For Christ's Sake

The OC Supertones, the Pope and the rise of the new Christian rock

God is everywhere in St. Louis. God is in the city founded in 1698 by Catholics from Quebec. God is in the Gateway Arch, which looks unmistakably like a gargantuan, glowing halo. God is in the restaurant of the downtown Marriott in which I'm staying. The eatery is peppered with priests adorned in their finest priestwear maxing out on greasy breakfast food. God is on the elevator ride I share with seven more priests, one of whom asks me if I know where he can get a beer? God is not, however, on the atrocious St. Louis radio stations, which play so much Supertramp and Third Eye Blind you'd swear Satan was their programming director. But God is definitely in the heart of the teenage girl on the sidewalk outside the Kiel Center -home of pro hockey's St. Louis Blues-who begs me for an extra ticket so she can enter and see Pope John Paul II, God's Own Publicist, who is in town for a pastoral visit, a Mass, and a couple of speeches calling for people to return to God because that's what popes do. JP2, as some folks are calling him-none of that "Holy Father," "Pontiff" or "Bishop of Rome" crap for the Catholics hereabouts -won't be at the Kiel Center for a few hours. In the meantime, to keep the crowd of 20,000 from getting restless, there is music. Not choirs or pipe organs-not here; not now. Instead, God moves through a band of six skinny-tie-wearing guys from Orange County who call themselves the Supertones. And right now, God is rolling off singer Matt Morginsky's tongue. "I will speak his name!" yelps Morginsky, who roams around the Kiel Center stage, sweating like prime Jimmy Swaggart. "I will speak his name!" the crowd hollers back. Then the band kicks into "Perseverance of the Saints" from its 1997 disc, Supertones Strike Back. Morginsky hits the contagiously catchy chorus-"Last breath before the candle flickers out/I will speak the name of Jesus." Except for the clusters of teens closest to the stage who are jumping up and screaming along to every word (and a few nuns decked out in full habit), the mostly Catholic crowd is sitting down, not sure what to make of the band. They move into "Little Man," in which Morginsky leads an "Oi! Oi! Oi!" chant that would make old punkers cringe at the thought of these neatly pressed Christians swiping their anarchist war cry. The tune's pointed lyrics about the sins of materialism underscore the ambiguity of a Catholic rally-Catholics, after all, belong to one of the wealthiest, most powerful of all organized faiths (they run their own state in the middle of Rome, and who hasn't coveted the Popemobile?), a faith that claims direct descent from history's highest-profile advocate of the poor.One of the last songs of the Supertones' 35-minute set is "Away From You" from their new album, Chase the Sun. It's targeted for radio airplay, and it's easy to see why, with its "What I Got"-Sublime-like groove. It's also one of the few songs on the new disc that drops the Lord's name in passing only, so the Unsaved Masses can think Morginsky's really pining for a girl. After the last tune, drummer Jason Carson steps out from behind his kit, grabs a mic, and tells everyone about the glory of knowing Jesus, a tactic that used to get the band in trouble with secular OC crowds back in their early club days. The Supertones wave goodbye to polite applause (except for the fans down front who yell for more). Hugs are exchanged, and they run off to their dressing room. Their highest-profile gig is in the can. Meet the Supertones, whose legal name is the Orange County Supertones-the "Orange County" was added to avoid legal skirmishes with an East Coast surf band of the same name. They're the biggest local band you've never heard of-unless you're plugged into the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene, in which case you might know that their first album, 1996's Adventures of the OC Supertones, sold 125,000 copies. Then, evidence perhaps that prayer changes things, Supertones Strike Back moved a massive 270,000 copies, not counting the CDs sold directly at concerts and in Christian bookstores. While not in the million-plus range clocked by the likes of the Offspring and No Doubt, there are signs pointing that way. Which leads the band's label and management to believe that Chase the Sun, which will be out Feb. 23, could at least go gold (500,000 copies sold). Despite that, you've probably never heard of them because the Supertones have run in a parallel universe since they formed in 1995. While most local bands on their way up play at places like Linda's Doll Hut, Club 369 and Club Mesa, the Supertones played South County churches. While a lucky local band might get a song played on KROQ, the Supertones got spun on Christian stations and the occasional Ska Parade show on KUCI (88.9 FM). Because of this relative invisibility, there was a definite who-the-hell-are-they? factor when Supertones Strike Back started showing up on display racks at Tower stores two years ago. Here was a band that seemed to have formed overnight, crafted in some hit factory solely to capitalize on the then-huge ska scene. They even had the nerve to use "Orange County" in their name, as if to appear authentic. It smacked of the worst sort of bandwagon-hopping. But the Supertones' origins are far deeper. After several years of finding their way with styles ranging from metal to funk to punk to hip-hop and under various names, they settled on ska-because, well, they liked playing it-and the Supertones moniker in 1995. (That makes the band older than Save Ferris, with whom they've played shows.) They tried to play secular clubs like the Showcase Theatre in Corona and Music City in Fountain Valley, but unlike a lot of Christian bands, the Supertones were sure God wanted them to evangelize during their shows. In relatively hardcore venues