Tony Cummings spoke to Chad Gardner of KINGS KALEIDOSCOPE about felix culpa, multimedia worship and f-bombs
I had been wanting to speak to Chad Gardner, the leader of Seattle's modern worship collective/band Kings Kaleidoscope, for a while for somewhat mixed motives. On the plus side, I wanted to tell Chad that the track "Felix Culpa", available on Kings Kaleidoscope's 2014 album 'Becoming Who We Are', is, to my mind, one of the best recordings in the whole modern worship genre. On a more tabloid-journalist level, I wanted to ask Chad about the extraordinary surge of media interest that erupted after KK released their 2016 album 'Beyond Control', which contained the song "A Prayer" which used the f-word. With the dust settled over that strange saga, and the collective releasing 2017's 'The Beauty Between' (featuring a bevy of rappers including Beleaf, Derek Minor, Propaganda and Andy Mineo) and the 2018 'Live In Between' EP, now seemed a good time to talk to producer, singer and songwriter Chad.
Tony: I've been following your music for a few years now. My particular favourite was "Felix Culpa". Would you call yourself something of a theologian or a church historian?
Chad: Kings Kaleidoscope come from that world where there is a lot of theology in our music. I would not call myself a theo. I would say I have a lot of friends who are and who teach me about cool stuff. I was working in a church with my good friend Peter Patchett, who is an author and a writer, and he just came into my office one day. He's always writing and thinking about stuff, and he just started going nuts on my whiteboard with this idea of what 'Felix Culpa' was [felix culpa is a Latin phrase that comes from the words felix, meaning "happy" or "blessed" and culpa, meaning "fault" or "fall"]. I said 'that should be a song' and he said 'yeah it should be!' I was like 'this is going to be a really hard song to write' but we figured it out.
Tony: Are Kings Kaleidoscope technically independent artists?
Chad: We are but 'Beyond Control' was released with Gospel Song Records. 'The Beauty Between' was fully released from my house, from my basement in Seattle.
Tony: The phrase often used for Kings Kaleidoscope is "a worship collective". Would you call yourself a collective or would you call yourself a band?
Chad: There's been phases to our music. The core group of people all got together because I worked in the church years ago. I worked in a church and I led worship on Sundays and that was my job, the goal was in the task. I did that for years and then I left that job to just go make a record, which is the first record that you have heard. It's so hard because that was sort of a goal and then we had this transition. There's a whole different goal now; now we can write songs. I very much write about my faith, that's the primary thing that I always write about and there's still a ton of worship themes or just faith themes. But the core group of people is pretty much the same, so that's more like a band for sure. When I was working at the church there was more switching in and out of people and then it felt more like a collective. But the last four years, since then we've been a band, touring and making records, it feels much more like a band.
Tony: How many of you are in the band? Surely you're not taking 10 or 11 on the road?
Chad: No, when we play shows on tour we're usually seven and then sometimes it can go up one or two from there or down one or so. But, yeah, generally we're around seven, sometimes six or eight but I mean it's still a good size band. We do big live series where we shoot video and add on extra instruments and things like that. The most recent one we did, called 'Live In Between', we had a whole 12-piece orchestra ensemble with us, so then is the band only the six guys there? There's plenty of people with the rest of them!
Tony: Are you full time with Kings Kaleidoscope?
Chad: I am, yes. Everybody else in the band does other things for work and what not. This is a kind of passion project they do on the side. But I'm the one with a studio in my house and it's my full time thing. I write songs and produce all the records.
Tony: Touring is very hard work. Are you doing many live concerts?
Chad: We actually have a business set up so we only play for a maximum of two weeks at a time. We limit the amount of shows and make them very exclusive. We play very major cities around the world. If all the guys in the band decided 'I want to do this for my whole career' then we'd be out on the road a lot more. But they're all doing other things and some of us have little babies or kids at home and that's just not what everybody's doing full time. So for us it's not gruelling; it's a lot of weekend fly outs. For us it still feels a little bit more like adventure. The longest run we have ever done has been like 22 days in a row and even for that, for me it felt kind of gruelling but it wasn't too bad.
Tony: Tell me more about this 'Live In Between' project. It sounds fascinating. So you've brought in a sort of orchestra. Does that mean violinists and things like that?
Chad: Our latest studio album was called 'The Beauty Between', which came out last August. The whole theme of the project was collaboration. We had released our second record 'Beyond Control' and then we did 'The Beauty Between' just a year after and we featured a number of rappers. With the 'Live In Between' EP, we collaborated with artist Jim Zurich and we made the whole thing very visual. I'm looking at a drum kit in my studio right now that he hand designed, it's like painted. So we made this whole world and we tried to translate it into video. We rented an airplane hangar and set up a whole art installation in it, with him painting a whole bunch of cardboard boxes and building structures out of them. We had 11 or 12 people, harp and French horn, a string trio, a horn section, all this stuff. Then we played a bunch of songs from 'The Beauty Between' and then we played a few songs from 'Beyond Control' and captured it all on video. I think there's seven videos and it's cool. It was shot all afternoon so it starts out in the airplane hangar in the first video with a lot of light and by the end it's real dark. We flew in some of the rappers that are guesting on songs and just kept with the collaboration. The whole theme of that last year for us was highly collaborative and so they're all on our website or if you just Google 'Live In Between - Kings Kaleidoscope' you can watch all of them.
