Steve Taylor Interview

[Image: Norvin Coblentz with Steve Taylor Thumbnail]
Steve Taylor

[Image: Norvin Coblentz with Ben Pearson Thumbnail]
Ben Pearson

Source: Norvin Coblentz
Bongo Java, Nashville, TN
June 16th, 2006
Thanks to Norvin Coblentz

I had the pleasure of sitting down to interview my personal hero, Steve Taylor, at a small (and very hip) coffee shop in Nashville, TN late last week. Not only did I get to interview Steve, but I also got to meet long-time Taylor collaborator Ben Pearson. Despite the batteries in my tape recorder dying two questions into the interview, it was still the single coolest day of my life and I'll never forget it.

Norvin Coblentz: So, Steve, what have you been up to lately?

Steve Taylor: Well, I've got quite a few things going on. I'm actually working on two scripts right now. One is this comedy "Jerry's Kids," which I'm not talking a whole lot about right now. I can tell you's not a true story, but it's based on real events. And, the Newsboys have a new record coming out, so I'm writing some songs for that. Getting back up on that horse has been interesting.

NC: In the past you've directed music videos and now a full length feature film. What's the biggest difference between the two?

ST: Ya know, I was really surprised at how different it really is. When you make music videos, you have a soundtrack that you're putting images to... [Batteries in tape player died here, so the rest of that response was lost.]

NC: In making "Second Chance," what proved to be the most rewarding, and what proved to be the most frustrating aspects?

ST: Yes, the single biggest frustration is how much time and energy goes into trying to raise money for the project. And, ya know, coming from the audio recording world, I've witnessed the price in that drop substantially over the course of my career in it. I mean now, if you can't pull enough money together to make a good sounding record, you're not trying very hard. Ya know, home studios are a fact of life. The Arcade Fire record was recorded mostly in their home, and that's probably my favorite record of last year. It's great, because whatever limitations are caused by having a home studio they made the most of them. The supieon [?] record was another favorite from last year and that was primarily done in home studios.

So money is no longer a factor in making a good record, but money is the single biggest factor in film making. There's a few flukes of nature that I applaud, great movies that were done on digital cameras, but there's just not that many and there's a whole lot more that I can barely watch. We still kind of look at movies, I think, usually that take us places we haven't been before, and we still like watching them on big screens and, we have certain expectations going into that. So, realizing those expectations and not wanting to make a small, digital movie...I sort of started with the idea of shooting on 35mm film, and automatically that puts you into a movie that's going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars as opposed to tens of thousands of dollars or less.

And then you start thinking how's this gonna be different from a TV movie, and if you don't have a lot of money for sets, you at least need to have a reasonably big canvas. Now, a big canvas means either exotic locations or filling it up with people, and this movie didn't need exotic locations but it needed lots of people. When you're dealing with days where you've got hundreds of extras, that costs a certain amount of money, too.

So, raising the money was the biggest frustration, and of course, that's where, thanks to my wife, she was up for us using our house to start the process and that ended up paying for a third of it. Then, another company came in and put up the other two-thirds so we could shoot it.

I would say there's another frustration and that is that my ambition as a filmmaker exceeds, or at least exceeded my abilities as a filmmaker. The project I was hoping to make first, this movie Saint Gimp, is an example of my skills as a screen writer were less than my ambitions as a screen writer. I think one very fair criticism of "Second Chance" is people that have followed my work, most people that see this, they like the movie, but it's not necessarily something they thought I would have done for the first movie. I think that's a fair criticism and all I can say is the movie I would have liked to do, I'm not a good enough filmmaker to do yet.

We got the script to the reading stage on Saint Gimp, and it just wasn't a good enough script to film. In some ways the art direction and what I had in my head on that movie...I could show you a books worth of art direction ideas that the team had put together and you'd think "Wow! This is gonna be a really cool movie!" But, if you don't have a story to back it up, you end up with nothing. Frankly, you end up with a big mess.

And so, "Second Chance" was not a world I completely knew because there was a lot of gaps in my knowledge of contemporary urban black churches. But, there was enough about it that I knew, and there was enough that I would know what I didn't know, which is half the battle as well, that I could film the rest with research and come up with, hopefully something that rang true, that has a certain realism to it and that pulled enough elements together so it could actually be seen in a theater, which is another tough mountain to cross.

