Steve Taylor

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New Music Guide
Spring 1995
© 1995 Burkhart/Brown Christian Publications, Inc.
Cover story, Pages 2-3, 5-7, 21

From the opening strains of 1983's EP I Want To Be A Clone, Steve Taylor proved he didn't want to be like anyone else before him in the young history of Contemporary Christian music.

The genre's first alternative/punk superstar, Taylor released four projects in four successive years, culminating with the now out-of-print I Predict 1990. He disappeared from the Christian music forefront shortly afterward, resurfacing in 1991 as a member of the alternative band Chagall Guevara, formed by Taylor and other musicians previously associated with Christian music. He returned to a solo career and a Christian label in 1993 with the release of Squint on Warner Alliance.

The multi-talented Taylor is nominated for seven Dove Awards this year for his work on various projects as songwriter, album producer, video director, and video producer. His new project, Liver, was recorded live last October in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and includes songs from his various solo recordings as well as the Chagall Guevara release.

I spoke with Taylor in Nashville over coffee one crisp late-February morning.

You're known as being pretty good at predicting... Could you have ever predicted that in 1995 flannel would become a fashion statement and that Steve Taylor would be nominated for seven Dove Awards?

The flannel seems easy compared to the Dove Awards. I really think there should be a lot of people asking for a recount because I'm sure there's been a big mistake.

From Clone on, you've been the ultimate nonconformist. Does it make you feel vaguely uneasy to have the stamp of approval from the Gospel music industry?

Peter [Furler] from the Newsboys called up that day and started razzing me, "So hey, Mr. Gospel Music, huh..."

Golly, I'm going to sound like a politician here, but it's one of those things... it's very nice to have peers say they like what you do. At the same time...

Let me tell you the story of how it came about for me. I was at the record company office. We had just finished a meeting regarding the cover for my album when Neal [Joseph] looked at his watch and said, "I'm sorry, I've got to run." I said, "What's up?" and he said, "They've got a press conference to announce the Dove Award nominees." That was the first I knew they were even coming out. In the back of my mind I thought that maybe a couple things I had been involved with might be nominated.

So I got in my little Honda and took a long drive. I had about an hour's worth of prayer. And it was simply, "God, if the praise of men affects me in a positive way, it will affect me in a negative way." When I got home I got the phone call and it was very good news. But I couldn't be too excited about it because if you take these things too seriously one way or the other, it just gets you off track.

But if I win, I'm going to jump up and down and say, "You like me! You really like me!" ...

So has the industry changed or have you changed?

That's a good question. You would have to say that the industry has changed in some ways when you look at the variety of categories and what's nominated in them. So I suppose the industry has gotten broader and more accepting of some of its extremes.

Then if you haven't changed, is accessibility still not really an issue for you?

It's not big on my list. (My record company might not be too happy to hear this!) God has, for whatever reason, provided these other projects, so number one in my mind in making a record is not accessibility.

I certainly don't mind the idea of being commercial or being accessible, because I think there's an art to that too. And all of us, as musicians and communicators, want to have as many people as possible hear us.

We all have to make decisions about where we're willing to compromise and where we're not. The first compromise comes when you decide you want someone besides yourself to hear your music. All of us would love to act like we're uncompromising, but the idea of an uncompromising band or artist flat out doesn't exist. The fact is, when you do something for the public, it involves compromises at different levels--it's just to what level.

How did you feel about last year's tribute album, I Predict A Clone?

Well, that was really, really nice. It was one of the nicest things, certainly, that's happened to me.

It didn't make you feel dead?

No. I mean, at first I maybe made a quick call to the doctor to make sure he wasn't holding anything back...

One of the things I really liked about the album was that it involved a lot of really cool bands that many people had never heard of before. Then, listening to it, I liked almost all of the new versions better than the original versions, which I guess was sort of depressing...

What would compel one to name an album after an internal body part?

[Pause. Laughter.] Oh, yeah. The new album... I was going to ask what you were talking about... Usually titles are the toughest thing for me. "What do you name this album?" Usually I just cheese out and name it after a song. I was sitting one night trying to figure out what to name this thing, going through a long list of names, and nothing was quite striking me. And I was thinking aobut the word "live" and it came--"liver." How do you pronounce it? I don't care. Either way, it works. That's the beauty of it. And I must say it's the most sure I've ever been of a title, for better, for worse.

When asked in years past about live albums, you've stated that you're not real fond of them.

Part of the reason why I don't like live albums is that most of them aren't really live albums. You do a concert, you get some audience on tape, maybe you keep the drums, but most everything else is replaced so that by the time you're done, what you've got is a studio album with a live soundtrack.

