Mike Rimmer met up with the Minneapolis rockers MAINSTAY and heard about their determination to sing a biblical message.
Mainstay, a four man rock bank from Minneapolis, unleashed a powerful debut album called 'Well Meaning Fiction' in February 2006. So by the time I met them in Nashville in the spring they were ready to talk a little about the project that has produced the Cross Rhythms radio turntable hit "Take Away". Vocalist and guitarist Justin Anderson is the heart of the band with accomplished support from drummer Ryan DeYounge, bassist Dan Ostebo and lead guitarist Scott Campbell.
So what's the music scene like in Prince's home town? "It's really cool. It's a smaller tight-knit.it's a city of a few million people so it's not big and it's not small. So it's like big enough to know a lot of people but not too big where you're completely lost. So it's a good mix of both." The band have been playing a mixture of club and church gigs, searching for live opportunities wherever they can grab them. Like many bands on the way up they confess that there have been previous recordings to their "debut" album but they're keeping quiet about where I might find them!
Justin agrees, "Exactly! There is hidden stuff. Hopefully you won't find it! We've definitely done some indie stuff." Ryan adds, "It's locked away in our basement." Spotting a potential opportunity if I could just break into their basement, it must be blackmail material if I did manage to find it. Would there be good money involved? "Yes," admits Dan, "there would be good money involved!"
So where did the name Mainstay come from? Justin explains, "It came out of the hippie Bible - The Way. Back in the '60s and '70s my mom gave it to me. And in the Psalms, it's really just a loose translation of the Bible, it talks about God being our mainstay. And I liked that. The mainstay is the thing on the ship that holds the mast steady. So I kind of liked that analogy. It's not really a one-to-one correlation."
While we're at it, what about the album title 'Well Meaning Fiction'? Justin explains, "It comes from the Church and Christianity in general. Just moving away from the Bible and moving away from a Biblical Gospel into more of a 'gospel' and a Christianity in general that's based on feelings and stories. Things that are nice and that are well meant but really without the truth of the Bible and without the Gospel - historical Christ and historical Jesus. Without that it really is just fiction even if it's well meant. That's kind of our burden; to re-establish the Gospel message - the Biblical Gospel, the Biblical Jesus."
So how does Justin feel that the Church is moving away from the Gospel? "I feel like a lot of people are watering down the message and leaving out some of what Scripture says; the key themes of sin and repentance and who Christ really is for us and what he does for us and who he is now. I think there's so much good doctrine that is offensive to people. It should be! To hear that you are a sinner is offensive and to hear that Christ buys our redemption for us is somewhat offensive to a self-actualising modern person. It is, it's offensive and yet it's the truth. So a lot of churches are moving away from that and that just breaks our hearts because that is the beauty of the Gospel message that Christ IS our righteousness, our redemption."
In these days of politically correct culture it often feels like we're not actually allowed to tell people that they're wrong anymore. "Right!" Justin agrees, "Nowadays they say, 'Well, there's no way to know if you're right or I'm wrong. There is no right or wrong.' And that's really sad. There has to be objective truth and we just want to express that truth humbly, brokenheartedly and to say that we really think that the Bible is truth, the Bible is God's Word. That's our goal and mission as a band. It is really to bring that to light. Not to be preachy or judgmental or anything like that but just to say, hey, the pendulum is swinging and moving a long way away from objective truth."
The challenge for anyone wanting to take things in this direction is that it's very difficult in current culture to express these thoughts without coming across as judgmental. Yet, Mainstay are bravely dealing with the issues. Justin explains, "We definitely want to do it with our arm around people and say, let's look at this together, rather than pointing a finger. That's really what our concern is about the album, we don't want it to come across like it's judgmental. That's not our goal at all. But just to say, like Paul did to the church in Corinth, the church in Rome, the church in Ephesus.he said, 'Hey, let's really get our doctrine right, let's know who God really is.' We want to try to look at Paul's teaching and look at the Bible and do that same thing."
Ultimately, that task sounds more like a job for a Bible student, a preacher or a seminary than a rock band from Minneapolis. Surely there's a danger that what will happen is that the heady ideas explored in the Bible will end up sounding more than watered down when they're expressed on a CD. "True!" admits Justin. "And that's hard because you can't do systematic theology in a three-minute pop song. So our goal is just to have a subtext that they can dig into. And hopefully people will do that. We really want what we say and how we live off stage to be more of the Gospel message. That we would take time to hang out with people afterwards and not be 'rock stars' but just be humble people, hopefully humble, and just chill with people and just hang out."
Isn't there a danger that the subtext might be too deep for people? "Yes, for sure," responds Justin, "and that's definitely tough. We try to explain as much as we can. That's why it's super fun for me as a lyricist to get to explain my lyrics because there is a lot of subtext behind it and when people ask me I'm like, 'Oh, sure! I'd love to talk about it!' But there is that danger and we hope that kids will not just assume it's about something but say, 'What is this trying to get out here? What's he trying to say?'"