Those were the frustrations in going into making it. But as far as the process goes, there were so many things that went right, and so many things that should have gone wrong that didn't go wrong. In some ways it was very similar to 11 or 12 years ago when we went around the world and shot music videos all over the world. All the things that should have gone wrong, magically went right! In this case, it was a lot of the same thing. I had no right to make a script with Chip [Arnold] and Ben [Pearson] that had a certain ambition to the roles, and we just didn't have enough money to hire those actors.

It turns out Jeff Carr, who plays Jake, is in town, and by the grace of God did a reading one day, and, honestly I don't think I could have found a better actor to do that role. And, the people like Lisa who played his wife was someone who was just like right on the cusp, and then she did that Tyler Perry movie and she did Big Mamma's House and I think she's a star in the making. We were fortunate enough to get the guy who plays Michael's dad, who's a veteran actor that came out of Leukemia treatment to come up and do our movie, and then a whole host of people in the movie who were locals that Jeff knew or somebody else knew that had never acted before and did really magnificent jobs.

There was a lot of great things like that that happened on the set, and that happened off the set. Despite the tight budget it was a really harmonious set, which small budget movies typically aren't. And, at the end of the day the movie, mistakes and all, I can't really blame anyone else for the mistakes. All you really want in those situations is to be able to make the best movie that you can make, and that was probably as good as I could do at that point.

NC: How well did "Second Chance" do in theaters, and will that have any bearing on when we see the next Steve Taylor film?

ST: Well, it didn't do as well as I would have hoped. It did around a half a million dollars. I think Variety came out with their limited releases for the year so far and it was like, number 12. So, it did reasonably well. I wasn't entirely happy with the way the theatrical distribution was run. But, I think, for the most part people were doing the best that they could with the knowledge they had. I think the biggest surprise on the theatrical side was that it did a lot better in most parts of the country, but it didn't do particularly well in the South. It did very well in Nashville, but most of the rest of the South it didn't do particularly well, sort of Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas...I think we all thought it would do better there. Still, a number of cities we did great business and it had a lot going against it.

For some reason that I'm still scratching my head on, our marketing team didn't think doing a trailer for the movie in theaters was worthwhile. A lot of us are still scratching our heads on that one. There wasn't enough budget to do newspaper ads in most cities, so we were looking at a really tight budget. On the other hand the DVD is shipping 300,000 copies, so it looks to be quite successful. And, at the end of the day when that's the story, typically you'd get another shot to make another movie given it will have been a successful movie.

The trick is usually trying to figure out what to do next. I really would like to do a comedy next, and the comedy really has nothing to do with the movie I just did. So, that potentially makes it more difficult on a follow-up movie.

NC: What made you decide to stick with film for the time being?

ST: It had always been in the back of my mind that I would hopefully get a chance to do this eventually. I studied it [film] in college, and from doing music videos and the occasional documentary I tried to keep one foot in it so that I wouldn't be starting from scratch. I think popular music is, by in large, a younger person's pursuit. So, when I was in my 20s, trying to figure out what to do first, music seemed like a much more natural thing to start with than film. I think that's probably still true. There's some really, really good young filmmakers, but most of the people that I admire, particularly those who are also trying to write as well as people that have been doing it for a while and sort of have a number of years accumulated to see how things are. A lot of the trick in a movie is the emotions of it have to ring true. It's a little easier to smell if something's not working if you've had a number of years to be around all those scents.

NC: Is there any chance of us seeing you do the soundtrack for one of your films?

ST: Oh, well... Yeah...It's possible I might do a track or something like that. It would probably be easier to do it for something like this comedy movie than it would have been to do for the "Second Chance," which originally was going to be a hip-hop soundtrack, and for whatever reason it felt as we went like it need to be more gospel flavored. So, ya know, I certainly don't sing gospel and I can barely produce it.

NC: Over the years you've used several different mediums, film, music and you've been a record producer and a label head. What would you say you've enjoyed the most?

ST: Well...I really like them all. In fact, if I stop enjoying it, I just don't do it anymore. By the time Squint fell apart, it turned into a total drag. But the first three years Squint was going, I really enjoyed what I was doing. I've always enjoyed recording, but by the time I got more into producing with Newsboys and then other bands, I was kind of tired of the self-promotion part of being a solo artist. So, producing just seemed like a fresh wind, and I really liked it. Right now I don't really miss being a producer at all.

