With their debut album 'Fanatical' well received at Greenbelt, CALVIN'S DREAM are now about to storm clubland. Pete Small spoke to the Scottish indie team's leader Dougie Gay.
From Ricky Ross and Talking Drums to Lies Damned Lies, Billy Penn's Brother, D B McGlynn... Since its inception over a decade ago, Glasgow's Sticky Music label has been a place where faith has freely explored the possibilities of art. And vice versa. Now they give us Calvin's Dream, a slightly neurotic, unfashionably 60s influenced indie band somewhere to the left of REM. If you're young, groovy and Christian, Glasgow seems to be the place to be right now.
I spoke to Dougie Gay (guitar/vocals) who with Simon Halliday (guitar) and Rachel Morley (bass) make up the core of Calvin's Dream. So what is it about Christians, creativity and Glasgow? "One of the good things is the sense of community between a number of different bands who have Christians in them, a sense of trying to support one another, and in practical ways people lend each other gear and instruments and come to each other's gigs. And to some extent there are people who give some framework of accountability, and who'll tell you honestly what they think of your music."
Minor personnel changes notwithstanding (their drummer is touring with Capercaillie - kind of Scottish Clannad, if you don't know), they are currently negotiating for their excellent debut album 'Fanatical' (see review CR17) to be properly distributed and preparing to gig in early '94. "Apart from Greenbelt we've not been playing the Christian circuit, we wanted to get mainstream gigs."
It seems difficult for a Christian band to cross over. "I think if you become a name within a Christian subculture where different standards are often applied to the kinds of records which are made then I think you do tend to box yourself in. I suppose I don't see crossing over as an issue for us because we chose right from the start not to go down that route, so I see our problems as ones we have in common with a lot of other Glasgow bands who are not Christian. So the decisions you make early on about which gigs you will do and where you will build up a following affect whether crossing over becomes an issue for you and in that sense I would say it's not an issue for us because we've made that decision already."
Nevertheless, past Greenbelt line-ups seem littered with fine bands who having reached this far, with perhaps a record in the shops, get no further. "There's always a tension between believing in your music and wanting to fight for it and give it a chance to reach a wider audience, and realising that there are thousands of groups being formed all the time all over the country who all think they're going to be international superstars and 99 per cent of them will never even become moderately successful in terms of chart success. I don't know whether we face particular disadvantages in there being Christians in the band or not. I think we'll find out whether our lyrical content or our personal attitude is going to make a difference as we make contact with larger record companies, promoters, management companies and so on. I wouldn't want to make excuses. There's a lot of great bands who never get anywhere and as long as I feel proud of what we've done musically, and believed in it then I don't think I will necessarily feel a failure if this or any future records don't achieve huge commercial success. I want to feel that it's been worth doing for its own sake."
It might be observed that rather than having or indeed expressing faith through music, it is association with the dread "Christian music subculture" that is the kiss of death. "We do want to be careful about the kind of associations we have in the band. I think one of the disadvantages is that there is a feeling that standards aren't as high. I know that's what Charlie from Lies Damned Lies said at a seminar at Greenbelt this year, that people have got away with lower standards musically in the Christian subculture and that may be a problem to people who may feel we haven't come through with the goods in terms of quality. Although I'd identify myself quite strongly still with the evangelical scene in terms of my own theological tradition, I think the problem has been the responsibility for evangelism understood in a very narrow way that's been loaded onto musicians. Whereas a lot of great art has been in the prophetic mould; it's asking questions, making criticism, not just conveying one-dimensional messages. I'd be happy to stand beside any music I've been involved with and say I hope it contributes to my personal Christian witness but at the same time I don't see the work of the group as primarily evangelism, and I think that gives us a freedom to write in a more creative way."
Calvin's Dream share with some of Scotland's finest (Orange Juice, Mary Chain, Primal Scream) a distinct Velvet Underground influence. "Right from the beginning we identified ourselves as an indie band, and a lot of indie bands looked back to the Velvet Underground as a bench mark in that they were prepared to be unconventional, not just involved with the music industry for commercial reasons. They had an independent streak to their creativity, they were prepared to try things that were daring lyrically and musically; it might sound pretentious to see their music as a serious experimental art form. I love Lou Reed's voice, I think he's a great lyric writer, there's a kind of effortlessness about a lot of the grooves in the Velvet's songs and they just have an indefinable feel about the records which I find really captivating. I also love Lou Reed's solo work, and John Cale's and also Brian Eno and people like that, people who are working in that avant-garde area. It's not the territory we're in ourselves at the moment but they're all people who are interested in pushing back boundaries and that's something we identify with strongly and see as essential to our faith in terms of the way we approach music; it should be something that's distinctive for Christians who are involved in the music world - that their creativity should as far as possible not be compromised by the pressure to seek fame and money."
