Twists of Faith : Christian Punk Bands Struggle to Define Their Evangelical Roles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having conquered the mainstream in 1992 under the generalship of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, et al., the punk-inspired movement has gone adrift, as reform-minded outsiders often do when they ascend to power.

A song is just a song on modern-rock radio; a band is just a band, some better, most worse. Virtually any style can find a mass audience, from Nine Inch Nails' industrial rock and Prodigy's electronica to Sublime's punky reggae and the metallic rabble-rousing of Rage Against the Machine. Surely some good music is yet to be made, but there is no order of things for it to overturn.

Only in the world-apart of Christian music are the old battles still being fought. Bands committed spiritually to Jesus, but musically to the punk ethic of individualism and creative independence, still find themselves in the minority, still face being ignored or misunderstood, and still wrestle with questions of artistic integrity.

Do they make the music they feel and hear inside themselves, or do they fine-tune their sound to mesh with established tastes and expectations? Should they make religious content clear and constant, to appeal to the big Christian audience of kids from church youth groups who come to concerts by the busload? Or should they make it more subtle and less specific, in a bid for the kind of mainstream, modern-rock radio success enjoyed by Jars of Clay?

Such questions keep the sense of musical struggle very real for Plankeye and Stavesacre, two strong Orange County bands who share a friendship, a manager, a record company (Seattle-based Tooth & Nail, founded in O.C. in 1993) and, on Saturday, the same bill in the daylong Suburbia 2 Christian alternative rock festival at UC Irvine.

Plankeye's mixture of catchy, affirmative punk-pop songs and stately, U2-like anthems casts the band as a strong commercial contender in Christian pop circles--like the Supertones, the upbeat O.C. ska-punk band that headlines Suburbia 2. (The Supertones also topped the first Suburbia fest in November, which drew an overflow crowd of more than 5,000 to the Bren Events Center.)

Stavesacre caters to a smaller subculture within Christian music. It plays dark, hard-edged, head-banging punk-metal rock that's marshaled with striking balance, dexterity and melodic strength on the band's current album, "Absolutes."

Well aware of the huge mainstream fan base developed by such comparable bands as Tool and Korn, Stavesacre has reached a jumping-off point. The next step, band members hope, will be a leap to the secular marketplace without abandoning the Christian convictions that drive their songs--most of which cry out from the dark night of the soul, seeking healing and enlightenment amid storms of unresolved turmoil.

Plankeye, whose members hail from Brea and Fullerton, began playing in 1991, when all were still in high school. By 1997, the band had progressed enough to be led into temptation.

It had done an extended tour with the Newsboys, one of the leading acts on the Christian rock circuit, and its third album, "Commonwealth," was approaching the 80,000 sales mark--impressive by independent label standards in or out of Christian music.

The band--singer Scott Silletta, guitarist Eric Balmer, bassist Luis Garcia and drummer Adam Ferry--was touring most of the time and earning a modest living from it.

With the first taste of success came the question of what might be done to turn a morsel into a meal. One proposal was to move the band to Nashville, hub of the contemporary Christian-music business. Another was to work with a Nashville-based producer and see what that might do for Plankeye's popularity.

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"People were saying, 'If you do things right, you can really help yourself commercially,' " Garcia recalled as he and Dirk Lemmenes, his friend and bass-playing counterpart from Stavesacre, sat on cushy black couches in the roomy corner office at Davdon Artist Agency, the Irvine-based company that books, manages, and promotes many of the leading Christian alternative bands from O.C.

The band argued intensely about moving to Nashville before deciding that proximity to friends and family outweighed the economic advantages of relocating. Plankeye did make demo recordings with the Nashville producer, but the results, Garcia said, only reinforced the band's resolve to do things its own way.

"Doing it the Nashville way may have produced a gentler recording. Is that really what we wanted to do as far as artistic integrity? If you commit yourself to being an alternative band, it automatically puts you in the [Christian pop] minority. But we wanted to do something we'd be proud of in 10 years."

That meant also changing songwriting approaches, Garcia said. Besides speeding up the tempos in the interest of a livelier stage show, the band--Garcia and Balmer do most of the writing--shifted its lyrical approach.

"Commonwealth" is full of open, straightforward avowals of Christian faith; in "The One and Only," faith is the backdrop for more oblique, fragmentary sketches of people facing obstacles with energy and determination.

"We've all been Christians now for at least seven years," said Garcia, who has a thoughtful, intense manner. "After [releasing] 30 songs, I wanted to write in a fresh way. You write from a Christian perspective, but about things that are happening to you and affecting you at the moment."

Consequently, "Let's Try Again Tomorrow," a song of apology and reconciliation, grew out of the intra-band argument about whether to relocate, and from episodes in Garcia's marriage.

"Playground" is an underdog's affirmation about maintaining independence and alternativeness within the conservative structures of Contemporary Christian Music: "You don't know what you see in me / I come running out on your playground."

Garcia said that the similarly defiant "Landmarks" is partly related to Plankeye's refusal to bow to such norms of Christian pop performance as the altar call--the climactic moment in which stars with evangelical agendas urge previously uncommitted or disbelieving concert-goers to come forward and declare a newfound faith in Christ.

Plankeye thinks such flock-gathering efforts are best left to trained pastors. In a rock concert setting, with the sensual onslaught of lights, sound and the heat of a crowd pulsing to a band, asking people to declare something as crucial and serious as religious commitment "can be misleading and manipulative," Garcia said.