By the time it came to shoot a movie, all the set-up, pre-production and everything I enjoyed a lot. Mostly I've really enjoyed directing. The biggest surprise was, and I had some director friends warn me about this and it was really true, I just had no idea how physically demanding it was. Started on Monday thinking how to make the best movie and by Wed. afternoon you're thinking how can I stay awake through the end of the day Friday? It's just so physically exhausting. And at the same time, there's great energy on the set and people are eager to get it right and eager to please. So you'd get to the end of the day Friday and you're totally exhausted but you're also elated at the sense of things are going generally well.

Ben Pearson, who was the cinematographer, he in many ways had the greatest physical demands because he was hand holding a camera that is not meant to be hand held. He was in like, just awesome shape, he was like an Iron Man hauling this 35mm camera around and getting great stuff, and being right there and just typically he either would have had a steady camera or he would have had a different kind of camera. But, I think we got an energy to it, his eye and his stamina and, even though I'm sure he would get tired he would never complain, and he was so bummed out when the movie was over because he was just having a great time, too. So, film production is a blast.

And editing is like even more fun, and when you're messing with the colour correction and the sound and all things you can fix after the fact and you know can change the emotion just based on music or the effects or looping in a line of dialogue that you hadn't thought of earlier.

I mean I loved watching it with an audience. It's way different than music 'cause I never took an album out and played it for people to see if they got it or not. It was just "do ya like it, or is it too hip for ya?" But, on a movie you gotta make sure the audience is getting it. If they're not getting it, you don't have anything. I genuinely enjoyed showing it to audiences. We started showing it to predominantly African-American audiences, and got an equally or more positive response, but an entirely different slant on it. That was a blast, and I even made some corrections and tweaks to the movie after that experience as well.

So, I really like the whole process, and it's hard to get bored with it because it keeps changing, the emphasis keeps changing. But, it's also why you see filmmakers who have a hard time picking their next project, because essentially... usually they're signing off on something, especially if they're involved in the marketing, things like that. They're pretty much deciding what they're going to be doing with their life for the next two years or more every time, and if you pick the wrong project, that would be a drag.

NC: One thing that stands out about everything you've worked on, even with a low budget, is an underlying sense of quality. What's your secret to that?

ST: Well, the bands I've worked with, on that side, it's about the bands that you work with. You know the old phrase, can't polish a turd. And, I certainly don't think that I could. With some bands it's knowing what's the right time to, or at what point are they ready to, make a great record.

There's a guy--he's now a record executive, Jim Eiveen--who used to be a really fine producer and we were talking about production and he said, "I'm a third album guy. I love to work with bands on their third album." Typically, he had found that they're ready to do something. Their debut record, ya know, is one thing. The sophomore record is cliché and typically not as good as the first record and has less time to write songs and stuff like that. But, the third record if they get to that, they're ready to make something great usually.

In some regards that's been the case with the bands I've worked with. Newsboys, I don't know if it was exactly their third record but it was around there. They were ready to step it up. Guardian had made two, three maybe four records before the "Buzz" record. They were ready to change sounds and were a blast to work with, and I think it's a really good record. Sixpence, that was the one that made me the most nervous because "This Beautiful Mess" was a really fine record. I'd never had the experience of working with a band coming off of a great record like that. Of course, they went a whole different place as far as record company woes and being ready to break up. But, the emotion of everything that was going on, I think they were ready to make what I think is a really great record, too.

So, when you're working with a band producing, you're limited to what you can do. A lot of it has to do with that bands that you work with, what projects you say yes to. On solo projects, it's a thing that I always have the ability to do since I was pretty much the one to decide if it was done or not. If it wasn't ready, I could stop and write some more songs or keep working on it until it was right. There's some limits to that, usually financial. But, I never had an excuse like, "oh, the record company made me do this," because I was never in that situation. When I had a record label, I tried to never put the bands we had into that situation, either. It wasn't like we were telling them what to do and what to record and what not to record.

