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Walk on the Mild Side 

One East Bay Christian rock purveyor's battle for integrity

Wednesday, Mar 18 1998
Two years ago, Frank Tate heard a CD by Plank Eye, a young noise pop quartet
from Irvine, Calif. Tate didn't think much of the record; he recalls thinking that the band had desire, but not talent. It wasn't the sort of thing he'd want on his East Bay Christian label, Five Minute Walk.

Plank Eye eventually found a home at Tooth & Nail Records, a Christian label distributed by EMI. When the band hit the Bay Area on a recent tour, Tate invited them to perform at Club Screem, a warehouse venue that he runs in Concord. The band answered Tate's invitation with a lengthy and detailed set of requirements, including catered food and dressing rooms. Tate blanched. "They had a record that would make a deaf person embarrassed," he says. "Then they came to Club Screem with a 12-page list of demands. It's sad."

To hear Tate tell it, it's sad, but not unusual. Plank Eye's march from obscurity to temerity is just one indication of the rocky marriage between Christian music and good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll stardom. EMI (the corporate home of Capitol Records) isn't the only conglomerate watching the music's astonishing growth -- an average of 22 percent annually over the last seven years. BMG (home of RCA Records) and WEA (Warner Bros. and associated labels) have acquired Christian subsidiaries as well. But while cutthroat tactics are becoming commonplace, Tate, his producer-partner Masaki Liu, and the bands on Five Minute Walk try to keep things real -- to remain honest and Christian-like through business deals and tempting adulation. But it's a tough game. It is, after all, a sinful world, and in Christian rock sometimes even the saints act like sinners.

Tate, 31, learned this lesson all too well back in 1994, as manager for the now-defunct Christian rock band the Prayer Chain. While booking shows and negotiating record contracts, Tate saw firsthand the power plays, backstabbing, and commodification of bands at the hands of clubs and labels alike. Fed up with the poor behavior, Tate started Five Minute Walk Records -- which refers to spending at least five minutes a day talking to Jesus as a friend -- out of his Concord home. It's grown from a one-band label that same year into a home for six bands, including Denver-based ska heavy-hitters Five Iron Frenzy.

Tate has tried to avoid problems. "I get to know bands really well beforehand," he says. "I base the decision on who the bands are every day. If they're good Christians with a lot of character then I'll sign them." He says Five Minute Walk works to maintain this character throughout its personal relationship with bands -- especially on tour, where the potential for un-Christian behavior is ripe. "I make sure that each tour is connected with a charity drive," says Tate. "Each band is responsible for collecting clothes or food along the way. That way they're reminded to serve others and not themselves."

From the time Elvis first began flaunting his sexuality, active American Christians have been appalled at rock 'n' roll. But by the early '70s, the Jesus movement had surfaced and some Christians had begun to figure that they might be able to use music for their own agendas, both keeping children in the fold and possibly attracting newcomers to Christ. As rock evolved, so too did Christian rock: The bluesy rock of Petra ruled the '70s; the hair metal of Stryper slayed the '80s. The Christians had commercial successes with the pseudo-alternative Jars of Clay into the '90s.

But enlightening kids through musical flavors of the month is risky. Christian labels constantly chance losing the very youth they've struggled so hard to attract by associating institutionalized religious beliefs with rock's passing fads and inherently un-Christian selfishness. "We want to enhance kids' relationship with Christ without cramming it down their throats," says Tate, an easygoing, clean-cut guy who favors neat collared shirts and bluejeans.

Since 1994, Tate has been putting on shows in warehouse spaces in an industrial part of Concord. At Club Screem for a Friday night show, around 300 kids mill around in small groups at the back of the white-walled cavern. They talk about new piercings, school traumas, and the merits of Christian ska and punk bands. The members of Plank Eye swagger onstage, each raising one arm in a regal greeting. The audience cheers fall to silence as the band commences the night's show with a standard opening prayer to Jesus. But once the music starts, a friendly mosh pit swells to life, parents and kids alike playfully pushing one another to Plank Eye's distorted guitar crunch. Midsong, hands rise in response to the sing-along chorus of "Who loves you more? -- Jesus," while frontman Scott Silletta leads the proceedings like rock's answer to Jimmy Swaggart.