like the Showcase, that didn't go over well. They were met with a lot of extended middle fingers and people yelling, "Satan rules!" "It was funny," says Morginsky. "We'd be playing, and everyone would be dancing and getting into it. Then as soon as we said something, bottles and spit would start flying. You could go up there all day, saying you're Buddhist, Rastafarian, atheist, Satanist, Muslim, whatever-just not a Christian." Some promoters didn't care for their preachier moments, either, and a few said they wouldn't book the band again. The Supertones wound up retreating to the church circuit, where, preaching to the converted, they were far safer. The band built its rep there, and as the OC ska scene grew, so did the Supertones' audience. Kids flocked to their gigs, looking for a way to praise Jesus, not through fluffy ballads and cheesy synth music that sounded 10 years out of date (the norm for Christian music of the time), but through their own music: punk, ska and alternative rock. The band opened for really big Christian punk bands like MxPx and Plankeye. Soon, they were drawing 400 people to churches; 400 blew up into 1,000, which grew into 2,000. Welcome to OC's Christian underground. The shows were always put on by independent promoters and rarely advertised in secular media. As with all truly underground movements, you had to know someone. In 1993, Christian rock was still stuck in the swamp of bland adult contemporary-Amy Grant, Sandi Patty and Michael W. Smith (the Billy Joel of CCM-this is not a compliment). For a lot of kids, this was their parents' music. But where to turn? Enter Brandon Ebel, who started Tooth & Nail records in his Irvine condo with money borrowed from a relative. A devout Christian, he was looking to sign bands who were into punk, hardcore, ska and whatever passed for alterna-rock. "When Brandon formed Tooth & Nail, that was about the time that bands started saying we have a chance," says Supertones bassist Tony Terusa. "For me, it was revolutionary because he was signing hardcore bands, and they would sell 6,000 records. That was incredible to us. We could only dream of that." Living in OC, Ebel naturally found many of his first bands here, more bands you've probably never heard of-like Wish for Eden and Starflyer 59 (who will be playing this year's South by Southwest music fest in Austin). His first band to break big was MxPx, who wound up on KROQ with its radio-genic hit "Chick Magnet." To better concentrate on the band, Ebel moved the entire Tooth & Nail operation up to Seattle, where MxPx were based (he's still there). Tooth & Nail had a rep as an exclusive home to Christian punk bands, so Ebel started a separate label, BEC (after his full name-Brandon Ebel Cotter), to handle more alterna-rock, radio-oriented fare. This was the label to which he eventually signed the Supertones. "A lot of mainstream Christian labels now realize that youths are looking for new sounds," says Carson. "When Brandon did Tooth & Nail, no one wanted to take the risk. But it just seemed obvious: Why not combine the two things kids love-God and music-and go with it?" Ebel is a bit edgy about the whole notion of Christian labels; he tells me Tooth & Nail and BEC are not necessarily Christian. Likewise, several of his bands would rather be thought of not as "Christian bands" but rather as "bands who happen to be comprised of Christians." "I never once said my bands were Christian bands," Ebel says. "I think of bands as punk or rock-not Christian. We just let them go ahead and create their art. They don't have to mention God in their lyrics, but naturally, many do." That tension has led to some interesting moments, says Ebel. He points to the Orange County-based duo Bon Voyage, which released an album last year that featured a song about kissing-not French kissing, mind you, or the kind of kissing down there, but rather plain, ordinary, husband-and-wife kissing. That got the band booted from a few Christian bookstores, making Bon Voyage Christian music's Marilyn Manson. Another of Ebel's bands, the Virginia-based Ghoti Hook, was slammed by a reader in the January issue of CCM Magazine (which is kind of like a Christian Spin). Ghoti Hook's sin: the band's new album, Songs We Didn't Write, includes covers of tunes by the Dead Milkmen, Violent Femmes, the Cars, the Pixies and Willie Nelson, introducing "kids to general-market groups of immense perversity," wrote the reader. "Why take the chance that kids might search these groups out as a result of seeing their names on a CD sold in a Christian bookstore? How irresponsible of Ghoti Hook to take from the light and give to the dark through the royalties they are paying these general market bands.""We get resistance on both sides," says Ebel. "Bands like MxPx and Slick Shoes have felt really alienated from the secular world not only because they're Christians but also because the Christian markets are so conservative. The bottom line is we just want to release good music." What's called Christian music is certainly better now than it has ever been, and Ebel's label has had a lot to do with that. Some of the Orange County bands on BEC are better than many local club bands. Stavesacre put on intense, passionate shows; same for Fold Zandura, who are based in the Inland Empire but play OC clubs like Chain Reaction. Last year, I caught Fold Zandura at the Tiki Bar and was thoroughly blown away by their Smashing Pumpkins-meets-the-Stooges guitar licks; it wasn't until several weeks later, when I read their lyrics, that I found out who they followed. Art and beliefs aside, the new Christian-music industry is still an industry-a $450 million industry-and the Supertones-the fourth-biggest-selling CCM band behind Jars of Clay (who scored a crossover hit two years ago with "Flood"), the Newsboys and DC Talk-have become a big part of it. They've been on the cover of CCM