With visual stuff, it is trickier and it's the value of pre-planning and pre-production. Even in music videos, you've usually got one day, maybe two if you're fortunate to shoot it, and after that there's not a whole lot you can do. You can edit it, you can color correct it, but you can't fundamentally change it. So, the importance of planning ahead of time becomes all importance. Filmmaking has made me a better planner and hopefully more responsible. Between that and fatherhood I should be extremely organized from here on out.

NC: Looking back at your time in the music world, what would you say you're most proud of and least proud of as a solo artist?

ST: Well, it's easy to say the least proud of stuff. It's a blessing and a curse being a solo artist. When you're a solo artist it's really a blank canvas. When you're in a band, and of course being in Chagall Guevara put that in sharp perspective, you essentially have a certain set of boundaries that the band creates, and you're working with this palette. In my mind when bands usually go astray is when they act like that palette isn't there and they end up, essentially making somebody's solo record, even though the band's still there.

So, having started life as a solo artist, the first demos I did, since I don't really play any instruments, I would write up the charts, hire musicians and not always necessarily tell them what to play, but be very involved with the sounds and whatever I was hearing in my head. But, at that point, outside of how much money you've got it a wide open canvas. So, if you like the Shabba Ranks CD that you picked up and you think reggae is kinda cool and wanna try something like that on "Easy Listening" on the Squint record, you can do that because you're a solo artist. It may or may not be a good idea, but you can do it if you want to.

So, as I look back at a solo carrer, there's not that many things that I would just like to bury, but the palette's so broad that really the sensibility is primarily defined by my lyrics and limitations as a vocalist. Everything else... ya know, I can kinda hire whatever musicians I want to. It's why in some ways the live record that came out in '95 is, in some ways, probably a better introduction to what I do as a solo artist than any specific album because it's all over the map. Of course, this is a problem with any solo artist.

The solo artists I'm most interested in are the ones that have a really strong lyric sensibility. Guys like Elvis Costello or Randy Newman or Dylan or Supian, who I think is an awesome lyricist. And I'll keep following them because they write good lyrics. One of the reasons I'm really into hip-hop is because that's where some of the best lyrics are being written today.

If we took a little tour through the solo recordings, I might "X" out one or two songs from each album, but if you listen to the production I'd make a few more "X's" because, not all those things sound good anymore. Maybe there'll be a time when it all coalesces back. Like, I have a hard time telling the difference between a song that was recorded in 1955 and 1959, but I sure can tell a lot of difference between a song I recorded in '84 and '87.

Now, as far as what I'm most proud of...well there's gotta be something...I think we generally put on good concerts. I would like to think if people came to the concerts they got their money's worth. I know touring, depending on what year it was, I might have a lot of people coming to concerts, but I never made a whole lot of money touring because I really tried to put a whole lot of money into the shows and making up the stuff. I don't know if would say I'm proud of touring, but it was consistently above average.

NC: Yeah, Jeff Stone and Glen Holmen and those guys, they were really, really good.

ST: Yeah, great players.

NC: Whatever happened to them?

ST: Man, Glen is still in Southern California.

NC: I heard he was doing something with Green Day.

ST: Yeah, yeah he's played bass on Green Day records. He's played with Beck. He's married a woman he met in Argentina. I think he still plays with amaranth group as well, and Jeff's making video games for the Xbox, he works at Microsoft. He's been working with them for a long time. Steve Goomas is still making music in Southern California and Jack Kelly is still drumming. Most of them are still musicians, so that's good.

NC: Along the line of live concerts, was there one particular venue you liked playing the most?

ST: Well, I always loved playing Cornerstone. I always loved playing the Greenbelt Festival. There would be a lot of individual shows that would stand out for whatever reason, maybe a particularly good crowd or picked a good venue. I tend to remember international stuff. One of the last shows I ever played was at a club called "The Glue Pot" in New Zealand. It was a fantastic club and a fantastic crowd. When the night was over it was like, "This is a good time to call it quits! Let's leave on a high." So, there's been a lot of good shows, and that's probably the part I miss most about music. When I was touring I took it very seriously but I always really enjoyed it and loved the camaraderie with the band and we always were a tight group.

NC: Now, you broke away from the gospel side of the music world and formed Chagall Guevara, the greatest rock band ever known to man. You were on MCA records, and they sold the rights to Sparrow...

ST: Yes, the CBA rights for Christian distribution.

