One of America's most popular Christian rock bands, AUDIO ADRENALINE, are set to play the UK (Alton Towers) in May. They also have a new album coming. Ben Forrest reports.
When music buffs talk about the American Christian rock scene, it's extraordinary how the band are continually mentioned in the same breath as dc Talk. Maybe that's because, like dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline have sold huge swathes of CDs and established themselves as mainstays of America's youth groups. Maybe it's because they, like dc Talk, record for the same record label, Forefront Records. Or maybe it's because their lead singer, the gustily-voiced Mark Stuart, is married to the sister of Toby McKeehan. But probably the link exists in people's minds because, like dc Talk, AA have demonstrated down the years the same intuitive ability to make changes, sometimes seismic, sometimes subtle, to their musical approach to keep their sound fresh and their fanbase intrigued.
Audio Adrenaline were formed in 1991 when Mark Stuart (vocals), Barry Blair (guitar, vocals) and Bob Herdman (keyboards) were students at Kentucky Christian College playing in a rock band called A180. Bass player Will McGinniss brought a tape of a song he had written, "My God"; the tape found its way into the hands of Toby McKeehan and Forefront offered a contract. In 1992 Audio Adrenaline were officially formed. Albums followed, the first, the largely unsuccessful 'Audio Adrenaline' (1992) was dance music-orientated spliced with wacky humour. Their next was the hugely successful (300,000 plus sales) 'Don't Censor Me' (1993) containing "Big House", one of the catchiest pop songs of the decade. By the time of 'Live Bootleg' (1995), the band were building a reputation as one of the most uninhibited purveryors of full on rawk music ever to feature a full out Jesus message. By 1996 the 'Bloom' album, aided by Gin Blossoms producer John Hampton, brought another huge radio hit with "Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus". Guitarist Barry Blair left the band to be replaced by then 18 year old Tyler Burkum while drummer Ben Cissell also became an official AA member. The band's first album with their new line up, 'Some Kind Of Zombie', demonstrated more funk rock and less pop sounds than previous Audio Adrenaline albums while 1999 saw the release of 'Underdog' and the band, confident enough to display a pot pourri of sounds and styles from moshpit reveries ("Mighty Good Leader") to classic hymns ("It Is Well", performed with Jennifer Knapp). In 2001 keyboards man Bob Herdman departed the group (to take a behind-the-scenes role with Flicker Records). 'Lift' showed more eclecticism taking in elements of country, blues, metal and rap as well as lifting Lou Reed's classic "Walk On The Wild Side" vocal riff for their title track and offering covers of Edgar Winter's "Free Ride" and Pete Townsend's "Ocean Tour".
On stage the band continue to mesmerise US crowds, getting them moshing to "Mighty Good Leader", singing along to "Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus" and laughing with their amazing rendition of the Veggie Tales "Hairbrush Song". Throughout their career AA have been tireless workers. The band co-authored Some Kind Of Journey: On The Road With Audio Adrenaline, and Herdman, McGinniss and Stuart have formed Nashville CCM company Flicker Records with an impressive roster including Canadian singer/songwriter Riley Armstrong, hip-hop maestro T-Bone and Seattle rock team Sanctus Real. Now with a new album, 'Worldwide', about to hit the shops, the band are once more gearing up with extensive touring. The first single from the album is tentatively titled "Dirt" (changed from "Dirty," according to drummer Ben Cissell, "because of that whole Christina Aguilera thing"), and will likely reach number one on US Christian radio - the band's 18th single to do so.
Ben is excited about 'Worldwide', currently being mixed. "I love this new record. I think it's a lot catchier than 'Lift' - I think people can fall in love with it a lot quicker. There are probably about three songs that are going to be B-sides from this record [that could have made the cut]."
In terms of sound, Cissell says 'Worldwide' is "like a combination of 'Lift' and 'Underdog'. It's got some of the good ballads that 'Lift' had - 'Ocean Floor'-type songs - but it also has some of the fun, more rock and roll songs." The album's name comes from the first and last tracks - both called "Worldwide" - and also from the album's main theme - going out in the world and serving God. He concedes that some of the songs, as with some on their previous album, are reminiscent of contemporary worship, but the band isn't marketing it that way. "I don't want to talk bad [about the worship craze] or any of the other bands," says Cissell, "but there's such a market for [worship albums] and sometimes bands feel like they have to [put one out]."
The worship alluded to on 'Worldwide', however, is of a different kind than what commonly occurs on Sunday morning. "There are other forms of worship that haven't been talked about in this whole new worship movement," he says. "Another way to worship God is to actually be a servant. [The album] talks about going out into the world and serving God however you can." Says bassist Will McGinniss, "A subtitle for the album [could be] 'Worship With Your Life.'"
