Mike Rimmer met up with dance music producer Paul Buono (also known as Magellan) of the pioneering CLUB DREAMLAB
There have always been Christian musicians who have wanted to pioneer something different from the standard music experienced by the Church. Sometimes what is pioneered becomes the accepted norm and sometimes it continues to be a fringe activity appealing to a segment of the Christian community. Music seems to have a way of polarising people. It's said that the introduction of the organ into church buildings was resisted by many and there were those who considered the organ to be an instrument of Satan. Personally I still do!
In the last 30 years, church music seems to have bowed to the dominance of the guitar and the worship band where these things are no longer considered to be radical. Changes in general music culture are often reflected in the music styles adopted by church communities. The best example is with the modern worship styles of the last 15 years which could be described as a fusion of classic stadium rock and Britpop.
But what of those who don't like guitar-driven rock but prefer the pumping dance rhythms of club culture? In Britain the rise of dance music culture since the heady days of the '70s raves has encouraged some adventurous churches to integrate aspects of club culture into their worship services. Under the nebulous banner of "alternative worship" a smattering of churches from a wide range of traditions and theologies have integrated aspects of house, techno and trance music into their worship services. At best such experiments have been valid initiatives in engaging club-going young people with the living God. At worst, like the disastrous Nine O'Clock Service in Sheffield in the early '90s, the pumping dance rhythms have shielded theology and/or church practice light years from the teachings of Scripture.
In America, dance music and the Church have found different ways of co-existing and cross fertilising. Theirs' has for many years been a sub-category of dance music known as gospel house where producers bring in church-based singers to bring melismatic passion and often startlingly upfront God lyrics to thudding house music tracks. Hundreds of gospel house 12 inch singles were released by dance music specialists in the USA and Britain. Such a format and market niche meant of course that such offerings as "Pray 4 Me" by Farley Jackmaster Funk, "Blessed" by Kenny Bobien, "Oh Happy Day" by Children Of The Underground and "Lift Every Voice" by Jasper Street Co were heard only in the boozy, sexually liberated environment of clubland.
But if gospel house can be considered musical evangelism, what about club rhythms used in worship music? Throughout most of the '90s, the giant of the field was deejay, mixer and record producer Scott Blackwell. The California-based Blackwell released brilliantly diverse dance albums such as 'Walk On The Wild Side', 'A Myx'd Trip To A Gospel House' and the groundbreaking series of dance worship albums 'Nitro Praise'. His pioneering label N-Soul Records also helped break The World Wide Message Tribe in the USA. But since Blackwell's retreat from the music industry over the last few years there have been just about no producers or companies prepared to risk the wrath of conservative church goers and the no dance/electronic music airplay policies of US Christian radio and bring clubland rhythms to the worship sanctuary. Now that is changing thanks to pioneering record producer Paul Buono.
In August 2008 the launch of the Club DreamLab label was announced. Club DreamLab is owned by Buono and Eric Nordhoff, president/CEO of Nashville-based Go Global Entertainment - an international Christian music distribution and licensing company. Paul's studio is called Helsinki South Studios and based in Franklin, Tennessee. I met up with Paul in a Nashville hotel and began by asking him to explain Club DreamLab's vision. "We're here to help encourage the body of Christ globally to embrace these new landscapes of electronic music in their worship and in their communion with God. And even for the Church, it could be a new avenue and a new way for believers to come together and enjoy worshipping with dance music and trance music. We want to touch on all styles of the electronica genre, from ambient to house, to down tempo and trance."
I suggested that to the unitiated Paul's DreamLab is simply repeating what Scott Blackwell's N-Soul did in the '90s. Paul responded, "I guess we're approaching it maybe slightly differently than how they did. I'm trying to approach it more on a song level, to remember how much songs drive our love for music. I think one of the things that can happen in electronic music and certain categories of it is that they forget that you need a song, you need a hook, you need something for people to really latch onto; especially because we really want to encourage people in areas of worship and communing with God with this type of music. We wanted to make sure that there were good songs and there were good lyrics and there were good vocals so that the Church has an easier time accepting this as. . . and I say 'new' because I think in a lot of cases it will be new to people in the Church. We feel like part of what we're doing is a little bit of education and it's helping people to see that, 'Hey, listen to this new landscape!'
