Once called 'the Christian subculture's U2' SPLIT LEVEL describe their music today as 'a mixture of hard rock and alternative'. Tony Cummings tracked down the hard-gigging band.
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Rob Craner, whose been listening attentively to Adrian's interview adds an impartial observation on the calamitous 'Sons Of Liberty' which included in its tale of production woe a mix in the legendary, and very expensive Windmill Lane Studios, in Dublin (U2) which had to be dumped as unusable. "When I listen it sounds as though the producer was trying to dip his feet in both the techno sound and keep the guitar edge. But it didn't come off."
'Sons Of Liberty' did contain some excellent songs, the searing guitar riff "God Is", the turbulent title track and the exploration of Celtic praise "Dove". But its sterile plod was (a) miles away from the bands live, raw-rock sound and (b) boring. The band decided to become a three piece with Brian Jones becoming their manager. Brian had big plans about landing Split Level a secular single record deal. But Split Level and Word's tale of woe continued. By the time 'Sons Of Liberty' was released the albums back cover of three windswept Celtic lads staring soulfully, was already redundant. Barry Kennedy had left the group.
"Basically Barry took off one day and we got a letter to say he couldn't stick it anymore. He had to get away back to Ireland and that was it. Very sadly he did slip back in his Christian life. I've spoken to him quite a few times since he left. What he said to me is 'I know what I have to do - it's up to me to do it."
Word tried hard to salvage something from a disastrous situation. They made 'Sons Of Liberty' joint contemporary Album Of The Month (alongside Petra's This Means War!') guaranteeing it some sales. But 'Sons Of Liberty' never recouped its substantial recording costs.
The band bravely struggled on throwing itself into a gruelling sequence of low-pay gigs. Their choice for a drummer replacement for Barry Kennedy raised an eyebrow or two. "We brought over Jaz Greer from Ballymena" says Adrian "He used to play in pipe bands, and marching competitions. So we thought we'd stick him behind a drum bit and see how he went playing rock music! Jazz had never played rock in his life. It was an incredible risk. But it was Jaz or a drum machine and we didn't like drum machines. We really did have to work Jaz hard. We hired a schoolroom and we set him up with a kit and a drum machine and he slogged away sweating buckets. The first gig we did together was at the Edinburgh Festival. Jaz really did well."
But things were tough for the band. Brian Jones' efforts to land the band a secular deal petered out. The group began a long succession of managers. The Christian music scene in Britain paid peanuts making the keeping of a full time gospel rock band on the road a near impossibility.
"We lived on 30 a week" comments Adrian. "That was the sum of it. On the other hand we were seeing kids become Christians. My attitude is that if you really believe that's what God has called you to do you've got to go for it and suffer the consequences."
During 1988 the band continued its gruelling lifestyle of underpaid rock-gospel missionaries. They toured Holland where they attracted a sizeable following. A new album was needed but no one in Britain was leaping to record them so they looked overseas. Remembers Adrian "We began to get a lot of interest from Sweden from Royal Music. They kept bringing us over to do festivals and stuff. Jaz left Split Level in the start of '88. He had got perforated eardrums and he was going to need a lot of work done on them. We didn't think it was a wise idea to sit him behind a drum kit! So Del and I carried on. Rob Craner (sitting a few feet from Adrian) did some gigs for us and another freelance drummer called Tony Marsh did some dates."
Split Level were now 'officially' a duo. Adrian and Del began looking to another rock-duo, an American one, to produce their desperately needed album. The Choir (Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty) were approached by Royal Music about the possibility of producing Split Level in the States. The Choir were keen. At last Split Level difficulties seemed behind them. Then came the bombshell that seemed to herald the end of the Celtic gospel rockers. Seven days before Split Level were due to sign to Royal Music Del Currie told his friend he was pulling out. "I was absolutely gutted" When Del left" comments Adrian, pausing to gaze impassively at the black walls of JB's dressing room. "Del had contributed so much to the sound and the image. It was just that he felt that all he'd known was Split Level and he had to go out and do some of his own stuff, do some different things musically. We officially announced 'that's it' the book is closed. Then I got these niggling feelings, like is this really right? Is it God's decision or my decision? I laid out a few fleeces. Eventually I felt it was right to continue. By this time obviously the word had got out Split Level were finished. It was going to be real hard work building momentum again. We had an invitation to play mainstage at Greenbelt but that was it. At least the new Split Level had a hot drummer. I'd got Chuck Cummings to come across from California and give it a bash. Chuck sessioned with the Altar Boys and has done some work with Steve Taylor and Common Bond. He was a very solid Californian drummer."
