seen a lot of hypocrisy in my parents."

He played trombone, did a little acting, and played bass in bands, which his close friend and then-bandmate Dale Fenton remembers as "really, really bad. Steve had been listening to things like the Cowsills, which I thought was pretty nerdy music, so I take credit for leading him toward things that were a little more happening. It wasn't long before he was really showing me up in that area. He was always listening to whatever was new and different."

During a year at Biola College in Southern California, he found himself starting to question his beliefs. He worked through his crisis of faith, but the embers of that internal debate still flare occasionally. Indeed, it's clear that this willingness to confront his own values has informed everything he's done in the years since. In the end, it has made his dedication as a Christian artist all the more compelling to his listeners, be they Christian or not.

"Every once in a while, I jab a little [at those questions]," he says, "but the times when I sort of doubt about why we're here and if there really is a God are balanced out by the fact that it honestly seems like this is the only way to live that makes sense to me. The idea that we're here by chance is horrifying for one, and it seems like if you take that to its conclusion, who would want to live in that world?"

Taylor's commitment to Christianity has led to both classically conservative and classically liberal stances. He has gone after abortion, clinic bombings, racism and Apartheid, even the hero-worship that attended Oliver North. There's no rule, however, that says rampant creativity and devout beliefs are mutually exclusive. Nor does his faith, as Jimmy Swaggart and others would suggest, proscribe rock music.

Like many other college kids of his era, he was drawn to punk and new wave music. "The Clash were far and away the biggest influence," he says. "I really liked the fact that when they got together they couldn't really play their instruments. I was a music major, and I was pretty good at composition and theory, but I was having the hardest time passing piano proficiency. And then there were the lyrics. They were great with the turn of a phrase, and they were so passionate about what they were singing."

But Taylor wasn't just inspired by bands like The Clash--he was challenged by them. "What was interesting was that The Clash and Sex Pistols were great at pointing out all the problems of the world, but they were short on solutions. So I figured, 'Well, if I'm a Christian, I think I know absolute truth--why would I not want to write songs with that same kind of conviction, and yet offer some hope?' "

After a year, he transferred to the University of Colorado, which had a fledgling film department. He learned some technical basics and made a couple of earnest if uneven films, including one based on a true story in which a couple tried to trade their baby for a car. Ultimately, he would recognize both music and film as callings.

In the early '80s, Christian music simply wasn't prepared for Steve Taylor. Much of the genre consisted of what current Gospel Music Association (GMA) president Frank Breeden calls "Sunday school lessons set to music." If country needed Waylon and Willie to help make it hip for hippies, Christian music needed Steve to help make it speak to new wavers and modern rockers.

He began recording demos and peddling them in L.A. "I thought it was ironic," he says. "The mainstream labels, when I was able to get in, said, 'Your music is interesting, but your lyrics would offend our listeners.' The Christian labels said, 'We don't like your music, and your lyrics would offend our listeners.' The future didn't look very bright."

He went back to Denver and kept at it. In 1982, he was invited to perform at the annual Christian Artists Retreat, a Christian music confab in Estes Park, Colo. Taylor cobbled together a band from the studio musicians who'd played on his demo. Thanks in part to his song "I Want to Be a Clone"--an indictment of Christian conformity that received a standing ovation--his first real gig was a runaway success.

Sparrow Records founder and then-president Billy Ray Hearn was one of the people in the audience. "He was awesome," Hearn remembers. "He was so fresh--different from anything I'd ever seen." More important, though, Hearn asserts, "I knew he was the kind of person I would like to have on the label. The quality of him as a Christian and as a person was to me as good as his talent."

That didn't mean the music would be an easy sell. "He's a creative genius," Hearn says, "but he was so far out of the mainstream of what Christian music was that I wasn't sure we could sell a full album of him. So we did a six-song EP." He pauses and shakes his head.

"That thing sold like hotcakes."

Fans of Steve Taylor say that he has always made really great music. But looking back over his career, it's clear that his creative growth has been remarkable. That first EP, I Want to Be a Clone, was a modest debut to be sure, recorded in nine days for $7,000. It was musically tentative in spots, but it was clearly the work of a compelling new voice. The songs went after humanism, religious leaders who use scripture to defend abortion, lying politicians, hipness, and hedonism. Reaction was immediate.

