Long time pioneers of Christian rock with an alternative edge, THE CHOIR have recently uprooted themselves from California to relocate in the home of CCM, Nashville. Beth Blinn spoke to the band and fills in their history.
The Choir have long been considered one of the premier alternative Christian music groups. Birthed in the Southern California area, the band was one of the first alternative acts to be signed to a major Christian label. Myrrh Records, taking a hint from the increasing popularity of alternative music, decided that they needed to sign a band in that genre and in 1986 chose The Choir to be that band.
After four critically acclaimed releases with Myrrh, the group decided to pursue a mainstream deal when their contract with the label expired in 1991. As a result, they practically disappeared from the Christian music scene. Except for playing a few festivals and recording an independent project, 'Kissers And Killers' (of which they only pressed 6,500 copies), fans had to be satisfied with playing their previous six releases over and over again.
Now the drought has ended. The Choir signed a one-record deal with REX and 'Speckled Bird' is the result. A combination of six songs from 'Kissers And Killers' and six new compositions, the album is sure to please old fans and win them some new ones.
During April's Gospel Music Association Week in Nashville, The Lighthouse staff visited with Steve Hindalong (drums) and Dan Michaels (saxophone and lyricon) at their new Neverland studio. The two graciously took a break from producing an album for a group from Canada to spend some time talking about the band, their experiences in pursuing a mainstream recording contract and their decision to move their studio and production facility to Nashville.
Officially formed as Youth Choir in 1984, the seeds of what was to become The Choir were sown back in the late 1970s, when Tim Chandler, bassist, and Derri Daugherty, guitarist and lead vocalist, were playing in a backup band for evangelist Dwight Thompson. At the same time, Chandler was also playing in a club band called The Lucky Stiffs with drummer Hindalong. When Daugherty started talking about wanting to form an alternative band, Chandler suggested Hindalong as a possible drummer. Under various names, the group started playing weekends at different Calvary Chapel churches. Chandler eventually left to play with Daniel Amos and Mike Sauerbrey came on board. In 1984 the group signed a record deal with Broken Records. 'Voices In Shadows', released in 1985, was their first album.
Also in 1985 came the entrance of Michaels as a saxophonist. The group released an EP, 'Shades Of Grey', for Shadow Records, before the call from Myrrh Records came. It was at this time that the band decided to go with the name The Choir.
In the years that The Choir was with Myrrh Records, they released four critically acclaimed and publicly well-received albums - at least, as well received as they could be in the Christian music industry, which is not exactly known to welcome ground breakers. With the release of each album (1987's 'Diamonds And Rain', 1988's 'Chase The Kangaroo', 1989's 'Wide-eyed Wonder' and 1990's 'Circle Slide') the band became a little more widely known. What also helped their exposure was some incessant touring, opening for such artists as Steve Taylor, Randy Stonehill and Russ Taff.
During this period, the band also went through several bass players as
Sauerbrey left and was replaced by Robin Spurs. Spurs eventually left
to become part of Rachel Rachel and Chandler returned - bringing the
band full circle.
Throughout The Choir's history, there have always been rumours about the possibility of the group "going mainstream" - pulling out of the "Christian" market and going after a deal with a secular company. After the fulfilment of their contract with Myrrh, that's exactly what happened.
"There had always been talk and hype about crossing over, for years," says Hindalong. "And we had never shopped at all. I mean we were under contract. We did six records in six years and we were under contract with Word, so..." "We never could shop," interjects Michaels. "We always felt that we wrote the kind of songs that you could hear on the radio," continues Hindalong. "Our better songs really weren't going to get played on Christian radio, because they were love songs... 'Circle Slide' was mostly love songs, but there were some very intensely Christian insights offered, I thought, and it was intentionally spiritual. It just reflected who we were... 'Kissers And Killers' is nothing but love songs about marriage, commitment, and all of the trouble. And we just thought, 'These songs should be on the radio! Wouldn't it be great?'"
"So yeah, we shopped and we've sent out some tapes. We showcased - played a lot of clubs for a year and didn't get a solid offer. We had quite a bit of interest and a really good response to the tape. We presented ourselves like we were a brand new band. We also got a lot of rejections. We FELT like a new band," says Hindalong with a laugh. "It's different," offers Michaels, "because in Christian music we're competing - if you want to call it that - with bands like Mad At The World and Undercover. We're accepted in this market and we do really well. But going in, just playing clubs, we're competing with bands like Rage Against The Machine or Bleed, or all of the new bands that were kind of coming out of Los Angeles and the Bay area and it was a brand new world. It's mainstream and you've got these hungry, hungry Los Angeles bands doing everything to get a record deal and so we had a lot to go against. You have record companies looking to spend $250,000 on a record project and they're trying to figure out who would they want to spend $250,000 on. Rather than like a Christian company - their budgets are anywhere near $15,000 as an average for a Christian project. So there's so many bigger numbers and a lot more competition - it's hard."
