Caedmon's Call: Houston pop/rockers spearheading CCM popularity

Wednesday 1st October 1997

The new surge of popularity for Christian modern rock has found its focal point in Houston's CAEDMON'S CALL. Jan Willem Vink spoke at length to the folk pop rockers.

Caedmon's Call
Caedmon's Call

Even before the release of their 'Caedmon's Call' debut for Warner Alliance there was a huge American buzz for the Houston-based folk-tinged band. Caedmon's Call had spent four years crisscrossing the country playing universities, coffee houses and the club circuit. Two independent releases had clocked up almost 30,000 sales and the band were high on Musician magazine's 1996 Top 50 Unsigned Bands list. Known for all being committed Christians, the band were approached by several Christian record companies but the band, uncomfortable with the rigidity of CCM marketing, had turned down the recording offers.

Then in 1996 Neal Watson, son of Warner Alliance artist Wayne Watson, saw the band at a show at Oklahoma Baptist University. One show and a few meetings later and it would be CCM veteran Wayne Watson who would, through his production agreement with Warner Alliance, shop Caedmon's Call to the label. The man brought in to produce the band's record label debut was top of the range Don McCollister, having found fame and fortune for his work with R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls.

The release of 'Caedmon's Call' broke all kinds of records. It was the first time a debut by an act on a Christian label entered America's CCM chart at number one and the first Christian act to gain the number one slot on Billboard's Heatseeker chart. The band's current line up is Cliff Young (vocals, acoustic guitar), Danielle Glenn (vocals), Derek Webb (vocals, acoustic guitar), Todd Bragg (drums), Garett Buell (percussion) and Aric Nitzberg (bass). I spoke to the band at the -Warner Alliance office in Nashville.

I understand that some of the members of Caedmon's Call had some problems with the CCM industry.
Aric: "That's true, at least half of us did not grow up in the Church. I myself became a Christian at 26 years old, so we had a good deal of influences that were outside Christian music. I don't think that it was necessarily all bad, our influences were from secular music. We wanted to play music that was good music, not music that was good for Christian music. We wanted the music to stand on its own merits."

How did the band come together?
Garett: "We've been going together for five years now. We've been in the underground, so we're not necessarily a new band. But it started with Cliff and Danielle. And Aaron (Tate) who is not touring with us. He is a writer, who wrote all the songs on our first independent release. It started with them. Cliff, Danielle and Todd all went to the same church. Todd our drummer was playing drums at the church there. He played one of their first gigs. They met with Eric who had been playing session work in Houston forever. He came along and we paid him for most of the gigs. He liked what he saw and wanted to be in a Christian group. So he got involved and stopped getting money..."
Randy: "I saw them play early on. There was another girl at the time, years ago. They did a Rich Mullins tune and I ran up to Cliff and said, 'If you ever need someone to play, I'd love to play.' It kind of evolved. I've been on permanent part time status for four, five years and now I guess I'm full time."

It's more lucrative now...?
Randy: "I don't know if you can call it more lucrative, but more busy..."

Can you tell me a bit more about the two independent releases?
Aric: '"My Calm Your Storm' we released in 1994, 12 songs that were all written by Aaron Tate, one of the founders of the band. It was thematic in the sense that all songs dealt with lukewarmness and the idea that as a church body and as individuals, we tend to get comfortable, we tend to get complacent in our walks and we get ineffective. The song 'My Calm Your Storm' is the cornerstone of the album and is a cry out to God to reignite the passion and the flame that we have and become real in our lives again and for us to allow God to work in our lives. Each of the songs deal with that. 'Forget What You Know' speaks about forgiveness, about the freedom that comes to us when we understand that God forgives us for our sins so we're not trapped by our memories of the things we have done. Just understand that God has forgiven us, so we can forgive ourselves."

The second album...
Aric: "With 'I Just Don't Want Coffee', four songs were written by Derek Webb and the idea behind the title track was Derek was in a relationship that was not pleasing to God. He was dating a girl who was not a believer and he understood that he was going against God's direction but he was still drawn to this girl. The idea is that he had come to the realisation that he had to break it off in order to be obedient. It's kind of the struggle he went through with that. Of course, he has a much different writing style than Aaron. I think both write directly from personal experience and the thing we find more and more is that our personal experiences are universal to the human condition, so that people relate to the vulnerability and just the kind of realness we are expressing in our songs."

Is that why you appeal to non-Christians as well?
Aric: "I think we do, even though we target Christians and our ministry is definitely towards building up and discipling Christians and maybe bringing people back into the fold who fell away when they went to college. We see a lot that people become Christians when they're in high school or in the first years when they are in school and their parents take them to a church and that's when they make their first commitment. Then they get away from college and are around all sorts of influences. A lot of people fall away during those years and many of them never return. So we do aim our ministry towards restoring and building up Christians. However, we've found a lot of people who are not Christians are drawn to our music and that our music is not necessarily evangelical. They like the music, they like the sound of the band. Only later do they understand a bit of the Christian topics."

You clearly have a real empathy with student audiences.
Garett: "I was in college for five years studying music performances and there was a lot of stuff with which I was struggling. There are a lot of things when you go to school; mostly you meet new people and you're on your own and your parents aren't around. Young adults think that is new freedom. So they get involved with other things and there is a lot more pressure and a lot of things happen to them. They might make some bad choices and end up feeling really guilty about the things they did. It's like, 'Oh, I have been so bad, God is not there because I've ruined it.' So a lot of our songs tell them that there is hope and God does not turn his back on you."

You say that the goal of your band is discipleship, to make people disciples of Jesus. But do you see yourself as examples?
Garett: "We try to be honest and real. Being a Christian is not always being happy and it's not always easy you know. It's very hard and a lot of times most things as a Christian become harder, life becomes harder I think. So we have to be very honest in what we're going through. We've been through a lot of the same things that they're experiencing and we try to be very open about it."

Is Caedmon's Call an album of only new songs or is it also a combination of old and new songs?
Randy: "Actually, it is half and half. It is half a collection of the first two independent albums and the six new songs and maybe there are one or two songs which are kind of totally rewritten. Remarkably enough I have people come up all the time who can relate to the original version of 'Coffee'."

Can you explain the role Aaron Tate continues to have in Caedmon's Call?
Aric: "Aaron will write most of the songs. He would send us lyrics and maybe a cassette tape of himself playing and singing the songs. He considers himself a writer more than a performer. He's never been interested in that side of things. But he will send us kind of a rough version of things and give us free reign with it, so maybe we will slightly change the tempo or the melody, although the lyrics will always stay intact. He is a very prolific writer. Cliff will usually be the filter there and he will pour through the songs that Aaron has given us and pick the ones that he feels speak to him. Cliff will start working on them and at that point he will bring them into the band. Then he will have an idea of what he would want to do with it and then we will arrange it all together."

Can we discuss a couple of the songs on the album? "Lead Of Love" for instance.
Aric: "That was one of Aaron's songs and he wrote that from the understanding that we don't always see God's purpose in life when we're right there and sometimes we question whether we are in the centre of God's will, that God doesn't always speak to us on a daily basis, telling us do this, do that, do this job. But in retrospect, we can see the way God has shaped us, has led us in certain directions, all things have worked for his purpose and glory. That song is saying, 'Looking back on the things I've gone through, I can see why you had me go through these things.' The lyric, 'Had to walk to rocks to see the mountain view, in other words, the climbing could be hard, but it took this to get this beautiful view, that the Lord prepared me for at this point."

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