Irish alternative rock band FIVE DOLLAR SOUL are quizzed by Tony Cummings.
One of the best independent singles of recent times is "Burn The Flag" by Five Dollar Soul. I met up with the band's lead singer Ross at Greenbelt 2002 and we spoke at length about rock music and his Christian faith.
Tony: Give me a history of Five Dollar Soul.
"We had all met at different times before, at various kinds of stages of other bands and band development. I was playing in another band a few years ago. We had all kind of met at various events and we had all played at the same sort of events, at a place called Exodus, which is in Portstewart. Exodus is basically a Christian night base which was established to give young people somewhere to go and hang out in a safe and Christian environment. It is very, very pro-Christian and so the people there gave us lots of chances to play and gradually we kind of met each other and our bands, except the band Errin was playing in. I was playing in a band called Raccoon and I was singing and playing guitar. I felt the name Raccoon was an appropriate name - the raccoon is an animal which spends most of its day eating and sleeping - so I thought it was really apt! Matthew and Andrew were playing in a band called Jester. I think there is actually another band called Jester but they didn't know that at the time and there wasn't going to be any big lawsuits or anything! Matthew was singing and playing guitar and writing the songs. Andrew also played guitar and Errin was playing in another band called Joshua's Promise.
"We all kind of supported and played with each other and then really, all those bands began to fizzle out - as bands are want to do. I was doing a lot of stuff on my own, like really acoustic based stuff, and that has its place but you begin to yearn for a bit of electric guitar to make some noise. Every boy has this dream of playing a loud guitar and smashing it up on stage - but I have only got one guitar - so that would be fairly fruitless! So I was asked to play at a Christian Union event in Scotland, at the university and I didn't want to do it by myself so I asked Matthew and Andrew if they wanted to come and play. Conveniently, if there is such a thing in the Christian faith, they were studying at Perth, which is fairly near to Dundee, where I was studying, and they said they lived with Errin who played drums so they asked him too. Real cliché the way it really all came together. So we played at this event and really enjoyed it."
Tony: Did you have the name Five Dollar Soul from the beginning?
"Yes. I was reading a magazine and noticed the name of an album called 'Three Dollar Guitar' which I thought was a really nice name and decided to move the words around a little. So for some kind of reason the words Five Dollar Soul came into my head and it seemed to me as if that was purely accidental but the more I thought about it the more kind of resonances it had. Also there was the idea of soul music. I mean, we don't play soul music but it is just a nice word; then how much is your soul worth? Then I remembered an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart sells his soul for five dollars to his friend Millhouse. So all these kinds of resonances and repercussions and echoes began to come forth and I really liked the name and it just kind of stuck."
Tony: When did you play your first gig?
"We played our first gig at Dundee University Christian Union in October 2000 and it was fairly kind of ramshackle and rough, but I just really enjoyed it and we all got on as friends. Before we played the gig we thought it would be nice to go and pray together and it was just really comfortable. There was a sense of fellowship and unity and real enjoyment and closeness and I just thought, you know, this is really good, this is what I have been looking for. Matthew always had this idea that we would do this more than once. He is a great man for making plans and for laying out kind of future guidelines and he said if this goes well then we would keep on going. We all really enjoyed it and then closely after that we were offered to play in Sterling at Matthew's girlfriend's Christian Union, so that gave us something else to look forward to doing and then we had a chance to do a recording."
Tony: What recording was that?
"Our first recording didn't have a specific title. We did 100 copies and made the covers ourselves. We got sleeves and like in primary school or Blue Peter or something, we cut a '5' out of a sponge and put on red paint and printed it on the cover. I liked it because it gave it a kind of personal feel, a handmade quality, but I suppose you could also say it looked kind of rubbish! It served a purpose though. We played a gig when we came home at Christmas and we gave it out to people there. About 50-70 people all got one and so that was good. I was pleased with our first recording but to be honest I was very pleased just to have anything! The idea of having your own CD - all wee boys dream of that - although I suppose I am not a wee boy anymore! I am the kind of father of the band - not literally I mean! The rest of them are quite young. Errin is about 20 and Matthew and Andrew are about 22/23 and I am 27. I kind of feel that those years of experience have given me plenty of angst to write about! Then shortly after that we did a second recording; this had all the songs from the first CD but included four new songs. Again we didn't have a title for this one either but we were feeling our way in the dark. I knew nothing about making records."
Tony: You finally got to make a CD with a title! Tell me about the "Burn The Flag" single.
"We have been so blessed with that because so many people have helped us to make 'Burn The Flag' a more professional product. My brother had come back with his wife from America. He was at Harvard University and had taken lots of photographs and we were recording our CD at Upstream Studios in Coleraine. Matthew and Andrew had both worked there as sound engineers. We wanted to take a bit more time with this recording and make it more professional, for use of a better word. So we were only going to do three songs and we thought about them before we went into the studio. We did a new song called 'Burn The Flag' and were a bit worried about the title at first. People ask if this is a political song but it isn't at all. It has absolutely nothing to do with politics. It is kind of a really angry song. I was worried when I wrote it but I think that songs that come out of genuine emotion are really important. I was really angry when I wrote it and I don't get angry very often so it was a new kind of vein that I was into. In America especially, flag burning, burning the 'stars and stripes' is a really rebellious thing to do and you can get thrown into jail for it. The chorus talks about turning the flag upside down and that is a sign of defeat in battle. It means that the castle has fallen and that you are surrendering. I personally believe that defeat can be a real good thing - admitting defeat and admitting that you cannot do it by yourself. This is a really important part of the Christian faith. I had some bad experiences with other kinds of Christian groups which left me really hurt and angry; that is really what the song is about. It has lyrics which say 'they are putting up banners declaring God's love, I am breaking my back bone trying to keep up.' It is about my anger towards those who pervert the Gospel. I guess it is a rather controversial song about the perversion of the Gospel but we do not intend it to be. We are just trying to be honest and say, look, something has gone wrong here. A lot of our new songs especially are about failure and admitting that you cannot do things without God and that we are fragile and frangible human beings - that is a really important thing. It is a really cathartic thing and an essential part of the Christian walk."
Tony: You clearly seem to want to get away from shallow, evangelical sloganeering.
"I am just really wary of empty experiences. I saw Bill Mallonee play yesterday and the absolute profundity of his lyrics and song writing are just amazing. He never sings really obvious things about Jesus, for instance 'Jesus loves me' - and there is a place for that obviously, but just his lyrics and song writing are so deep - it totally blew me away! I also saw Lies Damned Lies play last night and they have some great songs. Again, they are asking questions and I am really drawn to people who are asking questions. I bang on about this a lot of the time but I think Radiohead are an important band. They are not a Christian band by any means but I do not think that means they cannot ask spiritual questions."
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