Tony: It sounds to me like you're committed to the idea that worship is a lot more than music, is a lot more even than singing songs.
Chad: I believe that worship isn't something that only musicians can do. It's something that we're all doing, all the time. It's something that we can't turn off; it's wherever you're directing it. You are glorifying God right now by doing an interview and doing what you're good at and what God crafted you and gave you a skill to do. By operating within the image that he gave you, you're glorifying him right now. So I think it's much more than just songs and what not. I love working at a church and leading worship in that way where I was arranging songs in the week for people to sing together and that was brilliant. Now I still worship because I'm made in God's image and I write songs as a songwriter, they bless people hopefully by focussing their hearts and minds on God. It sounds selfish, but I honestly just write music for myself. I write music to get myself through life; I write music about my own faith and things like that. The rest is just the redemptive work of God, having it also bless other people's lives and so it's not even something that I really can claim any credit for or anything like that.
Tony: You bring up this subject of a personalised, a very personal attitude towards the songwriting process but that of course got you and the band into some trouble when the 'f-bomb' got brought into a song. Now that the dust has settled a bit, do you regret the inclusion of that word in that particular song?
Chad: Not at all. I would actually say, if you were going to take a data-driven historical approach to this and say it got you in trouble it would be the opposite. Here's the thing about that song, it's just transcribed, and it's just emotion. So if you were to come over to my house and sit on my couch and tell me how afraid you were and how anxious and what you were feeling like, you would not be sitting there doing syllable counts and hatching out poetry, and the best way to say that. You would be letting your guts out and I'd be sitting there as your brother hearing you and there wouldn't be a judgment. So that's what I was just doing for myself. I'm just getting my guts into my songs. Then the question was, this is basically a testimony, this is me where I'm at and this is God where he's meeting me. Why would we not share this with the Church at large? The only reason not to was, the Christian music industry doesn't have a place for it and there's a lot of people who have a different theology around language than we do. That swear words are 100% sinful. I don't know where they get the list from the Bible of what words you can and can't use. What we did is we said, we don't believe that. We think that this is really powerful and we'll release a clean version if you want a clean version but this song is a testimony and it should just stay the way it is.
We knew some people were going to be upset about it but it was actually less than we anticipated and the overwhelming thing was tons of people, all ages, just saying oh my gosh, you said what I feel and I just really appreciate it. A lot of people who had struggled with depression and suicide and all these things and just felt like they'd never had a safe place within their own faith, within their own church community to just let loose and go, you know, this is really messing with me here. I had so many stories of people saying you just resonate with exactly what I feel like because you're saying what you felt. That's the interesting thing about songwriting; some songs are just so crafted and they're so meticulously put together that they're beautiful because there's a craft to it. Then other songs, it's just gut and it's just exactly what comes off the top of your head emotion and that's how they connect. I think a prayer obviously connects with a lot of people because of that. But, you're right, it was controversial for a lot of people in certain spaces and that's why we made a clean version.
Tony: I have a different perspective, maybe a more simplistic perspective on the teachings of Scripture. For the purposes of fellowship, the body basically being together, we can express our different opinions and then move on.
Chad: I have no interest in trying to convince anybody of a different theology around it. That's why there's another version. I come from a very conservative Presbyterian church and my pastors were like 'Go for it, it sounds like a psalm!' I don't see why you wouldn't do that artistically so it's just a different thing. I agree, I think there's a lot of room for you to disagree and it's still fine. It's a powerful song and there's two versions of it.
Tony: What about the future? Have you got a whole bunch of dates lined up ahead of you?
Chad: No, we just played a whole US tour that was great. It was the best run we've ever done; we just had the best time. So we're kind of taking a little bit of a break for the summer but we have some European dates. We're playing in London and Denmark and Norway and Sweden. But then we might do another US tour in the fall here.
Tony: What about the songwriting process? Are there new songs starting to come through your spirit?
Chad: There's a lot of music that hasn't turned into songs yet. These always start as music even before they have any lyrics or theme for me so I guess in that sense yeah, there's some stuff that's starting to come together.
Tony: Have you been inclined to bring in an outside producer or are you happy with the way that it's going?
Chad: No, that's like my favourite part of the process. I mean it would be fun to work with somebody else. I have a good friend, we collaborate, and he does all the mixing. We're really good at it now cos we've done every Kings project together. But for all the arranging and stuff I usually handle that and we kind of tag-team mixing together. We've got a good process and I'm happy with it.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.