Steve Taylor Pre-concert Interview

Source: David Wang
Steve Taylor/Sixpence None the Richer Concert, Cleveland, Ohio, Agora Ballroom
June 30th, 1996
Thanks to David Wang

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David Wang: You've mentioned that John Davidson is one of your influences. Could you explain that? I've always been curious about that.

Steve Taylor: Well, it's sort of a joke, but there's actually elements of truth to it. It's a long story.

When I was in college, I was studying music but I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to be doing with it. This was before The Clash's London Calling came out, so I had no anchor musically. John Davidson came on the Tonight Show and said he was doing a summer camp for singers. I didn't know what it was, but it sounded kind of interesting, and I actually had a friend whose cousin or something had been to one and said it was really good.

So I sent a tape in, and it turned out there was like 20,000 people that sent tapes in. They picked like a hundred people to go to this camp on Catalina Island, and I was one of the ones they picked. Essentially it was like a month-long training on how to be a Las Vegas singer.

That really is what it was--how to put a medley together, how to hold a microphone, how to pace a concert. He had guests come in from the Las Vegas circuit, you know, Tony Orlando--oh man, he interviewed different people. I really should write this down in some sort of memoire pour, because it was quite an experience. I mean, think about it, spending a month learning how to tap dance and stuff like that.

DW: Oh really?

ST: Oh, yeah. The works.

DW: Cartwheels? Or that was an inate ability? [laughter]

ST: So for some reason he took an interest in me, possibly because we were both preacher's sons or something like that, so that's where I got the photo of me with John Davidson. But see, a lot of people, I'm not sure they know who John Davidson is anymore, unless they've seen the Disney movies...

DW: I'm older, I remember. [laughter] You have a bachelor of arts, right, from the university? Is that in music or in filmmaking?

ST: It's in music, because there wasn't an actual film major at that point. It was a film department, but you couldn't get a degree in it yet. I was taking on quite a bit of film, but my degree was in music, and theater was sort of a minor.

DW: So do you play any instruments?

ST: No, I don't. In fact, I just barely passed piano proficiency. It was mostly composition and theory, which I was pretty good at, but I just have no ability as a keyboard player. So I can sit down and figure out what the chords are and everything like that, but I would never be able to accompany myself in anything that someone would want to listen to.

DW: Your music--your CD, especially Meltdown, was one that I used to pass around to all my friends. They'd always be impressed. One of the things they always would say [impressed] them was the satire, the humor, and also kind of the words--the interplay of words and the sounds. What influenced you to go in that direction with the lyrics? Because there was nothing like that in the CCM industry up to that point. At least nothing that I was aware of [and] that I wanted to listen to. [laughter]

ST: Well, punk was a big influence, and The Clash in particular. Elvis Costello to a certain degree, and Randy Newman. I also had at least some interest in broadway theater music, and especially going back to Cole Porter and people that were really clever lyricists.

Yeah, it seemed like certainly in Christendom it was an area that hadn't been explored, and actually there wasn't a lot--even in America--there wasn't really the equivalent of a band like The Clash in America, either, because for some reason there wasn't the same angst in the populace here.

DW: We were still crawling out of disco. [laughter]

ST: There you go, right. So, it was just sort of how I naturally wrote. I don't think I would have been motivated to write if I hadn't had more of those kind of satirical--and of course my Christian faith was what gave me a really sharp--I think in order to write satire you have to have really strong beliefs and you have to see a lot of contrasts what what's going on in the world.

Certainly punk in London came from that sort of a situation of social unrest and upheaval, and I think as a Christian we're always going to be experiencing unrest because the world is not how it's supposed to be, and we've got some things to say about that.

DW: One of the things that struck me about your earlier albums was the stabs you were taking at conservative--not so much fundamentalists--but the whole TV evangelists [thing]. There were a number of your songs that were looking at problems inside the church. It was almost like speaking from a social conscious point of view from the church. You also had some songs on there that were very--not pro-Catholic necessary, but--"To Forgive," and the one off of Meltdown with the...

