As Mike Rimmer says, "The Secret of one of Christendom's most creative bands is finally out". Our man went to Nashville to meet rootsy rock'n'rollers WATERDEEP.
Chris Hauser could be the world's most enthusiastic man! A Woody Allen look-alike of a man, he's pumping my hand in a furious handshake at a Nashville party, and talking at 100 miles a second saying how pleased he is to finally meet me! Would I like to meet the band he manages called Waterdeep? We make the arrangement.
Two days later I am walking down a quiet street in Nashville returning to my hotel. It's about midnight, the balmy city streets are deserted. I hear a voice, it seems to be coming from a passing car that has slowed. "Mike Rimmer, don't forget Waterdeep on Wednesday!"
As if I could! As preparation, I had already witnessed the band play a short set at a showcase, and was totally mesmerised. The venue is packed with industry folks checking out this year's new things, but Waterdeep immediately impress as more than the latest band taking steps into the spotlight. Instead, their self-assured stage presence, vulnerable songwriting and excellent performance intrigue me. As I lie in bed that night, a fragment of a song lyric floats back into my head, as I recall Don Chaffer describing a husband running away with another woman, "He left her for some bimbo" How many Christian songs have the word "bimbo" in them? Perhaps only one! That's what makes Waterdeep's approach unique. I can't wait to meet them.
Just to clue you in, the band formed back in 1995 and have recorded six records in five years. As an independent, the band quickly gained a reputation, built a solid fan base and spent a lot of time on the road gigging. The band always seemed to prefer working at a grassroots level, but perhaps Steve Taylor's Squint Entertainment finally clicked with them through its unorthodox approach to the Christian music scene, because Waterdeep's first international release 'Everyone's Beautiful' marks a jump to a wider audience. Now the secret of one of Christendom's most creative bands is finally out.
In a private room at the back of a restaurant, amongst the remnants of lunch, we meet and talk. The band, unusually, is comprised of two married couples, Don and Lori Chaffer and Brandon and Christena Graves, as well as bassist Kenny Carter. Lori jokes, "You have to learn how to fight quietly!" And then she adds, "It sometimes feels like we've been married longer because we've spent so much time together, and that's good. We've had to work through things that I'd imagine would take other people longer, because they don't see each other so much."
Don and Lori met through music, and I wondered whether they had always
anticipated being in a band together? "Yeah," they chorus in unison.
Though musically in sync, they come from very different backgrounds.
Don shares, "My brother became a Christian when he was 18 and I was
11. He sat my sister and me down on a couch and explained about heaven
and hell, and I just thought it was something I had to do. I remember
carrying a Bible to school at that age, and my brother played a very
strong role in my discipleship. Basically, my whole family is a
Christian family now but it's been in segments as time has gone on."
Lori tells her story, "I was saved at the age of seven from a life of debauchery." While she laughs, her husband interjects, "Bet you didn't know six-year olds could hold up convenience stores!" Lori continues, "My parents got divorced when I was 10, and I went through a rebellious stage and I didn't know what to think about a lot of things. In college I got more serious and it's been a slow growth and here I am still growing."
A lot of those early experiences have influenced the band's songwriting as time has gone on. 'Everyone's Beautiful' has a song called "Walls And Tall Shadows" which Lori describes as "dedicated to people who maybe feel misunderstood by parents who don't understand what their personality is like. It's about the pains of growing up and how we live in a broken world, and there's no perfect pain relief, so each of us has to deal with the imperfections in our family." Christena Graves explains about another song, "Go Find John" saying, "This has been an important song for all of us because it talks so powerfully about forgiveness. This goes with our belief in the fatherhood of God. God is so accepting no matter what we do. He will always take us back and he's always there for us. It's a call for any person who has fallen or got trapped in problems to come back to God."
Don Chaffer tells me about the roots of the band," I had a lot of idealism and approached the pastor who discipled me when I lived in Kansas City. The first time I played him my songs, he invited me back to play. I told him about Lori and played a tape of her songs, and the pastor responded by observing that it must be a burden to have a gift like ours." Don continues, "He told me that a lot of people wished they had money, but what they don't realise is that if they had money within the kingdom of God, there's a great responsibility that comes with it to spend that money according to the will of God. Likewise, women wish they were the most beautiful on their block, but with that comes a certain amount of power and responsibility, just like Spiderman says, 'With great power comes great responsibility'." I tease that Spiderman makes an excellent role model. Don grins, "I think Jesus says that too!"
