Ohio's RELIENT K have gone from garage band obscurity to gold-selling rock stars. Tony Cummings reports.
The rise and rise of a pop punk band from Canton, Ohio who got their name from a rusting old Plymouth Relient K they once rode around in has been one of US Christian music's big success stories of recent years. Relient K's current Gotee album 'Mmhmm' picked up a mainstream distribution deal with Capitol Records and was recently certified gold. But it's with America's Christian youth that the band have made most of their impact even though, like other acts who've travelled the CCM route to stardom, they now struggle with the stereotyping that goes with the "Christian band" tag. Last year the band's lead singer Matt Thiessen told CCM magazine, "I wouldn't go around saying that we're a Christian rock band because there are a lot of connotations that go along with that. If I told someone who doesn't know about Christian rock music that we're in a Christian rock band, he'd think we're up there preaching, and we're not like that."
Still, the band isn't fighting the Christian tag, especially from people who understand the band and how faith works in their lives. The singer continued, "In talking about this, I don't want to sound negative and come across as these pompous kids. We're not like that at all. We really don't care if you call us a Christian band or not. Call us a Christian band, that's fine. We're just trying to be careful."
Relient K's beginnings go back to 1997 when Matt Thiessen (vocals, guitar), Matt Hoopes (guitar), Brian Pittman (bass) and a short lived drummer formed a band at Canton's Malone College mainly to showcase Thiessen's songs which, with their zany lyrics, were like a Christianised version of Weezer and Barenaked Ladies. In little more than a month the band had connected up with a big time record producer to record a demo. Thiessen told CCM what happened. "Mark Townsend, who produced every one of our records, is a good friend from our hometown. [Hoopes] had a crush on his daughter pretty much since second grade, so we'd go over there all the time when we were in high school. [Hoopes would eventually marry Townsend's daughter Danielle.] We finally convinced Mark to record our demo for about 200 bucks. He was also playing in dc Talk, so he gave the demo to Toby McKeehan, who is, of course, a partner in Gotee Records."
Townsend recalled how a 200 dollar recording session landed them a record deal. "Right before dc talk did 'Supernatural', my family was living in Canton, Ohio. My middle daughter, Ashley, came up to me and said, 'Dad, we've got this band of guys that hang out with us - they're a punk band. Could you cut them a break on a demo?' It's my daughter; I mean, what am I gonna say? Someone told me later that they'd been a band just a month before I met them - a month! So in come these guys with just cruddy-sounding amps, guitars that sound like junk - just cheap guitars that play totally out of tune - and the drummer had like these big, thick drumheads that sounded like he was smacking cardboard. It was horrible.
"I just set 'em all up in my little house studio and we quickly knocked off 15 or 16 tunes, just boom, boom like a Beatles first record. The music was like Green Day, MxPx or whatever - just not executed real well. We waited to cut vocals until the evening. And they had this blond kid, this lead singer who basically goes up there and sings everything with a fake British accent. It was kind of funny. But when he was singing, my ears pricked up just a little bit because I was listening to some of the lyrics, and I thought, 'You know, these guys are rough, but there's something clever going on here.' The next day I mixed it all in one day, which I would never do in the real world. It was really just 'garage band'."
Continued Townsend, "The next thing I know, these guys have pressed a thousand copies of this thing and are selling it at their shows. Toby McKeehan knew I'd been producing some indie things and awhile later he asked to hear what I'd been working on. So I played him a few things and he asked if I had anything else. I said, 'Well, I'll play you this punk thing I did.' And what caught Toby was some of the humour in the songs."
McKeehan signed the band to a development deal and in the year or so that followed, Relient K recorded three more demos with Townsend. Gotee had an imprint, SMLXL Records, on which the band's debut disc was scheduled to release. The Gotee staff liked Relient K's self-titled debut so much that they officially signed the band directly to Gotee.
As this point Steve Cushman had taken over on drums and played on their Gotee debut. 'Relient K' attracted immediate attention. The opener "Hello, McFly" drew on the Back To The Future movie long before a band of British pop punkers had a similar idea, while "17 Magazine" had a go at the banality of teenage mag concepts of beauty and "Balloon Ride" offered a testimony of personal repentance and prayer. But the song that attracted the most attention was "My Girlfriend", a song Thiessen had written when he was 15 before Relient K were even formed. Its chorus was indeed memorable, "Marilyn Manson ate my girlfriend/Satan consumed her mind and might do it again." Thiessen explained the inspiration for the song was a female friend who lived in Pennsylvania. "It wasn't a girlfriend/boyfriend relationship, but it was a friend who was a girl. We had a relationship where we would talk a lot on the phone. Sometimes we would talk about things of deeper consequence, of spiritual matter and usually just kind of seeing where God was taking us in the future. After awhile, though, things started to change with her. She started getting so into [Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson] that an obsession grew out of it. And through this she changed her lifestyle [and] what she believed in."