ST: Oh, right, yeah, "Over My Dead Body."

DW: Did that create a lot of problems for you? Especially the stabs at the TV evangelists, because these were very non-standard views from the Christian industry at that time.

ST: It may have created problems for me possibly, but probably the problems it created were from the people who wouldn't have liked what I did anyway. It certainly created--well, it targets someone like Jimmy Swaggart, Bob Jones, Bob Jones University--they didn't like it, and they said as much either in letters, or books that they wrote, or things like that.

I suppose it's hard to gauge those sort of things because you sort of get a reputation based on who doesn't like you as often as much as who does like you. I always felt like, as someone who had grown up in the church and who had never left the church or rebelled against the church or anything like that, I felt like it's better to have criticism coming from inside instead of waiting until people outside the faith criticize these things. And it wasn't like--I mean, you really couldn't argue with a lot of it, I would think.

DW: A lot of songs, like "Guilty By Association," almost seem prophetic after what happened shortly thereafter.

ST: So I think what happens is, even though people don't disagree with the content, they would say, "that's not our place as Christians to criticize that kind of thing." To me, that's totally wrong, [because] it definitely is.

As far as certain things coming from--I wanted to tell you I had one trip that really moved me a lot, and that was in 1981. A friend of mine asked me to join him, he was directing like a choral group called the Continental Singers and they were going to be going to Poland. I think these four concerts the group was going to be doing were sponsored by Solidarity.

It was right before martial law was declared, so it was right at the height of the movement. Seeing the role that the church was playing--the Catholic church, of course--was playing in the transformation of that society really had an impact on me. I don't think I would've ever had any kind of Catholic bias necessarily anyway, but I think what the trip did really reminded me that the church is certainly a lot bigger than even I thought.

Of course that persists through to today. I feel like the current focus on one of the strongest voices in the history of the twentieth century, really--in an age when even Christianity seems to loose its sort of mooring and its foundation, I think it's really good to have the Catholic church and have a Pope who actually believes in something, who is not changing his mind like people change their underwear.

I'm not picking on anybody, but what a sharp contrast between that and someone like our president, who sort of drifts and changes his mind depending on whatever public opinion is.

DW: We were just talking about that, talking about that song, "throw your hat in the bullring..." "It's A Personal Thing."

Now, there was a real sudden transition--not sudden, but I guess it was graphic--but I Predict 1990, other than a couple of songs, it almost had a darker tone to it, a darker feel to it. What prompted that transition? Every album seemed to [have] less emphasis on humor and satire, except "I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good," which was very satirical.

ST: Yeah, I don't know what prompted that. I don't know if there were fewer things to laugh at at that point, or if I was more serious about life in general, or what happened. But I think that's true. I think as much as anything you don't want to get into a position as an artist where people are anticipating your next move.

I guess it [was] just sort of the natural progression of things that ended up being that way. It probably took a step further with Chagall.

DW: Speaking of that transition, you actually retired for a number of years from Christian music. Was it because of some of the response to I Predict 1990 that may have caused that?

ST: Well, I mean certainly, that had a little bit to do with it. That record generated a lot more controversy than the previous record had. There was sort of a period of relative calm and then all of a sudden it hit the fan again when the I Predict record came out.

The nature of those comments, however--I didn't mind being controversial for the right reasons, which I felt like had been the case so far. When that record came out, it was things like, "he's gone new age," "it's got a tarot card on the cover," things like that. They were so completely bogus I would end up doing on interviews and spend too much time defending myself and not even talking about the music or what was important.

So I wasn't angry when I retired, I just felt like it was time to do something else.

DW: One of the other curious things I found was that The Best We Could Find, the greatest-hits compilation afterwards, had no songs off of I Predict 1990. Was that a record label decision?

