Steve Taylor Interview - UCB Music Academy

The UCB Music Academy
© 2014 United Christian Broadcasters
May 21st, 2014
Thanks to Mike Rimmer

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Mike Rimmer: Into the final section of tonight's program, and of course as usual it's the artist case study. That's going to happen next. We're going to be talking to Steve Taylor about the legendary band Chagall Guevara.

Steve Taylor is the artist case study tonight. You've been a successful solo artist, so why form a band?

Steve Taylor: Well, it was Dave Perkins' idea. We were just finishing up the I Predict 1990 album. I think I'd been on tour, and the label wanted to put out a "greatest hits" collection, which I thought was funny, since when it came to me and Christian radio I had exactly zero hits. That was the one we called "The Best We Could Find".

I thought it'd be fun to put in some new tracks, so Dave came out and helped me produce a couple of those other tracks. While we were there he talked about starting a new band. We had a small apartment, so he was sleeping on an air mattress that lost its air during the night. I think he had some kind of a fever dream, and in the morning, he emerged with the name Chagall Guevara.

Somehow the bad air mattress and his dream all converged, and that's the name we came up with. It probably all makes sense knowing that it came from some kind of a nightmare, because who else would think of that name?

MR: Well it's very ease to search online, that's for sure.

ST: That's true, we will always have it to ourselves.

MR: And of course it's also a metaphor for "revolutionary art". That was the answer you came up with later to justify the name.

ST: Yeah, he showed it to me--I think he actually wrote it on a piece of paper and showed it to me. I loved it immediately, but it certainly had some built-in problems.

MR: Yeah, like people can't spell "Chagall". [laughter]

ST: Right, and they don't know how to pronounce "Guevara", and there's a chunk of the population who has no idea who either of those people are. For whatever reason, it appealed to our sensibilities.

MR: Of course, the band itself was you kind of reacting to the fact that, somehow, you didn't fit into the Christian music scene, so surely the mainstream music scene would embrace your creativity.

ST: That was the goal from the beginning: to get signed with a mainstream label and make a great album with no particular agenda. Getting signed was not particularly difficult. We decided to relocate to Nashville where Dave and the drummer Mike Mead lived, and Lynn Nichols and I were living in Los Angeles, but we thought that probably made sense.

Nashville would be a good place to start the band just because if we tried to stay in Los Angeles, there was just too much music industry in that city, and it was very difficult to get live gigs without having to pay to put down a deposit. It's probably similar to that in London I would guess. [Los Angeles] is just an expensive city to live in, so this would give us a chance to hole up in a--Nashville was much more kind of a small town at that point, a "big small" town, and there was really no music industry outside of country music in Nashville at that point, and a little bit of Christian music, but certainly no rock music industry to speak of.

By the time we were ready to be seen, the process went pretty quickly. People flew out from New York and L.A., and we had multiple record label offers. Ended up going with MCA. We made the record we wanted to make, we were really happy with it. It's just one of those things that happens with a lot of bands. The label we were with ended up not being particularly good with rock music. They were good with pop music but hadn't broken a rock band for a while. We thought we would be the exception, and it just didn't happen the way we thought it would happen.

MR: You did tour in the UK. I know that you played Greenbelt '91, a very good main stage performance there, and then you opened up for Squeeze on tour, which seemed to go very well for you.

ST: Yeah, that was probably our favorite--that was probably the high point of the band. Number one, because we love Squeeze, and for me, "East Side Story" is probably one of my top five favorite albums of all time. I just think it's brilliant. So that was a blast. They were very kind to us. We just loved that tour. That was a good experience.

MR: I remember interviewing the band on that tour--you probably won't remember this, but I interviewed you on the tour--and not being able to get a sensible answer to any question that I asked in the fifteen minutes I spent with you. Not a single sensible answer that I could use later.

ST: [laughter] That sounds about right. That was not uncommon. There had been some prior Christian music connections, certainly with Lynn, and some with Dave as well because he produced my album and I think a Randy Stonehill album, and was suspicious of the whole Christian music mechanism.

I mean, playing Greenbelt was a knock-down, drag-out fight just to get some of the members of the band to play Greenbelt. I say "some of the members" euphemistically. I was like, "why would we not want to do this?" It was like a huge fight just to get that to happen. I think once it happened, everybody had a blast, but that was indicative of just a sense of overthinking everything, and that spilled into interviews as well.