Hindalong continues, "We've always been real appreciative of having an audience at all. It was no bitter thing, (the decision to shop to mainstream labels) like we hate this market, and we hate this industry, and we want out. Everybody wants to have as much of an impact on the world - any artist wants to impact as many people as possible. We've been very fortunate to do this many records and to have a fan base. We've been friends with all of our record company people - some of the people at Word are some of our best friends, so there are no hard feelings - there never was."
While the band decided to go with REX for this album, it does not mean that they have given up on the mainstream scene.
"We've licensed this material and written several more songs, to make a full length thing that REX is going to release," explains Hindalong. "We're glad that they are there and they seem really enthusiastic about it. We just did a one-record deal with them - we are still open and there are still labels talking to us. That's the thing about the secular deal - I mean, there's talk and talk - they'll talk forever. And you get all excited about it, and it just doesn't manifest... you get used to disappointments. Being in this business for as many years as we have, you are kind of numb to disappointment."
"We're totally enthusiastic about 'Kissers And Killers' going out through REX. We just sold it independently, through the mailing list and at our live shows - deciding to keep it as a collectible - but it's great now that the wider market is going to be able to hear these songs," adds Michaels.
Another big change for the band was the decision to move to Nashville. "Everybody kind of had different reasons (for the move)," explains Hindalong. "A lot of it was personal - our families wanting to get out of Los Angeles, or whatever - so everyone almost has to speak for himself. For me, my wife is from Idaho and she never liked LA at all. We've toured a lot and we've been everywhere, so a lot of times you'd look out the window and think, 'I want to live there, and there!' Anywhere there's trees, where it's green, where the air's cleaner. Also, we like to play a lot and it's hard when you're from California because it's way more concentrated in the Midwest and the East. Now, from here, we're able to play weekends. The best gigs are always Friday and Saturday nights, so you get across the country and you're stuck Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, trying to play bad gigs. So, it helps from a strategic standpoint. Also, we're producers and songwriters. Obviously, we can't be in a rock band all of our lives. We thought it would be a more strategic location for the studio. Already, since we've been here, we've produced some bands - one out of St Louis, a band came here from Carolina, and these guys (in the studio now) drove from Canada."
Producing is something that has become an important part of the band's work, especially for Daugherty and Hindalong. "It was Derri's idea (to start Glasshouse Productions)," says Hindalong. "We just wanted to stay busy. That's the thing - we're just trying to keep busy. We've always been like - one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock, because you tour for a few months and then you get a job. And so, anything that would create some consistency is what we were trying to do. It's just an opportunity that came up with Word - it really was a production deal more than a record label."
Living in the south has been quite an adjustment for these guys. Moving to Tennessee has almost been like moving to another country. "We're not sure about this town yet, to be quite honest," says Hindalong. "I do like the trees. I've got a lot of them. I think we feel a little alien to the south, so far." "One thing that's not out here is colour - you're used to seeing Asians, Hispanics, blacks," adds Michaels. "I miss that, totally. Here, in the south, you're walking around and you see an Asian person and you do a double take. Just because you don't see it often enough and that's not a good thing. It's good to just feel the variety."
Hindalong adds, "Chris Colbert and I were talking about wouldn't it be great to come here and there was graffiti on the studio. We were thinking that one of us should start some - spray some Mexican graffiti on it - that would be great. I like that part of LA. I see it as an art form... It's interesting to me, because I wrote a paper on it in college - 'Graffiti As A Mass Media.'"
The Choir's sound has always distinctive atmospheric and visionary, a mixture of the spiritual and the temporal. As Hindalong sees it, "The sound really comes through Derri. There's been a lot of change in the sound of alternative music through the last few years. His guitar sound has completely changed - less delay, more tremolo, more distortion, but more major key. So, it's still tension -we've always had a level of tension that is appealing to me, as a lyricist. There's a lot of irony in the lyrics and I think the music suits that really well. I think it's more aggressive." "Part of it is because of Chandler adding to the bottom," adds Michaels. "We've got Tim Chandler back on bass," continues Hindalong, "and he's such an intense player that it causes us all to be much more aggressive just to get on top of what he's doing."