ST: Yeah, that was a record label thing. Sparrow was going to put it out whether I wanted them to or not, and I Predict 1990 was on Myrrh, so that was just one of those record label things.

DW: Okay, rats, I thought there was some commentary there. [laughter] Just something I'm curious about: On the Chagall Guevara album, "The Wrong George," is that actually a real conversation?

ST: Yeah, right. Somebody called--Dave picked up the phone in his basement just as the machine went off upstairs, so it ended up recording the whole conversation.

DW: I'm a concert promoter in Kitchener [Ontario, Canada] as well, and I've spoken to a lot of artists--the fellows from 100 Days for example, [and] Hokus Pick were down, and Poor Old Lu came down--a lot of them said the same thing. Whenever your name comes up in conversation, they all basically said that they owed you a debt because you took a lot of flack for the direction which alternative music was taking, and so you kind of broke the ground for them.

Did you actually feel that that was a result of your expressing your artist's side of yourself, or was it a conscious decision to really break and buck the trends? Or was it just a natural expression of who Steve Taylor is artistically? Wow, that's wordy. [laughter]

ST: When you're in it at the time, you're just making calls based on--for starters, I don't look at this as necessarily God's calling that I was supposed to do music, and so--I mean, I think there's callings toward being a minster and things like that, and I don't know if this is a calling or not. But I think part of that is recognizing that God's always been more interested in other aspects of my life than what I'm doing on stage.

You just sort of make the decisions as best as you can at the time. There's a tendency to attach a lot of self-importance to what we do as artists, but it's really not all that important. It's important, I suppose, in our little circles, the things that we do, but in the big scheme of things, God's more interested in what we're doing outside of our little careers or whatever.

I think I'm getting off track here, but yes, the point is most of these decisions were just based on--I mean, I could say this: they were always based on whatever I felt was the right thing to do at the time. They weren't based on commercial considerations.

Since I've come out of youth work, I always felt like it would be a betrayal, leaving that to do this, and in some ways it already felt strange because I knew that I was having an effect on the kids in my youth group. If I was going to do this, it was going to be a lesser effect to a wider group of people. So if I do that, I certainly can't compromise what I think I'm supposed to be about in order to achieve more commercial success.

It would be true--I don't know if many people would think this or not, but if they ever wondered if maybe I just didn't know enough to know what would be commercially viable or not, no, I know how to make a commercial record. I really know the buttons I could push because I grew up in that all my life. I've always consciously tried not to push those buttons in concert or on record because it just smells like manipulation, and, believe me, youth pastors can be better at manipulating people than just about any other thing you could do.

DW: Squint went back to a little of the satire and humor of the previous albums. Was that a reflection of things in your life at the time, or was it that you just came back with a fresher outlook?

ST: Yeah, I did have a fresher outlook. I certainly had, now having the experience of being in pop music and seeing that side of things gave me just a broader outlook on everything. One of the things I found out was that, unless there's a really strong sense of mission to what I'm doing, I don't care to be a musician. I like music, but if there's not something driving it, there's not a point.

Chagall was a great band. Our goal was always just to be a successful band, and at the end of the day that wasn't enough. So Squint came very quickly. Probably Chagall helped to prepare the way for something like that, but it was very definitely a record that I was making as a Christian as opposed to Chagall, [which was] sort of a group of Christians getting together to make a record.

DW: Do you consider yourself as much a production person now with all your work with the Newsboys and Guardian?

ST: Right, well that sort of happened as an accident. The first Newsboys project just happened because Chagall--we were trying to get out of our deal and we couldn't do anything at the time. I certainly did not consider myself a producer at that point, and probably only in the last year would feel like I'm starting to finally get reasonably proficient at it.

I still feel like I've got a ways to go, too. It's a really good thing to do from the standpoint [that] it gets me out of thinking about my own thing so much, so as a Christian it's a good thing for me to work with other bands. Some of this I'm sure is selfishly motivated because I felt if I was going to make better records, I had to understand production better. So I think that's helped me in making my own records as well.