NC: There were a lot of people on the gospel side of the industry that seemed to "adopt" you guys, even though you tabbed yourselves as the band with no agenda religious or otherwise...

ST: Right.

NC: How did you guys feel about being sucked into the gospel scene as opposed to the secular side you were shooting for?

ST: Right, right. Well, there was a lot of tension in the band over that very thing. Honestly, still 15 years later I'm still not sure what we would have done differently. People on that side [gospel] were naturally interested. Fans of what I had done, fans of what Dave had done were naturally interested. Lynn Nichols had fans as a producer. So, they were naturally interested in whatever band we would do.

Of course, we were pretty much starting from zero as far as the mainstream music scene was concerned. Part of the problem was that there wasn't any model we could follow and say, "well so and so did it this way and that's a good model to follow," and that created a lot of tension. The first tour we got offered by our booking agency was this blues guitarist Jeff Heeley, who was sort of popular at the time. We had huge arguments over whether to go on that tour or not. We ended up not doing it, which may have been a mistake. There was another tour with Everkel and New Bohemians and we couldn't decide whether to do that one or not, we ended up not doing that. So, we were kind of a contentious group internally.

So, when Sparrow asked for the rights to put the album out in Christian bookstores, we were so beaten down at that point and, we were all kind of arguing things back and fourth and I honestly don't think any of us were particularly happy with that idea, but it was gonna happen anyways. So, I think we asked MCA if we could use the money that they got for touring to pay for getting over to England, because Squeeze had asked us to open for them. So, I think that's kind of how that came about. That kind of helped ease the situation a little bit.

In many ways, the Squint label was a direct result of what I learned though the MCA experience. It was a very frustrating experience. You're on a major label and that year they--amazingly, but it's true--they had a reputation for not being able to break rock bands and they spent all their promotional money that year on a Spinal Tap follow-up record. So, the joke around LA was they can't break a rock band and they can't even break a parody of a rock band. It was a strange label situation, which I think was our fundamental mistake along with many others.

NC: Did you get any record offers for labels besides MCA?

ST: Ya know, after our first go around with MCA we weren't sure what was next, but we knew we had to get off MCA. So, we started making demos for the next record and then we were advised by our manager at the time that we maybe better not record anything else while he was trying to get us off MCA, in case they claimed ownership of those demos. So, it was while we were waiting, and while our exit was being negotiated. As unsuccessful as we had been on MCA we were still more successful than any of their other rock bands, so they actually wanted us to do another record. But, the process took so long and we were all so broke at that point that we ended up, I think Lynn ended up producing another Phil Keaggy record around that time and Dave maybe had to take on a project and that's when I ended up working with the Newsboys. Things just sort of fizzled. It was a long goodbye.

NC: What was it like touring with Squeeze?

ST: Well, we loved that tour number one because we all were kind of anglophiles, we loved being in England. We had a pretty good situation. Squeeze were very nice to us and we all loved the band and loved their music. East Side Story is one of my all-time favorite albums and it was actually produced by Elvis Costello. Then, on top of that, touring all these historic English venues, we had this catering company. In the US, catering is pretty much whatever the local person puts together. In England, they would have like a separate van driving along and these two women would buy food and every night was some amazing meal, so we were just totally loving that tour.

We were over there for a month, we had a great time. Honestly, the Squeeze fans were not...they didn't hate us but it's not like they were going crazy over our music either. I think the band liked us a lot better than their audience did. But, we had like four or five fans that like literally followed us every night of the tour. They'd always be there, God bless 'em. So, it was actually a really good time, and I think one of the fondest memories for everybody in the band.

NC: Here's a question Troy Davis wanted me to ask you: Is there any chance of the unreleased Chagall Guevara tunes seeing the light of day, and if not could we get a copy for our own private use?

ST: [laughs] That's right! [laughs] He's probably about ready to shoot me. I'm kind of cagey on that. Well, there's no immediate plans. The fact of the matter is, I've got bands that I really like and would love to see them get back together. But in my mind, I think that they're... I know they're not staying apart just to spite their fans, but I think they're making a conscious decision not to do it. Fact of the matter is, it's really that everybody has got other stuff going on, and what are the chances of everybody having a break long enough to get back and do something again, right? So, there's a lot of examples of bands that got together and shouldn't have.

