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Twists of Faith : Christian Punk Bands Struggle to Define Their Evangelical Roles

June 10, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having conquered the mainstream in 1992 under the generalship of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, et al., the punk-inspired movement has gone adrift, as reform-minded outsiders often do when they ascend to power.

A song is just a song on modern-rock radio; a band is just a band, some better, most worse. Virtually any style can find a mass audience, from Nine Inch Nails' industrial rock and Prodigy's electronica to Sublime's punky reggae and the metallic rabble-rousing of Rage Against the Machine. Surely some good music is yet to be made, but there is no order of things for it to overturn.

Only in the world-apart of Christian music are the old battles still being fought. Bands committed spiritually to Jesus, but musically to the punk ethic of individualism and creative independence, still find themselves in the minority, still face being ignored or misunderstood, and still wrestle with questions of artistic integrity.

Do they make the music they feel and hear inside themselves, or do they fine-tune their sound to mesh with established tastes and expectations? Should they make religious content clear and constant, to appeal to the big Christian audience of kids from church youth groups who come to concerts by the busload? Or should they make it more subtle and less specific, in a bid for the kind of mainstream, modern-rock radio success enjoyed by Jars of Clay?

Such questions keep the sense of musical struggle very real for Plankeye and Stavesacre, two strong Orange County bands who share a friendship, a manager, a record company (Seattle-based Tooth & Nail, founded in O.C. in 1993) and, on Saturday, the same bill in the daylong Suburbia 2 Christian alternative rock festival at UC Irvine.

Plankeye's mixture of catchy, affirmative punk-pop songs and stately, U2-like anthems casts the band as a strong commercial contender in Christian pop circles--like the Supertones, the upbeat O.C. ska-punk band that headlines Suburbia 2. (The Supertones also topped the first Suburbia fest in November, which drew an overflow crowd of more than 5,000 to the Bren Events Center.)

Stavesacre caters to a smaller subculture within Christian music. It plays dark, hard-edged, head-banging punk-metal rock that's marshaled with striking balance, dexterity and melodic strength on the band's current album, "Absolutes."

Well aware of the huge mainstream fan base developed by such comparable bands as Tool and Korn, Stavesacre has reached a jumping-off point. The next step, band members hope, will be a leap to the secular marketplace without abandoning the Christian convictions that drive their songs--most of which cry out from the dark night of the soul, seeking healing and enlightenment amid storms of unresolved turmoil.

Plankeye, whose members hail from Brea and Fullerton, began playing in 1991, when all were still in high school. By 1997, the band had progressed enough to be led into temptation.

It had done an extended tour with the Newsboys, one of the leading acts on the Christian rock circuit, and its third album, "Commonwealth," was approaching the 80,000 sales mark--impressive by independent label standards in or out of Christian music.

The band--singer Scott Silletta, guitarist Eric Balmer, bassist Luis Garcia and drummer Adam Ferry--was touring most of the time and earning a modest living from it.

With the first taste of success came the question of what might be done to turn a morsel into a meal. One proposal was to move the band to Nashville, hub of the contemporary Christian-music business. Another was to work with a Nashville-based producer and see what that might do for Plankeye's popularity.

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"People were saying, 'If you do things right, you can really help yourself commercially,' " Garcia recalled as he and Dirk Lemmenes, his friend and bass-playing counterpart from Stavesacre, sat on cushy black couches in the roomy corner office at Davdon Artist Agency, the Irvine-based company that books, manages, and promotes many of the leading Christian alternative bands from O.C.

The band argued intensely about moving to Nashville before deciding that proximity to friends and family outweighed the economic advantages of relocating. Plankeye did make demo recordings with the Nashville producer, but the results, Garcia said, only reinforced the band's resolve to do things its own way.

"Doing it the Nashville way may have produced a gentler recording. Is that really what we wanted to do as far as artistic integrity? If you commit yourself to being an alternative band, it automatically puts you in the [Christian pop] minority. But we wanted to do something we'd be proud of in 10 years."

That meant also changing songwriting approaches, Garcia said. Besides speeding up the tempos in the interest of a livelier stage show, the band--Garcia and Balmer do most of the writing--shifted its lyrical approach.

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