Steve Taylor

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The Lighthouse
November 1993 Volume 2 Number 10
© 1993 by Polarized Publications
Pages 9-11

One of the most controversial Christian artists in the 1980's may have been Steve Taylor. After recording an album on a secular label with fellow Christian musicians under the name Chagall Guevara, Taylor has returned to a Christian label with a fresh outlook on Christian music.

Before beginning his musical career, Taylor worked in Colorado as a youth pastor for five years. "As a youth pastor," he remembers, "it was sometimes difficult to bridge the gap between contemporary culture and what is perceived as traditional church ways, or something like that. I suppose music, in one sense, helped bridge that gap. Probably the thing that drew me towards writing the kind of songs that I do is because I think you have to engage people's minds, as well as their emotions, in an effective presentation of Christianity, and it's very hard to do that. Much of modern Christian songwriting does a really good job of engaging the emotions, but doesn't do a very good job of engaging the mind. Probably some of the satire and word play in the songs that I write is a result of feeling that that's an important element of it all."

Much of this "intellectual stimulation" came through sarcasm, satire, and sometimes cynicism--not at all welcome by most American Christians. This always seemed to leave Taylor struggling to defend his songwriting. From his 1983 debut EP release, I Want to be a Clone, with "Steeplechase," "I Want to be a Clone," and "Whatever Happened to Sin?" to his final album I Predict 1990 with "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" and "Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better," questions over the satire were always being raised, and eventually led him to "retire" from the industry.

Taylor's departure from the Christian market was not sudden or dramatic. "I actually told my band a year before we did our last concert to be ready because this might be the last tour we do," he remembers. His main reason for the exit was that he grew weary of the controversy.

Probably the biggest controversy revolved around the album cover for his I Predict 1990, which was designed by his wife, Debbie. To some, it looked like a tarot card. He shares, "That, combined with a pretty successful author who was writing that I was a new-age guy. It wasn't like a couple people shooting off, enough people were believing it. At a certain point, I was spending more time defending myself than I was talking about music and the mission and all that. I'm very seldom angry. I'm usually a very happy guy. It was uncomfortable to always be defending those things that I felt were so ridiculous--[I felt like asking] 'Should I not at least get the benefit of the doubt on some of the issues that seem pretty absurd?'"

"Some of that I didn't mind because, when you're talking about controversial songs like 'We Don't Need No Colour Code' or something like that, I'm happy to talk about that stuff, because that's worth talking about. When you're talking about tarot cards and new age hand signs, that's no fun--that's just silly."

"That, combined with just the sense that if I wanted to keep doing this, I wanted to be able to achieve certain artistic goals, as far as concerts, the production, making records, and being able to achieve a certain standard there. It was really going to require toning down or becoming more mainstream as a gospel artist to keep selling that number of records and all that stuff. To me, whatever I'm doing, there needs to be joy and there needs to be enthusiasm. I felt like I could leave at that time with all those things intact, but if I would have stayed in and did another album and did another tour that I would be definitely flirting with carrying on for the wrong reasons. It was a good time to bow out gracefully."

Chagall Guevara

Following his "exit" from Christian music, Taylor teamed with Wade James, Mike Mead, L. Arthur Nichols, and Dave Perkins to form Chagall Guevara, which released a self-titled album on MCA Records. Working with a secular record company was not an entirely positive experience, perhaps partly due to their unique situation.

"We formed the band aiming for a pop deal and sort of setting our sights down one road. In some ways, part of the problem was there was no good model for what we were trying to achieve. To my knowledge, there was not a situation where a group of Christians who had all been involved in gospel music got together and went specifically for a [mainstream] deal, particularly in the alternative vein that we were in."

Many external problems plagued the band. However, Taylor now recognizes that an internal problem may have been that, "We had done a better job at defining what we weren't than what we were."

"All of us are Christians. None of us are ashamed of our faith, but it's like everyone had their guard up, and I think some of us in the band were almost paranoid about being associated with gospel music. I was not particularly, because I was very happy with what I had done in the past and I felt that, at a certain point, it becomes inevitable that if we achieved any measure of success, the press will start sniffing around and will find out everything about us anyway. So, there's no sense trying to act like we're something that we're not from the beginning. For me it's no fun to try to reinvent your past, trying to say that you came from some place you didn't come from--not that that necessarily happened. I've seen other incidents where gospel musicians are trying to make a cross-over and they sort of act like they're someone that they really aren't. I think that always creates problems."

Past experience as a band leader while a solo artist did not quite prepare him to become a member of a band. "It's just a whole different dynamic that goes on in a band that I hadn't dealt with before," he explains. "Even though I had a band as a solo artist all the time, it was a different thing--it wasn't a democracy. Decisions were made a lot quicker than in a band."

"The decision to play Cornerstone or Greenbelt, those were decisions that were very hotly contested within the band and probably took a lot out of us by the time we decided to do it. Once it was done, everybody was glad we had done it, but it was like every single move was analyzed to death."

