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Way too punk

One promising band from the 1990s tells its story of getting stuck in the no-man’s-land between the Christian music market and a wider market

Way too punk

Luxury in 2015 (from left): Chris Foley, Matt Hinton, Lee Bozeman, Jamey Bozeman, and Glenn Black

The drummer, bass player, and guitarist from the punk rock band Luxury sat at a hotel bar in New York, laughing over some ridiculous Meat Loaf T-shirts someone handed to them in Times Square. They ordered ginger ale, cranberry juice, and water. 

“That’s a weird set of drinks,” said Glenn Black, Luxury’s drummer.

Luxury is a weird punk band: Three of its members are now Orthodox priests, one is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and Black is Lutheran. The band came out of a small evangelical college in Georgia in the early 1990s. It was too punk for its evangelical surroundings and too Christian for the punk world—a no-man’s-land that many Christian musicians find themselves in, stuck between the mainstream and Christian music industries.

Luxury’s story is now an engrossing documentary, Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury, which is playing in select theaters around the country and will continue expanding. (A caution that it contains a handful of curse words from the band’s enthusiastic fans.) The film requires no foreknowledge of the band’s music (although Luxury does have a new album out in June). It’s just good storytelling about the band members’ dramatic survival of a near-death experience on tour, and then navigating faith within the music industry. 

Luxury found acclaim from critics at NPR, Paste magazine, and others but signed with a Christian label, Tooth & Nail Records, and never achieved wide success. A booker from an Atlanta venue recently told Luxury guitarist Matt Hinton that she remembered not booking them because she heard they were a Christian band. Onstage, they were anything but a tame Christian band.

“They were the craziest live thing I’ve ever seen,” said Mike Cosper, who opened for them at a church concert as a teenager when he had a garage band. Cosper now runs Harbor Media, a Christian media company that has podcasts on Christians in the arts, and he founded Sojourn Music, which cultivates music in the church. He recalled that the church audience loved Luxury’s high-energy performance.

Jamey, Lee, and Chris (left to right) in 2017, in an Orthodox church

Luxury band members on the other hand remembered Christians returning their albums to Christian bookstores over perceived edgy lyrics. Some noted hints of “queerness” in the lyrics, but lead singer and songwriter Lee Bozeman was and is a married man and said Christians have an “inability to take a joke.”

The band’s Christian distributor, too, threatened to withhold distribution unless Bozeman gave an “apologetic” for all their ostensibly clean lyrics. The married man mentioned being “nude” in one song, for example, but he didn’t curse or use sexually explicit language in his songs. 

Despite the rebellious punk perception in the Christian world, Luxury band members were committed to church, declined offers of drugs on tour, and lived a pretty party-free lifestyle. Meanwhile they watched friends in contemporary Christian music (CCM) bands leave the faith.

“There are all these podcasts now of former Christian bands who are just totally jaded,” said Chris Foley, Luxury’s bassist.

Pedro the Lion, another band that was once on Luxury’s label, Tooth & Nail, had crossover success. In an email to my mother when I was in college and on my way to a Pedro the Lion concert, I stated with the earnestness of a college student that Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan was “one of the few truly talented and cutting-edge Christian musicians of this epoch.” But the year after I saw him perform, David Bazan dissolved his band and began publicly distancing himself from Christianity.

Haste the Day, a Christian metalcore (a combination of heavy metal and hardcore rock) band from the early 2000s whose members always announced their faith at shows, found crossover success but kept their faith. Several of the band’s albums broke through to tops of Billboard charts. The band’s name comes from a line in the hymn “It Is Well.” 

“For some reason with music, and maybe not any other thing in the whole world, we mistakenly and to our detriment call music Christian or secular,” said Devin Chaulk, who was a drummer for Haste the Day, which was at one point on the same label as Luxury. “No one is a Christian electrical engineer or a Christian race car driver. You don’t have to make Christian art, just make art.” He attributes the divide to “longtime entrenched industry happenings.” 