Magazine twice. They've sold out good-sized arenas, including a September 1997 gig at the 5,000-capacity Bren Center at UC Irvine; one week before, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones could only manage 2,000 tickets in the same room. Videos from the new Chase the Sun disc are sure to be all over Praise TV (the Christian MTV), and this summer, the band will play large Christian-music fests like Cornerstone (the Christian Woodstock, which is held each year on an Illinois farm). But all of this is secondary to the Supertones' reason for being, which is to spread the gospel of Jesus. Yes, they hope Chase the Sun goes gold, but they say they don't think about the fat paychecks they'll scoop up; they say it's more important that 500,000 people would have the message of God's salvation in their hands. Chase the Sun definitely has a shot at making the Supertones mega. It finds them stepping away from familiar ska beats (which are on their way out anyway) toward a more general rock sound, a natural step for a band interested in any kind of growth. "One Voice" is a rousing anthem about the lack of unity in the church, a plea to toss aside petty ideological differences ("Can we agree to disagree?" Morginsky sings) and start working together. "Health and Wealth" is a call to defend their faith set to a fierce rhythm track that sounds like an old Police tune. The title tune mixes hip-hop with sunny R&B horn breaks. They haven't totally abandoned the art of the skank, though-their beats don't get more uppity (or their rhetoric more evangelical) than on "Hallelujah." If you can ignore the preachiness-which the band probably wouldn't want you to do-it's a pretty good disc. Still, the fact is a lot of people put off by Christianity won't go anywhere near it. It's hard to blame them: too many flip past the Trinity Broadcasting Network and see the scary Crouches begging for money-excuse me, "love gifts"-and think that's what Christianity is all about. And then there's the fringy Baptists who think Catholics are cannibals because they eat communion wafers that represent "the body of Christ," or that Disney is the leading edge of the Apocalypse.A couple of days earlier in Mexico, the pope himself had issued a warning to that country's hugely Catholic population to "resist the appeal of Protestant evangelists"-something you'd think the evangelically inclined Supertones might perceive as a threat. But the band didn't come all the way to St. Louis to argue theology. The Supertones were here for the unity, for the spreading of Jesus' love to one more audience. "There are some fundamental differences between Catholics and Protestants," acknowledges trombone bleater Dan Spencer. "But it's important to be positive about coming together, to acknowledge the common ground that we do have. It's a great thing for us to come together and worship as the body, as the church. The pope just wants to lead people to Jesus, to the light, and that's the goal of our band." And there he is, the Holy Father himself, draped in his usual pure white, being wheeled inside the Kiel Center in his Popemobile. The roar is deafening; St. Louis hasn't heard crowd noise like this since Mark McGwire slugged his 62nd home run (when McGwire appears backstage on the video screen to kiss the pope's ring, the throng really loses it). The pope is no longer just "the pope" now: he's a rock star, a celebrity, an idol, all of which hardly seems worthy of a revered spiritual leader. It feels tacky. The Popemobile inches along the arena floor to the stage. Aging hardly describes JP2; he's a physical relic, like the sloughed-off skin of a younger bishop. He is helped up the stairs by his assistants. Some people are going off about how cute he looks, kinda like E.T., all wrinkly and unthreatening. He eventually shimmies across the stage-the same one on which the Supertones kicked out their holy-roller jams a few hours before-and plops himself down on a throne. The screaming has not quieted. The pope lifts a palm a few inches off his armrest, and people scream louder. He turns his head to the left, and people on that side scream. The right, same thing. It's like being at an N'Sync concert. When things finally get solemn, the pope starts his speech. He's (a) old, (b) Polish and (c) suffering from Parkinson's, all of which make him impossibly difficult to understand, so his message is subtitled on the TV monitors. He offers broad generalizations: messages about sharing and compassion (apparently lost on the many who averted their eyes from the homeless men sifting through trash cans just outside the arena); messages against violence (in a hockey arena); messages against drugs, promiscuous sex, suicide, euthanasia and abortion because, again, that's what popes are supposed to do. He also rails against the evils of capitalism. But the next day, there's a full-page department-store ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch hawking Papal "Commemoratives from the Vatican Library Collection." There's a 14-karat-gold necklace with the pontiff's face on it ($52.95); a limited-edition numbered plate with the official logo of the event ($25); a hardcover book about the Vatican ($59.95); and various tote bags, baseball caps, T-shirts and expensive crucifix jewelry that somehow is supposed to draw you closer to God, to make you feel like a good Christian. St. Louis has been weird. The Supertones are all nice, friendly, spiritual, ridiculously talented players who don't cuss. There's some great music on Brandon Ebel's record labels and some really good Christian-oriented bands in OC. And I'm sure the pope would be a helluva guy if you could hang out with him for a while and throw back a couple of beers. But when I see the ad, I'm reminded why I am not part of an organized religion anymore: God is indeed everywhere.

 
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