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A Band Stuck in the Middle

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s not easy being Fanmail these days. The rock band’s predicament, like that of such like-minded contemporaries as Skypark and Fold Zendura, is whether to consider itself a Christian rock band.

The Orange County-based band members--singer, songwriter and guitarist Scott Silletta, lead guitarist Martin Tesch, bassist Matt Guyton and drummer Chuck Cummings--are certainly comfortable mixing their religion with rock ‘n’ roll. But what’s causing Fanmail such consternation is the perception others have of what a Christian rock band is--or is not.

“I’ve long been against the whole labeling mechanism that Christians have given themselves and the box it has put them in,” said Cummings during an interview at the Hub Cafe in Fullerton. “Declaring you have to act in a certain way or sing only songs that praise the Lord serves to stifle art and creativity.”

“It’s weird. It’s like we’re stuck in the middle somewhere,” Guyton added. “The secular market won’t touch us because we’re Christians, and the Christian market won’t either because we’re not Christian enough.”

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What irks front man Silletta--a former member of Plankeye, one of Orange County’s most successful Christian rock bands--is the false idolization he says he has encountered. He addresses the issue in “Hero,” a song on “Fanmail 2000,” the follow-up to 1999’s debut, “Latest Craze,” both released on Seattle-based Tooth & Nail Records.

“After shows in my old band, people would touch me and cry . . . really silly stuff like that,” said Silletta, who formed Fanmail in 1998 because of creative tensions within Plankeye.

“They build you into this superhero in their mind, expecting all kinds of things from you. But when you don’t live up to those expectations, they tear you down. When MxPx left Tooth & Nail [in 1998] for a major label [A&M; Records], they were slammed for [allegedly] not being Christians anymore. I know those guys firsthand. . . . I don’t know anyone with more integrity than the three guys in that band.”

Rather than use Fanmail as a platform for evangelizing, the quartet is focusing on making catchy, power-pop and punk-tinged rock that appeals to a KROQ type of audience, regardless of religious affiliation, if any.

Silletta’s material draws not from the Bible but from the emotional extremes of everyday experiences. For example, “Genny” is a joyous love song he wrote for his wife, while the sparsely arranged yet powerful “The Other Side” pays homage to the late Gene Andresco, the Christian music producer better known as Gene Eugene who died last year from a stroke-related brain aneurysm.

A fragile-voiced Silletta sings in the latter tune: “You taught me so much / Who will I go to / One thing I ask of you / Please remember me / On the other side.”

“Gene basically produced or engineered everything I’ve ever done,” Silletta said. “He was like a father figure to me, giving me honest critiques, whether it was a slap in the head or some praise. Losing him at age 38 was unbelievable. . . . He was a mentor who over the years became like family to me.

“ ‘The Other Side’ is dedicated to Gene. It’s just a simple guitar-and-vocal thing, with a little tambourine and shaker added later. He had been working on ‘Fanmail 2000,’ and he died the night before we were supposed to start mixing the tracks.”

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Although devastated by the death, Silletta refuses to rationalize the heartbreaking loss.

“This is my personal belief: . . . Whether it’s good or bad in our eyes, everything happens for a reason,” he said. “God does things for reasons that we can’t even begin to understand. But who am I to question him? That’s the way I live my life--period.”

With the release of “Fanmail 2000,” the band fulfilled its contractual obligation to Tooth & Nail and, according to Silletta, has declined to sign a new, five-album deal. Fanmail, whose members range from ages 29 to 42, is looking to expand its local fan base with a series of shows here. They’re also hoping to attract major label interest.

“One of the good things about Tooth & Nail is that their [products are] distributed by EMI,” Silletta said. “It’s been fantastic to have our CDs available at all the retail outlets. The problem, though, is that I have, in two different bands, been under contract with them since ’93, and I just feel like it’s time to work with someone else that can take our music to the next level.”

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Still, is the mainstream willing to embrace a clean-cut modern rock band with religious undertones?

“We rock hard and have a positive message without preaching from the stage,” Silletta said. “We want our fans to feel encouraged and hopeful rather than like they just got a verbal slapping from us. We’re not about using angry, crazy language and shouting out the F-word.

“When I was in the fifth grade and bought ‘Mommy’s Little Monster,’ Social Distortion changed my life--I was hooked on punk rock. Music to me is very important as far as the way it shapes people’s lives. And our music is for everyone willing to leave their preconceptions at the door.”

SHOW TIMES

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Fanmail, Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. With Behind the Seen, Indirect and Henotic. Sunday, 8 p.m. $8 to $10. (949) 496-8930; Pax Americana Festival, Schurr High School Gymnasium, 820 N. Wilcox Ave., Montebello. March 23, 5 p.m. $8. (323) 721-4399; Lollapazusa Festival, Azusa Pacific University, 901 E. Alosta Ave. With Dogwood, Joy Electric, Havolina Rail Co., Cush, the Dips and others. March 31, noon-10 p.m. $5. (626) 969-3434 or (714) 963-3521; Pyrophobia Park, 1200 W. Alvarez Ave., Orange. With Focused and Born Blind. April 6, 6:30 p.m. Free. (714) 225-3526.


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