The songs generally start with Hindalong or Daugherty. "We don't have a total formula, but I wouldn't write a whole lyric without music," says Hindalong. "I think the lyrics serve the music, more than the other way around. You can make a lyric or make a poem, and force music upon it and go 'That's a song,' but let's face it - it's music. It's the sound of the song and you tend to have too many words when you write (words first). But a lot of times I'll have a hook idea, a chorus, for instance, like 'Come on, let's ride the circle slide.' I might hear something else, but I'm not going to work out all of the verses. So much of the time, a feeling comes off of the music - you hear music and you feel a certain way. So, I would say that the music comes first, as far as the hook. Derri's an extremely melodic player - he can't even play the guitar, really, without playing something that sounds like a song. Anytime he plays, I immediately hear a counter melody. And hopefully, I've stored up an idea, and then write the right words to suit the verses."
Family is very important to the members of The Choir, as evidenced by some of the reasoning behind the move to Nashville. Hindalong and his wife, Nancy, have two daughters, Emily, five, and Erin, three. Daugherty and wife Marlei also have two children - Hannah, four, and Chance, two. Tim and Maria Chandler became parents a few months ago when Maxwell was born. Hindalong allows that his kids, at least, are interested in music.
"They know what they like - boy, they sure know what they like. They don't like anything too dark. But they know a good melody and if I'm listening to a bad demo, they'll go, 'Turn that off.' And it's like, 'I know, I know it's bad, you don't have to tell me.'" For Hindalong, because his lyrics spring from his feelings and his experiences, being a husband and father have affected his writing. "Most of the songs are about my wife. They're all very personal - our songs are pretty much talking to one person. In most cases, either my wife or God, directly. Very rarely do we address an audience and tell an audience how to be or what to do. I really have enough troubles of my own, to offer any insight into what's wrong with anybody else. But "Wide-eyed Wonder" was a reaction to having a child. That one was terribly self-indulgent. I'm quite embarrassed about that record, actually. A lot of it is just embarrassing, like home movies or something. I should have been stopped, or beaten or something. Someone should have said something to me. We've always done what we feel and when anyone has a child that's just been born - that's pretty consuming and it's hard to think about or write about anything else.
"I think that we were one of the first bands, if I may be so bold, to really integrate and mix love songs in," continues Hindalong. "I can't understand how a songwriter or artist can not write any love songs at all, and me not feel that I'm being sold something. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with embarrassment - I don't say that our music is 'spiritual' or has 'spiritual overtones'. It's Christian - the Spirit of Jesus Christ. That's what we're talking about... We're not trying to sell anybody anything."
As much as he feels it's important to write from his feelings, Hindalong admits that it is a situation that does not sit extremely well with his wife. "Nancy is pretty uncomfortable with it, because she is a very private person. Artists tend to be the kind of people that need, for some reason, to expose themselves to the world. I think it's some kind of insecurity or something, that makes us need that kind of affirmation - 'This is me, know me.' To make the connection - I don't know what it is. I'll tell anybody anything about me - if we sit down for 10 minutes, I'll tell you anything. And I will tell a large group of people anything. But my wife is not that way. She's very down to earth, not pretentious in any way and doesn't really care what people think of her. She just would rather our problems be kept between ourselves. She doesn't say much about it, but I know it bothers her."
It is probably the personal aspect of The Choir's music that appeals most to people. "It's just about relationships and tensions," says Hindalong. "Everyone - teenagers especially - that's the main thing on their mind. I think that teenage girls really respond to the content. They want to be in love, they want to be loved and I think it really rings a bell. And I think that it's very unusual to be so honest - to be so problematic, as our songs are, without solution... I think it hits them right where they are. They've got parents who are divorced, a large percentage of them, and tension and romance is a part of everybody's life."
Plans for the future include playing as many dates as is possible, and continuing efforts to land a mainstream record deal. The Choir has always mixed playing churches with playing clubs and move fairly easily from one to the other, although clubs do seem to be a preference. "I like playing clubs because I feel more like a real band, when we play at a club," says Michaels. "Churches are cool and everything and colleges are great, but it's hard to feel like a rock band when you're on a carpeted altar and you've got the fake plants on either side and you've watched them move the altar and stuff. We always do those shows, they're cool, but just going to a club - that's where bands play, at clubs, and we feel we have just as much right as any band, to go into a club and play."
The group makes no changes to their set when they move from one venue to the other. "There's no difference," says Hindalong. "We don't really have an agenda. Our music is not really manipulative, in any context. Many times, in a church setting, the promoter might be disappointed because we haven't considered our music a tool. Maybe it should be - maybe we'll have to answer for it someday. But we just play our songs and our songs are about who we are."
This article first appeared in the July 1994 issue of America's The Lighthouse magazine.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.