Don continues explaining the genesis of the band and how he embraced the responsibility of being a ' musician. "I helped organise a coffee house in the early days, and there were a lot of bands that came through and I grilled them with questions. There was a lot of idealism on my part and a desire to do what the Lord had called us to do, which is still what we're driven by, but also it was balanced by the realism of what it takes to live a godly life outside the circus of self-promotion that accompanies being a musician."
If anything, Waterdeep are a band who have chosen to underplay the promotional activities of the band, concentrating instead in gaining a solid musical and spiritual reputation with word of mouth creating a buzz about the band. When it comes to determining the direction of the band, Don is very clear where they stand. "I think our generation has a sore lack of understanding of God in three persons, and specifically, as a father to a fatherless generation. Lori mentioned that divorce is rampant, and even within homes that are not affected by divorce, a lot of men unfortunately express a sad understanding of what it means to be emotionally present for their children and their wives. So understanding the father heart of God is really important."
He continues, "Understanding the idea of objective and real truth, there is the fact that all of us stand in a condition of sin, and we're not perfect, and Christ came to redeem us from that. But he doesn't pull any punches when it comes to sin, and he doesn't pull any punches when it comes to grace, and that's the second person of the trinity. The third person is the Holy Spirit, and Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be with us, and the Holy Spirit serves several roles in our lives, present tense, not only convicting us of sin, righteousness and judgment, but also being our comforter. He's also the messenger of God to speak into our lives in the present tense, present day, every moment, so one of the things we want people to understand is that God is here now and willing to speak at this very moment. That's the main vision in our heart, accompanied by one other thing which is the idea of creating a sense of community around the purposes of working for God's Kingdom, the idea of there being a God at the head who has an agenda that we all need to serve. We really want to establish a community around that purpose, particularly through the arts."
I wonder whether having two married couples in the band expresses that community? Lori considers for a moment and says, "We're all good friends. Even Kenny the bass player in the band who's not married. Don and he have been friends since high school. We all spent our college years at the same church and we've always been around a strong sense of community. That church was strong on community and we would hang out for hours and hours after church. The church where we're at now is very strong in that too, so it feels like our heritage and we're just growing in that. We just have a good time together. We try to be assertive spiritually with each other, which is often hard on the road and often hard to do in life.
Don adds, "We recently moved about three hours away from our home in Kansas City, where we attended the church we're talking about, to a new church in Wichita, Kansas which is a Vineyard church. The pastor is dedicated to providing a home for us, and officially sending us out as missionaries. We're in the midst of trying to figure out what a band on the road needs as far as support, encouragement and accountability as well as any support - financial, spiritual and physical. It's really strongly on our heart and we don't have all the answers, but we really believe that God wants it to happen industry wide."
The debates about how a church can support a ministering rock band on the road need to be rewritten for a new century, and it seems that Waterdeep could be at the forefront of developing a new model, but these are early days. One thing is clear from spending time with the band, there is something special going on that deserves support.
Waterdeep have blended rootsy acoustic music with rock'n'roll, in a style which allows them to embrace enough influences to make 'Everyone's Beautiful' an unmissable musical experience. At the same time, it's the honesty and reality of the band's lyrics that has endeared them to their fans. No plastic smiles, shiny airbrushed publicity shots and glossy vacuous Nashville CCM-style lyrical platitudes here. Waterdeep have integrity, they have depth and they have songs that embrace the hurt, pain and hope of modern life delivered in music which is at turns gutsy and at times sublimely poignant.
Christena Graves sums it up when she describes the 'Everyone's Beautiful' album, "It goes along with our vision to speak to this broken generation and tell them that each one of us is beautiful, and each one of us was created by God and holds pieces of his beauty and his creativity. So many of us have been hurt and lost all sight of that, and we're really trying to reach people and tell them that it's in them and help them to recognise that."
Finding beauty in the midst of brokenness is a gift that Waterdeep share through their music. Like life, it's seldom comfortable or neatly tied up but in a generation characterised by its dysfunction, is it any surprise that their songs glide across the divide between band and audience or stereo speaker and listener? Soul-searching poetry that works its way under the skin, Waterdeep's music has a spiritual power that aches with hope. With every listen, I find myself catching Chris Hauser's enthusiasm!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.