Steve Taylor's Musical Matinee

Christian Music Crossroads
October 1995 Volume 1 Number 2
© 1995 CCM Communications
Pages 30-36

When recording and producing take their toll, Steve Taylor likes to relax behind the camera.

By Lucas W. Hendrickson

Photos by Ed Rode

Steve Taylor, whether he realizes it or not, knows physics.

For years, the lanky alterna-troubadour has deftly vibrated air molecules, both as a solo artist and frontman for the much-lamented Chagall Guevara, to elicit senses of irony, humor and sometimes confusion in his audience.

More recently, though, he has turned his considerable talents to the visible spectrum, manipulating light waves to complement the audio vibrations of other artists, and creating some of the most inventive music videos in the Christian music industry.

Taylor's interest in filmmaking is not a recent development, however. As a student at the University of Colorado, his curriculum included experimental film classes, the products of which were, pun intended, enlightening.

"Some of them were stupid, some of them were, you know, pretentious, but some of them were really great in that they got you thinking about light," Taylor says. "And when it comes to filmmaking, that's definitely the most important thing, the light."

Taylor's own early productions pointed in the direction that his professional creative career would lead him--sideways down the wordplay path. "When it came time for us to make our own little three-minute film, I would automatically veer toward more narrative types of films, usually leaning more toward comedy. Usually the class was so bored watching these experimental things, I could always get them to laugh at something I was doing," Taylor says.

As his stint of higher education was coming to an end, young Mr. Taylor thought the time would be right to take his new-found expertise out in to the brave new world of cable television.

"When I got out of college, I had an idea for making a comedy short based on a story I'd come across about a man and wife who tried to trade their baby in on a Corvette," he remembers. "I got the local Denver personality who sold mobile homes late at night--which, you know, every city has one of those--and his face was instantly recognizable to the local people. He played the owner of the car lot and I played the salesman. We put the whole thing together, and my uncle loaned me the money.

"I thought I could get on HBO, because at that time they were showing these short films, but I got a very curt letter from them saying they didn't find the subject matter of a baby being traded for a car very funny," Taylor says. "So that was the end of my short film career, but that was about the same time I got my recording contract."

Taylor's first album for Sparrow, Meltdown, introduced the world to his sometimes skewed world view. But because in 1982 music video was in its infancy, Taylor was also afforded the chance to show the world his visual ways.

"That was about the same time MTV was catching on, and the whole idea of music videos being an end unto themselves," Taylor says. "I went to the record company and said, 'Wouldn't it be great to do a video of [the song] "Meltdown at Madame Tussauds's," and they said 'Yeah, it would. Here's five thousand bucks, go knock yourself out.'"

So where does a young man with a song, an idea and a minuscule budget go to fulfill his video dream? The Hollywood Wax Museum, of course.

"It turns out the owner was a B-movie effects guy, so he figured out a way to make the heads look like they were melting without messing anything up," Taylor says. "I hadn't planned to direct it, but the only way to pull it off was if I did direct it, because there wasn't any money to hire anybody. There really wasn't even enough money to hire a cinematographer, but there was a guy going to our church who was a really great cinematographer and who had done a bunch of commercials. He got a crew together for me.

"I had to deal with everything, arranging catering, making a deal with the parking lot next door, permits, all that stuff. It was a real trial by fire."

Visually, the "Meltdown" video was a success, even if it didn't spur the expected trend of performers using floor mops as mic stands. Mentally and physically, the process was such a chore for Taylor that he swore to himself that when the time came to make a video for his second album, someone else's posterior would grace the director's seat.

He didn't get his wish. After the first director bowed out, Taylor moved into the role, ignoring one of the primary rules of show business and working with a throng of kids on the clip for the song "Lifeboat."

"We had a full-on casting call," Taylor explains, "and a room full of kids in this casting office. I explained to them what was going to be happening with the video, and then I said, 'Let's go around and tell us your name,' and the first girl said, 'Do you want my name or my agent's name?'"

Taylor's next concept video project (after a concert film shot at England's Greenbelt festival) was an entire video album for 1987's I Predict 1990 record. The Predict project was full of innovations, including the creation of the "Taylor-Cam," an intricate harness strapped to Taylor's person supporting a bevy of Super-8 cameras, recording his every movement and lip-sync for the song "Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel A Lot Better."

Predict was Taylor's last album for the Christian market before embarking on a self-imposed exile that really didn't last that long. He returned to music as a member of the critically lauded, yet commercially ignored Chagall Guevara. Chagall made one video, a clip for the song "Violent Blue," in which Taylor's only chore was that of animated frontman.

When the time came for Taylor to venture back into the Christian music scene in 1993 with the album Squint, part of the bigger picture of the project was another long-form video. This time, with the help of photographer Ben Pearson, Taylor started thinking on a global scale and used his production budget to take a very small crew to shoot in more than half a dozen countries.

The finished product showcased videos with a vibrant simplicity that took great advantage of their locales. Part of that simplicity came from the dearth of equipment the crew was able to use. "Once we came off the tripod, we were naked. We didn't have cranes, we didn't have dollies, we couldn't take that stuff on a trip around the world. It was very much a matter of playing to our strengths, which were composition, location and action within the frame," Taylor says. "Ben, being a photographer, has this really great eye for composition, and he's got a temperament that's really well suited for this. He's very patient, a very hard worker and a really good friend."

Taylor says he approaches each video project with a goodly amount of divine help. "Each one, there's a lot of prayer involved, because you realize how many things could go wrong, and no matter how well you plan in advance, if God isn't there, you're screwed.

"We experienced it in massive doses on the trip around the world. I mean, there is no reason that thing should have come off. At any checkpoint we could have had all of our film confiscated, something could have gone wrong with the camera--I mean, you can't get your 35mm camera fixed at the mall overnight," Taylor says. "I'm not one of those guys who will suggest that God manipulated weather patterns to help us make our video, but for whatever reason, it went off better than anybody could have possibly expected."

Their creative partnership solidified after their trip around the world, Taylor and Pearson began producing videos for such artists as the Newsboys, Twila Paris, Rich Mullins, Dakoda Motor Co. and Out of the Grey. Although some of these artists are not creating music that would nominally fit into the Steve Taylor style, he is able to take his unique visual sense and mold it to fit each artist.

"At the essence of a video, you've got an artist that you're having to portray. Everything makes a statement. You hate to talk too much about image, but you realize when somebody steps in front of a camera, there's an image there, no matter what you do to it. If they don't comb their hair, that's making one statement. If they wear what they wear to the gym, that's making another statement," Taylor says. "Then you've got what the song is about. Sometimes the song is obvious enough, and it doesn't need any further explaining. I don't think we've ever done a straight performance piece. I think with everything there is a subtext there, and it's that subtext that every good video has to have."

Taylor's next video projects include a new Out of the Grey clip and one from Guardian's new record Buzz, which Taylor also produced. Following several dates opening for the Newsboys this fall, Taylor will go back into the studio to create the follow-up to Squint, and there's no telling what laws of physics, both sonic and visual, he'll break then.

Associate editor Lucas W. Hendrickson counts videotaping a family reunion as his only directorial work.

Special thanks to Will Pike, General Manager of Regal Cinemas Bellevue Cinema 12 in Nashville, for allowing us to use the theater for our photo shoot.