When Sparrow followed that up with a full-length LP, Meltdown, Taylor was off and running. He quickly established himself as a manic, almost spastic performer, as interesting visually as he was musically. His shows were "kind of half a play and half rock band," remembers drummer Cactus Moser. "It was fairly courageous in the face of the rest of the Christian music business. He was wearing makeup and stuff, and it was just too much for some places. There would occasionally be people in the lobbies picketing or praying. They just thought it was too bizarre. It wasn't like a gospel quartet. It was like David Bowie."

His approach hardly endeared him to right-wing Christians. Jimmy Swaggart, before his own voyeuristic motel dalliances clipped his wings, said Steve's music had "no Jesus, no God, no nothing." The Rev. Bob Jones called him a "satanic influence upon the lives of young people."

Kids, meanwhile, loved him. He became a favorite on the campuses of Christian universities. Meltdown sold over 150,000 copies, a terrific figure for the genre. With each successive record, Taylor continued to build an audience and expand his own capabilities as a songwriter and musician.

In the process, he became a key player in bringing Christian music, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the modern musical world and the modern marketplace. It's not always a comfortable role: Amy Grant sold millions of records and hit the top of the charts. Along the way, though, she caught flack for fuzzing up the message, for singing of love that might have been for Jesus but might just as well have been about a flesh-and-blood guy.

But Grant did manage to cross over successfully, and she gained more fans than she lost. "She was very pop-oriented, and her records were aimed at the general market," Hearn observes. "She wasn't breaking new ground musically. And she's a very lovely person. You take a weird guy like Taylor--all bones and skin--and you've got to have something different going for you."

For Taylor, that something different was pure creative ambition. Wanting to make better, more adventuresome records, he took some daring steps on his 1987 album I Predict 1990. In particular, he got flak from both sides about "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good," a song that aimed its barbed irony at the right-wing lunatic fringe. Taylor might have been a dedicated pro-lifer, but he abhorred the extremism of those who would threaten human lives in their crusade to save unborn children.

Trouble was, a lot of people didn't get it; they thought he was advocating clinic bombings. His entire Australian tour was canceled as a result. Around the same time, Taylor got a call from a woman who ran an abortion clinic in Southern California. "She was so furious," he says. "I asked her, 'Have you listened to the lyrics?' She said she didn't need to. I didn't even bother telling her what I thought about her job." In retrospect, he says, he regrets doing the song.

In the midst of all this controversy, Taylor looked around and saw Christians retrenching. Popular contemporary Christian musicians like Russ Taff and Michael W. Smith had started making "back home where I belong" records.

"The industry was in a very strange place," says Lynn Nichols, former head of Myrrh Records, Taylor's label at the time. "That was around the time when the PTL Club exploded, and things got very conservative. The creative ceiling was lowering. Steve was feeling it, as I was, running a label. It was a risky time."

It became clear that Christians were looking for more reassuring music, and Taylor didn't have such an album in him. At the end of his tour for I Predict 1990, he announced that he was retiring from his solo career. "There was no bitterness," he says. "It just felt like a season had come and gone. I had sort of hit a glass ceiling, and the choice was either do another album that was more geared toward the Church, and was musically more accessible, or just do something else."

Taylor decided to do something else--but it wasn't long before he was drawn back to music. This time around, though, he decided to play in a band, Chagall Guevara, with Nichols, Dave Perkins (who coproduced 1990), bassist Wade Jaynes, and drummer Mike Mead. They moved to Nashville, where Perkins had a studio. In retrospect, the project was doomed from the start. The first mistake was the name, which few people could pronounce and even fewer understood.

The second mistake was signing with MCA Records. "It was every band's worst nightmare," says Theresa Ensenat, who was MCA's vice-president of A&R in the early '90s. The label was changing hands, and the band quickly found itself struggling for attention. The people who had brought them aboard began diving for the exits. Label support was fitful in the States and nonexistent in England, where Taylor had a huge cult following. Through it all, he maintained what could only be called a Christian attitude.

"When the label started letting them down," says Gerd Muller, the band's publisher at the time, "Steve always had positive energy, and he was the one who came to the office to make copies and help with mailings."