This change in mindset eventually led to Thiessen's "girl friend" being expelled from school, getting kicked out of her house and moving into a youth detention centre. "Through it all she had this new-born dislike for me and what I believed in," remembered Thiessen. "She felt that Christianity was stupid and just this big hypocrisy. Being young and impressionable, I just wrote this little, stupid song, but this was the way I dealt with it - writing this song about how she got so consumed by Marilyn Manson."
The song, which came from a very sad chapter in Thiessen's adolescence, resonated with many listeners when it debuted on 'Relient K' in 2000. The song's music video even received a Billboard Music Video Award and a Dove Award nomination.
Intriguingly, today Thiessen is less than enthusiastic about the song. When asked by CMCentral if there was one song he wished he could never have to play again, Matt responded, "'My Girlfriend', just 'cos it's got enough notoriety from its previous exposure. My friend Seth who plays in MxPx right now, that's the one song he'd ever heard of us before our new record came out. We were big fans of his old group Watashi Wa, but he never really befriended us because I think he thought." Unfortunately, an interviewer interrupted as to what Seth thought.
In 2001 Relient K released their second Gotee album, 'The Anatomy Of The Tongue In Cheek'. On the album Relient K finally recruited their current drummer, Dave Douglas. Remembered Matt, "Our first drummer was friends with Dave and we all hung out in college. By the time Steven quit, we had known Dave for years, so we actually stole him from another friend's band. Regrettably, he had to learn all the new stuff in just two weeks because that's when we were going in to record our second album."
Hectic practise sessions aside, 'Anatomy' ultimately proved to be an early breakthrough album for the band. They partly attribute this to listening to seminal mainstream acts like Jimmy Eat World and, for the humour, NOFX. Like its predecessor, 'The Anatomy Of The Tongue In Cheek' fed voraciously off popular culture (lyrics lifted from The Mary Tyler Moore Show TV theme on "Pressing On", "Lion-O" taking its cue from the animated series Thundercats) as well as hard hitting themes like judgmental attitudes ("Down In Flames"), spiritual apathy ("My Way Or The Highway") and backsliding ("What Have You Been Doing Lately").
'Anatomy' sold really well though no one expected the next album 'Two Lefts Don't Make A Right.But Three Do' to become the smash it became on its release in early 2003 (over 400,000 and still selling). Billboard raved, "It's hard not to get caught up in the playfulness and youthful enthusiasm that band members Matt Thiessen, Matthew Hoopes, Brian Pittman and Dave Douglas bring to such bouncy numbers as lead single 'Chap Stick, Chapped Lips And Things Like Chemistry', 'College Kids', 'In Love With The '80s (Pink Tux To The Prom)' and 'Mood Ring'. Taut musicianship, personality-packed vocals and inventive lyrics make this an album that begs to be listened to repeatedly."
Despite 'Two Lefts' big sales founder member bassist Brad Pittman, after playing on most of 2004's 'Mmhmm', left the band in August 2004. He went out on a high. Many critics have identified 'Mmhmm' as the band's best release so far. Said drummer Dave Douglas, "There's been a natural progression from the first onto the second, third and now the fourth record. The change has come incrementally with each disc. I don't feel like we're taking a drastic number of turns, but the direction keeps shifting for the better."
Matt Thiessen showed considerable songwriting craft on "I So Hate Consequences" while the acoustic-based closer "When I Go Down" is a haunting confessional. The album, produced by the band's long time producer Mark Townsend, also has a considerably larger dynamic range than previous releases thanks in part to mixers Tom Lord-Algo (U2, The Rolling Stones) and JR McNeely (UnderOath, Project 86). Said Thiessen, "I feel like with this record when we're rocking heavy, we're rocking heavier than we ever have and when we're letting up with low key moments, it's more mellow than we've done in the past. We're hitting our peaks correctly and all the angles are really paying off."
Lyrically, Thiessen uses his usual combination of satire and seriousness. "It's my personality to be cheesy and tell dumb jokes," he admitted. "For the last four or five years, I've taken all the puns I think of on a daily basis and planted them in a song. Besides that tone, this record also has personal ties. There's a lot about making mistakes, failing, how amazing grace is and picking yourself back up."
Latest addition to Relient K is bass player John Warne. He told CMCentral, "I was in Ace Troubleshooter and we'd been friends, our two bands, for a long time and when the bass player of Relient K left they kind of just immediately thought, how about this guy here?" Matt Thiessen continued, "When we asked him to join, he didn't even play bass, he's a guitarist, and so playing bass is kind of something he picked up to join this band. But you know, spiritually John's an amazing person and makes our band just a better unit and the togetherness since he joined the group has just improved a lot. He was definitely our very first choice as Brian's replacement and we already had that friendship."
It remains to be seen whether mainstream record company distribution
will elevate Relient
K to genuine mainstream hitmakers. What can be confidently
predicted is that 'Mmhmm' will continue to sell as the band's
Christian fanbase look forward to the next release. Summarised
Thiessen, "We're not trying to hide anything with the songs on this
record, just to get what we feel out there. We've also found it to be
the hardest thing in the world to say 'Jesus' in a song and not be
cheesy, so we definitely have our own way of singing about
spirituality. But in the end that's who we are and what we believe in.
We hope between that and the music, it connects with someone out