When you sit down with a band for an interview, you know, you're asking questions because you want a response! [laughter] You don't want people joking with you or dodging questions or giving you elliptical answers that make no sense, but that was pretty much what every interview turned into. We were all kind of looking at each other like, "I'm not going to give a straight answer, so don't you dare give a straight answer." It was a weird dynamic, that's for sure.

MR: So it wasn't just me then. That makes me feel a bit better.

ST: No, it wasn't just you, sadly, Mike. [laughter] At the time, too, a lot of the bands we really liked probably would handle interviews the same way, and I'm not saying that's good, it was just kind of what it was.

["Escher's World" plays]

MR: Tonight's artist case study features the 90's band Chagall Guevara fronted by Steve Taylor and Dave Perkins, Lynn Nichols, a whole bunch of guys that had worked together in other projects and decided to form a band. Rolling Stone loved you: "Not since The Clash have a band managed to turn militant discontent into passionate rock and roll." That's a good quote.

ST: That's a good quote, yes. [laughter] We'll always have the Rolling Stone quote.

MR: Did they actually say that, or did you just make it up? [laughter]

ST: That was a real quote. I don't think we could make something like that up without getting caught eventually.

MR: But a good quote. Critics kind of liked the album, didn't they?

ST: Yeah, I think they did, although I remember when we got to England--I don't know if it was an NME review or Melody Maker review-- but they said the album was something of a what they call a "pot-scraper", and I couldn't figure out what "pot-scraper" meant, but I was pretty sure it wasn't a compliment. It might have meant that they thought we were too stylistically-diverse, which I suppose is a fair comment, although I wouldn't have thought that was a bad thing, but maybe in England at the time it was.

MR: There's another quote from that era that says, "We want to make intelligent music and play it like mindless fools."

ST: Well, we certainly got the last part right. [laughter]

MR: With me, with Chagall, quite often--and again with some of your later work in the 90s--one of the things I had was I just didn't feel clever enough sometimes to figure out what the heck you were going on about.

ST: [laughter] When I listen to the Chagall album, I still really enjoy it. It's one of the few things I've been involved with that I'll still listen to with some regularity. That, and probably the Squint album. It all makes sense to me, but I certainly wouldn't argue with anybody who said, "I don't get this." There might be some things that are peculiar to American culture that wouldn't necessarily translate overseas, and even in writing the lyrics I think that was a question we sometimes raised, because in our minds, going to England and doing a tour was like the highest goal. We really wanted to play in England.

MR: Talk to me about how difficult it is to make it as a rock band in Nashville.

ST: There was a small rock scene in town. There were rock bands, and there were a few clubs to play, but it just wasn't a big scene. It wasn't too long that we'd been in town before we heard of something called the "Nashville curse".

The curse supposedly had dated back five or six years to a band out of Nashville called "Jason and the Nashville Scorchers". It was a really fine kind of roots rock band that were pegged to be the next big thing. They were signed to A&M and they had a big following around the south, and they were going to be a big deal. A&M convinced them to drop "Nashville" out of their name, so they became "Jason and the Scorchers".

The album came out and it didn't do anything like people thought it would. It was not a complete commercial flop, [but] it definitely wasn't a success. Supposedly that was what invoked the Nashville rock and roll curse. Any band from then on, coming out of Nashville, was going to fail. It wasn't until Paramore and the Kings of Leon, probably, broke close to the same time, and that was six or seven years ago that the Nashville curse was finally broken.

So if you believe in curses, which I don't necessarily believe that one, but certainly there's an Old Testament concept of curses that was out there at the time, [and] that is the so-called Nashville curse.

MR: Let's finish tonight's artist case study with a piece of music from Chagall Guevara. "Violent Blue", talk us through that.

ST: I think it was a song about the death of idealism in a friend. That probably is as short of a description and accurate as I could give you.

MR: So it was about a specific person?

ST: No, it was a composite of different friends and attitudes, but it seemed like it reflected a pretty wide and accurate view of idealists who had lost their way.

["Violent Blue" plays]

MR: That is "Violent Blue", and that is Chagall Guevara, and before that you heard Steve Taylor telling us about his time in the band. Thanks for listening to the UCB Music Academy for this evening. If you want to catch up with any of the previous programs, get a Christian music education, and log on to I will see you very soon, the bell's about to ring. Thank you for listening tonight, see you next week. Bye bye.