Central to the theme of servanthood as worship, of course, is the first single. "Dirt," says Cissell, "talks about going out in the world and doing some mission trips and doing manual labour and actually getting dirty. It's kind of a play on words, but that's what it's about, just kind of 'worship with your life.'"
The band crosses into more controversial territory with "Church Punk," which bassist Will McGinniss says has a sound reminiscent of The Vines. "It's a tough song to talk about," says McGinniss. The song is "a bit of a slam on the Church," which attacks various weaknesses within the body of Christ, including mediocrity. "But it's also, at the same time, saying, 'Let's raise up a new generation to heal ourselves a bit, and to just start loving people the way Christ did.'" "Leaving 99", appears also, and, says Cissell, mirrors "that passage in the Bible where the shepherd leaves his flock of 99 sheep to find that one stray. [The song] talks about how God does that with us."
The album is bookended by songs named "Worldwide," though not because the group was lacking material, and neither is a remix (as with track 12 on 'Lift'). The theme of both songs is similar, but the lyrics are different. "It's kind of neat," says Cissell. "It's like two totally different songs produced by two different people." Somewhere in the middle are "Strong" and "Pierced", both worshipful songs; "Go And Be", which challenges listeners to be like Christ; "Pour Your Love Down," an "Ocean Floor"-esque ballad; and "Miracle."
Somewhere lost in the demo tapes is a song you will never likely hear in its original form. "Start A Fire" appears on the new album, but was modified, per the record company's request. "The original idea was 'go set your school on fire,'" says Cissell, though, he stresses, not in the literal sense. "It was a little play on words - it was supposed to be '[set your school] on fire for Jesus' - but everybody at the record company - all the head-honchos - said, 'Yeah, that's probably not going to work.' We thought we might be able to get away with it, but it's no big deal. It's not like we were totally in love with the idea anyway." Oh. And one more thing. It isn't a live track. "I don't even know if I'm supposed to let this secret out of the bag," says Cissell, "but I'm going to anyway. It's not live. We were never in Springfield or wherever we were supposed to be on the record. It's all recorded in our studio in Franklin [Tennessee]."
Between touring, writing for the new album and tending to family responsibilities, one half of the band - McGinniss and lead singer Mark Stuart- -also manage to juggle their own record company. Flicker Records, formed sometime between late 1999 and the twilight of the new century, is seven artists strong and growing. Pillar, a rap/rock outfit signed in 2000, recently became the label's first gold-selling act. "We're kind of blown away with how things have gone," says McGinniss. "It's been able to keep its doors open for three years now. That's unheard of."
McGinniss, who together with Stuart head the label's A&R department, says Flicker was founded in part because they wanted to spare up-and-coming artists some of the difficulties suffered by Audio Adrenaline, but mostly because it was a way for them to be involved with and mentor such bands. "The fun thing for me," says McGinniss, "is just to walk with them where they're walking. Because we were in the 'van and trailer' stage, you know, barely eating and selling plasma to eat.all of those kinds of steps."
The label's most recent signee, The Swift, is representative of the kind of things that McGinniss says Flicker looks for in an artist. They have a fresh, original sound, can pull off a good live show and are hard workers s devoted to their craft. "They remind me of [the] Ben Folds Five," he says, "and they also remind me of early Billy Joel or Elton John - funky piano rock. They were already out there doing 200 shows before we even signed them. They'll play churches, youth groups, whatever." The label has already entertained offers to be bought out (though McGinniss says they're "not really there yet"). So where will Flicker be in 2012? "Actually, we don't usually look far ahead," says McGinniss, laughing. "We're kind of fly by the seat of our pants kind of people. We kind of fall into stuff a lot and God just kind of knocks us into stuff sometimes."
Another thing Audio Adrenaline "fell into" in 2002 was the Festival Con Dios Tour. From September through to early November, the band played more than 30 shows along with TobyMac, Mercy Me, and eight other artists. "I describe Festival Con Dios to people as being one big travelling church camp," says Cissell. Audio was the main attraction this year, after sharing top billing in 2001 with the Newsboys. But Cissell won't talk about that, telling instead of the relationships they built with other bands. When not offering advice to younger acts, or riding through the mountains with more established bands, Audio was doing whatever they could to upstage TobyMac.
"We love that guy," says Cissell. "We have so much fun with him. Every night he [would] come off stage and kind of joke with us, like James Brown, and be like, 'Yeah, top that.' It stepped up both of our games, because we were constantly trying to outdo each other."
Around press time, the band hits the road again with MercyMe for the Go Show Tour, which will keep them in the US, but often away from their families until September. They will continue to be record label executives, video directors and live the vision that they preach through 'Worldwide'. More hit singles will come, likely followed by other albums, and, eventually, old age and senility. But when that day comes, the band will have some great stories to tell. "I think that's why I videotape everything," says Cissell. "Eventually, I'd like to show my grandkids how much fun I had when I was in this rock band when I was a kid."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.