But when the kids start screaming, the deadly sins kick in. Fame's persuasive power is new for many of these bands, and the temptation is sometimes too much. Masaki Liu, guitarist-turned-producer for the extinct Christian rock band Dime Store Prophets, formerly on Five Minute Walk, says this is all too common among today's Christian bands. "It's outrageous," says Liu. "A lot of Christian bands get caught up in a rock star image, but they can also get this attitude that they are these special instruments of God. Kids tend to get really jaded when they see bands acting like that."

Justin McRoberts, a fan of Christian rock since 1992, feels that things should be different in Christian rock because the central focus should be about Jesus. "It's a hell of a lot weirder in Christian rock because if you're in the Christian rock world then you're supposed to be Christ-like," says McRoberts. "It should be focused more on the message than rock star self-servience."

Record companies and the Christian club owners are partly to blame for the mixed messages sent through the bands. Often these entities insist the groups play scripted shows, telling them when to drop the catch phrases, when to lead a sing-along, and when to invite kids up for altar calls, on-the-spot religious conversions.

"We're up here for one thing and one thing only: Jesus Christ," Silletta called out to the audience at the Club Screem show. "We challenge you to be more Christ-like every day." On the floor, two young girls giggled. "He says that every time," said one.

"I've seen many bands that have a whole scripted stage show," says Liu. "I could almost recite word for word what they say."

Many Christian rock venues interfere in the shows as well. "It's pretty common at shows involving churches or youth groups to have pastors or club owners insist on things like prayers at certain times and altar calls," says Tate. "I don't want my bands to do anything they don't want to do and I'll back them up 100 percent. I encourage them to be Christ-like in their natural actions, not from a stage persona."

Liu feels that the use of such techniques to harvest kids for Christianity often fails; if the kids don't have a proper grounding in conviction, their participation may just be a symptom of being caught up in the moment, or simply guilt. "I've seen many kids get emotional at shows and want to convert at altar calls," says Liu. "Once they leave the show they blow it off. I think many of those are guilt orientated."

There are interesting parallels between the true believers of Christianity and the true believers of other rock subcultures. Genuine conversions do happen, and this is what makes the whole venture worthwhile for everyone involved. According to McRoberts, integrity in all aspects of Christian rock is key to accomplishing true conversions as well as keeping Christian rock real. "If the band transmits the message with integrity and has a clear belief in Christ then true conversions will happen, but if it's all about the band it fails," says McRoberts. "The Christian rock scene could learn a lot from bands like Fugazi, where integrity is central and image is avoided at all costs." And many bands on the Christian scene feel their secular counterparts use similar tactics to sell their messages. "Bands like Rage Against the Machine and Consolidated preach every day -- we're no different," says Keith Hoerig, bassist for Five Iron Frenzy.

They are no different and neither are the risks. Many secular bands tout good causes in benefit concerts, at festivals, and in lyrics, but in many cases fans' interest in the message lasts barely longer than the ride home. Take the explosive alternative-rock interest in Tibet, with bands from the Beastie Boys to Rage Against the Machine playing their hearts out. Tibet was in for a while; two years on, however, the message appears only rented. The burst of pop star interest in Amnesty International was another passing fad.

But Christian record labels continue to follow secular trends. Tate says it's a common phenomenon in Nashville. There, large Christian labels like Rezound, Sparrow, and Word congregate to look for Christian equivalents of secular bands. "A&R reps wait and see what's hip before seeking out Christian bands of that style," says Tate. "It risks losing kids to the flavor-of-the-month syndrome; that's why we try to avoid this."

Many of Christian rock's biggest names are prime products of this type of A&R. "Plum is a pure Garbage rip-off and Rebecca St. James is basically a Christian version of Alanis Morissette," says Tate.

But he's not above a little trend targeting himself. His roster includes groups such as Echoing Green, a techno outfit, as well as a recent acquisition, the W's, who are covering the swing market. And Five Minute Walk's biggest name act, Five Iron Frenzy, makes sure ska is delivered on time. Tate admits that it's hard to completely avoid this and still maintain a viable business. "I realize that we're kind of riding the wave a little too, but that's the music these kids love to play," says Tate. "They all have a lot of character.

About The Author

Robert Arriaga


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