I enjoy it, I just wouldn't want to do it all the time or do it for a living.

DW: This last tour, extremely successful. In '94 and '95 you had the two videos, the compilations, the tribute album. The Newsboys as well. All of a sudden there's this big focus on Steve Taylor the person. Was that just sort of something that just happened?

ST: I'm not sure...

DW: I mean, I was in seventh heaven. I was going, "I can get Meltdown and On The Fritz now on CD!" [laughter]

ST: I don't know, it might have just been being gone for the period of Chagall, maybe. Maybe just being gone that long made for a more intense period of interest. But, yeah, it's been a surprise to me, too. I'm sure it's fleeting and it will be over soon. [laughter]

DW: Everyone I've ever talked to about you has just said nothing but really kind words about you. Especially the guy's from [Hokus] Pick.

They told that story about Guardian and the lead singer from Poison.

ST: Yeah, yeah, boy. Every time I do something like that, it's inevitable I'll get caught.

DW: Have you ever contacted them to explain it, or will we let that one die? [laughter]

ST: I think that guy lives in town now, so someday, hopefully, I'll bump into him and be able to apologize and explain it wasn't anything personal, I honestly thought you were somebody else, but it serves me right.

DW: I'm just going to ask you some general questions, because actually I'm going to do two articles, one more about yourself, and I've only got like 750 or 1,000 words, so I wanted to get your viewpoints because you are somebody in the production area as well, you see the whole national scene.

Do you have any comments on the current state of the Christian music industry? Because it's at a crossroads, it seems, with groups like Jars of Clay, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, DC Talk, and those groups, a lot of them haven't compromised their message. They're truly crossing over and their message isn't getting watered down. Where do you think we're headed? What are your opinions?

ST: It's hard to say. Of course what's happened is that big corporations have found out that there's money to be made here, so they've bought pretty much all the companies that are going in Christendom. I think now every major [Christian] label is owned by some big corporation.

You hope for the best in those situations, and you ought to expect the worst. When it gets reduced strictly to making a profit, that's a bad thing. The people in charge of most of those labels are still the same people, and I believe that they hopefully have the same vision. But you can't sell your company and expect it to be business as usual.

DW: That most be some concern, because it's all secular labels that ultimately control it.

ST: The other side of the coin is--it could be argued that those companies buy these labels not to tell them how to do things, but just so that they can make money off of it, so they don't want to rock the boat. We'll just have to see what happens. I record for Warner Alliance, which is owned by Warner Brothers, which is owned by the evil Time-Warner empire. [laughter] I know in that situation, Neal Joseph, the head of my record label, is a really committed Christian. I have great respect for him and absolute trust in his integrity.

A good example is when this Michael English thing happened. He immediately made the decision to pull his records and pull the plug on it. Now, someone at Warner Brothers could have said, "well hold on, we've got a lot of money invested here, you can't do this," and [instead] they stuck by him in his decision. That's the way you hope things will be done. We'll just have to see how the future goes.

I'm not sure if everybody at the upper echelons of the Christian music industry realizes how quickly it could all go away if a few things like that happend and the appropriate steps weren't taken. I would hope they would make the right decisions for the right reasons instead of just for business reasons. The blame doesn't necessarily even lie with record companies, too, because artists ultimately are the ones that make these calls or don't make the calls. Unless the record label puts a gun to your head and says, "you will make this kind of record," you could always say no. You can say no if you don't want to.

The future is going to be dependent on what kind of artists come along, and at the same time what sort of standards the record companies put into practice. It's an exciting time, because the goal is always to try to get our news past as many people as possible. It's also a sobering time, because it could go either way.

DW: I guess one of things that's kind of strange, a lot of groups like DC Talk, a lot of these groups are actually getting play on the secular radio stations, but there's still a reluctance--I mean, when they played [DC Talk's] "Jesus Freak" on our local alternative station, the DJ put in this thirty-second pre-message about how, you know, "this is a very strong Christian song, but don't hold it against it because it's a good song." That's always going to be there, I guess.

