Mike Rimmer meets up with American hard rockers KUTLESS and tells them he hated their worship album.
The problem with Gospel Music Week is that after a couple of days wandering from hotel room to hotel room in downtown Nashville, the whole thing can become slightly surreal. Sometimes artists are simply bored with answering the same old questions and sometimes you know that the things you want to say to artists are probably going to upset them. And in the case of Kutless, there are certainly more of them than there is of me!
I have a couple of things in my favour as we lounge around in the record label suite and start chatting. I have an English accent and punky pink hair. They probably think I'm harmless. It all starts off harmlessly enough! The band's new album is a return to rocking form and is called 'Hearts Of The Innocent'. They admit, "We're actually not very creative when it comes to name titles. But it is a really cool name." The band's lead singer Jon Micah Sumrall admits that originally they wanted to call the album 'Rock'n'Roll Revolution'. "It's one of those things," he says, "where I think we try and find a title that works. But typically we end up reverting back to one of the songs because we want the title to represent the record and the themes throughout the record as well. Often times, the easiest thing to do - because the songs obviously carry the message - is to revert back to one of the songs again. In this case, 'Hearts Of The Innocent' I think once again carries the theme."
Sumrall explains more of what the band are exploring at the moment. "We're really trying to reach out to young people all over the world. We feel that so many young people today are being neglected by an older generation. We're trying to bring awareness to that. So many young people are growing up in a broken home, a broken family. They don't have anyone in their life pouring out into their life on a daily basis to teach them and love on them and help them learn and develop as a young person. So when life throws a curve ball their way and things become difficult they don't know how to deal with the emotions that come along with that. They don't know how to deal with the hardships and so turn to illegal activities. They turn to self-mutilation and start cutting themselves, things like that. Or even slip into depression and have suicidal tendencies. We really feel like so many of these problems are simply because young people don't have anyone in their life teaching them any differently. So they just simply react however they can react to try and deal with the pain they have in their life. So we really try to encourage adults and parents to reach out to their kids and have a real impact in their life. And also for high-schoolers to reach out to elementary school kids and be that big brother or big sister that they need and maybe don't have at home."
It's a grand aim for a rock band and a difficult one to achieve. I admire the band's optimism and desire to sow seeds that will make life better for the generation they're reaching. Guitarist James Mead jumps in, "People these days are wondering, 'Well what's wrong with these kids?' And it's true, no-one has taught them any differently in life. All they've ever seen an example of is neglect or fear or abuse. It's hard to break out of that cycle. I myself was basically faced with that as a child. I just thank the Lord that he pulled me out of that cycle and I'm now able to pour into my son's life and urge him to pursue righteousness as he gets to an age where he starts to grow. So, it's a good thing to look forward to!"
The band actually have a challenging task because it's very difficult to measure the success of their strategy. Seeds are sown and lives are changed gig by gig, encounter by encounter. Sumrall agrees, "Exactly. It's impossible for us to gauge to what extent people have really taken it to heart. But we definitely do see some impact and for me, some is better than none. For us, our music means more than just music. We encourage people to embrace and be open to relationship with Christ and being open to the love that God has. Because we believe that for many of these people who are dealing with some of these issues, maybe they feel that they're a victim of neglect and now they're dealing with some of these issues and they don't know how to break out of it and how to deal with it. We hope too, that with those young people, we can give them the hope of Jesus Christ and the love that comes with a relationship with Christ. Because for all of us, I mean, it's changed our lives. It's been such a huge part of our lives and we hope that we can just simply share that with other people and help them find the same happiness and the same joy and the same fulfilment that we've found in our lives. Even if it's only one person, then the work that we've put in has been worth it. Fortunately it's been more than one person! We've literally seen thousands and thousands of people that have been changed by our music. We get emails all the time. It's unbelievable, it's humbling and it's amazing. So that's why we do it. That's what drives us and pushes us to spend long days on the road and to be gone away from our families for longer than we would like!"
It seems as though the band's mission is to kick start hope in those who encounter their music. Sumrall agrees, "I think that's what this world needs. They're looking for hope and they're looking for fulfilment and looking for love essentially. We've found that in our lives and we're hoping to kick-start that in other people's lives so that they can find it too."
This isn't theory either. James Mead knows what it's like to have his options shut down by his circumstances and the choices of others but he also knows what it is like to have them blown wide open again by a relationship with Christ. He shares, "My parents split up when I was one year old. Later on in my life my mom met and married this guy who was my stepdad for about four years, who pretty much just beat me all the time. Coming out of that I was really angry and feeling lost and felt like I'd had a big chunk of my childhood robbed from me. I was about 11 when it all stopped and he moved away and she divorced him. Coming out of that I made probably the wrong decisions to deal with my pain. I started doing drugs and dealing drugs to other kids who were my age. I just found myself really caught in that whole mess and just got worse and worse until I actually got caught for it at my school. So I was able to stop at that point because I was put in a mandatory drug rehab programme. Then I made an awesome decision. . . I say very sarcastically. . . and became an alcoholic right after that."