Handout

Devin Chaulk (left) and fellow Haste the Day members in 2008 (Handout)

Haste the Day had the opposite problem of Luxury with its label—Chaulk said the label asked them to “tone down the preachiness” at shows, even though their lyrics weren’t preachy. The band told the label that bringing up how the gospel had changed their lives at the beginning of a show was key to their identity as a band. Chaulk said they weren’t trying to “crusade or win people to our side,” just share that they used to be lonely, sad, and angry and Jesus changed them. The label didn’t bring it up again—Haste the Day was having success, after all.

Today the music industry is a little more splintered than in Luxury’s heyday, as album sales have plummeted in both mainstream and Christian markets. And different genres (hip-hop, rap, country) have different industry dynamics than alternative, indie music. But musicians say they still feel they have to choose which audience to pursue, and few openly “Christian” bands find crossover success.

Some rare indie labels are trying to fill that no-man’s-land, like Velvet Blue Music (started by an alternative rocker from Starflyer 59, a successful Christian crossover band), or in the past, Squint Entertainment, which backed Chevelle and Sixpence None the Richer. 

Steve Taylor, a successful singer and songwriter, started Squint in order to address the divide between Christian and mainstream labels. But Squint dissolved after a few years. He explained the heart of the continuing divide in the music industry: “Artists thrive on risk-taking, and labels thrive on risk-reduction.”

CHRISTIAN AUDIENCES tend to run from bands that express doubt or sin, or that fail to explicitly name and explain the gospel—wanting essentially a Bible without the book of Esther. Luxury felt this from the moment it formed at Toccoa Falls College in the early 1990s.

Under the band name the Shroud, the members embraced their Christian faith but felt themselves on the fringe of the culture of the evangelical school. Wherever they tried to practice on campus, they got kicked out. 

“It was just frowned upon,” said Black. 

 

Christian audiences tend to run from bands that express doubt or sin, or that fail to explicitly name and explain the gospel—wanting essentially a Bible without the book of Esther.

Black and Foley were missions majors and felt the school was isolated from the nearby town of Toccoa. With no music venue on campus, the band started a music venue in the town, a project they saw as an outreach that fit with what they were learning in their missions major.

But the college administration called the band members in for meetings, troubled about the venue, and according to Luxury, expressing the troubles of parents and donors. Eventually the administration allowed them to continue with the venue, as long as no Toccoa students were dancing. The college sent a dean to observe their behavior. (The college has changed since—inviting bands like Luxury to campus to perform.) The conflict with the administration ended up bringing more students than ever to the venue.

As the band became serious about writing songs together, they went to Cornerstone, a Christian music festival near Chicago, to scrounge a performance slot. One came up and they were a hit, and were signed to the label Tooth & Nail. Tooth & Nail also tried to walk the line between Christian and mainstream independent music, which is why Luxury thought they would be a good fit, though some friends warned them from going the Christian label route.

Then, a crumpled van nearly ended their careers and lives. As the band was returning from a festival appearance, their heavily laden van fishtailed and violently tumbled off the highway. When Lee Bozeman, the lead singer, arrived at the hospital, he was near death. He survived, and the others were seriously injured and in neck braces. It shook the band.

The car crash “made everyone a little more thoughtful, that tomorrow is not promised to us,” said Hinton. 

Once they all healed up, they went on to perform their high-energy concerts and record more albums, but they didn’t take off. Lee, his brother Jamey Bozeman, and Foley converted to Orthodoxy and became priests. And conflicts with the Christian music circuit kept cropping up as they toured. 

Scott Hoffmann/News & Record via AP

Chris Foley (Scott Hoffmann/News & Record via AP)

At one festival, while they were onstage about to play, a man got up to introduce them but first started preaching. The members felt it was a bait-and-switch: They hadn’t agreed to a sermon as the introduction to their music, and they had no idea what he was going to say. Lee started playing his guitar over the man and they began the show. 

