Guaranteed to make major waves at this year's Greenbelt festival are America's ALL STAR UNITED featuring the uncannily British sounding voice and songs of the multi-talented Ian Eskelin. Mike Rimmer spoke to the band.
One of the finest releases of 1997 is 'All Star United'. The album acts as a fanfare for the band's forthcoming performances at Greenbelt and the chance for them to pay homage to one of their major influences, Blur! Ahead of all this, I am on the phone to drummer Christian Crowe and I am worried because it's early in the morning for him and the band are on tour. However, he explains that as road manager he's getting used to going without sleep and the challenge of waking his fellow band mates from their slumbers
It was three and a half years ago that Cross Rhythms first reviewed an album featuring Ian Eskelin and it's been quite a journey from Zero's Ravenous project through solo dance albums to his present incarnation. No Svengali manufacturing here, the genesis of All Star United was a natural affair. Christian had been playing drums for Ian's solo live performances since 1994. A tour with Steve Taylor and the Newsboys where background DATs were banned forced Ian to rearrange his previously techno based music in a more rock 'n 'roll fashion. Musicians were subsequently recruited and when it came time for Ian to record that "difficult" third album, Christian reports, "We just decided we were having a good time and Ian was fed up with being a solo artists and carrying all the responsibility so we decided to become a band at that point."
Thus was born All Star United. Long-time fans of Ian may be surprised to hear that the band's Britpop sound is closer to the heart of the front man than the dance music he'd previously produced. Christian observes, "I've been travelling with Ian for two and a half years and he doesn't actually listen to techno music all that much. We listen to pop and rock 'n' roll."
One of the central songs on the album is "Saviour Of My Universe" which reflects the spiritual journey that Christian has as a fanfare for the band's travelled. The song even features some atmospheric viola work from Sixpence guitarist Matt Slocum! Christian describes his upbringing; "Ian and I were both raised in a middle class Christian home where our Christianity was just developed in our upbringing. There was a time when we asked Jesus into our hearts but we kind of grew into Christianity and took all these things for granted. We also became very judgmental. It's a real problem when you're told all your life what's good and bad and there's not a true understanding of what's right and wrong. You end up with this problem of becoming 18 and out on your own and see that you're really judgmental."
Christian thinks for a moment and then ' continues, "For example, the issue of drinking. In the USA it's frowned upon because of the problems associated with it - alcoholism or drunkenness. They don't see what the heart motive is. God doesn't care if you drink but he cares if it becomes a crutch.
For Christian, the defining moment for his faith came in his late teens when his parents moved away to become missionaries and he had to learn to live by his own faith. Ian wrote "Saviour Of My Universe" as a result of his experiences as a 21 year old. Christian explains, "God burst the bubble and explained the personal intimate nature of a relationship with God and led him away from a religious judgmental attitude."
A hard lesson to learn, Christian sees that God can use the experiences of his teen years to help others when the band play live. He explains, "I seem to talk to a lot of kids who've been raised in Christian homes and ask questions about why being a Christian is so boring and why are my parents so strict? I can relate to that and I can help them!"
Recently in America's Release magazine Ian spoke about the freedom he found in writing for the 'All Star United' album. "It's refreshing to not have to write every song about being a cheerleader for Jesus. As Christians, I don't think we need to do that. I think we need to write relevant stuff that applies to everybody's daily walk."
Some songs, like "It's A Beautiful Thing", bubble with the joy of knowing the Lord. Others are more sombre, like "Drive", a tender drama of two friends discussing where their lives have taken them. The songs that stand out, though, are those with a satirical edge: "The songs 'La La Land' and 'Smash Hit' are jabs at those people who use God as their easy chair," Ian says. "Giving your life to God is the easy part; living your life for Christ is the tough part."
While All Star United is a new band, the core of the group has been together a while. Originally formed as a backup band during Ian's "supersonic dance pop" phase, they eventually carved out a more aggressive sound. Drummer Christian Crowe says the shift was inevitable. "Our live sound was drastically different from his recorded material," he says. While the solo records were mostly programmed, on stage there were live instruments. It makes a difference. "We began behaving more like we were a band, instead of a backup band for a solo artist."
There is no mistaking that this band is creating a real buzz in the USA. Their live schedule has been hectic but Christian maintains that the band isn't into the normal gig, hotel, tour bus triumvirate. "When there's an opportunity to drive through a landmark or see something exciting we'll do it even if it takes us out of the way of our touring schedule. Just the other day we went to Mount Rushmore because none of us had seen that. We make sure on the road we do as many fun things and have a blowing off steam time. We try to break up the touring monotony, we're much too fun loving to just stay in hotels."
Spiritually too, Christian is aware of the pressures of being a touring band. Time on the road often means time away from church and Christian has come across some very judgmental attitudes. '"When was the last time you were in church, brother?'" He continues, "They don't understand that we're in church almost every time we're on stage. We were in a church last night but we don't get to go to the conventional church service where there's someone preaching at us. We counteract that by doing band Bible studies, on the road. We always spend time in prayer before we go on stage. The actual experience of going on stage and playing for people, I experience the presence of the Holy Spirit quite often. I also do my own personal devotion time. Whenever I'm at home, I do go to church. I try to make the best of it at all times."
A working Christian band has its work cut out if it's to make an impact musically or spiritually. A glimpse behind the scenes with All Star United shows that no matter what pundits are predicting (and let's face it, their debut album has drawn glowing praise from all quarters), this is one rock V pop outfit that has its feet firmly fixed on the floor. The acclaim does not detract the band from their primary aim, to encourage listeners to consider the claims of the Christian faith.
Finally, as our time to talk comes to a close and Christian has to muster the rest of the band and crew, I ask him to comment on one of my favourite songs on the album, "Tenderness". "You can walk away from God for a long time," he sums it up. "You can keep taking steps away from him but basically all it takes is one step back. His tenderness is uncompromising, his care and his love for us is never ending and all he wants to do is be close to us."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.