Plankeye's agents try to let concert organizers know in advance not to expect that kind of evangelical pitch, he noted. But sometimes the message doesn't get through. "We're put in the uncomfortable position of telling them we can't do it. A lot of times [the band's no-altar-calls policy] is misunderstood. People can become really defensive."

The defenses went up at Christian radio stations recently when Plankeye offered "Fall Down," a somber, pleading song confessing failures and praying for strength to do better, as a single.

"They won't accept the song," Garcia said. "They said it wasn't a positive lyric."

Stavesacre has little to offer fans who want simple, upbeat affirmations. Or, for that matter, to fans who want complex, hard-won affirmations.

"In Christian music circles, there's a glass ceiling for the harder-edged bands," said Lemmenes, a friendly fellow who sports a denim-clad, slicked-back look combining punk fashion with punk's antecedents in the '50s rebel-without-a-cause ethic.

This son of a pastor says he gets a lot of questions about the sexy tattoo of a high-heeled, short-skirted redhead on his right shoulder--not the first thing you'd expect to see adorning a Christian rocker. People usually are assuaged, he said, when he explains that it's a likeness of his wife, and that the date etched beneath it is their wedding day.

"As far as youth pastors bringing groups of kids to shows, they're looking for a certain vibe and aesthetic, and I don't think we even come close to that," Lemmenes said. "Our music isn't uplifting, and I think a lot of people just want something safe."

Growing up in Long Beach, he was drawn to the hurtling, angry sound of the Crucified, a Fresno band that was a pioneer of Christian hard-core punk-metal. The Crucified's guitarist, Jeff Bellew, had been Lemmenes' baby-sitter. Lemmenes said his father didn't object to the raging punk rock he brought home, except for one album by the Misfits, the '80s band fronted by Glenn Danzig.

"They're one of those horror-type bands, all vampires, blood and guts," he said. "He just asked me why I would want to listen to that. I think he actually threw it out, and then I bought [another copy]. I don't remember exactly."

The Crucified's breakup in 1993 set the stage for Stavesacre to form two years later, when Lemmenes joined his old baby-sitter and the Crucified's singer, Mark Saloman.

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The band's goal, Saloman said in a separate interview, was to move beyond ranting hard-core and create something that, while still hard-edged, would be varied and nuanced.

"When I was 18, it wasn't real cool to be vulnerable. It was really cool to always be mad," Saloman said. "After a while, it got so hollow."

Stavesacre's 1996 debut album, "Friction," found Saloman still bellowing from his chest. But with "Absolutes," the transition seems complete: The singing is melodic and deeply felt rather than an undifferentiated roar, and arrangements nicely alternate heavy, wrathful riffs with passages that are lighter and more poignant.

"On the first record we were still a little scared," said Saloman, the son of parents who prohibited any music without a Christian message. "They were major bikers who became Christians, the kind of conservatives that ex-bikers become.

"There's a lot of anxiety that comes with playing speed metal. It's easy to play one emotion, without taking risks because people might make fun of you" for seeming soft.

"Absolutes," he admits, is a lot like the hard-hitting but crafty Tool: "Unfortunately, the influence is way too obvious. On the next album, we'll take care of it."

Lyrically, "Absolutes" dwells in the despondency that enveloped Saloman when the first big love of his life dumped him just before the band went in to record. In the resulting lyrics, Christian faith becomes a life-raft in an emotional storm filled with images of death. An exception is "Zzyx Scarecrow," a memorable shot of heavy metal hellfire sparked by a news report of the Polly Klaas murder trial that came over the radio while the band was driving through the Mojave Desert, near Zzyx, on the way to a gig in Las Vegas.

Stavesacre storms up a good, scary approximation of the apocalypse, with Saloman calling on divine wrath to come down and deal out ultimate justice to killers who escape the worst consequences of mortal justice.

Stavesacre also follows a don't-preach, just-play ethic, except for occasions such as one at a Seattle punk club, where they were warned beforehand not to deliver speeches.

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"It offended me as a punk rocker and a Christian," said Saloman, whose ensuing religious rant led to the plug being pulled, followed by a big argument, followed by the composition of "Colt .45," in which he imagines courting death to prove his faith to an antagonist.

Under normal circumstances, though, he lets the music do the talking. "Dude, a rock show's a rock show, and I'm in a rock 'n' roll band." And Saloman says the rock show he's most looking forward to playing on Saturday isn't the one in front of 5,000 Christian rock fans in Irvine, but one later that night before a few hundred general-audience hard rock fans at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.

"I would much rather play the Troubadour show," he said. "Musically it's about people who appreciate art and good music. The bar crowd is down, and they get it. Ninety percent of the Christian kids don't really care about the music at all, but they book us for some reason.

"In the future," he said, "I'd like to flip it around" from playing mainly Christian venues to playing mainly mainstream venues. "All these Christian kids want you to preach at your concerts. It's killing our band. But I honestly believe God is humbling us and preparing us for the future. I believe in destiny, and I don't think God led us this far just to have us quit."

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* Suburbia 2, with the Supertones, Plankeye, Stavesacre, Altar Boys, Five Iron Frenzy, Value Pac, Slick Shoes, Thee Spivies, EDL, the Dingees, Project 86 and the Electrics is Saturday at the Bren Events Center, West Peltason Drive and Mesa Road, UC Irvine. 3:30 p.m. $14-$16.50. (714) 251-3977; http://www.suburbiafest.com

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