I ask Justin to demonstrate what he means by this by asking him to explain the song "Mirrors". He shares, "It's a song about rejecting the notion of self-help and really about moving away from that because it's just a pop psychology thing where we've all tried to make ourselves feel better and try to say, 'I'm valuable.' And there's truth in that in some sense but I think the way to really be an okay person, to have.I don't know if you want to call it self-esteem?.is to really value Christ and to value who he is for us. Value his redemptive work. I mean, you don't go to the Grand Canyon, show up there and think how great you are. You go there and you say, 'Wow! This thing is HUGE! It's so much bigger than I am!' We live in a galaxy that is so huge you can't even comprehend how big it is. We are specks of dust in that galaxy, literally. That's the correlation. It's so huge. And to think that God would create all that to display his majesty, it just says to me that God is so much bigger and it's about him. It's about focussing on him and especially on the person of Jesus
Christ and who he is for us rather than on trying to make ourselves feel good about ourselves."
The interview is drawing to a close as I look round at the eager faces of Justin's bandmates who have largely let him do the talking. So is Justin the intellectual in the band? Justin denies it. Ryan observes, "He definitely writes all the lyrics. He's very good with words. Very good with vocal phrases and stuff. I guess Scott and Dan were in the band when we actually recorded the album but we write a lot of the music together but Justin does all the lyrics."
OK, but they're still reluctant to answer the question! Dan laughs, "I would say so. But I'm just the bass player." Scott chips in, "I just play guitar but I'd say so for sure!" Justin doesn't seem keen on the idea. "Uh, I don't know. I think I'm pretty much a layman in the sense of intellectualism. I'm definitely not where I'd like to be that's for sure. Maybe some day, you know." Has he engaged in formal Bible training? "Just personal stuff not really in a Bible school. But I've done a lot of exegetical work and stuff like that. I listen to a lot of favourite speakers and they've taught me a lot about apologetics and just about exegesis. Just some great stuff. So I've been blessed to have some cool teachers around me and for me to listen to but I'm still just a beginner and very, very inadequate as far as that goes."
I'm not convinced. I've interviewed hundreds of young American bands and compared to the majority of them, Justin Anderson is an intellectual! At least he has thought through what he is trying to do and aside from trying to create cool rock music, there is a sense of purpose about Mainstay. And yet in the middle of it all, doesn't he get frustrated with the constrictions of working within a narrow music format? He responds, "I think I am frustrated by the fact that I love pop music, but it is pop music, you know? It's three minutes, how are you going to phrase it and get it done well and yet have truth come across? That is frustrating and yet it's also encouraging too because we're musicians, we do music. That's what we do. If I was a pagan I would probably just write about what I was doing as a pagan and I'd write pop songs about it. I'm a Christian and so I'm just writing songs about my life as a believer in Christ."
He continues, "I don't know that there's necessarily this perfect art form that I really aspire to. I just want to be the kind of man who says, 'I'm saved and I'm gonna try and write some pop songs about Jesus and try and explain my best about doctrine and about the Lord.' If it comes across great?.cool! If it stinks?.that's okay too! I just try my best."
So for people who listen to 'Well Meaning Fiction', what is Justin hoping to communicate? He shares, "I just really hope that kids would take away that God is so much bigger than we give him credit for and so much better and, he's so much more than we think he is. He's not cool, he's not hip, he's not trendy, he's not any of that. He's so much bigger. And to really view Christ for who he was and who he is. I think really getting that involves really working hard at understanding what Scripture says about him and really learning to be the kind of person that cares about that. Not someone who just says, 'Yeah Jesus is nice and I know he's my Saviour', or whatever. But to really feel the weight of who Christ is and who God is and to really feel that on a daily basis."
He confesses, "I struggle with that! I pray to God, 'Give me a heart Lord that would feel the weight of glory behind who Christ was and is.' That's my prayer for myself and that's definitely my prayer for anyone who's listening to the band, that they would see that."
I observe that this is a difficult goal to achieve. In contemporary culture where we have the supermarket of religions, it feels like people go along and pick up ideas from different places and create a pick'n'mix of belief. It is almost as though individuals are creating their own religions. Does Justin worry that his audience have reduced Jesus so that he is no longer huge and the founder of the universe and all of those big things? "Yeah," he agrees. "I think that's a lot of my burden as a believer, that we've made Christ out to be our buddy and our homeboy and a lot of different things that he's not. I mean, he's a great friend, a tremendous friend, but he is God. I was reading last night what he said to the Pharisees. He said, 'Before Abraham was, I AM.' And if you know anything about the Old Testament - Yahweh: I AM. It means 'Alpha and Omega'. It means, 'before anything was created, God was.' And he wasn't created. That's just a staggering thought to me. He was never created! He's just always been there! And Christ says, 'I AM', 'Before Abraham was, I AM.' That to me is not homeboy. It's not buddy. That's something completely different and I think we miss that, you know?"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.