He continued, "I think that we can all benefit from anything that will help us get into a deeper way of communing with God. If an electronic soundscape helps to facilitate a person communing with God in a new way that just an acoustic guitar and a vocal might not allow them to, then I think it's a wonderful tool. So whether it's new or not, I don't know. It's new to me right now!" He laughed, "And it's a new company so I guess that's maybe why we're overusing the word 'new' but I realise that this music's been around for a while."
Buono stumbled into this completely accidentally. He wasn't an electronica/dance music producer at all, he was a guitarist! So what's a guitarist doing championing a music that is anathema to many guitar pickers? He responded, "A few years back I lived for one year in Helsinki, Finland. I arrived in that city not knowing what I was going to do. I met up with a group of people who found out that I was a believer and a record producer and they basically hired me on our first meeting to help them produce some records. One of these records that we produced was a dance/trance record so I was quickly immersed into this style of music. I didn't have a lot of options, I was kind of stuck in a country where I couldn't speak the language and somebody wanted to pay me some money to produce a record that was in a genre that I was not familiar with. But I took that task on wholeheartedly and I learned; I feel like God took me to school in that one year and I learned so much about that style of music. And I grew to love that music and it's something that I never thought that I would ever be doing."
He elaborated, "I feel a little bit like how Moses felt when God chose him and said, 'I want you to lead my people out of Egypt. You're going to do this thing.' And Moses was like, 'Are you sure you're talking to me Lord?!' I feel the same way: 'Are you sure you want me to have an electronic record label and encourage people in this whole new thing?!' But I take the task on and the challenge of it wholeheartedly and I was very happy to be doing it."
The album has finally seen worldwide release as 'Club Revival'. Buono explained, "I was a team member on that album. I wasn't the only person hitting buttons and turning knobs and writing; it was very collective. It was a great experience; a very collective, collaborative effort with the team of people that all came together with the same vision: 'Let's create this music that's taking over the clubs of Europe, and festivals, with hundreds and thousands of people. Why can't God have some of that action?' So I love listening to that record. You hear these Finnish people singing in English and there's that little bit of that accent, you know, that just authenticates it for me. I'm like, 'Yes! These people are doing their best to sing not in their first language.' It just gives a real value to that album for me."
Buono is working across the board in all different kinds of dance and ambient music, so are there particular styles that suit him better? "Yes. I'm definitely going to try to focus on the two particular styles that interest me the most. One is trance music; I love that style. And I really love the exploration of ambient because you can just create these beautiful moods and lush landscapes and you can kind of take people on a journey musically. So I'm very encouraged by those two genres. And then again we want to help facilitate - with Club DreamLab - we want to help encourage other deejays and other electronic artists that are doing this all around the world. To say, 'Hey, we have a company now; submit your songs to us! We encourage you to send your best material to us because if it's good, we're gonna put it out on an album and put it out through our distribution chain.'"
Buono grew up very close to the city of Boston, playing guitar in rock bands and upon graduating high school went to the world renowned Berklee College of Music. He studied Composition and Arranging, and guitar was his instrument of choice. He explained, "What I learned there was just good solid music theory and song structure and harmony and arranging. I didn't really learn producing there, that's kind of something you learn down the road. I didn't even really know what a producer did until one day I was making a record with some friends of mine and an engineer turned to me and said, 'Hey man, you're a pretty good producer!' I said, 'I am?!' I didn't really understand it."
He laughed, "But God raised me and gave me certain gifts and abilities and talents that I'm very grateful for and I love what I do. God has taken me on an amazing journey and to be here today doing what I'm doing, I can look back and you could follow that line and say, 'Wow! I can see why God had me here. I can see why God had me doing this.' Because it all comes into play as to who we are and who he wants us to be and how he's gifted us."
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