"He wasn't whiny," Ensenat says. "It was always, 'Well, then, why don't we try to do this?' He didn't live in the setbacks." Amazingly enough, MCA wanted another record, but the disgusted band members chose to dissolve.

After the fallout from Chagall Guevara's deal with MCA, Taylor signed with Warner Alliance in 1993. The resulting album, Squint, was arguably his best. When Warner Alliance offered him $60,000 for a video budget, he decided to use the money for an around-the-world trip. For decades, he had been saving magazine clippings of places he thought might be interesting to visit. So he and friend Ben Pearson bought a 35mm movie camera and, with soundman Russ Long and road manager Mark Hollingsworth, took off for Hong Kong. For $16,000, the four of them could go basically anywhere they wanted, so long as they kept moving west. They filmed in Vietnam, Katmandu, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and the British Isles. The finished product, Movies From the Soundtrack, was awash in gorgeous color, a witty, sometimes kaleidoscopic treatment of Taylor's music.

[Photo: Steve Taylor] "That was the most fun of any project I've ever done," Taylor says. "It was a real adventure, and there was a sense of trying something really new." Steve and label head/executive producer Neal Joseph took the project to Barry Landis, Warner Alliance's head of marketing. Landis had never come across anything like it, and it didn't take long for him to became a huge Steve Taylor fan. "Like all truly creative people," he says, "Steve was leading when the rest of us were trying to follow. There's an old saying: Talent does what it can; genius does what it must."

Critics loved it. The industry loved it. But the album didn't really go anywhere. As Landis puts it, "Where artistry is moving and where commercialism is moving aren't always hand in glove."

Taylor admits that Warner Alliance's failure with Squint is partially what pushed him to become a record label head. "There's nothing more frustrating--and this happened with Chagall Guevara too--than knowing in your gut that you finally got it right, and it just doesn't happen. A lot of it was realizing how the record business works. There are so many dots that have to be connected...that the odds are pretty stacked against you.

"I got to thinking, 'If I got the chance to do it again, how would I do it?'

"With Squint, we decided, 'Let's have the buck stop with us, so our artists don't have to go through the same frustration. Sixpence's success is an obvious example of how the odds are stacked against you, but that if you stick with something you believe is really good, it can work."

Gaylord Entertainment, the Oklahoma-based corporation that owns the Opryland Hotel, the Wildhorse Saloon, and that monument-in-progress to conspicuous consumption, Opry Mills, got into the music business through its purchase of the Opry-related businesses. The firm bought Word Music, one of Christian music's biggest labels, in 1997, and owns Myrrh Records as well. It was one of several entities Taylor approached with his idea for a music and film company.

He had the support of Jim Chaffee, the head of Myrrh; Loren Balman, the head of Word; and Roland Lundy, the COO of Idea Entertainment, the umbrella under which Squint and Word both function. Even though record sales have been down overall in the last couple of years, it wasn't a bad time to go looking for money: Sales of Christian music have been rising 20 percent every year for the last decade.

In many ways, Steve Taylor is the perfect person to run a label. He brings to Squint much more than his experience as a recording artist. During his time at Warner Alliance, he worked on a lot of outside projects, both as a record producer and as a video producer. His production of the Newsboys helped turn the young Australian group into a real force and further cemented Taylor's role as someone eager to expand Christian music's sensibilities. And even if he avers that he has no business sense, it's clear that he is used to working within tight budgets.

"I'm a really big believer that too much money kills creativity," he says, "although I'd like to be able to find out some time."

He's also used to getting the most from the people around him. "He's great at encouraging creativity," Russ Long says. "He really encourages everybody to experiment to their full capacity. Although he's in control, he makes it very clear up front that he's open to any idea."

When he entered negotiations with Gaylord, Taylor wanted to make sure that he'd have the elbow room he needed to run a business. "In a lot of the meetings," he says, "I would almost lead with the hardest part, painting the worst picture possible just to see what they were made of. It was going to be expensive and risky, and the model was going to be different.

"I also said, 'I've been working on this film.' I figured now was as good a time as any, so I said, 'If you want to do the music, you've got to fund this movie too.' I was really raising the bar, making it hard for anybody to say yes."

But Gaylord said yes anyway.