He continues, "From 14 to 17 I abused alcohol and basically almost drank myself to death for my 17th birthday, which was the wake-up call I really needed. I feel that alcohol poisoning is one of the worst things a body can feel. Like, you feel disgusting. You hurt. You can't eat or drink anything. Your body instantly kicks it out, you know? It was just horrible. It was the point I needed to get to in life. I needed to feel the weight of what I was doing to myself. I just felt like, 'Man, that was too close. I've become the type of kid that makes decisions like THIS?!' So some kids who had been involved in my life as friends up until this point had just been inviting me to church all along and I was always turning them down. I was like, 'Nah, I don't wanna do that! I'm glad you guys go to church or whatever, but I don't want to go.' And at that point in my life I felt like I needed to start making some better decisions. So I went to church with them and I got to hear the Gospel for the first time. I'd heard the stories before but I really heard it with my heart that night. It saved my life, you know? Jesus came in and completely changed me from the inside, out. Mainly from the inside. I had a lot of change to make on the inside. It made me a better person and introduced me to the girl that would become my wife and complete me. It's just awesome! But I needed to go through all that stuff in life. I don't curse or condemn the Lord for having me go through a life like that, I count myself lucky to be strong enough to have faced that in life and to know, that I know, that I know, that Jesus is the ONLY way. Because I've tried everything else, you know? I know that it's all empty. I've been there. So that was a huge thing for me in life, to be liberated from all that."
When the band released 'Strong Tower', like many music critics I felt that the band were simply jumping on the worship band wagon and the idea for the album was record company driven rather than a truly artistic direction for the band. That thought was reinforced when I heard the album which doesn't sound like Kutless at all. In my review (to be found elsewhere on this site) I made my observations which were not flattering. Kutless are a great rock band but the worship album was a shallow wimp-out. It may outsell everything the band record but artistically it's not a move to be respected by serious rock bands. Judging from some of the comments made in response to my review, Kutless fans disagree! But I couldn't interview the band without telling them what I thought of the album. I take a deep breath and tell them that I think 'Strong Tower' completely and utterly sucked. There is a pause while they digest this observation. Sumrall is the first to respond, "Oh wow! I'm glad you're honest." He continues, "I'll say this on that record. That record for us was rushed. And it could have been better, for sure. And the product that I heard in my head unfortunately is not the product that was put out." Mead adds, "Then secondly, there is only so much you can do with a worship song."
I think one of my problems is that the band compromised their integrity and sound to create a worship record that sounded like everything else that's out there. If they'd recorded a worship record in the style of Kutless the rock band, things might have been better. There's this idea in America that worship music is a generic style and 'Strong Tower' is the Kutless version of it. Sumrall observes, "I think on that record, one of the main differences was the fact that a lot of those songs, we didn't write. They were songs that were sung in the church and stuff. And one of the things we were really trying to accomplish on that record was to put out a record like didn't sound like every other worship record. I think we accomplished that for the most part."
I tell them I'm not convinced! Sumrall continues, "We were really just trying to do a worship record that didn't sound like all the other ones. That was our attempt at that. Unfortunately I do wish we'd had more time to put into that record. I think it could have been more revolutionary than it was from a sound perspective as far as a worship CD goes."
I observe that if they'd treated it like they would treat a rock album recording, they could have created something really revolutionary and writing all their own songs would have helped instead of including covers of popular worship songs. Mead says, "The thing was, we wanted it to be recognisable songs too, that people would be like, 'Awhh, I sing that in my church!' But hopefully they're hearing it in a way they've never heard it before. So that was part of the goal with it. To take some old school stuff."
Sumrall admits, "It was way hard. I think we said, 'Oh yeah, let's do it!' And then we got in there and we were like, 'Wow, this is a lot harder than we thought it was going to be!' We started trying to reinvent songs that we've been singing since we were little. The funny thing is we were arguing, 'That's not the way it goes! I've been singing it for 10 years this way!' And someone else was like, 'No, it's this way!' Honestly, I think in a sense we got in a little bit over our heads on that one too. Thinking that we could come in and reinvent some of these songs and then realising, boy, this is a little bit harder than we thought it was going to be! But, all in all, a lot of people were blessed by it and have really enjoyed it and have been able to worship to it. That record, I will never look upon it and say, 'Oh, that's a record that will change your life and the way you look at music.' It's a record for Christians, just to say, 'Hey, you guys have blessed us. You've supported us. Here's something to kind of give back to you guys. You can enjoy some songs you sing in your church and just sing along with it.' Some people love it, some people hate it, and that's cool."
I tell them I hate it passionately and the corruption of worship music by a commercial industry that I think it represents. But for now I have the challenge of getting out of this hotel room alive! Sumrall smiles, "No you're cool!" I explain that I wanted to be honest about how I felt about it and that if I am going to diss them, at least I should diss them to their face! Sumrall observes, "We REALLY appreciate that! That's a very Godly trait!" Drummer Jeffrey Gilbert has been lying face down on the hotel bed throughout this entire interview but suddenly he comes to life and says, "I'll tell you this, I didn't play on it because I wasn't in the band yet. So, first record I was on of Kutless' is 'Hearts of the Innocent'. Sumrall laughs, "He's claiming no responsibility!"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.