Desperate for some cash the band released the demos they'd recorded when Jas Greer was a member of the band. At Greenbelt Split Level played with Chuck Cummings on drums and a hired-hand bass player Dave Moore. Ironically at the same Greenbelt, Del Currie was gigging with Phil and John. The mark 93 Split Level had to contend with a sleepy Greenbelt mainstage crowd and to content with a slightly hostile press conference. Confesses Adrian "Nobody really knew who was in the band any more. I'd be the first to admit that the Split Level personnel changes were confusing to the public. It got to the stage that people were saying I wonder who Adrian is singing with this year'."
But it was a positive Greenbelt as well. Playing at the festival were that Certain Feeling, a band creating a bit of interest from secular record companies. Adrian was particularly struck by the band's bass player Gary Preston. Gary, who'd sat impassively by listening to Adrian, takes up the story. "That Certain Feeling had similar problems in terms of personnel to Split Level! We didn't have a drummer and so when I met Adrian and Chuck who asked me whether I'd be willing to gig with them I thought maybe we could swap; I'll play bass with them and Chuck could play drums with That Certain Feeling! I did my first gig with Split Level in September '89 at Southampton University. I'd had one rehearsal. I had all the music on the floor and I hadn't got the faintest clue what was going on. That Certain Feeling was pretty laid back in comparison - Hothouse Flowers kind of stuff. Here was I going into a thrash band. My fiancé at the time was seriously worried about what was happening to my musical style. By the end of the gig I had large blisters on my fingers-Split Level were hardly thrash. But they had clearly moved away from the guitar rock of the U2/Alarm/Cactus World News axis. Their new sound was what Adrian describes as "A mixture of hard rock, alternative and writzy kind of stuff. It's hard to pigeon hole us, like they were able to do with the 'Celtic rock' label."
By 1990 the band's sound had found its current heavyish, hard-edged focus. Pila Records of Germany heard about the band and began to talk to them about doing an album. But the longest-running-personnel-soap-opera began once more, Chuck Cummings returned to the USA. Refusing to panic Adrian invited the band's two trusted deps, Rob Craner on drums and Gary Preston on bass to become permanent members. Rob had previously played with the numerous rock bands plus the praise and worship stalwarts the Saltmine Band (in fact it was Rob's kit which Big Feet had borrowed for the 'Break The Chains' album1). After leaving Saltmine, he'd had various jobs driving, selling car parts and teaching drums.
But Rob and Gary weren't being asked to live on 30 a week. Adrian had given up all thoughts of trying to sustain Split Level as a full time unit and had taken a job with British Telecom in Milton Keynes. Yet the 'don't give up your day job' persona of the new, indie-sounding Split Level did not preclude them from landing that once-elusive recording contract. They signed with Pila "It was very straight forward" comments Adrian. "Pila said start when, you like, you choose producer and studio, you take care of the cover. This is your budget-go for it. It couldn't have been better for us. They gave us a free hand but they didn't make any empty promises. We asked Neil Costello to produce it. We chose Neil because he's a guitar player and we wanted a guitar rock album. He did a fairly good job."
View Of A World' with its no-frills 'live band' sound has a good, raw feel to ft. If there was criticisms it was that it's the kind of album that only sounds good played at high decibels sounding. Lower volume it sounded a little empty. But Adrian and fellow composer Gary were writing some interesting new songs. "Pila got very excited abut the song 'Julia'. They're pulling it off as a single in Germany. Over there the band received a very enthusiastic response when we toured there. It was very good for our egos going over there and having the red carpet treatment, car at the airport, doing these acoustic PAs in secular record shops, and doing gigs before 2,000-3,000 people and then coming back and playing in pubs to maybe 20 people none of whom have heard of us." The decision for Split Level to move out of the subculture insularity of the church scene and play in pubs and clubs came as much as a need to rehearse as anything else. "Not being full time we couldn't rehearse as often as the old Split Level. So it dawned on me, why not play in a pub and get paid for it. It's a little different in a pub and club environment to a Christian-style gig. It's not really appropriate for me to say from stage 'alright', we're going to have you all out the front and pray for you'.
You've got to be sensitive. The way I see it is if you don't think your songs have strong enough themes, no point in recording the album in the first place. If your album can convey a Christian Spirit than your live set can do exactly the same thing without having to say too much. People really pick up on the Spirit of music."
Today Split Level seem finally to have found a place of stable creative development. As I make to the JB dressing room door and the band ready themselves for the steam heat ensemble building up outside, Adrian concludes our interview, "you know it's funny how doing these kind of gigs you get more chances to witness.
"With a Christian gig sometimes you're straight in and straight out again. You don't get plugged in to what they're doing. If you walk into a bar like this you know they just want people to play music. Why should we play to a bunch of people who already know the gospel? Why can't we bring good music into a club and say, alright, yeah, we are Christians, we play music you like and trust they'll see we've got a different Spirit other bands have." And what about a secular hit? If a single of ours takes off that will be brilliant, I'll be really pleased. But we're not going to start writing 'I love you baby' just to get a single. That's not what it's about."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.
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