Lyrically, the album seems to show dissatisfaction with elements of Dougie's Protestant background. "Since I am a Protestant the questions and comments on the album are attempts for me to reach some kind of self understanding, to explore what a Protestant identity means and the connotations of bigotry that this has here in Glasgow; of defining yourself against an 'enemy' - the Catholics, and also being within a Calvinist tradition. I'm very interested in the relationship between religion and power and the way in which faith can be a defence against fascism or lined up behind it. If I were to get a bit prophetic here I'd say that one of the major challenges that's going to face the Church in Europe over the next five or 10 years is responding to a renewed growth of fascist activity. The track on the album 'Six Million Ways' (about the Holocaust) is an attempt to try to understand something of the attractiveness of fascism. I do slightly worry about that track in some ways because of the persona that's adopted - it could almost be used as a fascist anthem, when its intention, and, I think, the way it demands to be heard is exactly the opposite. So I am fascinated by questions of protestant identity and I feel it's something that's quite under explored, how it affects their personal psychology, and how it affects their approach to art."
I put it to Dougie that some of the songs, "What Kind Of Love" for instance, seem very specifically to question some of the received wisdom of how faith should be practiced, albeit without questioning the reality of the faith itself. "I wasn't the major lyricist but my understanding of the song is that it reflects the quite intense family situations which the three of us in the band have in common: two were brought up in clergy households and one was brought up in the Brethren, and so the effect can be very suffocating. It's kind of questioning some of the restrictiveness. But that comes quite close to questioning the faith, since the faith is transmitted through relationships. In a way you have to go back and try and understand what you were conditioned to be, what kind of messages you received about what kind of person you should be; and then trying to decide, well, how do I feel about this as an adult believer. I want to go back now and test some of these restrictions and see if there are life-denying elements that I want to reassess."
The song "Philistines" explores similar areas. Says Dougie, "That's a song, obviously based on the David and Goliath story, trying to respond to the element of absurdity in the smallness of the resources of faith and some of the choices of faith in what you face in your own life and in the world. There's also an element of parodying preachers' rhetoric, and then at the end, for me, there's a very genuine holding onto faith, although there's still a lot of questions admitting elements of doubt and uncertainty as well. In some ways, I see Philistines in a sense as being in the tradition of some of the Psalms. I think there's a whole genre of lament and complaint and emotional honesty that's very lacking in people trying to write Christian music and in worship music as well. In some ways I relate much more to an artist like Nick Cave who works constantly with biblical material and even incorporates the text into his songs. He has an incredible depth of emotional honesty. There's a line in his album 'The Good Son' in the song "Who Will Be The Witness", where he sings 'Who will be the witness when we're all too healed to see?', and when I first heard that it blew me away because it seemed to sum up a lot of my feelings about the Christian community that I grew up in, that it was full of people, and I was one of them, who were too healed to see. Somehow the shape that faith had taken in our lives had blinded us to all sorts of things, and there was a need to ask that question. I've been reading Lamentations, where there's this refrain 'Look and see, look and see, look at my suffering', and then reading Matthew 25 where Jesus questions the people about why they never visited him in prison, and they say 'Lord, when did we see you?' and there's the question again -'Who will be the witnesses?' It's almost as if Heaven has been turned into something which blinds people. Again, I am a Protestant and I don't want to escape that but there's a certain analysis, therapy, if you like, going on in some of this.
"In 'Calvin's Dream' which closes the album, there's an attempt to wrestle with the idea of sin - a misunderstanding about the idea of total depravity - and the way that's turned into a kind of masochistic self-loathing. People have used the rhetoric of sin to constantly debase people in terms of their humanity, to make them feel as bad about themselves as possible, perhaps as a way of controlling them socially and politically."
I finished the interview with Dougie by asking whether there was possibly an element of self-doubt behind all this righteous indignation. "I think it's very important that there is a healthy level of scepticism about yourself which is an authentic Protestant understanding of sin. The corruption of Protestantism is when you live off scapegoating other people and making them into the enemy. You lose your ability to criticise yourself and I hope that feeling comes through in the songs."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.