ST: Right, I guess so. Well, it's a weird thing. The program director of KROQ, which is probably the most influential modern rock station in the United States, was quoted as saying, "if I had known Jars of Clay were a Christian group, I probably wouldn't have added them." That's very indicative, I think, of how a lot of stations are.

You don't want to be paranoid, but, yeah, there is a bias. It's undeniable. We felt it with Chagall Guevara, as well. I think even with a band like--going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a good example. People think that rock and roll, of its nature, in order to be any good, has to, in essence, be anti--I would go so far as to say, anti... [long pause] know, religion, or certainly anti-Christianity. I don't think I'm being paranoid there, I just think that's how the majority of people look at it.

So you're dealing with a bias from the beginning, and I think it's always going to be there. That doesn't mean we don't keep trying, but I think also we have to recognize--we try to make better music, we try to make more convincing music, we try to make our lyrics better--and at the same time we just realize that it's not ever going to be as popular as mainstream music, because at it's core is a very offensive message.

The message is that we believe we known ultimate truth and society is probably--they don't like that idea. They don't like the idea of someone believing they know ultimate truth. I wouldn't like it either if I wasn't a Christian. I would be very offended by that.

DW: So do you think that this is something that will block Christian music's success ultimately?

ST: It's going to always block it at some level. It will always there, will always be a stumbling block, so you do your best with what you're given, and at the end of the day you don't worry about it. You certainly don't tone down what you're trying to say to appeal more to a mass audience, because it's not worth it in the end.

DW: That's interesting you say that, because you look at a lot of the newer alternative groups, a lot of them seem to be watering down the message somewhat in the name of artistry. Is that a concern?

ST: It's tricky business. As a Christian you want to be able to speak to the totality of life, and you don't want to turn your songs into clichés or little sermons, because you want to be true to your art. At the same time you have to recognize that rock music eats its young, and the desire for being up on the stage--right away you've got to realize you're not totally a well-rounded person, you wouldn't feel you have the need to get on stage in the first place. That was something that John Davidson did teach me. [laughter]

It's totally true, so I think we always have to recognize as artists that we have weaknesses in that area, and have to constantly be re-examining ourselves and our motives, and what are we really tring to do? Are we writing certain types of songs to be doing it, because we believe that's what we should be doing, or are we doing it because we want to tone things to down, to be less offensive?

DW: So what's in the future? What's this next album? Keep in mind, I'm going to post this--if you don't mind--this part on the Internet, because there's a whole chat group devoted to you.

ST: Well, I'm working on a new record. Essentially I'm starting from scratch. I wouldn't even be doing concerts this summer except that the Creation festival got cancelled and they wanted everybody to come back with the same lineup again this year, so that's why we ended up being here and at Cornerstone.

I just gotta go back and figure it out again. I don't have any excuse not to make a really good record next time out, and I've even got my own studio, for better or for worse. The good thing is I've got as much time as I want, and the bad thing is I've got as much time as I want. [laughter]

I think the next record will be potentially a very divisive record. The people that like it will really like it, and possibly a whole 'nother group of people will like it, and probably a lot of fans that liked previous works won't like this at all, and will probably write me off and throw it out.

I can't get into subject matter or style or anything like that, because actually even my band, I'm not playing it for them. They're playing on it, but it's almost like if you're doing a movie and you're only giving the actors their lines, you're not giving them the whole script. The only people that have heard it so far are just myself and Russ, my engineer. I think it will be an interesting record.

DW: I'm looking forward to it. I mean, it's interesting you say that, because I Predict 1990 was like that. I don't know if I should tell you this, but I didn't really like the album initially, but in retrospect now, when I listen to your old albums, that's the one I tend to pull out. So this will be somewhat like that? [laughter]

ST: I think it will be like that, yeah. We'll see what happens. It's just a cool time to be making music.