"To their credit," Joseph says, "I think they've set up a really good position for him, a good scenario, and he has the freedom to do what he wants to do."

Taylor decided to call his company Squint after a line from one of his songs, "The Finish Line": "As you squint with the light of the truth in your eyes." He oversees operations from Nashville, and his friend and partner Stephen Prendergast heads up the label's L.A. branch.

True to his unassuming nature, Taylor credits his staff with much of the firm's early success. "We've got an extraordinary group of people," he says. "The people on the staff were the heroes on this Sixpence project. And the people at Word and Gaylord were really honorable in sticking this out over the long haul. We were losing a lot of money last year."

Sixpence None the Richer represent a conundrum that has cropped up repeatedly ever since Steve Taylor helped to revolutionize Christian music: Are they, in fact, making Christian music? The members of Sixpence are up-front about their Christianity, but their songs don't blatantly preach the gospel. They're simply a band making the best music they can. Rather than writing lyrics heavy on dogma or pieties, they come at it from the opposite direction: The members draw subject matter from their lives, which are guided and informed by their Christian faith.

When the group's last label collapsed a couple of years ago, Sixpence found themselves searching for a new record company. Their choice was strongly affected by the very question of how they should position themselves. "Sixpence weren't comfortable going with a Christian label because they didn't think there was a Christian label that would understand the depth and breadth of what they were doing," says Taylor, who knew the band from its work on a Taylor tribute LP, I Predict a Clone. "And they didn't feel a mainstream company would understand that they weren't doing this to become rich and famous--that they had a broader goal in mind. The songs they write, they write for a very specific reason."

The Christian/secular debate continues to smolder. "Kiss Me" was under initial consideration for a Dove Award, but the GMA determined that the song didn't meet the proper subject-matter criteria--something that happened to Amy Grant more than a decade ago. It was simply in a "different marketplace," according to GMA president Frank Breeden. (It is interesting, though, that the Christian music industry's own sales figures include Sixpence, as well as projects like LeAnn Rimes' You Light Up My Life LP.)

Ask Taylor if Squint is a Christian label, and he ducks the question. "We're simply trying to put out good music," he says. "If you call something Christian, there are so many people who think they know what it is before they ever listen to it. You're always in a defensive posture.

"It's why with Sixpence, we just tried to let the music lead."

Not too long ago, that was a radical notion in Christian music. If it's not so radical today, Steve Taylor is one reason why.

Many people in the music industry think Taylor could very well change the way people do business. "He's a quality person with great ideas," says his old label chief, Billy Ray Hearn, "and he knows how to go beyond the boundaries of what we're all thinking now. I think he's right where he needs to be."

Barry Landis thought Squint made sense all along. "I really did expect that he would end up heading a label," he says, "and I think he's going to be very successful at it. There's no ego there. He got as much enjoyment behind the scenes, writing or producing somebody, as he did as an artist. I can well imagine a scenario where we'll all be following his lead."

But the thing that makes Steve Taylor such a rare individual is that for all of his energy and creativity, people just love him for who he is. Perhaps because of his strong adherence to principles, at some point, all talk of Taylor eventually comes back to the personal.

"The fact that he's a great songwriter and a great director and a great artist and a great producer is all just icing on the cake," Long says. "More than anything, he's a man of integrity. It's great working with somebody you can look up to and really try to model yourself after."

At the moment, the personal and the professional have converged to provide an unparalleled model for success not just in the Christian music industry, but in the music industry as a whole. If anything, though, Taylor is anxious to get back to work on his film project, Saint Gimp. The only problem is, he can't find the time.

"The one thing I hadn't figured on," he says, "is that, particularly with Sixpence and the other things going on, there's just so much to take care of, and with success has come more stress, not less."

He finds, in fact, that he has to leave town for a week or so to get any real work done. "I'd like to see the music part slow down a little so he can work on the film," his wife Debbie says. "When he's in creative mode, he's doing what he loves most, and what he's most suited for."

Even so, it's very clear that Taylor is perfectly suited to running a label. He might not do things the way other execs do, but that's precisely why it's so important that he spend as much time behind his desk as he does behind a mixing board or a video camera. It's a tough balancing act, but there are an awful lot of people wishing him well. That's more than you can say for most of the folks in the music business.