Once they played a Christian show at a skate park, and a camera crew from a Christian station stopped Foley for an interview, asking his name and what his favorite Bible verse was. He said Philippians 4:13 but felt sheepish about it after, that a single verse cheapened a faith he takes seriously. 

Later in that show one of the organizers closed the entrance and made the skater kids line up to donate money. Black recalled that Chris got all “punk rock” and said from the stage: “Man, we don’t agree with what that guy was doing!”

“It was awesome,” Black said.

Their no-man’s-land status was grinding them down. They were painting houses and working at Walmart, and Black remembers searching the bottom of his car to find enough change to buy a copy of the issue of Heaven’s Metal magazine (now called HM) that had an article about their near-fatal crash. They left Tooth & Nail, feeling that the label wasn’t promoting them. As they began raising families, they went their separate ways.

They return occasionally to record music together.

Foley acknowledges that at Christian shows they were often “more provocative” because they were frustrated about the Christian music culture. But he argues, “We were being put in that box—what came across as rebellious wasn’t rebelling against God.”

Black remembers someone asking him at another venue if the band had “seen a lot of fruit.” 

“I’m standing there staring at the guy. Fruit?” said Black. “My first thought was, ‘Were they supposed to be giving us fruit baskets? Was it in our contract?’”

Then he realized the meaning of the question. “I said, ‘Oh no, sorry, dude, we’re not that kind of band.’”


The pitfalls of CCM

Separately from each other, both Haste the Day’s Devin Chaulk and Luxury’s Matt Hinton brought up a problem they perceive in how contemporary Christian bands often form. A well-meaning youth pastor will spot a kid with some musical aptitude, bring him or her up to play in the worship band, and the teen might thrive as a performer, and then that success might lead to a profession in the Christian music industry.

“These kids just bypassed an entire period of growth,” said Hinton. “It’s this weird fast lane, having a little bit of musical aptitude.”

iStock

(iStock)

Chaulk said he saw this happen many times, where teenagers would form a band in youth group, thinking, “This is the only way my mom will let me play this music.” He guessed many times this happened “before any true regenerative faith took root.”

And then he noticed that after some bands found success the members either realized they don’t have to keep up the faith pretense anymore, and they might “milk the Christian thing a lot longer than they were subscribing to it,” or they would quietly leave the faith without their fans knowing exactly what was going on.

Paired with that, several of the Luxury band members think a rock ’n’ roll worship style contributes to this CCM problem, because it makes worship performative rather than participatory. —E.B.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

Comments

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Thu, 06/13/2019 10:11 am

    Thanks for this Emily. In the early days of CCM, 60s and (maybe) into the mid 70s, this was the place for Christians to go. The music was creative and exciting for those days. But before long we got what we have now and what you present in these two pieces. I agree with what these musicians say about musical stereotypes. I find much of CCM as boring. There are occasional exceptions. I find my soul soars when listening to many genres of music and this reminds me of the true creative genius of our God, the inventor of music. And in addition I am awed at how he gifts certain individuals with the ability to write and perform all kinds of music. But as much of life, and the Christian life, things do get complicated…

  • brightnsalty
    Posted: Thu, 06/13/2019 02:20 pm

    Great article, it pleases me greatly to see the lesser know areas of Christian music highlighted. Never thought I'd see Haste the Day mentioned in WORLD :)
    There is a lot out there that is musically excellent but also challenging and edifying, but it's sad how it remains unpopular for all the reasons laid out in the article. Seems like non-Christians don't like anything that comes across as remotely "preachy," but Christians don't have the stomach or open mind for anything beyond the depressingly bland (musical and lyrical) offerings on the radio. So there's only an underground market left...

    I would STRONGLY recommend anyone interested in good music to check out a band called My Epic - some of the best lyrics I've ever come across combined with rich and interesting instrumentals. If you like alternative/heavy music of any sort, look into the rosters of Facedown Records and Solid State Records for more high quality bands with Christian leanings (some lean more than others). Would love to see their stuff reviewed in WORLD too! @Arsenio Orteza, heh