"On the creative side, the musical side, there's a different kind of satisfaction that comes from making music as a group and everybody being sort of equal partners. It's not always necessarily better or worse, it's just different."

Taylor still has come to no firm conclusions on the band experience. "I still have mixed feelings about it. I really like the record we made, but towards the end, the pressures of trying to make a living trying to do it, especially for the guys who have families, just became overwhelming. It's still a hard thing to put my finger on. I would love to do some more stuff in the future, but I think I made the comment in the band's last year of existence that it was starting to feel like it was more of a hobby than it was a real band, especially since we weren't playing live much--which was one of the cornerstones of being a band in the first place. I think there was a certain sense of mission that, if it ever did exist, which it might have at first, it was starting to get lost. For myself, I was really missing that sense of purpose, beyond just making a good record or being successful or the normal things that go along with making a record. There was definitely a sense of mission that I felt when I was a solo artist that I was becoming wistful for. It was that thing that can propel your writing a lot more succinctly sometimes. When that starts going, other forces start to take over. Those are the things that sort of pulled it apart."

The Return to Christian Music

Taylor's much awaited return will be produced through Warner Alliance. The decision to sign there was partly for the same reason he originally signed with Sparrow Records for his debut. He explains, "They [Sparrow] didn't have anything even remotely like what I was doing. In many ways, Sparrow was at that time, more middle of the road and had nothing rock and roll at all. Warner Alliance was in the same position, but they really wanted something, they had been waiting for a long time trying to make sure it was the same thing. One of the things that's happened is that I've gotten so much enthusiasm from the people at the record label. It's so far from what they normally do, that it makes for a lot more fun. That was the theory and so far it's proved to be true."

Taylor depends most heavily on his pastor for guidance in his career decisions, who he gives much credit for encouragement in deciding to pursue another Christian album. "My pastor probably had more to do with ultimately making the decision to do this record than probably anyone else," he tells. "He was a fan of the band and liked what we were doing and liked the idea behind it, but I think he used the word, 'I plead with you to go and do this.' So that was good to hear. Fellow Christian friends were also very helpful in giving their perspective on the decision as far as what they felt."

"I doubt that it would have happened without the experience of the band, in that I saw a very hard contrast. There was something to it, in that doing a gospel album seems like a privilege now."

"I think there's a freedom as well in being a solo artist. I don't talk about this a lot, but one of the reasons I never considered becoming a pastor was because my dad is a pastor and I couldn't understand how he could take all those committee meetings. I was in a band and every decision we made had to be made by a committee and it was really draining. It was great to make decisions quickly and see the whole thing come together instead of laboring over every decision."


For his new release, Taylor is joined by Chagall-mates Mike Mead (drums) and Wade James (bass), along with Phil Madeira (keyboards) and, somewhat surprisingly, Jerry McPherson (guitar). Taylor comments on McPherson, "I hadn't actually thought of him. He's a really good friend, but his main work has been far different types of music, but he really wanted to do it. I was really happy with the work he did."

One of the songs that has received advance airplay, and crested some excitement is "Bannerman." Taylor explains the significance, "After the band experience, the idea of some, possibly goofy, guy, standing up at football games holding up a banner with 'John 3:16,' in many ways totally artless and very naive by contemporary standards--that idea really appealed to me. It made me remember that much of the reason I'm a Christian today is not because of cool artist guys who were Christians who really made me want to become like they are, but because of people preaching the Word, pointing people to the Bible, sort of the basics of the faith. I think there's a good place for that."

"In making this album, I think I was originally going to call it The Kitchen Sink. If there was an idea that I had, I wanted to try it, I didn't want to decide if it was an alternative sound or not. The record just kind of came out the way it came out. I also wanted to make sure that people didn't need an encyclopedia to figure out what the songs were about. I tried to make sure that these songs weren't so obscure that nobody would have a clue."

Noticeable on the new album are several, what appear to be, more personal songs. While Taylor admits that these and all his past songs are not autobiographical, he shares, "It is probably true that I've written songs in the past, sort of cautionary tales and they were cautioning myself as well as the listener. I suppose I've set my markers on life's path as far as different songs to nail down a stake in the ground to, 'Don't cross off into that direction because you wrote songs like that and you're going to look like an idiot if you do.' The fear of embarrassment can be very potent."

In preparation for the album release, Taylor took a trip around the world and recorded segments for videos. He is now diligently working on editing those clips for a video project, which he almost brags, will include "the first music video ever filmed in Vietnam."

He also will spend some time with his wife, Debbie (who is becoming very successful as a painter) before embarking on a college tour in the spring--which he will probably enjoy since he will be able to get away from Nashville for a while.

J. Warner Soditus

Ed. Note: Some additional information for Steve Taylor fans--Sparrow is planning a boxed-set for early 1994. REX Music is also beginning work on a Taylor tribute album entitled I Predict a Clone that will feature various artists covering his songs--it is slated for a May 1994 release.

All photos by Ben Pearson.