Technology came so that we could have 24-track recording in tour with us every night. Originally I was going to take different selections from different nights, but then I said, "No, that's cheating. I'm just going to take things from one night."

So without a net, without overdubs...

...and the problem is that it's not an even playing field. People are going to listen to this and say, "My gosh. What are you doing here? You've got some pitch problems, don't you?" I don't like to think of it as singing flat; I like to think of it as non-pitch specific...

The first time I saw you live was back in 1985. That night you verbalized the Gospel as clearly as I had ever heard an artist present it. As an industry, are we too sophisticated for that in the '90s?

Let me tell you where I've been. I would say that we started Chagall Guevara for all the right reasons. It was really immersed in prayer and we had a clear idea of where we thought we were going.

Maybe it was just a result of working in the pop music world, but somewhere in the process we started to lose the plot a bit. The band started falling apart over about six months. We were trying to move from one label to another and the whole thing was taking its toll on everybody with the legal maneuverings and all of that stuff. Meanwhile, the band couldn't write, couldn't record, and it didn't make sense to tour. During that time, I felt like we lacked a real sense of mission. And I started to realize that music without a strong sense of mission specifically relating to my Christian faith wasn't worth doing for me.

There is a cost to evangelism and speaking the Word, and that is to know what you're talking about. Ministers go to seminary; musicians, we might learn from other people's lyrics. There's a big responsibility that goes with presenting the Gospel and it needs to be taken seriously.

I think it's real important that we re discover this in Gospel music. It's particularly important at a time when the floodgates are opening up toward a larger audience that our message remains distinctive. Beyond just positive pop, we want to transform people's live with this music.

Can music alone adequately present the picture?

No. I don't think music alone ever has. My wife is a great example. She became a Christian at a Daniel Amos concert at Calvary Chapel. But the music alone wouldn't have done it. It was the preaching of the Word afterwards. But the combination was really interesting. Billy Graham, if you're reading this and if you're ready, just give me a call...

Actually, I've been doing a lot of thinking about this lately. I'm not exactly sure where music fits in or what my responsibility is, but I'm going to try to figure it out. It's like the paradigm has shifted and there's now a whole new generation of young people who don't respond to traditional ways of doing things. So how do we get through to those people in a way that makes sense?

I believe music does have some role to play in it. I think the music that will have an actual effect in evangelism is going to have to be deeper and have the same sort of effect that Dylan had in the late '60s, in that people would get in there and wrestle with his lyrics.

It's easier to go out and put on a show than really stop and articulate the Gospel...

It is. In fact, it's a very hard segue between a high-energy show and trying to get people to make a commitment to Jesus not based on the emotion of the moment.

Very tricky things we're talking about, and there aren't any easy answers. But I know one thing that all of us who are musicians can do about this, and that's to pursue learning the Word and pursue Godliness and holiness. And very frankly, to hold the entertainment at arm's length; to keep it all in perspective.

God, in his mercy, lets me do music and I'm really appreciative for it. I don't look at what I'm doing as the same calling that I think Billy Graham has. I want to be true to the opportunities I've been given, but I don't want to fool myself into thinking that bigger and bigger automatically means that God is blessing. We have to be very careful that commerce and the ministry that we do don't become so intertwined that we can't tell the difference between the two.

You've cited Graham and Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis as people whom you admire and want to be your role models. What should we learn from these men?

Number one, it's that having an anchor and staying with principles over the long haul is what really speaks. Those men were anchored over the long haul.

I admire the fact that they were able to communicate to the culture at large without diluting the Gospel message. It's almost like there was a little man sitting on their shoulder whispering, "No, no, no, you're talking to a subculture here. You've got to talk to the broader culture." They were able to speak to the culture at large without talking to a clique.

They were all men of integrity and took their responsibilities and positions seriously. I admire the fact that Billy Graham has set up his organization so he never has to say "trust me." He has accountability at all these different levels and he's almost saying, "Don't trust me--I'm going to surround myself with people who are always holding my feet to the fire."

These men also saw that they were very human and very capable of making mistakes. They realized that if they went down they would take a lot of people with them. I admire them for recognizing that.

When you made the decisions to get back into Christian music you seem to have totally committed yourself to the Gospel industry.

I didn't commit my life to an industry or organization, but I've definitely made my peace that being "Steve Taylor, Christian artist" is fine with me. Many musicians get frustrated being tagged a "Christian artist," but in fighting against that they often end up losing their way. And that's not worth it.

Brad Burkhart is a Christian media consultant and publisher of CRR. Photos for the article were taken by Ben Pearson.