But the fact is, I'm with you, I think Chagall was a really great band. We actually got together for a friend of ours, Dwight Ozzard, who died last November. But, he really liked Chagall Guevara and wrote about us on I think more than one occasion. And, some friends decided to bring him down from Philadelphia for a party here at a pub in town. So it was a surprise, they brought him down, and one of the things we decided to do is, Chagall got back together and played two songs. We played "Monkey Grinder" and "Violent Blue." Man, it sounded great, I gotta tell ya, if I may say. So, it was a good band, it's still a good band. It's just finding time for everyone to get together and decide what songs would go out and what songs shouldn't. Do we do new songs? Should it be a new record? Should we tour, should we not tour? All that stuff, I think we kind of decided as a consensus that it would be better to not do it than to do it...

NC: Half committed?

ST: Yeah, exactly. I think that's probably it. So, there's nothing immediate. Dave's just finished his PhD, I think all he's gotta do is his paper. Everyone else is still in town. So, there's no reason it couldn't happen. Everyone still likes each other, which is a reason why a lot of bands don't get back together, they don't wanna talk to each other. [laughter]

NC: That's what's happening with Squeeze right now.

ST: Is that right?! The main two guys aren't talking together?! Wow! Son of gun, that's too bad.

NC: Let's say it's 2008, and John Herrin calls you up and says "Hey, would you wanna get Chagall Guevara back together for Cornerstone's 25th Anniversay?

ST: [laughter] Oh, man, yeah well, we'd probably figure that one out! That'd be a good thing! We're all still alive.

NC: Now, having seen music from the gospel and secular sides, what you say you prefer? I know you've talked about how it was just like exchanging one set of boundaries for another.

ST: We live in a great time to be making music, because a lot of the artificial borders aren't there anymore. I'm less fearful about that, if and when, Lord willing, I'm able to make my own music again. It seems like there's a lot more options. I just got the new Danielson album, and it's just fantastic. Hopefully it will do enough business that he can do another one and continue to make a living, and as a musician that's kind of what you hope for, ya know? So, we're living in a musical world where something like that could happen and it's good place to be. These are good times to be making music, so I'm not sure I would say one way or the other anymore. Kind of the old school Christian music business is changing into something else and good riddance to that, and hopefully the old school mainstream music business of five, I guess it's now four labels dominating everything is going to keep looking more and more like a dinosaur. Good riddance to that as well.

NC: What do you think about bands like P.O.D. and Switchfoot that are in the Christian music scene, but also very prevalent in the mainstream world as far as breaking down those barriers?

ST: Well, I certainly think that's helped. The fact that a lot of Christian bands, there's a circuit that they can play in church gyms and coffee houses, things like that. A lot of bands like that are great bands. The thought that mainstream labels are looking for Christian bands because they're better bands, I didn't know if that would ever see that in my lifetime and it's good to see. So, it's a good time to be making music.

NC: What's been in Steve Taylor's CD player lately?

ST: Well, I've got that Artic Monkeys album. I've got the new Streets album, which I'm not sure I like as much as the last two. The supeian stevens album, which is awesome and my favorite record of this year. The Arcade Fire record was my favorite of last year. I really enjoy listening to music. When I was running a record label it was getting to where I wasn't enjoying listening to music anymore, it was more like a job and now I really like it. Trying to think, what have I loaded into the old iPod lately? This band TV on the Radio is pretty good. Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. You got any ideas?

NC: Well, I've been listening to the new Mungo Jerry album that came out not too long ago.

ST: A new Mungo Jerry record?

NC: Yeah, I've actually been in contact with Ray Dorset, who's their front man, and he was actually a fan of Chagall Guevara.

ST: Really?! That's wild! Ya know, I've got like a greatest hits CD of theirs. That's wild.

NC: And I've heard Randy Newman's working on a new album.

ST: Wow! Ya know,it's like, when I go back, if I need lyric inspiration it's like Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen and the Clash. So, Randy man, his lyrics still blow my mind. We saw him in town about a year, year and a half ago maybe, and he was with the symphony. It was just stunning.

NC: Steve, thank you! We'll have to get back together sometime.

ST: Hey, alright! I've enjoyed it!

The author would like to thank Steve Taylor for his time, the use of his tape recorder, and the bottle of water.