Does the local music scene have room for an intelligently religious rock band? One that aims higher than the "heavenly" metal of Christian headbangers like Stryper and wider than the one-dimensional preachings of many contemporary Christian performers?
That's the question facing Fullerton's Blue Trapeze, whose new six-song mini-LP "Sanctuary" often reflects the band members' religious ideals, but in subtle and thought-provoking ways, much as Ireland's U2 does. In fact, it's entirely possible to interpret the group's songs in secular terms without gleaning the spiritual overtones.
And while the trio's moody and propulsive music would be perfectly at home on a bill with X or R.E.M., because of its religious convictions the group is eyed with suspicion by some members of the rock community. The group has also turned a few heads in the world of contemporary Christian music because of its openness to material by secular rock acts, evidenced by a version of Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale" on the new record.
"The problem is that we belong to two traditions--the Christian one and the rock 'n' roll one--and we don't want to divorce ourselves from either," said lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Dan Koenig during an interview this week at the Fullerton residence he shares with his wife, Lisa Kline-Koenig, the band's drummer. Also present was the third member of the trio, bassist Roger Arendse, who joined the group last March.
"I still listen to the (Rolling) Stones," Koenig said. "I can't get behind what they say all the time, but I still think they're a damn good band."
The group, which headlines the Nugget at Cal State Long Beach next Friday and opens for the Textones at the same venue on April 4, meets with occasional resistance from rock fans who generally are more accustomed to hearing anti-religious sentiments.
"It's much more accepted in rock music to use Satanic things and everybody just smiles, laughs at it and they don't take it seriously," Kline-Koenig said. "But if you do it from a Christian point of view, everybody gets scared all of a sudden--like you're going to come up to them and start glad-handing them and telling them that they should be doing something. Really that's not what we're trying to do."
Koenig's stated desire to "invite audiences to think" and the band's fierce reluctance to preach from the stage hasn't made Blue Trapeze a shoo-in on the Christian circuit either.
"We tried to get our record into a major Christian outlet that shall remain nameless," Koenig said. "They carry records by the Alarm, U2 and so on, but they wouldn't carry our record because it has a Lou Reed song on it. I think it's a neat, poignant song, but they only saw the association. So we're kind of piggy in the middle in that we deal with narrow-mindedness from both sides."
One of the band's strengths is Koenig's oblique lyrics, which can be interpreted on various levels. "No Small Affair," for instance, works both as a love song and as an expression of spiritual faith, while the unadorned poeticism of the title tune is simply an expression of joy, which Koenig said he felt after coming to terms with his mother's death.
"Not all stories are happy ones," he said. "Not all stories are about the triumphant renewal of the spirit. Some are stories of people falling right on their face. So let's live in a real world. I get sick of these songs where everything is a big spiritual triumph all the time in the Christian artists. That's neat for the converted, but I don't think that says much to anybody outside of there who hasn't had that experience."
Koenig and Kline formed Blue Trapeze in 1979 after moving to Southern California from Philadelphia, where they played in a succession of garage bands. The group's first record, the self-produced LP "Who Were You Then," was released in 1984 when the band was a quartet.
Shortly after that album came out, however, guitarist Michael Kirstein and bassist Glenn Suneson left the band, largely because a potential major label record deal never materialized.
"We had just been so close so many times that when that thing didn't happen with the label, no one had the juice for it," Koenig said.
For Arendse, Blue Trapeze is his first venture with a band. But even after the loss of half its original lineup, the new record is not a vast departure from the previous one. The most noticeable difference is the absence of Kirstein's frequently innovative guitar work.
"I didn't get another guitar player because the thing I had going with Mike I don't think I could ever duplicate with anyone else," Koenig said.
"We're definitely heading on somewhere else, but I think this (new record) is a natural extension of what we were doing before," Koenig said. "I woke up one day and decided I just wanted to communicate as directly as possible. I really wanted to strip things down but still remain interesting."